March 15 – Updated with first-round matchup previews, potential sleeper picks, and additional content
Every sports fan has memories of March Madness. Depending on your age, you may remember Jim Valvano’s NC State Wolfpack upsetting mighty Houston in 1983. Or maybe you recall Grant Hill’s incredible one-handed dunk in the 1991 final against Kansas. We can’t forget the epic 1992 regional final in Philadelphia where Christian Laettner inbounded a long pass, dribbled, turned around, and made one of the most iconic shots of all time. All these clips and more are available on YouTube if you remember watching them live and want to feel old.
If you’re not old, your early Tournament memories may include Baltimore’s own Carmelo Anthony leading the Syracuse Orange to their only title in 2003. Or the loaded Florida teams, led by Joakim Noah, that won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007. Or the fact that unheralded Butler (Butler!!) made the championship game two years in a row (2010 and 2011) and lost in heartbreaking fashion both times. It’s true! And, most recently, the tremendous Cavaliers squad that cut down the nets in Minneapolis back in April 2019 after winning the first basketball championship by any school in the state of Virginia. Hard to believe they are still defending champions.
If you only pay attention to college basketball the day before the Tournament tips off and pick your bracket based on campus location and mascot ferocity, this guide is for you. If you are a serious hoophead who spends hours each week online scouting the latest recruits headed to your alma mater, counts the days until Midnight Madness, and memorizes the latest Top-25 poll within minutes of its release, this guide is also for you. Let’s explore all there is to know about the NCAA basketball tournament and how to effectively bet on the games at a legal sportsbook near you.
Top March Madness Sportsbook Offers
2021 NCAA Tournament schedule and details
Yes, Virginia is still the defending champion. The 2020 Tournament was sadly canceled by the onset of COVID-related closures that shut down pretty much everything last spring. Starting in November with COVID precautions in place, college basketball returned for a modified 2020-2021 season. Teams scheduled on the fly and postponed games as necessary, but most of the scheduled games were played and we are on track for a full, if unusual, NCAA tournament in March. March Madness 2021 is a go.
The first thing you need to know about the 2021 tournament is that every game will be held in the state of Indiana. Teams will all travel to Indianapolis and each program will have their own secure location in a downtown hotel within walking distance of most tournament venues. This is part of an extensive COVID plan the NCAA has put together that addresses as many issues as they have envisioned arising when planning something as complicated as playing the NCAA tournament in a single state. But they are doing all they can to keep the players, coaches and tournament workers safe and healthy.
Since most of us watch the Tournament on television, this location change does not directly impact fans aside from those who usually travel to watch their team in person. The scheduling changes do, however, impact the times and days you will be glued to your couch, so this change, for the 2021 tournament only, may be more surprising and a bit alarming. Here is the official Tournament schedule:
Thursday, March 18 – Note that it is only on one day instead of two, and it is on Thursday, which is when the tournament usually begins.
Friday, March 19 and Saturday, March 20 – This one is a real brain-buster. The First Round of the tournament, always two of the most exciting days of the sports calendar, is on Friday and Saturday this year as opposed to Thursday and Friday. I know, right?
Sunday, March 21 and Monday, March 22 – If you thought the First Round on Friday and Saturday was strange, the Second Round all day Sunday and Monday is going to be straight kooky-dook. The Monday after the tournament’s first weekend has always been a day to recover, re-hydrate and assess your bank account. But this year we will have a day of exciting games to watch! (insert head-exploding gif/meme)
Saturday, March 27 and Sunday, March 28 – Ok, this is getting crazy. Normally, there are two Sweet 16 games at about 7:00 p.m. ET and two at about 9:45 ET on Thursday and Friday. This year, every Sweet 16 game gets its own television “window” over the weekend. The action starts at 2:00 p.m. ET and will go all the way to Midnight both days. No overlapping games! They solved a problem you didn’t even know existed.
Monday, March 29 and Tuesday, March 30 – As if things couldn’t get any more weird. Most likely because of the limited number of fans that will be in attendance, the NCAA shifted the Elite 8 from the weekend to Monday/Tuesday in order to maximize television viewership. Fans won’t miss work by traveling to the games, the student-athletes aren’t missing school because they are taking online classes, and, with few other sports on during the week, the focus of the sports world will be on these primetime games that tip off at 7:00 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. ET each night.
