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NCAAM Point Spreads: Understanding NCAA Tournament Spread Betting Markets

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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 the point spreads of America’s premier college basketball tournament.

When online handicapping experts talk about “fading,” or gambling against the betting public, they seem to bring up the moneyline and the Over/Under line a whole lot. 

There is logic (and hard numbers) behind both arguments. “Fading the public” on the moneyline works by waiting for casual gamblers to place too many bets on the highly-touted favorite, knowing that the underdog’s price will eventually be a bargain. At that point, the “wiseguy,” or bargain-hunting sportsbook client, goes all-in on the underdog. 

On the Over/Under, a similar pattern applies. Most sports bettors tend to be swayed by the promise of fun and thrilling experiences, so they tend to pick the “Over” on Over/Under (total points) lines for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship and other marquee TV games. It’s no fun to cheer for defense, and teams that specialize in preventing dunks as opposed to making them don’t make the sexiest touts on blog pages. As a result, the O/U total rises as bookmakers work to balance the lopsided betting action. The line becomes unreasonably high, and the wiseguy cashes-in by gambling on the low side. 

But there don’t seem to be quite as many fade-the-public tutorials about point spread betting, and that’s a shame. There may not be exactly as much hard data suggesting that big favorites are bad, copy-cat wagers ATS. That doesn’t mean, however, that the public can’t be lured into driving a spread too far in a favorite’s direction – or even a dodgy underdog’s way – due to external factors that have nothing to do with the game. Point spread lines are the most widely-reported of all. Major news coverage means false narratives spread faster. 

When that happens, there’s profit in going against the grain as you’re betting against the spread. 

March’s blitz of college basketball tournaments, headlines, injuries, and the final fates of nearly 100 teams creates chaos at the betting book. But unlike random chance “chaos” during the games, which only helps the house, the NCAA Tournament’s kind of madness makes spread lines go haywire just prior to tip-offs, before there is time for the fan-community to gain perspective on the news narrative. It’s a great time to find silly spreads at the sportsbook, and to cash-in a solid % of picks by taking some of the “unpopular” teams to cover ATS in the next round. 

Scroll down for tips on NCAA Tournament spread betting, or check below for a tutorial if you’re new to point-spread gambling markets on NCAA basketball.

How Do NCAA Tournament Spreads Work?

Point spreads in NCAA basketball can be described in a few ways. The traditional method of understanding a spread is to think in terms of margin-of-victory. 

For instance, suppose Duke is favored over Connecticut by 8 points at FanDuel Sportsbook. That means the Blue Devils can only cover the spread 1 way – beating the Huskies by 9 points or more. UConn bettors against-the-spread can watch their wager pay off in 2 different ways – the Huskies can “cover” by winning the game outright, or cover by losing the game by less than 8 points. If the game finishes with the exact winner and margin-of-victory “predicted” on the FanDuel betting board, i.e. Duke winning by 8 points, then all bets are returned in an outcome known as a push. 

Another way of thinking about the spread is as a visual graph. Imagine a grid running left to right with every possible margin-of-victory for Team A and Team B. On the far left is a 50-point margin for Team A, getting progressively smaller as it goes toward “0” at the center, followed by progressively larger margins-of-victory for Team B. Now imagine a vertical line bisecting the grid on or between 2 of the numbers representing possible margins-of-victory for both teams. The “line” may fall on (-3) or a 3-point margin-of-victory for Team A today, but it might be pushed to the right or left, to (-1.5) or (-5), as of tomorrow. When the outcome occurs from the game, it falls on the “covered” side of the line. Maybe that’s how a “line” and a “spread” came to be known as what they are. 

It’s a testament to the popularity of ATS betting that sportsbooks developed a tradition of “pick’em” spreads on games in which the teams are handicapped to finish in a tie. Pick’em is a “spread” brokered in a point-spread market, but it makes no sense when moneylines are available, since moneyline outcomes are based on straight-up winners and losers. There are no ties in college or pro basketball, so why not direct NCAA basketball gamblers straight to the moneyline when Duke and UConn are a pick’em spread? 

The answer is that so many people have been hooked on spreads, more spreads, and only spreads for so long that if the sportsbook delivered a moneyline bet slip, it would be like the wrong newspaper falling at their door. When caddy-master Lou tells his bookie “I’ll take the Mets and 3” in Caddyshack, he’s not talking about the moneyline, the O/U, or a fancy college basketball tournament bracket. It’s the spreads.

How are NCAA Basketball Spreads Displayed at the Sportsbook?

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. 

If a college hoops contest finishes with the favorites winning by the exact margin handicapped in the point spread, all bets are returned. 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.

There are payout odds attached to every spread at the sportsbook. Typically, the odds will be standard (-110) on both sides of the point spread, but exceptions to the rule occur.

NCAA Tournament Spread Bets: Tips for Spreading Profits

Some of the best tips for NCAA spreads are great for March moneylines too, like when a top seed for the big dance has problems headed into the 1st round. In that scenario, depending on the strength of the teams directly ahead of them, the big-shot program might be ready to take a tumble. Underdog point spread bets win if the unhappy powerhouse slips-by a cupcake in the 1st round. If a better opponent pulls off the upset, underdog moneyline-takers get paid out at a fatter sum than the spread speculators. 

Taking the underdog is even sweeter when the public is led into overconfidence in the favorite. That can happen when the mainstream media has a monetary interest in denying the problems that a marquee program is having. 

