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NCAA tournament: Picks against the spread for first-round games

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The 2021 NCAA tournament will tip off with the First Four on Thursday. First-round games will be played on Friday and Saturday, and all tournament games will take place in Indiana.

VSiN’s experts — Josh Appelbaum, Bruce Marshall, Tim Murray, Greg Peterson, Wes Reynolds, David Stall, Dave Tuley and Matt Youmans — give their best bets for every NCAA tournament first-round matchup.

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West Regional

UC Santa Barbara's Miles Norris goes up for a shot as UC Irvine's Austin Johnson defends March 13, 2021, in Las Vegas.
(Associated Press)

No. 8 Oklahoma Sooners (-2, 141) vs. No. 9 Missouri Tigers

Peterson: Missouri’s defense has been shaky, allowing at least 70 points in eight of its last nine games. Oklahoma PG Austin Reaves has scored at least 16 points in each of the team’s last 11 games while running an offense that is in the top 30 in turnovers committed on a per possession basis and shoots 75.7% from the free-throw line away from Norman. Missouri also ranks 302nd in fouls committed per possession on defense and is 204th in defensive rebound rate.

Pick: Oklahoma -2

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No. 5 Creighton Bluejays (-7, 138) vs. No. 12 UC Santa Barbara Gauchos

Youmans: Something is wrong with the Bluejays, who were on the short end of a 25-point blowout by Georgetown in the Big East tournament title game. The Gauchos, a dangerous 12-seed from the Big West, are 22-4 overall and 18-1 since Jan. 1. Any team that has lost only once in 2½ months and is getting a substantial number of points will be attractive to sharps. Santa Barbara has a versatile offensive attack led by point guard JaQuori McLaughlin and 6-9 forward Amadou Sow.

Pick: UCSB + 7

Peterson: Creighton has not been the same team away from Omaha, scoring 15.9 points per 100 possessions fewer in road and neutral court games compared to at home. The Bluejays are also dead last out of 347 DI teams in free-throw shooting in road and neutral court environments, while they have been efficient on offense, allowing the 12th-fewest steals per possession of any team in the country. Creighton also figures to be one-and-done on a lot of its possessions, ranking 270th in the country in the percentage of missed shots that they rebound.

Pick: UCSB + 7.5

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Reynolds: The Gauchos are back in the NCAA tournament in Joe Pasternack’s third season in Santa Barbara. Senior JaQuori McLaughlin is the reigning Big West player of the year and is a high-major lead guard who played his first season and a half at Oregon State. Miles Norris (6-10) and Amadou Sow (6-9) provide effective size that is rare for a mid-major program. Georgetown had the length on the perimeter defensively and the size down low that gave Creighton all sorts of problems in the Big East tournament final, and UCSB has a similar makeup.

UCSB runs an extended pack-line defense of sorts that Creighton will not be able to run off the three-point line. This should be another competitive 5-12 matchup that could get dicey for the favorite, as Creighton is shaky at the FT line (64.2%, 329th) while the Gauchos shoot 76.3% as a team (32nd nationally).

Pick: UCSB + 7.5

Times college sports writer J. Brady McCollough makes his picks and predictions for every game in the 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

No. 4 Virginia Cavaliers (-7.5, 131.5) vs. No. 13 Ohio Bobcats

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Marshall: The Bobcats survived a more challenging MAC tourney than many realize, and did so in style with a dominant effort against Buffalo in the finale. In junior G Jason Preston (16.6 ppg), Ohio might have a future NBA first-round pick directing traffic and pulling the strings, and the Bobcats can stretch the floor with 6-8 forward Ben Vander Plas, who is apt to fire away from beyond the arc. The 6-8, 250-pound James Madison transfer PF Dwight Wilson III adds a punishing dimension on the blocks.

This is not the same Virginia team that won the Dance two years ago, with defensive numbers down, and Ohio’s offense looking well-designed to deal with Tony Bennett’s pack-line defense. In addition to Virginia’s COVID-19 concerns, this offense can really slow down if Marquette transfer Sam Hauser (Bennett’s only consistent scoring threat) is off the mark.

