The beginner's guide to betting March Madness

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So you filled out your bracket. Now what?

With the First Four games not counting for bracket scores and the Round of 64 still a lifetime away (it sure feels that way for me), you’ve got thoughts and predictions you want to get out there. Between hot takes, Cinderella hopefuls and agonizing over 5-12 matchups, you can get a better picture of how you do predicting the NCAA Tournament with betting.

Deep down, you know your bracket won’t be perfect after day one, and it probably won’t even make through the opening afternoon. Mine won’t either! It’s likely to be completely busted by the end of the first weekend. But betting the tournament allows you to take multiple different shots on the same team (maybe you think a team’s first-round matchup is difficult but they have a cakewalk to the Final Four if they get through, or perhaps you can project something you think will be popular in bracket picks but you think the odds are just better at the sportsbook).

Consider this your quick one-stop shopping experience, comparing brackets to betting and giving out some pointers to help you cram for the crash course that is March Madness.

How to use your brackets to make your bets

With the wide variety of options available, you can really customize your futures portfolio to match your bracket. If you have all four 1-seeds in the Final Four, you could also parlay them all together on ESPN BET at +3929 (so a $10 bet would win just under $400). That would be an extremely chalky bracket that many people would be earning points for, but here you get nearly a 40-1 payout.

ESPN BET also has markets open for teams to reach the Sweet 16, Elite 8, win their region and make the Final Four, reach the title game and win a national championship. Of course, that’s in addition to every individual game having sides, totals and moneylines as well.

This also opens up a great opportunity for hedging. Hypothetically, if your bracket did well enough that you were one or two correct games away from winning a pool for a big payout, you can bet against your bracket late in the tournament to guarantee some profit. Many bracket pools are extremely top-heavy so the payout is more equivalent to hitting a big parlay: fading just one game at normal odds helps to balance the scales a bit.

How betting is similar to your bracket

You still need to plan out future matchups and project the rest of the tournament regardless of your method. If teams have a lot of quality opponents in their region, they might not be worth putting in your bracket’s Final Four OR betting on them to make the Final Four. (Example: UConn is the prohibitive favorite in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge game, but is also considered to have the toughest region of the four 1-seeds)

When filling out your bracket, the temptation to have Cinderellas advance deep into March is palpable. But when cooler heads prevail, it’s worth remembering that most Cinderella clocks do still strike midnight. The same is true for betting purposes.

  • Since 2015, underdogs have held their own in the first round, covering at a 54% clip, and in the typical “seed upset” matchups, it becomes even more notable. Underdogs seeded 9-13 in that span are 72-55-1 ATS in their Round of 64 games, a 57% cover rate.

  • But as the tournament advances further, regression rears its ugly head and we see things level out a lot more. In the second round alone, underdogs are 61-62-3 against the spread. They’re also 29-30-1 in the Sweet 16.

How betting is different than the bracket

Bracket picks are against your friends, family, coworkers, etc, and you can use their biases to your advantage (for example, if you live in Connecticut, your bracket probably has a much higher proportion of UConn title picks, so it’s worth looking elsewhere for your champion. But if you are a Purdue alum in a pool with college friends, maybe UConn will go a little undervalued). When you’re betting, you’re going up against the sportsbook odds alone, so things are much more balanced.

There’s only one way to fill out a bracket: pick a winner for every game. Even the games in which you have less confidence, or the regions that you just can’t decide who should make the Final Four. With betting, you can pick your spots and rely on the teams you trust the most.

If you do believe in a long shot, it’s much more beneficial to bet on them to make a big run than it is to pick them in your bracket. One of my sleeper picks this year is New Mexico, who finished top 25 in the NET and in KenPom’s rankings but was given an 11-seed. They’re currently favored over Clemson at ESPN BET, and are in the region with the “worst” 1-seed and a 2-seed in Arizona that has put up the occasional dud. I think putting them in the Final Four in my bracket is a bit of an unnecessary reach, but I think +2000 is a good price on them to make the Final Four.

Betting the Women’s tournament

If you’re looking to bet the women’s tournament as well, the first thing that stands out more than Zach Edey in a crowd is just how chalky some of the futures odds are. Unbeaten South Carolina is -140 to cut down the nets at ESPN BET (that’s a 58% implied chance of the Gamecocks winning six straight). Last year, the Gamecocks also entered the tournament unbeaten and were -210 favorites to win it all. In fact, only eight teams are 25-1 or shorter to win the women’s title, compared to 13 for the men’s side.

The only two other teams remotely close to South Carolina are last season’s finalists, Iowa and LSU. After reaching the title game last season, Caitlin Clark and the Hawkeyes ran back another Big Ten Tournament title and earned themselves a 1 seed in this year’s tournament. Despite being in the same region, and the Tigers being a 3-seed, LSU is +750 to win it all while Clark and Iowa are +500.

Here’s Caitlin Clark’s potential path to the Final Four:

  • Winner of 16-seed Holy Cross/16-seed UT Martin

  • Winner of 8-seed West Virginia/9-seed Princeton

  • Likely the 4-seed Kansas State or 5-seed Colorado

  • A potential title game rematch with 3-seed LSU in the Elite 8 or 2-seed UCLA

If you want to bet on Clark this postseason, here’s a few things to keep in mind: she’s scored 20+ points in every single game and is averaging 31.9 PPG for a Hawkeyes team that leads all of Division I in offensive efficiency. Iowa also plays at a blistering pace, averaging 77 possessions per game, 17th in DI according to ESPN Analytics and a mark that would be the highest among all men’s teams. It’s certainly an environment that sets up well for game totals to go over, but be sure to keep an eye on Caitlin Clark’s points prop: it may be fun to root for the over but if it’s set closer to 35, it’s likely not worth tailing.

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