- The First Round Starts Friday Afternoon
- At Least Five Games Have Lines Worth Considering
- Gonzaga To Win Has Little Value
- Injuries May Play a Key Part in Who Cuts Down the Nets
March Madness first round betting officially begins today—now that all 68 teams in the field are cleared to go, let the 2021 betting bonanza begin!
The 2021 NCAA D1 Men’s Basketball Championship will commence at 12:15 EDT on Friday and run through Monday, April 5. No, we’re not counting the “First Four,” despite the juicy Michigan State (-2) versus UCLA matchup. It has been such a crazy year that the powerhouse programs and their 13 combined national titles meet for the right to get into the tourney.
To brush up on your March Madness bracket building strategy, be sure to check out our preview. In this article, we’re going to focus on the best bets* on the board.
There are some first-round games that leap out as prime opportunities, while others are practically screaming “stay away!” Away we go. This. Is. March.
March Madness First Round Game Lines
Virginia Tech (-1.0) v. FLORIDA, Friday, 12:15pm, CBS
It’s always best to start at the beginning, and the Hokies and Gators will tip-off the entire 2021 March Madness first round. Florida is a 7 seed, but a one-point underdog to the 10th seeded Hokies. Nothing too unusual there.
What is unusual is the advanced metrics love Florida. KenPom has them 17 spots higher than VaTech in his all-encompassing Adjusted Efficiency Margin (AdjEM). Both squads are well-balanced between offense and defense, but Florida is more efficient on both ends. FiveThirtyEight gives UF a 58% chance to win outright. Seems like plus value to me.
Take the slightly better odds on the money line and lock in Florida to win -105.
ORAL ROBERTS v. Ohio State (-16.0), Friday, 3:00pm, CBS
Since 1985, when the field expanded to 64 teams, 15 seeds pulled the upset against the 2 seed at a 6% clip.^ So I’m not calling for the Buckeyes to get dumped out before dinner on Friday. However, OSU has glaring holes on defense. They also have a problem blowing big leads: just in the Big Ten tourney they blew three consecutive double-digit leads against Minnesota, Purdue, and Michigan before hanging on to win each game.
Meanwhile, the kids from Tulsa toss reckless threes like Elon Musk launches spaceships. A full 46% of the Golden Eagles field goal attempts are from deep. That means there are two clear paths to an Oral Roberts cover.
First, if they start knocking down those threes. Second, if OSU gets up big and takes its foot off the gas late. Historically, the 15 seed covers just more than half the time (52.6%).
Put down 1.5 units on Oral Roberts +16.0 (-110).
WISCONSIN v. North Carolina (-1.5), Friday, 7:00pm, CBS
Ok, so we’re already up two and a half units before the pizza gets delivered on Friday night. This basketball betting thing is easy. Now, for the KenPom special.
Wisconsin only went 17-12 on the year, but they are a top ten overall squad in AdjEM. As a nine seed! It seems the committee did not spend time looking beyond the top line stat, like a Cy Young winner with 20 wins but a mediocre xFIP.
According to KenPom, the Badgers were the 283rd team in his luck metric this season. So, they caught no breaks. And in this year’s Big Ten, that cost them game after game.
Meanwhile, North Carolina backed into the tourney but will surely attract betting based on name recognition alone. UNC’s defense is great, 15th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (AdjD). But Wisky is slightly better at 13th overall. So, it will likely be a low-scoring affair where the significantly better team is getting a point and a half.
Cash in Wisconsin +1.5 (-110) and pour yourself something stronger to celebrate your hot start to betting the March Madness first round.
Iona v. ALABAMA (-17.0), Saturday, 4:00pm, TBS
Okay, so you missed the first few games on Saturday. Who can blame you after the college basketball betting bender from the night before? Don’t sweat it. Let the Tide roll you back into the swing of things.
This game is the definition of an immovable object against a stoppable force. Alabama ranks second in AdjD, while Iona languishes at 210 in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency (AdjO). It is going to be a nightmare for the Gael’s to try putting the ball in the hoop. My only hesitation is that this game is happening in Hinkle Fieldhouse, the legendary sight of Hoosiers.
