Las Vegas sportsbooks are deeply tied NFL and college football gambling in the fall and winter. NHL junkies and fans of women’s sports find themselves frustrated as betting sites pass on all but the most obvious (and last-minute) markets in favor of the all-consuming gridiron.
The pigskin betting action reaches its high point at the very, very end with the Super Bowl each February. By that time, the fans of other sports are starting to get a little restless.
But wait…did you hear that? A squeak.
I think it was the sound of a tennis shoe squeaking on hardwood.
Whoops…there goes more squeaking. A cacophony of cagers. A trampling of tennis shoes. A symphony of squeaks! It’s March Madness….coming to a squeaky (and shiny) arena near you very soon.
Don’t worry, basketball fans. College hoops is about to grab the full attention of bookmakers. But the bookies know that mad money will be wagered and lost on many favorites, since only a single team can win the Men’s NCAA Basketball Championship. Even picking squads to go to the Final Four can be a frustrating experience for bracket junkies and high rollers.
My advice is to bet on individual games while putting small amounts of spare cash on a few futures picks to win or advance to the last weekend in Minneapolis. But don’t put yourself through head coach-level stress over cheering a 2-to-1 pick on a winning streak. Make your March Madness plays count.
There is always at least one Cinderella who threatens a run at the grail. Loyola-Chicago reached the Final Four last season. UConn won the NCAA Tournament as a #7 seed in 2014. Each team paid off marvelously for long-term market gamblers. Who needs a perfect bracket when you can score bigly on an underrated powerhouse?
Make a Potentially Life-Changing Bet on March Madness
Futures bets of the 100-to-1 kind are what I like to call “potential life-changing” wagers. It’s like playing a smart version of the lottery.
State lotteries offer people a pretty good deal in the overall sense – you can purchase a ticket with spare change that you aren’t going to miss all that much anyway, and in return, you could be a multi-millionaire. The astronomically-long odds of winning really don’t matter because the risk is so small and the reward is so great. And after all, in a plurality of lottery systems, someone eventually has to win.
But at the same time, it’s pure luck. There is actually such a thing as lottery “zines” and specialty publications which offer tips on how to play the lottery. Every so often, crooks succeed in “gaming” one. Yet the gambling genre of guessing random number selections is what it is. There’s only so far you can go with the strategy and tactics of RAM or balls in a bingo machine.
Long-shot futures betting at the sportsbook is a different animal. Last season, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights opened as a (+50000) underdog to win the Stanley Cup, and nearly paid off right in front of horrified bookmakers. Loyola-Chicago bettors were paid off in gigantic sums of cash right around April Fools’ Day in 2018. For once, it was the bookies who looked like fools.
How many people really wagered on the Ramblers to make it to Texas, though? Not many. It takes skill to pick out potential Cinderellas who won’t slip on their own slippers at the Big Dance.
Never fear. I’ve got a mind that it takes a strong, dynamic, versatile squad to advance in the NCAA Tournament, every bit as much as it takes a celebrity coach and NBA blue chips on the roster.
The short-odds favorites to win 2019’s tourney, such as Duke and Kansas, are fat in the latter categories. But the sleepers – overlooked teams on the rise and relative unknowns from small conferences – are just as likely to have the former.
Let’s look at 10 stiff underdogs who could shock the system in March…and pay off handsomely on the futures line.
Buffalo Bulls ((+9000 Odds-to-Win at Bovada Sportsbook)
The 25th-ranked Bulls made noise in the Big Dance a year ago by ousting a distracted Arizona team in the round of 64. Buffalo has since been on a tear under skipper Nate Oats, starting the 2018-19 regular season 17-1 with wins over West Virginia and Syracuse.
6’3” senior guard C.J. Massinburg is a versatile threat from the perimeter, averaging 18.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game while nailing 42.7% of his shots from downtown. The beast patrolling the middle is 6’8” forward Nick Perkins, another veteran who has been notching 13.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. The run-and-gun Bulls can light up the scoreboard, and foul trouble has been one of the only real issues with an athletic defense.
