NCAA March Madness betting: Picks for all the Friday first-round games, and Thursday's First Four

Frank Schwab
·11 min read

There's an adage that one of the only edges a bettor has over the house is that the house has to post numbers on every game. Bettors don't have to wager on every game. Bettors can be selective.

That doesn't mean we can't make a pick on every game in the NCAA tournament. March Madness is the biggest gambling holiday there is. There's only one game on Super Bowl Sunday. There are 67 games in the NCAA tournament. There's good reason many sports fans turn going to Las Vegas for the first two rounds of the tournament into an annual destination.

Picking all 67 games against the spread is like trying to get the perfect bracket on Yahoo Bracket Pick'em, but let's try anyway, starting with Friday's first-round games (and a quick pick for the First Four games on Thursday at the end). All times are Eastern with all spreads from BetMGM:

No. 7 Florida (-1) vs. No. 10 Virginia Tech, 12:15 p.m. ET

The tournament starts with a true coin flip. Both teams are your typical mid-seed power conference teams, losing a lot of games but still getting in the tournament based on plenty of chances to grab decent wins. Florida has lost three of four while Virginia Tech has lost three of five. These teams could be more consistent next season — neither relies on any senior for a huge contribution — but nothing differentiates these teams now. A tepid pick on the Gators.

Pick: Florida -1

No. 3 Arkansas (-8.5) vs. No. 14 Colgate, 12:45 p.m.

If you're serious about betting the tournament, it's definitely worth checking out Matt Eisenberg's tournament guide. Eisenberg identified Colgate as the second-most under-seeded team in the tournament. The Raiders' only loss was in their second game, a two-point loss to Army. Because of this weird season Colgate didn't play any top-100 opponents, but it's an efficient offensive team that knocks down shots (especially from three) and doesn't turn it over. The Raiders lost by just 7 to Tennessee in the 2019 tournament. I wish they weren't playing Arkansas, a team that doesn't have a bad loss all season and could end up in a Final Four. There's going to be a lot of points scored and against certain higher seeds, I'd be taking the Colgate moneyline.

Pick: Colgate +8.5

No. 1 Illinois (-22.5) vs. No. 16 Drexel, 1:15 p.m.

Most 16 seeds have a few games against high-end competition to gauge if they can keep the first-round game within 20. Everything is unusual this season. The only top-100 KenPom team Drexel played was No. 89 Pitt and they lost by 9. I'll never be too invested in games with enormous spreads and won't be here either. I usually lean with the team getting all the points — Eisenberg's guide says No. 1 seeds favored by 20 or more are 21-26 against the spread in the last 15 tournaments.

Pick: Drexel +22.5

Illinois center Kofi Cockburn (21) is a big reason the Illini are a No. 1 seed. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Illinois center Kofi Cockburn (21) is a big reason the Illini are a No. 1 seed. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

No. 6 Texas Tech (-4) vs. No. 11 Utah State, 1:45 p.m.

Like the rest of the world, I think Texas Tech coach Chris Beard is phenomenal. This isn't a great Red Raiders team, mostly beating the teams it should and rarely upsetting the tougher teams on the schedule. Utah State is a big team that is excellent defensively, and the Aggies are good enough to keep it close.

Pick: Utah State +4

No. 2 Ohio State (-16.5) vs. No. 15 Oral Roberts, 3 p.m.

In binging championship week games, Oral Roberts was a one-bid league champion that stood out. ORU's Max Abmas led the nation in scoring at 24.3 points per game. The Golden Eagles shoot the three very well and were the best free-throw shooting team in the nation. They played five tournament teams (Missouri, Wichita State, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Arkansas) and only Mizzou beat them by more than 14. Kyle Young of Ohio State (8.6 points, 5.5 rebounds) might miss the game after suffering a concussion last week. We're not looking for an ORU win, just for them to keep it close. I think the Golden Eagles can do that.

Pick: Oral Roberts +16.5

No. 1 Baylor (-26) vs. No. 16 Hartford, 3:30 p.m.

The first thing I look at with any massive underdog is how they fared against the best teams on their schedule. Hartford lost by just 12 to UConn but 34 to Villanova. Hartford also lost to Stony Brook and NJIT by double digits. The Hawks just aren't good enough on offense to keep it remotely close.

Pick: Baylor -26

No. 8 Loyola Chicago (-2.5) vs. No. 9 Georgia Tech, 4 p.m.

I am a KenPom truther and also stubborn, so I have to take Loyola Chicago. I've been tracking the Ramblers for a while, and this is a really good team. Loyola is ninth in KenPom's efficiency rankings, and only the eight No. 1 and 2 seeds are above the Ramblers. They were a machine in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, and that is not a bad league. Georgia Tech is a good too, but I am still riding with Loyola Chicago and look forward to seeing how many points they get against Illinois in the second round.

Pick: Loyola Chicago -2.5

No. 5 Tennessee (-8) vs. No. 12 Oregon State, 4:30 p.m.

Oregon State was a team I backed often in the regular season because they were regularly undervalued, and the Beavers often paid off. They were 15-3-1 in their last 19 against the spread, according to Covers.com. That includes a streak of 10 covers in 11 games. They just beat UCLA, Oregon and Colorado to win the Pac-12 tournament. Meanwhile, Tennessee has been disappointing most of the season, John Fulkerson's status isn't clear after surgery for facial fractures and Rick Barnes' tournament history is not good. Oregon State will be one of my five favorite plays in the first round, and there's no hesitation grabbing the Beavers +310 on the moneyline.

