Eight Best Bets for NCAA March Madness First Round Games

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And then there were 68. It’s finally here. Absolute madness.

The NCAA Tournament’s first round kicks off Friday and ends Saturday with a massive 34-game slate for us to bet between the two days. Not only is it the single greatest sports betting weekend each year, but it’s the best weekend for upsets.

But if you’re overwhelmed looking at that giant board of 34 or need a second opinion on your picks, don’t sweat it. I’ve done the homework for you. Ahead are my eight favorite bets this weekend, plus a bonus “upset” parlay that’ll pay out +1212 if it cashes. Madness? You bet.

Before we dive in, all odds in this article come from our partners at the FanDuel Sportsbook. Right now, FanDuel Sportsbook users can “Spread the Love” for Michigan State vs. UCLA. For every 2,500 people who bet the Spartans to cover Thursday, the FanDuel Sportsbook will move the line one point in MSU’s favor. The line grows no matter when you place your bet. Max bet $50. New users can sign up by clicking this link. (Excludes Tennessee, but you get an equally awesome promotion instead.)

(Odds via FanDuel Sportsbook; subject to change.)

Friday’s First Round Games

No. 11 Utah State vs. No. 6 Texas Tech (-4.5) – 1:45 p.m. ET

When glancing at the board, I’m always looking for a soft line favoring a team that’s faced stiffer competition. Here lies Texas Tech, a solid Big 12 team, going up against Utah State, who had trouble scoring in the average Mountain West. It’s usually a no-brainer to me. Not so fast.

No question, this will be a battle of excellent defenses. KenPom has Texas Tech’s defense ranked 24th and Utah State’s ranked 8th. The outlier lies with the offense though, where Texas Tech has a glaring edge. Texas Tech is ranked 33rd, while Utah State is 112th. That said, Utah State rebounds the ball on both ends much better, especially with 7-foot center Neemias Queta. Texas Tech doesn’t have a player over 6’ 7”, and that can be significant.

Still, Utah State is far too inconsistent from the field to back against No. 21-ranked Texas Tech (AP), who is sure to put up the volume and potentially bury the Aggies. The Aggies have shot only 28.6% from beyond the arc their last three games, while the Red Raiders have shot an impressive 40% in their previous three. I’ll take the Red Raiders, who could pull away early.

The Pick: Texas Tech (-4.5)

No. 12 Oregon State vs. No. 5 Tennessee (-8) – 4:30 p.m. ET

There’s almost a 100% guarantee a No. 12 upsets a No. 5 in the NCAA Tourney. They don’t call it “madness” for nothing. Okay, maybe describing this potential upset as “madness” is a little strong. Not much separates this 12 from the 5, but in good spirits, let’s call this an upset alert.

In March, it’s imperative you play the hot hand. Oregon State’s hands are on fire after coming out of nowhere and winning the Pac-12 Tournament. Winners of six of their last seven games, Oregon State’s success has come from beyond the arc, hitting at 40% or better from downtown during the run. While the Beavers get busted up inside (Colorado scored 40 of their 78 points in the paint in the Pac-12 Tournament final), their solid deep-range shooting not only keeps them in games, it wins games.

Tennessee, who is coming off two strong wins over Florida before losing to Alabama in the SEC Tournament, has the defense to cool off the Beavers’ hot hands. But their lack of scoring and inability to pull away from opponents makes them a tough team to bet on Friday. To be safe, I’ll take Oregon State to cover the big spread (which has the potential to grow), but I’m seriously considering taking them to win outright (+310). Hint: moneyline parlay.

The Pick: Oregon State (+8 or better)

No. 12 Winthrop vs. No. 5 Villanova (-6.5) – 9:57 p.m. ET

Speaking of 12s beating 5s, Winthrop has a solid date with Villanova in Friday’s final game. I think giving 6.5 points to Winthrop is a gift from the sportsbooks, one I fully hope to take advantage of. The Eagles went 23-1 this season, won the Big South Tournament, and come into Friday clicking.

Villanova, on the other hand, hasn’t been the same since losing star guard Collin Gillespie. They subsequently lost to Providence and Georgetown, who, in my opinion, are right around the same tier as Winthrop, two teams they otherwise probably dominate. Without Gillespie, Nova isn’t the same KenPom-ranked 12th overall team in the nation. They’ve shot under 30% from beyond the arc in three of their last four games. That’s worth fading against a Winthrop team getting everything to fall.

I’m backing Winthrop to cover and throwing their moneyline in an upset parlay that could pay big. Scroll a few ticks for the madness I can’t stop talking about.

The Pick: Winthrop (+6.5)

Bonus Upset Parlay: I’m either sportsbook fodder or a genius. Probably the former, but let’s hope for the latter.

2-leg parlay (+1212)$100 to win $1,212

  • Oregon State (+310) with
  • Winthrop (+220)

Saturday’s First Round Games

No. 14 Eastern Washington vs. No. 3 Kansas (-10.5) – 1:15 p.m. ET

The biggest question mark is how many Kansas players won’t travel due to positive COVID-19 tests. That number could be none, but it’s worth reminding ourselves the Jayhawks were forced to withdraw from the Big 12 Tournament last week. Still, a Bill Self-coached team is one I’m always willing to play, especially against a vastly inferior opponent like Eastern Washington.

