March Madness First Round Predictions: 2024 NCAA Tournament Day 1 Best Bets

Oakland mascot Grizz cheers for the Golden Grizzlies against Purdue Fort Wayne during the first half of a Horizon League tournament quarterfinal at O'Rena in Rochester on Thursday, March 7, 2024.
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Sam Avellone


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Long-time suffering Browns fan born and raised in the greater Cleveland, Ohio area who now resides in SEC country. University of South Carolina alum. Sports handicapper for close to 10 years with a primary focus on NCAAB while enjoying NFL, PGA, NCAAF, NBA, and Soccer. For Sam Avellone media enquiries, please email
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The few days following Selection Sunday tend to drag on. Sure, the First Four is a nice appetizer for the weeks to come, but nothing replicates the first day of the NCAA Tournament. That Thursday always feels like Christmas morning to college basketball fans. Considering the drama and intrigue of last year, I couldn’t be more excited for this edition of March Madness to finally get underway. With 16 huge matchups on the docket, I’ve combed through the lines and compiled my best bets for Day 1 of the NCAA Tournament. Let’s dive in, but make sure you also check out our college basketball picks for EVERY game throughout March Madness.

Mississippi State Bulldogs ML over Michigan State Spartans (+100)

Odds available at BetMGM at time of publishing.

The Mississippi State offense can be difficult to watch at times, but the Spartans have not been much better as of late. In fact, the Spartans rank 330th in eFG% over the last month per BartTorvik. They play slowly, don’t create many chances at the free-throw line and don’t take many three-point shots – ultimately making their offense a bit one-dimensional. Those offensive limitations produced poor performances in many of Michigan State’s biggest games this year, leading to just 2 wins over top 25 teams per KenPom’s current rankings – in addition to the famed home loss against James Madison to begin the season. 

The Bulldogs should be very comfortable playing at Michigan State’s pace. They struggle with turnovers and free throws as a team, but freshman phenom Josh Hubbard gives the ball away on fewer than 10% of possessions while making over 85% of his free throws. He will almost certainly have the ball in his hands in late-game situations. Surrounding Hubbard are a bevy of gritty veterans like Tolu Smith, Cameron Matthews, DJ Jeffries and Shakeel Moore, who have been with the program for at least 3 seasons and hustle to every loose ball while playing with extreme physicality. As such, the Bulldogs crash the glass hard on the offensive end, accumulating the 2nd-highest offensive rebounding rate in the SEC and a top-25 rate nationally. That could be where the game is won considering the Spartans are just 3-7 against teams who rank in the top 100 in offensive rebounding rate.

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Oakland Golden Grizzlies +14 over Kentucky Wildcats (-110)

Odds courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook at the time of publishing

Greg Kampe and the Oakland Golden Grizzlies are known for their zone defense, as they deploy a zone at the 2nd-highest rate nationally according to Synergy. Given their dependence on the zone, one would immediately assume Kentucky is a bad matchup for the Grizzlies because of its proficiency in jump-shooting. However, I think there’s enough here to keep the game close, mostly on the other end of the floor – where Kentucky flounders. The Wildcats are outside the top 235 in adjusted defensive efficiency, as well as opposing eFG% and forced turnover rate over the last month per BartTorvik. For what it’s worth, their season-long numbers are not any better, and they don’t offer much resistance in the half court – leaving them susceptible to Oakland runs.  In fact, the Golden Grizzlies actually have a better kill-shot rate than the Wildcats per EvanMiya, a statistic that gauges the number of 10-0 scoring runs a team averages per game. 

Oakland will combat Kentucky’s uptempo playstyle with a time-consuming offense that operates primarily in the halfcourt through isolation and a myriad of off-ball actions. For reference, the Golden Grizzlies rank 232nd in adjusted tempo and 307th in average possession length. Not only are they deliberate, but they are efficient and judicious with the ball. The Grizzlies rank in the top 100 in eFG%, and they turn the ball over on 16.2% of their possessions – which is just outside the top 120 nationally. As an added bonus, Oakland is a top 50 free-throw percentage team, which will likely be utilized against a Kentucky defense that is outside the top 200 in opposing free throw rate.

The Wildcats have superior talent in this matchup, but there is an incredible amount of experience and longevity within the Oakland program. Coach Kampe has been around quite a while, and is well-respected among coaches and the college basketball community – so I fully expect a spirited and prepared effort from the Grizzlies. His experience and headiness permeates Oakland’s roster, and is exemplified by Trey Townsend – a do-it-all player that leads the team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals per game. He’s going to be the focal point of this matchup, but Oakland’s perimeter shooters Jack Gohlke and Blake Lampman are equally as crucial playing off Townsend. It is important to note Oakland expects Rocket Watts and Isaiah Jones to return from injury, which only improves the Grizzlies’ front court depth while providing them with another ball-handler that is not turnover-prone. I’m not confident enough to pick Oakland outright. However, given their success against teams that profile similarly to Kentucky, their experience, and their unique gameplan, the Golden Grizzlies should have enough here to stay inside the number.

Read our expert’s March Madness underdog picks for Day 1 of the NCAA Tournament

Samford Bulldogs ML over Kansas Jayhawks (+260) 

Odds courtesy of BetMGM at the time of publishing

It’s March Madness. It wouldn’t feel right to be without a sizable underdog bet in the Round of 64, so I’m going to take Samford on the money line. Losers of 4 of their last 5 games, the Jayhawks will be without leading scorer Kevin McCullar for the NCAA Tournament, while Hunter Dickinson is playing at less than 100% due to a right shoulder dislocation. Kansas is already dearth of depth, so this spot sets up perfectly for the SoCon champions – who love to play fast and frantically while pressuring opponents in their “Bucky Ball” system under coach Bucky McMillan.

Not only does Samford play fast, but it crashes the glass on the offensive end and forces turnovers at a top-20 rate nationally – creating extra possessions. The Bulldogs have incredible depth with multiple shooters making over 38% of their 3-point attempts, in addition to Achor Achor in the post. Achor can match KJ Adams’ aggressive playing style, and is quick and versatile enough to frustrate a hampered Dickinson. Samford does not necessarily profile as a team that is built for an NCAA Tournament upset, and it has not punched up well against the other top 100 opponents it played earlier in the season. However, it feels like the Bulldogs are catching the Jayhawks at the right time.

Check out our March Madness winner expert roundtable, featuring 5 best bets from some of the sharpest college basketball minds!

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