How to Bet on March Madness for Dummies
Learning how to bet on March Madness is easy with the right information. Whether you’re totally new to the game or are already a March Madness fanatic ready to take the next step in your college basketball betting education, you can find the tips and tricks you need to be successful in this guide.
Below, we detail the most popular ways to bet on March Madness beyond run-of-the-mill bracket competitions. From betting the moneyline, to betting against the spread, or wagering on March Madness futures, we demystify all the common NCAA Tournament betting options.
This is March Madness betting for dummies (soon to be sharps).
Bet March Madness Games on the Moneyline
Betting the moneyline is the easiest way to bet on March Madness. Betting the moneyline simply means betting on which team will win the game, just like picking the winner of each matchup in a bracket contest.
How much you win depends on two things: (1) how much money you risk and (2) the odds.
The moneyline will be represented on a betting menu by a three-digit number, either positive or negative. Let’s take a look at an example betting line:
The arrow in the image points to the moneyline. As you can see, Xavier has positive moneyline odds (+170), meaning they are the underdog. St. John’s has negative moneyline odds (-200), meaning they are the favorite.
A positive moneyline tells you how much you stand to win on a $100 bet ($170 in the example provided here). On the other hand, a negative moneyline tells you how much you will have to bet in order to win $100 (in this case $200).
Your original stake will be returned along with 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 in winnings. 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.
You are not required to bet $100 on the moneyline. 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 calculate the amount you stand to win and display it before you have to confirm your wager, so you don’t need to come armed with a calculator. The image below shows how it will look on a generic bet slip:
Round of 64 Moneylines
When it comes to betting on the the first round of March Madness (a.k.a. the Round of 64), you will find that some of the games aren’t available for moneyline wagering.
For games with a spread (discussed in detail below) greater than about 15 points, most sportsbooks will not offer a moneyline. In practice, most #1 vs. #16 matchups during the NCAA Tournament will have a spread greater than 15 points. Don’t be surprised if your sportsbook doesn’t offer a moneyline on first-round games for the top seeds.
The image below displays the NCAAB betting options for five different college basketball games at an online sportsbook. The first column displays the spread, the middle column is the moneyline, and the third column is the game total. Two of the five games have massive point spread (19 and 23 points). As a result, no moneyline is offered on those games.
Round of 32 Moneylines (and Beyond)
Every game in the second round of the NCAA Tournament will offer the opportunity to bet on the moneyline. At this stage, all the the #15 and #16 seeds have either been eliminated, or they have pulled massive upsets and will be considered much stronger than they were at the outset of the tournament.
In the Round of 32, it’s uncommon to see a moneyline approaching +500. If you want to bet against heavy favorites, you’ll want to focus on 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,” they must 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, they must win by 5 points or more. If you bet on St. John’s -4.5 and they win 74-70, you lose your bet.
On the other hand, if you bet on Xavier +4.5 and they lose 74-70, you win 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). This number indicates the odds, telling 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 (appears as -110 odds) or $105 (appears as -105 odds) to win $100 when betting against the spread.
You will see some variations in the ATS odds/payout rates at different sportsbooks, ranging from about -101 to -120, but -110 is the industry 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.
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 they do, the sportsbook’s exposure to potential loss will be reduced.
Many NCAA basketball betting sites 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, based entirely on their performance during the regular season. Such an analysis is not identical to projecting how each team can be expected to perform going forward.
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 total, otherwise known as the over/under.
Going back to Xavier/St. John’s, you can see that the projected game total is 145.0 points. The top row, O 145.0 (-105), is the OVER. The bottom row, U 145.0 (-115), is 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 learning how to bet on 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 stifling packline defense, which leads to fewer changes of possession 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 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 30-second shot clock 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 three weeks ahead of the 2019 tournament.
The number next to each team 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 have won $210. If you bet $100 on Louisville at +7000 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 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, a 70% chance to win each of its games, that only amounts to an 11.8% chance to win all six.
Pick the Final Four – March Madness Futures for Dummies
If picking the National Champion is too daunting a task, there’s another option. Most sportbooks will open futures lines for the winner of 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 changes the odds. 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.
It’s fair to say a team like Duke in 2019 had about an 80-85% chance, on average, to win each of its first four games. That amounts to a 41-52% chance to reach the Final Four.
Of course, 2019 Duke is an outlier. The 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. Odds for the top seeds will often be in the +175 (~36% implied probability) to +105 (~49% implied probability).
During the 2018-19 season, some sportsbooks intermittently posted odds to reach the Final Four during the regular season. In October, way before bettors had any real sense of what these teams were, two schools were at even money and four schools were at +170 or shorter. It was extremely hard to find good betting value in that particular futures market.
More Ways to Bet on March Madness!
This introduction covers just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to learning how to bet on March Madness. Here are a few more options to add to your knowledge base of March Madness betting:
- Live March Madness betting (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
Enjoy the betting action this March, but be sure to wager responsibly. Never risk more than you can afford to lose.
Let's have fun and keep it civil.