The Hawkeyes have been flying under the radar in a loaded Big Ten, but a recent 15-point win against Michigan put onlookers on notice. Head coach Fran McCaffery is on pace to have his best season since taking over the program in 2010.
6’9” junior forward Tyler Cook has been producing in the paint while guards Joe Wieskamp, Jordan Bohannon, and 6’5” redshirt junior Isaiah Moss have become 3-point sharpshooters, all connecting at over a 40% rate from beyond the arc. The Hawkeyes also share the rock with 16.6 assists per game, but a low-ranked scoring defense needs to be addressed before March.
Arizona State (+12500)
Wins over Kansas and Mississippi State have proven that that the Sun Devils can compete at an elite level. Unless Bobby Hurley’s squad hits the wall in a weak Pac-12, we can look to see ASU getting a decent seed and doing damage in the tourney.
Stout freshman guard Luguentz Dort is imposing his will with 16.2 points per game. Meanwhile, athletic 6’8” forward Zylan Cheatham has been a double-double machine, tallying 11.5 points and 11 rebounds per game.
I promise not to make any jokes about how it’d be awesome for Cheatham to play in a front-court with “Dewey” and “Howe.” Wait…I just did.
Carelessness with the ball could be a major bummer down the stretch, as the Sun Devils average nearly 14 turnovers per contest. Opponents have been draining open 3-pointers and lay-ups in the transition game. But that’s also the type of statistic that can drive a March Madness contender’s line too long and open up an opportunity for the savvy bettor. Handicappers may glance at the squad’s apparent “bad” defense and not realize that the half-court defense is just fine.
Central Florida (+12500)
Talk about an on-the-rise athletic program to bet on in any sport. The UCF Knights are on a roll in hoops as well as on the gridiron.
A 17-5 start for Johnny Dawkins’ squad has put a first NCAA tourney berth for the program since 2005 within reach. The dynamic perimeter duo of 6’2” redshirt senior guard B.J. Taylor and 6’6” redshirt junior guard Aubrey Dawkins leads the way, but a team-oriented offense is methodical and pushes the ball inside. Opposing offenses struggle to find open looks in transition or in half court sets, and UCF ranks 14th in the nation in defensive FG percentage. The Knights have the kind of unique and quirky game that helped UMBC and Loyola-Chicago take down giants last March.
UCF appears to be one of a handful of quality sleepers who temporarily missing from Bovada’s betting lines for March Madness. The odds above represent the most recent consensus line.
The Huskies have risen to the head of the class in the Pac-12, and only a couple of gut-wrenching non-conference defeats have prevented a rise to national prominence. Head coach Mike Hopkins has made an immediate impact his first 2 years at the helm, but it certainly helps having a smooth guard like 6’4” sophomore Jaylen Nowell, the team’s “20 point man” in key league victories.
6’8” forward Noah Dickerson adds experience and scoring touch, but Washington is not the most explosive scoring team. Hopkins’ squad makes its way with powerful and well-organized guarding on the inside and outside, holding UCLA to just 55 points in a recent league triumph.
The Tigers are at a tipping point. A 1-5 start in ACC play could have spelled doom for all but a lowly NIT bid, but as of February, the momentum seems to be gaining steam at the right moment. Senior guard Marcquise Reed is having a spectacular season, averaging 18.9 points and 5.1 rebounds. 6’9” senior forward Elijah Thomas has been dominant on the interior.
Defense is the calling card for the Tigers, who are allowing under 65 points per game, but as with ASU the offense has committed too many unforced errors and must straighten itself out by the round of 64.
South Dakota State (+20000)
This is the not the first time the Jackrabbits have been among the potential bracket busters. SDSU has failed and flailed despite some close calls trying to advance as a Cinderella.
