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NCAA Tournament Lines: Understanding Betting Odds on the Big Dance

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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.

You might think you know why spring is a season of madness for college basketball gamblers. But there’s a secret to the premier college basketball tournament’s success. The miracle of March is that the NCAA holds elimination tourneys in which there are far more winners than losers. 

Just about every school in the bracket “wins” at the NCAA Tournament. Victors of tiny conference brackets are hailed just for appearing. Long-shot bids are celebrated and given tearful goodbyes. Reaching the Sweet Sixteen is considered a huge achievement. So is reaching the Elite Eight. “As for the Final Four, a student rocking a Loyola-Chicago Final Four shirt from 2018 doesn’t care that the Ramblers were eliminated by the Michigan Wolverines in the semifinals. Loyola-Chicago didn’t lose the NCAA Tournament. 2 other programs out of 60+ merely advanced a little further.

Every milestone is enjoyed for its own sake at the tourney. Like a bid to play in a Champions League, getting to tip-off at the big dance at all is an honor and a reward. Many dozens of teams can feel satisfied when it’s over. 

The only exceptions are top seeds who fall woefully short in the tournament after a promising season. Virginia felt that sting in 2018 when the Cavaliers became the only 1st seed ever to have lost a 16th seed in a Regional opener, tripping over the UMBC Retrievers 74-54. However, under the wise tutelage of coach Tony Bennett, the UVA program used the 1st-round loss as a learning experience, and returned with a vengeance to win the 2019 NCAA Tournament and the school’s maiden national title. 

What “learning experiences” have gamblers had in the past few decades of wagering on the NCAA Tournament? If there’s a single lesson to be learned from millions of speculators winning and losing in the month of March, it’s to bring more than 1 tactic with you to the betting book. 

Futures, moneylines, Over/Under markets, and point spreads each requires their own special strategy. If you are combining wagers on different markets for different games on a busy 1st-round or 2nd-round afternoon, you’ll also need to combine every thread into a single plan of bankroll management. 

Let’s get a look at the different types of lines on March Madness tip-offs – and how to strategize for success in each common betting market.

March Madness Point Spreads: How the Line Becomes a Headline

First of all, it’s important to distinguish between “lines” and “odds” when placing bets. Odds can be called “lines” when in moneyline form, or weighed against bets of $100 with potential payoffs on winners like (-200) or $50 on a $100 bet, or (+300) equaling $300 on a $100 wager. But even though we call the moneyline odds a “line,” the actual lines of Sin City handicappers are displayed as points – points against the spread and points in the Over/Under total. 

When sportswriters ask for “the lines” on Final Four contests, they’re asking for a point spread most of the time. Point spreads are the mainstream media’s favorite go-to headline for big game NCAA coverage because a spread lets us know immediately A) who is the favorite and B) how many points the favorite is expected to win by if the breaks even themselves out. Casual readers can understand “Gonzaga is favored to win by 12” even if they don’t know how to gamble on a point spread. 

There are odds next to every point spread and all Over/Under lines. Those odds tell us how much payoff is offered and how much risk the market entails. A well-balanced point spread on an NCAA Tournament game is typically offered with (-110) payoff on either side. But as bookmakers scramble to adjust to early betting lines for the Round of 64 or the Sweet Sixteen, dodgy markets may come with odds like (+120) while a slightly more-likely alternative outcome can be bet on at 1-to-1.4 or a similar price. 

Seeds favored by only (-5) points in the next round are still likely to be (-220) or (-240) favorites on the moneyline. Since 5 points can be scored in an NCAA Tournament game faster than you can say “what are the odds,” it’s important not to be deceived by what a hardwood handicap of (-5) is actually predicting and what it is not. If the superior team (usually the lower-numbered seed) executes its offense and shoots an expected % from the field, hitting a typical % of free throws, and the underdogs do likewise, then the favorite should be able to build a 5-to-15-point lead at some point late in the 2nd half. Of course, it’s always possible that the underdogs will come back, or that the plot will take a twist much earlier in the contest. But you’d rather be the team with a 5 or 10-point lead near the end. 

The problem for favorites’ point-spread gamblers is that a winning NCAA coach cares not whether his team prevails by more than a couple of buckets. Many (-5) against-the-spread bets on a top seed have been lost as the team celebrates an impending victory with a wild alley-oop to go up by 7, only for the underdogs to hit a meaningless, uncontested 3-pointer at 0:02 to lose 70-66. 

