NCAA Tournament Odds, Picks: Thursday Night’s 7 Best Bets, Including Texas A&M vs. Penn State & More
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images. Pictured: Jalen Pickett (Penn State)
The first full day of the NCAA tournament is like Christmas Day for NCAAB fans across the country.
So, after taking a look at the afternoon/early games, our staff is turning their attention to the night slate, including Texas A&M vs. Penn State.
Dive in below to get the top NCAA tournament odds, best bets and picks.
Thursday Night’s 7 NCAA Tournament Best Bets
The team logos in the table below represent each of the matchups that our college basketball staff is targeting from Thursday 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. Iowa
Offense has been a bit of a struggle for Auburn all season long; the team is 48th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, per KenPom.
The problem is it’s one of the highest-frequency transition teams in the country, but it isn’t very efficient in transition, averaging 1.24 PPP, which is 291st in the country.
The entire offense is dependent on Wendell Green Jr. and Johni Broome, who are taking 55% of the team’s shots when they’re on the floor. Green is a very good facilitator and draws a ton of fouls, but the problem is that he’s shooting a very poor 29.5% from 3-point range.
Auburn has been good on the defensive end of the floor — ranking 29th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency — and the Tigers, on paper, are an elite 3-point defense.
Auburn is allowing only 28.3% from 3-point range, which is the third-best mark in the country. However, you have to take that number with a grain of salt.
Out of every single conference in college basketball, the SEC was last in cumulative 3-point field goal percentage, so facing an efficient 3-point shooting team — like Iowa — might be a wake-up call for the Tigers.
Iowa is an outstanding offensive team, ranking third in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, per KenPom.
What the Hawkeyes do a good job of is attacking the rim and taking quality 3-point shots, which are the two most valuable shots on a basketball court.
During Big Ten play, Iowa had the fourth-highest Rim & 3-Point Rate and is averaging 1.07 PPP on those shots. It also spaces the floor incredibly well, which has led to it being a top-10 team in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency.
For Iowa to be successful offensively in this game, the Hawkeyes have to attack Auburn where the Tigers are weakest, which is defending screens. Iowa runs either pick-and-roll or off-ball screens on 19% of its offensive sets, but that number will have to increase on Thursday.
Iowa will also need to be effective in crashing the offensive glass, considering Auburn is an awful defensive rebounding team.
So, I do not think the Hawks should be underdogs even though this game is being played in Birmingham.
Pick: Iowa +1.5 (Play to PK)
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Colgate vs. Texas
The Texas Longhorns enter tonight’s game riding a four-game win streak after defeating Kansas in the Big 12 Championship game, 76-56.
The auto-bid for the Longhorns came in the form of a No. 2 seed, and they will face No. 15 seed Colgate, the Patriot League Tournament champions, in Des Moines, Iowa.
The Texas defense was on full display in the Big 12 Championship, allowing just 54.3 points per game against the likes of Oklahoma State, TCU and Kansas, all of which are ranked in the top 40, per KenPom.
The Longhorns’ conference tournament performance was not an anomaly either, as they finished the season ranked 11th in the nation in KenPom’s AdjD, holding opposing teams to just 92.0 points per 100 possessions.
One of the main reasons Texas became one the most efficient defenses in the nation is by forcing turnovers. It’s tied for seventh in the nation in turnover margin, forcing 4.5 more turnovers per game than it commits.
Texas’ strengths continue on the other side of the ball, which features an equally efficient offense that ranks 18th in the nation.
The Longhorns match up extremely well against a Colgate defense that finished sixth in the Patriot League in scoring defense and ranks just 231st in KenPom’s AdjD (107.6 PPG).
My model is projecting Texas as 15.5 points, and I think this bet offers tremendous value at chalk of just 13. Texas is a dangerous team right now, getting hot at the right time. Colgate has a good scoring offense, but its defense is a liability.
Texas is the superior and more complete team. Back the Longhorns to cruise into the Round of 32.
Pick: Texas -13 (Play to -14)
Boise State vs. Northwestern
By Brett Pund
March Madness is like Christmas for basketball fans, and we’re all very excited for the first two days of the NCAA tournament. So, let’s all get fired up and cheer on a first-half under between Boise State and Northwestern!
In all seriousness, you may want to have this game on your smaller screen, but I do believe there’s great value on this play between two teams that are stronger on the defensive end of the floor.
Starting first with the Wildcats, they rank inside the top 40 in multiple defensive categories, according to Bart Torvik, including AdjD (14th), forcing turnovers (27th) and opponents’ 2-point% (39th). The Broncos’ metrics are very similar in the same categories.
These strong defenses also show up in the first half of games, where both rank in the top 50 in fewest points allowed in the opening period of games on a nightly average.
Meanwhile, neither program is in the top 120 in first-half scoring per game.
What also aids a low total is the fact that both squads play at slower tempos, with Boise coming in at 219th, according to KenPom. Northwestern is even slower at 305th.
The trend numbers from recent tournaments are all out there for first-half unders in the opening rounds of the Big Dance, and I feel this contest fits the bill for a slow, grinding start.
Pick: 1H Under 59.5 (Play to 58.5)
If defensive basketball is your thing, look no further than this matchup between Boise State and Northwestern.
Both of these teams have relied on their abilities on the defensive end for much of their success this season.
Northwestern ranks 14th nationally in defensive efficiency by creating pressure and limiting its opponents on the interior. The Wildcats rank 29th nationally in turnover percentage, forcing a turnover on 21.9% of their opponents possessions.