An example is Arizona’s dead-end run in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats were heavily-favored over 1st-round opponent Buffalo, a humble #13 seed. Weeks prior to the tip-off, however, it came to light that Arizona Wildcat basketball was subject to an FBI investigation and that evidence showed NBA prospect Deandre Ayton had been bribed with a 6-figure sum to play in Tucson. 

It was a scandal in itself that Ayton was allowed to play, and also that it took Arizona a while to consider a coaching change. But strangely, moneyline and point spread markets tipped only slightly toward the Buffalo Bulls in the NCAA Round of 64, leaving the Wildcats a solid favorite on both accounts. Buffalo crushed Arizona 89-68 as it became obvious which of the teams was mentally prepared to play. 

Those who took the moneyline, not the spread, got the better of it that day. But there are times when spread betting is a breath of fresh spring air. “Taking the points” helps whenever favorites in the NCAA Tournament find a way to squeak by teams that were underrated going into the tourney, notwithstanding the close-shave loss.

For instance, based on the 1st round of the 2019 tourney, any objective analysis of UCF and Duke would have concluded that the teams were in similar form. Duke had waltzed past North Dakota State by 23 points in the Round of 64, but awesome center Tacko Fall and the UCF Knights had made a meal out of a much-tougher opponent in VCU in the opening round. Still, the #1 seeded teams will always get a lot of positive hype, especially Duke with its tradition of glory and the inestimable Coach K. 

The Blue Devils remained close to double-digit favorites on the spread. When the breathless 2nd half ended, underdog ML gamblers were pondering an unlucky fate…but UCF had already satisfied its bettors against-the-spread by waging war in the final minutes.

Watch for name-brand underdogs riding the hype train too. Villanova won the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball title but was a rebuilding program in 2019, surviving to earn a middle seed in the NCAA tourney thanks to coach Jay Wright’s master tactical skills. After beating #11 seed Saint Mary’s 61-57 in the 1st round, ‘Nova garnered a lot more point-spread bets and a much-tighter spread line than it probably deserved against Carson Williams and Purdue. Not only did the Boilermakers defeat the defending champs in the Round of 32, they covered the spread by double-digits in an 87-61 drubbing. Be prepared to bet against any team that sounds better on the pregame show than they look on the court, even if it’s a legendary school playing in the NCAA Tournament.

Finally, as we’re noting in our March Madnessfutures-odds tracker, the whole month of March is a marathon for college basketball teams, and just because a squad can blow out an early-round opponent by 40 points (and cover the spread in the process), not all NCAA teams are built to win that way. 

It’s an era of advanced defense as well as exciting offense. Virginia didn’t blow anyone out 100-60 on route to postseason glory, and for all of the fast-paced FIBA-style teams like Gonzaga, there are just as many squads finding success in teamwork, defending, and easy buckets. Virginia Tech – not VT’s more recently-accomplished state rival – held a pair of 2019 NCAA Tournament opponents to less than 60 points despite not dressing more than 1 athlete taller than 6’7”. On February 2nd, VT beat North Carolina State 47-24, a score than made the Hokie football and lacrosse teams jealous. 

Did the Virginia Cavaliers cover the spread at all in the NCAA tourney while winning 6 in a row and the national title? Maybe in the 2nd round over Oklahoma, and only in the final vs Texas Tech because of a trip to OT. But it didn’t matter. UVA paced itself and won the NCAA crown. Meanwhile, teams full of fast, daredevil players like North Carolina played hell-for-leather hoops early on, and ran out of steam in the Sweet Sixteen. UNC covered a spread by 10+ points in the 2nd round, then broke a million hearts losing to Auburn. 

If you’ve got a mind that any high-octane teams could burn themselves out well before the Final Four, hurry and wager on them to cover ATS before the bruises add up. An anxious lineup too eager to “make a statement” early won’t often make a solid go-to on the spread or on the moneyline when the field is narrowed to 16 confident teams.

Understanding More NCAA Tournament Betting Markets

There’s more on the whole “spread” at FanDuel Sportsbook than just the point spread. March Madness speculators can find moneylines, Over/Under totals, prop betting, bracket prediction markets, and “futures” available as legal sports bets in 6 states. 

Moneylines are betting odds on a team to win straight-up, expressed in a number relative to $100. If Duke carries (-200) moneyline odds, that means for every $500 wagered on the Bruins, the house will pay out $200 if Coach K’s Blue Devils win. On the underdog side, moneyline odds represent the amount paid out on won $100 bets if the ‘dog prevails. (+400) odds equal a $400 payout on $100, (+2000) odds represent $2000 payout on the same risk, and so on.

Over/Under or “O/U” bets may be the simplest wager at the NCAA Tournament. The market combines both teams into a single category and asks whether the total amount of points scored in the contest will exceed or fall short of the O/U number. Over/Under totals 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. 

“Futures” bets on the NCAA Tournament ask bettors to pick a national champion or a Final Four bid as early as the offseason. Futures are displayed in “moneyline” form, with a preseason or mid-season wager on Connecticut to reach the Final Four at (+4000) paying-off at 40-to-1 or $4000 on a $100 risk if the Huskies are among 4 teams left standing in April.

Don’t forget bracket predictions. Even as of February, FanDuel is offering online bettors a “proposition” market for predicting the 4 eventual #1 seeds in the 4 regions of the March Madness 2020. Read our blog post on NCAA bracket predictions and get up to speed on favorites from every conference before placing those all-important bets.

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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