Meanwhile, underdog bettors ATS must be informed of more than just their pick’s virtues on the court and the lines at the sportsbook. In the 1st and 2nd rounds of the big dance, many head coaches of #1 and #2 seeds will look to rest their starting 5s as much as possible in preparation for the wars to come. Does the program you’re betting to win by “less than” 20 or 30 points (when betting on a big underdog to cover ATS) have a history of running-up scores in the Round of 64? How good is the favorites’ bench on the fast break? Will the game slow down in garbage time? 

Garbage-time occurs late in the 2nd half when players know a winner has been decided. Some cagers try harder than others in garbage time, but it can be argued that even bench players are more likely to keep playing at an elite tempo in the NCAA Tournament than in the 4th quarter of an NBA blow-out. Eliminated NCAA squads want to go out with a rally, and backups from North Carolina or Duke want to prove to Roy Williams and Coach K respectively that they can be counted on later in the tourney. 

Bettors who take #1 seeds to cover ATS vs #16 seeds have been dismayed as the score wanes at 52-29 mid-way through the 2nd half, thinking that backups are soon to arrive on-court and that the contest simply won’t be high-scoring enough to produce a 30-point cover. But spirits rise in the final minutes when the 2nd string from each school plays lights-out, fast-break basketball just for the heck of it, and a final score of 82-51 covers for the top seed while giving the #16 a bunch of “consolation” buckets. 

Garbage time at the NCAA Tournament affects Over/Under bettors most of all.

The Art of O/U Betting College Basketball in March

Over/Under betting college basketball in January and February is fun and rewarding, but stressful. Coaches drive O/U gamblers crazy with late-game decision making, turning point-total results into pure chance and favoring the sportsbook instead of the speculator. 

For instance, suppose the odds are (+100) – an even-up risk and reward – on BYU and Idaho to score less than (132.5) points on a late-night winter broadcast. The gambler likes the odds, but likes the Under even more, having tracked poor shooting %s and bad free-throw numbers from both squads over the past 2 weeks. The game is quiet late into the 2nd half with BYU leading 57-42. If the Cougars are still leading by 15 points with 2 minutes to go, coaches will begin thinking about the next game, and insert reserve cagers or slow the tempo down to a crawl to avoid injuries. 

But wait. Idaho’s been having a hard time of it, you see, standing at only 8-11 overall. The coaches from Idaho have talked it over and want to “create better habits” for the players, and among those habits is confidently trying to come back to win even when there’s 1:28 left and they clearly can’t. So the Vandals foul. And foul. And foul again. BYU is still leading by double-digits with :43 remaining and is more than happy to practice free throws, but Idaho continues to foul and then fast-break off of foul-line rebounds, “going through the motions” of winning in a losing cause. 

What’s left is a pointless 72-61 final score…and a very “bad beat” on the Over/Under.

The madness of March prevents such tragic comedy from reaching the screens at FanDuel Sportsbook during the tourney. There are no “next match-ups” to worry about until a round is completed, and anyone who loses has begun their offseason. Perhaps all March Madness teams will play a fouling game late in the 2nd half if losing by 12 or 15 points. But at least we know that the tactics will be consistent. That’s all a shark who specializes in Over/Under betting can really ask for. 

“Garbage” time near the end of lopsided games is an important study for the O/U hoops gambler. Some shooters relax and sink buckets in garbage time, while others grow restless or frustrated and send opponents to the free-throw line with hacking fouls. 

It’s worthwhile to note that garbage-minutes are far from the only use of 9th, 10th, and 11th-ranked players on a top tourney seed’s depth chart. Coach Norm Stewart of Missouri pulled the Tigers’ entire 1st-string off the court during a listless Round-of-64 contest with lowly-seeded Navy in 1994, as a “lesson” to the team’s starters about hustle. It worked, as Missouri rallied to win 76-53. 

But more often than not, it is a squad’s 2nd-string which will be asked to play-out the remaining minutes of a blow-out in the 1st or 2nd round. Whether the backup cagers can hit the broad side of a barn is a key factor in how Over/Under outcomes will likely play out. 

One trick for March Madness O/U success is to bet against 1st-half shooting stats. We’ll explore that art form further in our NCAA Tournament Over/Under betting post in this space.