Play: Ohio + 7.5

Tuley: This is one of my outright upsets in the first round, though I’m a little afraid of it being a “public dog.” Virginia had to back out of the ACC tournament last week because of COVID-19 and I can’t imagine all the uncertainty with the team’s testing and late arrival in Indiana will help in its preparations for this game. Ohio is peaking at the right time and coming off the MACtion championship. All five Bobcats starters average double digits and they rank No. 29 in offensive efficiency at kenpom.com. They scored at least 84 points in each of their three conference tournament games.

I don’t expect them to reach that level against Virginia, which plays at the slowest pace in the country, but a relatively low-scoring game certainly works in favor of the underdog covering the number. This line has been getting bet down from an opener in the double digits, but I’d take the Bobcats at + 6 or better.

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Pick: Ohio + 7.5

Youmans: The most popular dogs on the board have been Winthrop and Ohio, so contrarian bettors are seeing line value with the favorite in each game. Virginia opened -12, so it’s tough to say there’s any value left with Ohio, unless you believe the Bobcats can win the game. Plenty of sharps are smelling an upset and looking to fade the favorite mostly because of COVID-19 issues. The Cavaliers dropped out of the ACC tournament and are not expected to travel to Indianapolis until Thursday or Friday after limited practice time this week. The Bobcats are capable of pouncing on this opportunity. Preston is a rising NBA prospect who poured in 31 points in a 77-75 loss at Illinois in late November. I took + 9 with the Bobcats, and there’s a chance this line will come back to 8 or 8.5.

Pick: Ohio + 7.5

No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks (-11, 146) vs. No. 14 Eastern Washington Eagles

Peterson: Eastern Washington enters the tournament playing its best defense, giving up fewer than 70 points in all five of its March games. The Eagles’ Tanner Groves and Kim Aiken Jr. rank in the top 100 in rebounds per game. Kansas was able to turn around its season on the defensive end, having six of its final seven games dip under the total and has given up more than 66 points just once in its last nine games. The Jayhawks allowed opponents to shoot 40% from the field in Big 12 conference play, but just one of their top eight scorers (that have attempted multiple three-point shots this season) is making over 34.5% from three-point range.

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Pick: Under 146

Youmans: Similar to Virginia in the ACC, the Jayhawks withdrew from the Big 12 tournament because of COVID issues. What’s different is that Kansas appears to be in the clear and coach Bill Self expects to have almost all of his key players available. The Eagles of the Big Sky Conference spread the floor with three-point marksmen and have a low-post star in 6-9 forward Tanner Groves, who shoots the three at 32.7%. It’s easy to like a big underdog with offensive firepower.

Pick: Eastern Washington + 10.5

No. 7 Oregon Ducks (-5.5, 137) vs. No. 10 VCU Rams

Tuley: Just like the days when Shaka Smart roamed the sidelines for VCU, the Rams are led by a defense that KenPom ranks 12th. VCU isn’t totally devoid on offense as Atlantic-10 player of the year Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland leads the way with 19.9 ppg. But when it comes down to it, VCU’s chance at the upset (or to at least cover for our purposes here) comes down to its ability to take away either Chris Duarte or Eugene Omoruyi and defend the three-pointers.

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Pick: VCU + 6

No. 2 Iowa Hawkeyes (-14.5, 145) vs. No. 15 Grand Canyon Antelopes

Peterson: Grand Canyon big man Asbjorn Midtgaard is college basketball’s leader in field-goal shooting percentage among qualifying players, and he headlines a defense that rates fifth in the country in points allowed on a per possession basis in road and neutral court games. Iowa does have two of the three most efficient qualifying players in assist-to-turnover ratio, but the Hawkeyes’ strength (13th in three-point shooting percentage) will be mitigated by Grand Canyon’s strong suit (allowing opponents to shoot just 29.7% from deep).

