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NCAA March Madness: Back Michigan State and Drake In First Four Play-Ins

Finally! March Madness… has come back… to (insert city your living room is in).

Oh, how sweet it is. The First Four is back Thursday after a year-long hiatus. And if you’re like me, you’re itching to fire open the FanDuel Sportsbook app, fire away some sure-fire locks and make some crispy, green cash.

It all begins with play-in games on Thursday. I’ve got two picks that have an excellent chance to set the tone for March Madness winnings. If you tailed my documented picks last weekend, you and I are up big, going 9-3, and destined to build on it. Let’s make the sportsbooks pay. Here are the top two picks for the First Four matchups.

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 2500 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.)

First Four Picks

(Odds via FanDuel Sportsbook; subject to change.)

No. 11 Michigan State (-2) vs. No. 11 UCLA – 9:57 p.m. ET

As mentioned above, FanDuel Sportsbook users can take advantage of the “Spread the Love” promotion for this game. As of this writing, FanDuel Sportsbook users have pushed this line to an enormous +60.5 spread for Michigan State. That’s already automatic cash for users, so if you haven’t already, get in on the action. It’s free money.

Now onto the pick analysis…

The winner faces No. 6 BYU on Saturday in the East bracket. Michigan State opened the Big Ten season losing seven of their first nine games, but since became a legitimate upset threat in the Big Ten. The Spartans ripped wins from Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan in the last three weeks, proving they’re a team clicking late.

Conversely, the UCLA Bruins trended downward to close out the season, losing four in a row, including an overtime collapse to Oregon State in the Pac-12 Tournament. The loss highlighted what the Bruins were all season – a model of inconsistency (they also gave up a double-digit lead to rival USC on March 6).

But when the Bruins are clicking, they can compete with anyone. In fact, despite the inconsistency, the Bruins were still ranked 26th in efficiency rating, according to KenPom. They’ll face a hot, stellar Spartans defense Thursday, which is ranked 32nd in the nation and which hope to shut down UCLA’s solid shooters.

The sportsbook’s got it right — the line is razor-thin for a reason, but it behooves me to play the hot hand: Michigan State. While I don’t have exact figures, I expect the Spartans to end up a liability for sportsbooks on Thursday. Most will be on Michigan State, as they should. I’ll back Sparty in a close one.

The Pick: Michigan State (-2)

No. 11 Wichita State (-1) vs. No. 11 Drake – 6:27 p.m. ET

The winner of this game faces No. 6 USC on Saturday in the West bracket. Drake spent the entire 2020-2021 campaign one of the surest bets in college basketball. All they’ve done this year is cover, going an incredible 20-6-1 against the spread, thanks to the Bulldogs’ 19th-best efficiency rating, according to KenPom.

Next is a meeting with the AAC regular season champions, Wichita State, who features the conference’s co-player of the year, Tyson Etienne. The Shockers closed out the season winners of eight straight games before getting bounced in the AAC Tournament semifinals by Cincinnati. Wichita State’s key wins were over Houston and Ole Miss.

The Shockers take on Drake, who looked unbeatable to start the season, winning 18 straight games. But season-ending leg injuries to star forward Shanquan Hemphill and star guard Roman Penn proved to be detrimental. The Bulldogs subsequently won only four of their last seven games, unable to make up the lost production consistently. Still, they finished 53rd in the nation in net efficiency, providing good defense and shooting a solid 37% beyond the arc.

There’s a chance Hemphill is back from injury Thursday, which would be a massive boost for Drake’s offense. And while they’ll undoubtedly need his production to make any tournament run, Drake’s efficient enough as a whole to beat Wichita State, who doesn’t pull away from opponents. Wichita State has been fortunate to this point, going an incredible 10-1 in games of five points or fewer. But to put that into context, they played in 11 games of five points or fewer, meaning they’re not world-beaters by any stretch. It means they’re due to lose to good teams.

Drake only lost three games this season and was eliminated by No. 17 Loyola-Chicago in the Missouri Valley Tournament. That game is one of the few blemishes on an otherwise dominant year if you can even call it a blemish.

When looking at the line movement, it’s clear both public and professional bettors agree Drake is the better team. The significant betting action is on Drake, causing the line to move from its opening -2 to its current -1. By tip-off, I expect the line to have corrected itself further, making Drake the favorites.

If you like Drake, I suggest you bet them now, as I don’t think better odds will come Thursday. I’m backing the underdog, Drake, to win outright and making them my top play.

The Pick: Drake ML (-104)

Let’s keep the hot streak rolling. More March Madness picks are to come throughout the week, including Friday’s and Saturday’s massive slate. Keep checking the OutKick Bets page for the latest.

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 Erick Valenciano

Erick Valenciano is a So Cal native who moved to Las Vegas to pursue a career in broadcasting and sports betting. A graduate of Cal State Fullerton, Erick paid his way through betting on sports and selling event tickets. He's also a mid-90s golfer and insists nobody will ever break his heart worse than the Chargers have.

2 Comments

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  1. Villanova has had so many important injuries. I picked Winthrop in that game, as well. Not only are the 12s usually really good mid majors, the 5s had trouble getting in for one reason or another. Villanova may win a close game; they’ll lose the second round game.

    Injuries; I feel bad for any team that has a great season, only to lose a key player late.

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