March Madness First Round Predictions and Picks

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Midwest Region

Illinois vs Drexel

The Fighting Illini are getting hot at just the right time. Illinois has won 14 of its last 15 games and knocked off seven straight foes on its way to a Big Ten Conference Tournament title. In that stretch, the Illini beat Wisconsin, Iowa, and Ohio State twice and clobbered Michigan to show they were a match for any team in the conference.

It’s possible that we haven’t seen the best from Illinois either. The Fighting Illini rank seventh in offensive efficiency and fifth in defensive efficiency, but they only recently had Ayo Dosunmu return to the lineup and Andre Curbelo is coming on strong late in his freshman campaign.

Dosunmu is stuffing the stat sheet as one of the top players in the country. He is averaging 20.7 PPG, 6.3 RPG, and 5.3 APG while making 48.8% of his field goals and 38.7% of his three-point attempts. Ken Pomeroy has Dosunmu ranked as the third-best player nationally, but he can be a bit turnover prone.

Center Kofi Cockburn is a playmaker in the low post. He is a double-double threat any time he takes the court, averaging 17.6 PPG and 9.6 RPG. Cockburn is making 65.5% of his field goals, and he is one of the best offensive rebounders in the NCAA Tournament.

Drexel will be making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 25 years on Friday. The Dragons were the No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament after going 9-7 in the regular season, but they were able to turn it on to win the conference tournament and claim the automatic qualifier.

This is one of the slowest teams you will find in the tournament, ranking in the bottom 20 nationally in both tempo and possession length. Drexel is very efficient from the floor though, making 37.2% of its threes and 53.5% of its field goals as a team.

The Dragons boast three very good perimeter shooters in Camren Wynter, Zach Walton, and Mate Okros. The trio are combining to make more than 40% of their treys, stretching the floor and punishing defenses for laying off. James Butler will need to play well in the middle as the team’s primary rebounder, but Cockburn might dominate him in the low post.

Score prediction: Illinois 84, Drexel 58

Our pick: Illinois -22.5

(See latest odds)

Loyola Chicago vs Georgia Tech

We are only three years removed from Loyola’s miracle run to the Final Four. The Ramblers were a No. 11 seed in the 2018 NCAA Tournament and squeaked out one-possession victories over Miami (FL), Tennessee, and Nevada before hammering Kansas State to join VCU and George Mason as Cinderella teams that made it to the final weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

This is the best team that head coach Porter Moser has had since that run. Loyola went 24-4 this season and 16-2 in MVC play. The Ramblers were led by center Cameron Krutwig, who was a freshman on that magical team. Krutwig leads the team with 15.0 PPG, 6.7 RPG, and 3.0 APG.

Loyola is great at creating good looks underneath. The Ramblers rank fourth in two-point percentage (58.0%), and they are ninth in effective field goal percentage (56.3%). Braden Norris and Keith Clemons are fantastic three-point shooters too, sinking over 40% of their treys.

What a difference a month makes. Georgia Tech was not on the NCAA Tournament radar with a 9-8 record in mid-February, but the Yellow Jackets closed out the regular season with six straight wins and then won two games to win the ACC Tournament. They benefited greatly from Virginia having to cancel their semifinal showdown on Friday due to COVID, giving them a day of rest that Florida State didn’t have before their meeting in the ACC Championship Game.

Moses Wright led Georgia Tech with 17.4 PPG and 8.0 RPG on his way to being named ACC Player of the Year. Wright knocked down 53.2% of his field goals and 41.4% of his threes, and he was also a strong interior presence with 1.6 blocks a night.

The Yellow Jackets are not a great defensive team though. Opponents are making 36.6% of their threes against this team, and if they don’t create steals, they are in a lot of trouble.

Score Prediction: Loyola 69, Georgia Tech 64

Our Pick: OVER 124.5

(See latest odds)

Houston vs Cleveland State

The third time proved to be the charm for the Houston Cougars. After they lost the 2018 and 2019 AAC Tournament Finals to Cincinnati, the Cougars ran the Bearcats off the court with a 91-54 beatdown on Sunday to punch their ticket to March Madness and earn a No. 2 seed.

