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Best of Vin Narayanan

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Top-10 tips for betting the 2015 NCAA Tournament

16 March 2015

The NCAA men's basketball tournament is the single biggest sports wagering event in the United States. According to the American Gaming Association (AGA), about $240 million will be wagered in Nevada alone on this year's tournament. By comparison, more than $185 million was wagered on Kentucky Derby Day. And about $116 million was bet in Nevada on this year's Super Bowl.

While the Kentucky Derby numbers include most of the money wagered on the race, the Super Bowl and NCAA tournament betting numbers do not. That's because betting on horse races is legal in most places, while betting on the Super Bowl and the NCAA tournament is only legal in Nevada.

But that doesn't stop most of the U.S. from betting on the NCAA tournament. About 40 million people will fill out an NCAA bracket, according to a GfK Custom Research North America poll commissioned by the AGA. The average person fills out two brackets with an average wager per bracket of $29.

That means more than $2 billion is going to be wagered on the NCAA tournament between brackets and betting in Vegas. So how are you going to win a piece of that $2 billion pie? Here are 10 suggestions. (Note: I am avid college hoops fan and covered college basketball in a previous professional life. I also refuse to make predictions regarding Michigan State. I love my Spartans and refuse to pick any game involving them. It's bad juju.)

10. Know the rules
One of the keys to winning your bracket contest is understanding the scoring system. Some contests award bonus points for picking upsets. Others place a premium getting the Final Four and eventual champion correct. And some just award a single point for each game correctly picked. My favorite bracket challenges include points for correct picks doubling in each round, which places a premium choosing the Final Four correctly, and using seed differential to award bonus points for upsets.

9. Don't go chalk
Since 1979, the four top seeds have advanced to the Final Four just once. If your Final Four is all chalk, you might want to reconsider your picks.

8. Final Four average seed
One way to spot check your Final Four selections is to calculate the average seed value. Just add up the seed numbers and divide by four. Then compare it to the average seed value from the past five Final Fours. If in the same range, stick with your picks. If you're outside the range, reconsider your selections.

Average seed value of the last five Final Fours
2014 4.5
2013 4.5
2012 2.25
2011 6.5
2010 3.25

7. Defense travels
This is more than the old defense wins championships axiom. Tournament teams are traveling to unfamiliar cities, playing in unfamiliar arenas, playing at unfamiliar times and sometimes playing in arenas or stadiums with terrible shooting backdrops. All of this affects offense. That's why teams with the best defenses often do well early. Defense is based on effort and scheme. Those things travel. Shooting does not. According to Ken Pomeroy, the top 10 tournament teams in adjusted defensive efficiency are: Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona, San Diego State, Oklahoma, Louisville, Kansas, Utah, Butler and Villanova.

6. Paths, not brackets
It really doesn't matter which team has the toughest region, because they're not playing a round robin. Each team in the tournament has to win six games in order to win the title. So the only thing that matters is a team's path to the Final Four, not its region. Teams can be in a tough region, but have an easy path through the tournament. And teams can be in an easy region, but have a tough path based on who they might play along the way. The Washington Post crunched some advanced metrics and concluded that Kentucky, the overall No. 1 seed, and Arizona, a 2 seed, have the easiest paths through the tournament.

5. Matchups matter
In the NBA, the most talented team generally wins, primarily because a seven-game playoff series does a good job of weeding out variance. But in the single-elimination NCAA tournament, matchups matter just as much as talent. Much of that has to do with team composition and style of play. Talented underclassmen can struggle against physically stronger, more seasoned juniors and seniors. Some teams are guard oriented and struggle against size. If they run into a team with a lot of size, watch out. Similarly, it's easier to slow the pace of game than it is to speed it up. That's why teams that like to run struggle against teams that like to slow the pace down. When you're picking a game, you have to understand a team's style of play. North Carolina likes to run. Virginia likes to slow it down. Kentucky can play at multiple speeds. Northern Iowa is a veteran-laden team with an outstanding post player. Duke has one of the best offensive centers in the game, but struggles to defend big men. Understanding the matchups helps in picking winners. It isn't just about talent.

4. 12 vs. 5 upset
In the last three years, 12 seeds are 8-4 in the opening round (Round of 64) of the tournament. This year, Buffalo and Stephen F. Austin are likely candidates to pull off the upset 12-5 upset. Make sure your bracket includes a couple of upsets from these games.

3. Duke won't win
This goes back to the matchups. Duke just doesn't match up well against Kentucky. Kentucky's length at every position will bother Duke. And the Blue Devils don't have enough quickness to generate enough open looks against Kentucky's impressive defense. The only reason to pick Duke to win in your bracket is if you think Kentucky won't reach the championship game.

2. Value bet
Right now, Kentucky is a 6-5 favorite to win the championship at Bovada Sportsbook. There's not much value in that wager. The real value on the board is betting on teams that could beat Kentucky. The teams that fit that bill are Arizona (15/2), Wisconsin (17/2), Notre Dame (25/1), Iowa State (33/1) and North Carolina (40/1). That's it. That's the list. These are the only teams that have the combination of size, speed, versatility and scoring ability to upset Kentucky.

1. Kentucky vs. the field
This is one of the best bets on the board. You can get Kentucky at +120 on this wager at Bovada, which is fantastic value for an overwhelming favorite. Fortunately for Kentucky, the Wildcats will only play a maximum of three teams that could beat them. They're more likely to play just two, because most of the teams that can beat Kentucky have their own difficult path to navigate just to get an opportunity. Notre Dame is the only team in Kentucky's region that can beat them.
Top-10 tips for betting the 2015 NCAA Tournament is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.
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Best of Vin Narayanan
Vin Narayanan

Vin Narayanan is the managing editor at Casino City. When he's not writing or editing stories, he likes to play Chinese Poker, Badugi, Razz and any other "non-traditional" poker game. He also thinks blackjack is his best game and loves game theory.

Before joining Casino City, Vin covered (not all at the same time) sports, politics and elections, wars, technology, celebrities and the Census for USATODAY.com, USA WEEKEND and CNN.

A proud graduate of Michigan State University, Vin can be found on most nights and weekends trying to find a way to watch the Spartans play football or basketball.

Vin Narayanan
Vin Narayanan is the managing editor at Casino City. When he's not writing or editing stories, he likes to play Chinese Poker, Badugi, Razz and any other "non-traditional" poker game. He also thinks blackjack is his best game and loves game theory.

Before joining Casino City, Vin covered (not all at the same time) sports, politics and elections, wars, technology, celebrities and the Census for USATODAY.com, USA WEEKEND and CNN.

A proud graduate of Michigan State University, Vin can be found on most nights and weekends trying to find a way to watch the Spartans play football or basketball.