NCAA Tournament Odds & Picks: Stuckey’s 3 Favorite Underdogs To Bet Right Away
Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images. Pictured: Jason Preston.
It's the most wonderful time of the year. Yes, we have to wait an extra day for action to kick off, but who cares after what we went through last March? (Just don't make me wait two extra days.)
I do value the extra day to get in even more work done on these first-round matchups, which I will fully immerse myself in.
There were also a few games I did bet on right when the lines came out, either because I thought there was way too much value and that I wouldn't get a better line later in the week, and/or I really liked the matchup.
Here are my favorite three — one for each of the first three nights of the tournament, including the play-in games on Thursday.
For what it's worth, UCSB and Winthrop just missed the cut, but I do like both.
Note: All photos are via Getty Images.
Drake +2 vs. Wichita State
It's an old Missouri Valley Conference matchup!
If you follow me on Twitter, you know I'm not a huge fan of this Wichita State team.
In my final pre-tourney power ratings, Wichita State was by far the lowest-rated team to secure an at-large bid at No. 88. Ironically, the biggest snub was its conference foe, Memphis (No. 33), which won its only regular-season meeting against the Shockers by 20.
I think most are giving Wichita State way too much credit for its win over Houston. Don't get me wrong, that's a spectacular win that likely got the Shockers into the tourney (along with no real bad losses).
However, the rest of the resume is incredibly questionable. This is the same team that lost to Cincinnati in what could've been an elimination game even after Cincy lost its best player in the first half.
Wichita State simply benefited from extreme luck in close games all season. Prior to that Cincinnati loss in the AAC Tournament, it had an absurd 10-1 record in games decided by six points or less. That includes a perfect 2-0 record in overtime against two non-tourney teams in South Florida and Central Florida.
The Shockers don't turn the ball over and battle on the offensive glass, but they're an extremely inefficient shooting team, ranking outside the top 300 in 2-point percentage. They are fairly reliant on the 3-point jump shot (75th in 3P rate), but Tyson Etienne is really the only trustworthy bomber of the main rotation players.
Wichita State ranks outside the top 200 in field goal percentage at the rim, while Drake's offense ranks inside the top 30, per Hoop-Math. Drake's defense has also been more effective in that department.
Sure, there's a chance both Dexter Dennis and Alterique Gilbert go off from distance, but they are extremely inconsistent in that regard. Plus, Drake has an excellent perimeter defense.
Drake certainly came back down to earth after an incredible start to the season, partly as a result of losing two key starters to injury in point guard Roman Penn and forward ShanQuan Hemphill.
The Bulldogs actually haven't missed Penn as much as I originally thought since Joseph Yesufu has been an absolute rocket ship at the point.
He will likely play every minute and is fully capable of putting up 30+ points. Drake's pick-and-roll offense has also been more efficient with Yesufu running the show.
Now, it still misses Hemphill's ability to create his own offense and work on the glass, but I actually think he will return from a foot injury for this game. I could be wrong and it's hard to know how effective he will be, but I'm expecting him to contribute.
Re-listening to Darian DeVries' press conference. He said "everything's still on course" for ShanQuan Hemphill to play Thursday.
— Matthew Bain (@MatthewBain_) March 14, 2021
Ultimately, this was a numbers play for me since I make Drake the favorite here even after weighing the chances of Hemphill's return.
It also doesn't hurt that I believe Drake has a substantial coaching advantage here, which matters much more to me in a tournament setting with two teams that aren't familiar with each other.
Hopefully, the Shockers can find a way to win another one-point game and we can potentially fade them again on Saturday.
Liberty +9.5 vs. Oklahoma State
Led by the potential No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft in Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State is a bona fide Final Four threat.
The Pokes also just aren't a one-man show with an extremely underrated supporting cast. However, they must first avoid an upset in the first round against a tricky opponent. I think Liberty's scheme and style can give Okie State fits.
Who is Liberty? Well, the Flames are an obscenely efficient offense that plays at one of the slowest paces in college basketball.
It's either a very good look at the rim off of a cut or a shot from deep. They simply do not take inefficient 2-point jump shots. In fact, only Alabama and UC San Diego took a fewer percentage of 2-point jump shots this season. And they are almost automatic from the free-throw line, which you have to love when betting on a team.
Liberty is extremely reliant on the 3, shooting it at the 15th-highest rate in the country. That's especially lethal when a team shoots 38.8% from beyond the arc (10th in D-I).
