NCAA Tournament Betting: March Madness First Round Upsets

New Mexico State Basketball(USA TODAY Sports)`

The NCAA Tournament and upsets go together like peanut butter and jelly. While picking upsets is fun in your brackets, when it comes to sports betting, matchups and value are the deciding factor. While a team like UC Irvine may be a 13 seed in the brackets, the Anteaters are seeing much more respect from oddsmakers, who made them only a small underdog to No. 4 seed Kansas State.

Which upset candidates are worth betting and which ones don’t offer much value for gamblers? We look at the most popular upset picks and recommend where to place your money when March Madness tips off on Thursday.

All lines courtesy of FanDuel Sportsbook

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East Region

LSU -7 vs. Yale

The Ivy League has a history of putting the fear of God into bigger schools, dating back to Princeton’s near improbable upset over Georgetown in 1989. Bettors like Yale to continue that trend this season against an LSU team that will be without suspended head coach Will Wade. The line opened up LSU -9.5 at some sportsbooks and is now down to -7.

LSU has a big edge athletically and on the boards. Yale will need to make shots to stay in the game. Luckily for the Bulldogs, they shoot the ball well. Yale hits 37.4 percent from three-point range, a key factor when predicting a first-round upset. KenPom ranks Yale 44th in offensive efficiency and the Bulldogs average over 80 points a game.

LSU played tight games away from home this season. In their last six road games, the Tigers are 5-1 but none of those wins have come by more than five points and two went into overtime.

I like this number more at +9. I’ve followed the Ivy League closely all year and while Yale does present problems for LSU, the Tigers’ low-post offense should dominate this matchup. Expect an entertaining game but the value is gone with Yale unless the number creeps back up again.

Mississippi State -7 vs. Liberty

The Flames are a popular pick among TV analysts to pull an opening round upset and for good reason. Liberty is a tough matchup for No. 5 seed Mississippi State. The Flames play slow, ranking 349th in adjusted tempo. The Bulldogs run hot and cold and tend to have lapses on defense. Liberty is the type of team that can frustrate Mississippi State and bog the game down.

The Flames also have another ingredient needed to pull a first-round upset: They shoot the ball well from long range. Liberty makes 36.6 percent of its three-pointers, while Mississippi State ranks 224th in defending the three. The Bulldogs are probably over-seeded and despite having a size advantage, Mississippi State should struggle defending a Liberty team that ranks 56th in offensive efficiency and 12th in effective field goal percentage.

The NCAA Tournament is all about matchups and this is a bad one for Mississippi State. I had the number at -6, so there is still some value there. Liberty is also one of my top first-round upset candidates because of the way the Flames can slow down a game. Don’t be afraid to take Liberty +7 and as an upset in your brackets.

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Midwest Region

Auburn -6.5 vs. New Mexico State

I’ve been all over this New Mexico State this season. The Aggies are a legitimate threat to reach the Sweet 16. I don’t love the draw against Auburn but this number has come from -7.5 to 6.5 at FanDuel. Some oddsmakers I spoke to said sharp players hit New Mexico State early.

The issue with playing Auburn is everything is based on how well the Tigers shoot the three. Auburn set a single-season record for most made three-pointers in the SEC Conference. As we saw late in the season, when the Tigers are hitting shots, they’re tough to beat. Auburn finished the season with eight straight wins and captured the SEC Tournament title.

One thing in New Mexico State’s favor is a team playing good late in the year doesn’t always translate to NCAA Tournament success. Teams have close to a week off, so it can kill the momentum from playing well late in the year. The Aggies are also one of the few mid-major teams that can match up with Auburn athletically.

There are a couple other reasons to like New Mexico State in this game. The Aggies finished 30-4 and are one of the deepest teams in the country. A ridiculous 13 players average double-digit minutes for New Mexico State. I’ve never heard of that before. The Aggies are one of the few mid-major teams that won’t get worn down in what is expected to be a fast, back-and-forth game.

Auburn isn’t the best rebounding team in the world and that could hurt the Tigers in this matchup. New Mexico State ranks in the top-10 in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. If Auburn’s threes aren’t falling, they won’t get a lot of second-chance opportunities versus the Aggies.

