Bracket pools are nice, but with sports wagering legal in parts of the country there will be some people who will look to strike it rich at the betting windows. If that sounds like you, read on. If not, read on anyway — there is a lot of good information here that can help inform your first-round bracket picks.
We all know No. 1 seeds are good bets to move on to the first round — only No. 16 UMBC, in 2018, has ever knocked off a No. 1 seed in the first round — but they are not great bets against the spread, compiling a 29-26-1 record in the Round of 64 from 2005 to 2018. That record improves to 14-5-1 when the No. 1 seed sees movement in the line, such as North Carolina. The Tar Heels opened as 24.5-point favorites over No. 16 Iona but have since seen that reduced to 23 points.
My co-worker and gambling connoisseur Matt Bonesteel has other angles that could be beneficial to your wallet leaving us to focus on the analytical side of sports betting. The same data and methodology that fuels the perfect bracket is used to project a margin of victory for each first-round game, giving us a benchmark to compare the point spread to. For example, the projected final score in the No. 7 Louisville-No. 10 Minnesota matchup is 75-70 in Louisville’s favor, making Minnesota plus-5.5 the better pick.
Consensus odds are as of March 21, 2018.
No. 1 Duke (-27) vs. No. 16 North Dakota State
Pick: Duke -27
Since 1985, the first year the tournament expanded to 64 teams, Duke, when a No. 1 seed, has beat No. 16 seeds by an average of 30 points per game. Only in three out of the 13 instances has the underdog finished the game within 16 or fewer points.
No. 2 Michigan State (-18.5) vs. No. 15 Bradley
Pick: Michigan State -18.5
Michigan State, the fifth-best team in the country according to a consensus of 61 ranking systems, earned a share of the Big Ten regular-season title and then won the Big Ten tournament. Their defense, ranked as the eighth-best by Ken Pomeroy after adjusting for strength of schedule, should smother Brady’s 247th ranked offense.
No. 3 LSU (-7.5) vs. No. 14 Yale
Pick: LSU -7.5
Yale can shoot (56 percent effective field goal rate, 11th best in the country) but the offense turned the ball over 18 percent of the time this season. They also don’t clean the offensive glass very well (grabbed 26 percent of their misses, 214th) nor do they make aggressive moves to the rim: just 31 percent of their field goal attempts were from the free throw line, ranking them 250th among 353 Division I teams.
No. 4 Virginia Tech (-10.5) vs. No. 13 Saint Louis
Pick: Virginia Tech -10.5
Fun coaching strategy fact: According to Jordan Sperber of Hoop Vison, the Hokies ran more “pistol” formations for 6-foot-10 Kerry Blackshear Jr. during Justin Robinson’s absence — he missed 12 games with a foot injury — but Robinson’s return opens the door for Coach Buzz Williams to use more spread ball screens in an effort to create more open shots. On those looks, the team converted over 45 percent of their attempts in 2018-19, scoring almost 1.4 points per possession.
No. 5 Mississippi State (-6.5) vs. No. 12 Liberty
Pick: Liberty +6.5
Mississippi State loves to run and score in transition (17 percent of possessions, score 52 percent of the time) but Liberty makes it their job to shut those possessions down. This season opposing teams are scoring 40 percent of the time on fast-break opportunities against the Flames, the fourth-lowest rate among Division I teams.
No. 6 Maryland (-3.5) vs. No. 11 Belmont
Pick: Maryland -3.5
The Terrapins lost to Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament but this is a team with a very strong post presence in Bruno Fernando, who scores one point per possession out of the post. That increases to 1.3 points per possession when double teamed.
No. 7 Louisville (-5.5) vs. No. 10 Minnesota
Pick: Minnesota +5.5
The action on the court will be secondary to the story line — Minnesota’s coach, Richard Pitino, is the son of Rick Pitino, the Hall of Fame coach who led Louisville to the 2013 NCAA Tournament championship only to later see that title vacated — but the Golden Gophers have a chance to keep this one close.
Minnesota likes to play an old-school brand of basketball centered around two bigs, Daniel Oturu and Jordan Murphy, a big backcourt and few three-point attempts (just 29 percent of all their field goals, 346th in Division I). Their average height, 78.5 inches, is the 18th tallest in the country and over an inch taller than Louisville’s roster, giving Minnesota an edge in rebounding on both sides of the court.
No. 8 VCU vs. No. 9 UCF (-1.5)
Pick: VCU +1.5
VCU gets to the line (46 percent of its total shots are free throws, second-most in the country) and forces turnovers on defense (23 percent, ninth), two traits that help make up for their lack of shooting prowess from deep (31 percent, 330th).
