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The NCAA tournament for 2021 is upon us, after a one-year hiatus thanks to the covid pandemic, and all eyes are on Indianapolis. A few things are different this year, mainly the fact that we're playing in a bubble - so teams wont be travelling. This has had some impact on the seeding process (might sharp bettors extract some value there?), but the 64-team March Madness bracket will soon be fixed, and everyone's raring to go.
Any fan of college ball will tell you that there's something a little bit special about this tournament. There's a fanaticism - in the truest sense of the word - that comes with it; the school pride, the fierce rivalries, the chance to seek revenge, the desire to live up to the legacy of those who have gone before you. It's tribal. It's almost primal.
Full and fair disclosure - this writer is an unabashed North Carolina Tar Heel. As the fight song goes: "I'm a Tar Heel born, I'm a Tar Heel bred, and when I die, I'm a Tar Heel dead!" - and I was only there for two semesters... The year I was there we lost in the Final Four. It still hurts.
The title that year was won by UCLA... who this year... are underdogs in the First Four game vs Michigan State. And that reversal of fortune (albeit over many years) in so many ways sums up all that's great about this tournament.
Eyes on Gonzaga
Gonzaga are undoubtedly the favourites - and by some margin according to the odds. The current winners market offers odds of 3.02 on Gonzaga lifting the national title, followed by Michigan at 6.19, Baylor at 6.26 and Illinois at 7.60.
These odds are correct at the time of writing, but please check the live site for the latest numbers.
This favouritism is reflected across a number of the more than 200 special Outright markets Cloudbet has to offer. The market on who will win the West region places Gonzaga at 1.40, followed by Iowa at 4.76.
The Bulldogs, or Zags, are undefeated this year. They come to Indianapolis as West Coast Conference champs over BYU (who start as No.6 seeds in the East). They open their tournament against the winner of the First Four game between Norfolk State and Appalachian State.
The strength of this unit is also confirmed by the most outstanding player market, with the top three spots all filled by Bulldogs - small forward Corey Kispert is favoured to take home the award at 4.00, followed by point/shooting guard Jalan Suggs and power forward/centre Drew Timme (both at 5.00). And as if that wasn’t enough, Zags’ shooting guard Joel Ayayi sits at six (11.00).
But being top dog doesn’t mean getting to the title will be a walk in the park.
The other No.1s
Of course, the other No.1 seeds are all in the running and all have the potential to make a title run.
Michigan, placed second by Cloudbet odds, have shown that a team can thrive around a big man - and a freshman - in the shape of 7ft centre Hunter Dickinson, who comes in at eighth (15.00) in the most outstanding player market. Guard Franz Wagner is 10th at odds of 18.00. In the East region winner market, Michigan is at 2.90, followed by Alabama (5.00), Florida State and Texas (the No.4 and No.3 seeds both at 6.00).
Michigan are coming in after a Big 10 conference semifinal 67-68 loss to Ohio State (No.2 in the South), who went on to lose the final to Illinois. Ahead of that semifinal loss, power forward Isaiah Livers had to withdraw because of a stress fracture in his foot. At this point it look unlikely he'll take part in the NCAA, and Michigan isn't quite the same team without him.
Baylor bowed out of the Big 12 conference at the semifinal stage, losing 74-83 to Oklahoma State (No.4 in the Midwest), who then lost the final to Texas (No.3 in the East). This has raised a few eyebrows about the strength of their defense, but watch guard Jared Butler - fourth in the most outstanding player market (at 7.00) - who, along with Davion Mitchell (12th; 20.00) are first-round picks in ESPN's latest NBA mock draft.
Looks like Baylor are also the team to watch from the outside - Butler is 44% from the 3-point line, while MaCio Teague is connecting on nearly 40% of his 3-point attempts. The Bears lead the nation with 43% from 3. Baylor to win the South are at 1.74, followed by the Buckeyes at 4.99.
Illinois enter strong having won the Big 10 conference tournament and should be boosted by the return of star guard Ayo Dosunmu to the line up alongside centre Kofi Cockburn - respectively, fifth and seventh in the most outstanding player market, at odds of 10.00 and 11.00. Cockburn was on fire in the Big 10, making over 66% of his shots within the arc - the league best.
The odds on Illinois to win the Midwest are 2.30, followed by No.2 Houston Cougars at 4.50, No.4 Oklahoma State at 6.00 and No.3 West Virginia at 7.01.
The Fighting Illini last made the final in 2005 - where they lost to North Carolina.
Looking for clues: AP rankings vs the odds
One of the key performance indicators used by fans and bettors alike are the Associated Press (AP) team rankings, long a respected bellwether gauge of tournament expectations.
This year's AP top four are Gonzaga, Illinois, Baylor and Michigan. The full 25 can be found here.
