So here we are. After one of the most unpredictable college basketball seasons in recent memory—a season in which no team asserted itself as the odds-on favorite to win it all—the field of 68 teams is set for what is sure to be an equally unpredictable NCAA tournament. Of course, in sports betting circles, “unpredictable” is the dirtiest of words.
Sure, wagering on the Big Dance is always something of a crapshoot, but with so much parity, handicapping this year’s tournament has been particularly difficult—especially for the casual bettor. Bottom line: As you prepare to settle in for the opening-round madness in which 32 games will be played over 36 hours on Thursday and Friday, you want some solid wagering advice. Good news: You’ve come to the right place. OK, well, at least the place where the advice is 100 percent free!
Here then are my five best bets for the opening round of action—and we start with the first two games out of the chute.
OKLAHOMA +2 vs. Rhode Island (9:15 a.m. Thursday)
Let me start by acknowledging that I agree with the majority of people living outside Norman, Oklahoma, who were outraged that the Sooners received an at-large bid to the Big Dance. When your record since mid-January is 4-11 (including 0-8 away from home), you don’t even deserve an invite to the NIT.
But the selection committee wanted Oklahoma superstar freshman Trae Young in this tournament—and based on this matchup, that committee clearly wanted Young to stick around for more than one game. Because while there’s no denying the Sooners are limping into this tournament, there’s also no denying they are vastly more talented and battle-tested than Rhode Island, which somehow got a seven-seed despite splitting its final eight games—and that was in a conference (Atlantic 10) that, quality-wise, is several notches below Oklahoma’s (Big 12).
As UNLV fans well know, Sooners coach Lon Kruger is one of the best in the business come March (he led Oklahoma to the Final Four last year), and I fully expect Kruger to have his team—particularly Young—properly motivated to prove the naysayers wrong.
WRIGHT STATE +13 vs. Tennessee (9:40 a.m. Thursday)
I’m not going to claim to know a whole lot about Wright State. But one thing I do know is the Raiders are not coached by Rick Barnes. You know who is coached by Rick Barnes? Tennessee. Here’s why that matters: During his 17 seasons coaching at Texas, Barnes made the NCAA tournament 16 times. You know how many times he made it out of the opening weekend? Five. You know how many times he went one-and-done? Six.
What’s more, in his last eight NCAA tournament games with the Longhorns, Barnes covered the point spread … not a single time. In fact, you have to go back to March 2009 for the last time Barnes cashed a Big Dance ticket or won a tourney game by double digits. As for Wright State, it has won and covered four straight games and is 5-2 against the spread as an underdog, including 2-0 ATS as a double-digit dog.
LOYOLA-CHICAGO +2 vs. Miami (12:10 p.m. Thursday)
There’s a reason this matchup between a No. 6 seed and a No. 11 seed is a near pick-em. And that reason is Loyola Chicago is a dangerous mid-major. The Ramblers went 28-5 this season (19-9-1 ATS), including a convincing win at Florida (which, like Miami, is a sixth seed in this tournament).
Loyola-Chicago is solid at both ends of the court thanks to a roster loaded with players who could very easily be starring for more high-profile schools. This includes six players who average double figures in scoring, five of whom shoot at least 52 percent from the field. Coming from the ACC, Miami definitely has faced more challenging competition, but the Hurricanes were inconsistent all season long. More importantly, they were a horrible bet down the stretch, going 3-10 ATS (1-6 ATS as a favorite).
CAL STATE FULLERTON +20.5 vs. Purdue (9:40 a.m. Friday)
Of the 68 teams in this tournament, none sent bettors to the poorhouse more frequently over the past two months than Purdue. Despite their gaudy 28-6 record, the Boilermakers have cashed just once in their last 13 games. During this stretch, Purdue was favored 12 times, and went 1-6 ATS as a double-digit chalk.
Conversely, Cal State Fullerton had the 12th–best point-spread record in the nation (18-9 ATS), covering in eight of its last 10 contests. Furthermore, the Titans are 11-3 ATS as an underdog, including four consecutive outright wins as a pup. No, they won’t pull off the outright shocker here, but they’ll keep it within 15 points against an opponent that very well could be rusty, as Purdue has been idle since March 4. Which brings me to …
BUCKNELL +8 (first half) vs. Michigan State (4:10 p.m. Friday)
Michigan State has as much talent as any team in the field, not to mention a Hall of Fame coach in Tom Izzo. So it wouldn’t shock me in the least to see the Spartans cutting down the nets in San Antonio when all is said and done. But it also wouldn’t shock me to see them come out sluggish against a dangerous Bucknell squad.
For starters, this will be Michigan State’s first game since losing to Michigan in the Big Ten tournament semifinals on March 3—a 13-day break isn’t something any healthy team wants at this point in the season. Furthermore, the Spartans have frequently gotten off to slow starts, including facing halftime deficits of 37-24 against Maryland and 49-27 against Northwestern—neither of which were threats to make this tournament.
Granted, Michigan State stormed back to win both those games, and they may very well roll past Bucknell in this one. But I don’t expect it to be easy, especially early on, as the Bison are 18-1 since January 5, with the lone loss coming in overtime. (By the way, it was just two years ago that Michigan State was on the wrong end of one of the biggest opening-round upsets in history, losing to 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee State.)