How To Bet On The First Round Of The NCAA Tourney: Midwest Region

  • Matt Rudnitsky

You should fill out a March Madness Bracket (or seven of them, if you’re one of those assholes). They’re fun. But you know you likely won’t win, and there’s a decent chance you’ll be screwed after one or two rounds. But there’s a way to ensure excitement, and if you’re smart, make str8 ca$h even if you get plenty of games wrong. That would be betting on individual games, which is fun and will have you cheering for meaningless baskets in long-decided games. Yay, degeneratism.

Here’s my first round primer for the Midwest Region, where I will do my best to help you not lose money betting on the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It is easy to lose money if you don’t spend sufficient time analyzing matchups. While you were out contributing to society, I was researching the March Madness gambling lines. I stimulate the economy, too.

By the way, RotoExperts has you covered with general previews for you non-degenerates. Here’s their Midwest preview; be sure to check it out.

Note: The NCAA Tournament is very hard to bet on. Honestly, there’s more value in the tournaments that nobody watches (NIT, CBI, etc.). But we will be watching, so let’s do our best to profit. It can be done, if we put our minds to it.

1 Louisville vs. 16 NC A&T/Liberty (no line)

KenPom ranking: Louisville (2), NC A&T (226), Liberty (251)

We don’t know who Liberty is playing, so there is currently no line for this game. Louisville will probably be favored by an insane amount, and will probably win by an insane amount. I will say, Louisville forces an insane amount of turnovers, and both potential opponents commit an insane amount of turnovers despite playing inferior competition. In conclusion, Louisville will probably win by more than the insane amount by which they are favored, unless they play lackadaisically. We’ll see what the line is and judge then.

ATS Pick Louisville -29 or some insane amount, probably
Bracket Pick: The North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, no, JK, Louisville, you guys. I’m really smart and will get this right.

8 Colorado State vs. 9 Missouri (-3)

KenPom ranking: Missouri (18), CSU (24)

These are two of the best offenses in the country — Missouri’s is 13th in KenPom; CSU seventh. Missouri plays better defense, but they were significantly better at home, and Lexington, KY is not especially close to home, Google Maps tells me. Though it’s notable that the Tigers will be traveling a shorter distance, because traveling sucks. And CSU will be away from their precious Colorado altitude that hypnotizes opponents’ lungs.

This looks like a bad matchup for the Rams, though. The reasons their offense is so efficient are, 1) they rebound 41.8% of their missed shots (No. 2 nationally), and, 2) they don’t turn the ball over (16th nationally in TO%). It’s not because they’re a good shooting team. They aren’t a good shooting team. Missouri is a good rebounding team (50th nationally in opponent OREB%). Missouri doesn’t rely on forcing turnovers. Missouri is one of the tallest teams in the tourney. CSU is one of the shortest. The Rams also rely heavily on free throws, while Missouri prevents teams from shooting free throws, not to mention that relying on free throws in the NCAA Tournament is often a very bad thing.

Colorado State was a team that could’ve scared the right opponent. This is just a bad matchup — I’d like the Rams’ chances against multiple teams better than Mizzou. But everything points in Missouri’s direction.

Note: I’ve seen people use Missouri’s shocking upset to Norfolk State, last year, as justification for picking CSU. That’s fine, but I’m not sure how that has relevance besides giving you justification to call Frank Haith a bad coach. If anything, I’d think they’d learn from that embarrassment and not take this game for granted. They’re also the lower seed, and probably don’t care or know that they’re slightly favored.

ATS Pick: Missouri -3
Bracket Pick: Missouri

5 Oklahoma State (-3) vs. 12 Oregon

KenPom ranking: OSU (20), UO (43)

This is the classic case of an “upset” barely being an upset, since the line implies a 40% chance of an Oregon victory. Oregon has three decent wins away from home — at UCLA, neutral vs. UCLA and at UNLV. Oklahoma State has two good wins away from home — at Kansas and neutral vs. Baylor.

Oregon has a really good defense but a bad offense. They uncharacteristically got hot from 3-land in the Pac-12 tournament, but that’s unlikely to happen against the Cowboys. They aren’t a good shooting team, and they turn the ball over a ton. This is a bad matchup, and Oklahoma State is unequivocally better.

OSU should win. Their shooting scares me a bit, so I’m not overly confident, but I think the Cowboys cover.

ATS Pick: Oklahoma State -3
Bracket Pick: Oklahoma State

4 St. Louis (-9) vs. 13 New Mexico State
KenPom ranking: St. Louis (16), NMSU (80)

The fact that a nondescript team that plays at a plodding pace is favored by nine should tell you that you probably shouldn’t pick against St. Louis in your bracket. A Final Four appearance wouldn’t be shocking. I think KenPom overrates them, but I think they’re very, very good.

Nine points is a lot of points, but this is a great matchup for the Billikens. New Mexico State coughs the ball up at an insane pace (274th nationally), and St. Louis is 23rd nationally in forcing turnovers. St. Louis is better at virtually everything, and the turnovers should give them enough possessions to cover this large number.

ATS Pick: St. Louis -9
Bracket Pick: St. Louis

6 Memphis (-9) vs. 11 Middle Tennessee State/St. Mary’s

KenPom ranking: Memphis (39), MTSU (32), St. Mary’s (22)

Memphis has zero good wins. They lost their only tests (neutral vs. VCU, neutral vs. Minnesota, vs. Louisville). Those were admittedly very tough tests, so we don’t really know what to expect from Memphis. They may be underdogs to whichever team wins the play-in game. Don’t be surprised if that happens. This means you should yell at any of your friends that pick this “upset,” because they’re dumb.

