March Madness First Round Bets

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
The Sporting Tribune's Danny Burke gives you his best bets for the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Welcome to the most exciting time of the year as a sports fan and bettor. Nothing quite compares to the rollercoaster of emotions we endure when sweating out obscure mid-major programs on a weekday morning in March. Can’t beat it, baby!

Below, you will find four bets that I have made for the first round. Oddly enough, they are all within the Friday slate. I have a couple of strong leans for Thursday, but, ultimately – have more conviction with the ones featured on day two. 

Following the individual games, I will be giving out a few wagers that revolve in the futures department – meaning longer-term bets with juicier odds. As always, make sure you are shopping around whatever sportsbooks you have available to you so that you can ensure yourself the best odds possible, and, most importantly, be sure to pace yourself and your bankroll.  

Let’s dive in…

Friday, 12:15pm ET – #9 Northwestern (+2.5) vs #8 Florida Atlantic 

After an early exit in the Big 10 Conference Tournament, the Wildcats are looking to make their mark in The Big Dance. And with a perennial scorer in Boo Buie (19.2 ppg), that is certainly plausible. 

However, as lethal as the senior, Buie, can be – at some point he is going to have to rely on his teammates for assistance. Unfortunately, for Northwestern, 90% of the team’s scoring came from their starting five. Seldom is their bench contributing big numbers. 

Also, they are an offense that leans heavily on the success of their shots beyond the perimeter. 37% of the Wildcats’ attempts are coming from three-point land and they are connecting on 39.4% of those looks, which ranks them 5th in the nation. 

The Owls can counter that efficiently, though, as they feature a defense that is limiting opponents to shooting 34% from that territory.

If Northwestern is struggling from deep early on, it will be difficult for them to find any other edge in this matchup. And they certainly aren’t going to find it on the boards. Chris Collins’ unit has faltered when it comes to rebounding, having a margin of -2.2. Their upcoming opponent has a margin of 4.2. It hasn’t helped that NW has been missing one of their big men, Matthew Nicholson, to a leg injury. Even if he is available to play, Coach Collins said it would be in limited spurts.

Though the Wildcats have shown the capabilities of being a top three-point shooting team, Florida Atlantic has indicated to be just as efficient – but in more spots than just behind the arc. 

FAU ranks 16th in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, is hitting 56% of their shots within the perimeter and almost 36% outside of it. Chicago’s Big 10 team is allowing their opposition a three-point success rate of about 36%, which ranks 310th. 

Clearly the Owls pose a legit threat on the offensive end and have a very favorable matchup where the shots matter most. Plus, they run at a much quicker rate than the Wildcats. According to KenPom, FAU has a tempo rank of 137 and NW is at 342. The Owls can easily dictate the pace of this game if they are knocking their shots down early and force the Wildcats into an uncomfortable situation. Then – if it reaches that point – the pressure to keep up the scoring will be weighing even more on Buie, thus forcing him into poor shot selections. 

All of this leads me to backing the 8-seed. And, apparently, the betting market feels the same. Several books opened Northwestern as a -1.5-point favorite, but now we can see Florida Atlantic laying upwards of -2.5. I was able to snag -135 on the moneyline on Monday afternoon, and would still recommend a play on that up to -140. With all of the mayhem that occurs during the late stretches of games in March, I’d prefer to pay for a bit more security as opposed to sweating out narrow spreads. 

Play: FAU ML (-135); Risk 1.35 Units to win 1.00 

3:10pm ET – #11 New Mexico (-2) vs #6 Clemson

The Lobos should be feeling incredibly confident heading into the tournament, seeing that they just captured the Mountain West Conference title. 

They entered the tourney as the 6th ranked team in their conference and defeated Air Force (82-56), Boise State (76-66), Colorado State (74-61) and then, in the championship game, San Diego State (68-61). 

Not only is it impressive that they won the whole thing, but they did so with an average winning margin of 14 points. Perhaps that shouldn’t have come as such a surprise to people, though. New Mexico is an offense that puts up almost 82 points per contest. However, what is more impressive is what they did to limit their opponents on the defensive front. 

According to KenPom, the Lobos rank 23rd in adjusted defensive efficiency, limit opponents to just 30.3% shooting from deep and force turnovers at a rate of 17%, which puts them top 50 in the country. 

