The bracket is set, the betting lines are settling and we’re all ready for the NCAA Tournament.
I’m hopeful that my Kansas Jayhawks future bet from November cashes after the season’s final game at the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans, but that’s not why we’re here.
It’s time to find some winners, plain and simple. Handicapping the first two full days of the Big Dance is truly a balancing act between perception and reality. Oddsmakers tell a story with these lines and respected money makes the market react accordingly.
Attacking the Thursday and Friday slates is one of my favorite things in the world.
Here are my 10 best bets for the opening round of the NCAA Tournament:
Vermont +5 vs. Arkansas (Thursday)
This one is a little trendy, but I don’t care. I’ve been bullish on the Catamounts all season and knew they would likely make this card. Vermont runs a very methodical offense that’s based on a slow tempo, crisp passing and smooth shooting. It’s the type of attack that can just needle you to death if you’re not disciplined and prepared. Arkansas has better athletes and more NBA prospects, but Vermont is a senior-laden squad that has played together for years.
Iowa -10 vs. Richmond (Thursday)
This line opened Hawkeyes -10, got bet down to -9 and now it’s -10.5 at most places. That’s interesting movement for sure and I was kicking myself for not pulling the trigger on Iowa -9. (Get over it, Sam). It’s always important to get the right price, but I’ll still happily lay 10 when the game probably closes -11 or higher at tip-off. This is a total mismatch and if Iowa plays an A-game here, they can name the score. No more fretting the difference between 9 and 10 in a game that Iowa can easily win by 15 or more.
Providence -2 vs. South Dakota State (Thursday)
I really upset some people Friday night when I brought up Providence’s national title odds — 100-1 or higher at almost every American sportsbook — and that’s OK. We’ve all moved on, I hope. It doesn’t mean the Friars didn’t have a great regular season and that they can’t swat away South Dakota State. This is truly a great time to buy low on Providence. This true line is probably closer to -4.5 or -5, but Friday’s result definitely caused the spread to open lower. The Friars’ season-long success was no accident and I’ll lay this small number.
Michigan -140 vs. Colorado State (Thursday)
It’s very tough to go back to the well with Michigan after its infuriating collapse in the Big Ten tournament against Indiana. But I’ll bite the apple one more time. If the Wolverines keep feeding big fella Hunter Dickinson in the paint, they should take care of business. Why the moneyline, you ask? I think it’s worth the extra 30 cents. I refuse to lay -2.5 (-110) because if Michigan hits a two at the buzzer in a tie game, I won’t be able to sleep for a week.
Georgia State +23.5 vs. Gonzaga (Thursday)
This is one is rather bold. Fading the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament is not for the faint of heart because odds are good that Gonzaga leads by 20+ at some point in this game. But I don’t think the Zags’ backcourt is anywhere near as good as it was last year with lottery picks Jalen Suggs and Corey Kispert. Sure, Chet Holmgren and Drew Timme are great players, but Georgia State has three senior guards that have led the Pirates to 10 straight wins. That’s gotta be worth something, right?
Akron +14 vs. UCLA (Thursday)
This will be one of the ugliest games of the entire first round. According to Ken Pomeroy, Akron plays at the 351st slowest pace in the country — out of 358 teams, mind you — and that style is certainly going to be a struggle for UCLA’s talented roster. Pay attention to this total. Oddsmakers opened it O/U 129 and it’s already been bet down to 127.5 at a couple of shops. I figure if Akron can get to 55 points, we’ll be alright. Fingers crossed that we avoid a 20-6 UCLA run out of the gate.
Davidson +1 vs. Michigan State (Friday)
Not many people have enjoyed betting on Tom Izzo in the NCAA Tournament more than yours truly over the years. Seriously. But thinking Izzo can just wave his magic wand to victory is downright lazy. Sparty has actually made it out of the opening weekend just once in the last five tournaments — including two losses in its first game — and this year’s squad is far from special. Meanwhile, Davidson has a Top 10 offense in several metrics and the Wildcats start four upperclassmen. Michigan State is only favored because of the name across the front of the jersey.
Colgate +7.5 vs. Wisconsin (Friday)
The Fighting Toothpaste are back in the dance after blowing a double-digit lead in last year’s Round of 64 against Arkansas. Colgate was winning and before you knew it, they lost by 17. Matt Langel returned four starters from last year’s club and this offense is even more dangerous. Colgate is the second-best three-point shooting team in the country (40%) and everybody on the floor can stick a jumper. That doesn’t bode well for a Badgers bunch that doesn’t shoot well and enters this game with star player Johnny Davis all banged up. Brush your teeth and brace for an upset.
Texas -115 vs. Virginia Tech (Friday)
Does anybody like Texas in this game? Show after show and pundit after pundit, it’s all about the Hokies. That tends to happen when a team like Virginia Tech stuns North Carolina and Duke in back-to-back games to cut down the nets at the ACC tournament. I believe Horns head coach Chris Beard has his team’s full attention after three close losses down the stretch and I’ll lay this rather cheap price on the Texas moneyline at just north of a pick ’em.
Loyola PK vs. Ohio State (Friday)
The Buckeyes are a battered and bruised basketball team right now. Two crucial players — Kyle Young, and Zed Key — didn’t suit up for Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament and things are rather hush-hush out of Columbus at the moment. Young is still in concussion protocol and Key has missed three of four games with an ankle injury. Meanwhile, Loyola is about as healthy as it gets and the Ramblers will throw double and triple-teams at OSU’s E.J. Liddell. Secondary scoring will be an issue for the Bucks and even if reinforcements are on the way, Loyola should win this one behind its hard-nosed and methodical style.
Sam’s NCAA Tournament best bets
Georgia State +23.5
RECORD: (96-99, +3.9)