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Genius of March Madness: Everyone Wins the NCAA Tournament (Except Lousy Gamblers)

March Madness Logo and Bracket with Falling Money
The NCAA is not the most popular brand in America.

It’s accepted as common wisdom that the National Collegiate Athletics Association is corrupt and dishonest. TV journalists can’t even bring up the topic of NCAA “integrity” without slyly smirking at each other. Schools are celebrated for winning NCAA titles in various sports, but almost nobody is cheering the events or the ruling bodies that sanction them. They’re just cheering for the kids.

I’m going to go against the grain and say that it’s time to give the NCAA some credit. Especially since we’re in March. The organization could remain intact for another 200 years and never come up with another idea that’s half as dynamite as March Madness.

The NCAA Tournament is the only competitive format that creates nothing but winners. That’s hard to do. When 60+ teams or even 2 teams compete, there can only be a single ultimate winner. It’s inextricable math. The “corrupt” and “ineffectual” NCAA has done a pretty good job of building a playoff system in which the standard win-vs-loss formula no longer applies.

March Madness does crown a lone champion after the Final Four. But thanks to college basketball’s special circumstances and the raw makeup of the Big Dance, on some level it doesn’t matter whether or not your favorite program makes it all the way to Minneapolis this year. They’re winners.

The only way anyone really loses with the NCAA tourney is by betting badly and losing cash. Otherwise, it’s a 100% positive-goal seeking scenario for players, coaches, and fans.

Here’s a quick look at how March Madness perpetuates as a gaggle of good vibes…along with some gambling advice to keep readers winning right along with everyone else.

March Madness is So Great, Campuses Celebrate Losing in it

Playoffs and 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 en route to each season’s Super Bowl in February.

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. Not everyone from the ACC or the Big East reaches March Madness. Some of the most “powerful” athletic institutions in America will be trudging along to the NIT, or National Invitation Tournament in 2019. Some wiseacres like to call it the “Not In (the real) Tournament.”

As opposed to the blunt-descriptive playoff round monikers of the NBA and NFL, almost every round of March Madness is branded as its own historic milestone. The Sweet Sixteen. The Elite Eight. The Final Four. Very few programs are forever-disappointed after having reached any of said stages, even if they lose once they get there.

No NBA fan would 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.”

Meanwhile, the T-Shirt design below sent sales through the roof. Keep in mind that the Final Four is the only round of March Madness that the 2017-18 Ramblers lost in.

NCAA Recap Games Trophy

Crutching at Straws

There are a few college basketball teams which carry extremely-high expectations into March Madness, of course, and which are panned by the media if they lose in an early round. The expectation that a squad will win the NCAA Tournament (or at least a Regional title and a Final Four bid) can be due to reputation, a great regular season, or (in Duke’s case among others in 2019) both.

When a low-seeded team (remember to mentally flip low vs high when going from rankings to tourney seeds) loses in the early-going of March Madness, they become an exception to the “everyone wins” rule. Coach K’s lifetime resume can’t really be impacted by whatever the Blue Devils do in ’19 – he’ll retire a legend no matter what. But Mark Few of Gonzaga will take a “few” harsh criticisms if his cagers follow-up a dreary loss in the WCC Tournament by tanking in the Round-of-64.

Coaches have tried to use the NCAA’s clever “milestone” format as a handy crutch with which to deflect criticism after poor showings in the tournament.

The Missouri Tigers of the 1980s and 90s were coached by Norm Stewart, whose rosters invariably played very well before falling apart in the postseason. Stewart would begin his end-of-the-year press conference by saying “Any time you get to March Madness, it’s a job well done.”

Technically, Stewart was right. To reach the Big Dance, a Division 1 school has to beat out 300+ other programs fighting for less than 75 spots in the year-ending tourney. Making the NCAA Tournament puts a team in at least the top 20% of the division.

That doesn’t mean fans will be enthused when a power-conference school is seeded #4 or #5 (or #1) in a Regional bracket for March Madness and still loses prior to reaching the Sweet Sixteen or perhaps even the Round of 32. It happened to Arizona and even Virginia last spring.

Coaches and team captains who can’t coax an efficient performance out of their squad against a double-digit seed in the Round of 64 are the only “losers” of the NCAA Tournament…and deflecting to “hey we made it” just makes things worse.

The Tourney is As You Make It

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 class.

If you’ve seen the movie Hoosiers you know that 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.

Kentucky baseball is still managed that way. KY 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 almost nil. But if Penn or Harvard (or Bradley) reaches the Sweet Sixteen only to fall, you won’t find any T-shirts on campus that record a losing score from the Elite Eight.

My favorite futures betting lines for March Madness are not available yet at most online sportsbooks and exchanges – the advance-to-round prop markets. 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. The tip-off is just around the corner…and we’ll start seeing more prop lines soon.

March Madness Has Created a Gambling Holiday

A friend recently told me that she was hanging out in a Las Vegas sportsbook last March when some NCAA Tournament games came on the big screens. One of the party-hounds she had been sharing beers with suddenly stood up with a serious look on his face.

“Alright,” he said, “Everyone give me your money! I’m going to go turn it into more.”

Sure enough, he came back with riches 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 moneylines.

But that part doesn’t matter. 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.

Even those fans 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.

There are plenty of jackpots in the offing when March Madness rolls around, but there are pitfalls for bettors too. Here are a few quick tips to remember when gambling on the Big Dance.

March Madness: Betting Pointers for the Recreational Player

Always lean toward picking single teams (or multiple teams) with futures wagers at a sports betting site before you enter a bracket sweepstakes, which are nearly impossible to win and spread the hobby gambler’s mind way too thin as she makes her predictions.

Stay patient. There are a lot of tip-offs in the NCAA Tournament and you don’t need to win a wager on every single one to turn a profit.

Pick the Over (total points) a little more often than you normally would. In the regular season, coaches often let an opponent run out the clock if trailing by 12+ points with 2 minutes left. At the Big Dance, that situation will almost always be accompanied by a flurry of fouls and free throws, running the point total up and killing low-side Over/Under bets in the final moments.

Don’t give money to anyone you’re drinking beers with in Las Vegas, especially if he’s leaving the room and promising to come back. (Just because it worked once doesn’t mean it’s not usually BS.)

Have a Good Time With the NCAA Tournament

The very best thing about March Madness is that there is a whole lot of basketball to be watched, enjoyed, and gambled-on all at once. But just because the water is 50 feet deep doesn’t mean you can’t take a leisurely swim in the shallow end.

Don’t get so wrapped up in making picks that you forget to enjoy the games. When bettors break even but miss out on the fun, they’re getting “robbed” by the sportsbook…robbed of something far more precious than money.

Gamble as you like, but don’t get pressured into placing so many bets that the Big Dance becomes a Nervous Sit. Take some downtime to enjoy the tourney…it only happens once a year.