March Madness best bets: Five intriguing games, plus UCLA’s Final Four odds

UCLA guard Johnny Juzang, right, drives by USC guard Reese Dixon-Waters.
UCLA guard Johnny Juzang, right, drives by USC guard Reese Dixon-Waters during the second half of the Bruins’ win on March 5.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Selection Sunday is a banner day for creating content. Everybody gets to take to social media, put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and air all their grievances with what the committee decided to do for this year’s bracket. Bettors don’t really get caught up in that, as they’re trying to find lines that are wrong based on the matchups or the perceptions of the teams.

Oddsmakers have some challenges when it comes to setting the NCAA tournament lines. Teams haven’t played nonconference games since December and there are a lot of questions about conference strength, what’s real and what’s not and recent form. That can create some lines that are just a little bit off and there are some that look pretty ripe for the picking thus far.

Here are five NCAA tournament bets I like:

UCLA received a No. 4 seed and will start its push to return to the Final Four in Portland while USC is a No. 7 seed and Cal State Fullerton is No. 15.


Texas Southern (-3.5) vs. Texas A&M Corpus Christi: Tuesday’s play-in game in Dayton between Texas Southern and Texas A&M Corpus Christi features one team that has been in that situation and one that has not. The Tigers just went to Dayton last year and knocked off Mount St. Mary’s 60-52. They were also there in 2018 and beat NC Central 64-46. The personnel is a little different, and head coach Johnny Jones was only there for last year’s game, but there is more familiarity for the Tigers.

The Islanders are a great story and first-year head coach Steve Lutz did an excellent job, but that was a Texas A&M CC team that was 7-7 in Southland play before going on a conference tournament run. Texas Southern plays in a bad SWAC conference, but still had a strength of schedule that was 40 spots higher than Texas A&M CC because of a strong nonconference slate. The Tigers should move on to get beaten badly by Kansas.

Tennessee (-17) vs. Longwood: There are plenty of examples of teams becoming a Cinderella, as the glass slipper just happens to fit with the draw. Unfortunately, Longwood got a bad draw here. The Lancers are a great three-point shooting team and were dominant on the boards in the Big South Conference. They just won’t be able to keep up with Tennessee in this spot.

The Vols are one of the best defensive teams in the nation and force a lot of turnovers. Longwood needs to be able to play with the ball as much as possible, as this was an offense-first team over the course of the season. Tennessee ’s glaring weakness is shooting 48% on two-point shots, but Longwood was one of the worst teams in the nation in 2P% defense and is the second-worst in the field ( Miami ). A better draw and the Lancers could have made some noise, but they didn’t get one.

Saint Peter’s (+17.5) vs. Kentucky : The Peacocks of the MAAC ranked 11th in the nation in 2P% defense against Division I opponents. We just watched as Kentucky went two of 20 from three against the Tennessee Volunteers to get bounced from the SEC Tournament. No, Saint Peter’s is not on Tennessee ’s level athletically, but the entire philosophy on defense for the Peacocks is to defend the house. Frankly, Saint Peter’s defended everything well, as they also rank in the top 15 in 3P% defense.

The concern in this one is whether or not the Peacocks can score enough points to cover the spread, but Kentucky will be careful with Oscar Tshiebwe and TyTy Washington here with bigger goals in mind. Kentucky doesn’t force a lot of turnovers and this game should be played at a slower pace, which gives the big underdog a good chance of covering.

UAB (+9) vs. Houston : Houston is under-seeded as a No. 5 seed. The Cougars have ranked as an unquestioned top-10 team all season long per guys like Ken Pomeroy and Bart Torvik. To say they’re around the 17th or 18th best team in the field is laughable. However, up until Selection Sunday, the Cougars had exactly one win against a tournament team. It was the Bryant Bulldogs, the automatic qualifier from the Patriot League.

The Cougars got revenge against Memphis , but maybe the results speak for themselves, given that Houston lost in nonconference action to Wisconsin and Alabama . UAB is a dangerous team. The Blazers are one of the best in the nation from three and have one of the top turnover margins in the country. Houston is an awful free-throw shooting team in a game that projects to be pretty close and one that I think the Blazers could potentially win outright.

South Carolina, Louisville, Stanford and NC State earned the No. 1 seeds in an expanded NCAA tournament women’s field revealed on Sunday.

UCLA to win the East Region (to make the Final Four, +750): The Bruins got a really good draw as a No. 4 seed. They drew the weakest No. 1 seed in Baylor, a team that really struggled down the stretch and clearly missed top rebounder Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua. UCLA is a really good team on the glass, but more than that, the Bruins are a top-15 team in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Baylor is pretty close to that level by defending the three well and forcing turnovers, but the Bruins take outstanding care of the basketball and have one of the lowest 3P rates in the country, shooting one only 31.5% of the time.

Mick Cronin would hold a coaching edge over Scott Drew in the Sweet 16. The bottom of the bracket features a Kentucky team that could lose to the Murray State/San Francisco winner or Purdue in a likely Sweet 16 matchup. Even if Kentucky advances, the Wildcats have some defensive issues as well. Once again, they defend the three a lot better than the two. It’s as good of a draw as a No. 4 seed could ask for and UCLA has been playing at a high level late in the season.

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