2023 NCAA tournament handicapping round by round

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Those of you who have followed my work understand that I love to dig into historical data for all the special sporting events on the calendar, mining for nuggets that might help us find opportunities with the current set of games. I understand the argument that some of the trends might sound fluky to certain readers, or a bit random due to the employment of line ranges, etc., but for the most part, I pride myself on sharing only information that I find to be foundational in nature. One of the sporting events in which I rely heavily on recent data is the NCAA tournament. Although the teams involved might change from year to year, the motivation, relative strengths, and other extenuating factors involved in handicapping the games do not. That is one of the foremost principles I look for in developing betting trends and systems.

 

With ever-growing regulation for sports betting across the country, this March figures to be the most wagered-on tournament ever. Much of this is due to a lot more public money on the line than at other points in the college basketball season. I always feel that this can play into the hands of sharper bettors, who have access to better resources needed to succeed. Looking closely at the trends and systems that have been formed in recent NCAA tournament action is one of the key pieces of that puzzle. In this article, I analyze things on a round-by-round basis, looking for edges by seed, line range, conferences, and much more.

Be aware that trends and systems can turn at any time, but they can also prove to be the foundation for successful wagering, especially if they form off of bettor’s misconceptions, or are the result of physical mismatches that can arise and only the oddsmaking experts understand them. With that said, as you analyze the material I’ve uncovered, gauge carefully for yourself whether or not you find there to be enough of a “foundation” to the info to make it bet-worthy.

Note that the data used to derive these trends was pulled from tournament games dating back to 2001. In almost all cases, I’ve listed a date or number-of-games span for which each trend has stood. The year 2001 was not chosen randomly. That was the first year that the tournament was expanded beyond 64 teams. Keep in mind that after no tournament in 2020, and an unusual single locale (Indianapolis) event in 2021, this will be the second year in a row that the proceedings will return to “normal.” If you’re curious as to the general results from 2022, favorites won 44 out of 66 games, with one contest being a pick em’ spread. They were 30-36 ATS (45.4%) in those games. The only two double-digit underdog upsets in the tournament came from St. Peter’s, who upended Kentucky, and Purdue, en route to a shocking Elite 8 berth.

Navigating the Tournament Round by Round

As you’ll see from some of the analysis below, the tournament can change from round to round, and certain systematic patterns have formed in the ways you can profit from this transition.

Play-in Games

•           Over the last 10 NCAA tournaments, underdogs own a 22-16 ATS (57.8%) edge in the play-in round.

•           Formerly, all play-in games used to match #16 seeds. Recently, play-in games featuring seeds 12 or better have trended 14-6 UNDER (70%)

•           Higher totaled play-in games, or those higher than 139, have also trended 12-7 UNDER (63.2%)

•           Back to point spread benchmarks, favorites of 3 points or more are 20-11 SU but just 13-17-1 ATS (43.3%)

•           Outright winners have gone 31-3 ATS (91.2%) in the play-in round since 2013, although in a strange most-recent loss, Drake did win versus Wichita State without covering in 2021 on a 1.5-point spread.

First-Round Games

Overall Trends

– Teams that didn’t make their conference tournament championship game are on a first-round slide of just 32-57-2 ATS (36%) versus conference champions, good go-against teams. This includes a record of 4-6 ATS in 2022, with outright losses by San Francisco, Connecticut, and Kentucky among those games.

– Power conference schools that lost SU and ATS in their conference championship game are 56-14 SU and 39-29-2 ATS (57.4%) in the first round over the last 14 seasons, perhaps a sign that the tournament experience they gained was valuable despite the conference championship loss.

– Oddsmakers have done bettors a favor by signaling first-round upsets, as small first-round favorites of -1 to -3 are just 49-55 SU and 38-62-4 ATS (38%) since ’09.

– Of late, mid-level favorites of -3.5 to -7.5 have also struggled, going 30-20 SU but 20-30 ATS (40%) since ’16 in the first round.

