HomeCollege BasketballMarch Madness First-Round Predictions and Best Bets

    March Madness First-Round Predictions and Best Bets

    Best best from VSiN experts for the first round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament.

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    March Madness First-Round Predictions

    A list of best bets from VSiN experts from our March Mania Betting Guide.

    Note: Lines available at time of publish in the Guide.

     

    Friday Games

    Matt Youmans

    Clemson +2.5 over New Mexico

    A popular team after winning the Mountain West tournament as the No. 6 seed, New Mexico is being overvalued as the 11th-seeded favorite in this game. The Lobos are volatile, and they are capable of extreme highs and lows due to their reliance on shooting guards Jaelen House and Jamal Mashburn Jr. Clemson’s stock is low after its poor showing in the ACC tournament. Still, the Tigers are more physical and should win this game behind big man PJ Hall and guards Joe Girard and Chase Hunter.

    UAB +7 over San Diego State

    Don’t expect another Cinderella run for the Aztecs, who will get whipped by UConn again if they can get past this first-round game. In the Mountain West title game, San Diego State was outscored 11-2 in the final 5½ minutes and lost to New Mexico. Jaedon LeDee is a stud, but the Aztecs have no consistent scorers or shooters around him. The Blazers, who bring a five-game win streak into this matchup, get superior guard play from Eric Gaines, Efrem Johnson and Alejandro Vasquez.

    Greg Peterson

    Longwood +23.5 vs Houston

    By sheer amount of possessions, this will be a difficult number for Houston to cover, as they rank 348th out of 362 Division I teams in total possessions per game, while Longwood ranks 271st. Longwood also is one of the few lower seeds in the tournament that can cause concern for Houston on the glass. Longwood is ninth in the nation in percentage of missed shots in games played away from home that result in an offensive rebound at 34.9%. Houston also allows opponents plenty of free throw opportunities as they commit a foul on 26.9% of possessions, which ranks 326th in the nation.

    James Madison +4.5 vs Wisconsin

    The Wisconsin offense takes a dip away from the Kohl Center, scoring 9.7 points fewer per 100 possessions when away from home compared to playing in Madison. They have to try to bust through a James Madison team that is in the top 20 nationally in both points scored and points allowed on a per possession basis. The only other schools that can say that are Connecticut, Arizona, and Auburn.

    Western Kentucky +14 vs Marquette

    While Marquette point guard Tyler Kolek should be ready to play after missing each of the Golden Eagles last six games, it is unclear how close to 100 percent he is. Additionally, Marquette is not as good of a rebounding team as Western Kentucky, as Marquette is 283rd in the country in rebound rate while Western Kentucky is 81st in this category. Western Kentucky is also 37th in opponents’ 3-point percentage shooting in games played away from home at 31%, while Marquette is 155th in opponent 3-point shooting percentage at 33.6%.

    Jonathan Von Tobel

    Northwestern ML (+120) over Florida Atlantic

    It’s time to push back on the market. Florida Atlantic opened catching points and it is now a 2.5-point favorite, but this is nothing to fear. The market has been too high on the Owls all season long, and it has led to a 16-17 ATS record for the season. Boo Buie is capable of taking over this game for the Wildcats and sending the Foul Owls on the prowl for a bus back home.

    Marquette (-14) over Western Kentucky

    Does the market not think Tyler Kolek is playing? Every indication is that the Golden Eagles’ second-leading scorer is going to play, but this number is steadily heading in the Hilltoppers’ direction. I’ll take my chances and lay a number that opened 16.5 on Selection Sunday. Marquette is brilliant at forcing turnovers (21.1%, 21st) and gets a Western Kentucky squad which ranks 266th in the country in offensive turnover rate (18.3%).

    UAB (+6.5) over San Diego State

    This is likely going to be one of the most popular plays, but I do not care. The Aztecs are one of the most overrated teams in the field. SDSU is 13-19 ATS on the season, a combined 5-14 ATS away from home in both away and neutral settings and has no offense. The Aztecs were sixth in offensive efficiency in Mountain West play (108.1 offensive rating) and 11th in 3-point shooting (30.4%). SDSU was a team I had circled to play against when the NCAA Tournament began, and I am doing just that.

