College Basketball Odds & Picks: Our 7 Best Bets for Thursday’s Late March Madness Games
Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: Justice Hill (Murray State)
While the madness is in full swing, it’s never too late to start prepping for the later window.
Thursday night features a First Four team in action against Saint Mary’s, a feisty America East squad against Arkansas and blue bloods like UCLA, Kansas and Kentucky.
So, with that in mind, our staff is offering up seven best bets for six different games below.
Thursday’s Late NCAA Tournament Best Bets
The team logos in the table below represent each of the matchups that our college basketball staff is targeting from today’s slate of games. Click the team logos for one the matchups below to navigate to a specific bet discussed in this article.
|Specific bet recommendations come from the sportsbook offering preferred odds as of writing. Always shop for the best price using our NCAAB Odds page, which automatically surfaces the best lines for every game.|
Saint Peter’s vs. Kentucky
This number is definitely being dragged down by Saint Peter’s defensive success this season. The Peacocks rank in the top 35 of adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom, but I am skeptical that those numbers will translate against elite competition.
Saint Peter’s played two games against power-conference opponents, Providence and St. John’s, and both of those Big East foes cleared 85 points.
Kentucky is better offensively and more of a size and athleticism mismatch for Saint Peter’s than either of those teams.
If the Peacocks’ defense has a flaw this year, it has been a tendency to foul. Saint Peter’s ranks in the bottom 15 in free-throw rate allowed and third in the nation in highest percentage of points allowed from the free throw line.
Against the size and speed of Kentucky’s guards, the Peacocks will be forced to reach and bump to keep the Cats out of the lane.
That doesn’t even factor in Oscar Tshiebwe’s dominance in the paint. His work on the glass should give Kentucky bonus possessions to further add to the Cats’ scoring.
I liked the Kentucky team total so much, I was willing to take it up to 77.5 with the extra juice up to +140.
Pick: Kentucky Team Total Over 77.5 (+140)
Indiana vs. Saint Mary’s
I may be in the minority here, but I’m going back to the well with Indiana, as the Hoosiers have continued to look like a different team over the last 10 days.
Mike Woodson’s team appeared destined for the NIT when it trailed Michigan by 17 in the second half in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. Since that moment, IU has cranked things up, and the biggest reason why is due to the play of Trayce Jackson-Davis.
The junior is playing with the most confidence of any point in his career, and he was fantastic Tuesday night in the play-in game against Wyoming.
Saint Mary’s will certainly be a stiffer test than what the Cowboys were. The Gaels will not turn it over 18 times like Wyoming did, and Randy Bennett’s defense is built to contain good post players like TJD.
Ultimately, this feels to me like a game that is destined to be tight entering the last couple of minutes. Both defenses should be able to have success, and every bucket will be hard-earned.
With the Hoosiers currently sitting as three-point underdogs, there’s value on a team that has clearly gained a lot of confidence during its recent run.
I firmly believe this will be one of the most competitive games of the first round, and I’ll be backing the Hoosiers as a short dog.
Pick: Indiana +3 (Play to +2.5)
Creighton vs. San Diego State
I love the Aztecs in this matchup.
For those who don’t know, San Diego State finished the season ranked second in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom. Teams cannot score quickly on the Aztecs, who are No. 1 in the nation in average possession length.
That’s a problem for Creighton, which will try to speed San Diego State up.
San Diego State turns opponents over at the 29th-highest rate in the nation, while Creighton is 305th in turnover percentage on offense and is without its starting point guard Ryan Nembhard.
Creighton is shooting very poorly from 3-point range on the season — under 31% — which is outside the top 300 in college basketball. That is really the only way to beat the Aztecs’ defense because teams can’t score inside the arc on it. It ranks sixth in 2-point FG% and eighth in FG% allowed at rim.
On the flip side, Creighton is a very good half-court defense itself (13th in PPP allowed), and it’s also top-10 in FG% allowed at the rim, per ShotQuality.
Really, the way to beat the Aztecs is to run a lot of isolation or hit off-dribble 3-pointers.
So, I love the Aztecs -2 because I’m not sure how the Bluejays are going to score efficiently against their defense, especially if they don’t hit a high percentage of 3-pointers and are constantly turning the ball over.
Pick: San Diego State -2 (Play to -3.5)
Vermont vs. Arkansas
By D.J. James
The Arkansas Razorbacks and Vermont Catamounts match up in the West Region for the 3 vs. 14 game Thursday night.
Vermont is an underrated opponent coming into the tourney. It has one loss since Dec. 10. The Cats are an elite offensive team, considering their seed, while Arkansas thrives on the defensive end.