Pick: Grand Canyon + 14.5

Youmans: When the better defensive team is a double-digit underdog, take the points. Hawkeyes star Luka Garza will be the best player on the floor, but he’s unlikely to get many open three-point looks and will run into a tall rim defender in 7-foot Asbjorn Midtgaard. Bryce Drew, an NCAA tournament legend from his days as a shooting star for Valparaiso in the late 1990s, coached the 15th-seeded Antelopes to the Western Athletic Conference championship by banking on a stifling defense. Iowa is the fake tough guy who talks a big game but wants no part of a street fight. The Hawkeyes were swept by Indiana in the regular season, and Archie Miller did not get fired as Hoosiers coach because he made a habit of sweeping good teams.

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Pick: Grand Canyon + 14.5

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South regional

Baylor's Jared Butler.
(Chuck Burton / Associated Press)

No. 1 Baylor Bears (-26, 140.5) vs. No. 16 Hartford Hawks

Peterson: This will be a battle of strength on strength as Baylor leads the country in three-point shooting percentage while Hartford is ninth in opponent three-point shooting percentage. Hartford has a sixth-year point guard in Traci Carter who ranks 11th in the country in steals per game (2.6) and the Hawks are facing Baylor at the right time: The Bears are 2-5 ATS since their COVID-19 pause.

Pick: Hartford 26

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No. 8 UNC Tar Heels (-1.5, 139.5) vs. No. 9 Wisconsin Badgers

Peterson: Roy Williams has never lost a first round NCAA tournament game, a perfect 29-0 straight up. The Badgers haven’t fared well on the glass and now must go up against a Tar Heels bunch that leads the country in rebound rate and has three players pulling in at least 6.8 rebounds per game. Wisconsin is a different shooting team based on the location, making 39.5% of its three-pointers at home compared to 32.1% in road and neutral court games. The Badgers enter the tournament 2-6 SU/ATS.

Pick: UNC -1.5

No. 5 Villanova Wildcats (-6.5, 143) vs. No. 12 Winthrop Eagles

Youmans: It seems everyone is on the Eagles, and that’s obviously concerning. Have you heard one TV analyst tout Villanova in this game? No. Contrarian bettors will emphasize that point while making a case for the favorite. The line has dipped from the 7.5 opener, but that’s due to sharp action. This is not a public underdog. It’s also the classic 12-5 upset scenario that everyone now looks for with 12-seeds.

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Villanova is 0-2 (and vulnerable) without injured senior guard Collin Gillespie. There’s no way coach Jay Wright can patch the holes created by Gillespie’s absence. I respect the contrarian angle, but it makes more basketball sense to go with Winthrop, which is 23-1 for a reason. The Eagles are loaded with offensive weapons, and coach Pat Kelsey is not in over his head against Wright. Also consider Villanova’s recent all-or-nothing NCAA history. The Wildcats have won two titles in nine tournament appearances since 2010, yet they failed to advance past the first weekend the other seven times.

Pick: Winthrop + 6.5

Stall: With Gillespie down with a torn MCL, Winthrop has become one of those trendy 12-5 upset picks. While his loss no doubt hurts, there is good news as his running mate in the backcourt Justin Moore looks likely to play. Moore suffered an ankle injury against Providence on March 6, but all signs point toward him playing.

Winthrop hasn’t played a team inside the top 90 of my power ratings all year; the Eagles played two teams in the top 200 all season, which is about as soft a schedule as you’re going to find. Chandler Vaudrin is a 6-7 point forward type who thrives against weaker competition simply because there aren’t many players as skilled as him in the Big South. I also expect Nova to be able to control the tempo; the Wildcats are 320th in adjusted tempo, while Winthrop is 11th. If the Eagles are forced into a slower game where Vaudrin is forced to make plays in the half court, I think it could be a tough day for them offensively.

Pick: Villanova -6

No. 4 Purdue Boilermakers (-7.5, 126.5) vs. No. 13 North Texas Mean Green

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Reynolds: Mount St. Mary’s and Virginia are the only teams that rank slower than North Texas in adjusted tempo (350th). The Mean Green are more than willing to run down the shot clock for a late attempt, as they are 326th in pace on offense.

