NCAA tournament cheat sheet: Unders and underdogs continue to dance?

One would assume an event dubbed March Madness has already created any and all forms of chaos, but this year's NCAA tournament has generated sports betting history.

For the first time ever, two underdogs of at least 15 points (Princeton and Fairleigh Dickinson) have won outright. Plus, 35 of 52 games (67%) have gone under the total. These outlier outcomes speak to the tourney's charm of unpredictability but do they also provide actionable data for handicapping the next round?

"What happens in one game doesn't necessarily affect another game," Caesars Sportsbook assistant director of trading Adam Pullen told ESPN. "You just have to keep it in the back of your mind. If you get some sharp play on the under, you might be more likely to move a full point instead of a half point."

Unders cashing at a 67% clip certainly resonates but is that predictive for the Sweet 16? Blindly betting anything is ill-advised but I can certainly understand the itch. As gamblers, we often suffer from FOMO -- the fear of missing out -- and thus recreational bettors routinely chase wins that escaped them, assuming a recent trend will continue.

"Even though games have been going under at a high percentage, I do not tweak any lower," professional bettor Chuck Edel told ESPN, explaining that he already adjusts his numbers to the under. "Teams play more intense defense in big games. Coaches have more time to prepare for their tourney games and teams are not always familiar with different defenses being thrown at them."

One thing to note is that none of the Sweet 16 venues is a football stadium. Sometimes the cavernous domes with vast backdrops disrupt shooters but all eight games will be played in a conventional basketball arena.

Below are my top plays with at least one in each region, after aggregating intel from oddsmakers and sharp handicappers:

2023 NCAA Tournament: Schedule | Lines | Check your bracket | Live scores | ESPN Basketball Power Index


(5) San Diego State at (1) Alabama (-7.5, 137)
6:30 p.m. ET, KFC Yum! Center, Louisville, Kentucky

It's tough to fade the nation's top-ranked team that has won five straight games by double-digits but the Aztecs are the right team to have in your foxhole. They rank fifth in KenPom adjusted defense and have the skills to guard a team that leads all major conference schools in 3-point attempts. This defense should disrupt the comfort level of Bama shooters enough. I also believe in San Diego State to generate enough offense to sneak inside the number. My concern is Bama's top-five defense, so I will also play the under. I am banking on San Diego State's effort and physicality on every possession.

Pick: Under 137 and San Diego State +7.5

(15) Princeton at (6) Creighton (-10, 138.5)
9 p.m. ET, KFC Yum! Center, Louisville, Kentucky

This handicap comes down to whether you believe the big dance levels the playing field and dispels some metrics. The Tigers and past Ivy League champs are unique in so many ways and have a knack for getting under the skin of major conference opponents. It's just hard to quantify that. Teams seeded 14th or lower are 5-0 ATS in the Sweet 16, which speaks to the difficulty of determining a power rating for Cinderellas that outperform the market. We don't need the Tigers to win; we just need them to keep this to single-digits.

Pick: Princeton +10

(3) Xavier at (2) Texas (-4.5, 149.5)
9:45 p.m. ET, Kansas City, Missouri

There is a lot to like with Texas, which has continued its momentum after winning the Big 12 tournament title. It has the fourth-shortest title odds for a reason. However, I know sharp money arrived on Xavier +4.5, causing the market to move, and I agree with it. Sean Miller is 8-1 ATS as a tourney underdog and the Musketeers can win this game outright. My main concern is Xavier, which only ranks 64th in KenPom adjusted defense, while the Longhorns rank top 15 in both offense and defense.

Pick: Xavier +4.5