NCAA Tournament Odds: How To Attack Your Bracket With Numbers

Numbers can be your friend in March Madness


March 15, 2021

The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is back, and that means it’s time for you to fill out your bracket.

If you’re usually the one losing in the work office pool to somebody that hasn’t watched a basketball game all year, this column could be for you. And while there’s no exact formula for picking the 2021 National Champion, betting odds and advanced analytics can help remove lots of guess work.

Maximizing your probability should always be the ultimate goal even if you’re picking a one-off basketball game on a neutral court between 20 and 21-year-old kids. Variance will happen from time to time. Just ask the Virginia Cavaliers about Maryland Baltimore County.

Let’s start with the Gonzaga Bulldogs, the tournament’s top overall team. The undefeated Zags are the odds-on favorite (+200) to win the national championship at FanDuel. So a $100 bet on Gonzaga would win $200 and pay out $300.

I certainly can’t sit here and gush over Gonzaga at 2-to-1, especially considering they were as high as 8-to-1 when the season began. You missed the best betting number a long, long time ago. That said, their awful betting value on March 15 translates into an extremely high chance that they make the Final Four.

Gonzaga is -230 to win the West region at DraftKings and that price is as high as -250 in Las Vegas. Please don’t lay $250 to win $100 in March Madness, because if Gonzaga trips up in the Elite Eight, you’re going to hate yourself. You should, however, take advantage of this amazingly high probability in your bracket!

Betting odds of -250 imply over a 70 percent chance of probability. So the betting markets are telling you that this Gonzaga team will go to the Final Four 70 percent of the time. You probably shouldn’t knock them out in the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight. And comparatively speaking, Gonzaga has an increasingly higher chance than all the other No. 1 seeds.

Odds to make the Final Four (Westgate SuperBook)
Gonzaga -250
Illinois +150
Baylor +160
Michigan +160

We already mentioned the 70 percent probability that Gonzaga reaches the final weekend. The chances of Illinois, Baylor or Michigan making the Final Four is decidedly lower at around 40 percent. Sheesh.

I don’t really like Gonzaga to win the national title, but I’m also in no rush to knock them out before the Final Four. Numbers can certainly be wrong, but they rarely lie. Take the free space.

Ken Pomeroy’s website is my favorite place to look at college basketball analytics. Not only does KenPom simulate every single college basketball game, but the site keeps track of metrics like offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, tempo, strength of schedule and turnover ratio.

KenPom absolutely loved Wisconsin this year, ranking them as the tenth best team in the country. The Badgers’ first round opponent — North Carolina — is ranked 28th. If you believe in the analytics, Wisconsin is the play in that matchup.

Lastly, when it comes to the betting markets, every number tells a story. Professional bettors have already taken positions against Virginia, Colorado, Villanova, San Diego State and Oregon, even though they’re all much higher seeds in their respective matchups. And Rutgers is favored over Clemson even though the Scarlet Knights are a 10-seed.

I know, I know. Games aren’t played on betting screens or calculators.

But the right homework will maximize your bracket.

Thumbnail photo via Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports Images

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