    Jared Smith

    Houston -23 vs. Longwood

    I love backing good teams off a bad loss. Houston enters the tourney after getting blasted by 28 in the Big 12 final against Iowa State. That’s bad news for Longwood, who might be in for a long night. Historically speaking, teams coming off a 20+ point loss are 23-10 ATS in their NCAA Tournament opener, and I expect this number to keep climbing before tip-off Friday night in Memphis. Longwood is a nice story out of the Big South, but they played their best game of the season upsetting UNC Asheville in the final and I don’t think they have the chops to run with the Cougars. I feel strongly about playing Houston in the 1st half as well.

    Clemson +2.5 vs. New Mexico

    All I’ve heard since the bracket dropped is how the Mountain West is under-seeded. My counter to that argument is the conference’s track record in the tourney, a putrid 23-46-2 ATS over the last two decades, which includes San Diego State’s 4-2 ATS (5-1 SU) run last year. Clemson is well-rested after getting bounced in their ACC Tourney opener by 21 to lowly Boston College, however teams entering off a blowout loss of 20+ are 23-10 ATS in their opening tournament game. Matchup-wise, I don’t think Clemson will have an issue running with the Lobos. They won a 73-possession game earlier this season over UNC in Chapel Hill.

    Adam Burke

    TCU -3.5 vs. Utah State

    There are a lot of things working in TCU’s favor in this game. While I greatly respect Utah State and head coach Danny Sprinkle, who is going places in a hurry, the Aggies just got a bad matchup in this one. The Horned Frogs play a fast, long, in-your-face defense, as they had a 20.8% TO% during the season. The difference between conferences is huge to me in this one as well.

    The Big 12 is a much more physical league than the Mountain West and that’s the type of game that TCU wants to play. They were a top-20 offensive rebounding team per Bart Torvik. They also posted a shot share on Close Twos of 42.3%, which was the second-highest in the Big 12, trailing only Oklahoma. New Mexico was the highest-rated team in shot share on Close Twos in the Mountain West and had 1.259 and 1.158 points per possession against the Aggies in two games.

    Utah State was actually second in the MWC in shot share on Close Twos, so I could see this being a high-scoring game as well, but I think their presence in the conference had a lot to do with that. I also feel like Utah State’s rebounding stats are skewed. The Mountain West was 24th in ORB% per Torvik, while the Big 12 was third.

    Lastly, Utah State allowed opponents to shoot over 53% on 2s. TCU can shoot 3s and shot 35.6% on them, but over 70% of their shot attempts were 2s. Jamie Dixon’s crew just matches up well here.

    Zachary Cohen

    Charleston/Alabama Over 172.5

    I’m generally pretty worried about playing Overs early in the tournament. The neutral-court setting and new atmosphere can be difficult on players. But I have a hard time thinking this will be anything but a shootout. 

    Alabama played at the 13th-fastest pace in all of college basketball this year and the Tide were fourth in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to Bart Torvik. Meanwhile, they were something of a nightmare defensively, finishing outside the top 100 in defensive efficiency. Charleston’s statistical profile is pretty similar. The Cougars were 53rd in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency and 177th in defensive efficiency, according to Bart Torvik. They were also 53rd in adjusted tempo. 

    These are just two teams that want to get up and down the floor to try and out-gun opponents. And both of them absolutely launch 3s, with Alabama being 18th in the nation in 3-point rate and Charleston being 16th. That said, defense will be optional in this one. And if you’re worried about how high the number is, don’t be. The Over is 15-5 when Alabama has a total of 160 or higher this season. The average total points scored in such games is 179.1 points per game. 

    Aaron Moore

    Western Kentucky (+185) Race to 10 winner against Marquette

    This is a bet on the fastest-paced team in the country landing the first few punches. If Marquette’s Tyler Kolek does indeed make his return after missing time with an abdominal injury, the Golden Eagles offense may need a handful of possessions to get back into place.

