Times have changed. Betting strategies for March Madness are not a static entity. They evolve over time. Concepts that worked 10 years ago don’t necessarily work as well in 2015.
I first wrote a “Top 10 Tournament Betting Tips” piece for Playboy Magazine back in 2002. I’ve updated it a couple of times over the years, but it definitely needed a thorough re-writing for the modern era. Even with the edits, there are no surprises here – veteran bettors know this stuff already, but it never hurts to think about these concepts again as the Big Dance begins.
1. Look to fade teams that looked great last weekend.
This is a value based enterprise. The single best betting strategy for any sport is similar to the best stock picking strategy or the best real estate investment strategy – buy low, sell high. And it’s hard to buy low with teams that looked great in their conference tournaments.
There’s no such thing as carrying over momentum from conference tournament weekend to the Big Dance. Teams that went all out to win their conference tourney title but came up short, tend to be particularly strong on the “fade” list. The likes of Michigan State, Xavier, Oregon and Dayton – mid-range seeds coming off a grueling but ultimately unsuccessful conference tournament weekend – are not squads that I expect to be supporting this coming weekend.
2. Be aware of home court advantages.
While the NCAA tournament is purportedly played on neutral floors, the selection committee gives relatively friendly trips to a handful of teams on an annual basis. Dayton getting their play-in game on their home floor against Boise State on Wednesday Night this year is a prime example.
Kentucky gets their opening weekend in Kentucky while Duke gets theirs in North Carolina, Kansas plays in Omaha and Gonzaga gets a pair of opening weekend games in Seattle. Also, be aware of tough travel and or tough start time situations like VCU playing in Portland or UCLA getting an early start game against SMU in the Eastern Time Zone.
3. Free throws cover pointspreads.
This one has held true consistently over the past decade plus. When one team gets to the free throw line far more often than their opponents, it means that they play fundamentally sound defense, aggressively on offense, and have the lead in the final minute more often than not.
Remember, an eight point favorite that is winning by a single bucket can cover the spread in the final 30 seconds of the game if they are capable of hitting their free throws. Exceptional free throw shooting teams this year include Ole Miss, BYU, Wisconsin, Oregon, Maryland, Iowa, Notre Dame and UAB; all of whom hit at 74% from the charity stripe or better.
4. Throw out the records that don’t matter.
When teams play in the NCAA tournament, they are facing top notch competition away from home. Looking at their records and stats against weaklings, particularly at home, is utterly irrelevant from a handicapping perspective.
Look at how teams performed against upper echelon foes away from home for a clearer indicator of their potential. In general, you’ll get a better read on a team’s true capabilities when examining their road games in conference play and their non-conference road and neutral site contests than you will by looking at their conference tournament performance this past weekend.
5. Every Half Point Matters.
Every successful professional bettor that I know – without exception – is an avid market reader and line shopper. The very best bettors win their bets on the same games and the same sides that other bettors push or lose simply by aggressively pursuing good numbers.
You’ll hear the tired old cliché “the lines are tight at this time of the year” repeatedly over the course of the next three weeks from the wiseguys. There were at least a half dozen conference tournament games last weekend alone where bettors could have won, lost or pushed, depending on their acumen shopping for lines.
6. Seeding is for Brackets, not for Bettors.
Point spreads matter. Seeding doesn’t, with one exception. When you are filling out brackets, seeding matters because it will show you how tough a road a team has to reach the Final Four.
It’s much easier to reach the Final Four as a 1 seed than as a 6 because there are fewer top notch foes that you’ll need to beat to get there. But when it comes to betting, seeding is essentially irrelevant. Oddsmakers are much sharper than the NCAA tournament selection committee.
7. Ignore the Talking Heads.
Frankly, from many of the comments I heard, the TV talking heads don’t even watch that much major conference basketball! When it comes to advanced metric data – the type of info that’s used both to create pointspreads and to beat them – these guys are truly clueless.
If you are looking for expert picks to help you fill out your brackets or generate some pointspread winners, look to Vegas, not to your television set. There’s a ton of bad info out there, and you don’t want it polluting your thought processes.
8. It’s Not Just Guard Play.
When Shabazz Napier went insane in last year’s NCAA Tournament, leading the Huskies to the title, it only elevated the “look for great guard play” narrative to the next level. Yes, an elite senior point guard is worth his weight in gold.
Teams that can reach the Final Four, with a shot to win it all have quality play on the perimeter with their guards and in the low post with their big men. The better rebounding teams tend to dominate the paint, getting easy looks while their opponents are relegated to shooting jumpers from the outside.
The extra possessions that good rebounding teams are able to get can have a huge impact on their results. Just to prove my point, Arizona, Kentucky, Texas, North Carolina, Virginia and Michigan State all rank among the Top 7 teams in the country in rebounding margin this year, with New Mexico State, Baylor, SMU and Gonzaga also in the Top 15.
9. Winning your bracket pool requires luck.
When filling out brackets, the single most important thing is to pick the eventual champion correctly, since the final game is weighted the most. Eighteen of the past 25 national championships have been won by 1 seeds, including six of the last eight.
Let’s not forget that 70% of #1 seeds reach the Elite Eight – these teams are top seeds for a reason, not by accident, regardless of the general incompetence of the NCAA Tournament selection committee. Many office pool players work too much on picking the early round upsets and not enough on their Final Four teams.
Remember, the bigger pool that you are in, the more chances you’ll need to take. For smaller pools, a more conservative strategy is the superior choice.
10. Don’t Be Stupid.
Serious bettors don’t look at March Madness as a time to get rich quick. Yes, pros are looking to profit from all of this tournament action over the next three weeks. But pros don’t suddenly quadruple their unit sizes because it’s the Big Dance. They don’t start betting every game because it’s on TV and it’s March Madness.
And they certainly don’t chase tough losses – of which there are likely to be more than a few of in the next few weeks – by betting bigger and bigger as a losing day progresses. These are amateur level mistakes. Don’t make them!
Find Teddy at Sportsmemo.com and follow him on Twitter @teddy_covers.