Forecasting NCAA Basketball Moneylines

Success at the sportsbook means breaking even with a decent rate-of-return, and it’s necessary for each March Madness gambler to weigh the odds against her predictions. Every 5 or 10 bets on the 1st or 2nd round should be designed to pay-off “in the black” in a number of plausible scenarios. 

But it’s hard to know what kind of lines and wagers will be called-for in advance. For instance, you might be a “system” gambler who intends to bet on every #3 seed in all 4 Regional brackets to win straight-up in the Round of 64, but only if the odds on the 4 winning bets would add up to a better than 1-to-1 payoff all together (or combined in a parlay). If only you could only look at the #3 vs #14 moneyline odds before Selection Sunday, you would know if they fall on the longer side of (-400) on average, like you’re hoping for. But there are no NCAA Tournament moneyline odds before the field is set. 

That’s where line-forecasting comes in. If you can guess the betting odds of most of the match-ups ahead of time, that’s a vital leg-up on March gamblers who’ll be considering the odds for about 10 or 15 minutes before making their choices at the sportsbook. 

Forecasting lines also helps to get a “jump” on the early Sin City odds once match-ups in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd rounds are known. An example line-forecasting tactic is to chart where pregame odds and lines have fallen prior to a pair of conference teams’ meetings in the regular season. 

If John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats were a 10-point favorite over the Tennessee Volunteers at home, and (+4) underdogs ATS when having visited Tennessee, then UK probably ought to be about a (-3) or (-4) favorite over UT in a neutral-court setting in the Sweet Sixteen, barring injuries or suspensions. If Kentucky indeed whipped Tennessee by 10 points at Rupp Arena and lost by a handful in Knoxville, then gambling lines for the 3rd and final meeting should be all but stitched in stone. 

It’s easier to think in terms of points and winning margins when comparing 2 opponents. But if you have trouble mentally “converting” hardwood point spreads to moneyline odds, refer to this handy chart below.

  • Point Spread (-1) = (-115) Favorite’s ML
  • Point Spread (-1.5) = (-125) Favorite’s ML
  • Point Spread (-2) = (-130) Favorite’s ML
  • Point Spread (-2.5) = (-140) Favorite’s ML
  • Point Spread (-3) = (-155) Favorite’s ML
  • Point Spread (-3.5) = (-175) Favorite’s ML
  • Point Spread (-4) = (-200) Favorite’s ML
  • Point Spread (-4.5) = (-220) Favorite’s ML
  • Point Spread (-5) = (-240) Favorite’s ML
  • Point Spread (-5.5) = (-255) Favorite’s ML
  • Point Spread (-6) = (-270) Favorite’s ML
  • Point Spread (-6.5) = (-300) Favorite’s ML
  • Point Spread (-7) = (-330) Favorite’s ML 
  • Point Spread (-9) = (-400) Favorite’s ML 
  • Point Spread (-10) = (-450) Favorite’s ML 

If we had to guess, Gonzaga is already a (-1000) Round-of-64 favorite on some scientific gambler’s line-forecasting odds board. But heck…that’s every year.

March Madness Futures Odds and Bracketology

We’ll be tracking the futures odds for the next upcoming NCAA Men’s Championship Basketball Tournament in this blog space as March draws near. 

Futures odds are lines-to-win either the national D1 championship or earn a Final Four bid, available each offseason in addition to “floating” futures odds in-season and after Selection Sunday. 

Futures handicapping is closely tied to “bracketology,” or the science of which teams have the skill, stamina, depth, and (perhaps most importantly) the most winnable path through late March and early April. 

All teams in the NCAAM bracket will run into tough challenges. But, for example, if gamblers have a mind that Gonzaga will waltz through the WCC postseason and arrive fresher for the NCAA Tournament fresher than ACC or SEC squads, the Bulldogs’ odds to reach the Final Four will shorten even as the Zags remain static in national-championship futures odds. Regional ‘cappers who pick every game in the Round-of-64 – hoping for that elusive perfect bracket – must consider the ramifications if Gonzaga (or another fresh, hungry top seed) romps through 3 or 4 early-round games. 

There’s definitely a lot more teams than just Gonzaga to keep an eye on this winter. Check this URL every so often for an updated analysis of the NCAA Tournament lines, and consider signing up to FanDuel Sportsbook to wager on March hoops action with the most reputable name in the biz. 

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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