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NCAA Tournament Betting: Guide to March Madness Bets, Moneyline odds, Spreads and Totals.


As most FanDuel readers are aware, the 2020 NCAA tourney has been cancelled due to fears of the spreading Coronavirus. But if the sadly-shortened college hoops season has you pining for the hardwood, it’s not too early to get a jump on 2021.

Scroll ahead for a crash-course in betting on America’s premier college basketball tournament.

If the NFL’s championship game is the biggest day in sports gambling, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is a World’s Fair for odds-makers. High-roller tourists fly into retail sportsbook locations and pick multiple in-play winners at once off the big screens. Legal sports bets soar on the internet. “Bracketology” consumes the pundit-prediction and sweepstakes markets, paired with proposition odds and National Championship match-up lines on NCAA Tournament oddsboards.

Much of the NCAA Tournament’s betting action is focused on brackets, parlays, prop-games, and Sweet Sixteen predictions. But as late March turns to April and the Final Four is booked, hoops gambling becomes about individual markets once again. “Futures” bettors on Duke or Villanova are either jubilant that their Final Four wagers have paid off, hoping for an even-bigger payoff on championship futures odds, or disappointed that their teams have lost, and looking to get back in the back with a moneyline win. Over/Under betting aficionados will debate whether the Final Four’s stadium setting causes missed shots. 

Need a primer on how basic NCAAM betting markets work? Or maybe you’d like to go over just what you’re predicting when making a “futures” pick before the Big Dance Madness is set on Selection Sunday. After all, betting on winners in the NCAA Tournament is hard enough – there’s no reason to stay confused about what the sportsbook odds mean. 

Scroll down for a refresher on NCAA college basketball moneylines, spreads, futures odds, and O/U totals…and keep March from turning into madness.

Moneyline Bet Wagers on NCAA Tournament Games

Moneyline odds on the NCAA Tournament promise a % payoff when a gambler’s chosen school wins the game straight-up. A favorite’s moneyline is denoted with a “-“ at oddsboards, say Duke at (-200). Underdog moneylines are marked with a “+” at oddsboards as in a ML of (+350). 

Bet payoff is calculated with imaginary Benjamins, or $100 bills, in mind. Duke’s (-200) odds mean that for every $200 wagered on the Blue Devils, the house will pay out $100 if Duke University wins. On the underdog side, moneyline odds represent the amount paid out on won $100 bets if the “Cinderella” team (or another top seed that’s facing a slight favorite) prevails. (+500) odds equal a $500 payout on $100, (+1000) odds represent $1000 payout on the same risk, and so on.

Live betting enthusiasts must often play a game of “chicken” with NCAA Tournament moneylines. Suppose 12th-seeded Notre Dame is beating 5th-seeded Louisville by 5-10 points early in the 2nd half. Live oddsboards are still likely to offer the “superior” Cardinals at “minus” moneylines, but the number will shrink toward (-110) as the highly-touted favorite continues to trail the Fighting Irish. Finally, the betting public (and the sportsbook) will decide that Louisville can’t possibly come back and give Notre Dame a favorite’s moneyline for live gamblers to quickly ponder over. 

Sometimes the sportsbook pulls that trigger too fast. A handful of unlucky Louisville Cardinal gamblers would know. Louisville would know. Duke was trailing the Kentucky school by 23 points late in the 2nd half of an ACC contest in 2019, causing oddsboards to give the sagging Blue Devils a 4-digit live moneyline. Duke’s 20-to-1 underdog bettors leaped out of their chairs when Coach K’s cagers roared back in the final minutes to prevail in a record-setting comeback victory.

Betting the Point Spreads in NCAA Basketball March Madness

An NCAAM favorite’s point spread is displayed with a “minus” symbol next to a whole number or a halved fraction, such as (-4) or (-4.5). Gamblers picking the favorite “against a spread” of (-4) points must hope that the team wins by more than 4 – a 1, 2, or 3-point victory or a straight-up loss loses the wager. An underdog’s point spread is displayed with a “+” symbol plus the points “spotted” to the (usually) lesser tournament seed. 

Underdog point-spread gamblers are hoping that the team will “cover” by winning by any amount or losing by any amount smaller than the point spread. If the underdog’s point spread is (+6) at college basketball oddsboards and the club loses by 5, the bettors win the payout. If a college hoops contest finishes with the favorites winning by the exact margin handicapped in the point spread, all bets are returned in an outcome known as a “push.”

If a game goes to OT – and any college basketball game can – then the same rules apply to the eventual final score. A tie score in regulation does not “push” a “pick-em” spread. 

