How to Bet on March Madness for Dummies
Are you a March Madness fanatic ready to take the next step in your budding relationship with college basketball? Great news! Like a hungry bumblebee stumbling upon a meadow of sunflowers, you have found the ideal spot to satisfy your needs.
Below, we detail the most popular ways to bet on March Madness beyond the run-of-the-mill bracket competitions. From betting the moneyline to betting against the spread to wagering on March Madness futures, we demystify all the common NCAA Tournament betting options so you’ll know how to bet with confidence (or at least how to act like you know what you’re doing, even if you’re crippled with self-doubt).
Bet March Madness Games on the Moneyline
Learning to bet on March Madness isn’t too different from learning how to bet on the NBA, NFL, MLB, or NHL.
The first and easiest way to bet on March Madness is just like a bracket contest, except you will be more handsomely rewarded for every pick you get right. Betting the moneyline simply means betting on which team will win the game. If you pick the correct winner, you win that bet, plain and simple.
How much you win depends on two things: (1) how much you bet and (2) the odds.
The moneyline will be represented on a betting menu by a three-digit number, either positive or negative. Here’s an example.
The arrow in Image 1.0 is pointing to the moneylines. Xavier has positive moneyline odds (+170), meaning it’s the underdog. St. John’s has negative moneyline odds (-200), meaning it’s the favorite.
The moneyline does more than indicate if a team is generally considered the favorite/underdog. It tells you precisely how much you stand to win. A positive moneyline tells you how much you will win on a $100 bet (in this case $170). A negative moneyline tells you how much you will have to bet in order to win $100 (in this case $200).
You will also get your original stake back in addition to your winnings. So, if you deposit $200 into an account and then bet $100 on Xavier, your account will go from $200 down to $100 after you place your bet.
If Xavier wins, it will balloon up to $370, as you’ll get your $100 stake returned plus $170 for correctly picking Xavier to win. If Xavier loses, it will remain at $100. With moneyline bets—just like with naval aviation—there are no points for second place.
The moneyline does more than indicate if a team is generally considered the favorite/underdog. It tells you precisely how much you stand to win.
By no means are you required to bet $100. That’s just how the payout rates are displayed. Every sportsbook has its own minimum and maximum wager amounts for March Madness games, and you can bet anywhere within that range.
Most sportsbooks will pre-calculate the amount you stand to win and display it for you before you have to confirm your wager, so you also don’t need to come armed with a calculator. Image 1.1 below shows this in practice using BetOnline‘s betslip.
Round of 64 Moneylines
When it comes to the first round of March Madness (a.k.a. the Round of 64), you will find that some of the games don’t have moneylines available for betting.
When the spread (which we will discuss in detail in the next section) reaches about 15 points, most sportsbooks tend to shutdown the moneyline. In practice, most #1 vs. #16 matchups during the NCAA Tournament will have a spread that is greater than 15 points, so don’t be surprised if your sportsbook doesn’t offer a moneyline on the first-round games for the top seeds.
Here’s a screenshot from MyBookie.ag which shows five games, two of which have massive point spreads and, thus, no moneyline.
In the image above, the first column is the spread, the middle column is the moneyline, and the third column is the game total.
We will get to betting the spread and game total momentarily. For now, all you need to recognize is that the Gonzaga/Pacific and Portland/St. Mary’s games have large spreads (23 points and 19 points, respectively) and, as a result, no moneyline.
Round of 32 Moneylines (and Beyond)
Once you get to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, every game will have a moneyline available for betting. At this stage, either all the #15 and #16 seeds have been eliminated, or they have pulled massive upsets and will be considered much stronger than they were at the outset.
In the Round of 32, it’s uncommon to see a moneyline approaching +500. You will see more than a few at or over that number in the Round of 64.
Bet March Madness Games Against the Spread
Betting against the spread is not as simple as betting the moneyline, but it’s not complicated either. Just like with the moneyline, the spread is indicated by a positive number for the underdog and a negative number for the favorite.
