March Madness odds, lines, predictions: Expert picks for 2024 NCAA Tournament games on Day 1 (March 21)

The first round of the 2024 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is here. 

No. 8 Michigan State and No. 9 Mississippi State will start off Thursday’s action in a true toss-up game, and there are a few other themes to watch for. 

Which first-round upsets will be trending? No. 13 Samford takes on No. 4 Kansas late, and No. 12 McNeese led by coach Will Wade will be a popular pick against No. 5 Gonzaga. 

No. 1 North Carolina is the only top seed in action Thursday, and No. 2 seeds Tennessee, Arizona and Iowa State will look to avoid the bracket-busting upset in Round 1. 

No. 3 Kentucky also is in action against No. 14 Oakland. The Wildcats haven’t made it past the first weekend of the tournament under John Calipari since 2018-19. Keep an eye on the high-scoring Wildcats. 

It’s a loaded schedule with 16 games. Sporting News will pick every first-round game over the next two days. Here are our picks for Day 1. Odds courtesy BetMGM.

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March Madness picks, predictions for Round 1

  • No. 8 Michigan State (-1.5) vs. No. 9 Mississippi State (West) 

This line has dropped a half-point across a few books. It’s always risky to bet against Tom Izzo in the tournament, but the Spartans are 1-4 S/U and 1-4 ATS in games with spreads of three points or less. Freshman Josh Hubbard averaged 25.4 points in the Bulldogs’ last eight games, and the Bulldogs have a top-20 defense, too. 

Pick: Mississippi State 66, Michigan State 63

  • No. 6 BYU (-9.5) vs. No. 11 Duquesne (East) 

Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot – who coached LeBron James in high school – will retire after this tournament run. The Dukes rank No. 34 in adjusted defensive efficiency, and guard Dae Dae Grant is a closer. BYU, however, can score through that with an offense that averaged 81.8 points per game. A tall back-court of BYU guards Jaxson Robinson (13.8 ppg.), Trevin Knell (10.9 ppg) and Spencer Johnson (10.3 ppg.) will wear on Duquesne in the second half. 

Pick: BYU 75, Duquesne 70 

  • No. 3 Creighton (-12.5) vs. No. 14 Akron (Midwest) 

Akron is 0-5 in the NCAA tournament, and they’ve lost those games by an average of 18.2 points per game. The Zips did throw a scare into UCLA in the first round in 2022, and Ernrique Freeman can be a handful (18.6 ppg. 12.9 rpg.). We just don’t like this matchup at all against a Bluejays team with guard Baylor Scheirman (18.4) and 7-footer Ryan Kalkbrenner. Creighton is 8-2 ATS when favored by 12 points or more. 

Pick: Creighton 80, Akron 65

REGION-BY-REGION GUIDES: South | Midwest | West | East;u=220580

  • No. 2 Arizona (-20.5) vs. No. 15 Long Beach State (West) 

Dan Monson – the coach who helped found the Gonzaga dynasty – has one more run. Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd also has Gonzaga connections, but the Wildcats will not play around here after last year’s loss to Princeton in the 2-15 game. Caleb Love will ensure that it doesn’t get too close, but the Beach doesn’t have a 20-point loss this season. 

Pick: Arizona 84, Long Beach State 67

  • No. 1 North Carolina (-24.5) vs. No. 16 Wagner (West) 

The Tar Heels face Wagner after its Tuesday night First Four win. North Carolina is no stranger to a No. 1 seed  – they were the No. 1 in 2016, 2017 and 2019. The Tar Heels won those games by an average of 23.3 points per game. That explains the line against Wagner. The Seahawks are 0-2 ATS as an underdog of 20 points or more. 

Pick: North Carolina 86, Wagner 60

Terrance Shannon

(Getty Images)

  • No. 3 Illinois (-11.5)  vs. No. 14 Morehead State (East) 

Illinois does have a quick turnaround from the Big Ten championship run – a three-game run where standout guard Terrence Shannon averaged 34 points per game. How does Morehead State forward Riley Minnix (20.8 ppg.) contend with the Illini’s physical front line? Illinois was 7-0 S/U when favored between 10-20 points, but they were 2-5 against the spread. This might finish right on the line. 

Pick: Illinois 74, Morehead State 60

EXPERT PICKS: DeCourcy (UConn) | Bender (UConn) | Iyer (UConn) | Yanchulis (South Carolina women)

  • No. 6 South Carolina (-1.5) vs. No. 11 Oregon (Midwest) 

This might turn out to be the best game of the day. The Gamecocks are a slight favorite under coach Lamont Paris. South Carolina has a talented inside-outside combination with Meechie Johnson (13.8 ppg.) and B.J. Mack (13.6 ppg.). Oregon counters with guard Jermaine Cousinard (15.4 ppg.) and 6-11 center N’Faly Dante (16.2 ppg.). Both teams have almost-identical defensive ratings. The Ducks are 6-1 S/U and 6-1 ATS in games where the spread is three points or less either way. 