This is over quick. Something Rick Pitino knows plenty about. Alabama -17.0 (-105).
ABILENE CHRISTIAN v. Texas (-9.0), Saturday, 9:50pm, TRU
It’s late on Saturday night and now I’m going to make you work. Your mission: find TruTv. Hurriedly searching for Tru on your cable or streaming service is an annual March tradition right next to fish frys and green beer.
But your reward for finding the obscurial of all channels will be a great Lone Star State matchup. There are a lot of factors in play here, but do not underestimate the chip that comes from UT overlooking just about Abilene Christian’s entire roster in recruiting.
Despite being a 3 seed, Shaka Smart’s Texas squad is more akin to a typical 6 seed according to the advanced stats. Abilene Christian is strong for a 14 seed and plays solid defense. Texas is still dealing with fallout from the benching/not-benching of NBA prospect Greg Brown during the Big 12 tourney.
The Wildcats hook the ‘Horns but fall just short at the end. Abilene Christian +9.0 (-105)
March Madness Betting Upset Special
What would the March Madness first round be without huge gambling upsets? Bracket busting wins have now even extended to 1 seeds. I don’t think we will see anything comparable this weekend in Indianapolis, but I do see good value in one 4 versus 13 matchup.
Everyone will tell you that you must pick a 12 seed over a 5. But those expectations appear to already be baked into the 2021 March Madness lines. Likely the most common upset pick on everyone’s board will be Winthrop over Villanova. However, Winthrop’s listed for a paltry +220 on the money line, even with a 6.5-point spread.
Drop down a line and find a spread that’s only 1.0 larger but returns +280 if Cinderella’s slipper fits.
OHIO v. Virginia (-7.5), Saturday, 7:15pm, TRU
Yes, I’m picking Virginia to suffer another massive upset. Yes, I understand that means their last three tourney runs would be Loss as a 1 seed – National Champions as a 1 seed – Loss as a 4 seed. Technically, UVA is still the defending champion.
They are one of the teams arriving in Indiana with COVID questions surrounding player availability. In fact, they are not travelling until the night before this tip.
In terms of the metrics, Virginia’s defense is not what it used to be. They are a solid-not-great 33rd in AdjD. Their offense has carried them, with it all the way up to 12th in AdjO.
However, it has been extremely hot or cold. And a streaky offense, off a quarantine pause, which does not show up at game-time is one recipe for how to get upset.
The Bobcats feature an excellent offense for a 13 seed, coming in 29th in AdjO. We will not talk about their defense, but upsets happen when shooters go off.
Ohio can certainly catch lightning in a bottle. They are even ranked significantly higher in AdjEM than everyone’s darling Winthrop. So, a better team with better odds. Check check.
Put a unit down on the Ohio money line (+280) and know which belle you want to dance with at the ball.
2021 NCAA Tournament National Championship Futures
This is clearly Gonzaga’s tournament to lose. The Bulldogs of Spokane are +210 to cut down the nets on April 5. However, FiveThirtyEight only sees them being the last team standing 27% of the time.
A potentially difficult matchup with Iowa in the Elite Eight may even prevent them from winning their region. Thus, there’s not much value in betting on Gonzaga futures.
Illinois, fresh from their overtime win in the Big Ten title game, has surged all the way to the second lowest odds, at +500. But 5 to 1 does not seem to provide an adequate return on investment.
Iowa, Winner +2000
No, look farther down the Big Ten ranks to Iowa at +2000. The Hawkeyes feature the likely Naismith Player of the Year winner, Luke Garza. The senior big man is fully capable of dominating a game or two by himself. Iowa also features an easier path to the Elite Eight than the other two seeds.
Of course, waiting for them there will be Gonzaga. If Iowa makes it that far, you can consider hedging your 20 to 1 championship bet. Iowa is +450 to win their region but +2000 to win it all. Sprinkle some shekels on Garza and the boys and hope Gonzaga gets upset.
