Every year in March, 68 teams—64 after the play-in games—enter a Thunderdome of hoops where only one team can reign supreme. Usually Duke. Every year, when the men’s college basketball tournament comes around, you dutifully fill out your bracket. And every year, Denise in marketing ends up winning even though she doesn’t watch one minute of basketball all year, but Denise somehow pulled Murray State’s opening round upset because she has an uncle named Murray. Geez, Denise is the worst.
This year, though, is going to be different. This is the year you ditch the office bracket and you learn to bet like an adult. What’s that, you say? You’ve never set foot in a Las Vegas sports book in your life and you don’t want to wad up a $20 bill, mumble “Kentucky” at the ticket writer and hope that translates into cold, hard cash 40 minutes later? No problem, Chester. We’ve got you covered.
Betting the spread
The first thing to learn is the point spread. That’s your basic, garden-variety wager. Essentially, it means you’re betting one team will or won’t win by a certain margin. The favorite will be laying points and the underdog will be getting points.
Let’s look to a historical example here—like, say, the biggest spread over the last 20 years, when in 1999, No. 1-seeded Duke (it’s always Duke) took on No. 16 Florida A&M. The Elton Brand-led Blue Devils were a mammoth 46.5-point favorite. Which means that to win your bet, Brand and co. would have had to beat the Rattlers by 47 points or more. If you took Florida and the points, all they had to do was keep the game within six touchdowns, a field goal and a safety. Which they did, by managing to lose only by 41 in a 99-58 game.
Betting the moneyline
If you’re wary of point spreads that require the epic-est of beatdowns to cover, you can always turn to the moneyline. On the board, you’ll see this expressed next to a team in hundreds. You may see “Gonzaga -300” or “Syracuse +200” or “Monstars -800” (do not take, sucker bet, we assure you Jordan and Bugs Bunny are absolutely going to win this thing). That means in the case of Gonzaga, you would need to bet $300 for every $100 you want to win. Balling on a budget? It scales. A $30 bet would net you $10, meaning you’d cash a $40 ticket when the ‘Zags win. (Your initial $30, plus your $10 winnings.) This works in reverse for plus-money. If your dough is on Syracuse and the Orange pull the upset, for every $100 you bet, you’ll profit $200. (So a $10 ticket, in this case, you would cash for $30.)
Betting the total
If you’re ambivalent about either side of the contest, but you think it might be a high- or low-scoring affair, the total is your friend. Betting the total, you pick over or under for both teams’ combined score. Say North Carolina is playing Duke (you can’t escape them) and the total is 140.5. If the final is 75-66 and you picked the over, the 141 combined points makes you a winner. At 75-65, you’re screaming at the TV that the center clearly fouled the guard and the refs need to send someone to the free throw line. If you took the under in Loyola Marymount-Michigan in 1990, bad news. The 149-115 Loyola win was over 120 points in the first half alone.
Putting it all together
Now that you’ve got the basics, there’s one more thing to consider: parlays. A parlay is when you’re making multiple bets in one go, and they pay significantly more than a single wager. You can combine both a side and total in one game (Syracuse moneyline with the over), or sides and totals in multiple games (Duke moneyline, Kansas -6, Villanova-Indiana over 135, Monstars moneyline) for a big payday. Except that last one, because we told you not to take the Monstars. Did you even see Space Jam?
Now here’s the fun part: Actually handicapping the games. No 16-seed has ever upset a No. 1-seed, so you can probably forget about those tantalizing moneyline bets on sacrificial lambs. But as Florida Gulf Coast proved in 2013, a No. 15 can actually beat a No. 2. Two 14s have advanced, and six 13s. The lowest seed to win it all was No. 8 Villanova in 1985. More recently, Kentucky went to the title game in 2014 as an 8-seed.
“I am always trying to bet the [under]dog every way, shape or form,” said Brian Benowitz, Senior Vice President of Casino Operations at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, where college basketball fans can set up camp March 16 and 17 at the resort’s annual Hoops & Hops blowout—a 40,000-square-foot paean to hardwood fandom, with eight betting windows, 12 stadium-style screens, and baller packages that include bottomless food and adult beverages.
So, in Benowitz’s opinion, who’s the team to beat? It’s no surprise that the UCLA alumnus is taking the Bruins.
“I’ve watched every game this year,” he said. “I think they’re an exceptional ballclub if they can learn to play defense.”
On the other hand, there’s one popular squad you might want to fade when you’re doping out your matchups.
“I watched North Carolina play last week a couple of times, and they’re so out of sync,” Benowitz said. “They play absolutely no defense, and they’re selfish. Other than Joel Berry—who’s very, very good—the rest of the team just is a bunch of guys getting up and they just cast it off. I think they’re vulnerable and I think somebody’s going to knock them out early, first or second round.”