Stressing again how hard it is for a team to get the deal done, in the last 20 years, the No.1 AP ranked team has won the tournament just once - and it's happened only four times since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. It's a huge challenge to ask a team to go out there and finish the season with six straight wins.
Incidentally, the last time Gonzaga made it to the final was in 2017, where they lost to North Carolina.
The top teams as suggested by the current Cloudbet odds are, in order: Gonzaga, Michigan, Baylor (it's really tight between two and three) and Illinois.
These are followed by Iowa, Alabama, Houston and Ohio State - all of the No.2 seeds in their respective regions (West, East, Midwest, South).
From here, though, we start to see a little digression from the seeding with Texas (East, No.3), Oklahoma State (Midwest, No.4), Florida State (East, No.4) and Virginia (West, No.4).
Things get a little interesting when we look at the three missing No.3 seeds - Kansas, Arkansas and West Virginia. West Virginia sit at 13th, so that’s not so far-fetched, but Creighton, seeded No.5 in the West are 14th, before we get to Kansas in 15th - possibly a reflection of the uncertainty surrounding the team that had to withdraw from the Big 12 semifinal due to a positive covid test. Undoubtedly, their preparation will have been affected.
So what of Arkansas? Let's get back to them in a minute.
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Upsets and Cinderella runs
Let’s start with the upsets. While there are apparently no certainties in life, bar death and taxes, you may as well add “NCAA upsets” to that list.
Knowing that there’ll be an upset, but not knowing where it’ll come is one of the many charms of this competition. The straight-up knock-out nature of March Madness means any minnow can have their day, while title-seeking teams always have to fear an early-round banana peel.
Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1984-85, there have been 59 first-round upsets by teams seeded No.13 or lower beat teams seeded No.2-4. That includes 29 wins by No.13 seeds over No.4s; 21 wins by No.14 seeds over No.3s; and eight wins by No.15 seeds over No.2s (check out this list from Sporting News, which celebrates the biggest first-round upsets since the tournament expanded).
UMBC’s 2018 first-round victory over Virginia - the No.16 Retrievers sinking the No.1 Cavaliers by 74-54 - was the one and only time that a No.16 seed has beaten the No.1 seed in the history of the tournament.
That upset saw an almost complete reversal of the bookies 20.5-point spread - which from this perspective also made the game the second-biggest upset in NCAA history (behind Norfolk State’s win over Missouri in 2012) . If you fancy a similar longshot this year, Cloudbet is offering Baylor vs Hartford at 25.5 points, Illinois vs Drexel at 22.5 points and No.2 seed Houston vs No.15 Cleveland State at 20 points.
Readers may also want to take a look at ESPN’s Giant Killer model, which points to 11 potential first-round upsets.
So back to Arkansas.
The Razorbacks - seeded No.3 in the South but currently sitting in 19th as suggested by Cloudbet odds. From a betting perspective, does this mean there's value to be had in Arkansas that the bookies aren't offering - or has the seeding got it so far wrong that the Razorbacks are great contenders for a first round upset at the hands of No.14 seed Colgate?
Could Colgate be the Cinderella story of 2021?
Arkansas face Colgate in the first round - a team that may not have the NCAA pedigree of a larger school, but is here on the back of a 14-1 season and a Patriot League win.
Colgate ranks second nationally in offense, with 86.3 points per game, behind only Gonzaga, and shoot 50% from the floor. Their key powerhouse player is point guard Jordan Burns.
If Colgate does pull off a first-round upset, they'd meet the winner of Texas Tech vs Utah State - seeded No.6 and No.11, respectively - and one more win would put them in the Sweet 16. Stranger things have happened and this doesn't seem too far out of the realm of possibility. For more, check out the Bleacher Report's 10 Best Cinderella stories in March Madness history.
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Some big absences
As if the past 18 months or so haven't been interesting enough, there are some big names with NCAA history and pedigree that are noticeably absent this year.
Kentucky, second on the all-time list with eight national titles, and Duke, five-time champs, haven't made it the dance. Both teams had far from stellar seasons, and while Duke went to the ACC tournament looking to pull off something special to secure a spot in the 64, they were forced to withdraw at the quarterfinal stage after a positive covid test in their camp. The last time Duke failed to make it was 1995. The last time Kentucky failed was 2013. According to ESPN, in to 2010s, no teams put up more NCAA wins than the Wildcats (31) and the Blue Devils (26).
Given that the tournament is being held this year in Indiana, and knowing how important basketball is to folks in the Hoosier state - like Duke, Indiana are a five-time title winner - it must be even more painful to suffer the ignominy again this year of failing to make it through Selection Sunday. For a fourth consecutive year. The result? Coach Archie Miller was fired earlier this week.
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So get off the sidelines and into the action today as we look forward to what will surely be another entertaining, enthralling, memorable March Madness.