For the favorite to “cover the spread,” it has to win by more points than the spread. Going back to our Xavier/St. John’s example, the spread for that game was 4.5 points.
In order for St. John’s to cover, it has to win by 5 points or more. If you bet on St. John’s -4.5 and they win 70-74, unfortunately, you lose your bet.
But if you bet on Xavier +4.5 and they lose 74-70, you win you bet even though Xavier didn’t win the game.
The spread is known as “the great equalizer.” It’s designed to turn every game into a 50/50 proposition and encourage an equal amount of betting on both teams.
When a spread is not a half number, say 4.0 instead of 4.5, there is a possibility for a tie (or a “push” in betting lingo). If the Xavier/St. John’s spread was 4.0 points and the game ended 74-70, everyone would get their money back.
Observant readers will have noticed that there is a number that looks suspiciously like a moneyline after the point spread (-110). That’s exactly what it is; that number tells you the payout on bets against the spread (“ATS” bets). To gain an edge over bettors, sportsbooks don’t pay out at a 1:1 ratio on ATS bets. You generally have to bet $110 to win $100 when betting against the spread.
You will see small variations in ATS payout rates between sportsbooks, from about -101 to -120, but -110 is standard.
Pro tip: the spread can and will change if most of the money is being bet on one team.
Pro tip: the spread can and will change if most of the money is being bet on one team. In order to guarantee themselves a profit, sportsbooks want equal money bet on either side. Why? To guarantee a profit.
If a sportsbook takes $500 worth of bets on Xavier +4.5 and only $50 on St. John’s -4.5, it stands to lose just over $400 if Xavier covers. (When they take $500 in bets at a -110 payout, they will have to pay the winners $454.55 if Xavier covers. They will only retain the $50 that was bet on St. John’s -4.5, which results in a $404.55 loss on that game.)
By adjusting the spread to St. John’s -4.0 or -3.5, more bettors will be tempted to bet on St. John’s. When/if they do, the sportsbook’s exposure to potential loss will be reduced.
Many sportsbooks will choose to increase the payout before adjusting the spread, for instance, adjusting the payout on St. John’s -4.5 to -105 instead of lowering the spread to St. John’s -4.0.
Because March Madness games get way more betting action from the general public compared to regular season college basketball games, it’s very common to see popular teams like Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, etc. receive a lot of support and, in turn, for the point spreads to move in their direction. As a general rule, casual bettors tend to put their money on well-known teams.
When the Tournament arrives, all 63 March Madness games (plus the four play-in games) can be bet on against the spread. In general, the spreads for the #8 vs. #9 first-round games will be very narrow, while the spreads for the #1 vs. #16 and #2 vs. #15 games will be huge.
[B]etter-seeded teams will usually be the favorite, but not always.
The better-seeded teams will usually be the favorite, but not always. In 2018, #10 Butler was a 1.5-point favorite over #7 Arkansas in the Round of 64, and the Bulldogs covered with ease.
You will see something similar almost every year. The tournament selection committee is not a sportsbook. It has its own system for ranking teams, one that’s based on what schools have done up to this point, not what they are expected to do going forward. Often those two things are closely aligned, but not always.
Bet March Madness Game Totals (Over/Under)
The spread and moneyline are known as “straight bets.” The third and last type of straight bet for March Madness games is the game total, otherwise known as the over/under.
Going back to Xavier/St. John’s one last time, you will see in Image 3.0 that the game total is 145.0 points. The top row, O 145.0 (-105), is for the OVER. The bottom row, U 145.0 (-115), is for the UNDER. If the combined score of the game is more than 145 points (say 74-72), OVER bets are winners. If it’s less than 145 points (say 73-71), UNDER bets are winners. If it lands exactly on 145 points (say 73-72), it’s a push and everyone gets their money back.
In the example above, the UNDER is considered slightly more likely, hence the payout rate is lower (-115) compared to the OVER (-105).
When it comes to March Madness game totals, pay particular attention to teams’ efficiency levels on offense/defense and their tempo. Some teams (like most of Roy Williams’ UNC teams) play at a quick pace, which leads to a lot of possessions and a lot of points. Other coaches (like Virginia’s Tony Bennett) pair a methodical offense with a tired packline defense, which leads to fewer possessions and lower-scoring games.