Saturday, April 3 – After all these schedule changes, it’s nice to see the Final Four at its normal day and time.
Monday, April 5 – Take your afternoon nap, because the regular 9:23 p.m. ET tipoff for the championship remains unchanged during this unprecedented year. If everything goes according to plan, we will have a new champion very late on April 5!
First-round preview, sleeper picks, and bracket strategy
Now that you know the schedule, let’s go over a few intriguing first-round matchups. After that, we will pick three non-#1 seeds that could win it all (or at least make it to the Final Four). Finally, we will discuss a few strategies to win your bracket pool.
3 intriguing first-round matchups
The first round may not feature the highest level of performance, but it certainly features the most overall excitement. From the first tip of the day to the end of the last game over 12 hours later, the first two days of the tournament are always exciting. Some games are better than others, though. Only die-hard fans of a #1 seed or those who bet on them to cover the spread stick around to see if their team wins by 24 or 27 against the 16 seed. Yes, a 16 seed did beat a 1 seed in 2018, but most of the time the game is a blowout. Here are the three best first-round games:
East – BYU (#6) vs. Michigan State/UCLA (#11) – MSU and UCLA certainly have pedigree. They are both heavyweight programs. But this year they have been less than stellar, with both teams limping into the tournament as 11 seeds. In fact, they have to play each other in the First Four on Thursday for the right to play BYU on Saturday. But is BYU that good? Yes they are. They have the right combination of size (Center Matt Haarms is 7’3″!) and veteran leadership (their top 3 scorers are seniors). Add to that the fact that they have to play Gonzaga twice a year and you have a team ready to break out. BYU is ready to make a statement, and if they beat MSU or UCLA, the college basketball world will definitely take notice.
South – Villanova (#5) vs. Winthrop (#12) – As sure as spring brings allergies, a 12-seed beats a 5-seed in the first round of the Tournament. In fact, in 2019, three 12-seeds won in the first round. Most experts believe this year will be no different, and many predict that Villanova will be the 5-seed that goes down. It’s a reasonable prediction, given that the Wildcats’ star guard, Collin Gillespie, is out for the season with a knee injury. Gillespie’s back-up, Justin Moore, is also dealing with a significant ankle injury and is questionable for the Tournament. Villanova was a preseason champion favorite, but is now a 60-1 longshot to win it all. Winthrop may be unheralded, but they only lost once all season and won the Big South Conference tournament last week. This game will be close.
Midwest – Loyola-Chicago (#8) vs. Georgia Tech (#9) – You may recall, way back in 2018, Loyola-Chicago’s magical run to the Final Four as an 11-seed. Sister Jean, the Loyola chaplain and super-fan who won the hearts of college basketball fans everywhere during the Ramblers’ Final Four run, is still alive and kicking and, at 101, is determined to make it to Indianapolis to watch her team play this weekend. Update: She will be there! Loyola may be a fan favorite, but can they beat the ACC Tournament champion Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets? Sure they can. Georgia Tech got hot and ended up winning the ACC, but they didn’t have to play Virginia in the semi-final because the Cavaliers withdrew due to a positive COVID test. Tech’s eight losses indicate that they are beatable, but the ACC Tournament championship and 8-game winning streak (including the UVA forfeit win) indicate that they have what it takes to win. Loyola opened at -2, which means that this game should be really interesting.
Three other great matchups:
- Midwest – #6 San Diego St. vs. #11 Syracuse
- East – #5 Colorado vs. #12 Georgetown
- South – #8 North Carolina vs. #9 Wisconsin
Three sleeper picks
The #1 seeds are the top teams for a reason. They played the best during the regular season and are the most likely teams to win it all. But every team in the Tournament could have an off day and end up losing. That’s why the Tournament is so exciting. Here are three non-#1 seed teams that have the best chances to make it to the Final Four:
Iowa – The Hawkeyes were a preseason top-5 team and have Luka Garza, the best player in college basketball this year. But they stumbled in the middle of the season, losing 4 out of 5 at one point. After that stretch, they rebounded (pun intended) and only lost twice more, once to #1-seeded Michigan in February and once to #1-seeded Illinois in the Big 10 Tournament championship game. They are a heavyweight team that definitely has enough talent to make it to the Final Four, and potentially the Championship game. Their biggest challenge will be getting past mighty Gonzaga, whom they lost to earlier this season, in a potentially epic West Regional Final matchup/rematch.
