The award for Selection Sunday’s most appropriately dressed goes to Golden Nugget sports book director Tony Miller, who tweeted a picture of himself in a green University of Virginia hat after setting the opening lines for the NCAA Tournament.
The Cavaliers have been money all season in Las Vegas.
Not only will Virginia enter this year’s tournament as the top overall seed, but also with the best against the spread record among regularly-lined teams in the field at 20-9-1 in what’s been a quietly dominant campaign.
“I wouldn’t want to play them, I can tell you that much,” said Art Manteris, vice president of race at sports at Station Casinos and one of the valley’s most respected oddsmakers. “They don’t look like a college team to me. They’re so disciplined, so well-schooled. I’m really impressed.”
Pundits have already made, “no great teams,” something of a catchphrase to describe the landscape of this year’s field. Anyone adopting that conventional wisdom, however, should know that those who have millions of dollars riding on the outcomes of the upcoming 67 games over the next three weeks would advise to do so at their own peril.
Numbers would caution the same. Virginia is fresh off of becoming the first team to get through the modern-day ACC, which produced nine NCAA Tournament teams this year and is traditionally considered college basketball’s toughest conference, with one loss.
The last team of any era to suffer only one defeat in ACC play was 2002 Maryland, which went on to win the national championship.
The public expectations are far more modest for Virginia — it’s not even the tournament favorite as a 6-to-1 third choice at the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook — and that’s largely because of past March failures. The Cavaliers are a disappointing 7-5 straight-up and 4-7-1 against the spread with only one Elite Eight appearance in five previous tournament berths under coach Tony Bennett.
But dismissing Virginia on the basis of its recent history is illogical because of that insignificant sample size. It also sounds dangerously close to falling into the same trap that’s taken down bettors and brackets alike in each of the last two tournaments.
Last year, No. 1 seed Gonzaga was discounted for having only two Elite 8 berths despite being in the field for 18 straight years. The Bulldogs made it to the national championship game before falling to North Carolina.
An even better example comes from 2016 Villanova, which was not a popular choice in sports books because of its reputation for flameouts under coach Jay Wright, who was previously 10-16 against the spread in the tournament. The Wildcats went on to win the championship while covering in every game.
Oh, and speaking of Villanova, Manteris wouldn’t stop at one great team in this year’s tournament. He puts the Wildcats on equal footing with the Cavaliers.
“Anyone can get beat in this tournament, but if I had two teams going for me, those are the teams I would want,” Manteris said before chuckling at a realization. “And I do have those two teams going for me.”
The Cavaliers and the Wildcats would both be a winner for Station Casinos’ future books, and the same is true at most shops around town. Neither team is as popular of a bet as power programs like Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Michigan State.
Virginia is in neither the top five of tickets printed nor money wagered to win the title at William Hill sports books, where it’s listed as the tournament co-favorite with Villanova at 6-to-1. The Wildcats have drawn more action — they’re third in money and fifth in tickets —but don’t represent much risk to casinos because their odds to win the tournament stayed consistently low all year.
Villanova opened 12-to-1 to win the national championship at William Hill, but has proven it was underrated at that price. At 22-12 against the spread, Villanova is in the nation’s top 10 most profitable teams to bet on despite being favored in every game this year.
The Wildcats’ four losses came by an average of less than six points with not a single double-digit defeat. In that regard, their track record resembles the Cavaliers’ résumé.
Virginia’s only ACC loss came by one point to rival Virginia Tech in overtime, with its other setback by seven points against West Virginia.
A single-elimination event like the NCAA Tournament can inherently make for random results, but there have only been a couple true surprise champions — a pair of Huskies — over the last decades. For the most part, the best teams have delivered.
And, this year, it looks like there are two best teams.
“I think they’re the two the toughest to beat, best-coached teams” Manteris said. “Virginia and Villanova are the two teams that throughout the whole season have been consistent and outstanding.”