The 2021 NCAA tournament is finally here, and will tip off with the First Four on Thursday.
VSiN's experts — Josh Appelbaum, Tim Murray, David Stall and Greg Peterson — give their best bets for Thursday's opening four games.
No. 16 Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers vs. No. 16 Texas Southern Tigers (-1, 133)
Murray: The first game of the tournament will have the SWAC champion, Texas Southern, facing the winner of the Northeast Conference, Mount St. Mary’s. The Mountaineers defeated top-seeded Bryant in the NEC tournament thanks in part to a tremendous defensive game plan. The Mount has tremendous size for a team from the NEC; the starting frontcourt is Mezie Offurrum (6-foot-8), Nana Opoku (6-9) and Malik Jefferson (6-9). Despite Bryant ranking 14th in the country in adjusted tempo according to Ken Pom, the Mountaineers dictated the pace of the game, holding Bryant to 68 points, 16 points below its season average. Opoku, the NEC defensive player of the year, had five blocks against Bryant and Jefferson pulled down 15 rebounds.
Similar to Bryant, Texas Southern will look to run, as the Tigers are 41st in the country in adjusted tempo. However, Texas Southern ranks 342nd in the nation in three-point field goal percentage (27.7%). With the Mountaineers’ size, I anticipate the Mount to pack the paint and force Texas Southern to score from outside.
It won’t be the prettiest game, but I expect Mount St. Mary’s (356th in adjusted tempo) to dedicate the pace and win a low-scoring affair.
Pick: Mount St. Mary’s ML (-105)
No. 11 Wichita State Shockers (PK, 139.5) vs. No. 11 Drake Bulldogs
Murray: The Bulldogs were the darlings of the gambling world this year, starting the season 15-0 ATS before failing to cover against Valparaiso on Feb. 6. Drake finished up the season with an impressive 21-6 ATS record, but the Bulldogs were hit with a few significant injuries late in the year. Guard Roman Penn was lost for the season with a left foot injury in February. Penn was averaging 11.2 points and led the Missouri Valley in assists with 5.5 per game at the time of his injury. Additionally, Drake’s leading scorer and rebounder, ShanQuan Hemphill, has been sidelined since early February with a foot injury. The good news is Hemphill is on track to play according to Drake head coach Darian DeVries.
Hemphill’s return would be massive for the Bulldogs. He was absent for all three meetings against Loyola Chicago, and Drake went 1-2 against the eventual Missouri Valley champions. Additionally, guard Joseph Yesufu has emerged in Penn’s absence. Yesufu has averaged 23 points over Drake’s last seven games.
Wichita State shocked (pun intended) the college basketball world defeating then-No. 6 Houston, 68-63, on Feb. 18. The Shockers claimed the AAC regular-season crown but narrowly defeated USF, 68-67, in the quarterfinals of the AAC conference tournament and lost to Cincinnati, 60-59, in the semifinals. The Bearcats ended the year with just a 12-11 record. Against Quadrant 1 and 2 opponents this year, Wichita State finished with just a 4-4 mark, while Drake was 6-2. The Shockers also ranked 10th in the nation in Ken Pomeroy’s luck rating.
Wichita State opened as a 2.5-point favorite, but the consensus line has since moved to a pick-em. Drake finished the season 19th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency and with Hemphill back in the lineup, I expect the Bulldogs to advance to the first round of the NCAA tournament. Try to shop around for the remaining + 1s out there if you can.
Pick: Drake + 1
Stall: The Bulldogs looked dead in the water about a month ago after losing Penn and then Hemphill. Well, it looks like Hemphill is set to return and the guy who picked up massive minutes along the way (Yesufu) has turned into Superman. This is an offense that carries some impressive numbers, including 19th in adjusted offensive efficiency, 30th in effective FG% and 11th in turnover rate. Yesufu has added electricity to Drake’s offense that wasn’t there even when the team was playing well. On the other side, Wichita State has issues on offense, the main one being that it can’t shoot. The Shockers are in 278th in effective FG%, 322nd in two-point FG% and 217th in FT%. This is a case of the wrong team being favored in my opinion, and the early line movement has supported that.
Pick: Drake + 1
No. 16 Norfolk State Spartans vs. No. 16 Appalachian State Mountaineers (-3, 133.5)
Peterson: After a slow start to the season, Appalachian State’s top scorer from the 2019-20 season (Justin Forrest) has picked it up, averaging 18.8 points since the beginning of February to give the Mountaineers five players averaging at least 9.9 ppg. Norfolk State does a good job of scoring with the clock stopped, ranking second in the country in free throws attempted per offensive play in road and neutral court games.
Pick: Over 133.5
No. 11 UCLA Bruins vs. No. 11 Michigan State Spartans (-2, 135.5)
Appelbaum: This East Region play-in game offers an interesting buy-low opportunity for contrarian bettors. Michigan State opened at a pick-em or a short 1-point favorite depending on the book. The public sees Tom Izzo and is biased toward Sparty, as they’ve watched Michigan State make countless deep runs over the last two decades. As a result, recreational bettors are rushing to the window to back Sparty against a UCLA team that finished the regular season with four straight losses. This lopsided support pushed Michigan State up to -2 or even -2.5 at some shops. If you’re betting Sparty now, you’re getting the worst of the number after it’s been steamed.
On the flip side, UCLA is getting almost zero support in a heavily bet Thursday night prime-time game, which offers excellent contrarian value along with an inflated line. UCLA also offers a notable Pomeroy edge, as he projects UCLA to win this game by one point. He also has UCLA ranked as the better team (44th vs. 56th). I’ll put on my hazmat suit for this one and grab the points with the Bruins.
Pick: UCLA + 2.5
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.