NCAA Tournament Odds & Best Bets: Our Top 5 Picks for Friday’s Early First-Round Games (March 18)

NCAA Tournament Odds & Best Bets: Our Top 5 Picks for Friday’s Early First-Round Games (March 18) article feature image

Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images. Pictured: Charles Bediako.

The madness rolls on Friday, as we have 16 more first-round NCAA Tournament games on the docket.

As we saw yesterday, this is the best time of the year for college basketball fans and bettors, so we're going to take full advantage while we still can.

Our staff broke down their top five bets for three of Friday's early games: Loyola Chicago vs. Ohio State, Jacksonville State vs. Auburn and Notre Dame vs. Alabama.

Check out all five picks below, and be sure to stop back later because we'll have even more best bets for Friday's late games.

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Friday 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 of the matchups below to navigate to a specific bet discussed in this article.

12:15 p.m. ET
Ohio State PK
12:15 p.m. ET
Over 132
12:40 p.m. ET
Auburn -15
12:40 p.m. ET
Over 137.5
4:15 p.m. ET
Alabama -4
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.

(10) Loyola Chicago vs. (7) Ohio State

Friday, March 18
12:15 p.m. ET
Ohio State PK

By D.J. James

Ohio State seems to be underrated coming into a game against Loyola Chicago in the Round of 64 Friday. OSU is one of the best offensive teams in the Big Ten. It’s no joke.

Maybe it won’t be an injured Zed Key, Kyle Young and Meechie Johnson, but E.J. Liddell and Malaki Branham should be able to carry the Buckeyes. They have the 12th-highest adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom, and this should come into play here.

OSU ranks 31st in offensive Open-3 Rate, per Shot Quality, and 24th on defense. Loyola ranks 154th and 93rd, respectively. This should be a significant difference.

Ohio State doesn’t necessarily get its collective points from any specific option on offense, so Branham and company should take advantage. Justin Ahrens is another option on outside shots for the Buckeyes who could become critical in this outing.

OSU’s main issues this season have been on defense, and Loyola does have an edge there, but it’s held opponents to around 46% on 2-pointers at least.

Still, Loyola gets 36.3% of its points on 3s, per KenPom. This is the Buckeyes’ crux. They need to defend the arc, but they should be able to given how this is a very one-sided offense for the Ramblers. If Key, Young or Johnson end up playing, it’s just an added bonus.

Expect Branham and Liddell to hit some outside shots and pull out a close one for the Buckeyes.

Pick: Ohio State PK (Play to -1)

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(10) Loyola Chicago vs. (7) Ohio State

Friday, March 18
12:15 p.m. ET
Over 132

By Doug Ziefel

This number opened a tad too low. The median projection for this game is closer to 135, which gives us quite an edge considering how these two teams truly play.

Yes, their tempos are slow, as Ohio State is 317th and Loyola Chicago is 200th. However, they both are highly efficient with their possessions.

The Buckeyes are 12th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 19th in effective field goal percentage. The Ramblers are not far behind them at 43rd in efficiency and seventh in effective field goal percentage.

It also helps to have two elite scorers when you’re looking for points to be put up, and there’s one on each side.

For Loyola, it’s a familiar face from March Madness of the past: Lucas Williamson. He’s the Ramblers’ leading scorer, averaging 14 points per game, and should find plenty of open looks against the Buckeyes, who are just 78th in effective field goal percentage allowed.

Looking to go stride for stride with Williamson is EJ Liddell. The Buckeyes' big man has taken his game to new heights this season, as he averaged nearly 20 points per game and increased his range by shooting over 37% from behind the arc.

Expect these two names to be said a lot as this game goes over the total.

Pick: Over 132 (Play to 134)

(15) Jacksonville State vs. (2) Auburn

Friday, March 18
12:40 p.m. ET
Auburn -15

By Patrick Strollo

The SEC regular-season champs look to get back on track after losing in upset fashion in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament.

