It was March Madness 2010 at the Venetian in Las Vegas, and it was my first time in a sportsbook. I knew I wanted to bet on the Villanova vs. Robert Morris first-round matchup. Pennsylvania-based powerhouse Villanova, was a two-seed and a huge favorite. I walked to the counter with confidence and told the ticket writer I wanted $100 on Villanova. We locked eyes for what seemed like forever until she broke the ice and said, “spread or money line?”
That was the moment I realized I knew a ton about sports but very little about sports betting. I blurted out, “spread.” She printed the ticket and I walked away back into the chaos of Vegas. I felt like a fool that day, and my hope is after reading this article you have a better understanding of the sports betting landscape and betting terminology specific to college basketball and March Madness – so when you get to the counter at a legal sportsbook in your state, or in Las Vegas, you’ll know what your options are what you’re doing.
States where you can legally bet on college basketball games
The college basketball betting season starts in November and peaks in March during conference tournaments, and then it reaches full insanity mode in the middle of March when the NCAA Tournament and NIT Tournaments kick off. This time in college hoops is known as “March Madness” — and chances are you participate in a March Madness pool. The high betting season concludes with the Final Four in early April.
While many states have legal online sports betting or allow wagering at brick-and-mortar sportsbooks, you can’t bet on college basketball in every state just yet. Below is a map of where things stand across the U.S. Scroll over your state or region to see the latest information.
In each state that’s colored green, wagering on college basketball is allowed, however in some states there are small limitations — generally that you cannot make a wager on a team that’s located within the state. For example, if you’re betting in New Jersey, you can’t bet on Rutgers University games. A number of states have adopted the same policy. They are: Delaware, New York and Rhode Island.
State Legal and Live?
New Hampshire Yes
New Jersey Yes
New Mexico Yes
New York Yes
Rhode Island Yes
Tennessee Legal, not live
Washington, D.C. Yes
West Virginia Yes
Virginia Legal, not live
The most popular college basketball bets
A moneyline or a “straight up bet” is the easiest bet to understand when handicapping college basketball. This is a single bet where you are betting on the team that you think is going to win the game. In this straightforward bet, the point spread is not important. If you are betting the favorite, you will see a (-) symbol, and if you are betting the underdog you will see a (+) symbol. For example, you could see a line of -200. This means a $200 bet would win $100 if you liked the favorite and the favorite won the game. In this same scenario, if you bet the underdog and you wagered $100 and the underdog won you would win $200. When you bet an underdog, the sportsbook rewards you, or gives you better odds, because you are taking a chance betting against the favorite or better team.
A bet on the point spread allows betters the opportunity to place a wager on how much a team wins or loses by. For example, if Duke is playing North Carolina and Duke is favored by three points the line would show Duke -3 and North Carolina +3. This means Duke effectively starts the game “down” 3 points. To win, or “cover” the point spread, Duke would need to win by more than three points. On the flip side, North Carolina starts ahead by three points when the ball is tipped. North Carolina could lose the game by two or less and still cover the spread. If Duke won by exactly three points, it would be considered a “push” or a “tie.” In this scenario, all bettors would receive their money back.
A bet on the total means you are making a wager on the total number of combined points scored in a game. This is also known as the over/under. For example, if the total of a college basketball game is 145.5 you can bet on whether the two teams will have a combined total score of over 145.5 or under 145.5 points. You can also bet on first half or second have totals, as well as on individual team totals, which is the same concept, but it’s just betting if an individual team is going to go over or under a total that applies only to how much that one team scores. It might be something like 73.5, depending on how much the team typically scores and quality of the opponent.
But note: There are over 350 division one college basketball programs. So, in some cases if you are interested in a mid major game it’s possible that you might not have an option on betting individual team totals, depending which sportsbook you use.
Parlays and teasers
Parlays are very popular among sports betters due to the ability for a much larger payout. A parlay is when you bet on multiple games and you need to win every game to win. The majority of sportsbooks will allow you to play a parlay with moneyline, point spread and a totals bet. It’s a challenge to consistently hit parlays because you have to win every game in every wager, and there is no wiggle room with parlays it’s all or nothing. A teaser is a very similar bet to a parlay where you are betting multiple games.
The difference with a teaser is you can move a point spread up or down — on either the favorite or the underdog. For example, if you like the favorite and they are laying eight points (Duke -8) and you feel want to bring that down a bit, you can tease the game down to four points, which could drastically change the outcome of the basketball game. If you really like an underdog and they are +2, you could tease them up to +6 which would give a bigger cushion, obviously, especially if there’s a streak of foul shots at the end of the game. Teasing point spreads in college basketball usually ranges from 4 to 5 points, but options will vary from book to book.
