NCAA Tournament First Round Picks and ATS Predictions (2021)

ncaa tournament first round picks 2021
photo credit craig dudek

The 2021 NCAA Tournament field is locked in. Now it is time to bust out the brackets, fill in the lines, and predict which teams will make deep runs in Indianapolis this month. If you’re looking for some help with filling out your bracket or locking in some ATS picks, then you are in the right place.

In this NCAA Tournament first round picks piece, you will find analysis for every opening round game along with a betting prediction.

Come along for the ride as we help you navigate what promises to be a wild opening round of March Madness action.

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NCAA Tournament First Round Picks

Below, we will run through every game on the board from Thursday through Saturday. There’s plenty to digest.

Keep in mind, the analysis and picks below are made against the current spreads listed at DraftKings Sportsbook. Therefore, when we lock in Drexel +23, we simply mean that the Dragons will cover the spread, not necessarily win the game outright.

That being said, be sure to check out our piece on NCAA Tournament sleeper picks. Also, be sure to check out DraftKings’ 64-1 odds offer on the NCAA Tournament.

First Four NCAA Tournament Predictions

Texas Southern (-2.5) vs. Mt. St. Mary’s

Mt. St. Mary’s gets the nod here as they defend the three-point line extremely well (No. 21 in the nation) and face a Texas Southern team who is one of the worst teams from deep in college ball.

The winner will likely get run out of the building by a Michigan team looking for blood after all of the drama it faced in the Big Ten Tournament.

Pick: Mt. St. Mary’s +2.5

Wichita St. (-2) vs. Drake

Wichita St. overachieved this season, winning the AAC regular season title, largely due to their ability to win close games. However, Drake, who was one of the best cover teams in the nation all season long, got three games against a team very similar in style to Wichita.

It should be able to use those experiences against Loyola to find a win in this First Four matchup. The winner will have a legitimate shot to upset an erratic USC team in the Round of 64.

Pick: Drake +2

Appalachian St. (-3) vs. Norfolk St.

Norfolk St. was 9-4 SU away from home this season and has a huge edge shooting and defending the three-point line in this one. The reward for the winner is likely getting beat by 40+ against Gonzaga.

Pick: Norfolk St. +3

Michigan St. (-2) vs. UCLA

Both teams were poor this season away from home, but UCLA has also only covered one of their last five NCAA Tournament games as an underdog, so we give the edge to the Spartans who always seem to find a way to show up this time of year. The winner will have their hands full with a very good BYU team which gave Gonzaga about the toughest test they saw all season in the WCC Tourney Finals.

Pick: Michigan St. -2

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Friday NCAA Tournament First Round Picks

Florida (-1) vs. Virginia Tech

The Gators struggled twice against the elite scoring defense of Tennessee at the end of the season and could have similar issues against the Hokies’ Top 50 scoring defense. Virginia Tech is gritty and protects the ball far better than Florida.

Pick: Virginia Tech +1

Arkansas (-9.5) vs. Colgate

In their brief 15-game season, Colgate was undefeated on the road and boasted the nation’s best three-point field goal percentage defense. The Raiders are also one of the few teams that have the offensive chops (85.7 ppg) to hang with Arkansas (83.3 ppg).

Pick: Colgate +9.5

Illinois (-23) vs. Drexel

The Illini, who just played six straight games away from home against NCAA Tournament teams, could be primed for a letdown here, while peeking ahead to a tough second round matchup against either MVC Tournament Champ Loyola-Chigago or ACC Tournament Champ Georgia Tech.

Drexel should be comfortable on the road here, having played their last eight games away from home and boasting a 10-3-1 ATS record away from home this season.

Pick: Drexel +23

Texas Tech (-4.5) vs. Utah St.

Texas Tech was just 6-6 SU and 3-9 ATS away from home this season, including 2-7 ATS as a favorite of seven points or less. The Red Raiders only covered this number in two of their 16 games against NCAA Tournament teams this season. Making matters worse, they play a Utah State squad that is Top 25 in the nation in both scoring defense (24th) and field goal percentage defense (18th).

Pick: Utah St. +4.5

Ohio St. (-16.5) vs. Oral Roberts

Ohio State only won six of their 30 games by more than this number and could be looking for a mental break after a grueling Big Ten Tournament that saw them play two overtime games and two more contests decided by five points or less.

Oral Roberts’ elite foul shooting (81.3%) and eighth-ranked three-point shooting group could exploit the Buckeyes’ poor perimeter defense (230th in the nation defending from long range) enough to hang in this game with this generous spot.

Pick: Oral Roberts +16.5

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Baylor (-26) vs. Hartford

The week off before this game will be the first breather Baylor has gotten since getting thrust back into action at the end of the Big 12 regular season and conference tournament.

The Bears should come into this one finally feeling fit and fresh to play a Hartford team that already struggles to score and defend the three. That’s problematic against the Bears, a team that can lock you down on defense and is third in the nation in scoring (85.3 ppg) and firsts at shooting from deep (42.9%).

