After missing out on last year’s NCAA Tournament and worrying about whether we’d actually make it to this year’s, it’s (almost) official — March Madness has arrived! All your favorite mid-March traditions are back, from losing three Sweet 16 teams in your bracket pool by the end of the first day to wondering what channel TruTV is. It’s truly a cause for celebration. But in the midst of all the buzzer-beaters and upsets, there are also opportunities to make some serious money, and it starts with breaking down the favorites, sleepers, and long shots in the Vegas betting odds for who will win the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
There are 68 teams still in contention for college basketball’s biggest prize, though most fans would consider no more than a handful realistic contenders. Perhaps they’re right, but experienced sports bettors know that means there’s value to be had with the “also-rans” in which the general public has little interest. If a Cinderella dances all the way to the title game and pulls off a shocker, then someone is making some serious money somewhere. Having at least a little cash invested in a few sleepers and possibly a couple long shots is a good way to round out your betting portfolio even if you go heavy on one or two of the top teams.
This year, there is a clear “one or two” top teams. Star-studded Gonzaga (+200) and Baylor (+600) lead the way after impressive regular seasons (along with Michigan at +600), but those might not be the teams that pique sharp bettors’ interests the most. When making future bets, it’s all about value and knowing the angles, particularly recent injuries (looking at you, Michigan), favorable draws (Gonzaga’s fatal flaw?), and advanced stats (hello Wisconsin!).
MARCH MADNESS: Get your printable NCAA Tournament bracket here
2021 NCAA Tournament odds
Odds are courtesy of the FanDuel Sportsbook
Who will win the NCAA Tournament in 2021?
Many have to fight the urge to put all four No. 1 seeds in the Final 4 when filling out their brackets. After all, those teams are No. 1 seeds for a reason, right? But the number of times all four top seeds have made it to the Final 4 is the same as the number of times a No. 16 seed has beaten a No. 1 — once. The former occurred in 2008, when North Carolina, Memphis, UCLA, and Kansas all made it to the final weekend. So, the natural pivot is to pick three No. 1 seeds and one other team. Simple, right? Well, that’s occurred just five times, so not exactly a “likely” event either.
Nonetheless, many will convince themselves that this will be the year and take the path of least resistance (thought it should be heavily resisted). The top four seeds this year are Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan, and Illinois, and it’s no surprise those four sit atop the odds board. Let’s break down the outlooks for each of the favorites.
Gonzaga Bulldogs (+200)
Gonzaga (26-0) will be looking to complete the first undefeated season for a Division 1 men’s college basketball team since Indiana in 1976. Many will knock the ‘Zags for playing in a weak conference (WCC), but with non-conference wins this year over Kansas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Iowa, as well as three conference wins over sixth-seeded BYU, Gonzaga has an impressive resume. Gonzaga’s +200 number might not be that appealing to some, but it’s still plus money for a dominant team.
The ‘Zags winding up in the West region with Iowa, Kansas, and Virginia could be a blessing or a curse. Both Kansas and Virginia were forced to withdraw from their respective conference tournaments because of positive COVID tests. They’re expected to play in the tournament but will certainly be shorthanded. That could lead to early exits and a weakened region. However, if the Jayhawks and Cavaliers advance to the Sweet 16, they’ll presumably be back to full strength and Gonzaga might have face two powerhouses just to advance to the Final 4 (or Iowa and the reigning Player of the Year, Luka Garza).
By no means are we trying to talk you out of betting on the ‘Zags, but it might not be a bad idea to also look for other value opportunities.
Baylor Bears (+600)
Baylor (22-2) were nearly as dominant as Gonzaga this year, only losing to Kansas during the regular season and Oklahoma State during the conference tournament. The Bears will be tested as early as the second round when they will face either traditional power North Carolina or advanced-metric darling Wisconsin (more on the Badgers below). Baylor will also likely have to contend with either Ohio State, who just beat Michigan and narrowly lost to Illinois in overtime during the Big 10 tournament, or defensive-minded Arkansas in the Elite 8 if it makes it that far.
Getting the Bears at +600 still feels like good value compared to Gonzaga at +200, though. Sure, the Bears just showed they are susceptible to losing to a good team, but that’s true of everyone this time of year. Don’t forget the 23 games before that. Only Gonzaga (+23) and Colgate (+18.1) had larger margins of victory than Baylor (+18) this season.
Michigan Wolverines (+600)
It might be surprising to some that Michigan (20-4) is tied for the second-best odds to win it all despite losing second-leading scorer Isaiah Livers to a foot injury in the Big 10 tournament. He is expected to miss at least the first weekend and likely the second weekend, should Michigan advance. The Wolverines are still loaded with talent, but clearly losing their senior leader is a lot to overcome.
Unless Livers returns earlier than expected, Michigan’s +600 number doesn’t feel like great value compared to some of the teams below it. The East region doesn’t look particularly loaded, but Alabama, the No. 2 seed, plays relentless defense, and Texas, the No. 3 seed, can dial up the pressure, too. Fourth-seeded Florida State ranks eighth in three-point percentage, so you know the ‘Noles can fill it up in a hurry if they get hot.
However, just because Michigan doesn’t look like a great bet now doesn’t mean that can’t change. If money starts pouring in on other teams in the East and Michigan’s odds drop, then suddenly Michigan will be a value. Again, this is still a supremely talented, well-coached, and battle-tested team. Things move fast on the betting market, so pay attention and strike when the time is right.