This is the best team that Houston has put on the court since Hakeem Olajuwon had the Cougars playing for national championships in the mid-1980s. Houston ranks first nationally in effective field goal percentage (42.9%) on defense, and the Cougars are in the top 15 in five of the six major defensive categories according to Ken Pomeroy. Opponents are making just 28.5% of their three-point attempts and 43% of their field goals against this defense.

Houston is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country as guards Quentin Grimes and Dejon Jarreau crash the glass and Justin Gorham provides a presence in the paint. Gorham ranks in the top ten nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, and he is making over 50% of his field goals.

Cleveland State survived a triple overtime scare from Purdue Fort Wayne in the quarterfinals of the Horizon League Tournament. It was part of a wild day that saw the top three seeds taken to overtime (and the other game was decided by a single point in regulation). The Vikings’ toughest opponent (Wright State) was knocked out in the quarterfinals, paving the way for Cleveland State to make its third NCAA Tournament appearance.

The Vikings are not a good three-point shooting team. Cleveland State is making just 31.9% of its threes as a team, and its most prolific scorers are the most inconsistent shooters. Torrey Patton (14.9 PPG) and D’Moi Hodge (10.5 PPG) are both making under 30% of their threes despite taking over 100 attempts, and Tre Gomillion (10.5 PPG) is just 3-20 from beyond the arc this season.

Score Prediction: Houston 73, Cleveland State 54

Our Pick: UNDER 135

(See latest odds)

South Region

Arkansas vs Colgate

This game has the highest total of any first-round game by a significant margin, and it is one of just two games with an over/under north of 150. Both Arkansas and Colgate like to run up and down the court and put up a ton of shots.

Arkansas went on a run to end the season. The Razorbacks won eight straight games to close out the regular season, knocking off four straight NCAA Tournament teams at one point in Missouri, Florida, Alabama, and LSU.

Freshman Moses Moody leads the way for the Razorbacks. Moody is projected to be an early pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. He leads the team with 17.4 PPG, and he is the team’s most reliable three-point shooter at 37.9%. Moody exploded for 28 points on 50% shooting against LSU in the SEC Tournament semifinals on Saturday.

The Razorbacks are more than just their talented freshman though. Justin Smith is averaging 13.0 PPG and 6.9 RPG as the primary post presence, making 54.1% of his field goals. J.D. Notae (13.3 PPG) and Jalen Tate (10.4 PPG) are also averaging double digits.

Colgate is one of the biggest mysteries entering the NCAA Tournament. The Raiders went 14-1 and won the Patriot League, but they only played conference opponents and ended up playing Boston University five times, Army four times, and Holy Cross four times. They handily beat Bucknell and Loyola (MD) in the Patriot League Tournament to take the conference’s automatic qualifier.

The Raiders personified three-and-d by knocking down 40% of their threes while holding opponents to just 26.1% shooting from beyond the arc. That has Colgate ranked in the top three in both categories nationally.

Jordan Burns is averaging 17.0 PPG and hitting 41.5% of his threes, while Jack Ferguson is one of the best shooters in the country. The senior guard is making 50.7% of his treys and 90% of his free throws.

However, it’s tough to have a lot of faith in Colgate considering its schedule. Arkansas will be the best team the Raiders have played by a mile, and the Razorbacks have depth.

Score Prediction: Arkansas 82, Colgate 69

Our Pick: UNDER 162.5

(See latest odds)

Villanova vs Winthrop

You might not find a more popular upset pick than Winthrop over Villanova as the standard No. 12 over No. 5 upset. Winthrop was a two-point loss to UNC Asheville away from a 24-0 season. The Eagles hammered their three opponents in the Big South Conference Tournament by an average of 25.7 points, and they are one of the most aesthetically pleasing teams in the nation.

Those blowouts have given Winthrop the chance to empty its bench, so there are a whopping 10 players averaging 10 MPG for the Eagles. Chandler Vaudrin is the only real constant (31.5 MPG). Vaudrin leads the team in every major offensive category with 12.2 PPG, 7.2 RPG, and 6.9 APG. He is making 48% of his field goals and 37.5% of his triples.

Josh Corbin is the most dangerous three-point shooter on the Eagles, knocking down 42.3% of his threes. Corbin and Charles Falden are the only two players on Winthrop with over 100 attempts from beyond the arc this season, so that’s who Villanova will have to focus on when the Wildcats are on defense.

