Stuckey: The 3 NCAA Tournament Underdogs I Bet Right Away

Stuckey: The 3 NCAA Tournament Underdogs I Bet Right Away article feature image
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Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: UC Irvine guard Max Hazzard

  • 2019 NCAA Tournament spreads are out for every first-round matchup, and a few have caught Stuckey's eye.
  • He already bet Northeastern to cover versus Kansas and two other games.

CHRISTMAS MORNING IS JUST DAYS AWAY.

As with every year, I will spend countless hours going through the first round matchups over the next few days. However, a few matchups always jump out right away, usually involving teams I had circled to target as potential sleepers for various reasons.

Well, three underdogs in particular screamed at me right off the bat, including two No. 13 seeds that I will be advancing in the first round in my bracket. Let’s take a look at the trio and why I like each.

#13 Northeastern +8.5 vs. #4 Kansas

Thursday, 4 p.m ET on TNT | Salt Lake City, Utah

Northeastern runs one of the most beautiful and efficient offenses you will watch. The Huskies score an elite 1.028 points per possession, which is among the five-best marks of the entire NCAA tournament field.

Senior star point guard Vasa Pusica is the straw that stirs the drink for an offense that ranks fifth in the country in Effective FG%. Pusica missed some time earlier this season, but the offense has been humming since his return.

The Huskies have capable shooters all over. Northeastern takes a ton of 3s and makes a ton of 3s since it generally gets great looks as a result of splendid ball movement. A top-25 ranking in both 3-point attempt rate and 3-point shooting percentage is all you need to know about the Huskies’ capability from the behind the arc.

Bill Coen’s squad comes in with a ton of confidence, having won 12 of 13 and the CAA conference title to close out the year. (The only loss came in overtime on the road at Charleston.)

This is an experienced Northeastern team that can easily pull off this upset. The Jayhawks are vulnerable and have done nothing noteworthy away from home all year. Dedric Lawson should have a monster game for Kansas but I think this one comes down to the wire in Salt Lake City. I’d play this down to +7

#11 St Mary’s +6 vs. #6 Villanova 

Thursday, 7:20 p.m. ET on TBS | Hartford, CT

Part of me is shocked by how high this line is, but then again — I’ve been so much lower on this Villanova team than the market for the past weeks.

When you handicap a Villanova game this season, the first thing that will pop out is how many 3-pointers the Wildcats are shooting. They have at the nation’s fourth-highest 3-point attempt rate at 53.5% and are only one of five teams in the country to shoot more 3s than 2s — and the only team in the field that did so this season.

Now, you would be correct to point out that the defending national champions have always been a 3-point-reliant team under Jay Wright. However, their frequency jumped significantly last year.

This is problematic against the Gaels, who have an excellent perimeter defense that just doesn’t allow a ton of 3-point attempts — and they defend them well when they do

The Gaels’ defense has one of the lowest 3-point-attempt rates (3PA/FGA) in the country at 31.4%. Only Michigan allowed a lower percentage of the 2019 NCAA tournament field. Opposing teams only shot 31.8% on those 3s, which ranks in the top 50 in D-1. And this isn’t a fluke as head coach Randy Bennett’s defenses have excelled in this department over the years.

Also noteworthy: These are two teams are absolute snails. Villanova ranks 333rd nationally in Adjusted Tempo, while St. Mary’s is as deliberate of a team as you will find (which was fully evident in its upset over Gonzaga in the WCC final) — as the Gaels rank 347th out of 353 teams in that same metric.

Possessions will be at a premium, which makes this inflated number even more valuable.

The Gaels have a really good chance of upsetting Villanova just as they did back in 2010 as a No. 10 seed in the second round as four-point underdogs in a game I also bet. I actually make this line -3, while KenPom is even further away at Villanova -1.

I’d play this all the way down to St. Mary’s +4.5. #fadenova

#13 UC Irvine +5.5 vs. #4 Kansas State

Friday, 2 p.m. ET on TBS | San Jose, CA

I swear I have nothing against the Sunflower State; Northeastern and Irvine were two of my favorite pre-bracket potential sleepers. Both just happened to get matched up with undermanned and over-seeded Big 12 teams from Kansas.

Just like if the Jayhawks had Udoka Azubuike, the Wildcats would be a legit national title contender with a healthy Dean Wade, who appears to be out for the NCAA tournament. Without him, I don’t see another deep run for the Wildcats this season, which disappoints me as someone who grabbed a future midseason.

Without Wade, this is just a nightmare matchup for Kansas State.

What does UC Irvine do really well? Defends, particularly in the half court, where the Anteaters rank in the 97th percentile in Points Per Possession, per Synergy. And this will certainly be a half-court game between two dominant defensive snails.

They defend especially well in the interior as Russell Turner squads usually do with his emphasis on size. In fact, the Anteaters rank No. 1 in the nation in 2-point defense. They give up nothing at the rim and force you to beat them with contested jumpers

Well, Kansas State doesn’t have a plethora of shooters, especially without Wade— who is not only the Wildcats’ best 3-point shooter percentage-wise, but the attention he gets and his passing skills free up so many open looks for a Wildcat offense that runs through him when healthy.

This will be an absolute rock fight, which makes the 5.5 even more enticing. Don’t sleep on this very experienced and deep Irvine squad that picked up road wins against Texas A&M and St. Mary’s in its non-conference schedule. Playing in California won’t hurt, either.

I’d play this down to +4.5.


Editor’s note: The opinions on these games are from the individual writer and are based on his research, analysis and perspective. They are independent of, and may not always match with, the algorithm-driven Best Bets from Sports Insights.

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