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NCAA Tournament Odds, Best Bets: Our 5 Picks for Friday’s Early Games, Including Saint Mary’s vs. VCU & Marquette vs. Vermont

NCAA Tournament Odds, Best Bets: Our 5 Picks for Friday’s Early Games, Including Saint Mary’s vs. VCU & Marquette vs. Vermont article feature image

Elsa/Getty Images. Pictured: Vermont’s Finn Sullivan.

March Madness rolls on Friday with another 16-game slate that features wall-to-wall college basketball action.

Our college hoops staff is strapping in for the ride once again, coming through with five best bets for four of Friday’s early games: Michigan State vs. USC, Baylor vs. UC Santa Barbara, Saint Mary’s vs. VCU and Marquette vs. Vermont.

Read on for all five of our best bets for Friday’s early NCAA Tournament games below, and be sure to check back throughout the day — and the rest of the weekend — for even more March Madness betting coverage.

Basketball and bets — this is the way of March.

Friday’s Early NCAA Tournament Best Bets

The team logos in the table below represent each of the matchups that our college basketball staff is targeting from Friday’s early NCAA Tournament 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
Michigan State ML -125
1:30 p.m. ET
UC Santa Barbara +11
2 p.m. ET
VCU +4.5
2 p.m. ET
VCU +4.5
2:45 p.m. ET
Vermont +10.5
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.

Michigan State vs. USC

Friday, March 17
12:15 p.m. ET
Michigan State ML -125

By Patrick Strollo

The No. 7 seed Michigan State Spartans and the No. 10 seed USC Trojans will kick off the second day of the Round of 64 in Columbus, Ohio.

Michigan State is a very well-balanced team, currently ranked 31st in the nation by KenPom. The Spartans are equally efficient on offense and defense, ranking 39th and 41st in AdjO and AdjD, respectively.

USC brings a very similar composition to the table, ranking 36th overall in the nation and boasting offensive and defensive efficiency rankings of 43rd and 45th in the nation, respectively.

USC has played excellent 2-point defense this season but has struggled to defend the 3-ball, ranking 134th in the nation in 3-point defense, per BartTorvik.

The area where I am finding the biggest mismatch is Michigan State’s ability to square up from beyond the arc. The Spartans are the fourth-ranked team in the country in 3-point field goal percentage, connecting on 39.5% of attempts this season.

The last time out for the Spartans, they lost to Ohio State after shooting just 3-of-16 (18.8%) from deep. I don’t expect that to be the case again today and will look for the team to bounce back and have a much better showing early this afternoon.

Additionally, the Spartans are one of the most battle-tested teams in the nation after finishing the season with the seventh-toughest schedule in the county.

Lasty, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention MSU head coach Tom Izzo as a differentiator in this game. Izzo is no stranger to the first round, as this will be his 25th consecutive trip to the Big Dance.

Look for Michigan State to get the win with excellent shooting from beyond the arc against USC’s middle-of-the-road 3-point defense.

Pick: Michigan State ML -125 (Play to -135)

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Baylor vs. UCSB

Friday, March 17
1:30 p.m. ET
UC Santa Barbara +11

By BJ Cunningham

This is a dangerous matchup for Baylor here in the first round because of how bad the Bears have been at defending the rim. Baylor is allowing the highest field goal percentage at the rim at a whopping 72.6%, per Hoop-Math. UC Santa Barbara, meanwhile, has the 41st-highest frequency on those shot attempts.

UC Santa Barbara also gets to the free-throw line at a top-75 rate in the country, which is an area that Baylor struggles in defensively, ranking outside the top 80.

Baylor is second in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom, but just 268th in PPP in half-court sets.

On the other side, UC Santa Barbara ranks 30th in the country in PPP allowed in the half-court. Baylor is also a top-25 team in utilizing pick-and-roll frequency, UC Santa Barbara ranks 105th in the country in PPP allowed off the pick-and-roll and top-20 defending off-ball screens.

If you look at Baylor’s final two losses of the season, the common theme between those two games was the Bears being incredibly reliant on 3-pointers. In the two games combined, the Bears only had a total of 18 points at the rim and 19 points from the midrange. They aren’t a high-frequency team finishing at the rim, but they are top 100 in midrange jumpers, so that’s very concerning.

UC Santa Barbara is 23rd in the country in 3-point rate allowed and 105th in Open-3 Rate Allowed, per ShotQuality.

