NCAA Tournament Odds, Best Bets: Our Top Picks for Saturday Evening’s Slate, Including Maryland vs. Alabama & More (March 18)
Photo by Andy Hancock/NCAA Photos via Getty Images. Pictured: Julian Reese (Maryland)
After hitting on the early Saturday second-round games, our staff is ready for the night slate.
So, dive in and get the top NCAA tournament odds, best bets and picks for Saturday night's slate.
Saturday Night's 5 NCAA Tournament Best Bets
The team logos in the table below represent each of the matchups that our college basketball staff is targeting from Saturday night'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.|
Auburn vs. Houston
By Brett Pund
For starters, the Cougars are not coming into this game with a clean bill of health.
The 2023 American Athletic Conference Player of the Year Marcus Sasser had to exit the contest against Northern Kentucky due to injury, and I don’t expect him to be 100% for this one.
If you look at the last two games that were primarily without Sasser, coach Kelvin Sampson’s team really struggled to put away the Norse and were dominated by Memphis in the conference title game.
Meanwhile, the AAC Defensive Player of the Year and primary ball-handler Jamal Shead is also banged up.
The duo combines for 27.1 points and 8.4 assists per game, and Houston needs both to be at the top of their games.
Another important piece to this is where the game is being played, which is in Birmingham, Alabama. Between Alabama fans cheering against a top seed or Tigers fans taking over the Legacy Arena, this is going to feel like a home game for coach Bruce Pearl’s squad.
I like Auburn to keep this within the number and possibly spring an outright upset.
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It’s hard to believe that every game Houston plays in the NCAA tournament will be a rock fight, but given the way the Cougars have played down the stretch, that scenario is on the table.
Maybe given Auburn’s performance on Thursday, people expect the Tigers to score again Saturday, though that would be ill-advised. Auburn’s first-round game came against an Iowa team that can’t stop a nosebleed, ranking 168th in defense nationally and second-worst in the Big Ten.
The Tigers don’t have a lot of answers on the offensive end and don’t play at Pearl’s typical pace, ranking more in the middle of the road in terms of tempo.
Against slower, grinding teams, Auburn has struggled to score. Tennessee, Kentucky and Northwestern all held the Tigers under 55 points this season. Those Tennessee and Northwestern games were slogs that failed to hit 90 (!) total points.
That’s in Houston’s wheelhouse. The Cougars’ last five games averaged 122 total points, with three of Houston opponents in that span failing to top 52 points.
Add in both Houston guards nursing injuries, and it’s hard to see Kelvin Sampson letting this game hit 65 possessions or even 125 points.
Houston wants to slowly smother Auburn in front of a home crowd in Birmingham.
Penn State vs. Texas
Penn State shot the lights out from distance against Texas A&M, going 13-for-22.
That's been Penn State's calling card, as the Nittany Lions have the 10th-highest 3-point rate. The Nittany Lions are hitting 39% of their 3-point shots, which makes them one of the most dangerous jump-shooting teams in the nation.
On defense, Penn State's most impressive feat is how well it prevents teams from getting to the rim. The Nittany Lions only allow 25% of their opponents' field goals at the rim, which is the best mark in the country.
That's resulted in a lot of teams settling for mid-range jumpers, which they've been decent at defending (36% FG). Texas is one of the highest frequency mid-range teams, so Penn State should be able to defend the Longhorns.
Texas put up a great offensive performance in the first round, largely due to Sir'Jabari Rice, who caught fire to help lead Texas to a 13-for-23 night from long range.
Normally, Texas' shot distribution is heavily oriented towards shots at the rim and in the mid-range. That’s where Texas has attempted 60% of its shots.
Texas' defense does two things really well. The Longhorns turn opponents over at a top-20 rate and defend the rim at an incredibly high level, allowing 1.11 PPP, which is 17th.
The problem? That isn't going to matter in this game because Penn State hardly turns the ball over and only 25% of its shots are at the rim, which is the second-lowest frequency.
Texas has been above-average at defending the 3, but has struggled defending catch-and-shoot 3-pointers (210th in PPP allowed). Penn State takes the fifth-most catch-and-shoot 3s, per ShotQuality.
So, I like the value on Penn State to remain red hot shooting the ball.
Northwestern vs. UCLA
UCLA enters today’s game after buzz sawing UNC Asheville in the opening round, 86-53, easily covering the 17.5 spread along the way.
The Bruins should be fresh for tonight’s game, getting a much needed breather after a tough three-game stretch in the Pac-12 Tournament that culminated with a nail-biting loss in the championship game.
After getting bumped from the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament, Northwestern drew Boise State and was able to advance past the Broncos from the NCAA tournament-cursed Mountain West.
When I was breaking down this game, three stat lines jumped out that are driving my model advantage for UCLA.
First, Northwestern is the third-least efficient team left in the tournament. The Wildcats rank 98th in KenPom’s AdjO, with an average of 109.6 points per 100 possessions. This is going to be a problem for Northwestern as it faces a UCLA defense that is the second-most efficient in the country.
Secondly, and a first derivative of offensive efficiency, Northwestern does not shoot the ball well. It has an effective field goal percentage of just 47.4%, which puts it at 313rd in the country. The Wildcats are hurt in this metric by their inability to shoot the deep ball.
Lastly, UCLA has been a force on the offensive glass this year. It ranks 24th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, pulling down 34% of second chances.
The UCLA frontcourt offensive rebounding effort has a favorable matchup against a Northwestern frontcourt that ranks 158th in defensive rebound percentage.
Look for second chances to be a big differentiator today.
There are a couple of anecdotes worth pointing out that increase my lean to the Bruins. UCLA is one of only six teams in the country to amass 30 wins. Clearly this is an excellent team that has been able to do work all season with great consistency.
UCLA is 48-4 all-time in NCAA tournament games played on the West Coast and 30-1 in tournament games played in the state of California. Sacramento isn’t right down the road from Los Angeles, but tonight’s location should still be a material advantage for the Bruins.
My model is projecting UCLA as 10.5-point favorites, and I think this offers exceptional value to available markets. Back the Bruins in the Golden State.
Maryland vs. Alabama
This game may be in Birmingham, but I give the Terps a real shot of hanging tough for a full 40 minutes.
It sounds like Brandon Miller will be a go and will not have a minutes restriction, but he is said to be only about 80% entering this one.
Just having Miller on the floor is big for the Tide given how dynamic of a player he is, but if he does reaggravate his groin, that is a huge part of Alabama’s offense off the floor.
Meanwhile, after a slow start in the first 10 minutes against West Virginia, Maryland looked the part of a top-20 team the rest of the way.
The Terrapins are just about as balanced as any in the country, ranking 30th and 32nd, respectively, in KenPom’s AdjO and AdjD efficiency rankings.
A key reason why I believe Maryland can keep this game inside two possessions is its versatility and length, which will help it hold its own on the glass against Alabama.
Whether it be Donta Scott, Julian Reese or Hakim Hart, all three have the ability to contest shots at the rim and rebound the basketball.
Lastly, to hang tough with a No. 1 seed in this type of a game, you need an elite guard who can take over for stretches.
Kevin Willard has that in Jahmir Young. If Young can find his shot early, he has the ability to control this game and allow Maryland to hang around.
I don’t know if the Terps will have enough firepower to pull off the outright upset, but they can absolutely hang inside the number here.
Give me Maryland +8.5.