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NCAA tournament sleeper picks: Three games with intriguing betting odds

Drake guard Tucker DeVries celebrates after scoring a three-pointer against Bradley.
Drake guard Tucker DeVries celebrates after scoring a three-pointer against Bradley in the Missouri Valley Conference championship game Sunday. Drake will play Miami in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
(Joe Puetz / Associated Press)
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The college basketball season brings a lot of thrills, but no time of year is better than the first week of March Madness. The NCAA tournament field has been announced and 68 teams with dreams of cutting down the nets are ready for action.

Lines were posted by DraftKings Sportsbook as the regions were announced on Selection Sunday and have been molded and shaped by early action and the odds posted by competitors. We’ve got a lot of interesting matchups, but some look to be better bets than others.

Here are three early first-round NCAA tournament bets to consider:

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Penn State vs. Texas A&M (-3, 134.5)

The weak nonconference schedule played by Texas A&M left their NCAA tournament chances in doubt deep into the month of February, but the Aggies went 15-3 in SEC play and had several nice victories in league action, including wins over Tennessee and Alabama. Per Bart Torvik, Texas A&M was actually the sixth-best team in the country from Jan. 1 until Selection Sunday; Penn State was 47th.

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The Nittany Lions live and die by the three-point shot, which can be a blessing and a curse at this time of the year. Over 47% of Penn State’s shots are threes, but Texas A&M held opponents to 32.3% from deep. Another potential advantage for the Aggies is that they get to the rim effectively and Penn State does not. Only 26.3% of Penn State’s shots were classified as “Close Twos” per Torvik (which encompasses layups, tip-ins and dunks), while over 40% of Texas A&M’s shots fit that description. Those are much higher-percentage shots to take than long jumpers.

The Aggies also forced a lot of turnovers and were a top-10 offensive rebounding team. Penn State was 362nd in the country in TO% on defense and 361st in offensive rebounding percentage. The Nittany Lions also play at a slow tempo, so they could be in deep trouble if their threes aren’t falling. I don’t think they will and I think Texas A&M is simply an all-around superior team.

🏀 Pick: Texas A&M -3

UCLA has one of the most treacherous March Madness roads to the Final Four. In other words, Mick Cronin’s Bruins are stoked for the challenge ahead.

March 12, 2023

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Virginia Commonwealth vs. Saint Mary’s (-3.5, 122.5)

This should be one of the lower-scoring games of the tournament. VCU is known for its high-pressure defense and forcing turnovers, but Saint Mary’s is a well-coached, experienced team that takes great care of the basketball. The Gaels are also one of the best rebounding teams in this field. Takeaways and extra possessions do a lot of heavy lifting for the Rams, and those may not come as easily in this game.

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The Rams got a lot of quick baskets against A-10 opponents in transition, which helped their offensive numbers. Saint Mary’s is less likely to give those up and was one of the few teams in the WCC that played defense. In fact, they are 20th in 2P% defense and held opponents to 32.8% from three.

Since Christmas, the only teams to beat Saint Mary’s are Gonzaga and Loyola Marymount, who beat the Gaels in the game following St. Mary’s emotional overtime win against the Zags. VCU had a TO% on defense under 20% six times and went just 3-3 in those games, with two of those wins coming in the A-10 Tournament. If VCU can’t force turnovers, the task gets substantially tougher. As long as Randy Bennett’s team takes care of the basketball, I think they will cover and advance.

🏀 Pick: Saint Mary’s -3.5

UCLA secured a No. 2 seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament Sunday and will play North Carolina Asheville in the first round Thursday. USC is a No. 10 seed and will play Michigan State.

March 12, 2023

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Drake vs. Miami (-2.5, 147.5)

The always popular 12 over 5 upset pick could be this one between Drake and Miami. This Friday game in Albany will be one of the more analyzed games of the first round, especially because there is a narrative out there that Miami isn’t a good road team, but the offense has been just fine outside of Coral Gables.

Drake is a great story and a quality team, but the Missouri Valley Conference was a really mediocre league this season. The Bulldogs haven’t seen an offense as good as Miami’s, as the Hurricanes rank 21st in 2P% and 41st in 3P% this season. Drake did a good job keeping MVC teams to the outside, but Miami is a much quicker, faster and efficient team than the Bulldogs’ conference brethren.

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That being said, Miami was a shaky defensive team this season. The Hurricanes rank 256th in 2P% defense and just a little bit above the national average in 3P% defense. Drake is a team that performed really well on mid-range jumpers, which is usually a hallmark of MVC teams. That was the weakest area defensively for the Hurricanes.

Miami speeds games up a bit and I think Drake could get caught up in that tempo. The Bulldogs defense faces a stiff test here, but Miami’s defense will give up its share of points as well.

🏀 Pick: Over 147.5

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