The concern here for UC Santa Barbara is that it hasn’t played a tough schedule. The only team they’ve played inside the KenPom Top 100 is the UC Irvine Anteaters, who the Gauchos split with in the regular season. But this is a team full of transfers from biggers schools: Josh Pierre-Louis transferred from Temple, Andre Kelly transferred from Cal and Miles Norris transferred from Oregon.

They have been without one of their starters in Ajare Sanni for a long time now, which is concerning as they basically play a six-man rotation at the moment (343th in bench minutes). But Baylor is dealing with some injury issues of its own.

Additionally, Langston Love is questionable to play in the NCAA Tournament after missing the Big 12 Tournament with an eye injury, which gives a Baylor team that’s already 186th in bench minute less depth.

So, I like the value on UC Santa Barbara to play Baylor incredibly close, I don’t know if the Gauchos have the depth to get it across the finish line, but they definitely present a ton of matchup problems.

Pick: UC Santa Barbara +11 (Play to +10)

Saint Mary’s vs. VCU

Friday, March 17
2 p.m. ET
VCU +4.5

By Shane McNichol

The Gaels losing the WCC title game to Gonzaga in a rout may have affected Saint Mary’s seed, or at least its position amongst the 5-seeds.

That movement has resulted in the Gaels getting the short-end of the stick in terms of travel. Saint Mary’s is sent across the country to play a game that tips at 11 a.m. on their body clocks.

That’s especially concerning for a team that hasn’t beaten a tournament team away from home since since topping San Diego State on Dec. 10 — its only such win. The Gaels haven’t won a game east of Provo, Utah, yet this year.

Beyond that, VCU is a tough matchup for the Gaels stylistically. The Rams will try to speed up the slow-tempo Gaels, but aren’t afraid to battle in the half-court either, especially defensively.

So much of Saint Mary’s offense is dictated by dribble-drives by Aidan Mahaney and Logan Johnson. VCU is prepared to guard off the bounce and bother the Saint Mary’s guards to keep them from initiating offense.

I have a hard time imagining Saint Mary’s scoring enough to keep pace with VCU — so much so that I gladly took the Rams at this number on the spread but also an alternate spread with the Rams giving five points.

A 12-seed has beaten a 5-seed by at least seven points in each of the last three NCAA Tournaments, and I think that trend continues.

VCU +4.5

By Brett Pund

We didn’t see a 12-seed beat or cover against a 5-seed in the opening round yesterday, but I feel VCU may be the team to back in one of the popular upset spots in the NCAA Tournament.

No matter what advanced metrics you look at, the Rams have been the better team over the last month, including ranking higher in BartTorvik’s overall ratings.

When they’ve played on the road or neutral floors, the Gaels have covered just once contest in their last seven away from home. Meanwhile, VCU has posted a 5-2 record against the spread over this same stretch.

The big question will be whether the Rams will be able to speed up Saint Mary with their pressure defense. If you watched the Gaels in the West Coast Tournament, they really struggled against the press, and I expect VCU to crank up the pressure early and often.

I’ll stick with taking the lower seed on the spread, but I also don’t hate a sprinkle on the moneyline.

Pick: VCU +4.5 (Play to +3.5)

Marquette vs. Vermont

Friday, March 17
2:45 p.m. ET
Vermont +10.5

By D.J. James

The Vermont Catamounts have a 3-point shooting threat that may give some issues to Marquette’s defense on Friday. The Golden Eagles rank 258th in the nation in 3-point defense at 35.2% while yielding a 3-point attempt rate of 37.5%. The Catamounts shoot 3s on 43.3% of attempts, so this plays into their hands.

In addition, the Golden Eagles rank 142nd in catch-and-shoot 3s and 124th in off-the-dribble 3s, per ShotQuality.

Marquette’s best defensive attribute is turning opponents over at a 22.8% rate. That won’t be easy against a Vermont team that turns it over only 14.2% of the time.

Now, Vermont does have a weak defense, ranking 153rd in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, per KenPom. It ranks 83rd in rim defense while Marquette ranks eighth, so this might help the Cats on defense a little bit.

Vermont also ranks 62nd in defensive shot selection. It has the ingredients to mitigate the Golden Eagle attack as long as it can hit some 3s itself.

Lastly, Vermont is not a shabby 2-point team either. Marquette is allowing opponents to shoot over 50% on the interior, and Vermont already ranks 17th in the country by shooting 55.5% inside.

Overall, Marquette is a lethal offensive team, but Vermont definitely has the offensive wherewithal to not turn it over and hit both 2s and 3s. The Cats can keep the game within striking distance.

Pick: Vermont +10.5 (Play to +10)

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