NCAA Tournament First Round Best Bets
By the time the 7 pm dinner hour arrives on Thursday we will only be through half of the 16 NCAA tournament games available for digestion that day. Eight more contests will send us to our beds later that night and I’m hoping that these late Best Bets will make sleep come a lot easier with no bad beat nightmares on the horizon.
The late games on Thursday have some intriguing matchups out there for consumption as it will be interesting to see how teams like Michigan, Arizona, Villanova, and Texas Tech begin their 2018 tournaments. But there are two other games during this block that I’ll be more interested in as another big name school known for being a great one-and-done spot might fall to that fate in this year’s tournament.
Best Bet #1: Davidson +5.5
The Davidson Wildcats stole Notre Dame’s at-large bid when they won the Atlantic 10 tournament to get into the big dance. The school now known as the alumni of Steph Curry is back in the tournament for the first time since 2015, but truth be told, the school has not one a tournament game in three tries since Curry moved on to the pros. Now they get to deal with the big, bad Kentucky Wildcats fresh off a SEC tournament win themselves.
Kentucky is the school that will always get plenty of love as a “public darling” every year, but even a SEC Tournament victory couldn’t keep them out of the dreaded #5 spot in the South region. Everyone knows the history behind 12 seeds beating a #5 and while many are already pencilling in New Mexico State as the best #12 seed to move on to the round of 32, I believe that this Davidson bunch will get there first.
Davidson is in fine form after running through the Atlantic 10 tournament, and they’ve got plenty of shooters in the Steph Curry mold that could cause plenty of headaches for Kentucky on defense. The blue bloods from the SEC are going to have to rely on their size inside to get the job done, but this is still a very young team overall that’s littered with freshman. Yes, Kentucky seemed to find their way as the season went on, but a #5 seed with as big of a brand as Kentucky only laying 5.5 points here should tell you that this Davidson team is for real.
Kentucky ending the year having won seven of their last eight can’t be ignored, and while without question those foes were much better on an overall basis then what Davidson has seen recently, there comes a point when the gas tank starts to run low. For a Kentucky program that tends to me more about the individual rather than the collective, this is not a bunch I’d want to back to go far in this tournament. Guys like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox know the NBA draft is waiting for them right around the corner, and one poor game by either guy likely ends Kentucky’s season.
So with Davidson on a 4-0 ATS run against winning teams and Kentucky just 3-7-3 ATS in their last 13 NCAA tournament games, I’m rolling with the underdog here. Kentucky could end up winning this game SU, but if they do it won’t be until the final shot. This line of -5.5 looks like such a bait line that bettors could drive this price up, but I’d advise not falling for this trap.
Best Bet #2: Houston -4
The Houston Cougars saw a nice American Athletic Conference tournament run end up one-point short in the final and are now hoping that’s the last loss they experience this year. They get into the tournament as a #6 seed – likely boosted a spot or two because of that AAC tournament run – and host a red hot San Diego State team who has won nine in a row. San Diego State got into the tournament by winning their conference dance, beating the only other Mountain West team in this field (Nevada) by 17 in the semi-finals and then coming out on top in the final over New Mexico. So why am I going against a red hot Aztecs squad?
Well for one, there is the idea of the Aztecs peaking a bit too early here but from perspective they had no choice because they had to go on a run just to get invited to this stage. Secondly, the Mountain West doesn’t have anywhere near the talent and depth that the AAC does on a given night and the Cougars 26-7 ATS mark in that conference is really quite impressive. Houston also enters the tournament on a 4-0 ATS run off a SU loss, and a 5-1 ATS run in non-conference play.
Looking back at Houston’s resume this year you’ll see that they have double-digit victories over tournament teams like Arkansas, Providence, Wichita State, and a five-point win over Cincinnati. The fact that this Cougars team didn’t pack it in in that conference tourney final against the Bearcats again knowing that they were already in the dance speaks to their “iron sharpens iron” mentality, and served as a great tune-up for the pressures the NCAA tournament brings. Having been tested numerous times this year against elite competition and passing the test the majority of the time, puts Houston in a nice spot to possibly make a deep run in this tournament. Before they get there though, they’ve got to take care of business against San Diego State and I believe they will rather easily.
San Diego State’s resume does have some bright spots with wins over the Gonzaga and Nevada (twice), but when you lost by 22 to an Arizona State team that many questioned their inclusion in the field and are a First Four team, you know there are plenty of holes on this Aztecs squad. Yes, that game was at the beginning of the season and SD State has improved greatly since then, but shutting down G Trey Kell is basically the key to stopping these Aztecs and great guard play is a hallmark of this Houston team.
Houston finished the year as one of the best defenses in the country with 64.9 points allowed per game, and enter the NCAA tournament ranked 18th in adjusted defensive efficiency. That unit will slow the Aztecs offense to a halt, and the one advantage San Diego did exploit during much of their play in the Mountain West (size and rebounding) is going to be negated as well. Houston ranks 8th in the country in rebounding margin (+7.9) while San Diego State comes in at 44th. That 44th ranking was by far and away the best of any Mountain West squad but the Aztecs are up against the big boys now and will see their hot streak and 2018 season come to a quick stop here.