Next to the Super Bowl, college basketball’s NCAA tournament is the biggest sports-betting event of the year in Las Vegas, with avid fans from across the country packing sportsbooks throughout the four-day opening weekend. The operators of those sportsbooks love the energy that comes with March Madness … almost as much as they love all the money those avid fans (and novice sports bettors) lose because they continually take the worst of it in the markets!
It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. You can, in fact, have a great time enjoying the tournament and make a little cash in the process—if you know how to spot (and avoid) the sucker plays. To that end, here are some tips to help you turn this year’s Big Dance into a moneymaker:
Media-hyped teams from media-hyped conferences are consistently overpriced, as oddsmakers charge a premium on these schools because they know the public will bet on them regardless of the point spread. Compounding matters, these squads are often overrated anyway!
Just look at the ACC last year: Conference champ Virginia was a No. 1 seed that couldn’t get past the Sweet 16, while Duke and Syracuse were both No. 3 seeds that failed to survive the opening weekend. The Blue Devils went one-and-done after losing to No. 14-seed Mercer, and the Orange were bounced in their second game by 11th-seeded Dayton. Public bettors were paying a premium on what were already bad lines, because the ACC as a whole was overrated.
Tip: Look for great spots to fade (i.e. bet against) media darlings. Study unheralded entries to see if you can discover potential Cinderellas that have the talent and experience to succeed—like Mercer and Dayton last year.
Another team that’s consistently overpriced: the one that relies heavily on the 3-point shot. These squads get a lot of public support because they win by such large margins, which makes them seem unbeatable. Well, they are unbeatable—when the bombs are falling. But when those long-range shots start clanking off the rim, these teams turn mortal very quickly.
One thing we’ve learned over the years is it’s much more difficult for a perimeter-oriented team to drain shots on neutral courts in a pressure-packed tournament than it is during a run-of-the-mill regular season contest. Filling your office-pool brackets with trey-heavy teams is a recipe for heartbreak. Likewise, backing them against the point spread is a recipe for a depleted bankroll. Sure, when you bet on a squad that catches fire from 3-point land, you’ll cover by a lot of points. That doesn’t help if you’re only winning 40 percent of these bets.
Tip: Rather than fall for teams that live and die by the long ball, look to bet on balanced teams that can score inside and out, and who play well on both sides of the floor. If you study the stats closely, you’ll notice that many trey-heavy teams are hiding fairly soft defenses that get exposed in March. (One such team that fits the profile this year: Davidson.)
The public tends to treat the NCAA tournament like roulette. That is, some jump on “hot” teams that they believe will continue to play well. Others fall in love with the “due theory” (say, a team that just survived a nail-biter and is in position to bounce back strong). Well, here’s the thing about roulette: Everybody loses! You can’t beat roulette over time, because the “0” and “00” on the board take everyone’s money. Similarly, you can’t beat the tournament exclusively playing “hot” or “bounce-back” teams, because the minus-110 vigorish eats away at bad strategies.
Each NCAA tournament game is a chess match, not a wheel spin. Smart bettors handicap the chess match to find real edges that matter.
Tip: Focus on the strengths and weaknesses of each team (and its head coach) and evaluate games accordingly. Hey, sometimes a team will look “hot” when in reality their skill set is suited to tournament basketball. See Connecticut last season: The Huskies didn’t run the table because they were “hot”; they cut down the nets because great defense and guard play are proven advantages in the Big Dance! Chasing “hot” just puts you on teams that are about to crash and burn after playing a game or two over their heads. Understanding each team’s strengths and weaknesses will give you a better chance to overcome the vigorish and put you in the black.
So now you’re probably wondering: How do I find those teams that are best equipped to win these chess matches? I suggest looking for teams that have experienced point guards who can pass and score; teams that can rebound (particularly on the defensive end); teams with head coaches who have consistently performed well in the tourney; teams that enjoy friendly travel/crowd scenarios; and teams that played their best basketball in the final month of the regular season.
What are the characteristics that should cause you to pause? Pretty much the reverse of the above: offenses that are turnover prone (particularly those with inexperienced guards); poor rebounding teams (particularly those that struggle to secure defensive boards); head coaches who have a history of busting brackets earlier than expected; teams in awkward travel or “body clock” scenarios; and teams that peaked in the first half of the season but struggled down the stretch.
Serious handicappers will have done a lot of work researching these issues in advance of Selection Sunday. That way they’re ready to take advantages of the opening lines as soon as they hit the board. If you’re serious about making money this month, you should attack that process on your own.
Let the casual fans throw their money away on overpriced favorites and uninformed Cinderella hunches. Instead, follow proven strategies to ensure that you’re making smart bets—otherwise March will truly be maddening!
Scott Spreitzer is a Las Vegas-based professional handicapper and bettor, and host of Pregame.com’s First Preview sports-betting show, which airs at 10 a.m. weekdays on ESPN Radio 1100-AM/ 100.9-FM. Follow him at @ScottWins.