From an investment standpoint,  I like a several plays in the NCAA Tournament first round. The games will be held Thursday and Friday at spots all over the U.S. map.

Here’s my list. And please keep in mind that these picks aren’t based on a team straight up. These choices are being made based on the point spread …

Morehead State +11.5 vs Illinois

The past three Big Ten tournament champs have struggled early in the early NCAA rounds. Illinois was clobbered by No. 8 seed Loyola-Chicago in the second round in 2021, Iowa was toppled by No. 12 Richmond in the first round in 2022, and Purdue was stunned by 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson in 2023. Since 2015, when Big Ten teams have been seeded No. 6 or better, they’ve gone 27-43-1. The only thing that gives me pause is the Big Ten’s 58 percent cover rate since 1998 when favored by double digits in a game. But Morehead State has an explosive scorer in Riley Minx, who stung Purdue for 18 points earlier in the season. And if you’ve watched Illinois you know that its defense has problems, ranking 92nd in adjusted defensive efficiency at KenPom.

And while the Illini have a superb offense, Morehead State can put up some resistance. The Eagles are rated 9th nationally (per KenPom) in effective field goal percentage defense, are ranked 30th defending threes, and are 16th in defending two-point shots. Illinois should win the game but I see Morehead State staying competitive and hanging around late.

UAB +7 vs. San Diego State 

The Aztecs aren’t nearly as good as the spirited underdog team 2023 team rushed all the way to the title game before losing to mighty UConn. In the Mountain West title game, San Diego State was outscored 11-2 in the final 5½ minutes and lost to New Mexico. The Aztecs are one of the most overseeded teams in the field. They’re 13-19 against the spread this season and are a combined 5-14 ATS away from home. SDSU ranks 307th in three-point shooting percentage and is 219th in effective field goal percentage. The UAB Blazers are on a five-game winning streak, and have three very good guards in Eric Gaines, Efrem
Johnson and Alejandro Vasquez.

Drake minus 1.5 vs. Washington State

Wazoo plays good defense but Tucker DeVries will find a way to get his points. And he’s a tremendous all-around player. As a point of reference, DeVries scored 25 when the Bulldogs blew out Nevada 72-53 in December, and he averaged
28 points in two wins over Indiana State.

The Pac 12 wasn’t a strong conference this season. The Missouri Valley was an underrated conference. This game will be played close to home for Drake (in Omaha) and Missouri Valley Conference teams are 18-9-1 against the spread (66.7%) in the last 28 games against Power 5 teams in the NCAA Tournament. Wash State upset Arizona twice this season … but with all due respect that was more about Arizona playing poorly. Wash State has cooled off, going 3-3 in the last six games. Drake has the more experienced team that should benefit from having played in March Madness a year ago. When Drake blew a late lead to Miami (FL) to lose in the first round of last year’s tournament, DeVries scored a career-low three points and missed 12 of 13 shots from the floor. Do you think that will happen again? No, I don’t either. The sharp money has been pouring in on Drake.

Akron + 12.5 vs. Creighton

Creighton should win it – but by less than 12 and ½ points. The Blue Jays are very good but can be extremely vulnerable when they can’t make threes. And three-point shooting is the foundation of the Creighton offense. Creighton has scored 67 points or fewer in regulation in six of their last 12 games in a road or neutral-court environment. And they are averaging 19 fewer points per 100 possessions in games away from home. Akron ranks 14th in the nation (per KenPom) at defending threes. When not playing at home, Creighton made only 33.7% from three-point distance and had a 9-7 record. And Creighton has the lowest defensive turnover rate in the nation this season. I’m looking forward to a big-man rumble between Akron’s Enrique Freeman and Creighton’s Ryan Kalkbrenner. Akron is playing pretty close to home (in Pittsburgh) and will have rowdy fan support.

James Madison +4.5 vs. Wisconsin

James Madison looks like a troublemaker in this year’s tournament. The Dukes are 31-3 and haven’t lost since Jan. 27. They come into this one with a 13-game winning streak. When looking at the matchup from a points per possession basis, JMU ranks in the top 20 nationally in both points scored and points allowed per possession. The only other teams that can claim the same are UConn, Auburn and Arizona. The Wiscy offense scores 10 points fewer per 100 possessions when not playing at home in Madison. The Badgers can pull out a win, but I can’t resist taking the 4.5.

Longwood +23.5 vs. Houston

No, I don’t think No. 1 seed Houston is getting knocked out in the first round. But the Cougars might find it difficult to cover that huge point spread for a simple reason: Houston ranks 348th among 361 Division I teams in total possessions per game – and Longwood is 271st. The slow pace should help Longwood stay within 23.5. Or so I think.

Other plays that I’m looking at:

  • TCU minus 3.5 vs. Utah State
  • Western Kentucky +14 vs. Marquette.
  • McNeese +6 vs. Gonzaga
  • Clemson +2.5 vs. New Mexico
  • Western Kentucky +14 vs. Marquette

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 36 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.