2023 NCAA Tournament first round best bets

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Furman is an upset pick in the South region of the NCAA tournament
Furman guard Mike Bothwell (3) revs up fans as he celebrates after his team’s win over Chattanooga in an NCAA men’s college basketball championship game for the Southern Conference tournament, Monday, March 6, 2023, in Asheville, N.C. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

March Madness is here, and we’ve been previewing each region of the 2023 NCAA tournament with the full schedule, our matchups to watch, and the best players on the court. If you haven’t read those yet, click here to check them out, but today we’re going to turn our attention to some of our best bets for Thursday and Friday’s first-round action. 

The NCAA Tournament is second to the Super Bowl as the biggest betting event in the country. While many people will be filling out brackets, others will be logging into their sportsbooks to get a little extra skin in the game as they watch the tournament for the next couple of weeks. 

Below we’ll talk you through some of our favorite bets for the first round with picks that you can use both for your pools and also for your gambling needs. 

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NCAA Tournament First-Round Best Bets


Furman (+5) over Virginia (-110)

We covered this in our NCAA Tournament South region preview, but the basic premise for this pick is that Virginia plays a slow tempo (360th in the nation) and relies on their defense (25th in KenPom), but they also don’t really have any offensive threats and scored just 67.8 points per game this season, which was 253rd in the country. Meanwhile, Furman has KenPom’s 33rd-ranked offense in the country and averaged over 80 points and 16.4 assists per game, which were both top-15 in the country.

Furman also had the 13th-highest three-point rate in the country and will be playing a Virginia team that is down a key defensive player in the interior since Ben Vander Plas is out for the rest of the season with a broken hand. I think Furman can actually win this game outright, which you can bet on at +205 on the ML.


Penn State ML over Texas A&M (+135)

These teams are super close in KenPom’s rankings with A&M coming in at 25th in the country and Penn State rankings 39th. However, Penn State has been playing better basketball of late and lost by just two points to Purdue in the Big Ten Conference tournament.

The matchup also favors the Nittany Lions since Texas A&M goes under screens to take away penetration into the lane and has no problem giving up lots of three-pointers (like the Knicks). In fact, the Aggies allow the 12th-highest three-point attempt rate in the country with 45.9% of their opponents’ shots coming from beyond the arc. That’s a problem against Penn State who shoots threes at the 10th-highest rate in the country and hit 38.5% of them (9th in the nation). Oh, and Penn State ranks 6th in the fewest turnovers per game as well. They’re going to be a tough out for the Aggies. 


Oral Roberts (+6.5) over Duke (-115)

This is another game that we covered in our NCAA Tournament East region preview, but Oral Roberts is a picture-perfect Cinderella. The Golden Eagles are 56th in KenPom’s rankings and boast the 23rd-ranked offense thanks to finishing 4th in the country in scoring at 82.5 PPG. They also play at the 38th-fastest pace, which can be a problem for opponents. They have five players back from the team that beat Ohio State and Florida in the NCAA tournament two seasons ago, have what all Cinderellas do in superstar guard Max Abmas, and have a 7’5” big man in Connor Vanover to help down low. 

The only reason I’m not picking them as an outright upset is that they’re running up against a deep Duke team that’s 21st in KenPom’s rankings, has the 24th-ranked defense, and won nine straight to close the season. However, this is head coach Jon Scheyer’s first NCAA tournament game as a head coach, and Duke plays at the 288th-ranked tempo, so I think Oral Roberts’ offense can keep this close.


Boise State ML over Northwestern (+105)

We covered this in our NCAA Tournament West region preview, but Northwestern is a team we are looking to fade. The Wildcats are making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2017, so they have very little big-game experience on that roster. Boise State, meanwhile, went 13-5 in a good Mountain West Conference, shoots 36% from beyond the arc as a team, and boasts a defense that ranks 14th in KenPom’s efficiency metric. That could be a problem for a nervous Northwestern team without many big-time scorers. 

Duke could be in jeopardy in the first round of the NCAA Tournament
Duke head coach Jon Scheyer holds up the trophy after Duke’s win over Virginia in an NCAA college basketball game for the championship of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Saturday, March 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)



Drake ML over Miami (+110)

We covered this in our NCAA Tournament Midwest region breakdown, so check that out but the argument for an upset here is simply that Drake is a good team and not much, if any, worse than a Miami squad that isn’t deep and just lost Norchad Omier, their best rebounder, to injury in the ACC Tournament. Drake ranks 66th in KenPom rankings with the 44th-best defense and the country’s third-highest defensive rebounding rate, so not having Omier would be a big problem. 

Oh, and Drake has Missouri Valley Player of the Year Tucker DeVries and three senior guards going up against a Miami defense that ranks 132nd in defensive efficiency. 


Florida Atlantic (+2) over Memphis (-110)

Memphis is a trendy pick to make some noise in the NCAA tournament, and the Tigers are led by veteran guards, which is always good come March. However, Florida Atlantic enters the NCAA tournament with a 31-3 record and has been terrific all season. They are the 22nd-ranked team in the country according to KenPom with a well-balanced team that ranks 31st in offensive efficiency and 35th in defensive efficiency. They are basically right on par with Memphis in most metrics, so this just comes down to taking the points in what should be a closely contested game. 


Kent State (+4) over Indiana (-110)

Kent State is another legit mid-major and not just an over-hyped analytics team. They have the 38th-ranked defense in the nation, according to KenPom, and are also led on offense by their star Sincere Carry, who’s a veteran guard averaging 17.6 points and 4.9 assists per game. I’m banking on the Golden Flashes being a good enough defensive team to limit Trayce Jackson-Davis in the post and the rest of the Indiana team not shooting well enough to put this one away. 

Kent State can beat Indiana, but I’m more comfortable betting on them to just keep it close.

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