Much of this pressure is generated by two-way guard Chase Audige, who ranks 26th nationally in steal percentage at 4.3%.
On the other side, Boise State has produced a similar level of defensive prowess, ranking 18th nationally in Adjusted Efficiency. This disciplined defensive unit has derived much of its success by limiting teams on the glass and at the free-throw line.
The Broncos allow their opponents to score just 16.7% of their points from the charity stripe, 260th nationally.
Ultimately, this matchup will come down to which offense can find the most success.
This is where I tend to trust a Boise State team that ranks inside the top 100 in Adjusted Efficiency, effective field goal percentage and 3-point percentage.
This balanced offensive attack is highlighted by the Broncos converting 65.78% of their near-proximity field goal attempts, the 19th-highest rate in college basketball.
This same level of consistency is lacking for Northwestern on the offensive end. The Wildcats rank outside the top 280 nationally in effective field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and 2-point percentage.
This up-and-down offensive play has forced Northwestern to be heavily reliant on its outside shooting in order to find success.
The Wildcats attempted the most 3s in the Big Ten, with 40.2% of their total shot attempts coming from deep. This is not a recipe for success against a Boise State defense allowing teams to shoot just 31% from beyond the arc, the 30th-lowest rate in college basketball.
Overall, I have more faith in the Boise State offense to string together successful offensive possessions in a game that will be highlighted by defensive play.
Pick: Boise State +1.5 (Play to +1)
Louisiana vs. Tennessee
Louisiana’s offense is predicated on post-creation from big man Jordan Brown. Brown is a great interior scorer, and his offensive rebounding prowess is even better.
Behind Brown’s 19.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, Louisiana led the Sun Belt in offensive efficiency. The Cajuns rode that offense to a Sun Belt title, finishing the run by scoring 1.029 PPP in the title game against South Alabama.
Unfortunately, it’ll be tough for Louisiana to establish its offense against Tennessee’s stout interior defense. The Vols finished second in the SEC in 2-point shooting and block rate, rotating Jonas Aidoo and Uros Plavsic’s rim protection.
The better way to beat Tennessee is by forcing the negative regression the Vols are owed on the perimeter. Sadly, I don’t think Louisiana’s backcourt is built to do that.
I have my worries about Tennessee’s offense, especially moving forward in the tournament. But while it won’t score at will, Tennessee’s defense should hold Louisiana’s head under water on the way to a relatively easy Vols double-digit victory.
Give me Tennessee at -11 or better.
Pick: Tennessee -10.5 (Play to -11)
Penn State vs. Texas A&M
By D.J. James
Penn State is one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country, and it has a favorable Round of 64 matchup for that reason alone.
The Texas A&M Aggies have a great defense, but they’ve had trouble guarding the perimeter all season. Opponents are shooting 32.3% on the Aggies, which may not seem good, but they yield a 45.9% 3-point attempt rate, which is abysmal in a game with the Nittany Lions.
Penn State owns the ninth-best 3-point rate in the country at 38.5%. It also shoots 3s 47.4% of the time while only turning the ball over 13.7% on offense.
The Aggies’ defense prospers when it can get out in transition after turning opponents over with its 21% turnover rate. Penn State will not allow that and should move the ball around enough to take advantage of the porous 3-point defense Texas A&M puts forth.
The Aggies rank 221st in the nation in defending catch-and-shoot triples, per ShotQuality. They also rank 134th in the country in Open-3 Rate on defense.
Penn State ranks second in the country in spacing, while the Aggies rank 351st on defense. The quick passing for the Nittany Lions should leave the Aggies in the dust.
Finally, Penn State ranks 16th in Rim-and-3 Rate, per ShotQuality, so it will not allow easy buckets for Texas A&M.
Take the Nittany Lions on the spread. They could win the game outright, as they have strengths in the areas the Aggies’ defense does not.
Pick: Penn State +3 (Play to +1.5)
I really like this matchup for the Nittany Lions.
Let’s start with when Penn State is on offense. Texas A&M plays a very aggressive defense, characterized by over-helping and going under screens. In doing so, the Aggies generated a top-50 turnover rate on the season, but also gave up the 12th-highest 3-point attempt rate in the entire country.
Fortunately for head coach Buzz Williams, that doesn’t usually come back to bite him in the SEC, where nobody can shoot. In fact, teams in the SEC had the lowest 3P% in league play of any conference in the entire country.
Well, that’s not the case with Penn State, which ranks in the top-10 nationally in both 3-point attempt rate and percentage.
For the season, the Aggies allowed the 24th-highest frequency of unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers, yet still ranked 82nd in 3P% allowed as a result of the paltry shooting across the SEC.
Conversely, the Nittany Lions rank in the 98th percentile in jump-shot efficiency, per Synergy.
Now, when Texas A&M is on offense, the Aggies primarily score in three different ways:
- Offensive Rebounding ( nationally)
- Off Turnovers (42nd-highest forced turnover percentage)
- Getting to the free-throw line (3rd-highest FT rate in country)
That might prove difficult against a Penn State team that does yeoman’s work on the defensive glass (43rd nationally) despite its lack of size.
The Nittany Lions also take care of the ball — with the seventh-lowest turnover rate in the land — and they rarely foul (38th).
In what should be a very competitive game between two extremely well-coached clubs, I happily took the points with the most experienced roster in the country that will have quite a few matchup advantages.
Let’s just hope the open 3s are going down.
Pick: Penn State +3
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