    Tim Murray

    Baylor -13.5 vs Colgate

    Colgate has been a regular in the NCAA Tournament for the past five years thanks to their dominance of the Patriot League. However, this year’s Raiders squad is quite different. The past four teams to reach the NCAA Tournament ranked 43rd (2023), 78th (2022), 53rd (2021), and 60th (2019) in adjusted offensive efficiency. This year’s team ranks 211th. It is hard to envision how Colgate will be able to keep up with Baylor. The Bears enter the NCAA Tournament rated sixth in adjusted offensive efficiency. The two toughest teams Colgate faced this year were Illinois and Arizona. The Raiders lost by 17 and 27, respectively, and I expect a similar outcome against the Bears.

    UAB +7 vs San Diego State

    After a magical run to the NCAA Championship last year, San Diego State has been a bit overvalued this year. The Aztecs are 13-19 ATS this year and finished with seven losses in the Mountain West Conference and lost to New Mexico in the Mountain West Championship. Since January 13, the Aztecs rate as the 89th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Bart Torvik. UAB ran through the American Athletic Conference Tournament and over their last five games ranks as a top-10 offense in the country. The Blazers will attack the offensive glass all game long and it will be interesting to see if the Aztecs can take advantage of a Blazers’ defense that rated 202nd in adjusted defensive efficiency. 

    Mitch Moss

    Houston 1H -14.5 vs. Longwood

    The Cougars pummel really good teams, and now they get to bottle up frustration for a few days after getting smoked in the B12 title game to face a 16 seed. This game could get ugly from the jump. 

    Alabama/Charleston Over 173.5

    Bama has been one of the best Over teams the entire season. They’re top 10 in pace and No. 2 on offense, and get to play a Charleston team that is top 60 in both categories. This should be up and down the court.

    Thursday Games

    Matt Youmans

    Morehead State +12 over Illinois

    Winning the Big Ten tournament has led to a serious NCAA hangover for the past three champions — Illinois lost to No. 8 seed Loyola-Chicago 71-58 in the second round in 2021, Iowa fell to No. 12 Richmond in the 2022 first round, and Purdue suffered a knockout blow from 16-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson last year. This time, the Illini will get a fight from 14th-seeded Morehead State. Senior guard Riley Minix averages 20.8 points and 9.8 rebounds for the Eagles, who have won six straight and rolled through the Ohio Valley Conference tournament.

    Drake -1.5 over Washington State

    Tucker DeVries, a 6-7 guard and the coach’s son, averages 21.8 points and is an outstanding all-around player who can rise into a tournament star for 10th-seeded Drake. DeVries scored 25 when the Bulldogs blasted Nevada 72-53 in December, and he averaged 28 points in two victories over Indiana State. While the Missouri Valley is an underrated conference, the Pac-12 was relatively weak this season. Aside from a pair of upsets of Arizona, Washington State does not boast many quality wins, and the Cougars do not have great shooters. It’s an advantage for Drake that this game will be played in Omaha, Nebraska.

    McNeese State +6 over Gonzaga

    Two years after Will Wade was fired at LSU, he will coach McNeese State (out of Lake Charles, Louisiana) in the tournament. The Cowboys (30-3) are a legit team boosted by transfers, and the best of them is senior shooting guard Shahada Wells, who transferred from TCU. Wells scored 36 points in a victory over UAB and 30 in a win at Michigan. McNeese is a good 3-point shooting team (38.8%). The Zags were hot until getting cooled off in a loss to Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference tournament. Gonzaga’s lack of depth and shooters are concerns for coach Mark Few.

    Greg Peterson

    Akron +12.5 vs Creighton

    Akron has the nation’s leader in rebounds, Enrique Freeman, who will cause issues for a Creighton team that has experienced offensive volatility this season. Creighton has scored 67 points or fewer in regulation in six of their last 12 games in a road or neutral-court environment. They are averaging 18.9 fewer points per 100 possessions in games away from home than at home and have to face a Zips team that is 14th in the nation in opponent 3-point shooting percentage.

    Oregon vs. South Carolina PK

    Oregon has had difficulty guarding the 3-point arc, ranking 284th in opponent 3-point shooting percentage in games played away from home at 36.3%. While South Carolina does not have one category in which they excel at, they are in the top 100 nationally in rebound rate along with points scored and points allowed on a per possession basis, all categories where Oregon ranks outside of the top 100.