It’s strange to think that even a (-200) favorite in an NCAA Tournament round is unlikely to be favored by more than 4 or 5 points on the spread. Veteran coaches are happy to let opposing teams shoot in the final seconds if their teams are ahead by 7+ points, simply urging the squad not to foul and create a “4-point play’ scenario that could jeopardize the school’s bid to reach the next tournament round. Therefore, many 4 and 5-point winning bet margins in March Madness were not as hectic as the score makes them appear…except for the gamblers who won or lost money due to the victorious coach’s conservative tactics. It’s also the case that a lot of 10 and 12-point victories are much more stressful than the score indicates, and it’s often the favorite that pulls away in the final 2:00 – to the delight of those who did not merely bet on the top seed to win but bet to cover the point spread.

NCAA Tournament Futures Odds and Championship Line-Movement

“Futures” lines on NCAAM programs are available almost as soon as the previous national championship is decided. Since there are over 300 Division 1 Men’s teams in college basketball, the oddsboards offered in the months prior to a college hoops season resemble winter-time “speculative” racebook odds on the Kentucky Derby.  

Of course, the pipeline to the National Basketball Association runs through a select few dozen gymnasiums. Therefore, preseason futures odds on iconic hardwood brands like Duke, Villanova, and Gonzaga will hover around 7-to-1 (+500), 10-to-1 (+1000), or 15-to-1 (+1500) payoffs if the team goes on to win the national title in April. Separate futures oddsboards are often available with markets on marquee schools reaching the Final Four or the Sweet Sixteen, or winning the regular-season conference crown. When a team dominates a league like Gonzaga lords over the West Coast Conference, such NCAAM futures odds may even appear in the “minus” payoff category, such as (-400) on the Bulldogs winning the WCC. That number informs the bettor that Gonzaga is such a heavy favorite, the sportsbook is only willing to pay $100 for every $400 wagered if the Zags win out. 

Meanwhile the payoff odds on potential March “Cinderella” bids going all the way to the Final Four and/or claiming a national crown can be astronomical, like (+75000) on Bethune-Cookman. If Bethune-Cookman actually reaches the NCAA Tournament (not a given) and happens to become the hottest team in the land, then gamblers stand to make $750 on every dollar wagered in the 750-to-1 market. But the bookmakers know that it’s very unlikely to happen. In fact, some mid-major futures lines on NCAAM oddsboards are buoyed by “sentimental” wagers, like a tourist placing a $10 bet on Long Island University and then keeping her bet slip from FanDuel Sportsbook as a souvenir. 

As March Madness draws closer to an end, NCAA basketball teams will begin disappearing from oddsboards (or shooting to 100,000-to-1 odds) due to their poor W/L records and perceived lack of elite talent. Futures odds on Kentucky or North Carolina will shrink “shorter,” or offering less payoff on each winning gamble, as the Wildcats and Tar Heels enjoy strong regular seasons and unofficially “clinch” at-large bids in the big dance.

Futures betting is not for the impatient gambler. But consider the positive side of making a futures pick on a school (or wagering on 2 or more schools) to win the national championship. Even if you weren’t a fan of the program before March, it’s likely you’ll feel like a die-hard supporter as soon as the Round-of-64 tips off. Try not to get as mentally fatigued as the team when the Sweet Sixteen arrives! Futures betting can create a sustained cheering interest in a roster of NCAA cagers, and the successful speculator is often as glad for the players as for his pocketbook when they’re cutting down the nets.

NCAAM Futures Betting: Searching for a Backdoor Jackpot

There’s a way to get into the NCAA Tournament besides having a really good season, and that’s winning a postseason conference tourney as an underdog seed. Futures oddsboards must be cautious about putting those “funny” 1000-to-1 odds on any school that could conceivably get hot in March after a season of doldrums. A school with double-digit losses may conceivably qualify as a #13 or #14 NCAA Tournament seed with a noble run to 2nd or 3rd place in its league’s elimination tourney, but winning a title prior to Selection Sunday can lead to a #7 or lower seed and make a path to the Final Four more viable. Suddenly, the bookmaker who offered the program at (+100000) futures odds isn’t laughing. 

Obviously, a team suffering from depleted ranks, small size, slow up-and-down speed, or terrible injury problems won’t be able to earn a favorable seed in its conference bracket, nor at-large consideration from the NCAA. But it’s not unheard-of for an undistinguished squad to have a so-so campaign and then rally to win multiple postseason tournaments. 

Jim Valvano’s legendary North Carolina State Wolfpack was considered a fringe NCAA Tournament contender in 1983, having lost 10 games in the regular season. Somehow, NC State conquered Michael Jordan and other future NBA players in the ACC Tournament, earning a #6 seed in the big dance. “Sentimental” futures gamblers who had taken Valvano’s team at (+12000) odds late in the season were suddenly in business.