The Wildcats had a tough end to their season. They dropped their final regular season game to Providence by two points and lost to eventual conference champion Georgetown in their first Big East Tournament game by a single point. A win in either of those games might have seen Villanova end up as a No. 4 seed.

Villanova lost Collin Gillespie for the rest of the season in its last home game. Gillespie was the second-leading scorer on the Wildcats (14.0 PPG), but he really made his impact as the maestro of this offense. The senior guard led Nova with 4.6 APG, so his loss will be tough to overcome.

This is a good three-point shooting team aside from the top two scorers. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Justin Moore are combining to make just over 30% of their threes. However, a lot of that success was created by the playmaking of Gillespie, so Jay Wright’s Wildcats might be in serious trouble on Friday night.

Score Prediction: Winthrop 73, Villanova 71

Our Pick: Winthrop +6

(See latest odds)

Texas Tech vs Utah State

The Red Raiders couldn’t beat the two best teams in the Big 12 in Baylor and Kansas, but they did have a lot of success against the two football powers in the conference. Texas Tech knocked off Texas and Oklahoma twice during the regular season (and beat LSU in non-conference play) before the Longhorns finally got the better of them in a 67-66 win on their way to winning the Big 12 Tournament.

Chris Beard has made this program a perennial contender in the conference. Texas Tech is one of the best teams at forcing turnovers (23.8%), and that has the Red Raiders ranked in the top 25 nationally in terms of defensive efficiency. Their interior defense is great too with opponents making just 44.8% of their two-point field goals.

Kyler Edwards is making 41.5% of his threes for the Red Raiders. However, he is the only reliable perimeter shooter that sees significant minutes. Mac McClung and Terrence Shannon Jr. are the only other Texas Tech players that shoot from range on a semi-regular basis, but both McClung and Shannon are making under 35% of their threes.

Utah State was on the bubble throughout the season. The Aggies failed to beat a team ranked in the top 60 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, going 0-5 in those games. That led to some speculation they would miss the NCAA Tournament, but the Selection Committee rewarded them and didn’t make them play a First Four game either.

If the Aggies are going to pull off the upset, they need a great performance from 7’0 center Neemias Queta. Queta leads Utah State with 15.1 PPG, 10.0 RPG, and 3.2 RPG. He is a serious defensive presence on the interior, but Texas Tech is good at getting opponents in foul trouble.

Score Prediction: Texas Tech 70, Utah State 61

Our Pick: Texas Tech -5

(See latest odds)

East Region

Florida State vs NC GreensBoro

This game has a good chance of being a defensive slugfest even though there are talented guards on both teams.

UNC Greensboro is led by Isaiah Miller. Miller is the only player on the Spartans that is averaging double-digits in scoring with 19.3 PPG. He is the player this team turns to when they need a bucket. However, while he is making 46.6% of his field goals, Miller is struggling mightily from beyond the arc. UNC Greensboro’s top scorer is hitting a paltry 21.3% of his treys.

The Spartans are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country. This team is making just 30.0% of its triples on the season, and the only player making over a third of his threes is reserve guard A.J. McGinnis.

There won’t be many free points for UNC Greensboro either. The Spartans are one of the worst teams at getting to the free throw line (332nd in FTA/FGA per Ken Pomeroy). Additionally, they are only making 68.3 percent of their freebies.

This team does a good job of forcing turnovers too. UNC Greensboro is one of the better teams in the country in this regard, as opponents turn the ball over on 21.1% of their possessions against the Spartans.

Florida State is typically known for its defense. Leonard Hamilton is known as a defensive coach, and the Seminoles have made themselves into a perennial ACC contender largely due to that factor. They rank 33rd in effective field goal percentage on defense.

Their big men have historically been the primary reason for their success in that regard, and that holds true this season. FSU ranks in the top ten nationally in block percentage (14.6%), and opponents are only hitting 44.2% of their two-pointers on the interior. That does not bode well for UNC Greensboro’s offense considering their three-point shooting woes.

Probable lottery pick Scottie Barnes is one of the three dangerous guards on this roster. However, the top performer has been senior M.J. Walker. Walker leads the team with 13.0 PPG, and he is the best perimeter shooter with a 44.4% rate beyond the arc.

Barnes and Raiquan Gray are both making less than 30% of their threes, but the Seminoles are sinking 39% of their treys as a team. FSU has a habit of going more conservative come tournament time though.

