Recent trends can help you navigate bracket


I absolutely love to break down historical data and look for edges that can be used in upcoming action. It is a particularly fitting exercise for certain groups of games in which the stakes stay the same year after year. The NCAA tournament is one of these groups of games. Even with this year’s tournament format changing dramatically, both in the days the games are being played and the locales, the motivation to win and what it takes to win will stay consistent.

Each March, college basketball wagering interest hits its peak. Especially after missing out on a tournament last year due to COVID-19, I believe it will be bigger than ever this year. With a lot of public money on the line, sharper bettors should be looking for any advantage they can find. Looking more closely at the trends and systems that have formed in recent NCAA tournament action is one way you can do that. 

I try to caution that trends and systems can turn at any time. But in many cases they can also be the foundation for successful wagering, especially if they form off bettors’ misconceptions or result from physical mismatches that only the oddsmaking experts understand. As you analyze this material, gauge carefully whether you find enough of a foundation to the information to make it worthy of betting.

The data used to derive these trends was pulled from tournament games dating to 2001. I chose ’01 because that was the first year the tournament expanded beyond 64 teams.

Navigating the Tournament Round by Round

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

— In play-in games expected to be competitive, or those with point spreads of 3.5 or less, totals have trended 17-9-1 Under (65.4%), including 2-1 in 2019.

— Formerly, all play-in games matched No. 16 seeds. But recently, play-in games featuring teams seeded 12th or better have trended 12-4 Under (75%).

— Higher-totaled play-in games, or those higher than 139, have trended 12-6 Under (67%).

— Favorites of three points or more are 18-10 SU but just 11-16-1 ATS (40.7%).

— Southwestern Athletic Conference teams are 2-9 SU and 4-7 ATS (36.4%), while Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference teams are 2-2 SU and 0-4 ATS (0%) in play-in games.

— Bettors have moved the lines correctly in 10 of the last 11 play-in games, 9-2 SU and 10-1 ATS (90.9%), back to 2016.

— Outright winners have gone 24-2 ATS (92.3%) in the play-in round since 2013, though North Dakota State did beat North Carolina Central without covering in 2019.

First-round games

— Teams that didn’t make their conference tournament championship games are on a first-round slide of just 24-44-2 ATS (35.3%) against conference champions, good go-against teams.

— Power-conference schools that lost SU and ATS in their conference championship games are 47-13 SU and 34-24-2 ATS (58.6%) in the first round over the last 12 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 41-46 SU and 30-53-4 ATS (36.1%) since 2009, including 3-5 SU and 2-6 ATS in 2019, with the five losses coming decisively at an average of 15.6.

— Only four of 147 first-round favorites of 14.5 points or more have lost outright while going 71-72-4 ATS (49.7%). So while nearly automatic bracket advancers, these teams are coin flips as spread wagers. Virginia was the most recent to lose, falling 74-54 to UMBC in 2018.

— Some sweet spots exist in betting No. 1 seeds. As favorites of -19 to -25 points, they are just 9-18 ATS (33.3%) since ’09. When favored by 18.5 or fewer, they are on an 8-1 ATS run.

— Be wary of laying big numbers with No. 2 seeds, as they are just 5-15-1 ATS (25%) since ’05 when favored by 18 points or more.

— Non-power-conference schools are 9-14 ATS (39.1%) in their last 23 first-round games as top-3 seeds.

— No. 4 seeds have been somewhat unreliable lately for bettors, going 9-14-1 ATS (39.1%) over the last six seasons, including 5-11-1 ATS (31.2%) when favored by 8.5 points or more.

— After a 4-0 ATS sweep in 2019, No. 12 seeds are on a 27-14-3 ATS (65.9%) run against the No. 5s since ’09, highlighted by a 13-5-2 ATS (72.2%) record when playing as underdogs of six points or more.

— Power-conference schools are 19-15 SU and 9-23-2 ATS (28.1%) as No. 5 seeds in the first round since ’08.

— No. 6 seeds are 21-23 SU and 16-27-1 ATS (37.2%) in their last 44 first-round games against No. 11s. They’re also 28-15-1 Under (65.1%).

— No. 9 seeds are on a 7-1 SU and ATS (87.5%) run over the last two tournaments in the first round, with five outright upsets.

Second-round games

— There were zero upsets in 2019 in the second round. The only worse seed to advance was Auburn, which wound up as a 2.5-point favorite over Kansas. Favorites were 16-0 SU and 11-5 ATS.

— Second-round top-4 seeds that won but didn’t cover the spread in the first round are 30-12 SU and 23-18-1 ATS (56.1%) since 2013. They are also 27-13-2 Under (67.5%) the total while allowing just 64.4 ppg. In essence, these teams tend to bounce back from near losses with strong defensive efforts.

— Second-round double-digit favorites are 45-2 SU and 30-17 ATS (63.8%) since ’01. Fourteen of the last 18 such games went Under (77.8%), with the favorites allowing just 59.2 ppg.

— Second-round No. 2 seeds have felt the upset pressure, going just 11-18-1 ATS (37.9%) in their last 30 games. Those favored by five points or fewer are just 11-17 SU and 9-18-1 ATS (33.3%) since ’02.

— It has been a struggle lately in the second round for top-3 seeds. They are on these ATS slides: No. 1s, 7-12 ATS; No. 2s, 11-18-1 ATS; No. 3s, 5-10 ATS.

