For three weeks every spring, the rest of the American sporting world takes a backseat to the Cinderella stories and buzzer beaters that make the NCAA Tournament a one-of-a-kind event.
It’s where Princeton can beat UCLA, Santa Clara can beat Arizona and No. 11 seed George Mason can make it all the way to the Final Four.
Anyone and everyone will fill out an NCAA Tournament bracket, including President Barack Obama. Billionaire Warren Buffett once offered $1 billion to anyone who filled out a perfect bracket. Suffice to say; nobody claimed Buffett’s money.
But lots and lots of money is to be had during March Madness. We estimate there are $3 billion in wagers in private tournament and office pools around the country, and Las Vegas casinos regularly top $150 million in profits for the month. Worldwide estimates for March Madness gambling are as high as $12 billion, which is far more than forecasts for the Super Bowl.
Be it a tournament bracket, selecting the Final Four, or just making individual game picks during each round of play, everyone who bets on the tournament needs to have an edge.
Research the different seeds
The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee seeds each region of the tournament No. 1 through No. 16. On its surface, this gauge how good some of the lesser-known schools are each year. College basketball fans have probably watched powers like Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Duke play each year. However, it’s doubtful Stony Brook or Davidson has been on their television.
The seeds can help fill in those cracks of knowledge. However, you should always know the history of each seed in relation to actual play in the tournament.
In the 2018 tournament, for the first time, a No. 1 seed lost in the first round. No. 16 seed University of Maryland-Baltimore County made history when it knocked off Virginia. But having never happened before, it’s likely that it won’t happen again for quite a few years.
As fun as it is to go for the Cinderella, the top teams (almost) always advance to the second round and go on to make it to the Final Four 40 percent of the time.
Everyone who regularly watches the tournament knows the history of the fifth versus 12th seed first-round matchup. No. 12 seeds fair much better than the natural odds would dictate, considering that fifth seeds typically rank in top 20, while 12th seeds are between 45-50th in the national rankings. Yet, fully one-third of all 12 seeds win in the first round. Consider that 13th seeds only win 20 percent of the time, and 11th seeds win 35 percent. The 33 winning percentage for No. 12 seed is a place where the value of underdog bets can be found.
Again – make sure you do complete research. It’s fun to jump on the underdog that goes on a first-weekend run and gets into the Sweet 16. But of the twenty number 12 seeds that made it into the Sweet 16, only one — Missouri in 2002 — made it to the Elite 8.
Defense wins championships
The adage that defense wins championships comes from a quote by legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant. The full quote is: “Offense wins games … defense wins championships.” But even though the saying originated in the college football field, its truth is just as evident on the college basketball hardwood.
It makes perfect sense. If you are a team that relies on offense, eventually, you will hit a game where the shots simply don’t fall. Everyone has an off night on occasion. And considering that you need to win six straight games against quality competition to win the National Championship, it stands to reason that at some point over those six games, you’ll go cold from the three-point line. Good defenders will capitalize on that, and they will beat you.
The statistics also bear this out. When looking at teams that go on championship runs, almost all of them rank in the national top 30 in defense, and more recently, this has been even more pronounced. Since 2008, all of the NCAA Tournament champions have been ranked in the top 20 in adjusted-defensive ranking, averaging out to a ranking of eigthth overall.
Experienced March Madness gamblers know that strong defensive teams make for good bets, and betting the first half under in games with good defensive matchups is a smart way to play.
Location is crucial
When making safe bets in real estate, it’s all about location. And when making safe March Madness bets, location also deserves consideration. Every basketball court that a Tournament game is played on is officially designated as neutral. But for a court to be considered neutral, all that is required is that a team played fewer than four games there that season.
In 2006, Villanova played its first and second round games in its home city of Philadelphia, but at the Wells Fargo Center, where they had only played three games that year. In 2002, the Pitt Panthers played their first and second round games at the Mellon Arena, which had been their home court before opening an on-campus arena. Unsurprisingly, Villanova and Pitt won both games in their home cities.
The last time an NCAA champion was crowned down the road from its campus was in 1988 when Kansas beat Oklahoma at Kansas City’s Kemper Arena just 30 miles away. Therefore, a location rarely affects the Final Four winner. But when choosing the participants for the Final Four, the sites where games are played and the probability that a large number of fans will travel to the game is something smart gamblers always consider.
Bet Early, Later
As the Tournament rolls on, the bookmakers and the public begin to come to an agreement on which teams make the best bets. This is especially true the closer it gets to tip-off. If you want to find a soft line where there is value to play, the best time to find it is just after the lines go public.
If you are patient enough to shop around, the variance can be found, and it can be exploited. But if instead of making your wagers on Monday, you decide to wait till Friday, those opportunities will be harder to find.
Of course, you still need to do your research. Find out who does the best against the spread on the road. By the time you get to the Final Four, most teams are far from home. Playing the hot hand works great early, but by the time we’re at the Final Four, everyone is hot, so streaking teams become less critical.
Because of their experience in big games and playing in large arenas where depth perceptions are different, the top seeds make for the best bets in the Final Four. In fact, in the two semifinal games on Saturday and the championship game on Monday night, the higher seeded team covers the spread more than 75 percent of the time.