Loyola Chicago, Winner +8000
As for a true Cinderella, head to the Windy City. No team lower than a 7 seed has won the tournament since 1985—this is a true long-shot. Loyola has the best AdjD in the country and holds the lofty 9th overall spot on KenPom’s AdjEM. Yet they only got an 8 seed!
They have an extremely difficult potential in-state second round matchup with Illinois, but if they clear that look out. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 1 in 4 chance of making the championship game if they get past the Illini. For a good team at 80 to 1, I like that bet.
Come on Ramblers, do it for Sister Jean!
March Madness Props
Digging deeper into 2021 March Madness betting, we have the props—Here are two I especially like:
Combined Seed Number for Final Four Teams (O/U 10.5)
Bovada has set the line at 10.5 for the over/under on total sum of Final Four Seeds. Over the past ten tournaments, the mean total seeds in the Final Four was 14.8. But in only two of those ten tourneys would the under have hit (2012 and 2015).
In 2019, the last March Madness to be played, the Final Four total was 11. This year, the brackets may appear top-heavy, but that’s also because everyone knows less about most teams — especially the Cinderellas — due to pandemic restrictions.
Put one unit on OVER 10.5 Combined Seed (-105).
Highest Team Total During the First Round (O/U 97.5)
I do not believe any team is going to truly catch fire in the first round and push near a 100 point game. Teams are cooped up in their hotels, dealing with extreme limitations on what they can do and where they can go. My bet is most come out rusty from the field, preventing one hot shooting team from hitting this over.
Gonzaga has the best offense by AdjO, but they should be playing their backups and scrubs by early in the second half of their first game. Iowa has the second highest AdjO, but faces an above average defensive team in Grand Canyon.
Put half a unit on UNDER 97.5 (+140) to cap off your two-day heater.
Key Injuries Going into 2021 First Round
When you are placing your bets or filling out your brackets, also be aware of the latest injury news. Just before the start of the March Madness first round, the status of crucial players remains murky. Some of these players can elevate their team from good to great or great to exceptional if they are available to play.
Isaiah Livers – F – Michigan
Michigan’s best three-point threat, Livers is fighting a stress fracture in his foot. He will likely miss at least the opening weekend of the tournament. The Wolverines will really need his offensive ability to reach the Final Four and beyond. The senior is averaging 12.5 points and 5.7 rebounds a game, with a 42% three-point shooting percentage.
Jalen Wilson – F – Kansas
The big man averages a near double-double for the Jayhawks with 12.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. He did not make the trip to Indiana with the rest of the squad and will miss at least the first weekend. Coach Bill Self said he hopes Wilson can make the journey on Monday (assuming things go well for KU).
Kyle Young – F- Ohio State
The Buckeyes glue-guy suffered a concussion in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals that derailed his best game of the year. He missed the conference semis and finals and his status for Friday’s tip against Oral Roberts is still unknown. It was also his second concussion in less than a month.
Young is Ohio State’s best defender on a team that already has defensive inadequacies. Him missing extended time could prevent OSU from making a deep run.
De’Vion Harmon – G – Oklahoma
The Sooners second leading scorer will miss at least the opening weekend after a positive COVID-19 test. He is currently in a ten-day long quarantine.
Virginia’s Entire Roster?
The UVA squad will not touch down in Indy until late Friday for their Saturday evening game. It is unclear if the public will have any clarity on who is and is not available for the Cavaliers before then. Virginia had to withdraw from the ACC tournament last week due to a positive COVID test within the program.
There are so many March Madness bets, brackets, props, and parlays for you to win. But do you know the best sites to place your real-money wagers? Be sure to check out our comprehensive online sportsbook reviews to find your perfect betting partner.
Up to speed? Our guide to betting on NCAA college basketball has the best sportsbooks to bet on March Madness, wagering tips & strategies, and more.
*All odds via Bovada on 03/18/2021 at 9:00am EDT.
^Historical seed comparison from Washington Post.