This is a new and different type of betting option that is becoming more and more popular. In the past, if you missed the opening tip of a basketball game you missed the opportunity to bet on the game. Now, you can make an in-game wager or a “live bet” during the game. You can make moneyline, point spread and total game bets with in-game wagering, which can add to the excitement of watching a game. When considering a live bet, you need to be quick with your decisions and really tuned into the game without distractions.
Prop bets become much more popular around March Madness and the Final Four. Some of the more popular prop bets are individual like which player will score the most points, who will have the most rebounds or hit the most three point shots. You can also bet on game props during the NCAA tournament (however there are restrictions in states including Colorado and Iowa). An example could be how many combined three point shots both teams will make or who will score the first bucket in the game.
The majority of future bets in college basketball involve the Final Four or the NCAA Championship and who will win. Some sportsbooks could have odds on which teams will win individual conferences as well. For example, will Villanova win the Big East or will Ohio State win the Big Ten.
Making the most of your college basketball bets
Shopping for line value is a strategy that takes time but is very important for a serious handicapper. Before you make a bet, it’s important to check with multiple sportsbooks to see who has the best odds for the game you have an interest in. Even getting a 1.0 point advantage may not seem like much, but is significant and could be the difference between winning or losing a bet. For example, if you shop for a line and find two books with different lines such as -4 and -5. If you settle for the line that is -5, you will need to win by a full point more then the -4 line. Finding the better line or point spread could be the difference between a winning day, breaking even or losing money.
When is the best time to wager on college basketball
In the NFL, there is a universal injury report that is released leading up to all NFL games. That is not the case with college basketball, although things may be changing in the NCAA. In some cases, you may not find out a key injury until right before the game starts. I research local beat writers on Twitter and manually that usually have a much better feel than the national networks or reporters in regards to game prep and injuries. I search for as much information as possible before I make a bet. In some cases, that may even be a few minutes before the basketball game begins.
How to bet in-game lines for college basketball
As we discussed briefly above, it is important to be locked into a game and have access to make a bet in a very short period of time for an in-game bet. One strategy is if a favorite gets down early you will find much better odds than you had before the game began. For example, if you have a ticket on Arizona at -9 and they get down late in the first half you will find much better odds on them to win or cover with a live betting wager due to the score of the game. In many cases, the favorite will turn into the underdog and have a ton of value if you still believe they can come back and win the game.
Highlights of the betting season for college basketball
The college basketball season begins in early November and concludes with March Madness and the Final Four in April. Some people bet college basketball all season, but many don’t get involved until the NCAA Tournament begins in the middle of March. In many ways, the tournament is a bigger sports betting spectacle than the Super Bowl due to the sheer number of games and the excitement of the best championship tournament in all of sports. You can’t beat the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament with 48 games played over four days leaving us with 16 teams left competing for a trip to the Final Four and a chance at the NCAA Championship.
Rankings, Polling and Tournaments
Associated Press or AP Poll
This is a weekly pool by sportswriters and broadcasters that ranks the top 25 NCAA basketball teams in the nation. The weekly poll is important for fans and boosters but has little to no impact on Selection Sunday or the NCAA Tournament as a whole.
Selection Sunday is when the teams that either qualified for the NCAA tournament by winning their conference tournament, or get selected as “at-large” teams, are placed into the NCAA Tournament bracket by the Selection Committee made up of NCAA Commissioners and Athletic Directors. There are 32 teams that receive automatic bids by winning their respective conference tournaments. The other 36 teams are picked by the committee based on how they performed during the season. Most at-large teams are usually from the power conferences such as the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and the Pac 12. There is constant criticism by fans of the sport who want to see more Mid-Major teams make the tournament and see if they can compete with the elite programs in the country.
Conferences with automatic bids to NCAA tournament
Below you will find each conference with an automatic bid and the top performing teams and most well-known squads among college basketball fans. Since 1985, the ACC has won 11 titles followed by the Big East with eight and the SEC with six.
