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March 16, 2021

First Four betting guide: Making the most out of the NCAA Tournament 'play-in' games

I have a newfound appreciation for the First Four. I actually enjoy it. I’ve gone from loathing everything about it to truly looking forward to the start of the actual madness in March. It’s kind of funny when I look back at how being able to legally bet on a sporting event automatically changed my perspective.

Thursday features some incredible – and first time – storylines in this precursor to the tournament. From one of the highest profiled first-round matchups in recent history, to a small team just across the Maryland border that plays suffocating defense, the drama will match the value. 

Here are some picks I like, with all the odds, over-unders and money lines below courtesy of

No. 16 Mt. St. Mary’s vs. No. 16 Texas Southern (under 133.5), 5:10 PM, TruTV

Here’s the skinny of it, neither one of these teams can score. I love going under on anything in the 130’s for one huge reason, the Mount’s defense. Texas Southern has one of the least efficient offenses in the game, right next to their upcoming opponent. The key difference is MSM is ranked 136th by KenPom in defensive efficiency.

This game isn’t going to feature a consistent level of offense because at least one of the two teams is pretty good at defense. We usually get stuck watching two teams struggle their way to 35-40 total first half points. It’s a First Round (both versions) special. Both of these teams are so bad on offense that playing in a bubble in a nerve-racking playoff game isn’t going to all of a sudden open up the floodgates. You do know that, right? Go under. (As a Gettysburg College grad, let’s go Mountaineers!)

No. 11 Drake (-109 money line) vs. No. 11 Wichita State, 6:27 PM, TBS

This is going to be one of my favorite plays in the entire first round. Drake is a cover machine this year on multiple levels, and you should jump all over still offering plus-money. Something just doesn’t sit right with Drake being a dog to Wichita State, especially since the Bulldogs have the better offense and record ATS (20-6). In fact, only Navy had a better cover percentage all season than Drake.

The Shockers simply don’t have the defensive capabilities to slow down Drake’s offense. In a year in which they finished 16-5, Wichita State was a meager 9-9-1 ATS. The line has everyone fooled because the Shockers had an eight-game winning streak snapped before their conference tournament loss to Cincinnati. Meanwhile, Drake lost two of three and has looked shaky on defense. This is all about the matchup, and don't be shocked here when the Bulldogs win outright.

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No. 16 Norfolk State vs. No. 16 Appalachian State (over 135), 8:40 PM, TruTV

I was truly tempted to just take Norfolk State on the ML at +130 but I like winning bets over higher returns. I just can’t trust a team in this setting with just seconds to go in the game. The Spartans were among just two teams to finish above .500 in the MEAC. Here’s what I do trust; there will be scoring, and plenty of it.

App State is going to have every single one of their hands full dealing with a Spartans offense that’s gone over 70 points in 14 of their last 16 contests. But this won’t be a one-sided affair by any means, as the Mountaineers like to play to a 130-150 total. Both sides here should put in their equal efforts and know that the more Norfolk State scores the faster the tempo. All we really need from them is 70 points, something they’ve shown they can do fairly consistently.

The over was 12-9 this season for Norfolk State and 11-13 for Appalachian State. Those are good enough numbers combined with the Spartans ability to explode to make this a strong over play. You are now a Spartans fan, enjoy!

No. 11 Michigan State (-2.5) vs. No. 11 UCLA, 9:57 PM, TBS

Speaking of Spartans... lay the points on Michigan State! These are teams moving in the opposite direction, so let’s take advantage of UCLA’s misery. MSU is – rightfully so — being punished for having a slow start in the nation’s top conference this year. Tom Izzo looks to have solved the early season woes with a couple of big wins, including one over an overrated Michigan squad (more on that next week). This is the time when a coach like Izzo can win a game or two from the sidelines, before it becomes painfully obvious he doesn’t have the talent to make a deep run.

He certainly has the talent to knock off the Bruins on Thursday night. UCLA is reeling right now, losers of four straight with their last victory coming against Utah. Their last real victory came against Arizona on February 19th. The biggest difference here is the direction these two teams are going and stability at the coaching position. Mick Cronin is a good coach, but my money will always be on Izzo in this matchup. Always bet on the bench in March.

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