It's officially bracket season, with the 2023 NCAA Men's Tournament set to kick off with the First Four Tuesday before wall-to-wall coverage takes over the national stage on Thursday. By now you've probably started to fill out your brackets at CBS Sports and potentially made some of your decisions based upon the data available in our bracket picks game, including the SportsLine Optimal Bracket and SportsLine Upset Bracket.
However, there is another level to bracket strategy you should consider before your pools lock at lunchtime on Thursday that involves how the betting market is rating both teams.
This concept involves looking at the money lines for each matchup and using the SportsLine betting calculator to determine the implied odds each side wins the game. Here's how you do it: Enter the money line for a team (i.e., -110) in the American Odds section of the form. Once you click out of the field, the calculator will give you more information related to those odds, including the implied winning percentage in the final field labeled "Implied Odds."
In the case of a -110 money line, those implied odds read 52.38, meaning that the corresponding team has a 52.38% chance to win as determined by the market. The true odds for a matchup will always be slightly lower than the implied odds calculation to account for the juice the sportsbooks are building into each line; for example, that -110 money line would likely be matched by another -110 money line on the other team in the matchup by most sportsbooks, but mathematically both teams cannot have a 52.38% chance to win.
For the purposes of finding leverage, we're going stick with the odds implied by the money line rather than going the extra step to find true odds. Since we're using this tool to make a comparison across the entire spectrum of first-round matchups, the important factor is remaining consistent with the data we use rather than which data set we choose.
Now that we know how to find the implied odds as set by the betting market, the next step is to compare those odds to the distribution of selections for each team in each matchup in the CBS Sports bracket game. This step is also simple, as that information is displayed at the top of each matchup analysis window under the field "Users' Pick."
For example, as of this writing 99% of brackets are listing Houston as the winner of the team's first-round matchup against Northern Kentucky, a lopsided split that is certain to remain so when brackets lock on Thursday. Houston is -3500 to win on the money line, and the SportsLine betting calculator tells us that Houston has a 97.22% chance to win. Both the betting market and CBS bracket games participants make Houston a near certainty to win and advance out of the first round.
But there are matchups where the betting market and CBS bracket games participants don't agree, or agree far less than you'd expect, and that's where we can find the leverage needed to find picks in the first round that are more likely to happen than the rest of your competition is crediting.
What do we look for when finding leverage? We want a team that the market says should win at least 35% of the time that the public (brackets) think wins at least 7% less often than the market. We're going to start with the 5 vs. 12 matchups, which are typically the most popular for finding upsets, ranked with the biggest edge first. Then we'll look at the remaining top four leverage plays available in the first round.
5 vs. 12 leverage rankings
1. Drake +19.5%
Only 27% of CBS Sports brackets have selected Drake to beat Miami, which translates to a +270 money line price. However, Caesars sportsbooks odds have Drake at +115 on the money line, which implies a 46.5% win probability. That makes the Bulldogs significantly more likely to advance than the public or average bracket expects and our top leverage play of the first round.
Drake enters the tournament on a 16-2 hot streak with an excellent group of shooters that can challenge any team when those players are in a groove. If the Bulldogs continue to play sound basketball, they could get over the finish line in what is expected to be a much closer game than the bracket competitions are anticipating in aggregate.
2. Oral Roberts +12%
Unlike with Drake, this play will likely be reserved for those bracket competitors willing to take on a fair amount of risk while chasing the best leverage plays available. Just 17% of CBS Sports brackets have selected Oral Roberts to beat Duke, which translates to a +488 money line price. However, Caesars sportsbooks odds have Oral Roberts at +240 on the money line, which implies 29% win probability.
In the grand scheme of things, 29% doesn't inspire a lot of confidence, but it's a pick that should pay off in a bigger way than almost any other if the market has correctly priced the win probability for the Golden Eagles against Duke. Oral Roberts brings a 17-game winning streak into the NCAA Tournament to face a Duke team navigating its first March without Mike Krzyzewski in a very long time.
