Beyond The Bracket: Betting On March Madness Upsets And Long Shots

The biggest basketball tournament in America is about to begin. Here’s what you need to know about March Madness from a bettor’s perspective.

Everybody bets the bracket

There is nothing in sports quite like March Madness. Sixty-eight US college basketball teams play 67 games through seven elimination rounds in a little over 14 days. Some days are so full of back to back action that fans in the right time zone can turn on screens at noon and not stop watching basketball until close to midnight, 16 full games later.

Maybe because of the sheer number of possible outcomes and bets all these games generate, most casual fans focus any betting solely on their “brackets,” attempting to predict every single game’s winner in one, massive parlay.

Back in 2014, Warren Buffet put up a billion dollar prize for anyone who could fill out a perfect March Madness bracket. The tournament lasted two weeks. No predictions lasted two days.

Why? These odds:

Getting struck by lightning: 1 in 15,300.
Winning EuroMillions: 1 in 139,838,160.
Correctly predicting an entire March Madness bracket: 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808.

In other words: You’re almost certainly not going to pick the perfect bracket.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t pick a perfect outright.

Look for big odds on single team long shots instead

Sharp bettors love to make game by game picks as the tournament goes on, changing betting patterns rapidly with each elimination. But a logical consequence of the March Madness madness is that the odds on individual teams making it to later rounds are often much higher than in other tournaments and leagues.

Betting on a bracket may be an obvious bust. But betting early on outrights could be just the right mix of risk, reward, and adrenaline.

Highest March Madness champion outright payouts

Connecticut and Villanova have both won the championship on several occasions despite starting the tournament as underdogs. Payouts of 66x or more for bets on lower seeds to win have yielded big profits for bettors in the past.

table showing 7 all-time highest pre tournament odds on march madness winners
Top 7 all-time highest pre-tournament odds on March Madness winners

FYI: This year, odds on Connecticut and Villanova are Connecticut (+2120 / 22.2) and Villanova (+8660 / 87.6).

Or bet the favorites

This year, the usual suspects of Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky are not among the 2023 March Madness favorites. Instead, oddsmakers are looking at these teams to go all the way:

Houston +650

The Cougars are favorites to go all the way thanks to their recent tournament experience – they reached the Elite Eight last year and the Final Four two seasons ago.

Kansas +920

The Jayhawks could be the first repeat champions since Florida in 06/07. Junior forward Jalen Wilson has carried the load with averages of 19.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game.

Purdue +930

7-foot-4 Naismith Award candidate Zach Edey (22.1 ppg, 12.6 rpg, 2.4 bpg) will be leading the line for the Boilermakers as they look to be a force come tournament time.

Alabama +980

Teams will be busy against this offense. Alabama averages 83.4 points and just under 30 threes per game. They also lead the nation in rebounds (44.6 rpg) so opponents will have their work cut out.

And then there are the upsets

Odds on the favorites do look good, but don’t forget: March Madness is notorious for little known teams from tiny schools knocking out the biggest names in college basketball in early rounds. Here are just a few examples of huge March Madness upsets (and the payouts they would’ve earned).

2012: No. 15 Norfolk State (+21.5) beats No. 2 Missouri (-21.5)

A $1000 stake on Norfolk State at +1650 / 17.5 would have netted $17,500. 

Many analysts believed Missouri deserved to be the No. 1 seed and most had written off Norfolk State. President Obama even had Missouri reaching the Final Four.

With the game tied 81-81 with 34 seconds to play, future NBA big-man Kyle O’Quinn made an And-one to put the Spartans up 84-81. MIssouri had a chance in the final second with star guard Phil Pressey pulling for a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer. Fortunately for Norfolk State, it rimmed out and the rest was history.

2018: No. 16 UMBC (+20.5) beats No. 1 Virginia (-20.5)

A $1000 stake on UMBC at +2500 / 26 would have netted $26,000.

The game was tightly contested in the first half, but despite leading the NCAA in scoring defense at 53.4 points per game, Virginia inexplicably gave up 53 points in the second half, resulting in a shocking blowout upset.

1993: No. 15 Santa Clara (+20) vs No. 2 Arizona (-20)

A $1000 stake on Santa Clara at +1500 / 16 would have netted $16,000. 

The Steve Nash-led Broncos were up in the first half 33-21 before future NBA players Damian Stoudamire, Khalid Reeves and Chris Mills forced a 14-0 run to give Arizona a 35-33 lead at the break. The Wildcats started the second half with 11 unanswered points, leading 46-33 with 15 minutes remaining. Their fortunes changed when Chris Mills was sent to the bench with four fouls, paving the way for the Broncos to mount an improbable comeback. Arizona ended up going 15 minutes without scoring a field goal. Mills drained a three with 8.4 seconds left but it was too little too late.

1997: No. 15 Coppin State (+18.5) vs No. 2 South Carolina (-18.5)

A $1000 stake on Coppin State at +1750 / 18.5 would have netted $18,500. 

Coppin State had never won a game in the NCAA tournament and it looked likely to stay that way after they were paired against South Carolina. In the end the game wasn’t even close with the Gamecocks sent packing in a 78-65 loss. The tournament win was the first in NCAA history for both Coppin and its conference, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

Coppin State took the lead 55-54 with 6:12 left to play and never looked back. The lead was stretched to eight with 3 minutes to go before South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler finally called a timeout. In the end it was too late. Coppin State recorded their first ever win, advancing to the second round where they lost in a 82-81 nail biter to No. 10 Texas.

2022: No. 15 Saint Peter’s (+18.5) vs No. 2 Kentucky (-18.5)

A $1000 stake on Saint Peter’s at +1400 / 15 would have netted $15,000. 

Daryl Banks III was the first half hero for Saint Peter’s. He tallied 16 points in 15 minutes of action and went 4-4 from three as the Peacocks and Wildcats finished the half tied at 37. While many expected Kentucky to pull away, nothing could separate the teams in the second half. They went to overtime where Saint Peter’s went on a 10-1 run and took a six-point lead to send the Wildcast home.

The win was an incredible feat for the school that had half as many NCAA tournament appearances (4) as Kentucky has national titles (8). Even more remarkable was the financial gulf between the two schools. In 2022, Kentucky spent nearly twelve times more ($18.3M) on basketball than Saint Peter’s ($1.6M). The result was the biggest ever financial upset, irrespective of seeding, in the NCAA tournament.

Key March Madness Dates

However you plan to bet, March Madness moves fast. Don’t miss your chance to bet now.

Selection Sunday (schedule and bracket published): March 12

First Four (play-in for 4 unseeded teams): Mach 14-15

First Round (64 teams start elimination games): March 16-17

Second Round: March 18-19

Sweet 16: March 23-24

Elite Eight: March 25-26

Final Four: April 1 

NCAA Championship Game: April 3

Good luck!

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