Five Teams Ready for a March Madness Explosion

It’s that time of year again where the terms “last four in,” “last four out” and “on the bubble” take on a very important meaning when it comes to determining the 68-team field for the NCAA Tournament. Using ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s most recent projected bracket for this year’s tournament, I have come up with my Top-5 teams to watch as the actual field begins to come together.

No. 5: Xavier Musketeers (Big East)

Right now Lunardi has the Musketeers as the ninth seed in the West facing Memphis in their first game. A few weeks back after they posted four straight up losses in six games, it appeared that the only way they were even getting in the NCAA Tournament was with an outright win in this season’s Big East Tournament. That whole outlook has radically changed after back-to-back victories over St. John’s and then-No. 9 Creighton this past week.

Xavier is still just 10-6 SU in conference play. However, it will have another chance to play spoiler in the Big East regular season title race with a win on the road this Thursday over No. 6 Villanova. It could also be a good team to wager on with a 4-2 mark against the spread in its last six outings.

No. 4: VCU Rams (Atlantic 10)

This is the time of the year when Shaka Smart’s Rams usually start to shine, and this season has been no exception. VCU is currently penciled in as a No. 7 seed in the South, facing Colorado in its first game. It is coming off its biggest win of the year with a 67-56 victory over then-No. 10 Saint Louis to keep its regular season title hopes in the A-10 alive. This past Saturday’s win as 4.5-point home favorites lifted the Rams’ record to 8-3 ATS in their last 11 games.

It would take a minor miracle to win the regular-season title with the Billikens holding a two-game lead with two games to play, but the Rams are well positioned to win the conference tournament, which would only enhance their position for the Big Dance.

No. 3: Georgia State Panthers (Sun Belt)

The Panthers have already wrapped up the regular-season title in the Sun Belt with a conference record of 15-1 SU, and barring anything crazy happening in their last two games against Arkansas State and Western Kentucky, they should enter their conference tournament riding a seven-game SU winning streak. Not only have the Panthers rolled through just about every team they have faced since a stunning loss to Troy on Feb. 15 as 10-point road favorites, but they have covered in four of the five games.

Lunardi has Georgia State entering the NCAA Tournament as the No. 14 seed in the South, with Iowa State listed as its first opponent. If it can continue its dominance in the Sun Belt with an impressive run to conference tournament title, it can only help its seeding for the NCAA’s.

No. 2: Kansas State Wildcats (Big 12)

While the biggest shakeup in the projected NCAA bracket might be Kansas earning a No. 1 seed over fading Syracuse, my team to watch in the Big 12 is rival Kansas State. The Wildcats are coming off a huge 80-73 victory over then-No. 15 Iowa State this past Saturday as two-point home favorites. This followed and impressive 60-56 win over Texas Tech as 1.5-point underdogs on the road.

Kansas State has been put in the Midwest bracket as the No. 8 seed, with matchup against Pittsburgh right out of the gate. This position should only improve if the Wildcats knock off Oklahoma State and Baylor down the stretch and make a deep run in next week’s Big 12 Tournament.

No. 1: North Carolina Tar Heels (ACC)

This is another program that knows how to peak at just the right time with an 11-game SU winning streak that has elevated the Tar Heels all the way to No. 14 in the latest AP poll. They already have a SU victory over rival No. 4 Duke in their pocket heading into this Saturday’s season finale in Durham, and they would love nothing more than to close things out with the sweep. North Carolina’s winning streak ATS reached nine games before failing to cover in its last two outings.

Right now the Tar Heels are penciled in as the No. 5 seed in the South Region, with Harvard listed as their first opponent. However, there is a good chance that they can continue this run to end up in far better position than that when the actual bracket is released on Selection Sunday.

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Tips for Betting on NASCAR

NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series kicks off its 2014 schedule this Sunday afternoon with its biggest event of the year, the Daytona 500. It’s often referred to as the “Great American Race,” and every driver dreams of taking the checkered flag in this event to help jump start their quest for that season’s Sprint Cup title. For anyone interested in wagering on NASCAR, the following are a few simple betting tips to keep in mind while handicapping the field for Sunday’s race.

Bet on the Favorites

There were 52 drivers that earned points in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series last season. The number of drivers that competed in all 36 point races drops to 28, and there were just 16 drivers on that list that actually won a Sprint Cup point race last year.

This is not horse racing where longshots come out of nowhere to upset the field, and it is not the NFL where on any given Sunday anyone can win. NASCAR may have a full field of 30-plus drivers in any one race, but in reality there are only about four or five contenders that have a legitimate shot at winning that event. Anyone who follows NASCAR on a regular basis remembers Trevor Bayne’s thrilling victory as a huge longshot in the 2011 Daytona 500, but this is still a sport where it pays to go chalk. The return on investment may be slim, but it is still better than no return at all.

Winners Win

Going back to last season’s final Sprint Cup point standings you would find that the top four drivers won 58.3 percent of the point races. Matt Kenseth led the way with seven checkered flags, and Jimmie Johnson was second with six. Kenseth just so happened to win the Daytona 500 in 2009 and 2012, and Johnson has made his way to the winner’s circle in this event two times as well (2006 and 2013).

Going hand-in-hand with betting on favorites is the strategy of betting on favorites that know how to win races. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a great driver and coming off a fifth-place finish in last season’s point standings, but he has posted just one Sprint Cup point race victory in his last four seasons. He is the type of driver you want to wager on to finish in the Top 3 if you can get odds on that bet. This would have especially been the case last season when you consider that Junior finished third or better in seven races starting with a second-place finish in the Daytona 500.

History Does Tend to Repeat Itself

One of the best tools to handicap Sprint Cup racing is assessing a driver’s previous performance at each race track in the series. They are all different in nature, so familiarity can often lead to predictability. If a particular driver has torn things up over the years at a certain venue, the chances are pretty good that he will have continued success in future races at that same track.

Current form at a certain track also factors into this equation. Johnson is by far the sport’s best driver with six Sprint Cup Championships, including last season’s title. If you look back at his performance at Daytona over the years, he has eight Top-5 finishes in 24 Sprint Cup races and an average finishing position of 17.5, which are not the greatest numbers in the world. However, he is riding a two-race winning streak at Daytona after sweeping both events at this track in 2013.

Shop your Odds

Just about every major sportsbook will post odds for each week’s Sprint Cup race, and while they will probably be pretty similar as far as the list of top contenders to win the race, the odds for each driver on that list will tend to vary somewhat.

The best betting strategy is to first break down each race to come up with the driver that you have to most confidence in to win that week and then shop his odds among your favorite books to get the best possible value for your pick.

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