The NCAA tournament play-in games start Tuesday before the real ride of emotions begins Thursday, when the main field of 64 tips off shortly after noon ET.
One of the biggest mistakes many of us make with our brackets is overloading them with upsets. The surreal feeling of watching Cinderella's like St. Peter’s knock off Kentucky sticks with us year after year. The impact these massive upsets have on our brackets brainwash us into believing the first round is filled with favorites falling.
Last year, the higher seeds won 22 of the 32 games (16-16 ATS) in the initial round, and there were only seven teams that won as a 10 seed or higher. We circled some live dogs Monday that could surprise us, but there is much more meat on the bone with the favorites. Here are three solid plays where I laid the chalk without hesitation.
No. 9 West Virginia (-2.5) over No. 8 Maryland
The flashing red lights are going off in our heads as the lower seed is favored in this 8 vs. 9 matchup. There are a couple factors at play propelling the action on the Mountaineers.
West Virginia’s Big 12 badge is one, for starters, with the Mountaineers correctly being credited for playing in the most dominant conference in the country. The other is the Terrapins' terrible performance away from home this year. Maryland was 2-9 straight up away from and just 2-6 ATS as a road dog. Granted, playing on a neutral site is not the same as a true road game, but the last time the Terrapins took the floor on a neutral they lost by 10 to Indiana as 2.5-point underdogs.
Supporting trends aside, I think West Virginia is the better team. Expect the Mountaineers to use ball screens to create open looks for Erik Stevenson and lure Maryland center Julian Reese into foul trouble by attacking the rim. The market is telling us the Mountaineers are rightful favorites, so let’s listen and lay the points.
No. 1 Houston (-19.5) over No. 16 Northern Kentucky
Oh fun! Let’s lay almost 20 points in the first round of a tournament that was coined “March Madness” for its stunning upsets.
Once you get past the fear of getting flagged as square, you will soon realize Houston is the clear side. The Cougars are coming off an embarrassing loss to Memphis in the conference tournament final after allowing less than 50 points in each of the previous two tournament games. That’s the 10th and 11th time Kelvin Sampson’s suffocating defense held teams in the 40s, and I wouldn't be surprised if Northern Kentucky is No. 12.
The Norse are 217th in offensive efficiency and 333rd at keeping opponents off the offensive glass.The Cougars will have their way on both ends of the floor in this one and have blown out non-conference opponents by an average margin of 24.4 points this year.
No. 6 Creighton (-5.5) over No. 11 NC State
It’s easy to fall in love with the Wolfpack’s trio of guards. Terquavion Smith and Jarkel Joiner both average 17 points per game, while Casey Morsell drains 40% of his threes. That type of guard play usually screams success in March, but this team’s defensive liabilities will be their downfall against Creighton.
The Bluejays are top 30 in offensive efficiency. With Ryan Kalkbrenner inside, they will be able to get to the rim at will, opening everything up for an offense that finished third in the Big East in effective field goal percentage. Kalkbrenner’s presence down low will force NC State’s guards to settle for bad shots from beyond the arc, as the Pack get desperate to match Creighton’s non-stop scoring. Bet the Bluejays to pull away late and cover this number.