The wildly unpredictable nature of the NCAA Tournament makes it one of the most intriguing and exciting events on the annual sports calendar.
Even if you don’t have an emotional investment in any of the 64 teams competing for a national championship, there are still plenty of opportunities to get financially invested in March Madness.
In 2022, Americans were expected to throw down more than $3 billion in legal wagers while betting on various facets of The Big Dance—a number that doesn’t include the amount of cash that changes hands in the technically illegal bracket pools millions of people across the country participate in each year.
The fact that no one has even come close to picking a perfect bracket is a testament to just how hard it is to forecast how the chips will fall when everything is said and done.
With that said, when you combine the fairly wide-open nature of the tourney with the size of the field, you usually have a pretty good chance to get a solid return on your investment if you think there’s one particular team that has an edge over everyone else.
Last year, the furniture magnate known as “Mattress Mack” hitched his horse to the University of Houston to the tune of $1.5 million, and he’ll take home a cool $14 million if the top-seeded Cougars ultimately earn the right to cut down the net.
Houston enters the NCAA Tournament as the odds-on favorite to win it all, but they’ll be facing some pretty stiff competition in the form of Alabama, Kansas, Purdue, and UCLA (among others).
Every seasoned sports bettor knows you typically want to avoid putting too much stake in trends and patterns of the past, but with March Madness right around the corner, I figured there’s no better time to take a look at how the favorite has historically fared when it comes to predicting the eventual championship.
How often has the betting favorite come out on top in March Madness?
For the purpose of this article, we’re only going to examine what’s unfolded since 2009, as my initial research determined trying to track down definitive betting lines past that point is much easier said than done.
With that said, something is better than nothing.
2009: North Carolina (+300)—WON
The Tar Heels had an incredible amount of potential at the start of the season, as Wayne Ellington, Danny Green, Ty Lawson, and Tyler Hansborough toyed with the idea of declaring for the NBA Draft but opted to come back for one last run.
UNC posted a 28–4 record heading into the tourney and were heavy favorites to win it all—which is exactly what they ended up doing when they trounced Michigan State by a score of 89-72 in the title game.
2010: Kansas (+300)—LOST
Bill Self was hoping to add another piece of hardware to the trophy case in Lawrence after securing his first championship in 2008, and it looked like the Jayhawks had a very solid chance of doing exactly that.
Unfortunately, Northern Iowa came along to rain on their parade, as the ninth-seeded Panthers stunned Kansas and the college basketball world with a 69-67 victory in the second round.
2011: Ohio State (+350)—LOST
The Buckeyes posted a dominant 32-2 record ahead of March Madness and lived up to the hype in the first two rounds by dispatching UTSA and George Mason by more than 30 points.
However, they faced a much bigger challenge when they met Kentucky in the Sweet 16 in a back-and-forth contest that saw the Wildcats squeak out a two-point win thanks to a last-second shot from Brandon Knight.
2012: Kentucky (+250)—WON
Kentucky rode the momentum of the aforementioned victory to the Final Four and returned to the tourney in search of redemption after missing out on the chance to play in the championship game.
They had no trouble topping Detroit in the opening round before making their fans stress a bit more with close wins over Purdue and NC State in the second and third.
From there, they coasted to the Final Four by beating UNC before dispatching Louisville and Kansas with relative ease to secure their first title with John Calipari at the helm.
2013: Louisville (+450)—WON
North Carolina A&T, Colorado State, and Oregon were no match for the Cardinals, who posted double-digit victories in their first three showdowns.
It seemed like they had their work cut out for them against Duke in the Elite 8—especially after Kevin Ware suffered the gruesome fracture that’s seared into the mind of every person who witnessed the fallout of the fateful injury.
However, Louisville rallied around him to beat the Blue Devils by 22 points before warding off Wichita State in the Final Four and beating Michigan State in the final to cap off one of the more impressive March Madness runs in postseason memory (and one that the school isn’t officially allowed to acknowledge).
2014: Florida (+550)—LOST
Florida lived up to the expectations that come with being the favorite by coasting to the Final Four with largely stress-free wins over Albany, Pitt, UCLA, and Dayton (the last of which had its Cinderella story cut short in the Elite 8).
Unfortunately, the Gators ran into another team that was on a somewhat unexpected run that brought them to the Final Four: UConn, which sent Florida home before capping off its improbable national championship season with a victory over Kentucky.
2015: Kentucky (+120)—LOST
It’s safe to say oddsmakers were very confident no one was going to be able to stop the undefeated Kentucky team that was simply a force to be reckoned with heading into the tourney in 2015.
The Wildcats didn’t really show any signs of weakness over the course of the first three rounds (which included a 78-39 thrashing of West Virginia in the Sweet 16), although Notre Dame gave them a run for their money in an Elite 8 matchup the Fighting Irish lost by two points.
Kentucky finally met its match in the Final Four, which saw Wisconsin hand them their first and only loss of the season.
2016: Kansas (+500)—LOST
The Jayhawks were once again the top pick to win it all in 2016, and they racked up double-digit wins in their first three games before meeting Villanova in the Elite 8.
In hindsight, it turns out sportsbooks should’ve backed another Wildcats team, as ‘Nova was triumphant in that contest as well as the ones they played against Oklahoma and North Carolina en route to the title.
2017: North Carolina (+600)—WON
This one admittedly needs an asterisk, as UNC and Duke were both given identical odds to win the NCAA Tournament before it tipped off.
The Blue Devils bowed out in the second round after falling to South Carolina, and it’s safe to say the Tar Heels fared a bit better when you consider they proved the oddsmakers (at least half) right by beating Gonzaga in the title game.
2018: Villanova (+600)—WON
Villanova had a slight edge over Virginia prior to March Madness, and it had a much bigger edge after UMBC pulled off the most unexpected upset in the history of the tourney.
The Wildcats, on the other hand, didn’t have much trouble with 16th-seeded Radford or any of the other teams they faced, as they beat every single opponent by at least 12 points to win the championship with relative ease.
2019: Duke (+225)—LOST
As was the case with Kentucky in 2015, oddsmakers put a lot of faith in Duke to win it all.
The Blue Devils easily advanced past North Dakota State in the opening round, but they showed they were very vulnerable when they beat UCF by one in a nailbiter before eking out a two-point win over Virginia Tech in the Sweet 16.
Duke’s Elite 8 showdown with Michigan State was a similarly tight affair, but the Spartans put the final nail in the coffin with the 68-67 win.
2020: NO FAVORITE (THANKS COVID)—EVERYBODY LOST
Remember that? That was weird.
2021: Gonzaga (+200)—LOST
If I’ve learned anything from this exercise, it’s that being viewed as the heavy favorite to win is a bit of a red flag.
There’s no doubt the Bulldogs earned the odds they were given heading into the tournament, and the fact that they competed in the final proves there was something to be said for them.
However, playing in the championship game isn’t the same thing as winning it, which is what Baylor ended up doing in an 86-70 blowout.
2022: Gonzaga (+350)—LOST
The Bulldogs may have taken a small step back from the previous year, but they were still in a pretty good position to get some revenge for the loss to Baylor.
However, they came up well short thanks to their loss to Arkansas in the Sweet 16, making them the eighth favorite to fail to live up to expectations since 2009 compared to the five teams who’ve managed to do exactly that.