When the men’s NCAA tournament bracket was revealed Sunday, it appeared the committee had most of the top first-round matchups on Friday’s slate.
It probably wasn’t intended, but it’s shaping up to be a great Friday of wall-to-wall college basketball as the field shrinks to 32 teams before the weekend.
Here are picks for all 16 games from Friday’s first round, with all point spreads from BetMGM:
Michigan State (-1.5) over USC
Travel is an underrated factor in selecting NCAA tournament games. The situation couldn’t be much worse for USC. First, they had to travel to Columbus, Ohio, which is not far from Michigan State (the Spartans are also familiar with Columbus). And then USC stuck with the earliest tip time: 9:15 a.m. on the West Coast. Michigan State is usually good in the tournament — Tom Izzo is one of the coaches you have to trust against the spread — and the situational advantages give the Spartans a nice advantage.
Kennesaw State (+12.5) over Xavier
Xavier plays at a fast pace and hits a lot of shots and I can’t rule out a big shot here. But Kennesaw has had a very good season and is good enough behind the 3-point line to be in play for a comeback if they fall far behind.
UC Santa Barbara (+10.5) over Baylor
Baylor will be happy to face a team that isn’t from the Big 12. Baylor, with its strong backfield, looked like it was on a high, then went 2-4 down the stretch. The Bears defense is bad and will keep them from a deep run in the tournament. I don’t think UCSB wins, but they are good enough offensively to cover against a defense that will put up points.
St. Mary’s (-4.5) over VCU
This will be a popular pick at 12-5 due to the Gaels’ poor showing against Gonzaga in the WCC tournament. Maybe they just have a problem with Gonzaga; the Gaels were 20-2 against everyone else after a respectable five-point loss at Houston on Dec. 3. The two non-Gonzaga losses in that stretch were a two-point loss to Colorado State and a four-point overtime loss to Loyola Marymount. VCU is a good defensive team, but so is Saint Mary’s (underdogs could hit, even at a lowly 122.5 total) and the Gaels have been the better team this season.
Marquette (-10.5) over Vermont
Marquette had a very good season. The Golden Eagles had just six losses. Five were on tournament teams and the sixth was on Wisconsin, which was on a bubble. They only lost once by more than five points. Two of the losses came in overtime. They are on a nine-game winning streak, including a Big East tournament title. Vermont is a fantastic America East program, but I can see them being overwhelmed here. Marquette is really good and can go a long way.
Pitt (+4.5) over Iowa State
Since Jan. 14, Iowa State is 6-11. They got to 2-5 down the stretch with two wins over Baylor (is Baylor actually a lot worse than we realize?). It’s hard to believe the Cyclones when they haven’t played well in two months. Pitt hasn’t looked great down the stretch either, but maybe Tuesday’s First Four win gives the Panthers some momentum.
Creighton (-5.5) over NC State
Creighton was overrated last offseason after a good tournament run. Now, as the No. 6 seed after an average regular season, the Bluejays might be a little underrated. They have all the ingredients you need to deep cook. NC State has some excellent guards, but I think Creighton is on a different level than the Wolfpack.
Iona (+9.5) over UConn
I was ready to take Iona to win a game in the tournament, but UConn was a rough draw. UConn is a popular Final Four pick due to their great numbers and excellent early season play. I’ll take Iona as a cover, but not as confidently as I would against almost every other team in this seed.
Purdue (-23.5) over Fairleigh Dickinson
I didn’t pick Purdue to reach the Final Four, but any team with a 7-foot-4 national player of the year shouldn’t have much trouble in the first round. Zach Eddy is a fantastic college player. I understand the FDU coach wants to keep his team’s confidence high saying he thinks they can beat Purduebut not.
Providence (+4.5) over Kentucky
I don’t love Providence after the Friars stumbled late in the season. But Kentucky has been disappointing all season. I’ll take the points against a Wildcats team that doesn’t seem to be enjoying itself this season.
Drake (+1.5) over Miami
It’s a popular upset pick, and I’m on board. Drake does everything well and had a good Missouri Valley non-conference season. No disrespect to Miami, who has a good coach in Jim Larranaga and a strong backcourt, but this was an easy 12-on-5 pick.
Grand Canyon (+15.5) over Gonzaga
Gonzaga has been really good from mid-January until now. Good enough, at least offensively, to win a national title. Still, that’s a big spread for a 3-on-14 game. Grand Canyon can score, and the Bulldogs don’t have a good defense. Gonzaga can put a huge score on Grand Canyon and that will be enough to cover a big spread, but I think there is some value to the Antelopes.
Memphis (-1.5) over Florida Atlantic
On the other hand, this might be one of the best 8v9 games we’ve seen. But these two teams should not play against each other. FAU was dealt a No. 9 seed and the committee made it worse by matching them with a Memphis team that is good enough to win a few games in this tournament. I don’t want to pick on Florida Atlantic, but it’s hard to deny how good Memphis looked late in the season.
Montana State (+7.5) over Kansas State
The Wildcats, who were the No. 3 seed, snuck up on me. This is not a team I have much confidence in away from home. I can’t imagine he’s going to win a national title, and if you’re in the top three, there should be some expectation that you can compete for a championship. Maybe I’m being too harsh on the Wildcats, but I’ll happily take Montana State and the points, and grab some of that +300 moneyline.
Kent State (+4.5) over Indiana
The only concern here is that Kent State isn’t a big team, and Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis is a fantastic big man. Even with that, the Golden Flashes might be my favorite pick in the first round. This is a good team that can win outright. My Big Ten Slanders continue.
Arizona State (+5.5) over TCU
The Horned Frogs have been very inconsistent and center Eddie Lampkin left the team this month. And what more could you ask for from Arizona State than what they showed in Wednesday’s dominant First Four win?
Record from Thursday’s first round: 6-10
Tournament record so far: 7-13