Let the madness begin. Last night, the 68 teams invited to the Big Dance were revealed along with their first round matchups. Everyone is examining the paths of the top seeds to see which teams are most likely to make it to the Final Four. But let’s be honest for a minute. What makes the NCAA Tournament so special is its one-and-done format that elevates the most thrilling and unpredictable of upsets. Whether it’s nailing the underdogs and projecting their predictions to everyone who will listen or watching their tournament winner despair on Day 1, shocking upsets are the rocket fuel that will get us through this weekend. I’ll leave you thirsty for more.
For most of us, March Madness is much more than filling the brackets that will be hammering the paper shredders by the weekend. The beauty of betting on tournaments is all the different futures markets that will open up as the week progresses. One of my favorites is targeting teams to make the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Those Best Bets will surely come this week. However, I wanted to start off by targeting some live underdogs in the first round. Whether using them for their bracket challenges or banking on a moneyline winner, all three are worth a look.
Furman (+185) over Virginia.
It’s not the Magic 5 vs. 12 matchup that’s supposed to be a portal to an upset, but Furman is the 13th seed we’ll surely be hearing a lot about over the next few days. The Paladins (27-7) are on a torrid 14-1 run, and they’re doing so by getting buckets in bunches. Furman ranks eighth nationally in scoring at 82.1 points per game, and will look to carry on the momentum at Virginia. It features four players who average double digits and can stretch Virginia’s defense with their excellent ball movement (ranked 22nd in assists-to-field goals). If you haven’t seen Virginia play in the last month, Tony Bennett’s team has to move mountains to put the ball in the net. It hasn’t broken 60 points in five straight games, and its 49-point performance against Duke was the second time in the last seven that it was held to under 50.
Kent State (+165) over Indiana
Here’s another 4 vs. 13 matchup that sees the underdog live. Jekyll and Hyde are the Hoosiers’ leading fade candidates, despite being a complete standoff with Trace Jackson-Davis. However, it’s March where the guards make all the difference, and that’s where the Golden Flash has the edge with a veteran point guard in honest carries. Kent State will test Jalen Hood-Schiffino with on-ball pressure and make the freshman uncomfortable in his first tournament action. Kent State has already proven it can compete against college basketball’s elite this season in close losses to Houston and Gonzaga. Indiana had a fluctuating season all season and could not keep Penn State out of the Big Ten Tournament. Recent form hasn’t been good for the Hoosiers either. Last month, Indiana ranked 82nd on Bartorwick, 15 spots below Kent St. At +180, I’ll take a shot at Golden Flash to move forward.
Florida Atlantic (+130) over Memphis.
Everyone is already licking their lips waiting for Purdue to fade away with Memphis in Round 2, but the Florida Atlantic Owls are far from a formality for the Tigers. I’m happy to step in and carry off the recent momentum with the huge win in Memphis vs. Houston. The Owls (31-3) are coming off an impressive 22-point blowout over UAB that sent Jelly Walker packing to the NIT. They won 20 straight games during the season and have a versatile scorer who can hit from the perimeter. He ranks 14th nationally in bench minutes, so he can play matchups without worrying about fouls. They will need to step up on the offensive boards, but metrics show they can match Memphis in most areas. Florida Atlantic is a top-35 team in efficiency on both ends of the floor, making it a prime candidate for a first-round upset.
Statistics provided by Kenpom, barttorvik.com.