College football fans, as a rule, cheer for unfamiliar bids in the College Football Playoff. Alabama and Clemson alumni will cry “bias” until their nozzles fall off, but the fact is that if Louisiana Tech made the CFP every single season, or in a % of seasons that felt like 100% to the jaded sports viewer, the G5 team would be just as warmed-over as an attraction.
Without making any George Carlin-style contrasts between sports (we’re talking about basketball, and not baseball vs football after all), the NCAA Tournament’s 60+ team field subverts the above trope. Nobody wants to see Gonzaga handed a #1 regional seed for a total of 50 years in a row; even Zags faithful with perspective on the game would understand the diminishing return of an annual favorites’ bid in the big dance. Countervailing that is the sense of a Round of 64 being quite large enough to fit NCAA basketball’s iconic programs, the “comfort food” of an otherwise dizzying bracket.
Speculators get excited over Cinderella picks, but we want our said Cinderellas to prevail over Kentucky and Duke and Virginia, not a thinned COVID-era tourney field. Leaving out the best name-brand programs is akin to having Alabama football not even participate in SEC title races, since the Final Four is the annual “CFP” for cagers on hardcourt.
Not that the NCAA committee can insert legacy teams in nice regional seeds on purpose (wink, wink). But in 2021, they didn’t need to, since the familiar contenders of college basketball have achieved a renaissance ahead of schedule…along with the Pac-12.
2022 March Madness: A Return to Prominence for Iconic Squads
The ritual of Selection Sunday offered few surprises in 2022, as teams from power conferences once again control the strongest seeds in the bracket. Gonzaga is the exception as West Coast Conference winner and a customary #1 seed, but defending champion Baylor, Big 12 stronghold Kansas, and trendy NCAA championship pick Arizona own 2022 NCAA Tournament’s other 3 top seeds. Villanova is seeded #2 in the South regional bracket with what many consider to be the Wildcats’ best squad since 2018’s national championship squad. Duke has re-ascended to the big dance with room to spare as Coach K looks for a career-capping triumph. The SEC has placed top-3 seeds in a trio of regional brackets, while the Big Ten boasts an amazing 9 invitations to the 2022 NCAA Tournament.
It’s a return-to-familiar on the March Madness betting board too. Popular national championship picks such as Duke (+1300), Baylor (+1100), and Kentucky (+750) represent blue-blooded college basketball tradition, while the Arizona Wildcats’ 6-to-1 odds to prevail with a championship reflect the resurgent strength of the west coast (in more than 1 league, given the Saint Mary’s Gaels and San Francisco Dons’ berths in 2022).
Instead of coasting through the year’s “less prestigious” league tournaments, several of 2022’s top March Madness seeds have used the conference postseason to reassert themselves as stable contenders. Gonzaga, the betting favorite to win a first-ever national championship this spring, lost to West Coast Conference rival Saint Mary’s late in the regular season. The Bulldogs took revenge in a WCC tournament final, solidifying Gonzaga as the favored national-title pick at 4-to-1 odds.
Even the best Cinderella candidates of 2022 are name brands. Loyola-Chicago’s Ramblers, among several small-conference brands to invigorate March Madness with a Region title, is a (+3800) Final Four bet in 2022. Another fast-rising Cinderella candidate on the betting board is Saint Mary’s, which enjoys a top-20 ranking and a #2 West Coast Tournament seed after upsetting Gonzaga in February. Indiana’s First Four victory over Wyoming puts another 1st-Round Big Ten berth in the bag.
Perhaps it’s lucky that Men’s hoops have been predictable so far, as the women’s March Madness draw has created enough drama for FanDuel users to satisfy all parties. Connecticut’s dynasty is in doubt following several years of losses and eliminations upon reaching the Final Four, causing UConn’s national championship odds to grow fat while the program’s line to reach the final weekend remains as sturdy as ever. Villanova upset the Lady Huskies in late winter to hand UConn its first women’s conference loss in ages, inspiring a surge of Cinderella optimism for Villanova and fewer bets on UConn.
And then came the Big East postseason, in which UConn reasserted its reputation with a 70-40 beatdown of the Lady Wildcats. As a result, Connecticut is once again among the betting favorites to win March Madness in 2022, surpassed only by the Lady Gamecocks of South Carolina at shorter than 2-to-1 odds to lift NCAA Women’s Tournament hardware.
Gamblers’ punishment for Villanova has been more severe than the action rewarding UConn. Villanova has been handicapped with a dire 500-to-1 national championship betting line following users’ abandonment of the market.
Times have changed since a 30-point loss in the Big East title tilt meant that a team was close to playing on-par with the acknowledged #1 team in women’s college basketball. With a deeper field of contenders now in the mix, a women’s squad is expected to show up proudly in every postseason game, lest it be quickly eliminated in March.
Women’s First Four action begins Wednesday with a tip-off between Dayton and DePaul.
Readers who use WagerBop to get pick-recommendations, and for no other reason, will be annoyed that the rest of this post includes a listicle about March Madness, and not further in-depth analysis on the teams at hand. But there’s 2+ weeks remaining for all of that.
For now, here’s 5 carefully-considered futures picks to see if you agree with … and a little unorthodox “help” for March Madness bettors who’re feeling guilty about their spring hobby.
WagerBop’s Picks to Win D1 Championship: Kentucky, Baylor, Iowa (+2500)
Cinderella Pick to Reach Final Four: Murray State (+5000)
Women’s National Championship: Stanford (+480)
3 Reasons Why Betting March Madness is Beneficial to Basketball Fans
As covered elsewhere on WagerBop, the media’s anti-sports gambling bias has become so ridiculous that handicapping “experts” are being called-upon to testify that Billy Walters only ever went 50.2% against the point spread.