No. 1 North Carolina (-23) vs. No. 16 Iona
Pick: North Carolina -23
The Tar Heels rank seventh in offense and 10th in defense per Pomeroy’s rankings. Iona ranks 134th and 275th, respectively.
No. 2 Kentucky (-22.5) vs. No. 15 Abilene Christian
Pick: Abilene Christian +22.5
Kentucky is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country (37 percent, 10th best) and is terrific at drawing fouls. In fact, only two other tournament teams, Minnesota and Nevada, are better at drawing shooting fouls than Kentucky.
No. 3 Houston (-12) vs. No. 14 Georgia State
Pick: Georgia State +12
Coach Ron Hunter loves to play “match-up” which is essentially a zone defense (87 percent of the time) that is very effective against spot-up shooters like the ones Houston employs. Houston’s Corey Davis Jr., Nate Hinton and Galen Robinson Jr. all see their efficiency drop against zone defenses compared to when opponents play man-to-man.
No. 4 Kansas (-7) vs. No. 13 Northeastern
Pick: Kansas -7
Give credit to Kansas Coach Bill Self for keeping it together despite losing one of the nation’s most dominant big men, Udoka Azubuike, for the season. Fellow big, junior Dedric Lawson, stepped up in his absence, registering team-highs in points (19.1) and rebounds (10.3) per game.
No. 5 Auburn (-6.5) vs. No. 12 New Mexico State
Pick: Auburn -6.5
Auburn’s defense ranks No. 1 nationally in forced turnover rate (25 percent) and steals (13 percent) in addition to the fifth-best block rate (16 percent) in Division I. They then turn those into 1.1 points per possession in transition.
No. 6 Iowa State (-5.5) vs. No. 11 Ohio State
Pick: Iowa State -5.5
Nova Scotia’s Lindell Wiggington, named to the Big 12 all-tournament team for Iowa State, is averaging 13.5 points per game this year and 16.7 points per game in the Cyclones’ past three contests.
No. 7 Wofford (-2.5) vs. No. 10 Seton Hall
Pick: Wofford -2.5
The Terriers are going to be a trendy pick, for good reason. Senior Fletcher Magee attempts almost 11 three-point shots per game and makes 43 percent of them. Cameron Jackson, despite his 6-foot-8, 250-pound frame, manages a 24 percent assist rate in addition to a 20 percent rebound rate. And Nathan Hoover is the best spot-up shooter in the country, averaging 1.5 points per shot attempt in these sets.
No. 8 Utah State (-2.5) vs. No. 9 Washington
Pick: Utah State -2.5
Don’t expect Washington to grab many of its misses, Utah State holds opponent to a 22 percent offense rebound rate, fifth-best in the country, nor should they expect to be successful around the rim or in the post: The Aggies allow field goal rates of just 46 and 33 percent, respectively, this season, both good enough to be in the 98th percentile.
No. 1 Virginia (-23.5) vs. No. 16 Gardner Webb
Pick: Virginia -23.5
Don’t expect Virginia to repeat last year’s debacle: the defense is still top notch (fifth best) and the offense has improved dramatically, going from 30th to second best in the nation. Look for Kyle Guy coming off ball screens (1.1 points per possession, 84th percentile) and De’Andre Hunter going at players when in isolation (scores at least one point 49 percent of the time in 2018-19) to get a sense of how versatile this offense has become.
No. 2 Tennessee (-17.5) vs. No. 15 Colgate
Pick: Tennessee -17.5
The Volunteers aren’t going to take many threes (32 percent of field goals, 328th out of 355 teams) but they will go hard to the rim, where they score 1.3 points per possession on 63 percent shooting. Only Gonzaga and Dayton were more efficient at the rim in 2018-19.
No. 3 Purdue (-13) vs. No. 14 Old Dominion
Pick: Purdue -13
Old Dominion’s defense thrives on limiting quality shots near the rim but Purdue’s Carsen Edwards and Ryan Cline combine to attempt over 17 three-point shots per game, hitting 37 percent.
No. 4 Kansas State (-4.5) vs. No. 13 UC Irvine
Pick: UC Irvine +4.5
The Anteaters’ two bigs, Tommy Rutherford and Johnathan Galloway, help hold opponents to nationwide lows in points per possession around the rim (0.9) and off post-up plays (0.6). The former will only exacerbate Kansas State’s woes near the basket — they shoot a meager 51 percent around the rim, placing them in the bottom 8 percent of the country.
