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March 19, 2021

Five first-round March Madness upsets to watch out for on Saturday

There really is nothing like an upset. It's why most of us (aside from gambling or team allegiance purposes) watch college basketball, and it's what makes March the best time of the year for sports fans.

By the time you're reading this, however, your bracket is likely already locked into place as most needed to be completed before the start of the first games on Friday. But that doesn't make the upsets any less fun to watch — or to bet on, whether that's on a game-by-game basis or as part of Unibet's Bettor Bracket contest, which we wrote about earlier in the week.

If you're looking to lay down some money on the games this weekend, fear not. We've got you covered with a handful of upset picks — a few we think could win outright but all of them we believe will at least cover the spread — for Saturday's jam-packed slate of first-round NCAA Tournament games. 

We've already covered our best picks for Friday's games, so let's dive right in with five lower seeds we could see advancing to Round 2, with lines provided by

No. 9 St. Bonaventure (+2) over No. 8 LSU, 1:45 p.m., TNT

OK, picking a No. 9 seed to beat a No. 8 isn't exactly a bold prediction, especially since the former actually has the better record in the tournament, but we're going with the Bonnies out of the Atlantic 10 to not just cover their two-point spread, but to win outright against LSU. Why? It starts on the defensive side of the ball.

St. Bonaventure, the A-10 regular season and tournament champions, boast one of the best defenses in the tournament and can truly dominate on that side of the ball, holding opponents this season to a 45.4% effective field goal percentage. That should help them keep things close against LSU star freshman Cameron Thomas and a high-powered Tigers offense that averages over 82 points per game. The Bonnies, meanwhile, hold opponents to just over 60 points per game. We'd feel a lot more confident in this pick if it wasn't for Thomas' ability to totally take over a game, but we think the team defense from the underdogs will give them the edge. 

There's not much of a spread to work with on this one, but it seems relevant to mention that this writer picked the Bonnies outright to advance in his bracket.

No 12. UC Santa Barbara (+6.5) over No. 5 Creighton — 3:30 p.m., TruTV

These 12-5 matchups are notorious for upsets — and even when the underdog can't pull it off, they always feel like they're closer than the spread suggests. This game feels like it's destined to be one of the most popular 12-5 upset picks of the year, but aren't all the 12-5 games?

The UCSB Gauchos are a veteran team, with almost all of the players returning from last season. They went 22-4 overall and 15-3 on their way to winning the Big West — and are 9-1 in their last 10 games. They've outscored opponents by an average of 13.7 points per game this season. They might not have played as tough of competition as Creighton (20-8, 14-6 Big East), but they certainly have the look of a team that can pull off the first-round upset, even if this will be their first matchup of the season against a Top 25 opponent. Creighton, meanwhile, is 3-2 against such teams and have proven they can score against some pretty tough opponents. 

The one thing that may hurt UCSB in this one is guard (and sixth man) Ajare Sanni's ankle injury. He averages 11 points per game for the Gauchos in 24 minutes and is currently listed as a game-time decision. But getting him back would be a boost for a red-hot UCSB squad. 

MORE: A March Madness viewer's guide for Sixers fans

No. 10 Maryland (+3) over No. 7 UConn, 7:10 p.m., CBS

At just 16-13 on the season, Maryland might not have the resume of a dangerous first-round team, but don't let that fool you. They played one of the toughest schedules in the country, and that certainly helps come March. The Terps are also a guard-led team, and those types of teams typically fair better in the tournament. 

As for their opponent, UConn certainly offers a tough test, but there's a reason it's only a three-point spread. And further complicating matter for the Huskies could be the status of their point guard, R.J. Cole, who is recovering from a concussion and as of this writing has not yet been fully cleared to play. If he is, the line (and our outlook) on this game could change, but for now, we like Maryland, especially getting the three points. 

No. 13 Ohio (+7) over No. 4 Virginia, 7:15 p.m., TruTV

This is probably our boldest prediction of the bunch, going with the 13th-seeded Ohio Bobcats over the team that cut down the nets the last time the NCAA Tournament was played. Of course, the year before they they became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed. So anything can happen here. 

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Originally, this game featured a double-digit spread, with the Cavs giving 10 points to Ohio, but that's now dropped a full three points in just a few short days. Perhaps that has something to do with some uncertainty on the side of Virginia, who was recently pulled from the ACC Tournament because of a positive COVID test, which is not insignificant heading to Indy for the big dance. Any added distraction like that, plus a long layoff between games, could open a window for a high-scoring Ohio team to try to push the pace against a Virginia team that is notorious for slowing things down. 

The Cavs are sixth in the nation in opponent PPG (60.5), while Ohio is 17th in the nation averaging over 80 points per game. With Virginia likely to keep things so low scoring — they only average 68.6 themselves — there's a good chance this games stays tight, and that could open the window for a big first-round upset. 

No. 11 UCLA (+3.5) over No. 6 BYU, 9:40 p.m., CBS

There's something to be said about momentum, and the Bruins certainly have that after knocking off Michigan State in overtime in their First Four matchup on Thursday night. BYU, on the other hand, will be coming off a long layoff having not played in over 10 days when their game tips off on Saturday night.

BYU is not a team to be overlooked, and UCLA might seem like an odd pick for a first-round upset given they lost one of their best players, guard Chris Smith, to injury earlier in the season and are just 4-6 in their last 10. Maybe it's recency bias speaking, but that win over the Spartans could be enough to propel them past the Cougars in the first round, or at least keep it close enough that they can cover the spread. 

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