They don’t call it March Madness because of its resemblance to a tea party. It’s Madness, alright – the annual NCAA basketball championship is one of the longest tournaments in all of sports. High-power teams from coast to coast, representing tiny private colleges and massive public school alike, slam into each other over and over again, often meeting for the first time each season.
We spend tons of money betting on the NCAA basketball tournament. According to reports in the Dallas Morning News and LA Times, estimates of legal wagers placed during the NCAA basketball tournament total between $100 and $227 million. The volume of illegal wagers is reportedly even higher, with one FBI report saying that the Bureau estimates the total amount of illegal bets on March Madness to be about $2-3 billion. That number is for American bets only. March Madness could be worth some $4 billion all told.
If you’ve ever participated in a bracket contest, you understand how this Madness seeps over into everyday life. The action that takes place in the first forty-eight hours of the tournament alone is a dizzying spectacle of athletic prowess – thirty-two contests between the country’s elite squads play out over just two days. You’ll see basketball on TV from the early morning well into the next day. Just keeping track of a bracket is a feat unto itself.
So the bottom line on March Madness – lots of hype, plenty of amateur wagering, and a ton of influence from sharp money. But those facts don’t mean that you can’t make money by wagering on NCAA basketball games in the month of March. From the play-in games to the Final Four, I’ve found it relatively-easy to make smart picks and avoid the championship blues.
Here are four things that the vast majority of March Madness bettors are doing. You should avoid doing these things. I think the reason most bettors say that the tournament is impossible to bet on is simply that they’re doing it wrong. If you avoid the behaviors listed below, you’ll have better luck finding good picks in the weeks and weeks of basketball contests to come.
They Bet At the Wrong Time
Let’s not ignore a major irony – March Madness isn’t even all about March anymore. The tournament is so huge (and so well-covered by TV and its hasty schedules) that the 2014 tournament ran from March 15th all the way to April 7th. That’s more than three weeks of basketball.
Thanks to changes to the tournament layout in 2011, there are now 64 games played during the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Tournament every year, which means bettors face a ton of games to pick, particularly in early rounds.
Timing is everything in sports betting – that feature is even more apparent during the NCAA basketball tournament. Once the tourney gets down to the Final Four, when the betting grows to a fever pitch, only three games are left. That leaves you with fewer opportunities to take advantage of weak lines and do the other things sports bettors do to shop around for the best bet. It’s really tough to find that perfect soft line when you’ve only got four teams and three games left to handicap. If you wait until the later rounds to do your March Madness betting, you’re at a disadvantage.
Another way to incorporate timing into your betting strategy – the old adage, “Bet early on favorites, late on underdogs” is almost always true. If you plan to back a heavily-favored team in the next round, you should get your wager in early before the line shifts. If, on the other hand, you’re taking a 12 against a 5, you should wait until right before tip-off to lay your bet, so you get the best possible price.
They Ignore Statistics
Line shopping is important, and in my opinion, it’s an art. But it’s not the only thing to look for during March Madness betting. Good old-fashioned handicapping has at least as important a role as line-shopping in terms of finding value. We live in the age of instant-access statistics, Google searches on our smartphones, and 24/7 coverage on cable sports networks. There’s no reason not to do your homework and base your wager on something tangible.
Here’s a tip for you – I like to focus on how teams have performed on the road pretty much to the exclusion of their home records, since very few times they get to play anything close to a home game during the tournament. Other important stats – an opponent’s FG%, the difference between each team’s rebound totals on either side of the court, and head-to-head performance against common opponents. You can form a pretty sweet March Madness betting strategy out of just those stats.
They Ignore Intangibles
Now that we’ve covered the value of tangible statistics, let’s talk about those pesky intangibles.
Intangibles are those things that you can’t track with a paper and pencil but are still valuable considerations. At the college level, intangibles are extremely important, because many of the players on the floor are barely of voting age. They have limited experience in front of big crowds, for the most part, and almost no experience with TV coverage, interviews via satellite, and the other trappings of American youth sports success. Intangibles hit athletes at this level hard.
I’m something of an armchair psychologist when March rolls around. I watch for things like “team chemistry,” or player body language, stuff you can find pretty easily online. Intangibles are important – they aren’t as trustworthy as statistical research, but you can use them to influence a wager in a direction you’re confident in.
They Aren’t Aware of the Bigger Picture
If you combine statistics and intangibles, you might get something close to what sports bettors call “trends.” Trends are usually based in hard data but then moved forward speculatively. It’s a bit like astronomy and a bit like mathematics, and it’s important if you plan on betting throughout the NCAA basketball tournament.
Here’s an example of a trend that’s really useful when handicapping in later rounds – the higher-seeded team in the final three games of the tournament win and cover the spread 75% of the time. This trend is only true if you consider results from the past twenty years, but still, it’s a powerful trend that might instantly push a bettor in one direction over another.
The only way to understand trends in March Madness betting is to read everything you can get your hands on, strategy-wise, or to spend decades betting on the tournament. With a lot of experience, and a lot of difficult homework, you can use these powerful statistical and analytical tools to help you make smart tournament picks.
March Madness isn’t just the biggest event of the college basketball season – it’s one of the biggest and most popular sporting events in the world. The Tournament is an absolute spectacle – stations bid annually for the right to cover even the most obscure play-in game, as TVs all over the country click between early round games and pray for bracket clearance.
Sure, March Madness is an exciting time to be a college basketball fan, but can it also be a good time to be a sports bettor? This event that takes place every year, featuring 64 teams battling for the right to call itself champion, is a big draw in terms of both amateur and sharp money. The trick is to ignore public opinion and hype and find opportunities where you have an edge against the house. If you pace yourself and focus on the trends discussed above, I firmly believe that you’ll have more success next March.