The massive variation in college basketball scoring is apparent simply by looking at basic points per game (PPG) stats.
In the 2017-18 NBA season, the highest scoring team (the Warriors) averaged 113.5 PPG, while the lowest-scoring team (the Kings) averaged 98.8. That’s a 14.7-point discrepancy.
Compare that to the NCAA. The highest-scoring team in 2017-18 (Villanova) averaged 87.1 PPG. The 216th-highest scoring team averaged 72.4 PPG (which is 14.7 points less than 87.1). The lowest-scoring team barely cracked 60 (Alabama A&M, 60.4 PPG). That is a 26.7-point difference between the highest and lowest-scoring teams.
Those stats merely demonstrate that there will be a huge range of scores in the tournament. Don’t be surprised to see some game totals over 170 and others below 130.
The KenPom ratings are a very handy way to track both efficiency and tempo. Click on the “AdjT” column to sort teams by tempo.
There are numerous reasons behind the large differences in scoring. For starters, there’s a broader range of talent levels in college compared to the pros. There’s also a longer 30-second shotclock in college, which allows for more variation in pace compared to the NBA, where teams have just 24 seconds to get a shot off.
Pick the Tournament Champion a.k.a. March Madness Futures
In addition to betting individual games (either on the moneyline, against the spread, or over/under), bettors can also wager on who will win the entire tournament. These are known as futures bets.
Here’s what the March Madness futures section looked like at Bovada about three weeks ahead of the 2019 tournament.
Each of the positive numbers next to a school name is a moneyline; it indicates the payout on a $100 bet if that team wins it all.
As you can see, in 2019, it was roughly Duke (+210) and then everybody else. If you bet $100 on Duke and they won the National Championship, you would win $210. If you bet $100 on Louisville, an underdog, and they went on to win the title, you would win $7,000.
March Madness futures are available all year long, and we track the average odds for all the NCAA Tournament contenders. Futures bets will still be available right up until the tournament begins and then re-posted after each round completes.
You can adopt the best strategies for picking a March Madness champion, but it’s crucial to recognize how difficult it is to win six straight games against quality competition. Even if a team has, on average, 70% chance to win each of its games, that only amounts to an 11.76% chance to win all six.
Pick the Final Four
If picking the National Champion is too daunting a task, there’s another option. Most sportsbooks will post futures odds to win each region once the tournament field is established on Selection Sunday.
In order to get from the Round of 64 to the Final Four, a team only has to win four games instead of six. While that’s still a monumental task, it drastically reduces the level of difficulty. If a team has a 70% chance, on average, to win each of its first four games, it has a 24% chance to win all four.
A team like Duke in 2019 had more like an 80-85% chance, on average, to win each of its first four games. That amounted to a 41-52% chance to reach the Final Four.
Of course, 2019 Duke is an outlier. The vast, vast majority of teams in the field, even the #1 seeds, will have much less than a 50/50 chance to reach the Final Four at the outset of the tournament. Keep that in mind when betting Final Four futures.
The odds for the top seeds will often be in the +175 (~36% implied probability) to +105 (~49% implied probability).
During the 2018-19 season, MyBookie posted Final Four odds intermittently during the regular season. In October, way before bettors had any real sense of what these teams were, MyBookie had two schools at even money and four schools at +170 or shorter.
More Ways to Bet on March Madness!
The wagering options listed above are actually just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to betting on March Madness. Here are a few more options to add to your knowledge base of March Madness betting:
- Live bet March Madness games (also known as in-game wagering);
- bet first-half and second-half spreads and moneylines;
- Bet intriguing March Madness props, like Tournament MVP, highest-scoring game, and biggest margin of victory;
- Wager on March Madness from your mobile device (which isn’t a separate type of betting, just a more convenient way to do it for some).
Best of luck and remember to never, ever, under any circumstances wager more than you can afford to lose.