Solving March Madness Prop Bets
March Madness creates a betting frenzy at sportsbooks everywhere. Along with the Super Bowl, it is the event that seemingly everyone has to have a bet on. Also like the Super Bowl, it is an event that creates a cornucopia of prop betting options. March Madness prop bets are typically tournament-long propositions. The time to get down on these is before the ball tips on the opening round. Let’s go over a few of the available props and find the best ways to solve them.
Types of March Madness Prop Bets Offered
Finding the prop bets on the college basketball betting menus can take a bit of legwork. Often they are buried deep within the menus and pages of offered wagers. Look for Tournament Specials or Tournament Futures. You won’t find these bets listed on most commercial odds screens. They are too varied and often uniquely worded. However, they mostly fall into several general categories. Here is a rundown of the most common March Madness prop bets offered:
Future Round Odds
Odds are typically offered on each team to make the Sweet 16, Elite 8, or Final Four. The first tip here is to look for sportsbooks who offer a two-way line on these props. In other words, the ability to bet Yes or No on the proposition. You are far more likely to find a fair price when both sides of a market can be bet into. If you don’t have access to a sportsbook that offers two-way lines, at least do some line shopping. We’ll discuss how to effectively shop lines later in this article.
Until the UMBC Retrievers beat Virginia a few years ago, the record of #1 seeds vs. #16 seeds was unblemished. However, that doesn’t keep bettors everywhere from trying to find both Bridge Jumpers and Upset Specials. There are typically plenty of “What If” props available. “Will a #16 beat a #1?” “Will a #15 beat a #2?” For a while, the popular play was always “Will a #12 beat a #5?” That became a common occurrence due to how the tournament committee would undervalue mid-majors. Now you’re likely to find “Will two or more #12 seeds beat #5 seeds?”
Conference Win Totals
Much is made of relative strength or weakness of the different athletic conferences. As a result, it is a natural progression that sportsbooks would offer March Madness prop bets around how many tournament games each conference will win. Again, you want to look for two-way markets here, which should be common. You can also find futures on which conference the tournament winning team will be from.
The most popular form of pre-tournament March Madness prop bets is the seeding prop. How many #1 seeds will make the Final Four? Number of wins by #11 seeds? Cumulative sum of the Final Four seed numbers? Plenty of different ways to come up with creative props organized by seed numbers.
Best Approach For March Madness Prop Bets
Now that we have laid a framework of what is offered, it is time to find the best approaches for solving these propositions. We will explore four approaches. The method that works best for you largely depends on how much time and effort you want to put into it. Since most of you are likely reading this with less than 24 hours left until the opening round tips off, perhaps finding the path of least resistance is key.
The Basic Probability Approach
One thing every aspiring sports bettor should understand is how to calculate basic probability. When given a list of independent events you need to know that the odds of all of those events occurring is the individual probabilities multiplied by each other. That’s basic enough, it’s basic parlay math. The odds of not all those events occurring is the inverse, 1 – that combined probability. That simple knowledge goes a long way to solving a lot of these March Madness prop bets.
For instance, let’s start with that popular upset prop: Will a #12 seed beating a #5 seed? We could solve for the probability that all #5’s win their first round games. In doing so, the inverse of that will be the probability at least one #12 seed pulls the upset. First, let’s get the individual probabilities by finding the sharpest line on the four #5 v. #12 matchups.
Using The Unabated Line
The Unabated Line is a new feature on the our Game Odds Screen. It is a expertly cultivated vig-free blend of odds from the sharpest market making sportsbook. We’ve talked before about how market makers vary by sport. The blend is tailored to the College Basketball market. If you don’t already have the Unabated Line on your odds screen. Click the settings icon in the top right and enable it.
The four #5/#12 matchups are:
#5 Uconn v. #12 New Mexico State
#5 Houston v. #12 UAB
#5 Saint Mary’s v. #12 Indiana
#5 Iowa v. #12 Richmond
Using the Unabated Line we get the vig-free moneyline for each matchup. I’ve then converted the favorite price to probability listed to the right of each matchup. From here we’re using basic probability. The probability of all four #5’s winning their first round games is:
(71.18%)*(76.3%)*(57.98%)*(82.52%) = 25.99%
Therefore, the probability that at least one #12 seed pulls off an upset is 1 – (25.99%) = 74.01%. Taking a quick survey of available lines, it appears the sportsbooks also understand basic probability.
Where you are more likely to find some value is in a probability exercise that requires you calculate out a probability that includes a permutation. For instance, what are the odds of exactly TWO #12 seeds pulling the upset? To solve for this, we calculate the odds of each permutation of two #12’s winning. You can step through this manually in your head by assigning a letter to each of them:
#12 New Mexico State = A
#12 UAB = B
#12 Indiana = C
#12 Richmond = D
The formula for calculating the number of combinations is:
n = total items to choose from
r = number of items chosen
If you’re not keen on doing factorial math (who is?). I use this simple calculator.
