The first round of the NCAA basketball tournament is one of the most exciting sporting events of the year, rivaling the Super Bowl in its anticipation and intensity.
For sports bettors, March Madness is a betting buffet, with a variety of delights on which to feast at every turn.
The recession notwithstanding, this year should be no exception as 64 teams toss their logo caps into the mix, hoping for a run that takes them to the Final Four in Detroit two weeks from now.
But first things first: sometimes getting out of the first round isn’t easy. Neither is trying to predict which teams will rise up and send the higher-rated seeds packing.
So, from a staff that has had its finger on the pulse of the long college basketball season, here’s a look at first round NCAA tournament action, with an eye toward not only winning, but covering the elusive point spread.
Louisville (1) -25 vs. Morehead State (16): Rick Pitino’s squad has come a long way since its crushing loss to UNLV on New Year’s Eve. Ranked No. 1 overall in the tournament, the Cardinals wound up going 16-2 in the Big East conference, winning 20 of their last 22 games. This should be an easy win for Louisville, with its backers getting cash as well.
Ohio State (8) -3½ vs. Siena (9): The Buckeyes, like the rest of the Big 10, will try to grind out a win with their defense, which held opponents to 61 points/game this season. But the Saints knocked off Vanderbilt in the first round last year, and most of that team is back. Give them a shot at the outright upset here.
Utah (5) Pk vs. Arizona (12): The Utes sneaked past a solid San Diego State squad to win the MWC tournament. Led by 7-footer Luke Nevill, Utah is a disciplined squad, capable of advancing into the tournament. Give the nod to Utah to put away Arizona, which many question whether they should even be here.
Wake Forest (4) -7 ½ vs. Cleveland State (13): The Vikings catch the Demon Deacons supposedly in a slump. But don’t expect them to duplicate their run like they had in 1986. Remember, Wake was ranked No. 1 at one point in the season. They’ll play like it here.
West Virginia (6) -8 ½ vs. Dayton (11): West Virginia could be a sleeper, as coach Bob Huggins has done a marvelous job and a Sweet 16 trip or more isn’t out of the question. They play solid fundamentals with their assist to turnover ratio among the Top 20 in the nation. They move on with a big win here.
Kansas (3) -10 vs. North Dakota State (14): Kansas and coach Bill Self open defense of their title following last year’s overtime victory in the championship game. They take on a squad that made the tournament in its first season in Division 1. Kansas should move on, but don’t figure to win by a big enough margin.
USC (10) -2 vs. Boston College (7): USC Coach Tim Floyd really turned the season around as the Trojans came on to take the conference away from the Pac 10 front runners. They have a better defense than Boston College and should keep the scoring into the low 60s. USC advances here and takes the money.
Michigan State (2) -16 vs. Robert Morris (15): Tom Izzo has a superlative record with the Spartans and they should dominate the boards in their match-up against Robert Morris. Plus, their stifling defense should be enough to cover the number.
Connecticut (1) -20 ½ vs. Chattanooga (16): Connecticut failed to make their conference finals. Also, coach Jim Calhoun needs a big run – his Huskies were bounced in the first round last year and missed the tournament in 2007. Losing starter Jerome Dyson has cost U-Conn some consistency. Keep in mind they were ranked No. 1 in the nation two weeks ago, but enter the Dance as a No. 3 seed. Plus they’re on a two-game losing streak, but that changes against Chattanooga.
Texas A&M (9) vs. BYU (8) -2: This figures to be a close one, but BYU doesn’t have the firepower to keep up with the Aggies, who move on after a close contest.
Purdue (5) -8 vs. Northern Iowa (12): The Boilermakers are getting players back from injuries, which will help against an over-matched Northern Iowa squad.
Washington (4) -5 vs. Mississippi State (13): The Huskies were stunned by a loss in the Pac 10 tournament, while the Bulldogs were stunned by winning the SEC title. The Bulldogs will be tough with their shot-blocking Jarvis Varnado guarding the middle and three-point bombers on the perimeter. Plus their freshman point guard Dee Bost is the real deal, capable of breaking down opposing defenses. This one will be close all the way with Mississippi State pulling it out at the end.
Marquette (6) -4 ½ vs. Utah State (11): Having lost five of their last six, it appears the Golden Eagles are vulnerable here. Not necessarily, as those losses came in the Big East against ranked teams. Utah State doesn’t fit that category. The WAC conference and tourney champ is excited to be back in the Big Dance; it’s their sixth trip in the last 10 years, though first since 2006. They’ll keep this one close, but will come up just a bucket short.
Missouri (3) -13 vs. Cornell (14): The Tigers play a fast-paced game with end-to-end action. Cornell will try to slow it down, but they’ll have little success. Missouri will take this one going away and will be a tough out in later rounds. Their assist to turnover ratio, 1.50, is third best in the nation.
Maryland (10) vs. California (7) -1: Maryland is coming out of a tougher conference and has shown the ability to win some critical games against ranked foes. Cal hasn’t shown that and in fact faltered down the stretch. Maryland beats the higher seed and moves on.
