2018 NCAA Tournament: First Round Analysis/Plays

I’m headed to Las Vegas later this week for the first two rounds of March Madness. It’s an annual tradition for my dad and I, and it’s always a blast, especially when sports books get loud as leads change with every basket down the stretch of a game.

I’ve got several plays that I’ll really be focusing on over the first two days of the tournament. There are 32 games combined on Thursday and Friday, so there are plenty of chances to find money-making opportunities. Below is what I’ve come up with, and games/plays are listed in order of how strongly I feel about them (with spreads and totals current as of Tuesday morning).

THURSDAY

#4 Arizona (-9) over #13 Buffalo (9:40 p.m. ET)

I want to like Buffalo because they did what mid-majors are supposed to do. They scheduled tough teams in the non-league portion of the season and built on that foundation in conference play. They finished their season on a six-game winning streak, with all six wins coming by double-digits.

However, Arizona is a horrible matchup for the Bulls (not the Bills, as Ernie Johnson said in the abomination that was the NCAA Selection Show). DeAndre Ayton may be the best player in the country, and he’s flanked by an athletic group that’s come together in the face of the off-court scandal the program is facing. I get that the Pac-12 wasn’t a stellar league this year, but Arizona started 3-3 and has since won 24 of 27 games. Buffalo may keep it interesting, but I think the Wildcats simply have too much firepower and pull away late to win by a convincing margin.

#12 South Dakota State (+8) over #5 Ohio State; OVER 147 (4 p.m. ET)

It’s tough to find a hotter team (or one with a more fun mascot) than the feisty Jackrabbits, who have won 19 of their last 20 games coming into the tournament. They put up lots of points, and they boast wins over power conference foes Iowa and Ole Miss, as well as a 14-point victory over MAC champ Buffalo and a more-than-respectable 10-point loss on the road against Wichita State.

Ohio State has several good wins on its resume, but they haven’t looked the same since their one-point win at Purdue last month (a weird game where the Boilermakers blew a 14-point lead with 10 minutes to go). The Buckeyes have lost three of their last five, including a pair of defeats against a Penn State team that didn’t make the tournament, and their two wins in that stretch came against non-tournament teams (Rutgers and Indiana). Maybe Ohio State wins, but eight points seems like too big a spread.

I also think these two teams will put up plenty of points. Ohio State’s shown plenty of offensive firepower, and South Dakota State wants to push the tempo behind star guard Mike Daum. If the over-under number stays in this neighborhood, I’ll bet the over and hope for a shootout.

#4 Gonzaga (-12 ½) over #13 UNC Greensboro (1:30 p.m. ET)

Okay, let’s get some kvetching out of the way. St. Mary’s, which served as Gonzaga’s chief conference rival this year, should have been in the tournament. They beat Gonzaga during the season, managed a 28-5 record, and were passed over for a Syracuse team that lost 13 games (including winnable contests against ACC bottom-feeders Wake Forest and Georgia Tech). St. Mary’s got hosed, and you’ll get a glimpse of that if Gonzaga plays to its potential.

The Bulldogs got to the national title game last year, and while this season’s squad isn’t quite as good, the team boasts plenty of experience and is peaking at the right time. UNC Greensboro did not play a strong schedule this year, and while their defensive stats are strong, they haven’t seen an offense like Gonzaga’s yet.

FRIDAY

#12 New Mexico State (+5) over #5 Clemson (9:57 p.m. ET)

After a win over hapless Pittsburgh on February 8th, Clemson was 20-4 and 9-3 in the powerful ACC. What a difference five weeks makes. The Tigers finished the season by going 3-5 in their last eight games, and two of those wins came against non-tournament teams (Georgia Tech and Boston College). They were certainly hurt by Donte Grantham’s injury, and they come into the tournament without much momentum.

New Mexico State, meanwhile, finished the regular season at 28-5, with several high-quality wins (including back-to-back triumphs over Davidson and Miami). They play strong defense and crash the boards relentlessly, both of which could give a struggling Clemson team (playing 3,000 miles from home, by the way) major headaches. I’ll gladly take the points in this spot, and the 12th-seeded Aggies could be a money line play as well.

#4 Wichita State (-11 ½) over #13 Marshall (1:30 p.m. ET)

Marshall showed some promise in the regular season, most notably giving eventual #1 seed Xavier a game on the road before falling by four points. They peaked at the right time, sweeping the season series with Conference USA favorite Middle Tennessee and then eking out a win over Western Kentucky in the conference tournament’s title game.

However, this is a HORRIBLE (yes, it’s all-caps worthy) matchup for the Thundering Herd. Marshall plays an up-tempo style and scores plenty of points. This has served them well, as they’re in the top 12 nationally in both points and assists per game. With that in mind, Wichita State plays the same way, and the Shockers are a much better team on the glass (ninth nationally, with 40.5 rebounds per game). If Marshall starts the game cold and is limited to one shot per possession, I think this could get out of hand in a hurry.

#4 Auburn vs. #13 College of Charleston: OVER 148 ½ (7:25 p.m. ET)

Admittedly, I’m much more confident in the first two Friday picks I’ve given out, and I think the rest of the lines are very fair. This number, though, seems a bit low, given that both of these teams want to play up-tempo basketball and sometimes get lazy on defense (for reference on Auburn, look up how Collin Sexton dissected the Tigers like a surgeon in the SEC tournament).

Charleston has scored at least 79 points in nine of their last 10 games, and it certainly seems like they’ve found their offensive identity. Auburn, meanwhile, has played many games in the 80’s this year, and before laying an egg in the second half against the Crimson Tide, they’d scored 75 points or more in 12 of their previous 13 games. I’m expecting a shootout here, and if you need an extra wager to throw onto a parlay, this is where I’d go.

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