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6 Helpful Tips for Betting on March Madness Upsets

By Dan Vasta in March Madness
| January 7, 2022 10:29 am PDT

There are many nuggets to devour before wagering on the NCAA Tournament. We have had many bad beats over the years that have proven costly.

Going with your gut is often a strategy for some, but knowing historic trends is one of the many notes to jot down.

Here are your top six tips for predicting March Madness upsets.

Fade The Big Ten

The Big Ten has been a struggling conference in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan State won a national title in 2000, but the ability to come up short time after time has been costly for many gamblers.

They have had tremendous coaches over the years, but there has been some lack of elite talent compared to the ACC, SEC, and Big 12. The conference from the Midwest has not been able to get out of its own way.

Since 2001, the Big Ten is 0-7 in national championship games and their average margin of defeat is at 10.1 points per game.

Eventually the conference will break out of it slump to win it all in due time. There are consistently a dozen teams on average that rise to the occasion from the ACC, SEC, and Big 12 conferences.

The ACC has been dominating and it has helped they have been able to have some of the best players in the country. North Carolina and Duke are two of the top programs since the NCAA Tournament began with seeding in 1979.

The Big 12 has been on the rise with teams other than Kansas making a run towards the Final Four. The SEC has a juggernaut in Kentucky, but several others have been in the Top 25 for years now.

Florida won a pair of national championships with Billy Donovan in 2006 and 2007, but there are other programs up for the challenge. Which program is going to rise up the occasion in the Big Ten?

Indiana keeps having coaching overhauls, but maybe Purdue and Michigan can take their games to the next level. Had it not been for Tom Izzo and his ability to have success in March, the conference would be disastrous in terms of national title contention.

If you take a Big Ten squad, make sure they have one of the best squads to take them to the Final Four and beyond. They have been upset numerous times before and they rarely are upsetting teams in their favor.

Don’t Go Below 18th in Final AP Poll

We have seen the top teams advance in the NCAA Tournament. While upsets will occur every year, more top seeds avoid upsets than not. Out of the top 15-20 squads going into the tournament, about half of them at the very least will advance to the Sweet 16.

Since 1989, the national champion has been ranked no worse than 18th in the final AP Poll.

Over a the last few decades, there has been plenty of data to show a top 4 seed is going to win the national championship. Looking at teams to win it all after the top four seeds is absurd.

  • 1-seeds: 26 national titles
  • 2-seeds: Seven national titles
  • 3-seeds: Five national titles
  • 4-seeds: One national title
  • 5-7 seeds combined: Four national titles

The only four seed to win it all was Arizona’s magical run in 1997. They became the first-ever team to knock off three No. 1 seeds in the process (Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky). To knock off three of the top programs in the history of the sport is still one of the more magical runs in sports history.

The dominance of the top seeds speaks volumes in the NCAA Tournament. Most of the favorites have the elite coaching, talent, experience, and adversity heavily in their favor.

When looking for upsets, the two and three seeds are your best bets. These teams could have had injuries or bad luck during the seed or else they would have been the top seeds entering the big dance.

While the one seeds are rarely all losing prior to the Final Four, there are strategies to consider. One involves the 5-seed.

Fade The 5-Seed

People love talking about the 5-12 first round matchup. That is a vital matchup because that is often where we see upsets. In fact, 110-54 is the record of 5 vs 12 seeds since 1979.

67% of time only is not high enough of a number and we nearly had all the five seeds lose in the last tournament. Auburn survived vs New Mexico State on a wide-open corner 3 air-ball (would have won it for the Aggies).

So many 5-seeds are vastly overrated and cannot have enough confidence in their game to make a deep run. There are struggling teams in the power fives, but they often get the benefit of playing above 500 in their respective conferences.

Many conferences struggle mightily in the dance. The Big Ten and Big 12 have had their fair share of struggles over the years. Teams that have battled adversity can find a way to sneak around the chicken coop in the NCAA Tournament.

The top reason to fade the 5-seed is their lack of winning. They have never won the national title and are losing on the first weekend half the time out of the four opportunities each year.

Taking a 5-seed to the Final Four is risky since the top 12 and 13 seeds are the ones that are most likely to knock off teams from the power five conferences. The experienced teams often find ways to come up with key stops and take high-percentage shots.

Frustration can reach a boiling point when turnovers and foul trouble mounts. From a historic standpoint the 5-seed has had major issues over the years.

Here are some staggering numbers that suggest what seeds to hammer come Selection Sunday.

Final Four 1-seeds 2-seeds 3-seeds 4-seeds 5-seeds
By Seeds 67 36 19 14 8

Seeding began in 1979, so over 75% of the seeds have come from the top 5 seeds. The worst number to lean on has been the unfortunate No. 5 seed. We have seen three 5-seeds reach the national title game twice.

That is remarkable for some, but not shocking to a numbers addict like myself.

Do yourself a favor when wagering on the bracket in the future and fade the number five seed.

Finding the Right Sleeper

Yes, the NCAA Tournament has plenty of star-studded options to choose from, but you need to know which sleepers to select.

Finding a sleeper is often the million-dollar question, but so many of them disappoint and get bounced on the opening weekend of the dance. There are a few notes to jot down regarding which seeds you should heavily lean towards.

We have seen several 11-seeds reach the Final Four before, but many of them had talented groups that led the way.