No. 5 Wisconsin (-1.5) vs. No. 12 Oregon
Pick: Wisconsin -1.5
Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ — the team leader in points, rebounds and assists — is one of only four players in Big Ten history to amass 2,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds. However, the Badgers defense is why they are as good as they are: Wisconsin surrendered just 87.3 points per 100 possessions for the season after adjusting for opponent (third in the NCAA), while limiting opponents to an effective field goal percentage of only 46.8 percent (25th in the country).
No. 6 Villanova (-5) vs. No. 11 Saint Mary’s
Pick: Saint Mary’s +5
Randy Bennett’s offense at Saint Mary’s has been called “Princeton on crack” by San Francisco Coach Kyle Smith, who worked for Bennett, mainly for its increased use of ball screens in addition to cuts toward the basket.
According to Jordan Sperber of Hoop Vision, Bennett loves to use 6-foot-1 Jordan Ford as a screener for Malik Fitts, tempting Ford’s defender into providing help, resulting in over a point per possession on these plays.
No. 7 Cincinnati (-3.5) vs. No. 10 Iowa
Pick: Iowa +3.5
All three of Iowa’s starting guards can hurt you from behind the arc. Joe Wieskamp, Isaiah Moss and Jordan Bohannon have combined to go 173 of 429 (40 percent) from three-point range which is bad news for a Cincinnati team that allows almost 43 percent of field goals from long range with a 35 percent success rate; those marks place the Bearcats’ defense at No. 302 and No. 218, respectively, among 355 Division I teams.
No. 8 Mississippi (-2) vs. No. 9 Oklahoma
Pick: Oklahoma +2
This one is a toss up, but give Oklahoma the edge due to the Sooners being one of the few teams that can neutralize the Rebels ability at the free throw line: Mississippi shoots 78 percent from the stripe but Oklahoma only sends opponents there 24 percent of the time, eighth lowest in the country.
No. 1 Gonzaga (-27) vs. No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson
Pick: Gonzaga -27
The top offense in the country, according to Pomeroy ratings, will be up against the 292nd best defense.
No. 2 Michigan (-15.5) vs. No. 15 Montana
Pick: Michigan -15.5
Michigan, owners of the second-best defense in the nation, has three defenders capable of chasing wings off the three-point line: point guard Zavier Simpson, forward Charles Matthews and center Jon Teske. And all three rank in the 80th percentile or higher in terms of points allowed per possession.
No. 3 Texas Tech (-14) vs. No. 14 Northern Kentucky
Pick: Texas Tech -14
The Red Raiders are the best defense in the nation per Pomeroy’s ratings, creating turnovers on 23 percent of defensive possessions in addition to a 15 percent block rate.
No. 4 Florida State (-10) vs. No. 13 Vermont
Pick: Florida State -10
The best player on Florida State’s roster hasn’t started a game this season. Mfiondu Kabengele uses almost a third of the team’s possessions when he is on the court (29 percent) and averages a team high 35.2 points per 100 possessions.
No. 5 Marquette (-4.5) vs. No. 12 Murray State
Pick: Murray State +4.5
Two star guards, Ja Morant of Murray State and Markus Howard of Marquette, square off in the West region.
Morant is the more talented of the two. A projected high lottery pick, possibly the No. 2 overall pick in 2019, the 6-foot-3 sophomore has the highest assist rate in the country (52 percent) to go along with a robust 61 percent true shooting rate.
No. 6 Buffalo (-5) vs. No. 11 Arizona State
Pick: Buffalo -5
Buffalo will use a fast pace (14.4 seconds per possession, third-fastest in Division I) and a heavy barrage from beyond the three-point line (44 percent of shots) to send Arizona State, a poor half-court team (49th percentile), home in the first round.
No. 7 Nevada (-2) vs. No. 10 Florida
Pick: Florida +2
Florida is going to make sure Nevada uses almost every second of the shot clock: the average possession length against them is 19 seconds, giving them one of the slowest defensive tempos in the nation, ranking 347th out of 355 Division I teams. That could be a problem for the Wolfpack, who like to get shots off early (16.4 seconds per possession on offense) once they get down the court.
No. 8 Syracuse (-2) vs. No. 9 Baylor
Pick: Syracuse -2
Known for their zone defense, Syracuse gets turnovers (23 percent, 10th best in the country), generates steals (12 percent, 9th) and blocks shots (17 percent, 2nd), giving Baylor a tough night ahead of them.