What wiseguys do in February

While the NCAA tourney draws more attention, the best value often is found before it begins. AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

LAS VEGAS -- It's hard to believe that a month has already passed since the Super Bowl (albeit the shortest month on the calendar).

The most common question that comes across the "Tuesdays With Tuley" desk is "What do you do now that football season is over?" Pro football is the No. 1 betting sport in this country, and obviously it's the focus of most of my work here.

I consider February my catch-up month. While football season is going strong, I still keep up with my pro and college basketball power ratings. It's not too difficult to keep up on the 30 NBA teams, but there are not enough hours in the day to keep track of the 351 Division I men's basketball teams, even on a weekly basis. At least for yours truly.

I've also been able to take a little time off, which is good, as my wife's "honey do" list reaches epic proportions with household projects/chores that keep getting put on the back burner during football season. But even though I also shuttle the kids to school and to their sports and band practices, I'm not just playing Mr. Mom (Michael Keaton's first Oscar-worthy role, by the way). When you add in my daily reading and handicapping, I feel I'm just as busy as during football season.

When football slows down in January, that's when I started spending more time on basketball, coinciding with when most teams start conference play. My power ratings are like most others as they compare the relative strengths of the teams, but I'm mostly looking at how each team performs against the spread as it shows if they're over-performing or under-performing against the marketplace and adjusting accordingly. I'm a big fan of the conference tournaments that are starting this week and continuing through Selection Sunday. There are often better betting opportunities during these events than during March Madness itself (though last year I went 19-2-1 ATS with my NCAA tournament plays posted at ESPN Insider, but long-term, I've done better during the Madness before the Madness).

Since it's too early to have matchups for the conference tourneys (or even finalized brackets to protect potential matchups), this will be more of a "teach a man to handicap and feed him for a lifetime"-type approach. What I look for are bubble teams (or even teams nowhere near the bubble) that are peaking at the right time and know their only chance to get in the NCAA tournament is to make a deep run in their conference tournament. The best spots are when these teams end up facing a team that is a shoo-in for the Big Dance.

Every year, we see upsets in these types of matchups; and even if they don't end up winning outright, these underdogs are often getting enough points to make them live plays against the spread.

This also seems like a good time to remind everyone of what I wrote during the NFL playoffs about looking for value in first-half bets. This is what I was referring to when I wrote about having an underdog that you think can stick around in the first half but you're afraid they might be run over late. In these situations, the first-half bet could be the stronger play. Again, we'll take those on a case-by-case basis.

It's been good to get a little downtime in February, but I think it's important for people to realize that the life of a handicapper or someone covering the industry doesn't end after the Super Bowl. February is a time for catching up on the other sports and preparing for the madness that's to come in March.

News and notes

This last section is where I clean out my reporter's notebook, and even though football season is over, there hasn't been any lack of sports betting news:

• If you care about sports betting, be sure to pick up a copy of ESPN The Magazine's gambling issue that came out last month, or read the content available online here. We continue to see increased acceptance of sports betting and the breaking down of stigmas and barriers that could lead to legalization. And of course keep up-to-date on all the latest developments on ESPN Chalk.

• Another good sign for sports bettors was Nevada overturning its previous ban on Olympic wagering. It became official last Thursday, Feb. 26, but we first wrote about it in mid-November. It's been long overdue. No one here is expecting huge wagering handle on the Games -- even back when it was legal, the interest was nominal for the vast majority of events except for notable exceptions like the Dream Team or the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan rivalry -- but it will be added business in the typically slow months of August and February. And as I stated back in November, I'm just glad that I no longer have to explain Nevada's lack of Olympic wagering.

• There will be no such lack of betting when it comes to the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquaio fight now set for May 2 here in Vegas. This is expected to be the biggest gate and biggest betting handle fight of all time, even though most people wish this dream matchup had taken place four or five years ago. When the fight was announced Feb. 21, the Westgate SuperBook posted Mayweather minus-275 with Pacquaio plus-235, but several other books had already had odds on the potential fight. The vast majority of the early money has been coming in on Pacquaio, and the Westgate was down to Mayweather minus-210, Pacquaio plus-180 (South Point was even lower at minus-200/plus-170).

Most people are speculating that the money will continue to come in on Pacquiao and that the wiseguys who like Mayweather will wait until the price reaches its low point before pounding him. If you've been following this news at all, this might not be anything new to you, but did you know that odds on Mayweather-Pacquiao were first posted by Lucky's sports books in Nevada (now part of William Hill family) in May 2009? Lucky's had the fight at pick-'em and Pacquaio was bet to a minus-135 favorite, and was still minus-120 a year later (those bets have long since been refunded, as there was a caveat that the fight had to take place by June 30, 2011).

• The big live sporting event in Las Vegas this weekend is the Kobalt 400 (more commonly still called the Las Vegas 400 around these parts) at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. This race usually out-handles even the Daytona 500 as NASCAR fans come from all over the country to watch the only Sprint Cup race with legal gambling nearby. Kevin Harvick is the 9-2 favorite at the Westgate SuperBook, with Jimmie Johnson at 6-1, Jeff Gordon at 7-1 and the quartet of Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth at 8-1. As with every big sporting event, books will be posting a lot of prop bets later this week.

Until next time, happy handicapping!