With some assistance from BangTheBook contributor and all around good guy Locky Lockerson, we’re going to give you in-depth previews of each region for the NCAA Tournament. Before we do that, let’s take a general look at March Madness with some betting tips and some important analysis to help you bang the books during the most wonderful time of the sports betting year.
Study the Matchups
March Madness is a very unique time of year. Teams have to play opponents that they have very little familiarity with. How will Murray State respond to the “Press Virginia” defense? Can Nevada or Texas get Cincinnati to speed up? Can Arizona State shoot over the Syracuse zone? Will Duke keep up its zone defense?
Look for teams that take care of the basketball. A surefire way to lose in this elimination format is to throw away too many possessions. Veteran guard play is very important. Jump shooting teams in challenging venues are tough teams to back. Strong defensive teams against high-efficiency offenses may need to keep pace on the offensive end of the floor.
There are always contrasting styles and lots of different strengths and weaknesses to take into account. You have to look at every game in a vacuum because a team may match up really well with its first-round opponent and not at all with its second-round opponent. That matters for brackets and it will invariably matter for betting odds as well.
It may be hard to see sometimes, but there are some situational spots when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. Everybody is sufficiently motivated in the Big Dance, but there are some spots that can be very interesting. Some teams just played three games in three days or more and are forced to play on Thursday in an early matchup. UCLA, for example, was knocked out on Friday in the Pac-12 Tournament. They had to wait until Selection Sunday to find out that they were to travel to Dayton, Ohio for the First Four round. That means a cross-country trip with no real time to adjust, maybe one practice, and then a game against a St. Bonaventure team with a much easier trip.
In the East Region, West Virginia, Murray State, Wichita State, and Marshall have to go all the way out to San Diego. The Mountaineers played in Germany to open the year, but the team’s westernmost game was in Lubbock, Texas on January 13. Murray State’s westernmost game was at Saint Louis. Wichita State played in Maui to open the year and played at SMU on February 24. Marshall went to UTEP February 3. Technically, not one of these teams has played in the Pacific Time Zone and the Wichita vs. Marshall game is a 10:30 a.m. PT start time.
Maybe it doesn’t matter with all of the adrenaline for these players, but after playing in San Diego, the team that emerges from that part of the bracket has to fly all the way to the East Coast for the region final in Boston.
The other four teams in San Diego are Clemson, New Mexico State, Auburn, and College of Charleston. It is pretty clear who has the edge there and that region final is in Omaha.
These may be 18-22-year-old kids, but these are high-pressure games. Teams that run starters out there for 35+ minutes per game may have a hard time with the Thursday to Saturday turnaround. The First Four teams might have to play three games in five days if they advance to the first round and then win in the Round of 64.
Coaching is huge. Teams have been playing conference games since the start of January. They know those opponents inside and out. Now, teams might have less than 48 hours to turn around and play a new opponent. It will be up to the coaches to formulate gameplans that work against teams that they, in most instances, haven’t seen.
How do you evaluate a good coach? That is a fair question. Confirmation bias is one way. If you search “Jay Wright”, you’re going to see a ton of stuff on his coaching prowess. Chris Holtmann took Ohio State to a #5 seed in his first year in Columbus after the team had a lot of struggles under Thad Matta. You have to assume somebody like that is a good coach and Butler’s recent performances would align with that thought. Chris Beard has turned Texas Tech around quickly and Jamie Dixon seems to be doing well at TCU.
The usual suspects like K, Izzo, Williams, Huggins, Calipari, etc. are all in the field.
Rick Barnes isn’t thought to be much of a coach, squandering lots of talent at Texas. He’s done a good job with Tennessee, but how much do you want to trust him in a projected matchup with Jim Larranaga, who once took George Mason to the Final Four. Chris Mack and Cuonzo Martin/Leonard Hamilton are on a crash course in the Round of 32. Mack can coach circles around both.