— Seeds 4-6 have been stellar lately in the second round, with these spread runs entering 2021: No. 4s, 13-7 ATS; No. 5s, 15-6 ATS; No. 6s, 18-8 ATS.

— Second-round No. 10 seeds are on a 4-9 SU but 9-3-1 ATS (75%) run since ’11.

— In second-round games between double-digit seeds, the better seed is 11-2 SU and ATS since 2001, playing each time as the favorite. Oregon won as a No. 12 vs. No. 13 UC-Irvine in 2019. However, when facing seeds in the 5-7 range, double-digit seeds are just 2-15 SU and 4-11-2 ATS (26.7%) in that time frame.

— No. 14 seeds that pulled upsets in the first round are 0-9 SU and ATS (0%) in the second round since ’98, losing by an average of 14.2 ppg.

— Better-seeded teams are just 7-12 SU and ATS when playing as underdogs to worse-seeded teams in the second round since 2001.

Sweet 16 games

— Sweet 16 favorites of eight points or more are on a 22-7-3 Under (75%) run, allowing 61.9 ppg.

— Sweet 16 Nos. 1 and 2 seeds have taken care of business lately and combined are on a 27-6 SU and 21-11-1 ATS (65.6%) run over the last six seasons. But they were 3-5 ATS in 2019.

— This round is usually the end of the line for double-digit seeds, but they have been very competitive as underdogs, going 12-2-1 ATS (85.7%) in that role since 2011.

— Sweet 16 double-digit seeds from power conferences are just 3-12 SU and 6-8-1 ATS (42.9%) since ’05, although Oregon did cover vs. Virginia in 2019.

— The popular No. 1-vs.-No. 4 matchup has been all No. 1 lately, 10-1 SU and 8-2-1 ATS over the last six tournaments.

— In Sweet 16 games between teams seeded No. 5 or worse, the worse-seeded team is 10-4 SU and ATS (71.4%) since ’01.

Elite Eight games

— Elite Eight favorites are just 35-33 SU and 24-42-2 ATS (36.4%) since ’03, making this a strong underdog round lately. In 2019, Elite Eight dogs won three of four games outright.

— The true benchmark point for underdog success is 3.5 points. Teams playing as underdogs of 3.5 or fewer points in the Elite Eight are 25-16 SU and 27-13-1 ATS (67.5%) in the last 21 years.

— Cinderella teams or those not from power conferences are great bets when they reach the Elite Eight, 10-9 SU and 12-6-1 ATS (66.7%) since ’03, including 9-1-1 ATS as underdogs of three points or more.

— The Elite Eight is clearly a survival round for No. 1 seeds, as they are just 29-24 SU and 20-29-4 ATS (40.8%) in this round since ’01, including 1-2 SU and ATS in 2019.

— Elite Eight Nos. 1-3 seeds have struggled mightily against teams seeded No. 4 or worse, going 12-13 SU and 4-19-2 ATS (17.4%) since ’01.

— The Elite Eight has easily been the best round to play Overs on totals, 84-54-2 (60.9%) since ’01. In games with lower totals of 143 or less, it has been 59 Overs and 24 Unders for 71.1%, including 3-0 on Overs in ’19.

— In Elite Eight games between teams seeded No. 3 or worse, the worse-seeded team has gone 6-1 SU and 7-0 ATS since 2013.

Final Four games

— In the Final Four, outright winning teams own a record of 31-5-2 ATS (86.1%) since ’01, although most recently, Virginia beat Auburn in 2019 without covering.

— Final Four No. 1 seeds are 14-5 SU and 10-8-1 ATS (55.6%) since ’01 when not matched against another No. 1 seed.

— Final Four favorites of five points or more are on a solid surge of 16-3 SU and 11-7-1 ATS (61.1%) over the last 22 years.

— The last five Final Four games that didn’t feature a No. 1 or No. 2 seed have gone to the better-seeded team, both SU and ATS.

— The last five non-power-conference teams to reach the Final Four and face a power-conference team have gone 3-2 SU and ATS.

— Atlantic Coast Conference teams have been most successful in the Final Four, going 10-4 SU and 9-5 ATS (64.3%) since ’01, including 8-1 SU and 6-3 ATS when favored.

— On totals, the last seven Final Four games that had posted numbers of 130 or less went Under, producing just 112.2 combined points on average. In all other games, totals are 19-14-2 Over (57.5%) in the Final Four since ’99.

— The two semifinal games of 2019 went Under the total, slowing a string of 7-2-1 Over in the previous five years.

Championship games

— Championship-game favorites of three points or more are on a 12-2 SU and 11-3 ATS (78.6%) run, while those favored by 2.5 or fewer are just 4-4 SU and ATS since ’98.

— Only once in the last 20 years did the championship-winning team not cover the spread, when Duke beat Butler in 2010.

— In the last 14 championship games matching non-equal seeds, the better seed is on an 11-3 SU and 10-4 ATS (71.4%) run.

— Over the last 21 years of championship games, excluding the improbable 2014 matchup of No. 7 vs. No. 8, teams seeded No. 3 or worse are just 2-8 SU and 3-7 ATS (30%). 

— 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 collided in the 2018 title game, when Villanova beat Michigan.

— Bettors have gone just 5-10 ATS in their last 15 championship games when moving opening lines toward one team or the other.

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