North Carolina will try to win the program’s sixth national championship tonight. UNC opened as 2-point favorites over Gonzaga but currently the Tar Heels are 1-point favorites as 52% of spread dollars are on the Zags to cover. How often do small favorites win?

We have a sample of 2,119 games in our database dating back to 2005 where a team was favored by exactly 1-point. In all games the favorite won 51.4% of the time but the winning percentage jumps to 62.5% for tournament games. Why? Motivation could help explain the jump in win probability. Teams are playing for a championship in the tournament and will thus give their greatest effort.

All Games1089-103051.4
Regular Season957-90551.4
NCAA Tournament35-2162.5
Sweet 166-366.7
Final 4 and Title Game3-175

We can increase our sample if we include all games where a team is favored by 2-points (the opening spread) or less. In more than 6,600 games the team that is favored wins 53.5% of the time. In the NCAA tournament the winning percentage increases to 57.4%. The trend holds, small favorites win more often during March Madness than the regular season.

All Games3539-308153.5
Regular Season3110-271253.4
NCAA Tournament89-6657.4
Sweet 1612-1054.5
Final 4 and Title Game7-463.6

Small favorites are more likely win in the postseason than the regular season. We suggested that motivation could help explain the difference. Another factor could be that by the time we reach March we have more information on each team, the lines should be more accurate where as during the regular season a team could be favored but shouldn’t be.

This is good news for UNC as they are small favorites. However, according to our simulations the Zags are the team that should be favored. Unfortunately, we do not have data on how often the betting favorite wins when our simulations disagree with the bookmakers. We will find out tonight.

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