Day 1 of the NCAA Tournament might not be on Thursday this year like it traditionally is, but the wall-to-wall schedule remains the same. Friday’s action gets underway a little after noon ET when Virginia Tech takes on Florida, and it likely won’t end until after midnight when Villanova and Winthrop (or one of the other late-night tips) finish. All told, there will be 16 first-round games on Friday, and you can expect plenty of drama and potential bracket-busting upsets.
Top seeds Baylor and Illinois will be in action, but unless one gets a legitimate scare thrown into them (unlikely, but possible), they won’t be involved in the most interesting games. Those in bracket pools will likely be more interested in the 12-5 games (Oregon State-Tennessee and Winthrop-Villanova), as well as other popular double-digit upset picks Rutgers (vs. Clemson), Virginia Tech (vs. Florida), Utah State (vs. Texas Tech), Syracuse (vs. San Diego State), and even Colgate (vs. Arkansas).
Of course, there will probably be another major upset that no one is expecting, so buckle up and get ready for all the March Madness fun we missed out on last season. To help you out, here are SN’s straight-up picks, plus some insight into betting trends and tips if you’re wagering against the spread.
March Madness picks, predictions for Round 1
No. 10 Virginia Tech (PK) vs. No. 7 Florida (South)
This line has steadily moved in Virginia Tech’s direction since it opened, and it looks like it’s going to settle as a pick ’em. Neither team has played particularly well down the stretch (with Virginia Tech barely playing at all because of COVID issues), so this is truly a toss-up. TeamRankings’ Matchup Predictor points toward Florida, and we give the Gators the slight nod due to the Hokies’ lack of significant action over the past month (1-2 since Feb. 6).
No. 3 Arkansas (-9.5) vs. No. 14 Colgate (South)
Colgate finished third in the nation in three-point percentage (40.2) and fourth in average margin of victory (17.7), so you know the Raiders can fill it up. They likely haven’t faced a defense like the Hogs’, but shooting can be an issue for Arkansas, making it somewhat-vulnerable against hot-shooting teams. Colgate doesn’t really defend, so this one could go a variety of ways — Arkansas blowout, Colgate winning in a shootout, Arkansas winning in a shootout — but it’s more fun to make a bold call when there are legitimate reasons to think it can actually happen.
No. 1 Illinois (-22.5) vs. No. 16 Drexel (Midwest)
For most, the question here isn’t whether Illinois will win; it’s whether it will cover. The Illini averaged 81.4 points per game this season, which is about 10 more than Drexel. Now factor in the difference in competition, and it’s easy to imagine a 23-plus-point victory. Whenever you deal with spreads this large, you always have to worry about backdoor covers, but Illinois feels like a decent bet to take care of business unless this line continues to climb.
No. 6 Texas Tech (-4) vs. No. 11 Utah State (South)
Here’s another line that has steadily moved toward the underdog. Utah State plays elite defense, ranking eighth in kenpom.com‘s adjusted defense metric. Texas Tech is a balanced team but can struggle with outside shooting. If the Red Raiders are cold, Utah State could turn this into a rock fight and steal a low-scoring win. If the line keeps getting lower, Texas Tech could actually become a value bet just before tip, but we still like the Aggies by a nose.
Pick: Utah State
No. 2 Ohio State (-16) vs. No. 15 Oral Roberts (South)
Oral Roberts has a legit inside-outside threat with versatile big man Kevin Obanor and sweet-shooting guard Max Abmas, who averaged 24.2 points per game this year on near 50-40-90 shooting. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Oral Roberts cover, but Ohio State likely has too much depth and size to actually get upset.
Pick: Ohio State
No. 1 Baylor (-25.5) vs. No. 16 Hartford (South)
Baylor won its games by an average of 18 points per game this year, so a 26-point victory against Hartford doesn’t just seem possible, it seems likely. Be careful about this line moving too far in Baylor’s direction and Hartford becoming a value, but at the current line, Baylor looks good.
No. 8 Loyola Chicago (-4.5) vs. No. 9 Georgia Tech (Midwest)
The Fightin’ Sister Jeans (not Loyola Chicago’s actual nickname) are back, and they will undoubtedly be a popular pick because of their “name recognition.” However, according to kenpom.com‘s advanced stats, the Ramblers (Loyola Chicago’s actual nickname) aren’t just some cute mid-major story, they’re a legit threat for another deep run, ranking ninth among all teams. Georgia Tech certainly isn’t helped by the fact ACC Player of the Year Moses Wright will miss this game due to COVID-related issues. This seems way too easy for an 8-9 game, which make us nervous, but sometimes the obvious pick is obvious for a reason. Expect this line to move even further in Loyola Chicago’s direction closer to tip.