Despite being the lower seed, KenPom lists New Mexico as the better team (24th) in comparison to Clemson (36th). The betting market has done similarly, having pushed the Lobos up to as high as a two-and-a-half point favorite after the line originated at -1.5. 

The Tigers’ numbers on paper make them appear as if they are a decent squad, but when you watch them – and view some of the losses they have endured – it’s easy to feel a bit of discomfort with the notion of backing them. 

Clemson conducts their offense at a very slow pace (260th), whereas New Mexico likes to get out and run with the rock (8th). My fear with betting the Tigers would be the possible lack of transition success and inability to create open shots against a ferocious defense. Also, the fact that they are facing a team that has garnered so much momentum after winning their conference title as a sizable underdog is always intimidating. 

Seems like this could end up being a tough draw for the men in orange. 

Play: New Mexico ML (-125); Risk 1.25 units to win 1.00 

9:40pm ET – #12 James Madison (+5.5) vs #5 Wisconsin 

This meeting has the makings of being a great event. You have two veteran-laden teams that refuse to go down without a fight. 

Wisconsin (22-13) fell short in the Big 10 Championship game on Sunday, losing 93-87 to Illinois. On the other side, JMU (30-3) kept up their dominance all the way through the Sun Belt Championship game against Arkansas State, winning 91-71. 

Most people view this matchup on their bracket and believe that it’s an easy decision with what team to select. You have a very recognizable brand in the Wisconsin Badgers versus some 12-seed called the Dukes. 

But, don’t let that fool you. JMU can hang with the best of them. Despite their incredibly weak strength of schedule (293), I still believe this unit can produce; especially on the offensive side.

The Dukes have an effective field goal percentage of 55%, connect on 36.5% of their three-point attempts and average just under 85 ppg. 

Oh, and they aren’t just crushing it on that side of the ball. Defensively, JMU is limiting their opponents to an eFG% of 46%, while holding them to success rate of sub-29% from deep, which is good enough for second best in the nation. 

Evidently, the statistical viewpoint makes for a compelling case in taking the underdog. But, what would really concern me would be the Badgers’ struggles away from Madison. 

In true road venues, Wisconsin went 3-9 straight up this season. Granted, some of their losses may be deemed as respectable. However, several defeats can not hold the same merit – most notably the losses that came at the hands of Penn State, Michigan, Rutgers, Iowa and Indiana.

Despite the presence and experience of players such as Chucky Hepburn and Tyler Wahl, I don’t believe the Badgers are fit to convincingly overpower a team like the Dukes. That’s why I will be taking the points with the underdog. 

Play: James Madison +5.5 (-110); Risk 1.10 units to win 1.00

10:05pm ET – #12 Grand Canyon (+5.5) vs #5 Saint Mary’s 

My final bet of the first round features another 12-seed vs 5-seed. Traditionally, these are the seeding matchups that provide the most upsets. In the last five tournaments alone, there were seven upsets that included a 12-seed overcoming a 5-seed. 

It appears the public perception is that this game could be one of them. 

Well, more often than not – the general public is incorrect. And I believe that will be the case in this setting, too. 

Here are some categories, via KenPom, that support my affinity for Saint Mary’s:

                                                           SMU         GCU

KenPom Rank:                                  21st         54th

NET Rank:                                         17th        51st

Strength of Schedule:                     108th      209th

Adjusted Offensive Efficiency:       45th        63rd

Adjusted Defensive Efficiency:       16th        51st

Points per Game:                             74.2        79.8

Opponent Points per Game:          58.7        66.9

Rebounding Margin:                       12.0         5.1

It’s pretty clear why the Gaels are favored. I fully recognize that Grand Canyon can be, and has been, a fun, explosive and energetic offense, but that doesn’t always translate to the tournament. Not only have they not played any formidable opponents consistently, but they are liable to being sloppy with the ball. The Lopes turn the ball over on nearly a fifth of all possessions. You can not afford to do that against any group – let alone one of the best defensive teams in the country. 

GCU may keep it close for a bit, but – in the end – SMU will wind up with the dub and hopefully cover the spread along the way.