    South Dakota State vs Iowa State Over 132.5

    While the buzz around Iowa State focuses on their defense, which is second in the nation in points allowed per possession, the team is 56th in the country in points scored per possession. South Dakota State is 13th nationally in points scored on a per possession basis away from home. The problem for South Dakota State is that they are 258th in America in points allowed per possession, but should get lots of second chances opportunities on offense, as Iowa State allows teams to rebound 33.8% of their misses in games played away from home, which ranks 344th in road defensive rebound rates.

    Jonathan Von Tobel

    Oakland (+13.5) over Kentucky

    The Golden Grizzlies are a slow, efficient team and I think that is perfect to match up with the Wildcats. Oakland averages 66.7 possessions per game but takes over 40% of their attempts from deep and shoots 35.1% on those shots (36.3% in Horizon League play). It can cut down the possessions of this game with its pace while taking advantage of a suspect defense.

    Jared Smith

    Texas Tech -5 vs NC State

    What a run by the Wolfpack winning five games in five days to steal a bid in the ACC, but it’s fair to doubt how much they have left in the tank. Texas Tech is coming off a hellacious blowout at the hands of Houston, and teams entering off a loss of 20+ are 23-10 ATS in their opening tournament game. I’m fairly certain NC State will be a trendy underdog pick this week considering the narrative, which makes them an even easier team to fade, especially when you consider their horrific defensive numbers down the stretch. On the other hand, Tech boasts a top-25 defense since Feb. 10th according to Bart Torvik and I trust head coach Grant McCasland, who won the NIT with North Texas last year.

    Matt Brown

    Drake -1.5 vs. Washington State 

    Drake opened as a short dog and the betting market quickly flipped the line to Washington State as a short dog. Good job everyone, I think this is the right move. 

    When tournament time rolls around, if it’s not a team full of superstars, I like older teams. Teams with guys that have been around the block. Of the five guys averaging the most minutes per game for the Bulldogs, four of them include a redshirt sophomore, two juniors, and a grad student. Two of the key bench contributors include a redshirt junior and a senior. Lots of ‘old guys’ contributing here. 

    But make no mistake, the team isn’t all role players. Tucker DeVries is a fantastic player that averages 22/7/4 on the season and hasn’t scored fewer than 17 points in a game since mid-January. 

    We’re not getting points anymore, but I’ll still lay the short number with Drake to advance.

    Adam Burke

    South Dakota State/Iowa State Under 134

    South Dakota State and Iowa State play in Omaha in first round action on Thursday in a game with some serious blowout potential. The Cyclones bring one of the best defenses in the nation into the NCAA Tournament and South Dakota State is likely to have a tough time keeping up.

    But, my interest here is in the Under. It is risky because these two teams force opponents into a lot of 3-point shots, but we’ve got an unfamiliar shooting backdrop and two defenses that keep the opposition away from the rim. Iowa State’s shot share against on Close Twos of 23.8% was the lowest in the nation by far. South Dakota State’s was the fourth-lowest at 27.7%.

    That means I don’t see a whole lot of bunnies in this one. Iowa State ranked in the top 50 in both 2P% and 3P% and no teams in the Summit League play defense remotely close to that, so I don’t anticipate a whole lot of offense from the Jackrabbits.

    The other thing here is that Iowa State is on the road. Over their 18 home games, they won them all and shot 38.1% from 3 and 52.8% on 2s. Against Big 12 foes, they shot 33.1% from 3 and 47.6% on 2s at home, but still went 9-0. In road/neutral games, they shot 31.1% from 3 and 50.5% on 2s. Obviously SDSU is not a Big 12-caliber team, but the Cyclones played a weak non-conference slate at home and padded their offensive numbers. As a result, I’m looking Under here.

    Akron +12.5 vs. Creighton

    The Bluejays went on a nice NCAA Tournament run last season, but it has been a struggle in past years. I’m always concerned about teams that take a lot of jumpers going out to play in neutral settings and that’s the case again here for Creighton. While I will grant that this year’s team is one of Greg McDermott’s best on the defensive end, the Zips are a formidable team in their own right.

