March Madness First Round: Best Bets for Day One of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament

Kofi Cockburn of Illinois
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Andrew Ortenberg


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The 2021 NCAA Tournament is officially underway, and with the First Four in the books we can officially look forward to the Round of 64. The action will truly get started with a full slate on Friday. Check out our March Madness hub to stay on top of everything that goes on. Also, be sure to check out our picks on the side and total for every single game in the tournament.

But right now, we’re talking about our absolute favorite plays for the first day of the Round of 64. Let’s dive into our best bets:

Illinois -22.5 vs. Drexel

In the early window, we think Illinois is going to absolutely crush Drexel. The Fighting Illini are the perfect kind of team to lay this large of a spread with, because they have an elite offense and also play at a fast tempo which ensures a lot of possessions. They won a lot of games by margins larger than this in the *Big Ten*, the best conference in college basketball. They even beat Michigan, another 1-seed, by 23.

I think they’ll have a much easier time against this Drexel team and their 247th-most efficient defense. Illinois only got to play three games this season against non-power conference opponents. They won two of them by at least 59 points. You get the idea. There are high seeds in this tournament that won’t have any answer for Kofi Cockburn in the post, and there’s no way this Drexel team has the strength and athletes necessary to contain him. This one will be a blowout by halftime.

Check out our full game preview for Illinois vs. Drexel for a complete breakdown, and our pick on the total.

Texas Tech vs. Utah State under 131.5

These teams have two of the best defenses in the tournament, and this one should be a real dogfight. In particular, both teams are elite at interior defense. Texas Tech ranks seventh in the country in limiting shots at the rim, while Utah State ranks fourth in field goal percentage defense at the rim. That’s crucial in March Madness, when outside shots often stop falling. If these teams aren’t hot from beyond the arc, this game is going to be really low scoring.

Texas Tech wasn’t quite as good defensively this season as they were the past couple years, but I think Chris Beard’s squad will truly lock in on that end of the floor now that the games really matter. Utah State is fifth in the nation in defensive rebounding, which cancels out one of Texas Tech’s main offensive strengths which is offensive rebounding.

Check out our full game preview for Texas Tech vs. Utah State for a complete breakdown, and our pick on the spread.

North Carolina -1.5 vs. Wisconsin

In this 8/9 matchup in the South region we like the Tar Heels. Word of North Carolina’s demise has been greatly exaggerated, and they finished the season going 4-2 in their last six games. Their two losses in that span? To very good Syracuse and Florida State teams by a combined five points. They easily could’ve gone 6-0. Walker Kessler, the freshman big man, is starting to come along nicely, and the Tar Heels now have an imposing frontcourt.

They’re peaking at the right time, while Wisconsin is in an opposite boat. The Badgers are just 2-6 in their last eight games, and those two wins came against Northwestern and Penn State, two of the worst teams in the conference. The win against Penn State came by a single point. They haven’t beaten a team that wasn’t Penn State, Northwestern, or lowly Nebraska since January. That tells you everything you need to know.

Check out our full game preview for North Carolina vs. Wisconsin for a complete breakdown, and our pick on the total.

Pickswise is the home of March Madness Predictions. Check out all of our March Madness Picks, including daily March Madness Parlays throughout the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

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