Pick: Baylor -26

Loyola-Chicago (-2) vs. Georgia Tech

Loyola-Chicago will want to earn a win here for 101-year old Sister Jean, their No. 1 fan and lucky charm, who likely will not be allowed to attend the tournament due to restrictions.

That story aside, the Ramblers may be the NCAA Tournament’s most underrated team, with the nation’s best scoring defense and an offense that shoots it over 50% from the field (No. 5 in the country).

Pick: Loyola-Chicago -2

Tennessee (-7.5) vs. Oregon St.

Tennessee’s offense is just too erratic to lay this kind of number, especially with John Fulkerson likely to miss another game. Moreover, the Volunteers play a red-hot Oregon State team coming in with the confidence after knocking off three straight NCAA Tournament teams en route to their PAC-12 Tournament title. The Beavers are 10-3 ATS away from home this season, while the Vols are 0-6 ATS this season as a 7.5-9.5 point favorite.

One more thing — they have failed to cover any of their last four NCAA Tournament games, all as favorites.

Pick: Oregon St. +7.5

Oklahoma St. (-9.5) vs. Liberty

Liberty may be 23-5 on the season, but they only played two NCAA Tournament teams, losing to both by 9+ points. When this one tips off, they will have been without game action for 12 days.

Oklahoma St. has the likely No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft in Cade Cunningham, who has been unstoppable, and should help a Cowboys team that was phenomenal away from home this season (10-5 SU & 10-4-1 ATS) figure out ways through a tough Flames defense for the cover.

Pick: Oklahoma St. -9.5

UNC-Chapel Hill (-2) vs. Wisconsin

Wisconsin has played one of the toughest slates all season and has an enormous edge at the free throw stripe in what promises to be a close game. The Badgers have only lost ATS once in their last 10 NCAA Tournament games as an underdog, while the Tar Heels are just 1-4 ATS in their last five NCAA Tourney games as a favorite. The public will likely be on UNC here, and this feels like a good fade spot.

Pick: Wisconsin +2

Houston (-20) vs. Cleveland St.

Cleveland State is a Monmouth Bench Mob-esque team that any fan would love to get behind in the tournament, but if you watched Houston play in the AAC Tournament Finals against Cincinnati, you saw how absolutely devastating the Cougars can be against inferior opponents. The Cougars boast a top five defense in several categories and have a mind-blowing 12 wins by 20+ points this season.

Pick: Houston -20

Purdue (-7.5) vs. North Texas

North Texas is a highly undervalued defensive team which rolled through the C-USA Tournament, beating three higher ranked opponents, including NCAA Tourney bubble snub, Western Kentucky.

The Mean Green are No. 21 in the nation in scoring defense (62.5 ppg allowed) and shoot a tremendous percentage from the field, which should allow them to hang in there with a Purdue team that has failed to win any of its last eight NCAA Tournament first round games by double digits when entering as a No. 4 seed or worse.

Pick: North Texas +7.5

 

Rutgers (-1.5) vs. Clemson

It is no mistake that the No. 10 seed in this matchup is favored over the No. 7 seed, as Rutgers has waited 30 years (including a COVID-19 snub last spring) to get back to the NCAA Tournament.  This is a tough, experienced group that survived a grueling Big Ten schedule to make it here.

Clemson has one of the worst offenses in the nation (304th in ppg) and are a liability away from home where they hold a sub. 500 record and are just 1-6 ATS in true road games.

Pick: Rutgers -1.5

San Diego St. (-3) vs. Syracuse

Look for some father-son bonding here for the ‘Cuse as Coach Jim Boeheim’s son, Buddy, is finally healthy and hot. He’s producing the kind of play that can single-handedly take a team on a run in the NCAA Tournament.

San Diego St. could struggle with the Syracuse zone, a defense that will be difficult to simulate in a limiting quarantine environment in Indianapolis.

Pick: Syracuse +3

West Virginia (-12.5) vs. Morehead St.

A contrast of styles here, but we like West Virginia’s high-powered offense and three-point shooting prowess coming in rested. Huggins’ group is impossible to prepare for with its free-flowing attack and ability to throw a press at an opponent if they need some quick points.

It will be 13 days since defensive-minded Morehead St. last played when this one tips off and the momentum they had during their seven-game winning streak may be lost against a unique opponent.

Pick: West Virginia -12.5

Villanova (-6) vs. Winthrop

Since Nova’s leader, Colin Gillespie, went down with a knee injury, the Wildcats have lost both of their games, each as favorites of 4-6 points. Facing a one-loss Winthrop team that is 12-0 SU away from home and won all three games  they played as an underdog this season.

There is no reason to believe that Villanova has what it takes to both win and cover this sizable number.

Pick: Winthrop +6

Saturday NCAA Tournament First Round Picks

Colorado (-5) vs. Georgetown

Patrick Ewing has his Georgetown team on a tear right now. They ripped through the Big East Tourney, leaving Marquette, Nova, SH, and Creighton in their wake.