- American East Conference – Vermont
- American Athletic Conference – Cincinnati, Wichita State
- Atlantic 10 Conference- Dayton, VCU
- Atlantic Coast Conference – Duke, North Carolina, Virginia
- Atlantic Sun Conference – Florida Gulf Coast, Liberty
- Big 12 Conference- Kansas, Oklahoma
- Big East Conference – Villanova, Georgetown
- Big Sky Conference – Montana
- Big South Conference – Winthrop
- Big Ten Conference- Michigan State, Indiana, Ohio State
- Big West Conference – UC Irvine
- Colonial Athletic Association- College of Charleston
- Conference USA – Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee State
- Horizon League – Northern Kentucky
- Ivy League – Yale, Penn
- Metro Atlantic Conference – Iona
- Mid-American Conference – Buffalo
- Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference – North Carolina Central
- Missouri Valley Conference – Bradley, Loyola Chicago
- Mountain West Conference – UNLV, San Diego State
- Northeast Conference – Robert Morris
- Ohio Valley Conference – Murray State, Belmont
- Pac-12 Conference – UCLA, Arizona
- Patriot League – Colgate
- Southeastern Conference – Kentucky, Florida
- Southern Conference – Wofford
- Southland Conference – Stephen F. Austin
- Southwestern Athletic Conference – Texas Southern
- Summit League – North Dakota State
- Sun Belt Conference – Georgia State
- Western Athletic Conference – New Mexico State
- West Coast Conference – Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s
Conference schedule and tournaments
Teams kick off their conference schedule in late December and early January. This is the bulk of each team’s schedule and the most important games of the season. Depending on the size of the conference, there may be a double round-robin format where all the teams play each other twice. This gives teams a great chance to add quality wins and it increases the intensity and rivalry in the conference games. How teams finish in conference determines the seeding for the conference tournaments where the top few teams receive a first-round bye. This is huge when you’re playing multiple days in a row in a single elimination environment.
NCAA Tournament bracket
There are four separate regions that make up the tournament bracket. They are East, South, Midwest and West. The selection committee attempts to make each region as balanced as possible, so the regions are equally as strong with challenging potential matchups as the tournament moves forward. Each bracket has 16 teams with the number one seed playing the 16th seed, the second seed playing the 15th seed, and so on. The number one seeds have the easiest matchups, but upsets can still occur at any point of the tournament. In 2018, UMBC shocked Virginia to become the first 16th seed to take down a number one seed in tournament history. The Cavaliers were 20.5 point favorites and fell apart in the second half as the Retrievers rolled to the blowout victory. The games that historically produce the most frequent upsets are the 7 vs 10, 6 vs 11 and 5 vs 12 matchups.
I use the Kenpom.com rankings – by Ken Pomeroy– throughout the season as part of my college basketball research. If you follow college basketball, you may not know exactly what Kenpom is, but you have certainly heard the name. This is a system that ranks all division one teams by offensive and defensive efficiency, pace of play, game location, quality opponents played and scheduling. I use the ratings to figure out how efficient each team is on offense and defense.
The ratings are based off 100 possessions which is a large enough sample size. You can use Kenpom during the season, but it can also be a valuable tool during the NCAA Tournament when the games are between teams that are not familiar with each other. I find the website useful when tracking ascending and descending teams as the season progressives. For example, a team may have started out strong with defensive efficiency, but as the season moved on, we started to see some chinks in their armor. When your hard earned cash is on the line it makes sense to use as many tools as possible.
March Madness pool strategy
Here’s some strategy so you can hopefully dominate your office pool and win some hard cash:
- Pick some upsets during the first weekend, but know that the elite teams will rise to the top once we get to the Sweet 16. A team from a major conference will likely win the championship.
- Look at teams that play sound defense. The majority of teams that can win six games in a row will have an off shooting night and will need to survive and advance with their defense.
- Don’t bet your favorite team unless you can be objective and think with your head and not just with your heart.
- Having inside knowledge of a team or a conference is valuable if it doesn’t cloud your decision process.
- Another thing to always keep in mind is that the odds on favorite may win the title, but try and think outside the box to improve your odds.
Calcutta basketball pool
A Calcutta pool for the NCAA tournament is an interesting alternative to your general office March Madness poll. In this type of poll, all the teams in the tournament are auctioned off to the highest bidder. The format is to bid for the teams that you feel have the best chance to win the championship or advance far in the tournament. The higher seeds will go for a larger price since they have a much higher chance to win multiple games. If you think a three seed has a chance to make a run, you might have a dark horse candidate that will end up having much better value than a number one seed. Each team you have that wins a game and advances will earn you a part of the winning pot with the National Champion receiving the highest percentage.
Click here for some additional, fun alternatives to a traditional bracket-style pool.