College Basketball

NCAA basketball is the third most-popular sport in America, behind the NFL and pro baseball. The sport’s top championship (known as March Madness) is an annual event that’s rumored to cost the country billions in lost wages as people scramble to build their tournament bracket and watch as their picks fall one by one. Its big business, and betting on the sport is a season-long event, not just something for your office pool to participate in every spring.

If you’re a fan of NCAA basketball, you’re almost ready to start placing bets. The information below can turn even the most casual fan into a successful NCAA basketball bettor.

Let’s start with a look at the most common ways to bet on college basketball games:

The Point Spread

Most college basketball bets are made on the point spread – these bets are sometimes known as “sides.”

The point spread is really just a symbolic way to represent odds. With a point spread in place the sportsbook can handicap a game to entice bettors to put action on both sides, ensuring their profits. That handicapping means both that successful bets on favorites earn smaller payouts and that the favorite has to win by a certain number of points.

Here’s an example of a point spread as it would be represented at a sportsbook:

Duke +2.5

North Carolina

That’s easy enough to read, right? The first team listed is always the away team. Now you know that the Blue Devils are heading to Chapel Hill for this game. The next thing to look for is a + or – symbol. A team listed with a + symbol next to its name is an underdog; a team listed with a – symbol is a favorite. The number listed next to that symbol is the point spread itself. In this example, Duke is a 2.5 point underdog to the Tar Heels.
In the above example, a successful bet on underdog Duke requires that the Blue Devils either win in an upset or lose by two or fewer points. North Carolina has to win outright by three points or more in order for a wager on the Tar Heels to pay off.

The Moneyline

Moneylines are less popular than point spreads bets among college basketball bettors, but I think they offer a lot of value over traditional sides wagering.

Moneyline wagers only ask that you pick an outright winner. The favored team isn’t handicapped at all, and the underdog doesn’t have any help – pick the winner and your bet pays off. In place of a point spread, the sportsbook manages its risk in both direction by establishing certain financial requirement as part of the bet’s terms.

If that’s confusing, just look at this example:

Duke +120

North Carolina -130

Just like in the point spread, the + indicates an underdog and the – indicates a favorite. But unlike in the point spread, these symbols also tell you the terms of the bet, and it’s different for the ‘dog and the favorite.

The favored team’s number tells you how much you have to wager in order to win $100, if the bet is successful. In our example above, bettors who back the Tar Heels will win $100 for every $130 they wager. Underdogs are indicated with a plus symbol and the number next to their name indicates how much a better would win for a wager of $100. In this case, if you back Duke and they pull off the upset, you’ll take home $120 for every $100 you wagered.

Game Totals (Over/Under)

A total is a bet on the total number of points scored by two college basketball teams. Do you expect a high-scoring or low-scoring game? Betting on the game total pits you against the sportsbook – they set a number and you bet “over” or “under.” Only one total is given per game, so the odds are easy to read. It’s common to see numbers like 144.5 in game totals. No, the book doesn’t think that there’s such thing as a half-point in basketball. That number means “over” bettors win on point totals of 145 or more and “under” bettors win on totals of 144 or less.


Parlays are a popular form of exotic bet that’s available for a ton of different pro and amateur sports. Any sport with a large schedule – MLB, NFL, NCAA, and even international soccer – lends itself well to parlays. That’s because parlays are joined bets based on the outcomes of multiple games in a single day.

You can place NCAA parlays on between two and twelve teams. In order to win a parlay bet, every pick you make has to come true.

This chart shows the potential payout for different sizes of NCAA parlay bets:

# of Teams Payout Payout for a $10 Wager
2 13:5 $26
3 6:1 $60
4 110:1 $100
5 25:1 $250
6 40:1 $400
7 75:1 $750
8 150:1 $1500
9 300:1 $3000
10 700:1 $7000
11 1100:1 $11000
12 1800:1 $18000

The trade-off for those huge payouts? It’s really (really) hard to pick one game correctly, much less multiple games on the same day.

NCAA Basketball Betting Basics

Here are three tips that newcomers to NCAA betting should take to heart. I wish I’d known some of these things before I got started.

Tip #1: Become a roster expert.
I never place a bet these days without a solid understanding of the matchups among at least the first ten players on each roster. That means I’m keenly aware of minute roster changes and I can put that information to use when making a pick. I look for big mismatches, sure, but also for subtle deviations in stats from one lineup to the net. Thanks to the Internet, this information is easy to find with generic Web searches.

Tip #2: Bet on overnight lines and reduced juice offers as much as possible.
I’m not saying you have to stay up all night and chase bonuses like a madman. You should know a few places that offer reduced juice, usually on a given day for college basketball games. You should also look for soft overnight lines, and be prepared to jump on them (meaning have your homework done) BEFORE those overnight lines appear at online books.

Tip #3: Giants (almost) always fall.
Remember – these teams are made up of kids who just a few months ago were sitting in study hall. The quick pace with which young athletes move to the NBA means the NCAA is stocked with amazing raw talent with little experience and little ability to maintain excellence throughout the course of a long NCAA season. Powerhouse teams are made up of teenagers; the trick is to learn to anticipate their collapse. My favorite time for an upset is in the middle of the season against a far inferior (but still Division 1) opponent. The more a powerhouse plays complacent ball, the more they’re likely to have (even a minor one-game) collapse.

College basketball picks are tough to make. Emotions run high, and most of these athletes have little if any scouting or stat info available. College basketball including March Madness goes on for a solid five months. Because more than 300 teams play in NCAA Division I (in 32 different conferences), value is easy to find if you know where to look and stay focused.

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