Home Sports The beginner’s guide to betting March Madness

The beginner’s guide to betting March Madness

The beginner’s guide to betting March Madness


So you filled out your bracket. Now what?

With the First Four games not counting for bracket scores and the round of 64 still a lifetime away (it sure feels that way for me), you’ve got thoughts and predictions you want to get out there. Between hot takes, Cinderella hopefuls and agonizing over 5-12 matchups, you can get a better picture of how you do predicting the NCAA tournament with betting.

Deep down, you know your bracket won’t be perfect after Day 1, and it probably won’t even make through the opening afternoon. Mine won’t either! It’s likely to be completely busted by the end of the first weekend. But betting the tournament allows you to take multiple shots on the same team (maybe you think its first-round matchup is difficult but it has an easy path to the Final Four if it gets through, or perhaps you can project something you believe will be popular in bracket picks but the odds just seem better at the sportsbook).

Consider this your quick one-stop shopping experience, comparing brackets to betting and giving pointers to help you cram for the crash course that is March Madness.

How to use your brackets to make your bets

With the variety of options available, you can customize your futures portfolio to match your bracket. If you have all four 1-seeds in the Final Four, you can also parlay them all together on ESPN BET at +3929 (so a $10 bet would win just under $400). That would be an extremely chalky bracket that many people would be earning points for, but here you get nearly a 40-1 payout.

ESPN BET also has markets open for teams to reach the Sweet 16, Elite 8, win their region and make the Final Four, get to the title game or win the national championship. Of course, that’s in addition to every individual game having sides, totals and money lines.

This also opens up a great opportunity for hedging. Hypothetically, if your bracket does well enough that you are one or two correct games away from winning a pool for a big payout, you could bet against your bracket late in the tournament to guarantee some profit. Many bracket pools are extremely top-heavy, so the payout is like that of a big parlay: fading just one game at normal odds helps to balance the scales a bit.

How betting is similar to your bracket

You still need to plan out future matchups and project the rest of the tournament regardless of your method. If a team has a lot of quality opponents in its region, it might not be worth putting in your bracket’s Final Four or betting on to make the Final Four. (Example: UConn is the prohibitive favorite in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge game, but is also considered to have the toughest region of the four 1-seeds)

When filling out your bracket, the temptation to have Cinderellas advance deep into March is palpable. But when cooler heads prevail, it’s worth remembering that most Cinderella clocks do still strike midnight. The same is true for betting purposes.

  • Since 2015, underdogs have held their own in the first round, covering the spread at a 54% clip, and in the typical “seed upset” matchups, the trend becomes even more notable. Underdogs seeded 9-13 in that span are 72-55-1 ATS, or against the spread, in their round-of-64 games, a 57% cover rate.

  • But as the tournament advances, regression rears its head and we see things level out. In the second round, underdogs are 61-62-3 against the spread. They’re also 29-30-1 in the Sweet 16.

How betting is different from the bracket

Bracket picks are against your friends, family, colleagues and coworkers, and you can use their biases to your advantage. For example, if you live in Connecticut, your bracket pool probably has a much higher proportion of UConn title picks, so it’s worth looking elsewhere for your champion. But if you are a Purdue alum in a pool with college friends, maybe UConn will be a little undervalued. When you’re betting, you’re going up against the sportsbook odds alone, so things are much more balanced.

There’s only one way to fill out a bracket: pick a winner for every game. Even the games in which you have less confidence, and the regions where you just can’t decide who should make the Final Four. With betting, you can pick your spots and rely on the teams you trust the most.

If you believe in a long shot, it can be more beneficial to bet on it to make a big run than to pick it in your bracket. One of my sleeper picks this year is New Mexico, which finished in the top 25 in NET and KenPom rankings but was given an 11-seed. The Lobos are currently favored over Clemson at ESPN BET, and are in the region with supposedly the “worst” 1-seed and a 2-seed in Arizona that has put up the occasional dud. I think putting New Mexico in the Final Four in my bracket is a bit of an unnecessary reach, but +2000 seems like a good price on them to make the Final Four.

Betting the women’s tournament

If you’re looking to bet the women’s tournament, the first thing that stands out more than Zach Edey in a crowd is just how chalky some of the futures odds are. Unbeaten South Carolina is -140 to cut down the nets at ESPN BET (that’s a 58% implied chance of the Gamecocks winning six straight). Last year, the Gamecocks also entered the tournament unbeaten, and they were -210 favorites to win it all.

In fact, only eight teams are 25-1 or shorter to win the 2024 women’s title, compared with 13 on the men’s side.

The only two other teams remotely close to South Carolina are last season’s finalists, Iowa and LSU. After reaching the title game last season, Caitlin Clark and the Hawkeyes ran back another Big Ten tournament title and earned themselves a 1-seed in this year’s tournament. Despite being in the same region, and the Tigers being a 3-seed, LSU is +750 to win it all while Clark and Iowa are +500.

Here is Clark’s potential path to the Final Four:

  • Winner of 16-seed Holy Cross/16-seed UT Martin

  • Winner of 8-seed West Virginia/9-seed Princeton

  • Likely the 4-seed Kansas State or 5-seed Colorado

  • A potential title game rematch with 3-seed LSU or 2-seed UCLA in the Elite Eight

If you want to bet on Clark this postseason, here are a few things to keep in mind: She has scored 20-plus points in every single game and is averaging 31.9 for a Hawkeyes team that leads all of Division I in offensive efficiency. Iowa also plays at a blistering pace, averaging 77 possessions per game, 17th in D-I, according to ESPN Analytics, and a mark that would be the highest among all men’s teams. It’s certainly an environment that sets up well for game totals to go over, but be sure to keep an eye on Clark’s points prop for a given matchup: It might be fun to root for the over, but if it’s set close to 35 it’s probably not worth backing.


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