Purdue is effective at defending the triples by allowing the opposition to shoot only 31.5% from deep. However, they are more than willing to funnel shots into the lane with 6-10 junior Trevion Williams and 7-4 freshman Zach Edey down low.

The Boilermakers are relatively methodical in their own right, as they will take their fair share of the shot clock down (295th in pace) and run plenty of motion in order to get a good shot.

Pick: Under 126.5

No. 6 Texas Tech Red Raiders (-5, 132) vs. No. 11 Utah State Aggies

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Stall: I love Texas Tech and Chris Beard, but they run into a pretty tough test in Round 1 here. Might as well start with the obvious, and that’s Utah State big man Neemias Queta. Queta is a 7-footer and one of the best defensive players in college basketball. He’s fifth in the nation in blocked shot rate and he alters a ton of others which don’t show up in the box score.

Due largely to Queta, the Aggies’ defensive ranks are impressive: eighth in adjusted efficiency, 15th in effective FG%, fourth in two-point shooting percentage and seventh in blocked shot rate. This spells trouble for a Red Raiders team that doesn’t have a player over 6-7 in its rotation.

Texas Tech takes only about 31% of its shot attempts from three, which is 301st in the nation. They like to get inside, which will be an issue with Queta roaming the paint. I expect the Aggies to hang around throughout.

Pick: Utah State + 5

Youmans: If the Big 12 is as strong as we believe and the Mountain West is as weak as most suspect, the Red Raiders should win and cover. Texas Tech went 2-1 against Texas with the loss by one point, lost by one at West Virginia, lost to Oklahoma State twice in overtime and hung tough against Baylor in both matchups with the nation’s No. 2 team. Tech will take care of business if Mac McClung is a hot shooter from three-point range. Utah State will stay in the game if Queta controls the paint on both ends. The Aggies were much stronger a year ago when Sam Merrill was their best player, but Merrill is in the NBA and this Utah State team struggles to find consistent scoring. Beard is a bet-on coach for me, and while I’m not playing many favorites this week, here’s one.

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Pick: Texas Tech -4.5

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Everything you need to know to win March Madness with the First Four of the NCAA tournament set to start on Thursday.

No. 3 Arkansas Razorbacks (-8.5, 161.5) vs. No. 14 Colgate Raiders

Peterson: A lot of people will look at Colgate’s numbers and be intrigued, as the Raiders are one of the top teams in the country in just about every metric and the nation’s best three-point shooting defense. These numbers are skewed, though, as the Raiders played an all-conference schedule, meaning they have not seen a team with the size and speed of Arkansas in over a calendar year. The Razorbacks are relentless on defense, with each of their top six scorers generating at least a steal per game.

Pick: Arkansas -8.5

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Youmans: Eric Musselman is an elite coach, and it’s possible the Razorbacks’ athletes will overwhelm a Colgate crew that is stepping way up in class in this matchup. Still, the 14th-seeded Raiders (14-1) of the Patriot League appear to have what it takes to compete and cover the number. Senior guard Jordan Burns, scoring 17 points per game and shooting 41.5% on three-pointers, is the go-to star. Six of the team’s top eight scorers shoot better than 36% from three. I bet this at + 10 and will stick with Colgate.

Pick: Colgate + 8.5

No. 7 Florida Gators (PK, 135) vs. No. 10 Virginia Tech Hokies

Tuley: This is one of those games where I wish both teams were matched up against other teams as I could see myself fading both of them, especially against teams from smaller conferences. Instead, we get a 7-10 matchup between teams from the ACC and SEC.

Florida has failed to cover the spread in four straight games while Virginia Tech is 1-3 ATS in its last four, so that makes the Hokies the lesser of two evils. I’m siding with the Hokies as they’re more potent from three-point range and also have the excuse that their season was more interrupted by COVID cancellations. The move to Indiana for the tournament could work in their favor.