– Only six first-round favorites of 14.5 points or more out of 166 have lost outright while going 80-81-4 ATS (49.7%), so while a near automatic bracket advancement, these teams are coin flips as point spread wagers. Of course, Kentucky was the most recent to do so, losing 85-79 to St. Peter’s last March.

By Seeds

– There are some sweet spots when it comes to betting #1 seeds. As favorites of -19 to -25 points, they are just 12-21 ATS (36.4%) since ‘09. When favored by 18.5 or less, they are on an 8-1 ATS run.  

– #1 seeds have flexed their muscles defensively over the last six tournaments, going 10-2 UNDER the total (83.3%) while holding opponents to 59.3 PPG. 

– Be wary of laying big numbers with #2 seeds, as they are just 12-23-1 ATS (34.3%) since ’05 when favored by 17 points or more. This includes four straight ATS losses and an upset of Kentucky a year ago.

– The last 19 #3 seeds to play in first-round games are on an impressive 18-1 SU and 12-7 ATS (63.2%) surge, including 10-2 ATS (83.3%) as favorites of 11.5 points or more.

– #3 seeds playing as single-digit favorites are on a massive UNDER the total run, 20-6 (76.9%) since ’03, with games producing almost 7.2 PPG below the posted numbers on average.

– #4 seeds have been somewhat unreliable lately for bettors, going 11-20-1 ATS (35.5%) over the last 8 tourney seasons, including 5-13-1 ATS (27.8%) when favored by 8.5 points or more.

– #12 seeds are now on a 31-18-3 ATS (63.3%) run against the #5’s since ’09, highlighted by a 16-7-2 ATS (69.6%) record when playing an underdog of 6 points or more.

– Power Conference Schools are 22-18 SU and 11-27-2 ATS (28.9%) as #5 seeds in the first round since ’08. As #12 seeds, they are on a 13-4-1 ATS (76.5%) surge.

– Of the last 24 #5-#12 matchups, 18 have gone OVER the total (75%), including another three of four in 2022.

– #6 seeds are 24-28 SU and 19-32-1 ATS (37.3%) in their last 52 first-round games versus #11’s (also 33-18-1 UNDER – 64.7%)

– In #6-#11 games set with the #6 playing as an underdog or pick em’, the #6’s are just 4-11 SU and ATS (26.7%) since ’01. This is a classic trap set by oddsmakers and it happened again in 2022, with #6 Colorado State losing to Michigan.

– Be aware of a total opportunity when #6 seeds are favored by 4 points or more, as UNDERs are 15-5 (75%) in such games since ’09, with games producing just 129.9 PPG on average, with totals of about 137.6.

– Non-power conference schools playing as #7 seeds have been a sound wagering choice, 21-9-1 ATS (70%) since ‘04. In last year’s bracket, #7 Murray State (-2) edged San Francisco by 5.

– #7-#10 matchups have been some of the higher-scoring tilts of late, going 17-10 OVER (63%) since ’15.

– #8 seeds went 1-3 SU and ATS in 2022, running their four-year mark to just 5-11 SU and ATS (31.3%).

– As small favorites of 3 points or less over #9’s, #8 seeds are on a brutal skid of 7-14 SU and 4-16-1 ATS (20%)!

– Of the last 21 #8-#9 matchups, 16 have gone OVER the total (76.2%).

– Combined, non-power conference programs playing in the #4-#6 seeds over the last 20 years have gone 26-23 SU but 18-30-1 ATS (37.5%). They have been far more successful against the spread in the lesser pressure #7 and #8 seeds, 33-23-4 ATS (58.9%) in that same time range.

– Power conference programs have been VERY dangerous in the #11-#14 seed range, going 26-16 SU and 26-15-1 ATS (63.4%) since ’08.

Second-Round Games

–  Bettors have not enjoyed a winning second round since 2017, going 16-32 ATS (33.3%) in moving opening lines since then. This is a big change from the first round, explained perhaps in the shorter prep period for the second round.

– Second-round Top 4 seeds that won but didn’t cover the spread in the first round are 39-16 SU and 29-25-1 ATS (53.7%) since 2013. They are also 32-20-3 UNDER (61.5%) the total.

