The Landscape of the NCAA Tournament
For this year’s NCAA Tournament, there are 68 teams and only one of them is going to win the title. There are four clear betting favorites to win the tournament Gonzaga (+210), Baylor (+500), Illinois (+700), and Michigan (+800). Unsurprisingly, all four of those teams are the top seeds in their regions.
That is why it should be no surprise that Gonzaga, Baylor, and Michigan are among the worst bets you can make to win the tournament because despite being the best teams, they are overbet and the odds are shaded against the betting public. Only Illinois is a good bet, but they are not considered a longshot. There are several longshot’s that are worth betting on winning the big dance and my favorites are Iowa, Houston, and Virginia.
Criteria for Picking NCAA Tournament Underdogs
This year when coming up with my NCAA Tournament longshot picks, I decided to compare the best betting odds to FiveThirtyEight’s NCAA Tournament odds. While FiveThirtyEight is known for their election forecasts, many do not know that their founder Nate Silver used to be a Baseball statistician. That is why it is no surprise that they have a great record when it comes to their sports forecasting.
For this year’s March Madness tournament, I compiled a list of each team FiveThirtyEight gave a 0.1% or better chance of winning the tournament and compared them to their breakeven betting odds. Unsurprisingly, FiveThirtyEight’s model in comparison to the betting odds found an edge with only five teams for this year’s tournament in Illinois, Houston, Iowa, Ohio State, and Virginia. Additionally, the three worst teams to bet on winning the tournament were Michigan, Gonzaga, and Baylor. As a bettor you can ignore my advice at your peril, but you are betting off not betting if the choice is between betting or picking Michigan, Gonzaga, Baylor to win the tournament.
It is debatable whether Iowa can be considered a dark horse based on its record of success. Basketball analytics website KenPom ranks Iowa as the 5th best team in the country despite having a 21-8 regular season record. While Iowa at +1700 is not as much of an underdog to win the tournament as other +10000 or +5000 teams, in my opinion any team that isn’t a top seed should be considered a dark horse this year.
There are three reasons why Iowa is dangerous in this year’s tournament. During the regular season, the Hawkeyes played in the Big Ten which was the strongest conference this season. That is evidenced by half of the top-seeded teams coming from the Big Ten. When you adjust their performance based on their level of play, Iowa had the 2nd best offensive efficiency in the country this season. Part of the reason why is because of 6-11 forward Luka Garza who led the country in offensive win shares this season with five offensive win shares. Additionally, Garza led the country with 6.4 overall win shares. At +1700, Iowa is a great pick to win the tournament
NCAAB Pick: Iowa +1700 with DraftKings
Most of the time when people pick a team to win the tournament, they are either picking a major conference team or a mid-major who went undefeated during the regular season like Gonzaga. As a result, teams from mid-majors who were not undefeated are often overlooked.
One of those teams is the Houston Cougars who had a 24-3 overall record but played only the 79th strongest schedule according to teamrankings.com. However, a strong case can be made for Houston winning the tournament when you examine their body of work.
Houston won the American Athletic Conference easily beating most of their conference opponents. In fact, the Cougars had the 2nd highest average scoring margin this season of +18 meaning that on average they won their games by 18 points. Only the betting favorite Gonzaga had a better average margin. Houston had the 8th best adjusted offensive efficiency this season and the 16th best adjusted defensive efficiency. The Cougars are dangerous this year and that is why I like them as one of my picks to win the tournament.
NCAAB Pick: Houston +2200 with Bet365
While I would not put my life savings on Virginia winning the NCAA Tournament (or on any team for that matter), a strong case can be made for why Virginia has a good chance of winning the tournament this year. Because of last season’s canceled tournament, Virginia is still the defending national champion as they won in 2019.
While this year’s team has a much different composition, they are still a strong team that plays at a slow tempo. In fact, the Cavaliers play at the slowest adjusted tempo out of all 357 college basketball teams. As a slow tempo team, they can catch their opponents off guard and decrease the number of possessions per game. Against a heavy favorite, Virginia can turn what might be a blowout into a one possession game that they can win in the last minute. Additionally, the Cavaliers are the highest rated 4th seed as KenPom ranks them as the 11th best team in the country.
There are two qualitative reasons why Virginia is undervalued as a +5000 pick to win the tournament. The first is that they played in a weakened ACC this season that had weak UNC, Duke, Syracuse, and Pitt teams. The other is because they had to forfeit their game against Georgia Tech in the ACC Conference championship because of a COVID outbreak. If Virginia can manage to field a roster for their first game on Saturday against Ohio, then they are a good dark horse candidate to win the tournament.
NCAAB Pick: Virginia +5000 with BetMGM