Most of those teams lacked future lottery picks, but they all played exceptional defense and performed their best during the tournament.

Some of their success was based on pure luck. I would argue these teams all had tremendous coaching with the perfect number of breaks in their region.

Unforeseen events occur in the NCAA Tournament and only the strongest survive. We have two and three seeds fall and the double-seeds have taken advantage. We have seen a 3-seed or worse reach the Final Four from 2010-2021.

On average, there will be at least two teams in the Final Four that are chalk. What is chalk? Chalk involves the favorites which heavily leans towards the top three seeds in each region.

We saw South Carolina in 2017 come out of nowhere to win their regional in Madison Square Garden despite Duke and Villanova both on the top and bottom of the bracket. What happened next?

  • Duke lost to South Carolina in Round of 32
  • Villanova lost to Wisconsin in Round of 32

It’s rare to see both top seeds in a region suffer a loss on the opening weekend of the dance. Shot selection and the lack of execution will have teams packing for the year and that is what has made the tournament so entertaining.

There are Top 25 teams that have had lady luck on their side, but it is wise to study the matchups. This isn’t football where we see the physicality as much, but the size and length can have an impact.

The teams that lack the beef and rely on the outside shot are often the ones that get bounced. It takes one off shooting night, and the favorites can get buried. Most Cinderella stories and sleepers have an interior performer that can take over a game.

We have been witnessing nearly a pair of 3-seeds lose every tournament prior to the Sweet 16. At least one 2-seed has been forced to pack their bags on the first weekend of the tournament.

The 7-10 first round matchups are often teams that have competed some of the better competition and are tricky outs in the dance. They are worth a sleeper and are dark horses to make a run to the Elite 8 and Final Four.

Follow the Odds, Trends, NBA Picks, and Injuries

Be aware of the odds and keep track of injuries and trends. Cincinnati lost their superstar forward Kenyon Martin due to a broken leg in 1998. The loss was costly because of how vital Martin was to his team.

The next man up theory is a challenge for even the national title contenders. To play the whole year without a star leading your team is four-plus months of hard work. If a team loses one of their stars, most teams will struggle to find ways to be at the same caliber of a team.

Virginia had an exceptional season during the 2017-18 season. DeAndre Hunter was ruled out for the season on the weekend of the ACC Tournament. He missed the NCAA Tournament, and the Cavaliers became the first-ever top seed to lose to a 16-seed. The upset was stunning, but the loss of key contributors leads to uncertainty in the big dance.

Avoid taking teams that have question marks and lean on the ones that have their full arsenal on display.

Virginia was able to seek revenge and win the national title after their trio of stars returned for one final dance. Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and DeAndre Hunter were all NBA selections, and they led the way for Virginia.

Most national title teams have at least a pair of players being potential draft picks. The chances of earning a top four or five seed without at least one pro player is highly unlikely.

If there is a chance a top 20 team has no future pros, maybe think twice about picking them to the Final Four. Be sure to study the conferences these teams have been competing against for months.

The ACC, SEC, and Big 12 have all been winning national titles. Those three powerhouse conferences won 19 national titles from 2000 going into the 2020 postseason that was cancelled.

We saw Syracuse win one and they are now in the ACC, but the Big East loaded for decades prior to the loss of several teams. Study the odds, know your injuries, and recent trends from the way teams have been performing down the stretch of the season.

When in Doubt, Don’t Fade The 1-Seeds

This should go without saying but lean heavily on 1-seeds when filling out your bracket. Since seeding began in 1979, at least one 1-seed has made the Final Four in all but three seasons (93%).

The top programs are often heavy favorites to reach the Final Four, but the odds don’t disappoint. Yes, there will be upsets along the way but there have a few juggernauts over the years that have dominated.

  • 2009 – North Carolina won every game by double-digits
  • 2012 – Kentucky margin of victory was 11.8 points per game
  • 2021 – Baylor margin of victory was 13.6 points per game

There have only been three seasons that the Final Four has not had at least one 1-seed on the final weekend of the season. The 1980, 2006, and 2011 seasons were the only years we failed to have at least one top seed in the Final Four.

There will be at least one top seed to lose prior to the Final Four every tournament since all one seeds have reached the Final Four only once (2008).

The national championship has been by a 1-seed in five of the last six and the last four seasons. If you can’t somehow pick a 1-seed to win it all, the 2-seed is the next best selection.

When combining the top two seeds, they have won 32 of the 42 national titles since seeding began. The breakdown though, heavily favors the 1-seed.

  • National Titles won by 1-seeds: 25
  • National Titles won by 2-seed: 7
  • Titles won by rest of field combined: 10

In fact, we have seen a pair of one seeds make the Final Four half the time (21 out of 42, 50%). There is no other way to dissect the field of 68. The top teams advance the farthest more times than not. While upsets occur, seeing all the top dogs get knocked off hardly has ever happened.

Summary

These were your top tips on predicting upsets in the NCAA Tournament. We have seen several upsets in March Madness over the years.

To avoid such upsets, be sure to study the trends and keep track of certain injuries that would instantly change the national landscape. Don’t outguess yourself and pick the top seeds to lose on the opening weekend of the dance. Lastly, aim for a few double-digit seeds.

If you are unsure where to place a wager, check out our page on the top March Madness betting sites.

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