I was hoping New Mexico State would draw a team like Kansas. Instead, they get red-hot Auburn. A lot will come down to Auburn’s shooting from beyond the arc but I still believe New Mexico’s State’s depth and ability to control the boards makes them a strong upset pick here. I took New Mexico State to reach the Sweet 16 in my brackets. I’m also on them +7 and +270 on the money line.

Kansas -7 vs. Northeastern

It’s not surprising but the committee gave blue blood Kansas a favorable seed. Listen, the Jayhawks always play a tough schedule and that should be rewarded. However, Kansas didn’t win the Big 12 regular season or tournament championship this year. Injuries and poor play on the road make the typically-powerful Jayhawks an early upset candidate this season.

While Kansas may be over-seeded, the committee didn’t do the Jayhawks any favors by matching them up with gritty Northeastern. I had a few teams written down that were bad opening round matchups for Kansas. Northeastern was one of the teams on the list. The Huskies enter the tournament winners of seven straight and 16 of their last 18 games.

Kansas hasn’t been the same since losing center Udoka Azubuike (13.4 ppg) to injury. Northeastern counters with a talented 1-2 punch of senior guard Vasa Pusica (17.8 ppg) and junior guard Jordan Roland (14.7 ppg). The Huskies rank 14th in 3-point accuracy and 11th in 2-point efficiency but Kansas is one of the nation’s top defensive teams. The Jayhawks rank 15th in defensive efficiency and Northeastern isn’t big enough to exploit Kansas’ rebounding issues without Azubuike in the lineup.

When the brackets first came out, I was leaning to Northeastern but the number has dropped from -9 to -7. This certainly isn’t the best Kansas team but Bill Self is an excellent coach and the Jayhawks did go 8-3 down the stretch. I’ll take the Huskies in my brackets but they won’t be one of my tournament plays getting just seven points. The value is gone.

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South Region

Kansas State -4.5 UC Irvine

The most popular upset pick is probably UC Irvine. I’m on the Anteaters’ bandwagon. Irvine is a dangerous 13 seed and I think the most talented mid-major team along with New Mexico State and Murray State.

The Anteaters are one of the top defensive teams in the country and can compete with bigger schools on the boards. Irvine is led by guards Max Howard (12.5 PPG) and Evan Leonard (11.1 PPG). When looking for a sleeper, teams that play tough defense and possess strong guards are great candidates.

You have to feel bad for Kansas State. Not only could the Wildcats be without Dean Wade (12.9 PPG and 6.2 RPG), who missed the Big 12 Tournament with a foot injury, now they must face one of the most dangerous mid-major teams in the tournament. Kansas State plays tough defense but the Wildcats aren’t a great shooting or rebounding team, which could doom them in this matchup.

UC Irvine is tied for the most true road wins in the country with 13. The line is down from 6 to 4.5 but sometimes the team everyone likes cashes in the tournament. Everyone was on Loyola last year and they beat Miami in the opening round. If Wade doesn’t play, don’t be surprised if the Anteaters win this game rather easily. Take the points.

West Region

Marquette -4.5 vs. Murray State

If Irvine isn’t the most popular public upset pick, the honor goes to Murray State. So many people will take Ja Morant and Murray State to advance in their brackets, it really won’t be an upset.

If you like fun, high-scoring games, tune into this matchup. Not only will Morant be on display but Marquette is led by Big East Player of the Year Markus Howard. If you can bet the most likely first round game to go down the final shot, this one would be the favorite.

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While Howard is good, Morant is on another level. In what should be a fast-paced game, Murray State’s ability to cause turnovers is a major factor. Marquette ranks 240th in turnovers, while Murray State ranks 109th in steals. Something else to watch is the Golden Eagles depend a lot on the three-point shot but Murray State ranks fourth in three-point defense, holding opponents to just 28.5 percent beyond the arc.

I really like Murray State to win this game outright. Not only do the Racers have one of the top players in the country in Morant, their overall talent is at least equal to Marquette. Expect Morant to take this game over late and the Racers move on to the second round. Take the points and the ML.

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