– Second-round double-digit favorites are 48-2 SU and 31-19 ATS (62%) since ’01. Fifteen of the last 21 such games went UNDER (71.4%) the total with the favorites allowing just 60.4 PPG.

– Small second-round favorites of 4.5 points or less are on an incredible 17-2 SU and 15-4 ATS (78.9%) surge in the last three tournaments.

– Second-round #2 seeds have felt the upset pressure, going just 14-21-1 ATS (40%) in their last 36 games. Those favored by 5 points or less are just 12-18 SU and 10-19-1 ATS (34.5%) since ’02.

– It’s been a struggle lately in the second round for top 3 seeds overall, as here are the current ATS slides they are on: #1’s 10-17 ATS, #2’s 14-21-1 ATS, #3’s 7-15 ATS.

– Seeds #4-#6 have been stellar lately in the second round, with these spread runs entering 2020: #4’s 16-10 ATS, #5’s 18-7 ATS, #6’s 18-9 ATS. Surviving the first-round upset attempt has seemingly propelled these teams to solid round-two performances.

– Second round #10 seeds are on a 4-12 SU but 10-5-1 ATS (66.7%) run since ‘11

– In second-round games between two double-digit seeds, the better seed is 12-2 SU and ATS since 2001, playing each time as the favorite. UCLA (-4.5), a #11 seed, last crushed #14 Abilene Christian in 2021. Alternatively, when facing seeds in the 5-7 range, double-digit seeds are just 4-17 SU and 6-13-2 ATS (31.6%) in that same timeframe.

– #14 seeds that pulled off upsets in the first round are 0-10 SU and ATS (0%) in the second round since ’98, losing by an average of 14.8 PPG.

– Better-seeded teams are just 8-15 SU and ATS (34.8%) when playing as underdogs to worse-seeded teams in the second round since 2001.

Sweet 16 Games

– Laying big points seems to be getting riskier and riskier in the Sweet 16 in recent years, as favorites of 5 points or more are 30-13 SU but just 17-26 ATS (39.5%) since ’11.

– Sweet 16 favorites of 8 points or more are on a 26-7-3 UNDER (78.8%) the total run allowing 62.7 PPG

– Sweet 16 #1 and #2 seeds have taken care of business lately and combined are on a 34-9 SU and 27-15-1 ATS (64.3%) run over the last 8 seasons.

– Sweet 16 round is usually the end of the line for double-digit seeds, however, they have been very competitive as underdogs, going 15-6-1 ATS (71.4%) in that role since 2011.

– The popular #1-#4 matchup has been all #1 lately, 12-2 SU and 9-4-1 ATS (69.2%) over the last 8 tournaments, although this trend was 0-2 ATS a year ago.

– In Sweet 16 games between teams “both not supposed to be there”, or both seeded 5 or worse, the worse seeded team is 11-6 SU and ATS (64.7%) since ’01.

– Better-seeded teams playing as underdogs or pick em’s in Sweet 16 games are on a 6-1 SU and ATS (85.7%) surge, with all but one of the last six games also going UNDER the total.

– Since 2010, in Sweet 16 games involving at least one non-major conference program, UNDER the total is 22-11 (66.7%).

– Over the last 23 years, there have been 23 Sweet 16 games with totals of 128 or less, and UNDER the total is 16-6-1 (72.7%).

Elite 8 Games

– Elite 8 favorites of 4-points or fewer have gone just 1-7 SU and 0-7-1 ATS (0%) in their last eight games and are just 14-30-1 ATS (31.9%) since ’98.

– Elite 8 games have been decisive, with outright winners owning a stellar record of 57-5-2 ATS (91.9%) since ’06.

– Cinderella teams, or those not from power conferences, have been good bets when they reach the Elite 8 round, 12-11 SU and 13-9-1 ATS (59.1%) since ’03, including 9-2-1 ATS as underdogs of 3 points or more.

– The Elite 8 round is clearly a “survival round” for #1 seeds, as they are just 32-25 SU but 23-30-4 ATS (43.4%) in this round since ’01.