3. Charleston +7%
As of now, 28% of CBS Sports brackets have selected Charleston to beat San Diego State, which translates to a +257 money line price. Caesars sportsbooks odds provide a solid edge in the matchup by listing Charleston at +185 on the money line, which implies 35% win probability.
Charleston posted a 20-game win streak earlier in the season and is 10-0 in its last 10 games entering the tournament, and the Cougars' ability to fire away from 3-point range could help conquer the Aztecs' strong defensive profile. This one is on the edge of our profile for leverage plays, so be sure to monitor the data -- both the betting line and the bracket games splits -- as first tip draws near.
4. VCU -0.5%
Here's a matchup where bracket participants appear to be slightly overrating the chances of an upset, as 39% of CBS Sports brackets have selected VCU to beat Saint Mary's, which translates to a +156 money line price. Caesars sportsbooks odds have VCU at +160, which implies 38.5% win probability.
This makes VCU the worst 12 vs. 5 matchup, as the bracket odds are dead on the betting market. In a hyper efficient bracket pool, we would expect to see nearly all matchups look similar to this one. However, there are clearly better opportunities for leverage in other 5 vs. 12 matchups, as well as throughout the rest of the first round, which we'll cover now.
Remaining top leverage picks
1. Utah State +18%
Just 38% of CBS Sports brackets have selected Utah State in the Aggies' matchup with Missouri, which translates to a +163 money line price. However, Caesars sportsbooks odds have Utah State at -130, which implies 56% win probability.
Even though the Aggies are 0-2 against top-25 teams, their 13th-ranked strength of schedule dwarfs what the Tigers (41st) have seen throughout the season in the SEC. Utah State is dangerous from 3-point range. It's surprising to see the favored team selected in less than 40% of brackets, and if that remains consistent into Thursday morning, it should leave Utah State as one of the best leverage picks of the 2023 tournament.
2. Florida Atlantic +17.5%
Only 29% of CBS Sports brackets have selected FAU to beat Memphis, which translates to a +245 money price. While not the favorite in the matchup like Utah State, Caesars sportsbooks odds have FAU at +115, which implies 46.5% win probability and makes them significantly more likely to advance than the public/average bracket expects.
While the Owls rank in the top 50 in both scoring offense and scoring defense, they have not been getting much respect from bracket games participants to date, with the matchup being tilted heavily toward Memphis despite 8 vs. 9 matchups being close to 50/50 long-term. Perhaps a large chunk of that confidence can be chalked up to Memphis toppling Houston in the AAC Championship, and recency bias living large in the minds of those filling out brackets. That gives us an opportunity to maximize leverage with FAU.
3. Boise State +8.8%
Currently, 40% of CBS Sports brackets have selected Boise State to beat Northwestern, which translates to a +150 money line price. Caesars sportsbooks odds have Utah State at +105 on the money line, which implies 48.8% win probability. While not as large as our first two edges, that still makes Boise State a decent leverage play in brackets.
It's been a great year for Northwestern, but the Wildcats have stumbled near the end with four losses in their last five games entering the tournament. As a result, the underrated Broncos appear close to a coin flip to win this 8 vs. 9 matchup, which would be their first victory ever during the NCAA Tournament.
4. NC State +7%
Only 28% of CBS Sports brackets have selected NC State to defeat Creighton, which translates to a +257 money line price. The Wolfpack remain decent-sized underdogs according to Caesars sportsbooks odds but far less so, as Utah State is +185 on the money line in the betting market. That implies 35% win probability, making NC State a decent leverage play in brackets.
This is the biggest seeding underdog among our four leverage plays, with the 11-seed Wolfpack looking to take down the 6-seed Bluejays. While the data favors Creighton to win, the edge isn't nearly as large as current bracket submissions would have you believe. If you're going to take one 11-seed to pull off the upset, this gives you the best opportunity in terms of leverage.
Don't forget to check out the SportsLine Optimal Bracket and SportsLine Upset Bracket to get an edge with the model that has crushed its college basketball picks this season. Your SportsLine membership allows for direct access to each bracket in the CBS Sports bracket game as well.