Auburn has a potent offense that led it to the top ranking in the nation earlier this season. The Tigers rank 24th in the nation in AdjO, scoring 112.4 points per 100 possessions.

Freshman forward Jabari Smith earned SEC Freshman of the Year honors after averaging 17.1 points per game. With an undersized but dynamic backcourt, Auburn is capable of getting hot quickly and making plays.

On the other side of the ball, Auburn is even better, ranking ninth nationally in defensive efficiency. The Tigers allow only 89.7 points per 100 possessions.

Big man Walker Kessler has been a force on defense all season, leading the team in rebounds (8.2) and blocks (4.5).

Jacksonville State ranks 283rd in the nation in turnover ratio, giving up the rock on 20% of possessions. An inability to protect the ball will be the undoing of the Gamecocks.

I’m projecting Auburn as 20.18-point favorites in today’s matchup. Look for the Auburn frontcourt of Kessler and Smith to the differentiators in the win and cover.

Pick: Auburn -15 (Play to -15.5)

(15) Jacksonville State vs. (2) Auburn

Friday, March 18
12:40 p.m. ET
Over 137.5

By BJ Cunningham

If you’re looking for a 3-point shooting contest, this is the game for you. Jacksonville State is going to be completely outmatched in the frontcourt against Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler.

So, if the Gamecocks are going to win this game, they’re going to have to hit a boatload of 3s. That hasn’t been a problem for them considering they have the 11th-highest 3-point FG% in the country and take 3s at the 62nd-highest rate.

Jacksonville State’s two guards, the Jalens —Jalen Gibbs and Jalen Finch — are both shooting over 40% from beyond the arc.

Auburn defensively is obviously very hard to score against at the rim with its two big guys, but it’s struggled to defend 3-pointers. The Tigers rank outside the top 100 in 3-point efficiency allowed and they’re 206th in open 3-point rate allowed, per ShotQuality. So, I think Jacksonville State will have plenty of good looks from deep.

The pace of this game is going to likely be really fast if Auburn is in control of it. The Tigers are top-40 in adjusted tempo and love to play in transition. And if this game is played in transition, Jacksonville State is the eighth-most efficient team in the country there, per Synergy.

But again the problem with Jacksonville State is it’s throwing 6-foot-10 and 6-foot-7 defenders at Kessler and Smith, so Auburn should be able to score at will in the paint.

Given the fact Jacksonville State shoots 3a at such an efficient rate and the pace of this game is likely going to be in Auburn’s favor, I love over 137.5 points.

Pick: Over 137.5 (Play to 140)

(11) Notre Dame vs. (6) Alabama

Friday, March 18
4:15 p.m. ET
Alabama -4

By Kyle Remillard

Notre Dame is coming fresh off its double-overtime victory over Rutgers on Wednesday that may have been one of the best play-in games of all time. But that victory may come back to bite it in this matchup with Alabama.

ND could have some tired legs after that 50-minute up-and-down tangle with Rutgers. The Irish will have a quick turnaround to face a well-rested Alabama squad that hasn’t played in over a week. The Crimson Tide play with a blistering pace that ranks 12th in the nation and could run the Irish out of the gym.

Nate Oats’ squad takes nearly half of its shot attempts from downtown. Though the shooting has been inconsistent this year, it should find plenty of clean looks against a mediocre-at-best Notre Dame defense.

Rutgers, a team that ranked outside the top 300 in 3-point attempts, hit 11-of-27 (41%) from deep against the Irish in its play-in game. If the Tide gets hot from downtown this one could turn into a blowout in a hurry.

Alabama secures 14 offensive rebounds per game, the 12th-highest mark in the country. Notre Dame allowed 13 offensive rebounds to Rutgers. Extended possessions could spell trouble.

We saw the tired legs (among many other struggles) doom Indiana in its second NCAA Tournament game yesterday. The luck will run out for the Irish, who will suffer the same fate in this matchup.

Pick: Alabama -4 (Play to -5)

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