Score Prediction: Florida State 73, UNC Greensboro 64

Our Pick: UNDER 145

(See latest odds)

Alabama vs Iona

The Crimson Tide are a No. 2 seed for the first time in 19 seasons. Nate Oats has done a great job molding this team in his second season in Tuscaloosa, leading Alabama to a 24-6 record and both the regular season and SEC Conference Tournament titles. That has the program optimistic that it can make its first Final Four appearance.

Alabama plays at an extremely fast tempo. The Crimson Tide are ninth nationally in adjusted tempo, and 47.1% of their shots are threes. They don’t hold onto the ball long, leading to the Crimson Tide averaging 79.6 PPG.

SEC Player of the Year Herbert Jones led the Crimson Tide with 6.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, and 1.8 SPG. That all-around play was the reason he was given the honor despite ranking fourth on his team in scoring (11.2 PPG). Jones is one of the most efficient shooters on Alabama, making 41.7% of his threes.

John Petty Jr. and Villanova transfer Jahvon Quinerly have been great scorers too. Petty is averaging 12.6 PPG and 5.0 RPG as a guard, hitting 38% of his threes. Meanwhile, Quinerly has been the most efficient shooter by making 48.8% of his field goals and shooting 44.4% from range.

After three years in the wilderness, Rick Pitino is back in college basketball. While he is something of a pariah due to what happened at Louisville, there is no doubt he is one of the best coaches in the sport. He steered Iona to a 12-5 record and a MAAC title after upsetting Siena in the quarterfinals.

The Gaels saw a lot of their games cancelled due to COVID, and they didn’t take the court for seven weeks from December 23 to February 12. Iona played five games between February 12 and February 20, and then this team didn’t play again until the MAAC Tournament started on March 9.

Defense was the reason this team ended up winning the MAAC. Iona allowed just 53.8 PPG in its four conference tournament games as Niagara was the only team that scored more than 52 points against the Gaels.

Iona is very turnover prone on offense though. The Gaels turn the ball over on 19.4% of their possessions, ranking 315th nationally in that category. To make matters worse, they are one of the most foul-prone teams (344th nationally) in the country.

Meanwhile, Alabama is one of the top defensive teams in the country. The Crimson Tide rank second in defensive efficiency and tenth in three-point defense.

Score Prediction: Alabama 82, Iona 59

Our Pick: Alabama -16.5

(See latest odds)

LSU vs St. Bonaventure

The Tigers made an exciting run in the SEC Tournament before falling to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game on Sunday. LSU has not been good on defense this year though.

This team is allowing opponents to make 51.3% of their two-pointers. Additionally, they are giving up a lot of offensive rebounds, as Trendon Watford does not play to his height on defense. The Tigers’ perimeter defense is good, but St. Bonaventure will be able to stretch the floor with its four-guard lineup.

Osun Osunniyi is the key for the Bonnies in this game. He is averaging 10.5 PPG and 9.5 RPG as the lone forward playing significant minutes for St. Bonaventure. Osunniyi is a lockdown defender with 2.9 BPG, ranking among the best players nationally in that category.

The Bonnies do a great job getting offensive rebounds despite playing four guards, but they must avoid foul trouble. Their five starters are all averaging at least 32 MPG.

Score Prediction: St. Bonaventure 77, LSU 72

Our Pick: St. Bonaventure +2

(See latest odds)

West Region

Oregon vs VCU

Dana Altman led the Ducks to a Pac 12 regular season title. Although Oregon only played one game in the span of a month due to COVID issues, this team was the best in its conference throughout the season and won 11 of its final 13 games.

Oregon has five players that are scoring in double digits. Eugene Omoruyi and Chris Duarte are leading the way with 16.7 PPG each. Both players are solid rebounders, and Duarte is one of the most efficient shooters in the tournament. He is making 52.4% of his field goals and 43% of his three-pointers on the year.

Duarte isn’t the only Oregon player that can shoot well from the perimeter though. All five Ducks’ starters are averaging at least 30 MPG and are shooting at least 35.7% from downtown. Oregon ranks 19th in the country in three-point percentage (37.9%), and all of those shooters make it difficult to slow them down.

