March Madness betting. What is it and why is it such a big deal?

By Andrew D

November 16, 2022

NCAA March Madness Logo

First things first. For those of you new to the delights of college basketball, here’s a quick rundown of some key things you should know about the sports’ flagship tournament.

March Madness is the nickname of the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) postseason playoff tournament. It is sometimes also known as ‘The Big Dance’. 

It’s a ‘one strike and you’re out’ kind of deal. 

To say that it has captured the imagination of America might be the biggest understatement we have ever made. 

The amount of money wagered on the tournament in 2022 was: 

3 Billion Dollars

We’ll give you a moment. 

Just remember, this is college basketball.

A staggering 17% of all American adults placed a wager. 

That’s 45 million people. 

It’s kind of a big deal…

Image Courtesy of Alamy

How does it work? 

The mechanics of the tournament go something like this:

72 teams compete in 7 rounds of action. The first round is a mini ‘play in’ tournament to decide the final 4 teams.  

It’s a knockout competition. Win all 6 games once the tournament proper starts and you’re the champions. 

It's as simple as that.

But it makes for one of the most hotly anticipated, exciting sporting events anywhere. And the nickname is remarkably apt because the whole of the USA is gripped in a kind of collective madness every time March comes around.

Hundreds of college basketball teams from all over the USA compete for the right to take their place in the tournament. There are 2 ways to get in:

  1. Automatic qualification. Win your regional conference and you’re in.

  2. At large bid. A 10-member committee is responsible for the selection of the 36 extra teams. This is not taken lightly and the members are holed up in a hotel during the selection process. They are presented with evidence that they must analyse and discuss. Each member must then put forward a list of teams that they believe should be in the tournament. If eight of them list the same name, then that team is invited to participate.

Image Courtesy of Alamy

First Four

So, you’re in? Hallelujah! Let the games begin right? 

Not so fast. We’ve still got too many teams. 32 + 36 = 68. 

4 of them have got to go

There’s the small matter of the First Four ‘Play in’ tournament to get through. 

This is a miniature knockout competition that takes place between the four lowest-ranked automatic qualifiers and the four lowest-ranked at-large teams. 

4 games take place and 4 teams join the tournament. 

There are now 64 teams in total. 

The same selection committee members who chose the at-large teams and seeded the field are now responsible for bracketing the tournament.

The brackets

There are 4 brackets representing different regions. Each has 16 teams and is organised so that higher-seeded teams generally play lower-seeded ones at the beginning. 

Wherever it is logistically possible, teams from the same regular season conferences cannot meet and eliminate each other until the regional final rounds.

The rounds

  • First four

  • First round (round of 64)

  • Second round (round of 32) 

  • Regional semi-finals (Sweet sixteen)

  • Regional finals (Elite eight)

  • National semi-finals (Final four)

  • National final

NCAA March Madness UCLA Kareem Abdul Jabbar #33 Jersey

So. Why is it so popular?

Consider this. There are not many opportunities for ‘lesser’ teams to shine in any sport. Because of the nature of the way March Madness is structured, there is a chance that an underdog (Cinderella) team could go all the way. 

They probably won’t. But they might.

Don’t get too excited though. The tournament was created in 1939. Since then, there have only been 3 years when at least one No. 1 seed didn't make it to the Final Four of the tournament. 

No team seeded lower than No. 11 has ever advanced to the Final Four.

The only years that at least one No. 1 seed didn't advance to the Final Four were 1980, 2006 and 2011

A team seeded at 16th (last in their particular bracket) has only once won a game against a No.1 seed. In 2018, when the University of Maryland-Baltimore County turfed out Virginia.

A No. 8 seed is the lowest to ever win the whole thing. That was Villanova in 1985.

So there’s a chance

It's this kind of fairy-tale-with-high-stakes environment that drives people wild.

It has got the potential for romantic, hairs-stand-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck results. For huge upsets and underdog dream scenarios. It is the stuff of Hollywood movies. It drives the hype for the tournament through the roof and attracts a huge number of casual observers. 

Betting on brackets

Since 1969, NCAA March Madness tournament games have been televised in the USA. Because of the sheer number of matchups, it is easy to arrange social events around games.

This leads to groups and families deciding to throw in a few dollars each and try to ‘win big’

Such is the effect of this that even those who have no interest in basketball whatsoever get sucked into the action. 

The phenomenon is so all-encompassing that there is even a noticeable increase in people taking sick days during the 3 weeks of the tournament. People simply cannot get enough of it.

The tradition has become to try and predict the ‘perfect bracket’. That’s ALL of the winners across the whole tournament. 

Sweet. Sounds like a good idea right?


