On the doorstep of the Final Four, the pressure can be suffocating. Teams are just one victory from reaching college basketball’s promised land, an accomplishment worthy of awarding rings and hanging banners, a place that can redefine the reputation of a program or a head coach.
And they’re one loss from becoming a mere footnote in NCAA Tournament annals.
That’s the unforgiving nature of the Elite Eight, an all-or-nothing round unlike anything else in March Madness, where winners are immortalized and losers are forgotten.
It’s a place where the upstarts that dominate the early rounds are whittled down to such a select few, we still remember them today. It’s a level where the sport’s blue bloods remind everyone who continues to rule the game.
And from a college basketball betting perspective it brings its own unique set of challenges far different than first-round betting, given that seed differences are often smaller and point spreads are typically tighter than in the rounds that came before.
The Elite Eight is a round of matchups and nuance, and here are five tips to help bettors figure it out.
Chalk Goes Only So Far
For all the upsets produced by the opening four days, it’s the higher-seeded power teams that still dominate the tournament when it counts. And yet, don’t expect all four No. 1 seeds to reach the Final Four, something that’s happened just once through the 2018 tournament, in 2008.
Three No. 1 seeds have made it just five times, most recently in 2015. According to the NCAA’s website, more No. 2, 3, and 4 seeds combined have reached the Final Four than No. 1s, but by a scant margin — 57 to 56.
While the top seeds are money when it comes to winning the national championship, in the Elite Eight there’s always room for somebody else to slip through.
Real Shockers are Rare
Sure, No. 11 seed Loyola of Chicago made the Final Four in 2018, but the Ramblers got there by beating a ninth-seeded Kansas State team in the Elite Eight. Seventh-seeded South Carolina, Michigan State, and Connecticut — in 2017, 2015 and 2014 respectively, all got there by beat No. 4 seeds.
Real shockers in the Elite Eight are rare; from 2009-18, there have been only four that truly qualify: No. 10 Syracuse over No. 1 Virginia in 2016, No. 9 Wichita State over No. 2 Ohio State in 2013, and No. 11 VCU over No. 1 Kansas and No. 8 Butler over No. 2 Florida, both in 2011. That’s four out of 40 games, hardly a convincing percentage.
But Upsets Still Happen
The more common upsets in the Elite Eight are mild ones, but they occur with surprising regularity.
From 2009-18, lower seeds have won 22 of 40 games, although these are often the type of upsets that don’t trigger the Richter scale — No. 3 seed Oregon over No. 1 Kansas in 2017, for example, or No. 2 seed Wisconsin over No. 1 Arizona in 2014.
Four times in the last decade, just one higher-seeded team has advanced out of the Elite Eight. Clearly, there’s a theme developing here: The Elite Eight is dominated by elite, major-conference programs, though not always No. 1 regional seeds.
High Seeds Play Close Games
At least, often they do. Regional finals between two high seeds often produce single-digit margins, a trend that’s been plainly evident over the past decade.
No. 1 seed Kansas and No. 2 Duke went to overtime in an eventual four-point game in 2018. No. 1 seed North Carolina edged No. 2 Kentucky by a bucket the season before. No. 2 seed Villanova beat No. 1 Kansas by five in 2016, and No. 2 Wisconsin and No. 1 Arizona played a one-point game in 2014.
There are exceptions, to be certain, like No. 1 Louisville hammering No. Duke by 22 in 2013. But in Elite Eight games over the past decade pitting No. 1 vs. No. 2, the average margin is nine points.
Getting Over the Hump is Hard
Reaching the Final Four is such a huge milestone for a program, even one with an elite reputation, that failing to get there time and time again can add an amount of undue pressure in the Elite Eight.
We saw it with Gonzaga over and over until the Zags at last broke through in 2017. We see it even in programs with multiple national championships, such as Kansas, which often still stalls out in the regional final.
The most glaring current example is Virginia, which despite so much regular-season success has repeatedly gagged in March. That pressure is real, and teams feel it, and it can play a role in determining the outcome.• • •