–  Elite 8 #1-#3 seeds have struggled mightily against teams seeded #4 or worse, going 17-14 SU and 8-21-2 ATS (27.6%) since ’01. However, they were 3-0 SU & ATS last year.

– The Elite 8 round has easily been the best round to play OVER on totals, 85-61-2 (58.2%) since ’01. We could be witnessing a turn, however, as the last six Elite 8 games went UNDER. In games with lower totals of 143 or less, it has been 59 OVER, 28 UNDER, for 67.8%.

– In Elite 8 games between teams “both not supposed to be there,” or both seeded 3 or worse, the worse-seeded team has gone 6-2 SU and 7-1 ATS (87.5%) since 2013.

Final Four Games

– In the Final Four Round, outright winning teams own a record of 34-6-2 ATS (85%) since ’01, although most recently, Gonzaga did beat UCLA in a 2021 classic without covering.

– Final Four #1 seeds are 17-5 SU & 12-9-1 ATS (57.1%) since ’01 when not matched against another #1 seed.

– Final Four favorites of 5 points or more are on a solid surge of 18-3 SU and 12-8-1 ATS (60%) over the last 23 years.

– The last five Final Four games that didn’t feature a #1 or #2 seed have all gone to the better-seeded team, both SU and ATS (100%).

– The last seven non-power conference teams to reach the Final Four and face a power conference team have gone 4-3 SU and 3-4 ATS (42.9%).

–  ACC teams have been most successful in the Final Four Round, going 11-5 SU and 10-6 ATS (62.5%) since ’01, including 8-2 SU and 6-4 ATS when favored. Duke and UNC matched up against one another last March, with the Tar Heels winning 81-77 as 4.5-point underdogs.

– On totals, the last seven Final Four games that had posted numbers of 130 or less went UNDER, producing just 112.2 combined PPG on average. In all other games, totals are 23-14-2 OVER (62.2%) in the Finals Four since ’99.

– The last four semifinal games all went OVER the total, extending a string of 11-4-1 OVER (73.3%) in the last eight tournaments.

– Bettors have been sharp in moving lines since 2015, going 9-0 SU and 6-3 ATS in games that have been the point spread shift off the opener.

Championship Games

– Championship game favorites of 3 points or more are on a 13-3 SU and 11-5 ATS (68.8%) run, while those favored by 2.5 or less are just 4-4 SU and ATS since ’98. However, Kansas (-4) did win but failed to cover against UNC, 72-69.

– Only twice in the last 22 years did the championship-winning team not cover the spread (Duke against Butler in 2010, and last year).

–  In the last 15 championship games matching non-equal seeds, the better seed is on a 12-3 SU and 10-5 ATS (66.7%) run.

– Over the last 22 years of championship games, excluding the improbable 2014 matchup of #7 vs. #8, teams seeded #3 or worse are just 2-9 SU and 4-7 ATS (36.4%).

– Big East schools own a perfect 6-0 SU and ATS record in championship games since ’01 while Big Ten teams are winless at 0-7 SU and ATS. These trends last “collided” in the 2018 title game win by Villanova over Michigan.

– The last seven non-major conference teams to reach the championship game are just 2-5 SU and ATS (28.5%). All six of those games that had totals went UNDER (100%).

– Bettors have gone just 5-10 ATS in their last 15 championship games when moving opening lines towards one team or the other. Last year’s game opened and closed at Kansas -4. This same group is on a 13-6 (68.4%) run when moving totals one way or the other.

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As one of the original founders of StatFox, Steve Makinen has been in the business of sports betting and data analysis for almost 25 years now. In his time in the industry, Steve has worked in a variety of capacities on both sides of the betting counter, from his early days of developing the StatFox business, to almost a decade of oddsmaking consulting for one of the world's leading sportsbooks, to his last seven years as Point Spread Weekly and Analytics Director with VSiN. Steve has always believed that number crunching and handicapping through foundational trends and systems is the secret to success and he shares this data with VSiN readers on a daily basis for all of the major sports.