When To Favor March Madness Favorites

You should put plenty of emphasis on the seedings in the NCAA basketball tournament, right? After all, as in a major tennis tournament such as Wimbledon, vast statistical date, applied along with much research by sage and wise roundball experts, has gone into determining the positions in the tournament bracket. These folks know what they are doing, so we should pay attention and bow with appropriate respect to their vast knowledge of the college game.

Then again, to paraphrase a famous NFL saying, on any given Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday, and in the case of the championship, Monday, any team can emerge victorious. It is, after all, a one-game showdown being played by college kids, and it often devolves into a game of musical March Madness.

Certainly, top-seeded teams should be given their due when making your March Madness wagers, especially early in the tournament. Top-ranked teams like the Virginia Cavaliers, Michigan State Spartans and Villanova Wildcats will be tough to knock off in the regional rounds, and traditional powers such as the Duke Blue Devils, North Carolina Tar Heels and Kansas Jayhawks tend to be tournament-hardened squads, well-schooled in the mentality required to prepare for the rigors of these win or go home one-game contests.

The most recent odds from Bovada peg the Spartans as the +450 choice to capture the title in this year's March Madness, although their failure to win the Big Ten tournament may throw some shade on that status. Right behind them are the Cavaliers and Wildcats, both at +550. These two teams are polar opposites in the way they get it done. Virginia tops the nation in scoring offense (87.2 points per game), while Virginia offers up the stingiest defense in the NCAA (52.8) points per game. Duke (+650) rounds out the top four.

An interesting study compiled by NCAA.com displayed that if you just played all favorites in your NCAA pool, you would come out ahead of the curve. Using data based on their own NCAA Bracket Challenge, NCAA.com showed that by simply going with the favorite in all 61 tournament games, you would have bettered the staus quo in six of the last seven March Madness tournaments. 

Some years the gap was significant. In 2013, playing only favorites would have garnered you 109 points, compared to the 69.98 average score. In 2012, an all-favorite bracket scored 117 points. The average score from that tournament was 82.99. Even last year, though it wasn't a blowout, favorites came out ahead 79-65.66.

The message here is clear. While it's the underdogs who have made for the excitement that is the mayhem of March Madness, it's still the favorites who will provide you win the steadiest payoff from the NCAA Tournament.

Early Favorites Are The Best Bet

Favorites won 26 of 32 first-round matchups in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. That's an 81.25 percent success rate. In 2015, the favorites were 27-5 in the opening round of March Madness. Over the past seven tournaments, the favorites have averaged 23.6 wins in the first round, the lowest total in that sample size coming in 2016, when the favorites went 19-13.

As each round progresses, the success rate of favorites tends to regress. Favorites won 75 percent of second-round games (12-4) in last year's tournament, averaging 10.4 wins over the past six years. But after that, things tended to even out. Favorites posted a winning record in just one of the last seven Elite Eight rounds (3-0 in 2015) and actually ended up with losing marks in five of the last seven tournaments, going 0-3 in 2012. And favorites are 7-14 in the final four, including 4-3 in the title game over that time period.

Nothing Sweet About This 16


There is one NCAA Tournament bet when you always play the favorite. It is a mortal lock. Play these games in a parlay and we guarantee a win. We're talking about the opening-round one versus 16 matchups. Since the NCAA tournament went to a 64-team format for the first time in 1985, a top-seeded team has never lost a game to a 16 seed. We'll do the math for you to save time - that's 132-0 for the favorites. It may be March Madness, but it isn't crazy.

Last year, Kansas toppled UC Davis 100-62 and North Carolina drubbed Texas Southern 103-64. Villanova-Mount St. Mary's (76-66) and Gonzaga-South Dakota State (66-46) were the close encounters, if you can classify a 20-point setback as close. 

You can argue that these games have been getting closer, and to a certain extent, you'd be right. But you'd also be clutching at straws. According to research by NCAA.com, during the fist 16 years of one versus 16 matchups, the average margin of of victory was 24.77 points. In the past 17 years, that number has plummeted to 24.58 points per game. At that rate of closure, a 16th-seeded team will eventually topple a No. 1 seed in the 4250 NCAA Tournament.

Favorites Tilt In Title Game

When it comes to the championship game of March Madness, that is where the favorites tend to tumble. Last year, North Carolina covered the 1.5-point spread in beating Gonzaga 71-65, but that was the first win by a favorite since Michigan toppled Louisville in 2013.

Favorites have won four of the past seven titles, but it's an even 16-16 split between favorites and underdogs over the past 32 tournaments.

Beware of heavy favorites in the championship game. In the eight finals during that span where the favorite has given away seven or more points, they've gone 2-6 against the spread, including 1996, when Kentucky beat Syracuse 76-67 but failed to cover the 14-point spread. Favroites are 4-4 straight up in this scenario.

Hoosier Dreams

Seven favorites have rolled unbeaten through an entire season to claim the NCAA Tournament title, but none since March Madness was expanded to a 64-team format in 1985. The most recent team was the Indiana Hoosiers in 1976. Led by future NBA players Quinn Buckner and Kent Benson and coached by the temperamental Bobby Knight, Indiana finished 32-0, downing Michigan 86-68. Rutgers, with an assitant coach named Dick Vitale, also came to the tournament unbeaten, but fell to Michigan in the Final Four.

Wooden's Monument

Speaking of unbeaten favorites, we'd be remiss to discuss favored NCAA Tournament champions without touching on the legend that was UCLA. Coach John Wooden's Bruins, led by Bill Walton, rolled to consecutive 30-0 championship seasons in 1972 and 1973. UCLA would extend its unbeaten run to 88 games before finally falling 71-70 to Notre Dame on Jan. 19, 1974.

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