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Pick: Virginia Tech + 1

No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes (-16.5, 156.5) vs. No. 15 Oral Roberts Golden Eagles

Peterson: The Golden Eagles have the top scoring duo in college basketball with Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor averaging 42.5 ppg for a team that leads the country in free-throw shooting percentage. Ohio State has given up at least 70 points in eight of its last nine games and might be without starting forward Kyle Young. Oral Roberts is 11-4 ATS in road and neutral court games this season and having covered against Oklahoma State, Wichita State, Oklahoma and Arkansas, this Golden Eagles team will not back down from the challenge. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi is calling for Oral Roberts to pull the outright upset. I’m not going that far, but I do think they can hang around and stay within this number.

Pick: Oral Roberts + 16.5

Youmans: The Buckeyes could be headed for an emotional letdown after playing four high-intensity games in four days in the Big Ten tournament. It’s tough to maintain that focus, especially after falling to Illinois in overtime in the title game. Ohio State has defensive weaknesses and problems protecting leads, while Oral Roberts is an offensive force. Abmas is the nation’s leading scorer (24.2 ppg) and Obanor (18.2 ppg) is another big-time player for the 15th-seeded Golden Eagles. Abmas scored 33 points in an 83-78 loss at Oklahoma State in December. Oral Roberts, the best free-throw shooting team in the tournament, hits 38.8% from the three-point line and scores 41% of its points on threes. If the favorite is flat, the ‘dog will be live. This is one of my top plays.

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Pick: Oral Roberts + 17

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Midwest Regional

Georgia Tech celebrates defeating Florida State for the ACC title on Saturday.
Georgia Tech celebrates defeating Florida State for the ACC title.
(Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)

No. 1 Illinois Fighting Illini (-22.5, 144.5) vs. No. 16 Drexel Dragons

Peterson: The Illini are seventh in the country in points scored on a per possession basis in road and neutral court games while Drexel is converting 39.2% of its three-pointers in games away from home. Both teams rank outside of the top 260 in steals per possession on defense, so there should be plenty of clean possessions for both teams. Illinois has scored at least 72 points in 16 consecutive games, while Drexel has had five of its last six games go over the total.

Pick: Over 144.5

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No. 8 Loyola Ramblers (-3, 126) vs. No. 9 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Tuley: Loyola Chicago is back in the NCAA tournament, so cue up the features on Sister Jean. You all remember the Ramblers’ run to the 2018 Final Four, and the team’s biggest media star Sister Jean. Well, she’s 101 years young and has been cleared to travel to Indianapolis to cheer on her team.

As for the actual teams, this is an intriguing matchup as Loyola is ranked No. 17 in the AP poll and No. 16 in the coaches poll, so a lot of people think the Ramblers should have been around a No. 4 or 5 seed, but instead the Missouri Valley Conference champions are just a No. 8. While public sentiment is riding on Loyola Chicago, I’m not so sure the right team is favored as Georgia Tech has been playing just as well lately and won the ACC tournament title. Granted, the ACC is down compared with what we’re used to, but the Ramblin’ Wreck are a solid team led by ACC player of the year Moses Wright (has there ever been an ACC POY receiving less hype?) that isn’t getting the respect it deserves. I’ll take the generous points but also looking at the money line that was up to + 135 as of Tuesday afternoon.

Pick: Georgia Tech + 3

No. 5 Tennessee Volunteers (-7.5, 131.5) vs. No. 12 Oregon State Beavers

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Youmans: After watching the Beavers score inside and out during upsets of UCLA, Oregon and Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament, it appears they are for real and peaking at the perfect time. Oregon State is 6-1 in its last seven games and had six players be the leading scorers in those games. Ethan Thompson and Jarod Lucas are talented guards who each shoot the three at better than 33%. The Volunteers rank 71st in offensive efficiency per KenPom, and I’m not a believer. I’ll take the points with coach Wayne Tinkle and the Beavers.

Pick: Oregon State + 8

No. 4 Oklahoma State Cowboys (-7.5, 141) vs. No. 13 Liberty Flames

Peterson: Liberty ranks eighth in the country in points scored on a per possession basis, headlined by a backcourt that has the team rated 11th in the country in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Flames have big home and road splits, making 44.5% of their three-point shots at home compared with 35.4% in road and neutral court environments. The Cowboys rank 16th nationally in opponent three-point shooting percentage in road and neutral court games and their weakness of committing the most turnovers per game of any team in the field is masked by Liberty rating 338th in steals per possession on defense.