Pick: Oregon State +8

No. 4 Oklahoma State (-7.5) vs. No. 13 Liberty, 6:25 p.m.

Oklahoma State is a hard team to figure out. Cade Cunningham is great. The Cowboys won at West Virginia even without him. They have some very good wins including vs. Baylor. But they are clearly over-seeded — no major analytics ranking has them in the top 25 — and overvalued on their future odds at BetMGM too. Liberty is very good on offense. The Flames shoot it really well and won't turn it over. As a 12 seed two years ago, Liberty upset Mississippi State in the first round. I have a tough time believing a player as good as Cunningham will be one and done, but I'm still happily taking the underdog and the points.

Pick: Liberty +7.5

How long will Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham remain in the NCAA tournament? (AP Photo/Brody Schmidt)
How long will Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham remain in the NCAA tournament? (AP Photo/Brody Schmidt)

No. 8 North Carolina vs. No. 9 Wisconsin, 7:10 p.m.

The last time Wisconsin won two in a row was Jan. 20. The Badgers were 2-6 down the stretch. They played a tough schedule but haven't beat anyone good in a long time (Jan. 27 over Maryland was their last win over a tournament team). Wisconsin simply hasn't been a good basketball team for months. The Tar Heels aren't full of stars but they were far better late in the season. I'm not even worried about my pick here, I'm just wondering how many points UNC is going to be getting against Baylor in the second round.

Pick: North Carolina (-1.5)

No. 2 Houston (-20) vs. No. 15 Cleveland State, 7:15 p.m.

Cleveland State was another eye test team for me; I thought they looked like a potential Cinderella when I watched them in the Horizon tournament. It's an experienced, poised team. The Vikings were 18-8 against the spread this season, one of the best records in the nation. A 15 seed and a date with Houston ensures they won't be moving on, but grabbing 20 points still intrigues me. The Cougars are really good — I wish Cleveland State, which lost by just 7 to Ohio State early this season, had drawn a team I was looking to fade in the first round — and I can't rule out Houston making this pick look dumb about five minutes into the game.

Pick: Cleveland State (+20)

No. 4 Purdue (-7.5) vs. No. 13 North Texas, 7:25 p.m.

When the line came out, Purdue was only -8 and that looked a little weird. The Boilermakers won five of their last six, have stud big man Trevion Williams and no real weakness. Then the line went down to -7.5. Hmm. This game will be very slow and maybe that helps underdog bettors. Perhaps North Texas' experience is a reason bettors jumped on the Mean Green early. They are also pretty good shooting the three, which helps. Still, it's not a North Texas team that profiles as a great upset pick. I lean to the favorite, but not with much confidence.

Pick: Purdue -7.5

No. 7 Clemson vs. No. 10 Rutgers (-1.5), 9:20 p.m.

We get to the only lower seed that is favored, and that's typically a solid bet. According to Eisenberg's tournament guide, better seeds that are underdogs are 4-12 against the spread the past four tournaments. I'm going to fade that trend though. I think Clemson's Aamir Simms will be a difference-maker. The Tigers were pretty good against the best teams on their schedule. It's not a strong play but I lean to the Tigers.

Pick: Clemson +1.5

No. 6 San Diego State (-3) vs. No. 11 Syracuse, 9:40 p.m.

We need to start looking at SDSU as a top program. They went 23-4 and only one loss was by more than five points. The players change but the Aztecs consistently win. They're experienced, deep and good on defense. Syracuse was on its normal bubble perch this season, and the Orange getting in means we were spared a couple days of sports networks letting Jim Boeheim complain for hours that his team was snubbed. Syracuse was 1-6 against top-40 KenPom teams. I'd probably take the Aztecs if the spread was double what it is.

Pick: San Diego State -3

No. 3 West Virginia (-13) vs. No. 14 Morehead State, 9:50 p.m.

I like checking how one-big leagues have done in the tournament, and the Ohio Valley is 12-4 against the spread over the last 15 tournaments, according to Eisenberg's guide. Morehead State did struggle against the best competition this season, though two wins over Belmont are solid. West Virginia is the better team and might destroy Morehead State on the offensive glass, but I'll talk myself into the underdog. Barely.

Pick: Morehead State +13

No. 5 Villanova (-6.5) vs. No. 12 Winthrop, 9:57 p.m.

I'm going to be on all the No. 12 seeds and taking them all on the moneyline too (and yes, the moneyline parlay number on all four No. 12 seeds would pay very well). It's been repeated countless times this week, but Villanova is not the same team without injured guard Collin Gillespie. Winthrop didn't play a tough schedule, but they have just one loss all season.

Pick: Winthrop +6.5

Thursday's games:
No. 16 Texas Southern (-1) vs. No. 16 Mount St. Mary’s, 5:10 p.m.
No. 11 Drake (-1) vs. No. 11 Wichita State, 6:27 p.m
No. 16 Appalachian State vs. No. 16 Norfolk State (+3), 8:40 p.m.
No. 11 UCLA vs. No. 11 Michigan State (-2), 9:57 p.m.

I'll keep these short and sweet. Texas Southern, Drake and Norfolk State are all the better teams in these matchups. UCLA has lost its last four as injuries seemed to finally catch up to the Bruins, and Michigan State did have some impressive wins over the past month.

Picks: Texas Southern -1, Drake -1, Norfolk State +3, Michigan State -2

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