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March Madness 2024: Using Sportsbooks to Build Winning NCAA Brackets

Following the Vegas odds to help make your picks can be a successful formula.

Looking to get in on the fun with NCAA March Madness?

Try a bracket challenge!

Here is a quick primer on how a March Madness bracket works, and how you can use the sportsbooks as the ultimate cheat sheet. By the end of this primer, you’ll be ready to jump in and shoot your best shot, even if you don’t know the name of a single player in the tournament.

Brackets are a popular way to bet, and anyone at all can win a bracket challenge. Remember, this is March MADNESS! You can expect the unexpected. Let’s break down how a bracket works.

A March Madness bracket starts with 64 teams (68 teams, really, but you don’t have to worry about the first four games Tuesday and Wednesday). Bettors will pick a winner from each of 63 games and get points for each correct pick along the way.

But, wait! You don’t know anything about college basketball? That’s O.K. There are plenty of hints to help you make smart decisions along the way.

Next to each matchup, you will see each team’s seeding. A seed is quite simply a team’s ranking. The 64 teams in the bracket are split into four regions of 16 teams. Each region is ranked 1 through 16; the 1 seed is the most favored, through to the 16 seed, which is the least favored. In addition, to reward the top teams, first-round matchups pair the No. 1 seed with the No. 16 seed, the No. 2 seed with the No. 15 seed, and so on. So, as you can see, the number one seed is always at an advantage. A number one seed has only lost in the first round twice in the tournament’s history: first when UMBC upset Virginia in 2018 and then again in 2023 when Fairleigh Dickinson upset Purdue.

UConn guard Cam Spencer

Cam Spencer and the defending champ UConn Huskies are one of four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.

As each round progresses, you will get more points for picking the teams that advance. Games in the second round are worth twice as much as games in the first round, and so on. There are a total of seven rounds, with the penultimate round being the Final Four, and the final round being the national championship game.

Using sportsbooks as a cheat sheet

Here’s another hint: you can also use sportsbook futures odds as a cheat sheet to help you fill out your bracket!

At a sportsbook when you look at the odds for a game, a (-) sign indicates the favorite, while a (+) indicates the underdog. This plus the seeding can help you choose winners. For example, Las Vegas currently has Auburn (-750) favored vs. Yale (+525) in the first round. The sportsbook is telling us the odds are great that the Auburn Tigers will advance to the next round.

Another way to use the sportsbooks as a cheat sheet for your bracket involves point spread bets. If you see a spread of more than five points between competing teams in a given matchup, history tells us to bet on the favorite. If there is less than a five-point spread, and the favored team hasn’t won much in their last 10 games or is very closely matched with the opponent, it could be a good time to bet on the underdog. In the above example of Auburn vs. Yale, the point spread is -12.5. Again, this is a major indicator that the Tigers will advance in the first round. However, in the game between the Colorado State Rams (-125) and the Virginia Cavaliers (+105), the point spread is a mere -1.5 points. This could be an opportunity to pick an upset with the Cavaliers. This can help you make some decisions when filling out the first round of your bracket.

You can also look at futures odds and work backwards! You can check in now on odds for the Sweet 16, Final Four and national championship. If a team has a (-) sign in front of their odds, the sportsbooks think they are more likely to advance (and therefore they are going to pay out less money for that bet). If a sportsbook has a (+) in front of a team’s odds, that team is considered less likely to advance and the sportsbook is willing to pay more than your initial investment for that wager.

For example: if the sportsbook has UConn at -110 to make the Final Four while Gonzaga is at +1400, you can assume it’s pretty likely UConn will make it to the Final Four, while Gonzaga is more of a long shot. What Vegas thinks can give you an edge if you don’t know where to start.

The most important thing to remember in betting March Madness is that it’s called madness for a reason. No one will fill out a perfect bracket; in fact, the odds to fill out a perfect bracket are about 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 – that’s 9.22 quintillion. So, don’t think about being perfect! Just have some fun, root for some underdogs and enjoy the madness! 

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