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Handicapping the men’s NCAA Tournament First Four

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March Madness is finally here, and we have a slate of four play-in games Thursday to round out the 64-team bracket. Below are my favorite bets for the men’s college basketball NCAA Tournament play-in games.

Michigan State vs. UCLA

These teams come into this game playing much different basketball. Sparty ended the regular season with three Quad 1 wins against the top dogs of the Big Ten, finally finding some sort of assemblance of a consistent rotation, while UCLA has pretty much been a train wreck the second half of conference play due part to the losses of their best player Chris Smith to a knee injury and big man Jalen Hill due to personal reasons. I am starting to think Izzo does this whole “Let’s play 15 guys” thing all year on purpose just so he can look like a wizard in March when he finally allows his players to formulate some continuity and rhythm. Possessions will be long in this one and what the outcome of this game will come down to is late-shot-clock playmaking ability. UCLA’s point guard Tyger Campbell is an outstanding table-setter, but the Bruin offense has slowly turned into late shot clock iso-ball between Johnny Juzang and Jules Bernard taking way too many contested mid-range jumpers as of late. Without Hill in the fold, I am much less worried about Sparty getting dominated on the interior which has been an issue all year, although improving. Overall, this really seems like the NCAA setting Izzo up to fit the whole “Michigan State wins in March” narrative and I trust the playmaking ability of Aaron Henry, Joshua Langford, Joey Hauser and Rocket Watts much more than what UCLA can bring to the table.

The pick: Michigan State -1.5

Drake vs. Wichita State

We have a very interesting matchup here between the regular season AAC championship Shockers and one of the best ATS teams this year in Drake (77%). There were rumblings that both these teams should have been left out of the field on Selection Sunday, which is ridiculous to me — both teams more than deserving based on their full body of work in my opinion. By X’s and O’s, Drake holds a significant advantage behind rising star head coach Darian DeVries’ heavy downhill PNR attack, which led to the emergence of Joseph Yesufu and great off-ball cutting; meanwhile, Wichita is very reliant on the play making ability of guards Alterique Gilbert and Tyson Etienne. The Shockers are great at taking care of the ball, but it is the shot quality that should make Wichita backers nervous. Drake’s defensive pressing schemes won’t force turnovers, but it will at least slow down and frustrate Wichita a bit. Add in a healthy ShanQuan Hemphill to negate the interior advantage Morris Uduze brings. Overall, Vegas seems to be favoring the wrong team and backing star in the making Devries over newbie Isaac Brown is the right play.

The pick: Drake +2

Mount St. Marys vs. Texas Southern

One might take a quick glance at these teams and give the edge to Texas Southern based off the pedigree of coach Johnny Jones, who coached the likes of Ben Simmons at LSU and also the level of high-major transfers they have on the roster, particularly absolute baller Michael Weathers. But not so fast — as this matchup with the Mount is a schematic nightmare for the Tigers. In typical Jones fashion, Texas Southern wants to use their length and athleticism to their advantage, playing at a high tempo and recklessly attacking the rim, hoping for easy second chance opportunities. That’s funny, because the Mountaineers’ biggest strengths lie in protecting the rim and cleaning up the defensive glass with big men Malik Jefferson and Nana Opoku. The way to beat the Mount is through three-point shooting and Texas Southern shoots a mere 27% from downtown. The only real playmaker on the Mount is 5-foot-8 dynamo Damian Chong Qui, who may struggle a little bit with the size of the Tigers’ backcourt, but I think he can make enough plays to generate enough offense. Mount St. Marys is going to completely dictate the pace (356th in tempo) something Texas Southern is not used to seeing in the SWAC, which will give them a massive advantage in what should be a very ugly game.

The pick: Mount St. Marys +2

Appalachian State vs. Norfolk State

Not only is Appalachian State severely underseeded here, they were also thrown into the play-in round, which makes no sense to me coming out of a pretty talented Sun Belt league. The story of this game will be how can Appalachian State’s back court of Justin Forrest, Adrian Delph and Michael Almonacy deal with the scrappy, press- and foul-heavy Spartans defense. Experience and coaching are key here, as the Mountaineers backcourt is full of upperclassman and Dustin Kerns is one of the better coaches in the nation you never heard of. Some points of worry for Appalachian State will be getting bullied on the glass (273rd nationally in defensive rebounding) and Norfolk’s ability to get hot from three (three starters shoot over 40% from downtown). Yet overall, the Mountaineer guards are just much more talented and should be poised enough to handle the high Spartan pressure, Norfolk State hasn’t seen a dynamic backcourt like this in the MEAC and I think they pull away late.

The pick: Appalachian State -2

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