At first glance, I like Memphis over St. Mary’s, but I like MTSU over Memphis. The spread will likely be tiny, regardless of the matchup.

I’ll tell you later; calm down

3 Michigan State (-10) vs. 14 Vaparaiso

KenPom ranking: MSU (10), Valpo (66)

Michigan State is for real, but Valparaiso is a very interesting team in a one game scenario. The Spartans amazingly have no bad losses, but they’re not upset-proof.

Valparaiso is fourth nationally in effective FG%. They shoot a lot of threes, and they shoot them well. Their one offensive weakness is turnovers, but that’s the one thing MSU doesn’t do well on defense. If Valpo gets hot — and Valpo is often very hot, like my douchebrofoes from MSU often tell me their girls are in comparison to Wolverine women — they can obviously pull an upset. And they do not need to pull an upset to cover a very large spread.

There is concern that these hot-shooters won’t be so hot, though. MSU plays incredible defense, as you know. Valpo has played two somewhat similar, worse teams than MSU — St. Louis and New Mexico. Valpo lost both of those games by 13, largely due to turnovers. Even though MSU may not force turnovers often, Valpo likes to give the ball up even to the unwilling.

I lean Valpo, but not that strongly, because they are thief-enablers and that is bad.

ATS Pick: Valparaiso +10
Bracket Pick: Valparaiso, with all of the University of Michigan bias

7 Creighton (-3) vs. 10 Cincinnati

KenPom ranking: Creighton (15), Cincinnati (40)

This will be a popular upset pick from dumb people who think Big East > Missouri Valley, and it will also be a popular “upset” pick from people who go OMG I HEARD BOUT DIS GUY DOUG MCDERMOTT HE’S SO GOOD. One of these dumb factions will be right, but let’s try and figure out which one, through rationalysis.

Creighton is the No. 1 team, nationally, in effective FG% and nobody is close. They shoot a lot of threes, and they make the highest percentage of them in the country. They are second in 2-point FG%. They don’t take great care of the ball, though, and they don’t rebound many of their misses. If shots are falling, and they often do, they’re impossible to stop. If not, they can’t really recover. Their defensive efficiency is middling, but aside from not forcing any turnovers, they’re not as bad as people seem to think. The Bluejays have seven losses, only two of which could be considered “good” (at Wichita State and at St. Mary’s). But that makes sense, because this team can’t overcome cold shooting, which is bound to happen. This isn’t the type of team that can go undefeated, but it’s a good team.

This is a weird matchup, because Cincinnati is one of the worst shooting teams in the tournament, but one of the best at defending shooters (9th in opponent effective FG%). They stop teams as well as almost anyone, but they typically miss a ton of shots and rely on offensive rebounds to score. The most similars team to Creighton that the Bearcats have played are Iowa State and Notre Dame, teams that lean on their hot shooting. It was early in the year, so it probably doesn’t mean a ton, but Cincy beat Iowa St. by 8 on a neutral court, stifling their typically-hot shooting. But they lost both matchups to Notre Dame.

The main reason I like Creighton is recent play. Creighton closed the season well. Cincy did not, going from No. 21 in KenPom just about a month ago, all the way to their current ranking of 40. They’re struggling, and even when factoring in the whole season’s stats, I still think Creighton’s shooting will be too much. The Bearcats can’t keep up unless Creighton goes cold.

ATS Pick: Creighton -3
Bracket Pick: Creighton

2 Duke (-18) vs. 15 Albany

KenPom ranking: Duke (6), Albany (47)

You’ve probably heard that Duke has only lost once with Ryan Kelly. That’s a bit misleading, because he missed so many (13) games and they obviously could’ve lost with him in the lineup. But he is a really important player, as much as Duke haters like myself may despise him. There’s no way to know for sure, but there’s a good chance Duke would be ranked second or third — who knows, maybe even first — in KenPom had he played all season. Clearly, the Blue Devils are a threat to win this shebang we enjoy predicting.

But, that doesn’t mean they’ll cover an 18-point first-round spread. If they win it all, nobody will care how many points they beat Albany by in the first round. Except you. You’ll care, because it either stuffed your wallet, or thinned it. Let’s stuff your wallet.

Albany has played one big-name team all year. They lost by 22 at Ohio State, and the Buckeyes shot 60% from three. The Not-So-Great Danes shot 27.3% from three, which turned out to be well below their respectable 36.4% season average. But you should know that Albany has improved as the year has gone on. They switched up their lineup late in the year and shocked the America East in the conference tourney, with you glued to your television. They got through Stony Brook (No. 60 KenPom), a team that holds opponents to a poorer effective FG% than the stingy Buckeyes do. Albany has virtually no chance of beating Duke, but they’re underrated.

KenPom puts the spread at 18. But since Ryan Kelly missed 13 games, that number might be a point or two short. Then factor in Albany’s improvement and we’re probably right around 18 again. Consider that Duke’s one defensive weakness is 2PT%, something Albany struggles to take advantage of, and it’s tough to like Albany. Albany relies on 3-pointers, and Duke’s opponents shoot the 24th fewest threes in the country, at the 11th-lowest percentage.

Betting this is a stretch. But considering that a worse Albany team lost at OSU by “just” 22 with OSU shooting 60% from three, it’s not a stretch to think an improved team can keep Duke within 18 points, in Philadelphia. And Duke is Duke, so they’ll probably be cocky and overlook the Danes.

ATS Pick: You’re probably dumb to listen to me, but, Albany +18
Bracket Pick: Duke