As an antidote headed into 2022’s hardcourt holiday, here are some reasons why the focus required in March Madness betting (and cheering for outcomes) is helping fans connect with the greatest postseason bracket of the sports world,
Gamblers Are Happy Over “SU” Losses … and For Once, Most Teams Are Too
Tournaments in pro sports usually work in “stages,” whether it be round-robin play followed by a knock-out round and final elimination matches (like the UEFA Champions League) or with levels like the Wild Card, Division and Conference Championship rounds of the NFL on route to each season’s Super Bowl. No matter what milestone your favorite club team passes in a season, though, you won’t find a single professional athlete who will say – on the record – that any of it means anything if the team doesn’t win the final game and produce the coveted trophy.
The NCAA “dances” around that paradigm at the Big Dance. For starters, just reaching the NCAA Tournament is considered an honor, especially for small programs in modest conferences.
An NBA fan would not rather reminisce about an Eastern Conference Finals series that her club lost than the previous series in which the team won. Contrast that with NCAA basketball. There haven’t been a lot of T-Shirts made that say “Loyola-Chicago 78, Kansas State 62, Elite Eight, 2018.” Keep in mind that the Final Four was the only round of March Madness that the 2017-18 Ramblers lost a contest in.
Bettors know how to be happy so long as an underdog team plays hard and covers the point spread. Texas Southern will be similarly pleased if the Tigers lose to a #1 seed by 8 points – after the inevitable sting of defeat wears-off of course.
Furthermore, betting ATS on the 1st Round of March Madness causes speculators to take small-conference Cinderella bids seriously even if the team is expected to lose by 30. If we could only pick a bracket and enter a sweepstakes the old-fashioned way, fans would only ever focus on Murray State, Loyola, and other blue-collar teams considered to have SU-chances.
Sports Betting Holidays Are Better When They Don’t Last 2 Total Hours
One of WagerBop’s editors recently told me that she was hanging out in a Las Vegas sportsbook when March Madness games came on the big screens. One of the rascals she had been sharing beers with suddenly stood up with a studious facial expression. “Everyone give me your money!” he said. “I’m going to go turn it into more.”
The story has it that he came back with riches for the entire table after live-betting several March Madness contests. My hunch is that he was using shooting % reversion to pick winning O/U gambles, or maybe waiting for favorites to fall behind in the 1st half before taking their lines to win, But what’s important is that the story couldn’t have come from any other event.
National sports-gambling events like the NFL playoffs and the World Cup involve only a game (or 2 at the most) at a time. March Madness is a betting bonanza. Because it lasts 3 weeks, we can all experience it in our own favorite way. Like they say about chess competitions, “a gnat can drink, and an elephant can bathe.”
Those who disdain sports gambling often bet on the NCAA Tournament. They don’t call it betting, of course. They call it “sweepstakes” and “bracketology.” But it’s gambling. They’re putting money in, making picks, and hoping to earn a jackpot. Sportsbooks – through the “fighting underdog” principle of lopsided 1st-Round spreads – help to make “the bracket” and “bracket winners” less ubiquitous in favor of fair attention on all 68 schools in the tournament.
“Hoosiers” Can Be a 50-State Phenomenon
The NCAA has also borrowed concepts from prep and international sports to create its tournament format. (While there are plenty of “NCAA Tournaments” involving loads of colleges in various sports, the postseason basketball tourney surpasses even the College Football Playoff as a national watch-gamble-and-cheer holiday.)
Those who follow the World Cup know that some nations, like Costa Rica and Puerto Rico, are mostly just thrilled to reach the marquee FIFA event. The trick is to hold a championship that involves enough teams that some of the seeds can be filled by Cinderella bids. But what the Big Dance reminds me of most are prep/High School title tourneys – and not the ordinary ones that are sectioned-off by enrollment classes or neighborhoods.
In the old days, Indiana (among other states) did not separate basketball teams into weight classes. They just lined everyone up by regions and played ball to determine a state champion.
All-comers tournaments for prestigious hardware won’t cease to be a thing so long as Boreham Wood competes in the FA Cup. But there are examples of the living tradition closer to home.
Kentucky baseball schools with tiny enrollments compete on the postseason diamond with the largest programs in the Bluegrass State. But does that mean the small programs sit around and mope about their non-existent chances? Nope. The teams simply set goals for themselves to reach one milestone or another – like winning a District or a Region. March Madness is a lot like that. Deep down, whoever qualifies for an automatic bid out of the Ivy League or Missouri Valley Conference knows that their chances to win the whole thing are nil. But if Penn or Harvard (or Bradley) reaches the Sweet Sixteen, you won’t find any T-shirts on campus that record a losing score from the Elite Eight.
If you’re keen on a Bradley or a Harvard, it’s a much more realistic and wise wager to pick them to reach a milestone than rather than to win the NCAA Tournament. But in this case, all it takes to avoid the “classic” betting pitfall is a little forethought. Don’t buy into prop-bet lines on Cinderella teams to reach a milestone and then lose, if for no other reason than it’s a bummer to grow to hate your previous favorite cagers over 40 minutes. Instead, “adopt” a team or a set of teams with a diverse set of underdog wagers and double-down confidence when a Murray State or a Loyola is clearly trying on the slippers.
That way, if a #10 seed ever actually wins the damn thing, it won’t be to the heartbreak of unwise speculators. Or to the benefit of “trap-door” bookmakers who aren’t confident enough in their own skills to avoid gimmicks in March.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.