Van Nuys native Ryan Turell was on a historic NCAA tournament tear when the pandemic shut down his season, but not his dream of becoming the first Orthodox Jew to play in the NBA

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Pick: Oklahoma State -7.5

Reynolds: While Oklahoma State certainly has the potential for a deep run and is much more than the one-man show that is future top-five NBA draft pick Cade Cunningham, Liberty is a tricky first-round matchup for a young, albeit talented team. The Flames do not beat themselves, as they turn the ball over only on 15.6% of their possessions (19th best nationally). Only No. 1 seeds Gonzaga and Baylor rank better among NCAA tournament teams in effective field goal percentage (57.4%). No team in the tourney is more reliant on the three than Liberty, but the Flames also hit 38.8% of them (10th in nation).

Under Ritchie McKay, the Flames run a pack-line defense that McKay learned under Tony Bennett as a Virginia assistant. They don’t allow many looks at the rim, which is where Oklahoma State wants to go. Since the Cowboys rate just 295th in three-point field-goal percentage, they are extremely reliant on getting to the tin. Liberty, largely due to its slow pace (348th of 357 teams) and not crashing the offensive glass, limits opponents in transition. A young team like Oklahoma State could fall into the trap of falling in love with the 3s that Liberty will allow them to take.

The Flames pulled off the 12-5 upset two years ago vs. Mississippi State and have that potential here as well, with three veteran starters that played on that team two years ago.

Pick: Liberty + 7.5

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No. 6 San Diego State Aztecs (-3, 138.5) vs. No. 11 Syracuse Orange

Stall: I think enough threes are going to fly to make the over a solid play here. Nearly half (45.4%) of the field-goal attempts SDSU allows are from three, which is 8% over the D-I average (37.4%); Syracuse isn’t far behind at 43.9% in the same category. When the dust settles we could be looking at 45-to-50 combined 3’s attempted in this game. The Aztecs have a trio of plus three-point shooters with Matt Mitchell, Terrell Gomez and Jordan Schakel.

The Orange are admittedly a bit more streaky from three, but have a size edge on the perimeter and should be able to get off some clean looks. Tempo-wise I think we should be fine, as SDSU doesn’t play as slowly as most people think; the Aztecs’ average offensive possession length of 16.8 seconds is actually quicker than the D-I average.

Pick: Over 137.5

No. 3 West Virginia Mountaineers (-12.5, 137.5) vs. No. 14 Morehead State Eagles

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Peterson: After being one of the hottest three-point shooting teams in the country throughout much of conference play, West Virginia is shooting 30.8% from three-point range in its last six games. Morehead State defends the interior without fouling, ranking 17th in the country in blocked shots per game and fifth in fewest free throws made by opponents on a per possession basis. The Eagles also rank 27th in the country in rebound rate, with each of their top three scorers pulling in at least five rebounds per game. I think they can keep this within the number.

Pick: Morehead State + 12.5

No. 7 Clemson Tigers vs. No. 10 Rutgers Scarlet Knights (-1.5, 126.5)

Stall: I mentioned on Twitter right as this game was announced that it’d be a rock fight where the first team to 60 wins. There isn’t much reason to expect anything else.

Rutgers is 18th in adjusted defensive efficiency due in large part to being top 20 in both block and steal rate. Myles Johnson is one of the best defensive big men in the country, and as long as he stays out of foul trouble nothing is going to come easy for Clemson. Luckily for them I don’t expect much offensive success for Rutgers, either.

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The Tigers check in as a top-20 defense, and perhaps more importantly for the under, they force opponents into an average possession length of 18.6 seconds (343rd-longest in the nation). I expect plenty of long, clock-draining possessions that end up in highly-contested shots.

