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Betting the NIT futures book is often a double-edged sword

UCLA’s Tyger Campbell drives against North Carolina’s Jeremiah Francis on Dec. 21 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
UCLA’s Tyger Campbell drives against North Carolina’s Jeremiah Francis on Dec. 21 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
(Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

Saturday’s much-anticipated college basketball game between USC and UCLA (7 p.m., ESPN2) has teams that desperately need to improve their resumes quickly.

Neither is currently considered tournament-caliber based on respected computer and betting market ratings. If they move backward, it’s possible they wouldn’t even play in the NIT.

Circa Sports in Las Vegas offers separate odds to win the NCAA championship and the NIT.

— NCAA: USC 300-1, UCLA 1000-1

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— NIT: USC 50-1,UCLA 100-1

Part of the trick of betting NIT futures is that you can’t win if the team doesn’t go. If either makes it to the NCAA tournament, any NIT futures bets are losers. It’s worth noting that UCLA opened at 200-1 before dropping quickly. Some bettors believe UCLA’s upset of Washington last week may hint of better things to come.

A good way to visualize tournament possibilities for betting purposes is to look at Ken Pomeroy’s national rankings (kenpom.com). Typically only the top 50 teams are tournament-caliber because so many automatic bids in the 68-team field go to long shots from smaller conferences. The next 50 or so will at least be considered for spots in the 32-team NIT field.

Here’s how Pac-12 teams ranked with Pomeroy at midweek: Arizona 12, Oregon 16, Colorado 40, Washington 43, Stanford 50, Oregon State 65, USC 77, Arizona State 95, Utah 99, UCLA 121, Washington State 138, California 193.

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USC is firmly in NIT territory. UCLA has a lot of work to do.

Last week, VSiN discussed some of the stat categories professional bettors use to evaluate college basketball teams. Let’s run national rankings for USC and UCLA as a handicapping guide for Saturday’s game at Pauley Pavilion.

(Note that efficiency on offense or defense refers to points per possession rather than raw scoring, rebound rate refers to percentage of available rebounds grabbed, and turnover rates are measured on a per-play basis. All rankings and stats are from teamrankings.com.)

— Offensive efficiency: UCLA gets the nod here. The Bruins rank No. 87 of 353 measured teams. USC is No. 191.

— Offensive turnovers: Similar story, though both drop relative to the nation. Each needs to do a better job of protecting the ball. UCLA ranks No. 112, USC No. 244.

Oneyka Okongwu has quickly become a force for USC’s basketball program. But the freshman forward remains level-headed, always mindful of his brother who died in 2014.

— Three-point shooting: A glaring weak spot for both, and arguably the main reason neither will be able to compete consistently with national powers. USC makes only 6.2 threes per game, which ranks No. 260. UCLA is worse at 5.6, which ranks No. 304.

— Defensive efficiency: This is what launches USC into NIT territory. The Trojans rank No. 68 and are much better than UCLA at getting stops. The Bruins rank only No. 214.

— Rebound rate: It’s a tribute to the hustle and effort of the Bruins that UCLA ranks No. 10 nationally. And it could be a linchpin stat Saturday if USC’s shooting problems continue. The Trojans rank a satisfactory No. 59.

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Be sure to monitor betting markets Saturday to see how oddsmakers and professional gamblers view these teams head to head.

NFL playoff notes

Though the Rams and Chargers failed to reach the postseason, their respective divisional champions are on the short list of serious Super Bowl contenders. The San Francisco 49ers (NFC West) and Kansas City Chiefs (AFC West) are on the heels of the Baltimore Ravens at the top of futures boards.

Here are updated odds to win the Super Bowl from the Westgate in Las Vegas: Baltimore 9/5, San Francisco 7/2, Kansas City 7/2, Green Bay 7/1, Seattle 14/1, Minnesota 18/1, Houston 30/1, Tennessee 30/1.

A quick look at market expectations for this weekend’s divisional round in kickoff order:

Last week, the strategy of betting the underdog or passing on the game worked well. But, it’s a different set of circumstances this week.

— San Francisco will likely close as a seven-point favorite over Minnesota (1:35 p.m. Saturday, NBC). The public, which historically bets rested home favorites in this round, likes the 49ers at -6.5. Smart money would love a defensive underdog like the Vikings if the line rose to +7.5.

— Baltimore will probably be -9.5 or -10 vs. Tennessee (5:15 p.m. Saturday, CBS). Smart underdog lovers will hit the Titans at +10 whenever it’s available.

— Kansas City is in that same price range against Houston (12:05 p.m. Sunday, CBS). Recreational bettors want to root for blowouts. This creates value on the underdogs for the pros.

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— Green Bay will probably close at -4 against Seattle in the finale (3:40 p.m. Sunday, FOX). The Packers are the least-respected favorite because they struggled down the stretch. The point spread might have been below a field goal if the Seahawks weren’t shorthanded.

VSiN has put together an estimate of market Power Ratings based on the point spread and futures odds you just read. Jonathan Von Tobel (of “The Edge”) and I assess a point scale this way:

Ravens 89, Chiefs 88, 49ers 86, Packers 83, Vikings 82, Seahawks 82, Titans 82, Texans 81.

We use a standard three points for home-field advantage. Those numbers suggest Baltimore would be about -4 over Kansas City if both win this week, while San Francisco would be about -6 to -7 hosting the NFC finals.

Jeff Fogle writes for VSiN, the sports betting network.


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