Play: Saint Mary’s -5.5 (-110); Risk 1.10 units to win 1.00

Futures Bets to Consider:

When filling out your brackets, or looking to make wagers in the futures department, I’m sure you’ve seen, or heard, people discuss the trends of past champions and mention how they fit under a certain category for the KenPom rankings. As a refresher, here is what it is:

Dating back to the 2002 NCAA Tournament, among 21 champions – 19 have had an adjusted offensive efficiency rating of 20th or better. Then, defensively, 20 of 21 champions have ranked 40th or better in regards to their adjusted defensive efficiency rating. 

Here are the 10 teams that qualify:

  • UConn
  • Purdue
  • Houston
  • North Carolina
  • Arizona
  • Marquette
  • Tennessee
  • Creighton
  • Auburn
  • Duke

I will be discussing three teams that I believe to have some value in their odds to reach the Final Four. Only one of them is from that list. That is not to say that I don’t believe the rest of these teams can make a deep run, I’m purely approaching it from a standpoint of an attractive price, viable path and pure talent. 

Creighton to Reach the Final Four (+500, Odds via BetRivers)

Anytime you have a swift and efficient seven-footer on your team, you automatically become an alluring team to select in March. The Blue Jays have just that in Senior Ryan Kalkbrenner. He’s averaging 17.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per contest. 

Creighton ranks 12th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 24th in adjusted defensive efficiency. They excel at the charity stripe (78.1%), which is crucial at this time of the year and always a category that I want my team I’m trusting to go deep to perform well in. Also, they aren’t afraid to chuck it up from deep, and do so quite successfully. Almost 50% of their attempts come from beyond the perimeter and they are making over 36% from there. They also do a solid job at limiting their opponents three-point damage (32.2%).

If they can get past Tennessee, then there is a very viable route for them to wind up in Glendale for the Final Four. This team is experienced, has a quality coach in Greg McDermott, and can light up the scoreboard on any given night. 

Kentucky to Reach the Final Four (+700, Odds via FanDuel)

The Wildcats are not one of the 10 teams that qualify under the traditional KenPom rankings of the majority of champions, but that doesn’t mean they can’t find their way to the Final Four. 

The offense is what gives them life in every single matchup regardless of their opponent. Kentucky ranks 5th in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, have an eFG% of 57%, feature the 10th quickest tempo, connect on 37% of their threes and average almost 90 ppg. 

Naturally, that would mean it’s their defense that holds them back. They come in at 106th in adjusted defensive efficiency and allow their opponents an eFG% of 49%. 

Personally, when evaluating teams, if I had to choose a weakness between offense or defense, I pick defense every time. Defending is a trait that’s primarily based on effort. Yes, there is a skill / strategy dynamic to it – don’t get me wrong, but it’s easier to attempt to play your opponent tighter than it is to hit consistent shots. You can’t always control what kind of looks you’re going to get, but you can control the energy you put forth defensively. 

We have seen this Kentucky team do just that on the biggest stages this season. With wins at home vs UNC and Alabama, along with road victories at Auburn and Tennessee, this roster knows how to step up when needed.

This South Region is wide open and there for the taking; there is no excuse for the Wildcats to not be in contention. 

Saint Mary’s to Reach the Final Four (14/1, Odds via BetMGM)

As I listed out before, there are many reasons to like this Gaels team, and I believe those attributes can carry them far in this year’s bracket. However, what really caught my attention is the price that is being offered more than anything. 14/1 seems like a flyer worth taking because of the skillset that’s present and due to the uncertainty of which team is clearly the best in the West Region. 

Sure, UNC and Arizona make compelling cases, but the prices don’t attract me and SMU is capable of beating them. 

Assuming the Gaels win their first game, I am expecting them to face Alabama in the second round. And as good as their own scoring efforts are, it’s their inability to limit their opponent’s offensive success that frightens me. The Crimson Tide rank 112th in adjusted defensive efficiency. I believe SMU has the advantage in that contest.

Then, afterwards, the assumption would be a showdown against the Tar Heels, in which the Gaels – presumably – would find themselves in the underdog role. The defensive prowess of SMU allows them the opportunity to keep it close and potentially overcome Coach Hubert Davis’ bunch. 

If the Gaels end up making it to the Elite Eight, then we would essentially be sitting on a 14/1 moneyline ticket for them to beat whoever comes out of the bottom portion of the West Region. That allows either an opportunity to cash out, hedge to a certain degree, or let the bet ride all the way. 

Again, this is more of a wager based on the big price being offered, so don’t go too crazy here. 

Best of luck and enjoy the madness!