Maybe not. College basketball, by its nature, is very tightly contested. Teams lose players to graduation every year and see major changes in personnel. 

Add to this the astronomical number of potential outcomes and you might start to see the issue.

Need convincing? Ok, let’s break it down a little more scientifically. 

The chances of correctly guessing the winner of every game in the tournament are less than 1 in 9.2 quintillion. 

The actual number looks like this: 9,223,372,036,854,775,808

That’s significantly more than the estimated number of grains of sand ON EARTH. In fact, you’d have a 23% better chance of guessing which single grain was chosen at random than you would of picking a perfect bracket. 

That’s if you do it by flipping a coin on each game. If you use your head and employ a bit of strategy, you can get the odds down to about one in 120 billion.

Now we’re talking. We might be generous and drop it to one in 40 billion if you’re a sharp bettor and really know your stuff… 

In other words, it can’t be done. 

Correctly picking 47 of the 63 games is the best that anyone has ever done.

Sure, it’s fun to get together with friends and family. Watch a few games and spend a few dollars. But you would be better off flushing your hard-earned dollars down the toilet and hoping for more of them to come back up. 

There is actually a significantly higher chance of that happening. 

Image Courtesy of Alamy

March Madness betting strategy

The simplest March Madness betting strategy that we can suggest you adopt is this:

There is little to no value in picking one-dimensional teams to succeed in the NCAAs flagship postseason tournament. It is unheard of for a team that only shines in one area to go much beyond where we might expect them to go. 

To win it all?

Any team that is going all the way will have a sizzling offense and a rock-solid defense. Can it be done without those things?

Sure. But it’s not likely. This is sports betting. There are no absolutes. History shows us that it is statistically improbable and we can doo no more than pay attention to the facts.

In the last 18 years of tournaments, only one winner has been ranked outside the top 20 in offensive efficiency. 

None have been outside the top 20 when it comes to defensive efficiency. 

Do your homework

If you find high-seeded teams that you think might be worth wagering on, look at their statistics. Not all of the teams with equal seed numbers will be equal in other ways. There will be those that lack in some department or other and it’s your job to dig them out and eliminate them from your reckoning.

Sites like KenPom are a staple these days when it comes to absorbing stats mathematically and displaying the findings. Another is Sagarin. Give them a look and perhaps incorporate them into your sports betting toolbox. There is certainly some value to be found betting on the teams that they predict will cover the spreads. 

This is not the place to go into the exact details. But there is a new kid in town when it comes to ranking teams and predicting their potential successes. The NET ranking system

It is no guarantee of success. None of them are. They are informational tools that you must use as you see fit before handing over your hard-earned dollars.

Ignore so-called ‘expert’ brackets

Any basketball website worth its salt is going to lay down some predictions about how March Madness will pan out. 

Pay closer attention to what the online sportsbooks are saying and doing. They have a ton of the hottest information coming in consistently. Their greedy algorithms will chew it all up and can spit out some interesting, unexpected results.

Watch the lines and betting odds on teams that have caught your interest.

Home advantage

This is still very much ‘a thing’ in college basketball. Some teams will travel huge distances to play games. Travel is disruptive and tiring. It can seriously affect the outcome of close matchups. 

Noisy home crowds can get into the heads of youngsters more than their hardened NBA counterparts. Strong, vocal support bolsters the confidence of the home team and can shake the confidence of visitors. 

It is your responsibility to check before laying any bets.

Champions tend to cover the spread

8 of the last 9 NCAA March Madness tournament winners covered 55% or more of their games across the regular season. 

Add it to your list of statistics to check before betting.

NCAA March Madness Kentucky Wildcats #23 Anthony Davis Jersey

Who has won the most NCAA basketball tournament titles?

In the 82 years since the tournament’s creation, 36 different teams have won the title. None has won more than UCLA with 11. Amazingly,10 of those came in a period of just 12 years between 1964 and 1975.

Final thoughts

So, what is March Madness? It is a collective kind of national (and now international) hysteria that is hard to pin down. 

It might be something akin to the way British people see the Grand National horse race. A once-a-year handicap steeplechase over roughly 7km. The Brits bet on the race, mostly by choosing the name they like best. 

Except March Madness is better because it lasts for 3 weeks and no horses have to die for our supposed entertainment. 

Here at The Jump Hub, we get sucked into it just as much as anyone. It is the chance to watch a ton of basketball, and fritter away some money wagering on teams we barely know the names of.

Follow Andrew D on Twitter: @AndrewDNBAhttps://twitter.com/AndrewDNBA

Image Courtesy of Alamy

Enjoy this article?

Join our newsletter for more NBA news and betting tips!
The Jump Hub

NBA news, opinions, analysis, tips and stats