Guide to “March Madness” Betting

It isn’t called March Madness for nothing. The annual national college basketball tournament that pits teams from the top of different conferences against one another is one of the longest tournament series in sports.

The first two official days of the tournament (after the play-in games) is completely bonkers. Thirty-two games are played over the course of two whole days, including some morning games and some that stretch on late into the night.

Sure, there’s a ton of hype and a lot of amateur action affecting things, not to mention the influence of the sharps, but there are still money-making opportunities that early in the tournament.

The 2014 edition of March Madness lasted from March 15th to April 7th. The sheer number of games and variety of ways to wager make it a huge time for sportsbooks.

Before we get into more details about how to bet on March Madness. You may want to take a closer look at our post on where you can bet on March Madness games.

“March Madness” Betting Trends

  • Estimates from sources like the Dallas Morning News and the LA Times on how much cash is wagered legally through licensed sportsbooks on the NCAA basketball tournament range from $100 to $227 million.
  • A source from the FBI has been quoted often in related articles, saying that organization estimates illegal wagers of around $2.5 billion in the United States alone, just during the March Madness tournament.
  • A leading betting analyst R.J. Bell, estimates on his site that the worldwide amount of wagers on college basketball’s biggest tourney could be as much as $12 billion. For the record, that’s billions more than similar estimates for worldwide wagering on the Super Bowl, and something akin to the size of wagers during the FIFA World Cup . . . which only takes place every four years.
  • Other analysts and sources cite a common figure for how many Americans will bet on the tournament in a given year – 50 million. The news media often report on the billions of dollars of lost wages to industry due to time spent completing NCAA tournament brackets.
  • Forbes magazine estimates that the total number of people who will place at least one bet on the tournament worldwide “. . . could be over 100 million.”

Thanks to changes to the tournament layout in 2011, there are now 64 games played during the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Tournament every year, which means bettors face a ton of games to pick, particularly in early rounds.

This, combined with the difficulties of understanding such a diverse field of teams make this one of the brainiest and most challenging championships to bet on.

Here are some tips to consider when preparing your bankroll for the next onslaught of more than five dozen high-level college basketball games.

Early Round March Madness Betting

The first round is the only one in which bettors know fairly well in advance how the two competing teams will be seeded – the first seed always plays the sixteen seed, etc. Historically, for bettors, the best chance for a return is to focus on the four fifth-versus-twelfth seed matchups. It seems too good to be true, but more than a third of all teams seeded at the twelve position have won during the round of 64.

That means twelve seeds on days one and two make for excellent bets ATS and often have a lot of hidden value if you do your homework. Each year at least one twelve seed will win a matchup outright. Remember, because of the relatively-low value of their twelve seed, the point spreads hover around 10. You’re a fool not to wager on one if not all of the 12th seed versus 5th seed games on the first two days of the Tournament.

The value doesn’t end with the number 12. Some other low-seeded teams (we’re talking about 11th, 12th, and 13th seeds) are often safe ATS. It’s the strongest underdog factor in the college game, almost a Napoleon Complex that infects mid-major champs.

Understanding that the difference in talent between the teams in various NCAA conferences is shrinking. The single-elimination layout of March Madness means parity is the name of the game. Take advantage of that parity early, while point spreads are still wide.

How to Bet on the Sweet Sixteen

Once teams make it to the third round of the NCAA tournament, they’re part of what’s called “the sweet sixteen.” At this level, it makes sense to look for lower-seeded small-side favorites. But a major difference between earlier rounds and the Sweet 16, in terms of betting, is that bettors need to start considering the impact of a team’s conference strength, giving it a bit more weight. The other side of that coin is that it becomes necessary to give that intangible thing known as “momentum” some weight, too.

Teams playing well into the third round are, in fact, likely to keep playing well, almost regardless of seeding. The opposite is also true – a traditionally-strong team from a strong conference that barely squeaked into the Sweet 16 is likely to old. In that sense, parity becomes less powerful a handicapping tool starting at the third round.

Another tip for the third round of the NCAA tournament is to look at the teams’ records in terms of where they played and consider what that says about their potential. It is common for major conference champs to have weak road or neutral records (either ATS or straight up) underneath what’s otherwise a gleaming conference championship. The NCAA Tournament takes place pretty much anywhere BUT at home, so teams that dominate at home may look entirely different after their soft early-round opponents.

Betting Tips for the NCAA Final Four

Once March Madness gets down to just four teams (and three remaining games), fewer and fewer opportunities for advantage gambling exist. It just plain gets harder to find a soft line when there are so few to handicap. The whole market tightens up and the books and the general public all start to agree – it’s a bit of a freaky social phenomenon when viewed from a sports bettor’s perspective.

That said, it is possible to find a favorable line if you have the patience and the ability to shop at a variety of sportsbooks immediately after the lines appear, when variance is most likely to exist.

But don’t focus on line shopping instead of handicapping. Doing research and looking at stats is just as important in these final games as in any other sports betting contest. With the March Madness Final Four, you want to look mostly at how teams performed on the road (since the remaining contests will all essentially be “road games”), the difference in their total number of rebounds on both sides of the ball, opponent’s FG% numbers, and performance against any recent common opponents.

What about intangibles? The “momentum” we talked about earlier is no doubt still at work in the later rounds, but it’s less likely than in earlier rounds to involve a deep-seeded team. Some handicappers become armchair philosophers at Final Four time, analyzing team chemistry, body language, and attitude to see what direction those intangibles indicate the teams are headed in. This is all well and good, but it’s no substitute for proper handicapping and line shopping.

It’s also important to understand trends at this level of collegiate play. By the time you get to the Final Four, the higher-seeded team wins (and usually covers the spread) at least 75% of the time. This is especially true for the modern Tournament. This, combined with the fact that so much more of the action that happens during the final three Championship games of the tournament is from amateurs and sharps, scares away some serious sports bettors, even pros.

Whether you choose to wager on the final three games of the NCAA’s biggest basketball event, it’s quite a spectacle. The NBA stars of tomorrow duking it out, often in combinations that are rarely (if ever) seen. It’s an exciting time, but March Madness can also be a bankroll-draining time. Don’t forget that each year, a full 64 college basketball tournament games exist for wagering. Pace yourself, pay attention to the twelve seeds early on, and do your homework. After all, this is supposed to be fun, right?

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