Pick: Under 129

No. 2 Houston Cougars (-20, 135) vs. No. 15 Cleveland State Vikings

Peterson: Houston ranks third in the country in points given up on a per possession basis and are doing battle with a Cleveland State team that has done a good job of shutting things down from the outside, ranking 29th in the country in road and neutral court three-point shooting defense. Coupled with Houston giving up 24.3% of its points from the free-throw line (sixth-highest mark in the country), and Cleveland State ranking 291st in free-throw shooting percentage, this game figures to be a low-scoring slog.

Pick: Under 135

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5

East Regional

St. Bonaventure's Osun Osunniyi celebrates after a win over Virginia Commonwealth for the Atlantic Ten championship.
St. Bonaventure’s Osun Osunniyi celebrates after a win over Virginia Commonwealth for the Atlantic Ten championship.
(Jay LaPrete / Associated Press)

No. 8 LSU Tigers (-1.5, 144.5) vs. No. 9 St. Bonaventure Bonnies

Tuley: As expected from a No. 8 vs. 9 matchup, this is close to pick-’em. That almost kept me away with the number being so short. However, since I’m going with the Bonnies in most of my brackets, I’m counting on the outright upset, so it’s also a bet for me. There’s no denying that LSU is the more talented team and capable of making a deep run, but St. Bonaventure is no slouch and is just as capable of making a similar run. The Bonnies will be expected to slow the game down to limit the Tigers with a defense that allowed just 60.4 points per game, No. 5 in the country. They also know how to fill it up from long range, led by Dominick Welch hitting 40% from three-point territory. Defense and three-point shooting is usually the recipe for success from a mid-major.

Pick: St. Bonaventure + 1.5

No. 5 Colorado Buffaloes (-5, 138) vs. No. 12 Georgetown Hoyas

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Stall: I’m rolling with the under here, as suddenly surging Georgetown takes on Colorado. The Division I average for possessions in a game is 68.5, which isn’t a number Colorado has seen much of lately; the Buffs have gone over 68 possessions once since Jan. 16. Georgetown will play slightly faster, but the Hoyas are coming off a Big East tournament where they didn’t hit 70 possessions once in four games.

The Hoyas have also made it a point to really ramp up their defense of late; in those Big East tournament games, they allowed an average of just 56.5 ppg. Colorado is solid defensively as well, ranking 29th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, and perhaps more importantly the Buffs have the ability to force teams into very long possessions: An average offensive possession against Colorado is 18.6 seconds, which is 342nd in the nation. If this game is where I expect tempo-wise, it’s going to take some out-of-the-ordinary offensive production for it to go over.

Pick: Under 138.5

No. 4 Florida State Seminoles (-11, 145) vs. No. 13 UNC Greensboro Spartans

Peterson: UNC Greensboro is reliant on top scorer Isaiah Miller, as his 19.3 ppg average is nearly double that of the team’s next-best scorer, Keyshaun Langley (9.8 ppg). The Spartans rank 311th in the country in three-point shooting percentage, and while Florida State makes 39% of their outside shots, the Seminoles make just 33.1% of them on the road as compared to 42.6% at home. Each of Florida State’s top three scorers turn the ball over at least 2.2 times per game and the team ranks 11th in the country in opponent two-point shooting percentage.

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Pick: Under 145

No. 3 Texas Longhorns (-9, 140.5) vs. No. 14 Abilene Christian Wildcats

Stall: A little bit of an under-the-radar game, but I think a tricky test for Texas here. More than anything else, this game will come down to turnovers. Abilene Christian was tops in the nation in forcing turnovers this season ... and no, that isn’t a typo. This is a defense that will harass you and be inside your jersey from the time you get off the bus, which should be problematic for a Texas team that was 236th in offensive turnover rate this season. There’s no denying the Horns have plenty of talent, but most of their high-usage offensive players turn the ball over quite a bit. Matt Coleman, Jericho Sims, Courtney Ramey and especially Greg Brown all fall into that category. I’m not quite bold enough to call for an outright win, but I expect Abilene to hang around for the full 40 minutes.

UCLA, which has lost four games in a row, opens play in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament Thursday with a First Four game against Michigan State.