The star of this year’s squad is 6’9” senior forward Mike Daum, a monster averaging 25 points and a double-double in every game. His backcourt sidekicks include sophomore David Jenkins and 6’6” senior Skyler Flatten, who can put the offense on their backs alongside the dominant forward. The Jackrabbits are a dynamic, ultra-efficient scoring machine, averaging 85 points per game.
Despite some struggles giving up points on the defensive end, the Jackrabbits clean up on the glass with over 30 defensive rebounds per game. Daum helps with that quite a bit. If a top-ranked squad goes cold shooting against SDSU in the NCAA Tournament, they might come up with a slightly different way to say the upperclassman’s name.
The sportsbook also appears to be holding/adjusting its line on SDSU, but it’ll be back at similar odds.
Murray State (+25000)
Should the Murray State Racers reach the Big Dance, there is a star in the making you’ll want to have already heard about when standing at the office water cooler. 6’3” sophomore guard Ja Morant is averaging a sensational 23.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 10.2 assists per game. He’s one of the most electrifying players in the country and could potentially be the first guard taken in the 2019 NBA Draft.
The Racers also receive production from the backcourt duo of 6’3” senior Shaq Buchanan and 6’5” freshman Tevin Brown, each averaging double figures in the scoring column. The Racers shoot at an elite clip of nearly 50 percent and have one of the most dangerous backcourts in any conference. Meanwhile, Matt McMahon’s tactically-sound defense is laser sharp on the perimeter and ranks 5th in the nation in defensive 3-point FG percentage. What’s the biggest difference between Murray State and NC State? Murray State isn’t in the ACC.
This could be head coach Mike Young’s best team at Wofford since his 28-win team that made the tourney in 2015. The Terriers are on the verge of capping an undefeated season in Southern Conference play.
Silky smooth 6’4” senior guard Fletcher Magee is a bona-fide shooter averaging 20 points per game and shooting 40.5% beyond the arc. 6’8” senior forward Cameron Jackson is an inside-outside threat tallying 15 points and 7.6 rebounds per game while shooting 43.8% from downtown. In addition to a total of 5 players shooting over 40% from 3-point range, the Wofford cagers are also scrappy and clean up the boards a rebounding margin among the nation’s best.
Lipscomb (No Line)
The Bisons – not the Bison – got a taste of tourney life last season with a defeat to North Carolina in the program’s first ever March Madness appearance. But the 2019 could be much betting. Lipscomb has steamrolled to an undefeated start in the Atlantic Sun league and picked up solid non-conference victories over TCU and Vermont. 6’5” senior guard Garrison Matthews is putting up 19.8 points and 5.2 rebounds per game while leading an offense that thrives on ball movement. The undersized squad is tough as nails on the glass.
Lipscomb opened as a gigantic underdog (of course) to win a national title at around 5000-to-1 odds. Most of Las Vegas does not currently consider the Bisons worthy of a line to win the tourney or to reach Minneapolis, but there will be monumental payoffs offered on futures markets come early March.
Making the Right Futures Picks for March Madness
Remember that for a lot of steep underdogs, a Final Four pick makes a lot more sense than gambling on a futures line “to win the NCAA Tournament.” The Loyola-Chicago Ramblers may have been charmed by the elderly nun Sister Jean in 2018, but their actual chances of reaching the final quartet of survivors were always 10 times better than their % shot to beat Michigan and then Villanova.
That kind of disparity in likely-outcomes helps the March Madness bettor find value in Final Four lines, which are usually about 1/4th as long as a team’s line to win as a Cinderella. For instance, you might see the Wofford Terriers at 75-to-1 odds to reach the Twin Cities when the final bracket is released…assuming that the squad makes it to the tournament.
As exciting as it is to handicap players like Ja Morant of Murray State, I’m looking for a school that has more than a single deadly weapon. UCF is a clever futures pick and could turn into a hustle-and-rebound bear for any top-ranked opponent to drag down. But I’m liking Mike Daum and South Dakota State at 250-to-1 national title odds and especially the greater than 50-to-1 payoff that the Jackrabbits could turn into reality with a Cinderella run to the Final Four.