Illinois Fighting Illini (+700)
Fresh off winning the Big 10 tournament, Illinois (23-6) is the other top seed and looks like a decent value at +700. The Illini enter the tournament as hot as any team not named Gonzaga, boasting a seven-game winning streak that includes victories against Michigan, Ohio State (twice), Iowa, Rutgers, and Wisconsin. Talk about a gauntlet.
There’s no question Illinois has what it takes to win it all, but a sneaky-tough potential second-round matchup against Loyola-Chicago looms, as well as a potential Sweet-16 date against freshman sensation Cade Cunningham and Oklahoma State. High-flying Houston or press-happy West Virginia also won’t be cakewalks should Illinois meet one of those teams in the Elite 8.
As we said earlier, it’s almost a guarantee one of these No. 1 seeds — and likely two — won’t make the Final Four. It’s possible the best strategy is to bet a little something on all four and assume one will go all the way. Illinois would present the biggest payoff in that scenario.
March Madness sleepers
What counts as a March Madness sleeper? Do you only consider teams with a “legitimate” shot at winning it all? If that’s the case, good luck. The top 8-12 teams will always stand out well above the rest. However, if you’re just looking for teams that can make a legit Final 4 run and maybe get lucky enough to steal a title, well, then you can squint and find a whole lot of options.
We’ll look at one team from each region that presents intriguing value at their current odds. Some are (much) bigger long shots than others, but variety is the spice of life.
Oklahoma State Cowboys (+3000)
OK, this one is boring. Oklahoma State (20-8) is high on everyone’s sleeper list because of freshman star (and likely No. 1 NBA draft pick) Cade Cunningham. The 6-8 forward averaged over 20 points per game this year and just led the Cowboys to an upset over Baylor in the Big 12 tournament semifinals. He followed that up with a 29-point outburst in a losing effort against Texas in the title game.
Oklahoma State is the No. 4 seed in the Midwest region, where Illinois is the No. 1. Between that a potentially tough second-round matchup against the Tennessee-Oregon State winner (never mind a first-round matchup with sweet-shooting Liberty), Oklahoma State will have its work cut out for it, but having at least a little money on the Cowboys isn’t a bad idea. We’re not saying Cunningham is the second coming of Carmelo Anthony, who led third-seeded Syracuse to a national title in 2003, but if there’s anyone in this year’s field who can pull off a similar feat, it would be him.
Kansas Jayhawks (+4200
It’s still up in the air as to whether the Jayhawks will actually play in this year’s tournament after they withdrew from the Big 12 tournament due to positive COVID tests, so obviously you will have to pay close attention to the latest news out of Lawrence. But if Kansas is ready to play this weekend, even with a thinned-out roster, the Jayhawks are intriguing at +4200.
Kansas (20-8) has an impressive resume this year with wins over Baylor, West Virginia, Oklahoma (twice), Texas Tech (twice), Oklahoma State, and Creighton, so you know the Jayhawks can go toe-to-toe with anyone. They lost to Gonzaga, the No. 1 seed in the West region, 90-102 way back on Nov. 26 in their first game of the season, but the Jayhawks won’t be intimidated by the ‘Zags if those teams meet in the Elite 8. Getting Kansas at the same odds as Texas Tech and Creighton — two teams they’ve beaten — and well below a 7-seed like UConn (+3200) and a fellow COVID-affected team like Virginia (+3000) is nice value.
LSU Tigers (+7500)/St. Bonaventure Bonnies (+20000)
Obviously, you don’t want to bet a lot on teams playing in an 8-9 matchup, but with the winner of this game likely to face Michigan in the second round, it makes some sense. LSU (18-9) just took out Arkansas in the SEC tournament semifinals and lost by a point to Alabama in championship game. St. Bonaventure (16-4) is ranked 25th on kenpom.com, which suggests the Bonnies were underseeded. Either way, both teams will at least throw a scare in a banged-up Michigan team.
If either were able to get by Michigan, they would face a pretty wide open East region. By no means would either be the “favorite” at that point, but they could play with whoever is left. St. Bonaventure represents a significantly better value, but if you believe more in the Tigers, they would also pay off nicely.
Wisconsin Badgers (+4200)
Kenpom loves the Badgers, ranking them 10th overall. It’s a bit puzzling as to why the site’s advanced formula is so enthralled with Wisconsin (17-12), who lost against virtually every top team it played this year. That included two losses to Michigan, three losses to Iowa, two losses to Illinois, a loss to Ohio State, and a loss to Purdue. Wisconsin did beat Michigan State, Rutgers, and Maryland, so that’s at least a little something.
Wisconsin is the No. 8 seed in the South region, where Baylor looms as the No. 1. You could argue putting money down on Wisconsin at anything less than +7500 is a waste — and it probably is — but if the Kenpom numbers are right about what isn’t readily apparent, then Wisconsin could potentially pull off the shocking second-round upset. If that were to happen, then the Badgers would be as dangerous as any team in the region. You can probably make a better case for fourth-seeded Purdue (+4200), as it was a better team this season and will either get an injury-ravaged Villanova or 12th-seeded Winthrop in the second round if it advances that far, but we at least wanted all you eye-testers and record-skimmers out there to be aware of what the computers are saying.
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