After four, manic days, the entire feel of the NCAA Tournament and March Madness begin to change. Host cities get larger, arenas get more cavernous, and teams still playing shift their focus toward bigger goals.
The Final Four is but a dream for most teams that begin play in the round of 64. It’s very much a reality for everyone in the Sweet 16.
Indeed, the regional semifinals are when the tournament starts to get serious, morphing from a freewheeling, upset-minded festival of basketball into a contest that’s designed to determine the national championship. The tone, the atmosphere, the tip times, the look on players’ faces — it’s all different than it had been before.
And it’s different for college basketball betting fans, too. The Sweet 16 is historically where the blueblood programs from the power conferences begin to reassert themselves, and the gas fueling tournament upstarts begins to run out.
Gone is the wildness of first-round tournament betting. Rather, it is a round defined less by upsets than by marque matchups, and wagering on it requires a shift in approach from the tournament’s opening two rounds.
That said, here are five things to consider to help make your Round of 16 a sweet one.
Timing Matters in the Sweet 16
In the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament, everything is rushed.
There’s the unknown of where teams are starting out — or even if they’re getting in at all — in the tournament, the blur of trying to arrange team travel on such short notice, and the task of preparing on the fly (for a first-round game) or during a quick turnaround (for a second-round game).
The break before the Sweet 16 allows everyone to take a breath, and for coaching staffs to really drill down on opponents in the regional semifinals.
In the Sweet 16, there are fewer surprises, given that coaches have two games of very recent tape on who they’re playing, and enough time to devise specially-tailored game plans.
It’s but one reason the upset rate in the regionals tends to be much lower than in the rounds that come before.
Cinderella’s Clock Runs Out
As we’ve mentioned before, long shots reaching the Final Four is hardly uncommon; No. 6 seeds or lower have done just that in each of the past six seasons. But for most NCAA Cinderella stories, the clock runs out in the Sweet 16.
Last year’s busted East bracket helped lower-seeded teams win four of eight regional semifinals, but that was a departure from the norm: In the three years prior, higher seeds had combined to win 19 of 24 games in the Sweet 16 round.
The competition is so much better, the time to prepare is so much greater, and the odds are so much longer for underdogs, unless ….
Watch for Busted NCAA Brackets
Unless, that is, the entire regional gets burned down. How did Loyola get to the Final Four in 2018? Because of talent, sure, but also because they were in a region where the top four seeds were all gone after the second round.
That kind of thing doesn’t happen often, but when it does, everyone’s suddenly on a much more even playing field. Even a single, imploded half of a bracket can make a difference, as in 2013 when No. 10 seed Stanford and No. 11 seed Dayton wound up playing in the Sweet 16.
Those situations provide not just better chances of finding victories against the spread, but are ripe for unearthing updated value bets to reach the Final Four.
Don’t Dismiss Middling Majors
When it comes to crashing the tournament, everyone envisions the small-college teams that come out of nowhere — defined by the runs of teams like Loyola, George Mason and VCU.
But when you get to the level of Sweet 16, upsets are more typically pulled by lower-seeded teams from major conferences.
Think No. 9 seed Florida State last year, No. 7 South Carolina in 2017, No. 6 Notre Dame, No. 7 Wisconsin and No. 10 Syracuse in 2016, and No. 11 UCLA and No. 7 Michigan State in 2015.
The college basketball intelligentsia loves to complain about how middling major-conference teams take too many bids. Ignore them. Those are exactly the teams, with experienced coaches and perhaps players who have competed in the tournament before, built to score upsets in the Sweet 16.
Check out neutral-court records
The schedule of the Sweet 16 isn’t as wacky as that of the rounds before it; the locations are all known well ahead of time, the games are always in the evening, and fans of all teams are typically well-represented.
During the regular season, the Sweet 16 environment is mirrored most closely by major-market neutral-court games, of which there are a plethora in November and December — think the Champions Classic or NIT Season Tip-Off.
It’s worth checking to see how teams might have fared in those games, or even if they played them at all — some major-conference teams schedule most or all of their tougher non-conference games at home, perhaps a warning sign to Sweet 16 bettors no matter which direction the public money is flowing.