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How to Bet on College Basketball

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College football in America has been extremely popular since probably the 1940s with “national” powerhouse teams back then like Army, Navy and Notre Dame. College basketball can point to one historic game in particular when it took a giant leap in popularity in this country.

On Jan. 20, 1968, John Wooden’s dynastic UCLA Bruins visited the University of Houston at the Astrodome in Houston. The Bruins, led by Lew Alcindor, were ranked No. 1 in the country and on a 47-game winning streak that spanned 2.5 seasons. Houston, led by Elvin Hayes, was ranked No. 2 and hadn’t lost a game since falling to UCLA in the semifinals of the previous season’s NCAA Tournament. The “Game of the Century” was the first college basketball regular-season game broadcast on national television in prime time. Each school also received $125,000 for the game, four times the 1968 NCAA tournament payout of $31,781.

Houston pulled the upset 71-69 – although UCLA would get payback in the Final Four – and the modern era of college basketball was born. The first half of regular season is still largely overshadowed by the NFL and college football, but the month of March belongs completely to college basketball.

College Basketball Odds

Types of Bets

Betting on college basketball is just like the NBA: The three main options are the point spread, moneyline and over/under total. The numbers are certainly different in the two sports. Bettors will rarely see a spread north of 20 points in the NBA, but it can happen often in college basketball because some teams simply have much more talent than another. 

If Duke faces some mid-major school like Vermont, the spread could approach 40. If the Blue Devils were set at 40-point favorites for that game, that means a Duke backer would need the team to win by more than 40 points. A Vermont backer simply needs that school to lose by less than 40. Many point spreads have a half-point attached to avoid a “push,” which is a tie and all bets are returned. 

College basketball’s non-conference schedule is when the huge spreads can be found because powerhouse schools like Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, etc., will play nearly every game at home and against a lower-tier school that is simply happy to cash a big check for the honor of being blown out. Once schools get into conference play – generally late-December through mid-March – then the schools are more evenly-matched and spreads are more normalized.

If there’s a spread that’s too big, sportsbooks won’t bother with a moneyline because there’s simply no chance of an upset. No bettor is going to wager, say, $10,000 on Duke just to win $100 back. However, most games will feature a moneyline. Let’s use Kentucky vs. Louisville, one of the sport’s best rivalries, as an example. If Kentucky is a 5.5-point favorite, it will be around -235 on the moneyline – check out our spread/moneyline converter – with Louisville at +195. Moneyline wagers disregard the final score as it only matters who wins the game. It would take a $235 bet on Kentucky in this scenario to win $100, while a $100 wager on Louisville would return $195. 

Totals in college basketball are much lower in the NBA because NCAA games are two 20-minute halves, while NBA games are four 12-minute quarters. Obviously NBA players are far superior in talent as well – only the top collegians move onto the Association. While NBA totals can get into the 240s or higher, NCAA totals generally are between 120-180. Where that number is set depends on the quality of competition, styles of play, etc. Both the over and under options have a moneyline price attached, often the same for both (-105 or -110). Occasionally they can be slightly different if over or under is a favorite. 

Props/Futures Bets

Popular futures bets include odds to win a conference title or reach the Final Four or win a national championship. There are also options to win the National Player of the Year Award. However, futures odds are fairly limited in college basketball simply because there are so many schools. 

The bigger the game, the more prop bets it will have. Some mid-major game between Northern Kentucky and Western Michigan isn’t going to have as many prop betting options as Duke-North Carolina. It’s simply supply and demand. Typical prop bets are alternate lines, first- and second-half spreads, alternate totals, over/under points for each team, and props on some of the well-known players. Total points scored, for example, by Zion Williamson. You won’t find player props on smaller games. 

Betting Strategies

Like any sport, it’s important to do homework before betting on a certain game to determine injuries, suspensions, lineup changes, etc. One could argue it’s more important in college basketball than anything else because there are some 350 Division I schools playing the sport. The various sportsbooks are on top of what’s going on at Duke or Kentucky or UCLA or Michigan State, but they are essentially relying on computer simulations for some small-school matchup. 

They don’t have time to garner in-depth information on every single NCAA game every night. Bettors can absolutely take advantage of the sportsbooks’ lack of homework on those smaller-school games, although often they are “circled” by the books, which means there’s a betting limit to avoid liability.

Shopping around at books is also vital because two books could have spreads differing by up to three points on certain games. Home-court advantage is big in college basketball because crowds in those games are generally 100 percent for the home team. Students, etc., aren’t going to fly from, say, Austin to Morgantown to see Texas play West Virginia. 

Finally check out coaching trends. This isn’t relevant in the pros, but NCAA teams are an extension of their coach. 

Notable Numbers

Too many NCAA games in history to determine the largest spread and upset ever in a regular-season game. When teams from Division I play schools from lower divisions, there won’t be spreads available because the sportsbooks know nothing of those lower-tier schools. Had there been a spread, though, when No. 1 Virginia, led by three-time NCAA Player of the Year Ralph Sampson, visited NAIA school Chaminade in Hawaii on Dec. 23, 1982, it probably would have been north of 50. The Silverswords pulled arguably the greatest upset in collegiate sports, knocking off Virginia 77-72. 

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