Big money awaits as Big Dance tips off

By now, you’ve found a way to get out of work for the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament, be it the blue flu, a “sick” child at home or a flat-out no-show. You may even be reading this right now while standing in line at a sports book, with a wad of cash burning a hole in your pocket. So let’s get right to my first-round point-spread winners (Note: My bankroll remains at $6,610 with last week’s picks tied to NCAA Tournament futures):

$440 (to win $400) on Texas (-4.5) vs. Wake Forest (Thursday, March 18): Texas reminds me of Lindsay Lohan: Much like the 23-year-old actress, the Longhorns started off hot, then went downhill in a hurry. They won their first 17 games, then stumbled to a 7-9 finish. And after covering in seven of its first nine games, Texas was a point-spread disaster thereafter (3-17 ATS). But the talent that pushed the ’Horns to the No. 1 spot in the nation two months ago is still there, and now that they’re out of the brutal Big 12 Conference and a new season has essentially begun, I look for Texas to resemble the squad that beat the crap out of Pitt, USC, North Carolina and Michigan State in the first month of the season. That starts with this game against Wake Forest, which was even worse down the stretch than Texas. The Demon Deacons (19-10 overall) lost five of their final six games—including a 21-point loss to Miami in the first round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament—and has no business being in the NCAAs, let alone being a No. 9 seed. And before you even think of putting your money on Wake Forest, consider this: The Demon Deacons have cashed just once in their last 11 NCAA Tournament games and just six times in their last 30 at neutral sites. Texas is 5-2 ATS in its last seven at neutral sites and 6-2 ATS in its last nine against ACC opponents.

$220 (to win $200) on Temple (-4) vs. Cornell (Friday, March 19): Two things you can count on this time of year, every year: 1) My bracket will be a complete disaster by the second day of the tournament; and 2) a No. 12 seed will upset a No. 5 seed in the opening round. The 12-5 upset will happen again—it just won’t be this one. Admittedly, Cornell is quite capable of doing damage in the Big Dance, but this is a bad matchup for the Big Red (who got royally jobbed by drawing a No. 12 seed). Temple has been a top-20 squad all season, and the reason is defense. The Owls give up 56.1 points per game and hold opponents to 37.9 percent shooting overall and 28.1 percent from 3-point range—figures that rank third, fourth and third in the nation, respectively. They enter the tournament on a 10-game winning streak, going 8-1-1 ATS. The Owls have been a moneymaking machine all season at 22-11-1 ATS; and going back some, the Owls are on spread-covering streaks of 40-17-1 as a favorite, 21-7-1 when favored by less than seven points and 8-0-1 when laying points at neutral sites.

$110 (to win $100) on Purdue (-4) vs. Siena (Friday, March 19): When the general public lines up en masse on one side of a Cinderella in the opening round, you’ll always find me going the other way. Such is the case with Purdue-Siena. Because the Boilermakers lost their best player (Robbie Hummel) to a season-ending knee injury three weeks ago, because the Boilermakers got destroyed in their second Big Ten tournament game (69-42 to Minnesota) and because Siena sprung a first-round upset over Ohio State last year (a 74-72 double-overtime win), this is the one matchup everyone is targeting as their “upset special.” Not so fast. Purdue still is 27-5 and shared the Big Ten regular-season title (with Ohio State and Michigan). Purdue still has two outstanding players in E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson. And Purdue has the NCAA pedigree, winning a first-round game in each of the last three years. In fact, the Boilermakers have made the Big Dance 11 times since 1994, and they have gone 11-0 in first-round games (average margin of victory: 12.2 points).

Bonus plays (all $55 to win $50): Take San Diego State-Tennessee UNDER 125 points (March 18), UTEP (+2.5) over Butler (March 18), Utah State (+3) over Texas A&M (March 19) and Oklahoma State (-1.5) over Georgia Tech (March 19).

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