Alabama – The Crimson Tide aren’t usually known for their excellence on the hardwood. But this year’s Alabama basketball team may very well end up following their football compatriots to the championship game. They don’t have a lot of marquee wins, but they have been consistently very good, and won the SEC Tournament in a thriller over LSU. At 20-1 to win it all they aren’t a betting favorite, but they earned their #2 seed and have a well-rounded team of talented upstarts that could definitely upset #1-seed Michigan and make it to the Final Four out of the East.
West Virginia – At 40-1 to win it all, this one is a bit of a stretch. West Virginia comes into the Tournament having lost two in a row to Oklahoma State and an 18-9 overall record. Nine losses is a lot in college basketball, and teams with an 18-9 record usually don’t get a #3 seed like WVU did. But WVU didn’t lose any game by more than 6 points and also has one of the best coaches in the country in Bob Huggins. He will have his kids ready to play. Add their favorable draw, not having to potentially face #1-seed Illinois until the Midwest Regional Final, and a case could be made for the Mountaineers surprising many and making it to the Final Four.
Three other potential sleeper teams:
- Ohio State
- Oklahoma State
March Madness bracket strategy
Here are a few strategies to dominate your office bracket contest and win some 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 (or Gonzaga) will likely win the championship.
- In the first round, pick a 12 seed to beat a 5 seed. In 30 of the past 35 years, a 12 seed has won in the first round. But don’t pick them to go much further. Of those winning 12 seeds, more than 50 percent of them lost in the second round.
- When in doubt, pick the better seed (2 vs. 3, 1 vs. 4, etc.). If you pick the better seed in every game, your bracket will do statistically better than someone who picks randomly or uses their own strategy. According to an analysis by NCAA.com, a bracket that only picks the better seed would have performed above average in each of the past nine Tournaments.
- 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. One way to figure out if a team has a good defense is to look at how many average points they allow per game. It is no surprise that 9 of the top 10 teams in this metric are in the Tournament.
- Each team has weaknesses and could have a down day. A team that has upperclassmen with Tournament experience and/or a veteran coach may be able to navigate the pressure of the later rounds better than a team with talented freshmen.
States where you can legally bet on college basketball
Now that we’ve gone through all the changes to this year’s tournament and given you some tasty info nuggets, let’s go over what you need to know to place some bets and win some money. Understanding the sports betting landscape and betting terminology specific to college basketball and the NCAA tournament is the key to success when navigating your local sportsbook or, more likely, the sports betting app of your choice on your smartphone. The NCAA Tournament is second only in betting volume to the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl. Sharps and the public alike lay down bets of all types and sizes during the Tournament, and even more people participate in a March Madness pool.
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. This page includes a map of where things stand across the U.S. Scroll over your state to see the latest information.
In the table below, wagering on college basketball is allowed, or will soon be allowed, in each state on the left. However, in some states there are small limitations, including not being able to 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, including Delaware, New York, Illinois and Rhode Island.
|State||Legal and Live?|
|Louisiana||Legal, not live|
|Maryland||Legal, not live|
|South Dakota||Legal, not live|
|Washington||Legal, not live|
Popular college basketball bets
A moneyline or a “straight-up bet” is a single bet where you are betting on the team that you think is going to win the game. 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 took the favorite and the favorite won the game. Conversely, if you bet $100 on the underdog at +200 and that team 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. To win, or “cover” the point spread, Duke would need to win by four or more points. On the flip side, North Carolina could lose the game by two or fewer 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. If you are wondering why you often see a half-point line like -3.5, you are right that there are no half-points in basketball. The half-point exists to eliminate pushes/ties. A team will either win by 4 or they will not. This is easier and less confusing than a tie at -3.