The Hoyas were the best three-point shooting team in the Big East (36.6%) and make foul shots, which should allow them to match up with the Buffaloes two strengths and cover or win against a Colorado team that has not covered any of their last four NCAA Tournament games.

Pick: Georgetown +5

Florida St. (-11.5) vs. UNC-Greensboro

There’s a lot to love about the size and experience that Florida St. brings to this matchup, but this is a lot of points to lay for a Seminoles team that had a sub .500 record away from home this season. They covered just two of those nine games ATS.

Greensboro led the nation in wins away from home with 14 (6-3 ATS away against >.500 opponents) and only lost two of their 29 total games by more than this number.

Pick: UNC-Greensboro +11.5

Kansas (-10.5) vs. Eastern Washington

Much like Virginia, Kansas comes in with some COVID-19 uncertainties that could destabilize an already mediocre offense and put too much pressure on a defense the Jayhawks have been overly reliant upon this season.

Eastern Washington comes in hot and will be able to find enough points to keep this close by way of its Top 10 foul shooting (79.1%) and Top 35 scoring offense (79.3 ppg).

Pick: Eastern Washington +10.5

LSU (-1.5) vs. St. Bonaventure

St. Bonaventure slides in under the radar due to playing just 20 games this year in a disrupted A-10 season. Still, they are one of the nation’s most elite defenses (17th in adjusted defense) and have proven they can play well after a long layoff, beating VCU in the A-10 Tourney Championship Game after nearly a week off.

The Bonnies were 8-3 away from home this season and face an LSU team which was just 7-7 away (2-4 against NCAA Tourney teams) and had eight losses to teams in the Top 60 in adjusted defense.

Pick: St. Bonaventure +1.5

Creighton (-6.5) vs. UC-Santa Barbara

Creighton showed some vulnerabilities in its blowout loss to Georgetown in the Big East Tournament Final and could have a tough time with a four-loss UCSB team that can run and gun. UCSB was 8-2 ATS against >.500 opponents this season, while the Blue Jays were just 3-9 ATS as favorites of 3-9.5 points.

The dynamic offense they rely upon has failed to hit 70 points in four of their last six games.

Pick: UCSB +6.5

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Alabama (-16.5) vs. Iona

Alabama comes in after an amazing run through the SEC regular season schedule and conference tournament, winning both titles. Still, it is hard to imagine wily coach Rick Pitino  won’t find a way to keep his team in this one. Alabama, for all the good they’ve done this year, have just a .500 road cover record and have not laid a number this large all season.

Pick: Iona +16.5

Iowa (-14.5) vs. Grand Canyon

Coach Bryce Drew, of NCAA Tourney lore as a player, has now led Grand Canyon to its first ever Big Dance in just its eighth year in the D-I ranks. However, his team will meet one of the nation’s most elite offenses in Iowa. The Antelopes do not shoot free throws or three-pointers well enough to keep pace across 40 minutes here, especially while trying to slow down National Player of the Year contender, the 6’11” Luka Garza.

Pick: Iowa -14.5

UConn (-2.5) vs. Maryland

UConn lost a heartbreaker to Creighton in the Big East Tournament semis, a tourney it was projected to win. The Huskies should be chomping at the bit to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, starting with a win over a Maryland team many thought should not have made the field.

The Huskies, who have covered each of their last five games as a neutral court favorite, should handle the Terps, who were just 16-13 SU overall, 8-12 in the Big Ten, and had a losing record away from home this season.

Pick: UConn -2.5

Virginia (-8.5) vs. Ohio

Let’s keep this one simple.  Given this team’s COVID-19 issues and its forced exit from the ACC Tournament last weekend, there are just too many question marks here to back a low-scoring Cavs squad that was just 1-3 ATS on neutral courts this season and covered just five of their 14 games against >.500 teams.

Pick: Ohio +8.5

Oklahoma (-2) vs. Missouri

A close one to call here, but the better value seems to be taking a couple points with a Mizzou team that was 8-5 SU away from home against a Sooners group that was just 5-7 SU and 4-8 ATS in that role.

The Tigers are a blistering 10-2 ATS in their L12 NCAA Tournament games as an underdog.

Pick: Missouri +2

Texas (-9) vs. Abilene Christian

This could be a slight letdown spot for a Longhorns bunch that may still be celebrating their first ever Big 12 Tournament title last Saturday. Texas covered just three of their 10 games as single digit favorites this season, while Abilene Christian covered both of its games as single digit dogs and all five of its games on neutral courts this season.

Pick: Abilene Christian +9

Oregon (-6) vs. VCU

Oregon has been a quality road team all season, winners of nine of its 13 games away from home.

The Ducks, who have not lost ATS in any of their last six NCAA Tournament games or any of their last eight neutral court games as a favorite, were a perfect 3-0 ATS as favorites of 5-7 points this season. They were also 8-2 ATS as favorites of less than seven points.

Pick: Oregon -6

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