For the first time since before the pandemic, the men's NCAA tournament first round will begin on a Thursday and we will get a traditional long weekend of gambling. Order is restored. Brackets will dominate the conversations, but the Big Dance offers a plethora of betting options and angles.
Here are some that stick out to me:
Defense is key for Texas Tech
The West Region seemingly offers betting value because I do not believe in the top two seeds. Gonzaga (-125 to win region) is a championship contender, but the Bulldogs are still not as good as last year's team and they have shown plenty of vulnerability this season. Duke (+350 to win region) sure seems like a farce of a 2-seed, as we witnessed throughout the entire ACC Tournament. I actually trust the 3- and 4-seeds more than I do the top two.
I know what I am getting with Texas Tech (+500 to win region), which owns the nation's top defense. Texas Tech has demonstrated its toughness and its offense is better than people realize, although KenPom ranks the Red Raiders 65th in adjusted offensive efficiency. If they faced Duke on a neutral court, the line would be about pick 'em. Keep in mind, the Blue Devils are +350 to win the region.
Arkansas (+1200 to win region) is the 4-seed and obviously Eric Musselman has done a wonderful job with the Razorbacks, reaching the Sweet 16 last season before falling to eventual champion Baylor. If the Razorbacks meet Gonzaga in this year's Sweet 16, the Zags would only be about a 7.5-point favorite.
Sign up for ESPN's Tournament Challenge here.
Sleeping on Houston
The South Region is interesting in that it offers a couple teams that have proven they are capable of beating -- and losing -- to anyone in No. 2 Villanova and No. 4 Illinois. I realize that's the beauty of the NCAA Tournament, but these are schools that can truly lay the biggest of eggs.
In terms of sleepers, Houston (+800 to win South Region) stands out. The problem is that the Cougars potentially have to go through Illinois, Arizona and Tennessee. Perhaps it makes more sense to roll over some money lines, but I do like Kelvin Sampson and the Cougars. KenPom ranks them in the top 11 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency.
South 3-seed Tennessee (20-1 title odds) will be a chic pick -- and rightfully so. To be fair, 20-1 is tempting and a number worth betting. The Vols just won the SEC tournament after a season that featured wins over Arizona, Auburn and Kentucky. But they also had some questionable losses and their offense can be average. However, some metrics loved UT once conference play started. I realize questioning Rick Barnes is an annual tradition, but remember that critics used to write off 2019 champion Virginia in the same way.
Hanging with the Hawkeyes
In the Midwest Region, is it possible we are overlooking the bluest of bluebloods in No. 1 Kansas (+900 title odds)? The Jayhawks just won the Big 12 tournament after capturing a share of the regular season title. Yes, there were times I even doubted them, but Bill Self has this crew peaking at the right time. Plus, Remy Martin just returned from injury and played a huge role in Saturday's tournament final against Texas Tech. The Arizona State transfer was actually the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year, so you could imagine the boost he can provide. I couldn't argue with anyone grabbing 9-1.
Iowa (+550 to win region) could become a trendy bet after winning the Big Ten tournament. The Hawkeyes rank second in KenPom's adjusted offensive efficiency and can certainly light up the scoreboard as they demonstrated by scoring 112 points against Northwestern. If any high seed has a cold shooting night, then Iowa will be a live 'dog.
The region also has three teams I am itching to fade with the point spread. Providence and USC are widely considered "lucky" teams and that regression will eventually hit them. However, some teams do just perform better in clutch situations, so perhaps the Friars and Trojans are battle-tested and legitimate. It's all about perception, and your narrative will adjust accordingly. However, there is no arguing against Auburn's shakiness. The SEC champion and No. 2 seed Tigers are 1-6 ATS in their last seven away from home, with the lone cover coming in overtime as the favorite. I'm considering +16.5 with Jacksonville State, but I will definitely back the winner of USC and Miami (FL) in the second round against the Tigers, assuming they advance.
Bruins under the radar again
In the East Region, I am unsure what to make of top-seeded Baylor, which has the longest title odds (12-1) of the four 1-seeds. The defending champs could become the first 1-seed to lose in the second round to North Carolina, but they also rank top 14 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Thanks to injuries and a tough Big 12 schedule, my eyes have doubted the Bears much of the season, but they also have tenacious defense and timely shooting to survive and advance. I still would not even consider a bet at 12-1 odds.
Kentucky (+800 to win title) is the 2-seed but has shorter odds and a doable path to the Final Four. Purdue and Texas are the high seeds that could await them in the Sweet 16, and those two schools are automatic fades for me. I like Purdue's size and offense, but their defense ranks 100th in KenPom. That's just unacceptable and thus a pass.
How would we perceive UCLA (+600 to win region) if the Bruins had maintained their 12-point, second-half lead in the Pac-12 championship game against Arizona, which became the tourney's No. 2 overall seed? The Bruins battled some injuries, but coach Mick Cronin showed last year what he could do by reaching the Final Four. I am going to look to back UCLA with the point spread in several spots. Call it West Coast bias or bedtime, but the Bruins are flying under the radar again.