    The battle between Enrique Freeman and Ryan Kalkbrenner is a really fun one down low and should steal the show. But, these two teams both like to take a lot of 3s. Akron’s shot selection in the MAC Tournament was honestly a little concerning, but that was a rivalry game with a trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line. They’re playing with some house money in this one.

    Creighton likes to funnel teams into the mid-range, which I generally don’t like, but that has been a good shot choice for the Zips this season. I also like that their occasional carelessness with the basketball shouldn’t be as much of an issue here, as the Bluejays have the lowest TO% in the nation on defense.

    If Creighton shoots the lights out in a game that will likely be played to 65 or 66 possessions, they’re going to win running away. However, they shot over 36% from 3 for the season and only shot 33.7% from deep in road and neutral settings, where they went 9-7.

    I think it’s tough to run and hide in a game played at the expected tempo here with a Creighton team that takes a lot of long jumpers. I also expect Akron and the AK Rowdies to show up well in Pittsburgh to give the team a bit of a boost.

    Zachary Cohen

    Morehead State +12 vs. Illinois

    Illinois just won the Big Ten tournament, so this is a team that a lot of people will be high on. But the Fighting Illini struggled defensively for most of the season. Illinois barely cracked the top 100 in adjusted defensive efficiency for both KenPom and Bart Torvik. And while the Illini are a top-10 team offensively, you never know when shooters will go cold. Illinois also happens to be playing a tough team in the first round.

    This season, Morehead State is the ninth-ranked team in the nation in EFGD%. And the Eagles are 32nd in the nation when it comes to 3PT%D. With that in mind, they should be able to keep the Illini from busting the game open. Illinois will have a hard time winning by double digits if relying on 2s. 

    The Eagles also happen to be the type of team that can give the Illini’s mediocre defense issues. Riley Minix is an explosive scorer that had 19 points against Alabama and 18 points against Purdue earlier in the year. He’s capable of balling out against high-major competition, and the Eagles have several other players that can score the basketball. 

    Look for Morehead State to hang around for most of this game, and don’t be shocked if this team has a chance to win it late. 

    Samford +8 vs. Kansas 

    Kansas is really limping heading into the tournament. Both Kevin McCullar and Hunter Dickinson were dealing with injuries late in the year. It’s likely that both of them will be out there for the Jayhawks, but will they be 100%? I have my doubts. On top of that, Samford is one of the most dangerous mid-majors in the tournament. 

    The Bulldogs were a top-10 team in college basketball in both EFG% and 3PT%. They also really like the run-and-gun offensive approach, as they were 12th in the nation in adjusted tempo. This just feels like the type of tournament team you want to be on, as they have legitimate firepower and will feel like they belong on this stage. Combining that with a Kansas team that enters the tournament with no momentum makes for a recipe for success. 

    Keep an eye on Achor Achor in this game, as the Samford forward might be the most impactful player on the court. Also, your eyes aren’t deceiving you if you see Rylan Jones out there for the Bulldogs. The former Utah and Utah State player is still kicking around in the college game, and he brings valuable experience, along with good shooting and playmaking, to this hungry Samford squad. 

    This is another game in which I’m happy to take the points, and I also think the ‘dog is quite live. 

    Arizona To Reach Elite Eight (-110) 

    I know everybody wants a future with a massive payout, but I don’t see any that I like this year. However, I absolutely love Arizona’s chances of winning three games. It seems like people are down on the Wildcats this season, as they suffered a shocking loss to Princeton in the first round of last year’s tournament and were a little hot and cold throughout the course of this season. But Arizona is seventh in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency and 12th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. This is a very good basketball team and Tommy Lloyd has a little more lineup versatility this year. 

    Arizona also happens to have a very favorable draw. One would think last year’s embarrassment would be enough to teach this team that it can’t overlook Long Beach State in the opening round. From there, you’re asking an elite Arizona squad to defeat Dayton or Nevada in the second round, and then it’ll likely be Clemson, New Mexico or Baylor after that. And all of those contests will be played on the West Coast. So, which one of those games is supposed to scare me? 

