March Madness Betting Trends for 2018
The NCAA Tournament is one of the world's great sporting events, from the craziness of the first two days right down to the cutting down of the nets and One Shining Moment. As much as I love every second of the event, if I had to pick just one part to watch forever it would clearly and obviously be the first two days - the first round of the tournament. It's 32 games packed into two days, and it's stuffed with upsets, intrigue, drama, emotion, and chaos. It's everything that sports can be in one small package. Perfect. They are also two great days for bettors. To help those bettors make the madness a little less mad, let's look back at the first 32 games of the tournament last year to see what March Madness betting trends emerge that could be helpful for us this year.
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Favorites: Betting on the favorites in the first round last year was just short of being a break-even proposition - the favorites had a 14-15-1 ATS record on the two days, going 7-8-1 ATS on Thursday and then improving slightly to 7-7 ATS on Friday with two games that lacked favorites because they were pick'em lines . That's not great, but it is very much in line with what we have seen in recent years. In 2016 the favorites went 15-16 ATS, while in 2015 favorites were an ugly 13-19 ATS. Particularly rough that year was the Thursday session, when underdogs went on a crazy 12-4 ATS tear.
Underdog outright winners: I absolutely love underdog outright winners because my favorite thing to do is to bet dogs on the moneyline. Getting back more than I bet is like a narcotic. So, was last year's first round a good one for bettors like me? Thursday sure wasn't - we saw Maryland and Vanderbilt lose as two-point favorites, and that's it. Friday was a little better. Only 14 games had favorites, and we saw USC beat SMU as 7.5-point dogs and Michigan State win as two-point underdogs against Miami. Still not enough to be profitable, but at least it was better. It's a big shift from the Friday session of 2016 where we saw 6 of 16 underdogs win outright, capped by Middle Tennessee stunning No. 2 Michigan State as 16.5-point dogs. It was a glorious day for Cinderella bettors.
Higher seeds: Four of 32 games last year featured the lower seed as the favorite, and two more were pick'em games. That's a notable decline from 2016 when, bizarrely, the lower seed was favored eight times in the opening round. Those four lower seed favorites went a perfectly boring 2-2 ATS last year, which again is way down from the impressive 6-2 ATS mark they posted the prior year. This year feels like a pretty wide-open year in general, so it's possible we'll see some feisty lower seed favorites do well again.
Close to home: One of the enduring storylines of the NCAA Tournament is that teams that get to play close to home have an advantage - easier travel, more fans, and so on. To test whether this is standing up in reality let's do a simple test and see how teams did that performed for bettors if they played in their home state or a neighboring state. It's not a perfect measure, but I don't need to spend all day playing with Google Maps, so this is close enough. Impressively, 22 teams fit the criteria last year. Four of them played each other - Florida State and Florida Gulf Coast in Orlando, and Kentucky and Northern Kentucky in Indianapolis. So that leaves 18 teams that had, by our criteria at least, a significant travel advantage over their opponents. Those teams combined to go an impressive 11-6-1 ATS, which far exceeds the general performance favorites or underdogs the opening two days. And this isn't an isolated trend. Teams playing closer to home went 6-3 ATS in 2016 and 6-4 ATS in 2015. So, pull out that atlas and do some homework when the bracket comes out - it could pay off nicely.
Play-in game winners: I still don't think that the play-in games in Dayton add anything of value to the tournament. We've seen them a few times in the current form, and they aren't exactly making the tournament dramatically better or starting the excitement two days sooner. It's just a cash grab. But I would feel better about them if they were somehow profitable for us. Maybe the play-in game winners are good bets because they are already warmed up for what is their second game of the tourney and their opponent's first. Or maybe they are bad bets because they are worn down after travel and two games in two days. Actually, it seems like neither is true, and these games are just useless. Last year's play-in winners went 2-2 ATS in their next games. USC won and covered as 7.5-point dogs, and Mount St. Mary's lost badly to Villanova but still covered, but UC Davis didn't cover, and neither did Kansas State. That 2-2 ATS mark is the same we saw in 2016 and in 2015.
The big spreads: There were 14 games last year with a double-digit spread. The favorites went 6-7-1 ATS in those games, which isn't particularly useful for bettors. We haven't seen much consistency here at all. Last year the favorites were 9-4 ATS in these games, but in 2015 they were 2-8 ATS.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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