Pick: Abilene Christian + 9

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Youmans: The betting public figures to fire on Texas, the Big 12 tournament champion, against a no-name team. A majority of bettors can’t name one Abilene Christian player or its conference affiliation, so this line could inflate to 10 by the weekend. The Wildcats, who won the Southland Conference tournament title game by 34 points, are relentless defensively and hit the three-ball at a high percentage. Seven-footer Kolton Kohl can match up with the Longhorns’ big men.

In a 51-44 loss at Texas Tech in December, Abilene forced the Red Raiders into 16 turnovers and 2-of-15 shooting from three-point range. The Longhorns are one of my Final Four picks but that could turn into a big embarrassment if they go down in the first round. Texas coach Shaka Smart could be sweating this one out.

Pick: Abilene Christian + 9

No. 7 UConn Huskies (-3, 130) vs. No. 10 Maryland Terrapins

Stall: UConn’s entire body of work really doesn’t really tell an accurate story. It’s basically what the Huskies are with James Bouknight … and what they are without him. In the eight games he missed, they were 4-4; in the 14 he played, they were 11-3. He’s by far their best offensive player, but he also helps their defense quite a bit. With Bouknight on the floor, the Huskies allow 0.88 points per possession; with him out, that number jumps to 0.98.

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As far as Maryland, the truth is I’ve been below market on them most of the year. Offensively, they got worse as the season went on and checked in 11th in the ACC with an adjusted offensive efficiency rating of 98.7 (the DI average is 102). They don’t do a ton on defense to take you out of your groove either, as they were 289th in turnovers forced. UConn is peaking at the right time and looks quite dangerous.

Pick: UConn -2.5

Marshall: Those with memories of 2014 might recall when an under-the-radar UConn swept through the tournament led by a mercurial guard, Shabazz Napier. If the scenario looks familiar with Bouknight and this year’s edition, it should. Bouknight is the type of performer — like Napier in 2014 — throughout Big Dance history who has lifted a team to greater heights. And any team whose sum is greater than its parts must be viewed with respect. With some of the best defensive numbers in the Big East, too, the Huskies are made of some stern stuff.

On its day, Maryland can be a load, but too many times the Terps disappointed this season, such as the last week of the regular season when Northwestern and Penn State (for the second time this season) took down Mark Turgeon’s bunch. And truth be told, nonconference performance doesn’t suggest the Big Ten entries should be held in such reverence. With Bouknight available, UConn looks the better choice.

Pick: UConn -2.5

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No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide (-17, 147) vs. No. 15 Iona Gaels

Peterson: The Crimson Tide rank 11th in the country in possessions per game, while Iona is committing a foul on 30.5% of possessions (third-highest rate in the country). Alabama is 22nd in steals forced per possession on defense, which should lead to baskets in transition with Iona turning the ball over on 21.9% of their possessions, the second-highest rate of any NCAA tournament team. Iona’s defense can generate turnovers as well with Berrick JeanLouis ranking 16th in the country in steals per game with 2.3.

Pick: Over 147

Youmans: Beware of the basketball genius returning from exile. This is a bet on Rick Pitino, a coach who knows all about March magic. Pitino is facing a significant talent disadvantage against Alabama, but senior guard Isaiah Ross (18.4 ppg) leads a veteran Iona team that will go in believing it can win this game. The Gaels are not going to win, but they won’t quit and they are getting a lot of points. The Crimson Tide expended a lot of energy to win the SEC tournament, after which the celebration likely lasted a few days.

Pick: Iona + 17

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Tuley: Whatever you think of Pitino, the man can coach as he’s taking his fifth program to the NCAA tournament. This is one the type of game I meant when I wrote in our VSiN Tournament Guide about taking the favorite in your brackets but betting the underdog plus the points. As great at Pitino can coach, he doesn’t have the horses to run with — and beat — Alabama outright, but the Gaels should be able to stay within single digits. Bama plays at a fast pace, but expect Iona to try to slow it down at least a little. Regardless, Iona shoots well and isn’t shy from three-point range, plus the Gaels make their free throws, all of which should help keep them from getting blown out.

Pick: Iona + 17

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