Every year, hundreds of Division I programs and thousands of players compete in a season-long quest for glory.
The season culminates in a crescendo of chaos that is known as March Madness. It's a month-long tournament where the country's top-68 teams battle for national title rights.
The typical collegiate season is populated with conference games, mini-tournaments and non-conference marquee matchups. Luckily for sports bettors, there are opportunities to wager on all of these events.
How to bet on college basketball
While it may seem like there's an overwhelming amount of options to choose from, this article will break down the best ways to find value within the college basketball landscape.
A moneyline bet is simple: pick the team that you think will win the game. You'll win your bet if you make the correct prediction.
Moneyline (ML, for short) betting is more popular in lower-scoring sports such as hockey or baseball, but there are still plenty of opportunities to place wagers like this in college basketball.
Each team is assigned a set of odds. The underdog is labelled with a plus (+) sign and the favourite will have a minus (-) sign before its odds. The team that's favoured is the side the sportsbook states has a greater chance of winning.
A -200 favourite has a 66.67 % implied probability of winning, while a -400 favourite sits at 80%.
With hundreds of games to choose from, there will surely be options to find more level picks on the moneyline. A matchup may feature a -130 favourite and a +120 underdog.
You will, however, find severely lopsided ML matchups in college basketball due to the large gap in talent between top-end teams and lower-end programs.
For example: If Gonzaga, a national powerhouse, were to play Pepperdine, a smaller school, Gonzaga could be upwards of -1,500 on the moneyline. That would mean the Bulldogs had a 93.75% implied probability of winning.
Pepperdine would be around +900 to win in that hypothetical scenario. Neither would necessarily be attractive betting options. In short, Pepperdine is almost certainly going to lose, and one would have to place $1,500 on Gonzaga to win $100.
For matchups like this, point spread betting is often the smarter play.
Here are some examples of moneyline wagers and what you could win based on the odds and how much you wagered:
Point spread betting is the most popular way to bet on college basketball. It provides an opportunity to get in on an uneven matchup at even odds.
Sportsbooks assign a point spread to the favourite, signalling this by placing a minus (-) sign next to the number of points they need to win by. The underdog will have a plus (+) sign next to the same number.
Using the above example, it's clear that Pepperdine would be underdogs, and Gonzaga could be something around 26.5-point favourites.
The line would look like this:
Gonzaga -26.5 (-110) vs. Pepperdine +26.5 (-110).
If you bet Gonzaga, it would need to win by 27 points or more. On the other hand, a Pepperdine bettor would cash their ticket if the team lost by 26 points or fewer.
For the most part, books set the point spread odds at -110 on each side. That means a $110 bet wins $100. The $10 difference, known as the juice, is the cut the sportsbook takes from each bet.
There are several factors you should consider when wagering on the point spread, including location, injuries and recent results.
There's also an option to raise or lower the spread. These are called alternative spreads and they can help a bettor find more value.
For example, let's say LSU is playing at Alabama, which opened as a 6.5-point favourite. If you believe Alabama is going to blow out LSU, you could increase the line and take the team at -9.5 on an alt spread.
As a result, this would change your odds from -110 to around +140. You could also move the line to -3.5 which would produce odds of around -150 because your chances of winning would be deemed more likely to happen.
If you want to bet on a game, but aren’t comfortable picking a team to cover, you can bet on the total. Also known as the over/under or O/U, you are betting on what the total amount of points scored in a contest will be.
Totals in college basketball can vary based on competition, ranging from 125 points to 150-plus.
Using the LSU vs. Alabama example, we can assume that two high-scoring teams would have their O/U set near 142.5. To successfully bet the over in this game, a combined 143 points or more need to be scored for the ticket to cash.
For under bettors, 142 points or fewer means you win the bet.
Some important context in over/under betting includes how often the teams foul, prior matchup history, and each team's offensive and defensive ability.
Similar to the point spread, bettors have the option to choose alternate totals when betting on college basketball.
Sticking with Alabama and LSU, one could choose an alternate line of 137.5 points. If you believed the match was going to be a defensive battle, this could be a good option, as the under could now pay something in the range of +175, while the value of betting the over might shift to -250.
One of the main differences between college hoops and the NBA is that the game is split into two 20-minute halves rather than four quarters of play. This makes first-half betting a popular market for college basketball enthusiasts.
First-half betting mostly follows the same rules of the moneyline, point spread and total markets.
Typically, the first-half moneyline would reflect the normal moneyline, with maybe a slight variance. In this case, a -220 favourite would become -190.
One wrinkle with first-half moneylines: If the score is tied after 20 minutes, the bet is considered a "push." This means neither side wins and your stake is returned.
There's a significant change, however, with point spreads and totals.
If the point spread for a Duke vs. Wake Forest game is set at Duke -10.5, the first-half spread may sit around -5.5. This type of bet works well if Wake Forest is a notoriously strong starter, or if Duke is prone to sleepy first-half results.
The same idea applies to totals. If a full game O/U between Michigan and Wisconsin is 120.5, the first half O/U may be set at 57.5.
How to bet college basketball parlays
A parlay is a unique way of combining multiple single bets into one larger wager to obtain a bigger payout, while also assuming more risk. Each additional bet is known as a leg and all legs need to win in order to cash the parlay. The entire ticket loses if one of the legs is incorrect.
Parlays begin with two legs, but can have three, four, five, or more selections added to the ticket.
You can combine moneylines, totals and spreads on parlays and even mix and match sports.
An example of a college basketball parlay would be:
Alabama -6.5 (-110)
Duke vs. UNC alternate over 140.5 (-130)
Seton Hall ML (+230)
This would produce combined odds of +886, meaning you would net $886.67 on a $100 bet ($986.57 total return).
How to bet on college basketball futures
This betting market provides customers with the opportunity to place a bet on an event that will be settled in the future, sometimes months down the road.
Picking the national championship winner is the most popular futures bet in college basketball. Due to the one-and-done nature of the tournament, you can often find great value for even the best of teams.
Kansas won the national title in 2022 and opened the season with odds of +1,400 to repeat.
If you are confident it will make it to the Sweet 16 or the Elite 8, there could be ample hedging opportunities to guarantee a profit.
There are other futures markets available to bettors such as conference winners and team win totals.
College basketball is divided into conferences, such as the ACC, SEC, and Big Ten, among many others. Before March Madness begins, each conference has a tournament to decide the best team. These tournaments also follow a single-game knockout format where the winner gets an automatic bid to the tournament.
Some examples of what conference futures could look like prior to the season beginning:
Creighton to win the Big East: +1,200
Baylor to win the Big 12: +250
Syracuse to win the ACC: +675
Gonzaga to win the WCC: -290
March Madness betting
Many describe March Madness as the best sporting event of the year, and it’s hard to disagree.
The nation's top-64 teams play in a single-elimination tournament where each school is seeded No. 1 through 16 and split into four different groups. Each group has a No. 1 seed, No. 2 seed, and so on.
The higher seed is usually favoured unless it’s a close matchup.
The tournament is known for its unpredictability, particularly in the first two rounds when there's a disparity in seeding. This is an opportunity to try and find value on moneyline picks, where you can get an upset at plus money.
On top of ML picks, you can place wagers on totals, spreads, and parlays.
We'll leave you with a piece of advice when betting on March Madness: maintain composure and wager responsibly.
It's easy to fall into the trap of betting every game. That's especially true when you pick a bracket and are invested in which team moves on. Stick to your analysis and find value in what you are confident in, rather than betting all games just for the sake of it.
The tournament is called March Madness for a reason. Sometimes everything you think you know about college hoops falls flat on its face.