How to bet on March Madness: Brackets, spreads, parlays and more
Baylor won the NCAA March Madness Tournament in 2021. Photo by Darron Cummings/AP.

It’s finally that time. March Madness, arguably the craziest sporting event of the year, is back. A pool of 68 men's basketball teams competes for one goal: a chance to cut down the nets in New Orleans and be crowned as national champions.

In a tournament known for upsets, chaos, and drama, we'll see powerhouses and Cinderellas alike putting their stamp on history.

Sportsbooks offer numerous ways to bet during the NCAA tournament, and we’ll go through all possibilities to enhance your viewing experience.

How to bet on March Madness

Parity in the NCAA is reaching an all-time high. Over the past few years, we’ve seen 11-seed Loyola Chicago make the Final Four, a No. 1 seed dethroned by a 16-seed (UMBC), and several other jaw-dropping upsets.

An NCAA-record 11 unique seeds qualified for the Sweet 16 in 2021.

If you have more questions about the basics of betting NCAAB, check out our guide here, but without further ado, here are some tips for betting on March Madness.

Moneyline

Moneyline betting and March Madness go hand-in-hand.

Brackets reign supreme in March and follow a win-or-go-home process, so betting on the moneyline (often shortened to "ML") is an effective way to tail your original picks.

When betting on the moneyline during the first two rounds, each team's seeding typically correlates with their status as either the favourite or the underdog. For example:

No. 1 seed (-2500): Wager $2,500 to win $100 (96.15% implied win probability)
No. 16 seed (+2000): Wager $100 to win $2,000 (4.76% implied win probability)

No. 5 seed (-350): Wager $350 to win $100 (77.78% implied win probability)
No. 12 seed (+275):
Wager $100 to win $275 (26.67% implied win probability)

No. 8 seed (-125): Wager $125 to win $100 (55.56% implied win probability)
No. 9 seed (+125): Wager $100 to win $125 (44.44% implied win probability)

Betting against a top-three-seeded team is particularly risky, as they don't often lose in the first round.

But there's a reason we call it March Madness. Remember, UMBC toppled No. 1 Virginia just a few years ago. And last season, No. 3 Texas lost to No. 14 Abilene Christian, while No. 2 Ohio State fell to No. 15 Oral Roberts. So, there is some precedent here.  

As for No. 4 vs. No. 13 matchups, the NCAA tournament has seen 29 upsets since expanding the field in 1985 — most recently North Texas over Purdue, and Ohio over Virginia, in 2021.

In 2018, No. 1 seed Virginia was downed by No. 16 UMBC (+2500 ML). Photo by Gerry Broome/AP.

The notorious 12-seed is known to spoil some parties. Since 1985, 51 upsets have occurred in this category, with 12-seeds winning at a 35.7% clip. If that seems low, consider this: With four No. 5 vs. No. 12 matchups each year, the average is more than one upset per tournament.

The No. 6 vs. No. 11 matchups have similar data, but after that, the numbers round out more evenly (and the odds reflect that).

When the tournament progresses to later stages and oddsmakers develop a better feel for teams, the ML odds won’t necessarily reflect the seeding as much. In 2021, No. 1 Illinois was a -350 ML favourite over No. 9 Loyola Chicago (+250), but the Ramblers won, 71-58.

Against the spread

So we’ve talked upsets, but more often than not the higher seeds will prevail.

If a No. 1 seed sits at -2000, they're a pretty useless ML bet. While a 16-seed has an insanely high ROI, there's basically no chance of them winning. Since 1985 the average margin of victory in No. 1 vs. 16 matchups has been 24.36 points.

Let’s use that as a baseline for betting the spread, which is a way to get even odds on an uneven game.

If you noticed a one-seed was favoured by 30.5, it could be a good idea to bet the 16-seed based upon the historical 24.36 average margin of victory. If a one-seed were favoured by 14.5 maybe that could be a smart bet as well.

Of course, it's imperative to back up this decision with recent factors. Injuries, current form and shooting percentage, among others, can all play an important role in your betting decisions.

