NCAA

2019 NCAA Tournament Betting Preview

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The bracket is set, betting lines are being released and the Madness is about to unfold! As I mentioned previously, 24 million people participate in bracket pools and that does not account for the 37 states where it is “illegal.” Tens of billions of dollars are wagered in this three week period making it the Mecca of betting time frames.

As legislation moves toward sports betting legality across the country the topic of sports betting will become mainstream. There are now full television shows dedicated to sports betting on both ESPN and Fox Sports networks, as well as an online show through Yahoo!

It only then makes sense for Fantasy Sports outlets to cover sports betting and handicapping as well. Fantasy Sports are gambling as much as some people want to look at it differently. Just as filling out an office pool bracket for $20 is gambling.


So as I have said in my conference tournament previews (you’re welcome for the Iowa St. pick at +600) if you are going to gamble money then you might as well have the most information and best strategy possible. I’m going to go over a few different ways that betting and gambling are used during March Madness. In that, I am going to try and provide the best insight and strategies so that you can win your pool or bets.

2019 NCAA Tournament Betting Preview

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Bracket Pools

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By far the most common form of March Madness betting is bracket pools. Pretty much everyone has filled out a bracket once in their life, whether they risked $10 or $20 or it was just a freeroll. The basis is you simply pick the winners of each game with no spread throughout the whole tournament. The hard part is doing it before a single game has tipped off.

Picking a perfect bracket is a one in 9.2 quintillion chance. That’s as many seconds as in 292 billion years. Yes, I know, this math is done as if each game is a coin flip and we can usually pick the majority games at a nearly 75% rate. What I’m saying is this: get the idea of perfection out of your mind. Period.

Filling out a March Madness bracket is not an attempt at perfection. That would be an act of futility. Winning a March Madness bracket pool is more similar to a Fantasy Football draft. You need to minimize your risks and figure out the most likely outcomes.

Everyone wants to be that guy that says they just “knew” that the #14 seed was going to upset the #3 seed. The majority of the time, “that guy” also picked five other upsets of top seeds. The future of his bracket is in shambles. But on the first Thursday in the late afternoon, he gets to tell everyone about his upset pick.

The thing is we are not trying to have a moment of pride. We want to win the pool. If you are picking massive first-round upsets, when you’re wrong you sacrifice the next couple of rounds that the top seed advances.

This is where the type of pool you are participating in comes into play. Just as Fantasy Football has different kinds of scoring, March Madness bracket pools have different formats. The majority of pools just count each win in the opening round as a point, and it doubles throughout the tournament. Some pools multiply the round by the seed. You need to understand your pool’s scoring system before filling out your bracket.

I’m not saying you then should change your picks to massive upsets. But if I’m seeing matchups on the 8/9, 7/10 or even 6/11 line that look like absolute toss-ups, I’ll lean toward the lower seed if I get more points for them winning. Mind you, only do this if you are not seeing either team move past the round after that.

My best rule to live by in filling out a bracket is this: do not sacrifice later rounds to score more in the earlier rounds. Simply put, don’t chase the extra points or hitting an upset at the cost of a team that has real Final Four potential.

Filling Out Your Bracket

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Okay so let’s get to actually filling out your bracket. First and foremost, choose safety in the first round. I pencil in all top four seeds to make it to the second round in each region. I don’t care about the matchup or if a team is over-rated or anything else.

Go look at the numbers. 99.3% of #1 seeds, 94.1% of #2 seeds, 84.6% of #3 seeds and 79.4% of #4 seeds make it past their first game. A lot of years there is not an upset among the top 16 seeded teams. By sheer percentages, you are usually going to go 15-1 (if not 16-0) picking all of the top four seeds in each region. Do yourself a favor and start with half of your Round of 32 correct.

Then we get to the dreaded #5/12 matchup. Over the past 35 NCAA Tournaments, #5 seeds have won just about two-thirds of the time in the first round. So basically every three years, there are four upsets by the #12 seeds. There have been at least one of the #12 seeds win in the first round in 16 of the last 19 years. So I will leave it at this: I’m fine with taking a #12 seed in round one, but you better make sure you do not trust that #5 seed to make it to the second weekend. The last thing you want to do is give up points trying to fit the #12 seed model.