The undersized and pesky Wolfpack defeated larger and more powerful teams until only Houston and its “Phi Slama Jama” Cougars stood in the way. The favored Cougars were hampered by foul trouble that limited Clyde Drexler’s minutes in the national championship game, and when Houston attempted to coast on Hakeem Olajuwon’s skills in the paint, the future Atlanta Hawks icon grew exhausted and could barely breathe on the sky-high Albuquerque hardwood. Lorenzo Charles – who would also play for the NBA’s Hawks – scored the winning basket for NC State with 2 seconds left. 

It is unlikely that a team will replicate 1983’s miracle in the near future. Cinderella bids tend to reach the Final Four once every 3 or 4 seasons and then lose in the larger venue, like Wichita State in 2013 or Loyola-Chicago in 2018. It would be a shock to see an NCAAM champion without at least some NBA or FIBA-worthy talent on the roster. Winning programs are either built around “1-and-done” prospects like Zion Williamson, who are on a fast track to the NBA Draft, or upperclassmen who are destined to be role-players in the NBA or stand-outs in EuroLeague. If a veteran team has 10+ losses in February, there’s a lack of elite ability on hand. If a team of blue-chip freshmen has suffered double-digit losses by mid-season, they’re looking ahead to life in the pros, or lack the mental and physical stamina to survive the big dance. Pundits searching for a Cinderella champion look to small-conference teams with shiny W/L records instead, but 5 conferences have combined to win all but 2 national championships in the past 30 years. 

Futures bets on the NCAA Tournament Cinderella teams “to reach the Final Four” win every so often, while long-shot national title wagers pay off very rarely. Sometimes it’s worth it to give up a 200-to-1 payoff line for 50-to-1 odds on a Final Four bet that could actually cash-in. 

Remember, if a school doesn’t appear to be earning a top NCAA Tournament seed in the regular season but still has a chance to heat up in the postseason, that team’s futures odds will offer the most cash on a potential winner, assuming the gambler invests in January or February. But the squad will need to get things turned around in a hurry, and perhaps even win or finish 2nd in its conference tourney to qualify for the big dance.

NCAA Tournament Over/Under Betting

Over/Under wagers on individual NCAA Tournament games are a popular alternative for March gamblers without a cheering interest or a “gut feeling” for the next tip-off. Over/Under or “O/U” wagers are perhaps the simplest sports-betting option available on oddsboards, since the market collapses both teams into a single category and asks whether the total amount of points scored in the contest will exceed or fall short of a given number. 

College basketball Over/Unders are often displayed as a halved fraction, like (143.5) or (143 ½), preventing a “push” outcome if the final score tallies exactly 143 or 144 points. 

There are few more-intense experiences than cheering for an Over/Under pick to pay off in the waning moments of a basketball game! Here are just a few of the wild and wacky factors that can affect an O/U bet as the 2nd half clock approaches 0:00: 

  • A cautious, half-court offense falls way behind and begins running to the basket on every possession 
  • Fouls add up to “bonus” free throws, and sunk charity shots add to the point total at a faster clip 
  • Key offensive players, such as a star forwards or play-calling point guards, are fouled-out of the contest 
  • Teams that shot poorly in the 1st half experience shooting-% reversion to a better mark in the 2nd half, or vice versa 
  • A fast-break team gets out to a big lead and switches to a half-court offense 
  • The losing team engages in a “foul-o-rama,” extending the game 5-10 possessions by fouling and sending opposing players to the free-throw stripe in the final minute 
  • The game goes to overtime 

Overtime is the “bomb” that can destroy a successful Under bet or salvage an unwise Over bet during the NCAA Tournament. All told, it’s probably best to avoid betting Under wagers on games between teams that appear perfectly-matched. There are plenty of lopsided 1st and 2nd-round match-ups to go around.  

Look around this space for more on the art of Over/Under betting on college hoops.

Betting with NCAA Tournament Brackets and More

We’ve only touched on the ins and outs of college basketball betting during the madness of March. 

68-team bracket predictions are a popular genre of NCAA Tournament action, and don’t forget prop bets on the championship game in April.

Click on the blog map for more tips, and let FanDuel Sportsbook get you up to speed on a spring holiday for high-rollers and hardwood enthusiasts.

FanDuel Inc is not affiliated with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA®) or March Madness Athletic Association, neither of which has supplied, reviewed, approved or endorsed the material on this site. FanDuel Inc is solely responsible for this site but makes no guarantee about the accuracy or completeness of the information herein.

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