6 bets that look smart heading into the first weekend of March Madness

  • March Madness is one of the most popular sports betting events of the year.

  • Even if you’ve already filled out your bracket, there’s still plenty of tournament action to get in on.

  • Take a look below at our six best bets for the first round of the tournament.

There are few days on the gambling calendar better than the opening rounds of March Madness.

With wall-to-wall games from noon until midnight, there’s no shortage of action to bet on. The American Gaming Association, in a recent report, predicted that this year’s March Madness will yield $3.1 billion in bets, both legal and illegal.

So in case you’re in need of something else to cheer for aside from your bracket — which, let’s face it, will almost certainly get busted — let’s run through some of our favorite bets heading into the first round of the tournament.

No. 16 Georgia State (+23.5) over No. 1 Gonzaga

First and foremost, let me state for the record that I do not believe Georgia State has it in them to pull off the second 16-1 upset in the history of the men’s tournament. However, with a spread of 23.5, the Panthers only need to put up an admirable fight to keep pace with Gonzaga in this first round matchup.

Gonzaga is a scary foe to bet against. In their past two tournaments as a 1-seed, the Bulldogs have beaten their first-round opponents by 43- and 38-point margins. This year’s team can also put up a lot of points, having cleared 100 five times.

That said, Gonzaga hasn’t scored more than 90 points since the first week of February, and Georgia State can score plenty too, averaging 72.6 points per game over their last five outings heading into the tournament. Given the large spread here, it feels like the Panthers might have a shot to keep things close.

Additionally, it appears that sharp bettors are backing Georgia State and the points. According to the Action Network, just 26% of the bets on this game are coming in on Georgia State, but that 26% accounts for 78% of the money wagered so far. That means the big bets — the ones you want to be tailing — are coming in on the underdog.

While it might not feel great, given all the money coming in on Georgia State, this might be a bet worth closing your eyes and hoping on.

No. 4 Providence (-2) over No. 13 South Dakota State

Providence's A.J. Reeves reacts after a play against Butler.

Providence’s A.J. Reeves reacts after a play against Butler.AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

Out of the entire first weekend of the tournament, this is one of the toughest games to book. South Dakota State is heading into this matchup as one of the most popular first-round upset picks. Who doesn’t love sneaking a 13-seed into the Sweet 16 to liven up their bracket a bit?

But it feels like the hype around the Jackrabbits has gotten so loud that we are due for an inevitable letdown. Providence has only lost five times all season, and two of those losses were close ones to a strong Villanova team. The Friars have wins over a slew of tournament teams, including Marquette, UConn, Creighton, and Seton Hall.

And as just 2-point favorites over a 13-seed in their opening match of the tournament, Providence has plenty of bulletin board material heading into this game. While sometimes it’s wise to follow the wisdom of the crowd, in gambling, there are other times where it’s best to zig where others zag.

Given all the support that’s come around South Dakota State early in the week, there are other 13-seeds I’d rather put my money on, ones that haven’t gotten the same amount of attention.

No. 6 Colorado State (+2) over No. 11 Michigan

Michigan’s play heading into the tournament has been quite shaky, with the Wolverines losing five of their final nine games. That run includes a somewhat embarrassing loss to the Indiana Hoosiers in their first game of the Big Ten tournament.

Despite Michigan’s recent stumbles, and despite being the higher seed in this spot, the Rams are underdogs.

While seeding isn’t everything, Colorado State worked to earn the six next to its name. The Rams lost just five times all year and hold wins over tournament talents, including Boise State, Saint Mary’s, and San Diego State.

It should be a tightly contested game, but given the track record of both teams, and the late-breaking news that the Wolverines will be down starting point guard DeVante’ Jones due to a concussion, I give the slight edge to the Rams in this one.

No. 3 Purdue (-15.5) over No. 14 Yale

The Ivy League has not recorded a win at the men’s NCAA tournament since 2016.

Purdue center Zach Edey is 7-foot-4 and one of the most fascinating players in the tournament.

Purdue's Zach Edey backs down Wisconsin's Steven Crowl.

Purdue’s Zach Edey backs down Wisconsin’s Steven Crowl.AP Photo/Andy Manis

Yale forward Isaiah Kelly is the tallest player on the team that plays at least 20 minutes per game. He’s 6-foot-7.

I’m betting on height.

No. 2 Auburn (-15.5) over No. 15 Jacksonville State

Jacksonville State should not be in the tournament. This is not a dig at the school, but rather a fact.

The only way a team was making the tournament out of the ASUN Conference this year was to win the conference tournament. The team that did that was Bellarmine, but they were robbed of their rightful spot in March Madness thanks to an archaic rule that says teams that have recently jumped from Division II to Division I have to wait four years before being eligible for the tournament.

As the regular season champions of the ASUN Conference, Jacksonville State is going in Bellarmine’s place.

While it’s not Jacksonville State’s fault they wound up in the tournament, as a believer in karmic retribution, I have no choice but to back Auburn in this spot.

No. 13 Chattanooga (+7) over No. 4 Illinois

13-4 upsets have had a pretty good track record in recent years, with 13-seeds going a solid 5-8 over their higher-seeded first-round opponents over the past three tournaments.

While I’ve already backed Providence as a potential winner, the upset I’m looking at in the 13-4 spot this year is Chattanooga against Illinois. The Mocs made it into the tournament on an unreal buzzer-beater against Furman in the SoCon championship.

With a win like that, it’s impossible not to believe a little.

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