The #6/11 matchup has almost the same first round percentage as the #5/12. The difference here is the teams on the #6/11 line have a higher probability of going deep into the tournament. A #6 seed has twice the historical percentage of getting to the Elite Eight than a #5 seed. A #12 seed has never made a Final Four but multiple #11 seeds have.

So with that said, I take all three of the closer seeded matchups on a case by case basis. However, it is not in that particular matchup, because as we know anything can happen in a single game during March Madness. I evaluate each of the teams seeded sixth through eleventh on their ability to make a deep run. If the #11 seed is more likely to make the Sweet Sixteen than the #6 seed, then I will pick them if it is a bad matchup.

The best example this year is Villanova. They are a #6 seed and not a massive favorite over St. Mary’s in the first round. It is a tossup game to me completely. However, should the Wildcats win against the Gaels, I think Jay Wright can build that confidence going forward. They have an easy path with a very weak #3 seed and a reeling Tennessee team as its #2 seed. If they win in the first round, I would think they can get to the Elite Eight. So I am not going to have the red “X’s” follow them all the way to Round 1 in my bracket.

Later Rounds

So I’m moving all of my top seeds forward and whichever teams in the lower seeded games have a better long-term probability. How to decide who moves on from there?

If you go back to the percentages since 1985, 85.3% of #1 seeds, 62.5% of #2 seeds, 51.5% of #3 seeds and 47.1% of #4 seeds make it to the Sweet 16. So on average, you would see all four of the one’s, three of the two’s, and two each of the three and four seeds. If you just put chalk in for your Sweet Sixteen, on average you would get 10 of the 16 teams correct. Go back and look at your pool to see where that would have put you last year.

This is the point though where the size of your pool comes into play. In a smaller pool with 50 or less people, I’m going chalk through the first two rounds. I would bet in most smaller pools you will be near the top of the leader board with 10 of your Sweet 16 teams picked correctly. In a bigger pool, I can see taking more chances. When there are hundreds of people taking shots there is just more luck in play. People will get luckier on their long shots and you will need to try and match them more the deeper in the tournament you are picking.

Keep in mind though: 83% of all Final Four teams have been a top-4 seed. 82.6% of all Championship Game teams have been seeded in the top three. All but four champions have come from the first three lines as well. As much as your Cinderella seems like a good idea, stick to the tops seeds in the later rounds.

Knockout Pools

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For those of you that have never heard of a March Madness Knockout Pool, I’m about to change your favorite way to get into betting in March. I can’t take the credit; it was first broadcasted by Bill Simmons when he was still at Grantland.

The rules are simple and almost just like an NFL Survivor Pool. You pick two winners the first Thursday and if they win, you move on. On Friday you pick two more, then it is just a single team each day of games after that. You can never pick the same team twice.

The wrinkle in this knockout pool is you can buy back in. The penalty (besides doubling your entry) is making up for the previous day(s) worth picks. So buying back in on Saturday, means you have to pick five correct winners, still not using the same team. Click the link and it explains everything further.


After running my own March Madness Knockout Pool for several years (and winning multiple times) I can tell you this is not as easy as it seems. Every year over half of the pool is done before the first Sunday. The key here is similar to my strategy for bracket pools: safety.

Everyone thinks they can “save” the best teams for later. These knockout pools rarely make it to the second Sunday, let alone the Final Four. So don’t try to “save” anyone really. I’m not afraid to use a #1 seed on the first Thursday or Friday because I just want to get to tomorrow. Hell after last year, #1 seeds do not even provide safety.

Knockout Pool Picks

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As you can guess, I’m sticking to only teams seeded #1-4. Winning less than two-thirds of the time does not provide the safety needed for a knockout pool, so anyone seeded #5 or less is out of the running for me.

For the first day of the tournament, Thursday the 21st, there are a few solid picks. I do not like the long-term viability of LSU or Kansas due to off the court issues and previously mentioned adversity Kansas has gone through. I do like both to at least win in the first round. Purdue is another great Day 1 choice, as they will be sizable favorites against Old Dominion. However, they will be at best a Pick ‘Em with Villanova and not usable again.