The Big Sky winners became a popular public underdog this week, primarily because of the uncertainty surrounding Kansas’ roster. That shouldn’t discourage you from fading the public. According to oddsFire, Kansas is getting 83% of the handle on just 64% of bets. That’s an indicator of sharp action you’ll want to tail.

Don’t overthink this one. Kansas is the vastly superior team and should cover this soft line easily, no matter who is on the court. Kansas beat teams like Baylor, Texas Tech and West Virginia this season. Eastern Washington is the only Big Sky team to make the Tournament.

The Pick: Kansas (-10.5)

No. 9 St. Bonaventure vs. No. 8 LSU (-1.5) – 1:45 p.m. ET

Full disclosure: I love this game, and I love LSU. The Tigers are a covering machine, winning eight of their last ten games against the spread. They were underdogs throughout the SEC Tournament, yet covered all of them, winning two games outright. I was on two of those, which automatically makes them my Saturday darling.

March Madness is all about the hot hand, and LSU is the basketball version of the Human Torch right now, led by freshman guard Cameron Thomas. Darius Days (64.3 eFG%) and Javonte Smart (57.5 eFG%) are shooting efficiently too, helping disguise an otherwise average defense. They take on St. Bonaventure, who just won the Atlantic 10 title but are untested. They haven’t faced a team from a Power Six school this season.

However, St. Bonaventure has a defensive advantage, allowing just 54.9 points per game over their last seven games. They play at a much slower pace than LSU and are ranked slightly higher overall according to KenPom, but I think LSU has peaked at the right time. Their fast pace and efficient shooting should be enough to take care of St. Bonaventure Saturday.

The Pick: LSU (-1.5)

No. 15 Iona vs. No. 2 Alabama (-16) – 4:00 p.m. ET

Many folks will look at this and say it’s bold, but there’s a considerable detail bettors aren’t taking into account: Rick Pitino is Iona’s coach. Sure, there’s a talent mismatch favoring Alabama, but do you really expect a Pitino-coached team to lie down? Sixteen points is a lot to cover, and although Alabama is poised to make a deep run in the Tournament, we know Pitino teams come alive in March, and that’s plenty for me to get on Iona.

While I have little confidence, if any, for an outright win, expect Iona to shorten up the game, slow Alabama’s fast-paced offense, and cover this massive spread. You can wait to place this Saturday morning if you think the line grows (it probably does), but I’m comfortable taking it at its current number if you don’t have time to wait.

The Pick: Iona (+16 or better)

No. 10 Maryland vs. No. 7 Connecticut (-3) – 7:10 p.m. ET

Lock of the weekend. Maryland may play in the Big Ten and have wins against Illinois, Purdue and Wisconsin, but this is the most mismatched line between Friday and Saturday’s slate. Connecticut has a much deeper roster, a better coach, the best player on the court (James Bouknight), and are peaking at the right time, winning four straight games before losing to Creighton in the Big East Tournament.

The Huskies also had the best defense in the Big East this season, allowing only 64.6 points per game. UConn goes up against the lowest-scoring team in the Big Ten, Maryland. Though they win games through good defense, Connecticut will have a massive advantage on the glass, thanks to Tyrese Martin and Isaiah Whaley. Maryland was the worst offensive rebounding team in the Big Ten.

This bet should be an easy cash. Back Connecticut.

The Pick: Connecticut (-3)

No. 10 Virginia Commonwealth vs. No. 7 Oregon (-5.5) – 9:57 p.m. ET

To close out the first round, we’ve got a battle between two teams who stack up well in just about every category, with Oregon being a better team beyond the arc (best in Pac-12) and in size. However, VCU has the best 3-point shooter on the court, Nah’Shon Hyland, the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year. The Rams have also held teams to just 30.5% from downtown, making it an intriguing battle. We’ll see if Oregon can consistently free up and shoot as they’ve done most of the season.

Oregon is coming off an upset loss to Oregon State but is playing solid basketball. The Ducks are a well-rounded bunch with five players who average ten or more points per game and are ranked slightly higher than VCU in overall efficiency. The game should be tight, but Oregon is 5-1 in their last six March Madness games, proving a Danny Altman team is never shy about burying good opponents late. 

The Pick: Oregon (-5.5)

And there you have it. Hopefully, eight winners and a hugely profitable parlay. Don’t forget, there are four play-in games Thursday. For betting advice on those games, check out my First Four piece by clicking this link.

FanDuel Sportsbook users: Don’t forget to take advantage of the “Spread the Love” promotion for Michigan State vs. UCLA. Seriously, it’s free money. New users can sign up for a FanDuel Sportsbook account here. (Excludes Tennessee, but you’re getting an awesome risk-free $50 bet instead.)

Enjoy the madness.

Erick Valenciano is a sports betting writer for OutKick. For more betting tips, follow @ErickValenciano on Twitter. Make sure you’re following our sports betting account, too: @OutKickBets.

Written by OutKick Bets

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