What should we make of unknown programs, like Houston, Cal State Fullerton, Loyola-Chicago, and College of Charleston? Look at the full bodies of work. Look to see if the coaching situations have been stable. Look to see how the teams did stepping up in class or with quick turnarounds. Did those teams improve as the season went along?
Fade the Public
One of the hardest things for public bettors to do is balance the heart and the mind in March Madness. Everybody wants to see a Cinderella, but betting one is another story. A lot of people bet March Madness that haven’t touched college hoops all season long. That means that there will be some bias towards the trendy mid-majors and the blue-blood programs.
Public bettors will latch onto talking-head narratives. They’ll bet solely based on probabilities from Ken Pom, Team Rankings, and some of the other systems that are out there instead of handicapping the games. While those resources are immensely valuable and should be taken into consideration, do your own research and see what you can uncover.
Filling Out a Bracket
A lot of sportsbooks, including Bookmaker and BetDSI, are offering up bracket challenges. You’re playing pools at work, with your friends, or getting email blasts about bracket pools from that guy whose kid played baseball with your kid 12 years ago or that old college drinking buddy.
There are a few tips that you can consider in hopes of positioning yourself to make some money:
- Be Careful with the “Trendy” Upsets – A lot of people are looking at things like the 12 over 5 in South Dakota State vs. Ohio State, New Mexico State vs. Clemson, and Murray State vs. West Virginia. You have to figure out how far these teams can actually go if they win that first game. You could cost yourself multiple points by losing a #4 or #5 seed that suddenly makes it to the Sweet 16 or even the Elite Eight. The same can be said about #6 seeds, since that 6/11 game is often thought to be pretty close and could go either way. The #3 seeds are much stronger this year than in past years, but still. Picking that first-round upset is great, but be prepared to fade that double-digit seed in the next round if the matchup is bad.
- Bet on Balance – A bad defensive team is going to lose with a bad shooting performance. A good defensive team can lose with a bad shooting performance as well, but that team is far more likely to find a way to win. You want to shade towards defense anyway. That isn’t to say that a team like Marshall can’t fill it up for a couple games and make a Sweet 16 run or that Nevada can’t pick off Cincinnati in the Round of 32, but you have to maintain realistic expectations about teams that don’t defend well. Defense travels. Defense yields consistency. Offense comes and goes and in an elimination format, that can be problematic.
- Use the Odds – Use the odds to your advantage. While we look for edges and inaccuracies in the market, the sports betting markets are the most effective and efficient gauge that we have in the industry for predicting outcomes. Keep in mind that a team that is a +180 underdog still has an implied probability of winning about 36 percent of the time. There will be upsets. There always are. But, you can find the most likely ones from a mathematical standpoint using the point spreads and money lines. You can also use the point spreads and implied odds in conjunction with matchup analysis.
- Focus on the Final Four – The way to win your bracket is to get the Final Four teams and the National Champion. Whatever happens in the first two rounds can be overcome by nailing the last teams left standing. Because of the point structure in most pools, the deeper the tournament goes, the more points that are on the line. You can certainly take a shot here or there with some first-round upsets, but you have to get those final teams correct to have a shot. Make sure that whatever path you choose winds up with teams you are confident in to make it to San Antonio.
- Don’t Get Mad at Janice in Accounting or Layla the Secretary – Invariably, some of the people in your bracket pool are going to bet based on things that have nothing to do with college basketball. Janice thinks the dog on the Wright State logo is cute. Layla once got drunk at a bar in Houston with three of her girlfriends. Quinton doesn’t watch college basketball, but takes Kentucky, Michigan, Florida, and Duke because he’s seen those names on the news lately, so his Final Four has a 5, 3, 6, 2 and all those teams make it. Darren the Uber Eats driver gets in the pool and takes Stephen Austin because that’s the bottom line and then throws middle fingers up at you and smashes two beers when the Lumberjacks upset Texas Tech and Florida. These things happen. Let it go. Focus on your betting and putting out the best bracket possible. Sports outcomes are never concrete and never guaranteed, minus a 16 beating a 1. Worry about what you can control.