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best ways to bet on march madness holding basketball

  • There’s a lot more to the NCAA Tournament than just bracket contests. 
  • With 63 games over the span of three weeks (plus four play-in games!) there are myriad opportunities to wager.
  • Learn some tried and tested March Madness betting strategies and the systems the pros use. 

By now, just about everyone in North America has filled out a March Madness bracket at some point in their life. They’re as ubiquitous as Stephen A. Smith at a hypocrisy convention. Seasoned bettors know that the NCAA Tournament goes way beyond office pools, though.

Each of the 63 games in March Madness will be available for single-game betting at every major sportsbook, and the tournament has become one of the most wagered-on events on the calendar.

Below, we detail six betting strategies to help you find flawed lines, pick a worthy March Madness champion, and generally keep your bankroll in the black.

1. Pick a Champion that Has Balance

Whether filling out a bracket or betting on March Madness National Championship futures, smart bettors know that there’s little value in picking a one-dimensional team. To win it all, a team has to have an elite offense and a stifling defense. At least, that’s what history tells us.

Over the last 18 tournaments, only one champion has ranked outside the top 20 in offensive efficiency at KenPom (UConn, 2014) and none have ranked outside of the top 20 in defensive efficiency.

Every year, you will find relatively high seeds that are lacking at one end of the court and, thus, not good bets to win it all. A slew of 2019 teams fit the bill, including:

Team Overall Eff. Rank Off. Eff. Rank Def. Eff. Rank
Michigan 7th 33rd  2nd
Texas Tech 9th 67th 1st
Iowa St 13th 9th 39th
LSU 22nd 11th 75th
Villanova 24th 12th 81st
Kansas St 30th 107th 8th

2. Don’t Pay Attention to “Expert” Brackets

ESPN, CBS Sports, Yahoo, Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, The Athletic: every sports site has its “experts” post their March Madness picks. When it comes to toss-up games with narrow point spreads, it can be tempting to look at who the majority of the pundits are taking.

But beware. While some of these people truly are experts who earned their status through years of studying Xs and Os, others “earned” their roles by doling out controversial hot-takes that garner clicks, and many more are simply recognizable names who played the game at a high level.

It can be hard to tell a real expert from a charlatan when you’re merely looking at a bracket.  Before following any “expert’s” advice, research who they are, what makes them so sagacious, and how they have done in the past.

And to answer your next question: no, being the President of the United States does not make one an expert.

3. Do Pay Attention to Advanced Metrics

We have tracked the accuracy of two mathematically-based prediction systems, KenPom and Sagarin, over the last two years and found that, when their predictions differ and the point spread lies in between, there is value in betting on the team that KenPom predicts will cover the spread.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this strategy will result in an instant windfall. It picks losers well over 40% of the time. But if its track record holds in the tournament, it will result in a modest net gain.

4. “Home-Court Advantage” Can Still Exist in the Tournament

Pay attention to where games are being played. Some schools will have to travel across the country to play their opening-round games; others will only need a short bus trip to the stadium.

Not only do teams playing close to home not risk jet lag, they also tend to have the crowd behind them. Don’t underestimate the emotional boost that provides.

Factors like travel and crowd noise have a bigger impact on [university athletes] than on seasoned professionals.

Boyd’s Bets calculated that Utah has the biggest home-court advantage in the NBA. The Jazz are, on average, 4.16 points better at home than on the road. They were followed closely by the Denver Nuggets at 4.11, but no other team was over 4.0 PPG.

Contrast that with the NCAA, where 31 teams have a home-court advantage over 5.0 PPG. Why the difference?

College basketball players are 18 to 21-year-olds with relatively little game and life experience. Factors like travel and crowd noise have a bigger impact on them than on seasoned professionals.

Side note: pay particular attention to the games in Salt Lake City in 2019. It’s no coincidence that teams which play at altitude always have a more pronounced edge at home. Their bodies are accustomed to the reduced oxygen. If a school like Utah, Utah State, or Colorado plays in that regional against a sea-level team, they could have an extra edge that many bettors fail to recognize. 

The best recent example of home-court causing a massive difference came in the 2017 tournament. No. 2 seed Duke was placed in a regional quartet with no. 15 Troy, no. 10 Marquette, and no. 7 South Carolina in Greenville. If your geography is a little rusty, Greenville is in South Carolina, 103 miles from Columbia (home of the Gamecocks).

Duke was a 6.5-point favorite. This happened…

5. Champions Cover the Spread

Eight of the last nine March Madness winners have covered over 55% of their games in their championship seasons. For once, 2014 UConn isn’t the outlier in this trend. It’s Kentucky in 2012, which went 38-2 but was sub-.500 ATS because of sky-high expectations.

It’s not a wise strategy to just find the teams with the best ATS records on the year and bet blindly that they’ll keep it up. Sportsbooks and sharps adjust. But it is wise to whittle down your potential champions based on cover rates.

ATS Cover Rates of March Madness Champions

Champion Year Cover Rate
Villanova 68.0% 2018
UNC 55.6% 2017
Villanova 55.3% 2016
Duke 63.2% 2015
Connecticut 60.5% 2014
Louisville 60.0% 2013
Kentucky 42.1% 2012
Connecticut 65.7% 2011
Duke 62.2% 2010

Covering the spread means that a team is regularly outperforming expectations. They are beating down the teams they should beat down, winning comfortably in games that are supposed to be close, and pulling upsets in tough road environments.

In short, when you see the combination of a highly-ranked team and a sparkling ATS record, it’s a sure sign of true quality.

6. Certain Coaches Cover at a Higher Rate

Coaching counts for a lot in college basketball. With 353 teams in Division I, there is a vast discrepancy between coach quality, and that shows up on the scoreboard.

Over the last six years, a handful of coaches have set themselves apart as ATS covering machines. (We regret to inform those who were screwed by the UMBC upset over Virginia in 2018 that Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers are at the very top.)

Best ATS Cover Rates among DI Coaches

Team Coach 6-Year ATS Record
Virginia Tony Bennett 74-47-1 (61.2%)
Nevada Eric Musselman 77-50-4 (60.6%)
Buffalo Nate Oates 68-45-7 (60.2%)
Villanova Jay Wright 84-56-1  (60.0%)
Va. Tech Buzz Williams 66-44-1 (60%)
East Tenn. St. Steve Forbes 69-47-3 (59.5%)

Not all of these teams/coaches will make it into the tournament every year, but when they do, take a long, hard look at their individual game lines.

Feeling Confident?

With these six strategies in hand, you can now take your March Madness betting to new frontiers.

But, as always, never risk more of your bankroll than you can afford to lose.

Author Image

Sascha was a hockey player in his youth, a lawyer in his capricious mid-20s, and has been SBD's lead oddsmaker/number cruncher since 2014. He writes about everything you can possibly put odds on. He's happiest when those things are football, baseball, hockey and basketball (in that order).