The NCAA tournament selection committee has performed the unenviable task of deciding which 68 teams will vie for the National Championship.
Not only were their selections scrutinized, the seedings attained by some of the at-large bids have also come into question.
“Play-in” games begin in Dayton on Tuesday night, and two of the four games played over the next two days may have a serious impact on two first-round games.
This has been a season of parity in college basketball that hasn’t been rivaled in many years. Although there are a few clear-cut favorites to make the Final Four, this is anybody’s tournament, which appears to be ripe for selecting underdogs.
I’ve identified four (possibly five) underdogs that — at the very least — deserve a play taking the points, as well as some “plus” money line wagers splashed in.
I will explain my underdog picks, and suggest how much (percentage-wise) I’d be willing to wager straight-up:
#13 IONA (+7½) vs. #4 IOWA STATE
Thursday 2:00 p.m. ET Midwest Region (TBS)
By all accounts this will be a track meet, as both teams score and give up points in bunches.
The Gaels (22-10) beat would-be Cinderella team Monmouth twice this year, once on the Hawks’ home court and again in the conference tournament.
They also hung in close at Tulsa, losing by nine (90-81), and their only three blowout losses came in the opening two games of the season against Valparaiso and Oregon State; then, later, at Akron. Iona scores 79.6 points per game, and allows 73.7 points per contest, which ranks them 22th in the country.
The Cyclones (21-11) are a top-20 team nationally in scoring offense (81.8 points per game), but also allow on average of 75 points each time they hit the court. Owners of a nine-game win streak to start the season, the Cyclones went 7-5 in their last 12 contests, so they are limping into the tournament.
Number four seeds are not automatic wins in the first round, and with a projected blistering pace, and high scoring affair, taking the 7 ½ points with the Gaels is the play.
Play 75 percent of your wager taking the 7 ½ points and 25 percent of your wager playing Iona on the money line at +325.
#11 WICHITA STATE* (+4½ ESTIMATED) vs. #6 ARIZONA
Thursday 9:20 p.m. ET South Region (TNT)
*Wichita State plays a “First Four” game against Vanderbilt on Tuesday at Dayton.
Wichita State has the makings of one of those teams that may get hot in Dayton on Tuesday and ride that momentum into the Sweet Sixteen. A veteran team led by a now-healthy Fred VanVleet, the Shockers (24-8) have history of making deep runs in the Tournament of late.
No doubt, their big test will be getting by a tough Vanderbilt (19-13) team in one of the better Tuesday games since the inception of the play-in format. Should the Shockers advance against the Commodores, the play on Thursday is more of a play against Arizona (25-8) than it is on Wichita State.
Estimating the line to be somewhere in the 4-5 point range, the Shockers will have value, as they will be facing a Wildcat team reeling from their overtime loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament. That loss dropped the Wildcats to a number six seed, something they were not all happy to receive.
The Shockers won 15 of 17 contests at one point this season and played a solid non-conference schedule. They should be able to hang in with Arizona and, if the game is close late, the noose falls squarely around the necks of the Wildcats, not Wichita State.
Look for the game to be close, coming down to free throws at the end.
Play 70 percent of the wager with Wichita State and the estimated 4 ½ points, and 30 percent on the Shockers at an estimated +145 on the money line.
#10 TEMPLE (+7) vs. #7 IOWA FRIDAY
3:10 p.m. ET South Region (Tru TV)
The Iowa Hawkeyes received an at-large bid, based on their 20-win season and 12-6 record in the solid Big Ten Conference. Iowa (21-10) lost six of their last ten games, including a shocker to Illinois in the conference tournament in which they were favored by double digits over the Illini.
The Hawkeyes are a one-trick pony, with Jarrod Uthoff doing the lion’s share of work and not getting much support. All Temple (21-11) has to do is shut down Uthoff and it is smooth sailing to the next round.
Temple has gone 10-3 since the last day of January and although they too were bounced in their conference tournament, they lost to a surging UConn team, not a team that should be in the NIT, like Illinois.
This looks like one of the matchups that the Tournament Committee got wrong, as the ten-seed Temple looks to be a better team than the lower-seeded Hawkeyes, at least on paper.
Getting seven points in this matchup is a gift and “splashing” some money straight up is also very enticing.
Play 70 percent of the wager on Temple +7 and 30 percent on the money line at +285.
This may be the best bet of the opening-round contests.
#12 SOUTH DAKOTA STATE (+9½) vs. #5 MARYLAND
Friday 4:30 p.m. ET TBS South Region (TBS)
I know. I can hear you: “There’s no way on God’s green earth that South Dakota State is going to beat Maryland.”
You’re probably right.
However… there’s a reason this isn’t a double-digit spread game; there’s a reason there is a money line on this game.
Maryland (25-8) is the quintessential “Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde” team.
They were monsters at home and, then, after winning on Feb. 3 at Nebraska, reeled-off four straight road losses (yes, they were all solid teams).
The Jackrabbits (26-7) win games by being consistent — they create turnovers on the defensive end, while limiting turnovers when they have the ball. Their game plan will be to slow the tempo… and when you have low-scoring games, getting 9 ½ points with a decent team is enviable, to say the least.
I believe this will be a close game.
Yes, Maryland will probably win, but we’re gambling here. Take a small shot at a big payday. In horse racing terms, the South Dakota State Jackrabbits have “value.”
They’ll be out-classed, but not out-hustled. With the game being held in Spokane, Washington, NCAA tournament crowds love nothing more than to root on a “live” underdog.
Play 80 percent of the wager on South Dakota State plus the 9 ½ points and splash 20 percent on the +400 money line (if you can still get it).
#11 MICHIGAN OR TULSA (+5 ESTIMATED) vs. #7 NOTRE DAME
Friday 9:40 p.m. ET East Region (CBS)
Notre Dame is falling apart.
The Fighting Irish (21-11) seemed to have forgotten how to score late in the season, putting up 62 points at Georgia Tech, 56 points at Florida State, 50 points against Miami-Florida and 47 points against North Carolina in the ACC Conference Tournament.
Depending upon which team wins the Wednesday night “First Four” matchup between Michigan (22-12) or Tulsa (20-11), the Irish are looking at a nightmarish first-round matchup.
Whether they play the surging Wolverines, who have become a plucky “shoot well and win, or shoot poorly and lose” team of late or the senior-laden Golden Hurricane, you can rest assured that the Irish are not resting assured.
The Irish have a two-headed problem to solve. Along with not scoring a lot of points of late, their defense has given up 70.6 points per game this year — allowing 78, 79, and 75 respectively in their last three games.
Not scoring and giving up a lot of points usually translates to losses.
I’d rather have Tulsa, with their rotation of nine seniors who log regular minutes than the streaky Wolverines, but be clear: This is a bet against Notre Dame in the first round.
I feel it’s “one and done” for the Irish.
Play 75 percent of the estimated +5 points and 25 percent on an estimated +185 on the money line on Notre Dame’s opponent.