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How to Bet on March Madness

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The most important game in the regular-season history of college basketball in terms of jump-starting the sport’s popularity across the USA, was likely the “Game of the Century” between No. 1 UCLA and No. 2 Houston on Jan. 20, 1968 in the Houston Astrodome. It was the first regular-season game to ever be broadcast on prime-time TV. The Cougars ended the Bruins’ 47-game winning streak. 

While that game helped the sport overall, it didn’t necessarily improve the standing of the NCAA Tournament, which had been played since the 1938-39 season. The single game that turned the NCAA Tournament into the single biggest annual sporting event in America – it does take more action each year than the Super Bowl, but the tournament is three-plus weeks and the Super Bowl just one game – was the national championship on March 26, 1979, at the University of Utah when No. 1 ranked and unbeaten Indiana State, led by a guy named Larry Bird, took on No. 3 Michigan State, whose star was named Earvin Johnson but liked to be called Magic.

Basketball, both college and pro, changed that night as Michigan State won 75-64 to claim the school's first national championship in men's basketball. The game had the highest Nielsen TV ratings of any game in the history of American basketball. Magic vs. Bird became a part of American lexicon and those two rivals went on to basically save the NBA.

The 1939 tournament featured just eight teams. In 1951, the field doubled to 16, and kept expanding over the next few decades until 1985, when the modern format of a 64-team tournament began. In 2011, the field became 68.

A total of 32 are conference champions – every Division I conference now holds a tournament and crowns a champion, which gets the official bid – and 36 at-large berths. The 68 teams are divided into four regions and organized into a single-elimination bracket. Eight of the teams – the four worst conference champions and last four at-large teams in -- play in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio on Tuesday and Wednesday of tournament week. 

According to the legend, March Madness was a term coined by Illinois high school official Henry V. Porter in 1939 for that state’s high school tournament. It became known for the NCAA Tournament in 1982 when CBS broadcaster and former Chicago sportswriter Brent Musberger, started using it.  

College Basketball Odds

Betting Strategies

A No. 5 seed beats a No. 12 seed in the first round almost every season, and sometimes it happens more than once. The highest-seeded team to win it all was a No. 8. While thee No. 11s have reached a Final Four, none have advanced past the national semifinals. 

While it’s always fun and can be profitable to pick upsets, chalk generally holds the deeper into the tournament. Since 1985, the national champion has been a No. 1 seed 21 times. That’s by far the most. A No. 2 has won it five times, which is the second-most. A No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8 have all won the NCAA Tournament since 1985 but, oddly, not a No. 5. In 11 seasons, all four Final Four teams were a top-three seed.

Keep in mind that while the NCAA Tournament is held on neutral courts, the top-seeded teams are placed as close to campus as possible so they will have a significant fan advantage. Very important to consider a coach’s NCAA Tournament history as some coaches are simple snake-bitten in terms of failing to ever reach a Final Four. Virginia’s Tony Bennett for example. Speaking of Bennett and the Cavs …

Notable Numbers

The biggest upset in tournament history was in 2018 when No. 1 overall seed Virginia was stunned as a 20-point favorite by No. 16 UMBC 74-54. It was the first time in the history of the tournament that a 16 seed beat a 1 seed, after the 1 seeds were 135-0 straight up.

However, that’s not the biggest betting upset in tournament history. In the first round of the 2012 tournament, No. 2 Missouri was a 21.5-point favorite over No. 15 Norfolk State, with the Spartans pulling off the 86-84 stunner. That was one of two wins by a 15 seed over a 2 seed that day -- the only time that has ever happened -- as No. 15 Lehigh beat No. 2 Duke as a 12-point underdog.

The highest scoring game in NCAA tournament history was March 18, 1990, when Loyola Marymount beat Michigan 149-115.

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Types Of Bets

Check out our “how to bet college basketball” section for how to bet individual NCAA Tournament games. Nothing changes in that regard, with the primary options being by point spread, moneyline or over/under total. 

Props/Futures Bets

The reason betting the NCAA Tournament became so popular is because of the “bracket.” If you ever worked in an office, you probably competed in a pool against your co-workers to see who got the most games right. Most brackets use a point system for correct games by round. The futures bets are many entering the Big Dance. Not just which school wins the tournament, but which school wins each region or which number seed wins the tournament.

How many No. 1 seeds will reach the Final Four? Since 1985 when the field expanded to 64 teams, all four No. 1 seeds have made it just once, in 2008. Just twice have zero no seeds made it. The most common occurrence is just No. 1 seed making the Final Four (14 of the 34 years since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985), while two or more No. 1 seeds have made the Final Four in 18 NCAA tournaments (52.9 percent of the time).

Props such as highest margin of victory or highest point total by any player in the Big Dance also will be available. Even how many buzzer-beaters – which is what March Madness is known for. It’s truly the Super Bowl of basketball in terms of betting options. 

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