College Basketball Betting–Interpreting Betting Lines


Technically, college basketball lines are identical in format to NBA basketball lines. The primary difference in pointspreads between the two sports is in how the player should interpret the betting odds from each. There are substantial differences between the college and professional game—that’s obvious to anyone who watches. For our purposes, however, the important distinction between college and pro basketball is how the differences impact betting.

To better illustrate the contextual differences between college and pro basketball we’ll go back through all of these wager types and explain how a bettor should look at college basketball numbers.


College basketball pointspreads are identical to NBA pointspreads or NFL/college football pointspreads, at least from a technical standpoint. The biggest difference between college and pro basketball is the range of prices that you’ll see. You’ll seldom see a NBA line higher than -15 and that would be a rare mismatch game between an elite level team and a doormat. Most NBA lines are single digits reflecting the relative parity in the game and the fact that in an 82 game schedule each individual contest is of less significance than in a shorter season.

In college basketball you’ll frequently see big numbers and for good reason—the level of talent at individual colleges varies widely. We’ll use some examples from the 2016 NCAA ‘March Madness’ opening round betting lines from Bovada to explain further. Note that the information below is general analysis about certain pointspread price ranges and not a specific handicap on these games:

Here’s is an opening round game between top ranked Kansas and #16 seeded Austin Peay:

AUSTIN PEAY +26 -110
KANSAS -26 -110

In this matchup Kansas must win by 27 or more points to cash tickets for bettors. Austin Peay has to win outright (which would be the biggest sports story of the year) or lose by 25 points or fewer. If Kansas wins by 26, the game is a ‘push’ and all bets are returned.

Obviously, you shouldn’t be quick to lay -26 points even with a vastly superior team. At the same time, however, +26 might not be much of a value either. There are several factors to consider in any matchup at this price range. You need to determine the motivation of each team. Is Kansas interested in putting a beating on an over-matched opponent, or will they be content with a 15 point win to move on to the next game? Is Austin Peay a team that thinks they can compete or are they just ‘happy to be here? With the clear disparity in talent does motivation matter?

As a general rule of thumb—if you’re interested in laying big number favorites in regular season or early NCAA tournament play you’re actually better off laying points with 20+ point favorites than 10+ point favorites. Even though you’re dealing with a bigger pointspread you’ll often be getting a matchup where the talent disparity is simply too great for an underdog to compete. In tournament play, you’ll also get teams that are just happy to have earned a NCAA bid and have no expectations of making a run. You’d be surprised how many teams in the 10 to 20 point underdog range are extremely competitive, particularly at tournament time.

Here’s another first round tournament matchup:


Games in this price range can go either way. At tournament time, however, it’s important to look at these lines in a ‘big picture’ context: why is the linesmaker making a lower profile mid major like UTC just an 11.5 favorite over Indiana? Keep in mind that linesmaking can simply be a reflection of public perception and that can be the case in a matchup like this. For any number of reasons, the public might be embracing UTC as a ‘live dog’ or a ‘wise guy darling’. They might not like Indiana for any number of reasons as well and this could be reflected in the line. Maybe more was expected of them during the season, or else they suffered a key injury late in the season?

In general terms, whenever you see a matchup between a big name program and a lesser known mid-major it’s worth looking at the game in more detail. You might find a very competitive underdog that is capable of competing and possibly winning outright. It wasn’t that long ago that you’d find teams like Virginia Commonwealth, Wichita State or Belmont in this price range so don’t assume that the favorite is capable of covering this spread.

Another consideration that could be priced into the line is tempo. The favorite could be a half court, defensively oriented team that struggles to cover big numbers due to this style. Alternately, the underdog could be a well coached team that negates the talent differential versus higher profile opponents by playing nasty, tactically sound defense. In any case, it’s unwise to conclude that a favorite in this price range is the type of juggernaut that can obliterate a decent mid-major team with superior talent alone. If you are located in the USA, here are some betting sites for you bet with to get started on your college basketball betting action.

Next game:

DUKE -9.5

This game sends up a huge ‘red flag’ to me. The big question—why is arguably the most successful program in college basketball a single digit favorite over North Carolina Wilmington out of the Colonial Athletic Association? In this particular case, NC-Wilmington is a pretty good team in their own right finishing the regular season 25-7. Even so, what is the linesmaker trying to tell us by posting such a relatively low number? As we noted above, it could be a simple reflection of public perception about one (or both) teams. Maybe the public is down on Duke and views NC-Wilmington as a ‘upset special’. In that case, we might have a line that should be higher but isn’t due to the goal of the bookmaker to split the betting action.

The more compelling scenario is that NC-Wilmington is a legit team that can give the higher profile school fits. Worth noting that this is the same conference that produced Virginia Commonwealth a few years back. For some reason or another, the bookmaker decided to make this game -9.5 and not 10 or higher. This could be significant and is worth a look.