Pick: Oregon 79, South Carolina 77 

  • No. 7 Dayton vs. No. 10 Nevada (-1.5)  (West) 

The Flyers are out in Salt Lake City, and Dayton fizzled down the stretch with a 3-3 record in its last six games. The reward is a close-to-home game for Nevada, which is making its second tournament appearance under Steve Alford. Jarod Lucas (17.8 ppg.) is the type of scorer who can take over here, and the Wolfpack win a squeaker. This is one of two games where we’re taking the favored No. 10 seed. 

Pick: Nevada 74, Dayton 71 

  • No. 10 Colorado State vs. No. 7 Texas (-2.5) (Midwest) 

The Longhorns, a team that went 5-5 in their final 10 games, are still favored against Colorado State. This is another potential double-digit upset, especially if the Rams control the tempo early. Texas’ Max Abmas (17.1 ppg.) led Oral Roberts on a Sweet 16 run in 2021. Colorado State’s Isaiah Stevens (16.2 ppg.) will be the focus for the Rams. 

Pick: Texas 69, Colorado State 65

  • No. 3 Kentucky (-13.5) vs. No. 14 Oakland (South) 

Look for Kentucky to turn it up after an embarrassing showing in the SEC tournament. The Wildcats rank second in Division I with 89.4 points per game, and they are among the best teams in the country in three-point shooting and fast-break points. Oakland had a break-through season in the Horizon League, and Trey Townsend (16.9 ppg.) can score, but this feels like a Wildcats’ blowout. 

Pick: Kentucky 91, Oakland 72

  • No. 5 Gonzaga (-6.5) vs. No. 12 McNeese (Midwest) 

The line has come down a half-point, and there is a lot of faith in the Cowboys. Will Wade — the former LSU coach – has a 30-win team that allows just 60.5 points per game. Will that translate against Gonzaga – a team that ranks 7th in the NCAA with 84.9 points per game? The Wildcats also have won their last four tournament games by 26 points per game. Granted this is a lower-seeded team, but the Bulldogs are still more than capable of pulling away in a shootout.

Pick: Gonzaga 82, McNeese 70

Keshon Gilbert

(Getty Images)

  • No. 2 Iowa State (-16.5) vs. No. 15 South Dakota State (East) 

The last two times Iowa State won the Big 12 tournament in 2017 and 2019, they failed to get out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. South Dakota State is 0-5 all time in the Big Dance, however, and the Cyclones allow just 61.3 points per game. Iowa State is 9-2 ATS when favored by 12 points or more. 

Pick: Iowa State 76, South Dakota State 56

  • No. 2 Tennessee (-21.5) vs. No. 15 Saint Peter’s (Midwest) 

The Vols were a dud in the SEC tournament, and now they play the Peacocks – who made an Elite Eight run in the 2022 men’s basketball tournament. Saint Peter’s was 10-6 ATS as an underdog this season, and the Vols are 3-3 ATS when favored by 20 points or more. Tennessee will cruise, but it’s a matter of how much. The Peacocks do limit teams to 63.4 ppg. How long can they control the tempo? 

Pick: Tennessee 79, Saint Peter’s 59

16 vs. 115 vs. 2 | 14 vs. 3 | 13 vs. 4 | 12 vs. 5

  • No. 6 Texas Tech (-5.5) vs. No. 11 NC State (South) 

Can the Wolfpack keep the magic going? NC State won five games in five days to win the ACC Tournament, and now they catch an up-and-down Texas Tech team in the Pittsburgh pod. NC State played better defense in the ACC tournament, and DJ Horne is a potential game-changer, but we see the Red Raiders ending the dream season in the second half with their transition offense. 

Pick: Texas Tech 82, NC State 73

  • No. 4 Kansas (-8.5) vs. No. 13 Samford (Midwest) 

The Bulldogs will be a late-night upset pick – especially if “Bucky Ball” takes hold against Kansas. The Jayhawks are dealing with injuries to Hunter Dickinson and Kevin McCullar, who is out for the tournament. Samford shoots 39.3% from 3-point range. Is that the recipe for a lucky No. 13? Just keep in mind Kansas has won its last four first-round tournament games by an average of 25 points per game. 

Pick: Kansas 83, Samford 76

  • No. 7 Washington State vs. No. 10 Drake (-1.5) (East) 

This is the other No. 10 seed we like, though Drake had a long lay-off from the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship. How long does it take for Tucker DeVries (21.8 ppg.) to warm up? Senior forward Isaac Jones (15.4 ppg.) and guard Myles Rice (15.1 ppg.) can score for the Cougars, an underrated team that is the second-highest seed in the Pac-12. Drake is close to home in Omaha, too. The Bulldogs win the night-cap. 

Pick: Drake 69, Washington State 67


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