Now we know we’re looking for 6 combinations. We can then list the two-letter permutations:
AB, AC, AD, BC, BD, CD
Now we just have to power through the exact outcomes to meet each combination. The probability of the two teams winning as well as the probability of the two other teams losing. For the sake of time and space, I’ll list them here:
AB = 3.27%
AC = 7.63%
AD = 2.23%
BC = 5.85%
BD = 1.71%
CD = 3.99%
Add those together to get the probability of exactly TWO #12’s pulling the upset: 24.67%
A savvy line shopper might find some value there. Lastly, what if you were tasked with finding the probability of at least two #12’s pull the upset? Again, we first find the permutations necessary. We already know that exactly two has six combinations. Use the formula or use a calculator and you’ll find exactly three has four combinations; and exactly four has, of course, one combination.
You repeat the same exercise as above and then add up the sums for the exactly two, exactly three, and exactly four. I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader. One last tip, using a spreadsheet makes all of this a whole lot easier than doing the calculations by hand or with a calculator. Don’t torture yourself!
The Line Shopping Approach
Perhaps you’ve made it this far and you have already decided that doing probability calculations isn’t for you. There’s just not enough time between now and the start of the tournament. Another valid approach is to let sharper books be your guide.
When it comes to props, there’s no universally sharp sportsbook. Honestly, props are too much of an afterthought at a lot of sportsbooks so they don’t put out the effort to have the sharpest lines. They are ok with hanging a rough line at lower limits. Often to identify what the sharp number is with a prop you need multiple sources. That’s where line shopping comes in.
For instance, if you were line shopping the common wager of “Number of #1 Seeds to Make the Final Four?” you would see a variety of prices.
Did you spot the discrepancy? The sportsbook at the bottom is definitely an outlier when compared to the other two. The biggest discrepancy is their price on No #1 seeds making the Final Four. As an aside, when I spotted this while writing this article, I tipped off our excellent Unabated Discord Community. People are constantly sharing some useful +EV they find in the market. Overall, it’s a very encouraging place to network with other bettors and is a great place to both ask and answer questions.
You would be surprised at all the value that is hanging around on props like these that becomes evident just by line shopping. Sometimes you don’t even need to know which number is correct. For instance, on that market above of exact number of #1 seeds to reach the Final Four, I shopped around for the best price I could find on each of the five possible outcomes. I then plugged them into the Unabated Hold Calculator and discovered there was guaranteed profit to be had with zero risk.
The Historical Data Approach
Another popular way to beat March Madness prop bets is to let historical data be your guide. One of the first to write about this approach was Stanford Wong in his legendary Sharp Sports Betting. In Chapter 11, March Madness O/U Props, Wong wrote about using historical data that applied to all seeds of a certain number. His theory was that the tournament committee typically chose seeding numbers year to year that on the whole played out predictably.
It’s been over 20 years since Wong wrote his book. In researching this article, I considered updating his numbers to account for the last 20 years of tournament action. However, I just didn’t have time to complete the task. If you want to attempt to better Wong’s system, it may be worth your time. Here were the numbers as they appeared in the first edition of Sharp Sports Betting in 2001. Projected number of wins for each seed:
|1||3.7 to 4.2|
From here you can use these numbers to attack any number of March Madness prop bets. For instance? Want to wager on the number of wins by PAC 12 teams in the tournament? You would have #1 Arizona (4.0 – since they are the 2nd overall #1) + #4 UCLA (1.3) + #7 USC (0.7) = 6.0. You could then apply a Poisson Distribution to that projection to find how that projection converts to a probability.
Worth mentioning again, I’d definitely look to verify that Wong’s numbers have held up over time. There have been plenty of changes in how the tournament committee has approached seeding in the last 20 years.
The Shortcut Approach
For many of you, the above approaches still represent more work than you want to devote to March Madness prop bets. That’s fine and understandable. There is a shortcut method available. You can utilize the tools and resources that our friends at Teamrankings.com have developed. They have been at the tournament bracket business for a long time. Each year they spend a ton of time and effort to crunch the numbers on the tournament and produce accurate simulations of how things may play out. For only $38 they offer tools to help you fill out competitive brackets as well as attack many popular March Madness prop bets.
For instance, you can use their Round Odds to get % projections on each team to make Sweet 16, Elite 8, Final Four and even to Win It All. You can also use their Data Grid tool to sort out which teams are undervalued and which #1 seed is likely to be the first to be eliminated. There are many different ways to use the Teamrankings tools to beat a plethora of props.
One caveat, when you’re using someone else’s projections you are reliant on their data science and their process. We had multiple discussions with the team at Teamrankings to make sure their methods were sound and we would be comfortable endorsing them.
They were also willing to give a special discount to Unabated users. If you use this link to Teamrankings, you’ll get a $5 discount off the $38 list price for their powerful set of March Madness bracket tools. You can also get sizable discounts off their other suite of products available on the site.
- Like the Super Bowl there is often low-hanging fruit in March Madness prop bets for those willing to put in the time.
- The lack of consistency between props offered means that it takes some effort to hunt down all the props offered.
- There are numerous approaches which are effective in solving March Madness prop bets.