A bet on the total means you are making a wager on the total number of combined points scored in a game. This bet type is also known as an 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 half 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 predicted total. It might be something like 73.5, depending on how much the team typically scores and quality of the opponent.
Parlays are very popular among sports bettors due to the potential of a large 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.
A teaser is also a multi-game wager. 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 want to bring that down a bit, you can tease the game down four points to -4, which could drastically change the outcome of your wager. If you really like an underdog and they are +2, you could tease them up to +6 which would give you 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 by operator.
It should also be noted that the payout from a teaser is much less than a similar parlay. A 4-team parlay pays out 10/1 on a -110 standard bet, whereas a 4-team teaser getting 4 points per game pays out 3/1 at most sportsbooks. A parlay is riskier with a greater potential reward.
This innovative type of betting option has become popular among mobile bettors. 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 options that are updated on the app or website in real time. Live bets are a great opportunity to take advantage of potentially mis-priced lines, but they are also a quick way to lose money on just a few plays. Play carefully.
Some of the more popular prop bets are individual-focused, such as which player will score the most points, how many points an individual player will score, who will have the most rebounds or which player will hit the most three point shots. College player props are restricted in some 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 which teams will make the Final Four or win the championship. New types of futures are being developed and offered by sportsbooks, including whether a team will their conference tournament, earn a #1 seed in the Tournament, or which player will win the Wooden Award (Player of the Year).
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 which one has the best odds for your game. Opening multiple sportsbook accounts may not appeal to everyone, but shopping around to get even a 1-point spread advantage (-4 vs. -5) could be the difference between winning or losing a bet. Finding an improved line can make all the difference.
Betting in-game lines
As we discussed briefly above, it is important to be locked into a game and have the ability to make a bet in a very short period of time through in-game wagers. 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 Gonzaga 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.
NCAA Tournament details
Who gets in to the NCAA Tourney?
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. The Committee is made up of NCAA Commissioners and Athletic Directors. In 2021, 31 teams will receive automatic bids by winning their respective conference tournaments. Normally there are 32 but the Ivy League is not participating in the Tournament in 2021. The other 37 teams are picked by the committee based on how they performed during the season. Most at-large teams are usually from the top basketball conferences: ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, and Pac-12.
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. This can lead to more enticing matchups as the tournament moves forward. Each bracket has 16 teams with the number one seed playing the 16 seed, the second seed playing the 15 seed, and so on. The 1 seeds have the easiest matchups, but upsets can still occur at any point of the tournament. In 2018, University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) shocked Virginia to become the first 16 seed in tournament history to take down a 1 seed. The Cavaliers were 20.5 point favorites and fell apart in the second half as the Retrievers rolled to the blowout victory. Don’t feel too badly for the Cavs, though. The very next year they returned to the Tournament as a top seed and ended up winning the entire thing. The games that historically produce the most frequent upsets are the 7 vs. 10, 6 vs. 11, and 5 vs. 12 matchups.
NCAA Tournament teams by conference
Below you will find all the conferences that make up the NCAA Tournament. Since 1990, the ACC has won 12 titles followed by the Big East with seven (current ACC member Syracuse was in the Big East when it won its title), and the SEC with six.
- American East Conference
- American Athletic Conference
- Atlantic 10 Conference
- Atlantic Coast Conference
- Atlantic Sun Conference
- Big 12 Conference
- Big East Conference
- Big Sky Conference
- Big South Conference
- Big Ten Conference
- Big West Conference
- Colonial Athletic Association
- Conference USA
- Horizon League
- Ivy League – Not participating in the 2021 Tournament
- Metro Atlantic Conference
- Mid-American Conference
- Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference
- Missouri Valley Conference
- Mountain West Conference
- Northeast Conference
- Ohio Valley Conference
- Pac-12 Conference
- Patriot League
- Southeastern Conference
- Southern Conference
- Southland Conference
- Southwestern Athletic Conference
- Summit League
- Sun Belt Conference
- Western Athletic Conference
- West Coast Conference