The name "Flames" is fitting for the group of flamethrowers on this roster. Seven players in the rotation shoot at least 36% from deep with five of those seven at over 40%.
On the other side of the ball, head coach Ritchie McKay is known for his compact pack-line defense. It forces teams to beat the Flames over the top. And despite their lack of size, it also allows them to control the defensive boards (14th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage) and defend at the rim (30th in field goal percentage at rim).
Liberty won't expose some of Oklahoma State's turnover issues, but its defensive scheme could still pose a few problems for Oklahoma State.
First, the Cowboys aren't a great 3-point shooting team and their offense is not built around taking perimeter shots (295th in 3-point percentage). They are extremely reliant on getting to the rim. Only Stephen F. Austin and Buffalo take a higher percentage of shots at the rim than Oklahoma State. Liberty will make getting to the rim and living on the offensive glass — where Oklahoma State does plenty of damage — very difficult.
Additionally, Oklahoma State loves to get out in transition where its elite athleticism shines. It ranks 17th on the season in transition rate, per Synergy. But Liberty, which doesn't crash the offensive glass, doesn't allow teams to get out in transition.
For the season, the Flames have allowed the 17th-lowest transition rate in the land. Now, when the Cowboys can get out and run (they want to play fast), they will have the advantage, but they just won't get as many opportunities as they would like for a team
Also, one of the things I love about this Oklahoma State team is how much it can switch its defenses up. Head coach Mike Boynton will throw out a press and different zone looks to confuse opponents. However, zoning or pressing Liberty is not a good idea.
Cunningham probably takes over late and gets Oklahoma State the win, but I think Liberty will battle here as long as the shots are falling.
And if it goes nuclear from 3 (which it's capable of), it could pull off this upset. And if the Flames have a completely off-shooting night, they probably won't cover. But that's rare for Liberty.
Ohio +10 vs. Virginia
This is probably my favorite game of the first round, especially when it opened up at +10. I still really like it at the current price of +8, which is why I wanted to mention it here.
Led by future pro guard Jason Preston, the Ohio Bobcats are peaking at the right time after having shredded three higher seeds in the MAC Tournament. They did benefit from some opponent shooting luck during that stretch, but that's why they were up 20 in almost every game — not the reason they won.
The Ohio offense is a corvette, ranking 13th in effective field goal percentage and 29th in adjusted efficiency, per KenPom. It shares the ball extremely well and is deadly in the half-court or transition and against man or zone. This offense can shred.
In contrast, the defense has holes and some troubling overall metrics, but it seemed as if the Bobcats finally committed on that end at the start of postseason play. Plus, while Jay Huff could be a matchup problem (he is against most teams), Virginia's offense isn't the worst matchup overall for Ohio.
This is an Ohio team that also had to deal with COVID-19 issues during the regular season. Combine that with some improvements on defense of late, and I think the market is undervaluing it.
From a matchup perspective, I love what Ohio can potentially do against the Virginia pack-line. The Bobcats have many capable shooters (including Preston at over 40%) and have the guards that can break down the Virginia defense. I'm not really sure what Tony Bennett will do with Kihei Clark here.
It's also just not the same elite Virginia defense we have become accustomed to seeing in Charlottesville. After finishing in the top seven in adjusted efficiency for seven straight years, Virginia ranks 33rd this year. That's still very good, but the perimeter isn't as sound by any metric.
And the Cavaliers' transition defense has been absolutely horrid, ranking in the first percentile, per Synergy. Now, teams barely ever get transition opportunities against a Virginia team that doesn't crash the offensive glass, but Ohio's deadly transition offense will thrive when it can get out and run.
Ohio also doesn't rely on post offense or offensive rebounds, which Virginia's defense can completely neutralize.
It's just a great matchup for Ohio all around.
We just have to hope the shots are falling. And I'm not too worried about that for a team that arrives in Indianapolis with an abundance of momentum and confidence.
Lastly, I didn't even mention Virginia is currently dealing with COVID-19 issues that forced it to pull out of the ACC Tournament. The Cavaliers have had their preparation completely interrupted and will reportedly be without at least one player. We don't know who that is yet, but it could certainly be someone impactful.
Tony Bennett says they have to present two negative tests 12 hours apart before their game in Indy. "It could be a situation where we practice here and you just show up at the game and play. That stuff I don't know all the details yet. It's unique prep, but we've got the chance."
— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) March 15, 2021
I wouldn't be shocked if we see the defending champs go down in the first round.