    Aaron Moore

    Nevada -1 over Dayton

    The slow pace Dayton relies on is going to create less room for error against Nevada, who has a healthy Kenan Blackshear and Jarod Lucas to speed up the tempo. Dayton relies on long possessions, getting the ball to big man DaRon Holmes II, and scoring from behind the arc. Nevada can answer that with Nick Davidson’s similar length to Holmes and a 3-point defense that keeps opponents to just a 31.2 shooting percentage from deep. Dayton is also flying out west for the first time this season to play in the altitude of Salt Lake City against a team that calls Reno home. 

    McNeese State (+125)  Race to 10 winner against Gonzaga 

    One of the most exciting bets to make when watching the game in public. Since it is done more for recreational purposes, keep the units low and on the team with a plus next to its name. The Cowboys are going to be a trendy pick so here is another way to take them against the Zags. Will Wade’s team relies extensively on the 3-pointer (7th in the KenPom ranking). Shooting it early and often from that range is the best chance it has to pull off the upset. 

    South Dakota State (+210) Race to 10 winner against Iowa State 

    Zeke Mayo for the Jackrabbits will be one of the best players on the court. He went 5-of-7 from behind the arc in the Summit League final and will need similar results to keep his team competitive against the Cyclones. This is a good number to use on a team that shoots well above average from behind the arc (36.2%) against a slow methodical offense. 

    Tim Murray

    Drake ML (-130) vs Washington State

    Last year, Drake closed as a 2.5-point underdog against fifth-seeded Miami in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs led by 8 with 5:40 to play but were outscored 17-1 down the stretch and were eliminated by the Hurricanes. Drake’s Tucker DeVries was held to a career-low three points and shot just 1-13 from the field in the loss. DeVries won Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year last season and earned the honor again this year. He’s the only player in NCAA Division I to average 20.0 points and 6.5 rebounds with 100 assists, 50 steals and 50 or more 3-point makes. The Bulldogs knocked off Indiana State in a thrilling Missouri Valley Conference Championship game and I do not expect another offensive dud in the first half. Washington State knocked off Arizona twice this season, but seemed to slow down going just 3-3 over its final six games of the year.

    Steve Makinen

    Arizona to win West Region +190

    I am actually of the belief that losing early in a conference tournament is not a horrible thing for aspiring NCAA tourney title hopefuls. Arizona has the top metric in four of the five strength ratings I have posted for this year’s West Region. The Wildcats have speed, athleticism, and size, plus a player capable of garnering tournament MOP honors in Caleb Love if things go well.

    Gonzaga to reach Sweet 16 +135

    This price on No. 5 Gonzaga would seem to have a lot of value with No. 4 Kansas facing both injury and/or rust concerns heading into the opening weekend of the Midwest bracket. Even if the Jayhawks are healthy, I have the Zags with a better power rating, effective strength rating, and a momentum rating of 8.4 points. Kansas has the big name, but Gonzaga is playing better basketball now.

    Saint Mary’s to make Sweet 16 +180

    I am showing the two West Coast teams a lot of love here but I like the spot for both of them. #5 Saint Mary’s closed the season on a surge and plays the type of sound disciplined basketball that will transfer even with a week and a half off. The Gaels are the top teams in the West Region in my new Game Grade Forecast rating. Alabama, the No. 4 seed in the region, is trending the opposite direction.

    Marquette to make Sweet 16 -135 

    This price seems like a steal to me. Marquette has been one of the top teams in the country all season long and plays the type of defensive pressure that could frustrate a high scoring team like Florida in round 2. The Golden Eagles are essentially a year older team than the one that lost last year in round 2, but I don’t see that happening here, especially since it sounds like PG Tyler Kolek will be ready to go.

    Dustin Swedelson

    McNeese State +6 vs Gonzaga

    This isn’t the normal star-studded Gonzaga team we are used to seeing. Will Wade has McNeese State with the best offensive-defensive efficiency ratio in this year’s tournament. This time of year, great guards take over and Shahada Wells is the real deal shooting 40.2% from three.

    VSiN Staff
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