Memphis (2) -19 ½ vs. Cal State Northridge (15): Memphis coach John Calipari brought the Tigers to national prominence with its helter-skelter style of play, making the championship games last year. The nation’s longest winning streak should reach 25 games with little trouble here as Northridge makes their first Dance appearance in eight years.
Pittsburgh (1) -20 vs. East Tennessee State (16): Pitt failed to make the conference finals, so they should be primed for a big effort here. They’re a solid, disciplined team, with an assist to turnover ratio ranked second in the nation.
Oklahoma State (8) +2 vs. Tennessee (9): We all know how inconsistent Tennessee can be, so you have to look at Oklahoma State in this spot. The Cowboys have four sharp-shooters capable of draining the 3-pointer, and that should put them over the top here.
Wisconsin (12) vs. Florida State (5) -2 ½ : As the lower seed, Florida State is the mandatory favorite. But they’re newcomers to the Dance. And, although Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan is a relative unknown, he has quietly made the Badgers a solid program. They do it with a grinding defense, which has to contain Florida State. They have more experience in post season play than the Seminoles, and should be able to slow down FSU, which sometimes go through period where they can’t find the basket.
Xavier (4) -11 vs. Portland State (13): The Musketeers haven’t looked sharp down the stretch, but they have enough firepower from virtually every position on the floor to get past Portland State. The points might be too high, however, in this spot, so taking them would be the better play.
UCLA (6) -7 vs. Virginia Commonwealth (11): UCLA coach Ben Howland has three Final Four appearances in the last four years, so this Bruin squad has to be respected. There has been lots of early betting action on VCU, probably because the line opened too high. The Rams are a solid team, which knocked off Duke two years ago and took Pitt to overtime before falling in the second round. This will be a hard-fought game to the end, with UCLA pulling out the tough victory.
Villanova (3) -16 ½ vs. American (14): Villanova is a very balanced team and they’re playing very close to their fan base. They take this one but American should stay within the number.
Texas (7) -4 vs. Minnesota (10): Few teams’ stock has fallen as much as Texas’ has since the start of the season. Minnesota will be tough, but if A.J. Abrams is draining the 3-pointers, Texas will run away with this one.
Duke (2) -21 ½ vs. Binghamton (15): As always, Mike Krzyzewski fields a disciplined Duke team, especially on defense. The Blue Devils haven’t made it out of the tournament’s first weekend the past two years, but they appear primed with their ACC tournament win. They get past the Bearcats with relative ease.
North Carolina (1) -26 vs. Radford (16): North Carolina Coach Roy Williams is among the nation’s best. Now in his sixth year with the Tar Heels, he’s taken the team to two Final Fours and won it all in 2005. With his ability he’s a threat to go all the way every year. They have something to prove after failing to make the conference finals. They could get all they can handle in their second round game against the Butler/LSU winner. North Carolina has struggled to defend high-scoring guards like Wake Forest’s Jeff Teague, Maryland’s Greivis Vasquez, FSU’s Toney Douglas and BC’s Tyrese Rice, but this one should be over early.
Butler (9) vs. LSU (8) -2 ½ : LSU guard Marcus Thornton is a prolific scorer, plus coach Trent Johnson has a pair of solid defenders in Tasmin Mitchell and Garrett Temple, both of whom helped shut down J.J. Redick in a Sweet 16 win over Duke in the 2006 tourney when both players were freshmen. They’ll have their hands full with Butler, who will be in this all the way. With a late break or call, Butler advances.
Illinois (5) -4 ½ vs. Western Kentucky (12): This is a dangerous spot for Illinois, a disciplined team with a superb assist-to-turnover ratio (No. 8 in the country). The Hilltoppers danced all the way to the Sweet 16 last year and they match up well against the Illini. In an upset, Western Kentucky moves on and could prove to be a tough out later this weekend.
Gonzaga (4) -12 ½ vs. Akron (13): For a school of only 6,700 students, Gonzaga has become a national basketball power and a perennial tournament entrant, thanks mostly to the talents of coach Mark Few. They advance here in relative ease.
Arizona State (6) -4 ½ vs. Temple (11): This Arizona State squad isn’t getting much respect, but with a standout player like James Harden, they have a chance of advancing deeply into the tournament (remember ASU’s John Wallace in 1996 or Danny Manning in 1988?). They take care of Temple and carry the Pac 10 ban forward.
Syracuse (3) -12 vs. Stephen Auston (14): The Orange’s six overtime win over Connecticut was no fluke. They and their 2-3 zone belong here, as Stephen Austin soon finds out.
Michigan (10) vs. Clemson (7) -5: The Tigers appeared to fade down the stretch, but coach Oliver Purnell will have his team ready. They whipped Duke earlier this season and they’re capable of doing the same here. In an ugly one, Clemson moves on.
Oklahoma (2) -16 ½ vs. Morgan State (15): The Sooners had a late season swoon, causing it to slip to a No. 2 seed. The Bears are in their first NCAA tournament. They have a nice scoring duo in Reggie Holmes and Jermaine Bolden, and their coach, Todd Bozeman, once took the Cal Bears to the Big Dance in the mid 1990s. Bozeman was banned from coaching for nearly a decade before making a comeback at Morgan State, which owns a win over Maryland this season. They’ll keep it close but won’t stop Oklahoma from moving forward.