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History says bet the over in the NCAA Tournament First Round

Normally the betting numbers are in favor of those on the under, but that shifts the first two days of March Madness.

NCAA referee Ted Valentine makes a call in the first half of a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Boston College Eagles at the Purcell Pavilion. Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

We all love to root for points. It makes all sports, including college basketball, much more fun to watch. If you’re checking out a game and don’t really have a rooting interest... who’s watching hoops to see quality rebounding and effective closeouts on shooters?

But the bookmakers and sharp bettors know this, which is why being on the under is normally the smart wager in the long run. Over the last eight seasons across all of college basketball, a total of 36986 games, the over has been the right play 49.6% of the time when subtracting pushes.

However in the first round of the NCAA Tournament since 2013, the over is 116-106-2, good for a 52.25% win rate. And during the last two March Madness openers, the scoring/fun! side is 34-30, a 53.1% winner.

And ask any sharp bettor out there: 3% is very likely the difference between winning and losing every year.

So why is this? There’s a couple theories at work here. One is that since teams know their opponent on Sunday, and play no earlier than Thursday, they’ve got plenty of time to game plan and prepare. Plus if there’s a player that’s borderline about participating due to injury, he’s very likely going to be suiting up because you only get so many chances at collegiate postseason glory in a lifetime.

But the other theory, and the one to which we’re ascribing, is the officiating. Normally college basketball referees are assigned by conferences, most of which are in an “alliance” that spreads the pool of those blowing the whistle at the game.

But in the postseason, all the assignments are made by J.D. Collins, the NCAA’s national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating. He likes a tight whistle, which is why you’ll see so many nickel-dimers (H/T Bill Raftery) getting called early in the tournament. More fouls means more teams in the penalty early, and more scoring when the clock is stopped from the free throw line.

Want a bit more data on the official calling each NCAA game, and how many fouls they like to call per game on average? Here’s a good place to start.

But for the most fun two days of college basketball every year, it looks like the squares might have it a bit over the sharps. So you might considering getting a bit more square yourself this Friday and Saturday.