NCAA Basketball Tournament’s Point Spreads Shrink as Upsets Rise

As parity in men’s college basketball increases, point spreads are decreasing in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.

Eleven years ago, Duke University was a No. 1 seed in the tournament and routed Winthrop 84-37 in a first-round game in which the Blue Devils were favored by 33 1/2 points. Last year, as a No. 2 seed, Duke was eliminated in its opening game, losing 75-70 to 15th-seeded Lehigh as a 12-point favorite.

As this season’s NCAA men’s tournament prepares to tip off its first full round of play, three teams are favored by more than 20 points -- the biggest being top-ranked Gonzaga University as a 22-point favorite against Southern University tomorrow. Oddsmakers say tournaments with opening-game point spreads surpassing 30 points may be over with talent dispersed more evenly throughout the game.

“The days of those gigantic numbers are probably gone,” Jay Rood, the sports book director at the MGM Mirage in Las Vegas, said in a telephone interview. “Not to say there won’t be some wins by 30 or 40, but if we were to hang some of those point spreads that we did in the late 90s and early 2000s, we’d get nothing but underdog play -- the public wouldn’t be able to pass up on those points.”

Gonzaga is one of four regional No. 1 seeds for the tournament, which began last night with two games to gain a seeded spot in the four 16-team regions.

Top Seeds

Fellow No. 1 seed Kansas is also favored by more than 20 points in its opening game, as is the University of Florida. A third seed in the South Region, the Gators are listed by oddsmakers as 20 1/2-point favorites against No. 14 Northwestern State on March 22 in Austin, Texas.

Kansas, which heads the South region, is also favored by 20 1/2 against Western Kentucky on March 22 in Kansas City.

Although betting lines have yet to be released for the other two No. 1 regional seeds, the University of Louisville and Indiana University may also be favored by more than 20 points in their opening games. Louisville faces North Carolina AT&T tomorrow in a Midwest regional game in Lexington, Kentucky. Indiana, the No. 1 seed in the East, on March 22 will play the winner of tonight’s game between Long Island University Brooklyn and James Madison.

No. 1-seeded teams have a 112-0 record against 16th-seeded teams since the NCAA tournament field expanded in 1985, so it’s little surprise the top seeds have the widest point spreads. However, the point spreads can’t rival the six times Duke was favored by more than 33 points at the NCAA tournament from 1992 through 2004, including a record 46-point spread against Florida A&M in 1999, according to Las Vegas-based handicapping information website The Blue Devils won in a 99-58 rout, falling short of covering the spread.

Gap Closing

Because the talent gap between the top programs and the teams from mid-major conferences isn’t as wide as it once was, Las Vegas oddsmakers are similarly closing the point spreads.

“These lower-echelon teams are good teams, they come from leagues that play good basketball, they amass a great record, they know how to win,” Rood said. “I do think that we’re going to see the 16 beat the 1 sooner or later and this very well might be the year that happens.”

From 1985 through 2011, four teams seeded 15th knocked off a No. 2 seed at the NCAA tournament. Last year, it happened twice, with Lehigh beating Duke and Norfolk State ousting the University of Missouri.

In 2011, eighth-seeded Butler University tied a tournament record as the lowest-ranked team to reach the national championship game, while Virginia Commonwealth University made the Final Four as an 11th seed.

Upset Wins

In the past three NCAA tournaments, game winners have been seeded five or more places lower than the team they defeated 28 times. It’s the second-most times over a three-year span since 1985, according to the NCAA record book.

“The seed, especially these days, it’s just a number,” said Turner Sports college basketball analyst Steve Kerr, who reached the Final Four with the University of Arizona in 1988 before playing on five championship teams in the National Basketball Association. “It’s kind of a meaningless thing, but maybe they use it for motivation.”

Many of the most successful men’s programs in college basketball have been weakened by players leaving as underclassmen to enter the NBA, while some teams from smaller conferences have benefited in recent years from having experienced players who have been at the school for four years.

“They’re very seasoned, veteran players with great leadership qualities,” said Rood. “You put one of those teams up against a team that maybe has really young, talented players, but maybe hasn’t faced the adversity that some of these other teams have. This it the time of year when that really starts to pay off for some of those teams.”

Norfolk State

No team has had a bigger tournament upset -- at least going by point spreads -- than Norfolk State, which last year eliminated Missouri as a 21 1/2-point underdog in its first NCAA appearance. Southern has a chance to break that this year if it becomes the first 16 seed to knock off a No. 1.

Murray State took Michigan State to overtime in 1990 before losing by four points, one year after Princeton and East Tennessee State lost by one point to No. 1 regional seeds Georgetown and Oklahoma, respectively. Western Carolina in 1996 lost to top-seeded Purdue by two points.

“I don’t really get caught up in seeding,” Western Kentucky coach Ray Harper, whose team faces Kansas, said this week in a radio interview. “We’re just happy we’re still playing. I can assure you we won’t be scared.”