Given this is the Round of 64 and teams rarely scout the other well, there’s some value on the Vermont side.
On the season, Vermont shoots 36.8% from deep. This is important because Arkansas struggles a bit with guarding the perimeter, allowing teams to shoot around 33% on the season.
Vermont has scored over 35% of its points on the season from outside, per KenPom. It should exploit this issue vs. Razorbacks.
Ben Shungu, Finn Sullivan and Ryan Davis shoot the most 3s for the Catamounts, so expect them to contribute in a major way.
On the other end of the court, Arkansas shoots only 30.7% from beyond the arc.
The Razorbacks usually excels while driving and getting fouled. In fact, it scored 22.5% of their total points this year from the strike (KenPom). This is the main edge here. The Hogs will not be able to rely on many free throws because Vermont doesn’t foul much.
Sure, the Cats’ defense isn’t as strong as their offense, but they’re not inept. They should be able to hold Arkansas in check.
Finally, Vermont is a much better rebounding team than the Razorbacks on defense. It ranks second, per ShotQuality, so this explains why it doesn’t foul often. It doesn’t allow second chances.
Expect the Catamounts to keep this game within one possession.
Pick: Vermont +5 (Play to +4)
San Francisco vs. Murray State
Murray State enters the tournament after a historic season in which the program finished 30-2. The Racers are winners of 20 straight games while ranking in the top 15 in points for and against per possession.
The Racers have a dynamic duo offensively in KJ Williams and Tevin Brown. Williams, a 6-foot-10 forward, averages 18 points and nine rebounds while shooting 54% from the field.
Brown is the leading 3-point shooter in Ohio Valley Conference history. This season, he’s converted on 100-of-257 attempts (39%) from beyond the arc.
They will match up against a San Francisco unit that will be without Yauhen Massalski in this matchup. Massalski was a first-team All-WCC selection this year, putting up 14 points, nine rebounds and over two blocks per game.
That’s a huge hit for the interior defense of San Francisco, and will prove to be a great equalizer.
San Francisco is reliant on its 3-point shooting, where 44% of its shot attempts and 37% of its points come from. The Racers are elite at defending such shot attempts, holding opponents to just 30% from deep.
The big knock on Murray State is that it hasn’t been battle-tested this season.
But that narrative will all change after it takes down San Francisco, and it may even give Kentucky a run for its money.
Pick: Murray State -1.5 (Play to -2.5)
San Francisco vs. Murray State
San Francisco is playing in its first NCAA Tournament game since the 1997-98 season. After losing to Gonzaga in the semifinals of the WCC Tournament, 81-71, the Dons should be primed to give it their all today.
San Francisco is a complete team that is excellent on both sides of the ball. The Dons rank 40th in AdjO and 20th in AdjD, with 110.3 and 92.3 points per 100 possessions, respectively.
This compares to a Murray State team that ranks 46th and 42nd in AdjO and AdjD, respectively.
Statistically, the teams are comparable with the edge going to San Francisco because of its better defense.
The differentiator and what I believe will be the edge today is in the strength of schedule the two teams played this season.
Per Massey Ratings, the Dons rank 84th nationally in terms of strength of schedule, in large part because of a challenging WCC slate. Murray State ranks just 258th in strength of schedule because of a weak Ohio Valley Conference.
I’m projecting San Francisco as 1.5-point favorites today in Indianapolis. Take the 2.5 points, as the better and more tried Dons secure the win and advance to the Round of 32.
Pick: San Francisco +2.5 (Play to +2)
Akron vs. UCLA
In the seven tournament games John Groce has coached, he’s 6-1 against the spread. That includes a few big-time upset wins, including an outright win over Georgetown in the 2010 tournament as a 14-point underdog.
This Akron team is primed to keep up with UCLA. Akron plays slow (351st in tempo) while allowing super-long defensive possessions (325th in opponent average possession length). The Zips will grind this game to a halt, and it’ll be hard for UCLA to get past two touchdowns in that type of game.
But UCLA will not argue with that pace. Mick Cronin’s squad is 260th in tempo and 230th in average length of possession. The Bruins don’t care about the spread; they want to grind out a victory.
Akron shoots a decent amount of 3s, and that could decide the outcome of this game. But Akron also has some solid interior offensive weapons in Ali Ali and Enrique Freeman — the Zips were 10th nationally in post-up frequency and top-50 nationally in post-up efficiency, per ShotQuality.
But I particularly love how often Akron gets to the line. The Zips are top-five nationally in free-throw rate, and that’ll give them a consistent source of offense even when things stall in the half-court.
I’ll take the points with Akron in a very low-possession rock fight.