Pick: Loyola Chicago
No. 5 Tennessee (-9) vs. No. 12 Oregon State (Midwest)
Oregon State is a surprise participant in this year’s tournament after winning the Pac-12 title, so if you believe in the “hot hand” theory, then this is just as good of a 12-5 upset pick as Georgetown over Colorado (which seems to be much more popular). Tennessee didn’t play its best basketball down the stretch, going 4-4 and losing to Kentucky and Auburn over the final month. There’s at least reason to believe Oregon State can cover, but Tennessee has an elite defense (fourth in kenpom.com‘s adjusted defense metric) and should be able to advance.
No. 4 Oklahoma State (-7.5) vs. No. 13 Liberty (Midwest)
Oklahoma State is a popular Final Four pick in some circles; it’s also a popular first-round upset pick in others. This line as hovered around around 7.5 all week, which indicates about equal money coming in on both sides. Liberty was tied for 10th in three-point shooting (38.8 percent) and was seventh overall in offensive efficiency, so the Flames can score with the Cowboys if they get hot. Ultimately, though, we expect Oklahoma State, led by projected top-overall NBA pick Cade Cunningham, to exploit the talent gap and win a close one.
Pick: Oklahoma State
No. 8 North Carolina (-1.5) vs. No. 9 Wisconsin (South)
In this coin-flip battle of traditional powers, we’re going to trust the advanced stats and go with the Badgers, who rank 11th overall on kenpom.com. By comparison, UNC is 28th. By no means is this a lock, especially when you factor in Wisconsin’s lack of big wins, but with games as close as this, you need to fall back on something, and we’re going with the computers.
No. 2 Houston (-20) vs. No. 15 Cleveland State (Midwest)
Houston has a top-15 offense (eighth) and defense (15th) according to kenpom.com, and the Cougars have won by an average of 18 points per game this season. They haven’t faced the toughest schedule, but Cleveland State isn’t the toughest opponent. A key component to big upsets is usually outside shooting, and Cleveland State ranked tied for 257th in three-point percentage (31.9 percent). It’s tough to imagine the Vikings keeping this one close, so we’re all-in on Houston covering.
No. 4 Purdue (-7.5) vs. No. 13 North Texas (South)
This line feels a little low, but North Texas is a good outside shooting team that has some big guards who can pressure the ball, plus a pair of 6-10 inside players who can at least try to keep up with 7-4 center Zach Edey. There’s definitely reason to believe the Mean Green can cover (though it will still be an uphill battle), but Purdue’s big-game experience (and success) tips the scales when it comes to merely advancing.
No. 10 Rutgers (-1.5) vs. No. 7 Clemson (Midwest)
Rutgers opened as the lone “underdog” to be favored, and that line hasn’t moved much all week. Both teams rank much higher in adjusted defense rating than offense rating on kenpom.com, but Rutgers is slightly higher overall. TeamRankings’ Matchup Predictor sees this as close as you might expect, with Rutgers having the nod in “power ratings” and Clemson have the nod in “simulation.” We’ll stick with the favorite because Rutgers played in the tougher conference this year, but flip a coin and trust your gut here.
No. 6 San Diego State (-3) vs. No. 11 Syracuse (Midwest)
It’s easy to figure out why this line has dropped to such a low number for a 6-11 game. Syracuse isn’t your typical 11-seed, and San Diego State isn’t thought of as a national power. However, San Diego State is ranked well above Syracuse on kenpom.com, and TeamRankings’ Matchup Predictor seems to heavily favor the Aztecs, too. Syracuse’s storied zone defense has befuddled plenty of teams, but we just don’t see it here, especially with San Diego State being a top-25 three-point shooting team.
Pick: San Diego State
No. 3 West Virginia (-13) vs. No. 14 Morehead State (Midwest)
West Virginia’s famed press can quickly overwhelm inferior opponents, and Morehead State qualifies as one, ranking 127th on kenpom.com. A spread of 13 is always risky with a poor-shooting team like West Virginia, but an outright win seems likely.
Pick: West Virginia
No. 5 Villanova (-6.5) vs. No. 12 Winthrop (South)
This was everyone’s initial 12-5 upset, and that hasn’t seemed to change throughout the week. Injuries to guards Collin Gillespie (knee) and Justin Moore (ankle) make ‘Nova tough to handicap, and a matchup with the high-scoring, 23-1 Eagles isn’t making things easier. At the very least, picking Winthrop to cover feels like the smart move, and we’re also riding with public on picking Winthrop outright.