Betting on March Madness

It has been a fairly unpredictable college basketball season, hasn’t it? Every time a team seemed to be playing well enough to be considered a #1 seed, they would be upset. Case in point? Take a look at last Sunday’s matchups:

#1 Illinois: (-7) suffers its first loss of the year against unranked Ohio State 65-64.
#2 North Carolina: (-7) finishes on a 12-0 run to complete a big comeback and beat #5 Duke 75-73.
#3 Wake Forest: (-3.5) barely beat unranked NC State 55-53.

In other words, the top 3 ranked teams were 0-3 Against the Spread! #4 Kentucky didn’t fare much better in a loss to unranked Florida 53-52, but at least they covered the spread as a small road dog. Add in #9 Kansas’ loss to unranked Missouri and you get a clear picture of just how much parity there is in men’s college basketball this season. The upcoming tournament will be a tough one to handicap. Get ready to do your homework.

How to handicap and capitalize on March Madness

First off, it is my opinion that basketball is generally easier to handicap than football. Some of the reasons include fewer players that impact each game, no weather to worry about and a lot of scoring that makes any one play less important than in football. The March Madness schedule helps give you time for that handicapping as there are a few days at the start of each week during the tournament that have no games. Make sure you use that time wisely so that you know which teams are hot, which are cold, which injured players are recovering (and could play) and which starters are banged up (and might not see the floor).

One stat that I don’t think bettors pay enough attention to is a team’s record against-the-spread (ATS). In a nutshell, a team’s ATS record is an indicator of the team’s success relative to public opinion. If a team has an excellent record straight-up (without the pointspreads involved) but has a bad record against-the-spread, that team simply has generally not won by as many points as the betting public has expected. Teams like this are very popular for bettors and those bettors simply drive the price up to a point where it is higher than the actual difference in ability between the two teams.

By spending just a little time studying this before the tournament you will find a few teams that are public favorites that don’t cover the spread very well. That will either spare you a few dollars by keeping you out of those traps or that research will make you some money by taking advantage of the value in the line of the opposing teams. You aren’t likely to see any surprises the other way because the teams that are bad straight-up and good against-the-spread simply don’t qualify for the tournament. Here’s a look at a few such stats from the 2005 season:

Top 10 ATS records:

Against the Spread (ATS)

(* denotes losing record.)

Worst team on the court that was great for bettors:

St John’s 9-18 SU, but 15-7-2 ATS

Best team on the court that was bad for bettors:

See Wake Forest and Kansas above, but also note Gonzaga who was 23-4 SU and 10-16 ATS. That means they won, but did not cover, on at least 12 occasions.

Another thing to consider is that most of the teams in the tournament have been strong all year and will have been the favorite in most of their regular season games. At some point during the tournament many of these teams will be playing superior opposition and will be the underdog. Check to see how each team has done straight-up and against-the-spread in their previous games as an underdog in the regular season. This will help identify which teams thrive under pressure and which teams collapse when facing better talent.

One more suggestion before I sign off, make sure you know where each team is from and where they are playing each game. The tournament is played at neutral sites but occasionally a team will get to play close to home or even on its home floor. Being close to home will mean more fans (as well as less travel and more rest) and the match could essentially be a home game. It is also possible the team could be playing at or near the home of a key rival, which will make for more opposition and an environment more like a road game. Those are powerful tidbits to know when you consider that home team advantage is roughly 4 points in college basketball.

I’ve given you quite a few suggestions to put to the test when betting on March Madness, but if you only do one thing — make sure it’s your homework. (Oh, and keep your remote handy and fully charged!)

Good luck with your wagers!

I always welcome comments, questions and suggestions via email at
Rob Gillespie is President of Bodog Sportsbook & Casino