Friday the 22nd provides a little less certainty. I don’t trust #3 seed Houston or #4 seed Kansas St. to even avoid the big upset so I’m staying away from them. Virginia Tech is tempting since they have Duke squaring them in the face afterwards, but Saint Louis got hot in their second half of the A-10 conference tournament and they can shoot their way to an upset.

So I will be leaning toward my alma mater Texas Tech. The loss to West Virginia served as a wakeup call so I have confidence they will take care of business in the first round. Once they play good teams though, the surrounding cast to Jarrett Culver can disappear on offense, so I want to use them early.

The other option I’m seeing: #1 seed Virginia. I mean, could they possibly lose back to back years as a top seed? Doubtful. I do not feel confidence in them for the rest of the tournament though. In fact, the whole South Region smells of the dysfunctional part of the bracket, full of upsets.

Using any of the teams I mentioned frees up your first weekend with top seeds left. You would still have #2 seeds Michigan St. and Kentucky along with top seed Gonzaga on Saturday. On Sunday you would get to pick from the remaining two #1 seeds Duke or North Carolina, along with #2 seed Tennessee. Beyond that first weekend it is all about which team lucked into the right matchup, which is impossible to predict.

So the path is there for you to avoid taking any seed lower than a fourth, but still have top teams each day. Always look ahead, but not too far, to make sure you will have a solid option. However, never sacrifice safety and moving forward to the next day.

March Madness Betting

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Betting on single games is becoming more and more common as well. Now that sports betting has been legalized, people outside of Las Vegas can talk about the industry more without it being taboo.

It’s tough to get some picks out yet, as the game lines will not be released until after this article is submitted. I will be posting daily picks on my Twitter @Tomlin3 for any of those interested. It was a solid conference tournament week, going 28-20 against the spread, including a 10-0 (!!) day on Thursday.

I will tell you some of my favorite betting trends for the early rounds. Taking the under is usually the best play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Between bigger and unfamiliar venues causing new shooting backdrops and general tightness of the players in the big situation, unders cover at a much higher clip than usual. Then you factor in that the casual better is usually taking the over and there is more casual betting this time of year than ever, and you are getting value on most unders.

I am also a fan of staying away from massive favorites. There are professional betters who live by the rule of “dog or pass.” This simply means they are only ever betting on underdogs. The logic is that a team getting points is always trying to win your bet for you. A team favored by 15 points is not. If a big favorite is up, they would just assume let the game end rather than hit the spread.

I find this especially true in the NCAA Tournament. When you have these massive mismatches, the spreads balloon out. As I said, the casual better is more in play and the casual bettor is going to take the big favorite he has heard of, causing the line to shift a point or two.

Below are some of my favorite first round bets:

Marquette vs. Murray St. OVER 149.5 Points

  • That is a massive over, and I know I said I like unders, but these two teams can score. They are led by two of the best guards in the country and this will be a race to 80.

Seton Hall +3 over Wofford

  • As I mentioned in my Midwest Region preview, this is the game of the first round. I think it’s a tossup and I like Seton Hall getting the points.

Auburn -6.5 over New Mexico St.

  • Auburn has developed a dangerous combination of not turning the ball over and being scorching hot from 3-point range.

Syracuse -2 over Baylor

  • Boeheim in March. It’s that simple.

Mississippi -2 over Oklahoma

Wisconsin -1 over Oregon

  • Oregon got hot at the right time to make the tournament, but they do not belong.

Texas Tech vs. Northern Kentucky UNDER 138

Virginia vs. Gardner Webb UNDER 131


  • Two of the best defenses in the country, with big spreads in the first round will lead to little scoring.

My Bracket

Be sure to follow me on Twitter, @Tomlin3, to get daily picks.


East Region PreviewMidwest Region PreviewSouth Region PreviewWest Region PreviewNCAA Tournament Betting Preview

About Michael Tomlin

Michael Tomlin is an ESPY-nominated, former college football player who stays associated with the game through Fantasy Sports. He has been writing his personal blog, Dirkland.blogspot.com, for three years and it focuses on Fantasy Sports, as well as handicapping. He was born and raised in the DFW Metroplex, and he follows all of the Dallas teams, along with Texas Tech athletics and Manchester City F.C.

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