NCAA March Madness betting: How to use betting odds and trends to win your bracket pool

Frank Schwab
·7 min read

Hard as it is to believe, there are people who don't bet on the NCAA tournament.

However, even those casual fans who aren't taking Cleveland State catching 20 points in the first round will likely fill out a bracket. It's an annual tradition, even for those who don't watch a college baseball game all season until March Madness.

Those pools are just for fun (wink, wink) but you still want to win. And even if you aren't planning to bet on tournament games, the spreads and odds can be a great resource in guiding your bracket picks. Here are some tips on how to use spreads and odds to fill out a winning bracket:

Pick any lower seed that's favored

This year, fortunately or unfortunately, the selection committee did a pretty good job seeding. There have been years in which 11 and 12 seeds are favored. And that's usually telling. According to Matt Eisenberg's fantastic tournament guide, when an 11 seed has been favored over the last 15 tournaments it is 5-1 straight up and every win was by 12 or more points. This year, there's only one lower seed favored, and that's 10-seed Rutgers at -1 against Clemson. Feel free to pick Rutgers but there aren't many spread-influenced upset picks this year.

However, paying attention to the point spreads still can help.

Rutgers guard Ron Harper Jr. (24) drives on Illinois guard Da'Monte Williams (20) in the Big Ten tournament. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Rutgers guard Ron Harper Jr. (24) drives on Illinois guard Da'Monte Williams (20) in the Big Ten tournament. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

There's a correlation between spreads and success

You're not picking against the spread in a bracket pool, but spreads still can guide you.

Over the last 15 tournaments, here are the straight-up records based on how much a better seed is favored by in the first round according to Eisenberg:

0-3 points: 45-40 (52.9 percent)
3.5-6 points: 53-30 (63.9 percent)
6.5-12 points: 77-19 (80.2 percent)
12.5-20 points: 83-6 (90.3 percent)
20.5 or more: 47.2 (95.6 percent)

Remember, oddsmakers' livelihoods are tied to getting this right. Therefore, if you're looking for an 11 seed to upset a 6 seed, perhaps you'd go with Syracuse (3-point underdog) over San Diego State rather than Utah State (5-point underdog) over Texas Tech. In 4 vs. 13 games, Ohio (+7.5) over Virginia and North Texas (+7.5) over Purdue might be better options than UNC Greensboro (+11) over Florida State. Before you pick a first-round upset, always double check the spread. It'll tell you how risky your pick is.

Pay attention to early spread moves

More than half of the first-round lines moved in the first 12.or so hours after they were released, and those are smart bettors laying those wagers. Tourists aren't sitting around sportsbooks on Selection Sunday looking to pick off first-round spreads that are off by a few points. It might not be a perfect guide for your bracket picks — Oral Roberts moving from a 17-point favorite to 16.5 isn't going to entice you to advance ORU over Ohio State in your pool — but it's good to glance at which lines moved.

Oddsmakers check analytics too

You'll hear "KenPom" a lot this time of year. Ken Pomeroy literally changed how the sport is seen, incorporating per-possession efficiency numbers into a ranking. If you see anyone cite how many raw points a team allows or scores per game, it's outdated. The raw numbers don't take into account the differences in tempos between a slow team like Virginia and a fast one like Alabama. Virginia scores just 68.6 points per game but is the nation's 13th best offense in terms of efficiency. A team can score 90 a game but that might just be a product of playing fast and taking (and missing) a lot of shots.

KenPom's site changed how spreads were set too. In the early days of KenPom's site, it wasn't unusual to see a point spread differ 8-10 points from KP's projected score. You rarely see a 3-point difference anymore. Oddsmakers caught on.

Haslametrics.com and Barttorvik.com's T-Rank are two other great analytics sites to check out before filling out a bracket. No sport has more widely available and reliable advanced analytics than college basketball.

BetMGM doesn't think all No. 1 seeds will be in Final Four, neither should you

When BetMGM released some prop bets, an interesting one was over/under 2.5 No. 1 seeds to make the Final Four. The heavy favorite in that prop was under 2.5. Over 2.5 No. 1 seeds to the Final Four was +250, and the under was -300. That means the implied odds that two or fewer No. 1 seeds will advance to the Final Four is 75 percent. Yet, in most of your pools, a majority of people will have three or four No. 1 seeds in the Final Four. Seemingly every TV analyst this week had three No. 1 seeds and a No. 2 seed, maybe a 3 seed instead of a 2 if he or she was getting crazy.

Your instinct will be to advance as many No. 1 seeds as you can to the Final Four, but if BetMGM is telling you there's a 75 percent chance that two or fewer will make it, you should pay attention. Over the last 35 years, 30 Final Fours have had two or fewer No. 1 seeds.

That's great, but which non-1 seeds should I put in the Final Four?

Yep, that's the challenge. We should start by eliminating possibilities. Here's the breakdown of seeds to make the Final Four over the last 35 years according to the NCAA:

1: 57
2: 29
3: 17
4: 13
5: 7
6: 3
7: 3
8: 5
9: 1
10: 1
11: 4
12 and higher: 0

Looking at that, eliminating all but the top-four seeds seems prudent. Now let's look at the best championship odds among seeds 2-4, with their seed in parentheses and also the percentage of users who picked those teams to make the Final Four in the Yahoo Tourney Pick'em:

Houston (2) +350, 14.1 percent
Oklahoma State (4) +400, 7.3 percent
Alabama (2) +400, 20.6 percent
Florida State (4) +500, 7.9 percent
Texas (3) +550. 15.1 percent
Ohio State (2) +600, 25.6 percent
West Virginia (3) +600, 9 percent
Iowa (2) +650, 10.6 percent

The discrepancy for the 4 seeds stands out. BetMGM likely overvalued Oklahoma State because they anticipated casual fans betting the Cowboys due to their star, likely No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Cade Cunningham. Still, the betting market is much higher on the Cowboys and Seminoles than Yahoo users. Something worth keeping in mind as you fill out the bracket.

Is there a similar way to pick a champion using odds?

The betting market isn't perfect. It's not a prediction. The books are anticipating who bettors will bet on and adjust odds up or down accordingly. Still, it's a decent guide.

If you're in a big pool, you have to take chances on your championship pick. If Gonzaga wins, many in your 100+ person pool will have them anyway. The key is finding the best team to bet who the crowd isn't on. Here are the title odds at BetMGM and the percentage of Yahoo Tourney Pick'em users who have that team winning it all:

Gonzaga +200, 44.6 percent
Baylor +500, 8.4 percent
Michigan +600, 8.7 percent
Illinois +700, 16.6 percent
Oklahoma State +1600, 0.8 percent
Iowa +1600, 2.3 percent
Ohio State +1600, 3.1 percent
Alabama +1600, 1.9 percent
Florida State +2000, 0.6 percent
Houston +2000, 1.7 percent
West Virginia +2000, 0.9 percent
Texas +2000, 1.1 percent

Oklahoma State shows up again as a team with a wide gap between odds and how many people are picking them. In an enormous pool, you could do worse than taking a shot on Cade Cunningham and his Cowboys. Baylor and Michigan stand out for being far below the other two No. 1 seeds, but ahead of at least Illinois on the odds list.

There's no way to know for sure which double-digit seed will win a few close games and make a run, or which combination of No. 1 seeds will make it to the Final Four. But the guys making the odds in the desert have a better idea than most.

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