VCU has a star in Nah’Shon Hyland. Hyland was named the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year this season, leading the Rams with 19.5 PPG. He is making a respectable 37.1% of his three-pointers, but Hyland has turnover issues. The Rams’ best player is averaging 3.1 turnovers a game compared to 2.1 APG.

Vince Williams Jr. is the only other player on the Rams averaging double digits in points. He is making 41.3% of his threes on the year. Hyland and Williams are the only two VCU players making more than a third of their treys this season.

As they did under Shaka Smart, the Rams do a good job forcing turnovers. VCU ranks in the top ten nationally in turnover rate. However, this team makes a lot of mental mistakes. The Rams send opponents to the free throw line often and commit a fair share of turnovers themselves.

Score Prediction: Oregon 77, VCU 62

Our Pick: Oregon -6

(See latest odds)

Virginia vs Ohio

The Cavaliers are not in great shape heading into the NCAA Tournament. Virginia was the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament after finishing just ahead of Florida State in the regular season. However, they were forced to withdraw from the conference tournament ahead of their semifinal match with Georgia Tech. They will be in quarantine until the end of the week and won’t head to Indianapolis until Friday as a result.

If the Wahoos are healthy, they are a scary opponent. Their top three scorers (Sam Hauser, Jay Huff, and Trey Murphy III) are all hitting at least 50% of their field goals and over 40% of their three-pointers. Hauser and Huff are also solid rebounders, and Huff is one of the best shot blockers in the country.

We know what to expect from Tony Bennett at this point. Virginia’s offense runs at a glacial pace, but it’s very effective. The Cavaliers are in the top 12 in turns of offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage, and they rank in the top 20 in three-point shooting, two-point shooting, and free throw shooting. Their pack line defense is not as strong as it was in previous seasons though.

Ohio nearly knocked off No. 1 seed Illinois back in late November. The Bobcats lost to the Fighting Illini by just two points in Champaign, and they followed up that disappointing result by absolutely dismantling Cleveland State by 55 points in their next game.

They have won nine of their last ten games despite having three weeks off in February due to COVID concerns. Ohio scored at least 80 points in eight of those games, as this team had one of the better offenses for a mid-major in the country.

Junior Jason Preston is just as efficient as he was last season. Preston is making 53% of his field goals and 40.8% of his threes to lead Ohio with 16.6 PPG, and he runs the offense with 7.2 APG. His turnovers are down, but he is really struggling from the free throw line. Ben Roderick has shot well from beyond the arc too, sinking 40.7% of his triples.

Score Prediction: Virginia 67, Ohio 59

Our PICK: UNDER 131.5

(See latest odds)

Iowa vs Grand Canyon

Congratulations to Grand Canyon. The Antelopes will be making their first NCAA Tournament appearance after winning the WAC in convincing fashion. They smashed Seattle and New Mexico State in back-to-back games to take the conference’s automatic bid, and they knocked off Nevada during the regular season.

Bryce Drew is the most recent high-profile name to coach at this university. He has brought his mentality to the team, leading to the Antelopes playing well on defense. Opponents are making just 29.9% of their three-pointers against this team, but they don’t force a lot of turnovers and won’t pressure players into making mistakes.

Whereas most teams are following in the footsteps of the NBA and going small, Grand Canyon is bucking that trend by going big. The Antelopes’ top two scorers are centers as Asbjorn Midtgaard (14.3 PPG) and Alessandro Lever (13.3 PPG) lead the way. Midtgaard is making 70.6% of his field goals and is pulling down 9.9 RPG thanks to his seven-foot frame while Lever checks in at 6’10.

Luka Garza’s decision to return to Iowa City for one more season made the Hawkeyes a national title contender. Garza was a First Team All-American last year, and he was named Big Ten Player of the Year for each of the last two seasons. He has a team-high 23.7 PPG and 8.8 RPG, and Garza is making 54.7% of his field goals and 40.7% of his threes.

The 6’11 center isn’t the only star for Iowa though. Joe Wieskamp is knocking down 47.3% of his treys as the Hawkeyes’ second leading scorer, and C.J. Fredrick is sinking 49.3% of his looks from downtown. That has led to Iowa ranking 13th nationally in three-point percentage.

Iowa doesn’t make mistakes with the ball. This experienced team commits fewer turnovers than any other team in the country.

Score Prediction: Iowa 80, Grand Canyon 62

Our Pick: Iowa -14.5

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