Las Vegas is pretty hectic at any time, but the pace picks up even more during the opening rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
It has become Sin City’s second-biggest week for sports betting, only trailing the Super Bowl.
Many bettors enjoy it more, because you have 32 games to wager on Thursday and Friday and 16 games on Saturday and Sunday. They try to jazz up the Super Bowl with a lot of prop bets, but it’s still just one game.
This year, for the first time, we don’t have to fly to Nevada to legally bet on the NCAA Tournament. You can do it at a variety of locations in Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania – and even via phone in New Jersey through several mobile apps.
We’re not talking about office pools. Those are still as popular as ever, ranging from free (we play for the Jason Levine Memorial Beanpot at The News Journal, which is priceless) to whatever amounts your bosses will allow.
This is single-game wagering, placing bets using the point spread or money line (no points). Parlays are also available in some places, and while they offer higher payouts … there’s a reason they offer higher payouts. Hitting three or four or more games in a row is very difficult, and going 7-1 on an eight-way parlay pays the same as going 0-8 – zero.
So if this is your first time dipping a toe into NCAA Tournament betting, do what every coach in every sport claims to do – take it one game at a time.
I went to Delaware Park and made a few bets on Monday night, including underdogs, favorites and totals to show some of the different ways you can play each game.
Here are eight completely not-guaranteed-to-win wagers. If you decide to copy any of these and win, you owe me a pizza. If you decide to follow my logic and lose, you never read this, you don’t know me, none of this ever happened.
The best thing about the NCAA Tournament are the upsets in the early rounds. They happen every year, and we all root for them. But which teams can actually overcome the odds and pull it off? Here are three possibilities I like:
► Yale over LSU: Historically, No. 14 seeds have only won 15.4 percent of their first-round games. That’s why you would call this one an upset. Yale has an NBA prospect (really) in 6-foot-6 guard Miye Oni.
LSU coach Will Wade was suspended indefinitely on March 8, and the Tigers lost their SEC Tournament opener to Florida a week later. ESPN bracket expert Joe Lunardi is also picking this upset, so I’m not the only one going out on a limb here.
Yale is getting 8 points, but I’m going with the money line and getting +290 for an outright win, which would turn a $10 wager into a $39 payoff.
► New Mexico State over Auburn: At least one No. 12 seed has beaten a No. 5 seed in 28 of the last 33 NCAA Tournaments.
New Mexico State is 30-4 and wears down opponents by playing at least 10 players a fairly equal number of minutes. Auburn is on an eight-game winning streak, including four in four days to win the SEC Tournament.
But a run like that can take its toll. The Tigers will be a long way from home in Salt Lake City, favored by 6½ points. I’m again going with the money line, getting a nice +250 for an outright New Mexico State win.
► Murray State over Marquette: Another 12 vs. 5 matchup, and this should be one of the most exciting games of the first round. Because it matches two of the nation’s top 10 scorers in Murray State guard Ja Morant (24.6 points, nation-leading 10.0 assists per game) against Marquette guard Markus Howard (25.0 points per game).
The Golden Eagles were strong in the Big East all season, but the Racers are 27-4 and won a surprisingly strong Ohio Valley Conference (runner-up Belmont got a rare mid-major at-large bid and already scored an NCAA win over Temple on Tuesday).
Morant is a certain NBA lottery pick, and I’m skipping the 4½ points and taking Murray State outright on the money line at +170.
Take the points
Sometimes you like a matchup, but don’t quite feel comfortable predicting an outright upset. So you get a little help from the point spread instead. Here is my best choice in that category:
► Liberty (+7) vs. Mississippi State: Yet another 12 vs. 5 matchup. Liberty is 28-6 and earned its NCAA spot by winning at Lipscomb – which was under consideration for an at-large NCAA berth and won an NIT road game on Tuesday – in the Atlantic Sun championship game.
Still, Mississippi State won 10 games in a strong SEC and may be tough to beat here. But Liberty plays at a slower pace, works for good shots (hitting 57 percent inside the arc) and is very good on free throws (78 percent). All of those things can keep a game close against a better opponent, so I’ll take the 7 points and cross my fingers.
Give the points
We may cheer for the underdogs, but most people bet the favorites. Because, theoretically, they are better. Here are two that really caught my eye:
► Nevada over Florida: Nevada is 29-4. Florida is 19-15. Sure, the Gators play in a better conference, but unless you’re playing the Harlem Globetrotters every night, 15 losses is a lot.
Nevada returns most of a team that reached the Sweet 16 last year as a No. 7 seed, and the Wolf Pack are the same seed this year. No. 7s have beaten No. 10s 71 percent of the time over the last five years. And yet, with all of that, Nevada is only a 2-point favorite. I’ll take some of that.
► Cincinnati over Iowa: This game is in Columbus, Ohio, just 106 miles from Cincinnati. The Bearcats are 28-6 and have wins over four NCAA Tournament teams, including third-seeded Houston.
Iowa is in a tailspin, having lost five of its last six games. Four of those were by 14 points or more, including an 86-72 home loss to Rutgers, which went 7-13 in the Big Ten. Makes you wonder why Cincinnati is only a 3½-point favorite, but I’ll say the Bearcats win by more than that.
Sweating it out
You can also wager on the total number of points scored in each game, a bet known as the over-under. A line is set and you can bet a game will finish over or under that number.
It’s much more comforting to bet the over, because you can just cheer for both teams to score on every shot and run up the total. And once that total goes over the line, you’re a winner. That can happen with several minutes left in the game.
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It takes a little more moxie to bet the under. You have to sweat it out until the final horn, because a thousand things can go against you.
The teams can be 10-15 points under the total with a minute to go … and then the trailing team starts hitting desperation 3-pointers, fouls and timeouts extend the game, the leading team makes a few free throws and your winning ticket can turn into a loser on a meaningless (to everybody but you) shot at the buzzer.
Having said that, I do like one under in the first round:
► California-Irvine vs. Kansas State (under 120): Two of the slowest-paced, best defensive teams are matched against each other. UC-Irvine has held 14 opponents to 60 points or less. Kansas State has held 18 opponents to 60 points or less. If both teams can do it to each other, I’ll be a winner.
The whole thing
You can also bet on which team will win the entire tournament. The odds can fluctuate, but as of Monday night at Delaware Park, Duke was the favorite at 9-5. Virginia and Gonzaga were next at 9-2, followed by North Carolina at 6-1.
I like to shoot for a little higher payout on these wagers, so I went with Michigan State at 14-1. The Spartans are the No. 2 seed in the East Region, and will likely have to beat Duke to reach the Final Four. But nobody said it would be easy.
Feel free to use a couple of my picks, or do the smart thing and bet against me. Either way, enjoy the games and good luck.
Contact Brad Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