Spread betting during the tournament is a safer way to operate than taking underdogs straight up, as you would when picking a bracket.

According to The Lines, since 2000, the 5v12 matchup has produced a 48-32 straight-up record in favour of the lower seed. The 12-seed is 45-34-1 at covering the spread, however, meaning they have been the far better ATS option.

If you like an underdog at +300, you should love them against the spread at +9.5. Moneyline bets can be tantalizing due to their higher payouts, but spread betting often produces better results over time.

Totals

Totals betting during the NCAA tournament generally reflects the same principles one would follow during the regular season.

Analyze team injuries, trends, shooting percentage and foul tendencies to decide whether the game will go over or under the predetermined point total at sportsbooks.

During March Madness, all games are played at neutral sites. Some teams have a tendency to score far more often at home than on the road — perhaps their home crowd energizes them — but that won't factor in here.

For example, the Santa Clara Broncos saw the over go 13-5 when they were at home this season, but on the road the over was just 5-5. On a neutral site, it may be difficult to know if those numbers will be a factor.

How to bet March Madness props & specials

Many sportsbooks offer seed betting on a macro scale. As mentioned, 12-seeds have won 35.7% of the time, so you might see a bet that looks like this:

There are countless ways to bet college basketball props, which we go over in our NCAAB betting guide. For now, let’s focus on props specific to the tournament.

Will a 12-seed win? Yes (-110) No (+120)

For this to cash, only one of the four 12-seeds would need to win a game. Other seeds will have other corresponding odds, which may look like this.

Will a 13-seed win? Yes (+290) No (-500)
Will a 14-seed win? Yes (+600) No (-750)
Will a 15-seed win? Yes (+750) No (-1000)
Will a 16-seed win? Yes (+950) No (-1500)

Another hallmark of March Madness is the buzzer-beater. Who doesn’t love a good buzzer-beater? One team thinks it's moving on until a successful half-court lob flips everything upside down.

Every day of March Madness, you can bet on whether or not there will be a buzzer-beater (not to send a game to overtime but to win the game).

Will a team win on a buzzer-beater (03/17)? Yes (+450) No (-650)
Will a team win on a buzzer-beater in the Round of 64? Yes (+250) No (-300)

One prop covers just the first day of the tournament, while the other covers the first two days, hence the lower odds.

How to bet March Madness outrights

Outright betting involves picking the winner of the entire tournament — no strings attached.

Heading into the tournament, each team will be assigned odds corresponding with their likelihood of winning the championship.

Since 1985, a one-seed has won the tournament 23 times (64%), followed by five two-seeds (14%) and four three-seeds (11%). In other words, 88% of all tournaments have been won by teams seeded Nos. 1-3, meaning 12 teams have the strongest likelihood of winning each year.  

That feeling when you get to cut the net. Photo by Darron Cummings/AP.

In 2014, Shabazz Napier and the UConn Huskies won the title as a No. 7 seed. According to the Las Vegas Sun, they were +10000 to win when the tournament began.

As the tournament progresses, odds will change. Some teams will shorten their odds and be considered a bigger favourite than they were going into the tournament.

Parlays

If March Madness isn’t chaotic enough for you already, why not parlay a few games?

Parlaying means combining two or more events (legs) into one bet. All legs must win for the ticket to cash.

Could you take all 16 games played on the first day and throw them into a parlay? Sure, but that's probably not the best way to do it.

Just for the sake of it, if you were to throw $1 on a 16-leg parlay, picking spreads at -110, the potential payout would exceed $30,000 — but the implied probability would be less than one-hundredth of a percent.

You'd be essentially throwing change into a water fountain. But if you have a dollar to spare, it could be a fun exercise.

Parlaying is all about finding what you perceive to be very good value over multiple games and using that value to inflate your ticket.

If you really like a six-seed at -7.5 and a 10-seed at +6.5, you could move the lines to ensure more safety. For example, taking the six-seed on the ML and the 10-seed at +10.5 could equate to +150 odds.

NorthStar Bets editorial Insiders have no influence, direct or otherwise, over the setting of odds advertised on our platforms.