The 2023 NCAA tournament bracket was released on Sunday, with 68 of the nation’s best teams set to battle for a trip to the Final Four in Houston.
March Madness also represents one of the biggest betting seasons on the calendar, as nearly $15.5 billion will be bet on the men’s tournament, according to an American Gaming Association survey. Our ESPN sports betting analysts have you covered with their best betting tips for the first round of the tournament.
All odds are from Caesars Sportsbook.
Which team in the field has the top betting value to win the tournament?
Alabama Crimson Tide (+700)
Borzello: I’m picking Alabama to win it all, so while +700 isn’t incredible value (second favorite), the Crimson Tide would be my best bet in order to have a legitimate chance at a return. Deeper down the list, Marquette at +2000 offers sneaky value. The Golden Eagles just ran through the Big East tournament, have a favorable bottom half of the bracket and also have the most vulnerable 1-seed, Purdue, at the top of their region. I think they get to the Final Four out of the East.
Cuff: I agree with Jeff — Bama is my pick to win it all. I think the Tide are the most dynamic team on both sides of the ball. At +700, the value isn’t that bad, but Houston is the shortest favorite at +600, and those are the longest odds for a title favorite since 1994. For more value, I think Texas at +1200 is a solid play. The Longhorns have a great path to the Elite Eight and may come up against a wounded Houston team if they get that far.
Looking at Thursday’s and Friday’s first-round games, which are your favorite plays?
Borzello: The total in Missouri-Utah State opened at 155, and I love the UNDER there. Missouri plays at an above-average pace and is highly efficient offensively, but the Tigers tend to play in lower-scoring games against competitive opponents. In their past 12 games against NCAA tournament competition, they’ve gone under nine times. Utah State is favored and plays a slower tempo than Missouri, so this feels like a game that won’t be played in the mid- to high 70s.
Borzello: OVER 152 in Auburn-Iowa is another favorite. It should be a competitive game and both teams tend to play faster in games against nonconference opponents. Auburn ended the season going over in four of its past five games and 11 of its past 17 games, while Iowa went over in three of its past four games and eight of its past 12.
Why Dalen Cuff has No. 12 VCU upsetting No. 5 Saint Mary’s
Dalen Cuff explains why he has No. 12 VCU taking down No. 5 Saint Mary’s as one of his favorite bets in the first round.
Cuff: VCU ML (+162) over St. Mary’s. The Gaels struggle with athleticism on both ends and their offense can become rather pedestrian when star freshman point guard Aidan Mahaney is taken out of games. I covered a lot of A-10 games this year, and VCU’s Ace Baldwin relishes opportunities to show he’s the best point guard on the floor. The Rams are an elite defensive team that will disrupt and frustrate the slow-paced Gaels offense.
Cuff: SDSU -5 vs. Charleston. The Cougars are a media darling and very good, but they played so few high-major opponents, especially ones that were highly ranked defensively. The Aztecs will control the tempo of the game and grind the Cougars in a way they haven’t seen all season.
Fulghum: I like Missouri ML (+105) in its matchup with Utah State. I know the computers and algos haven’t thought much of Mizzou this season, but the Tigers kept winning. A team that finished fourth in the SEC is an underdog as a 7-seed in the first round against a team that finished second in the Mountain West? Doesn’t add up. Missouri is tough, tenacious and loaded with veteran upperclassmen.
Why Tyler Fulghum loves taking the points with Louisiana
Tyler Fulghum explains why he likes betting on Louisiana against the spread vs. Tennessee.
I also like Louisiana +11 vs. Tennessee. For one, Tennessee likes to play in low-scoring games, so catching 11 points is very attractive. The Vols will be without Zakai Zeigler for the tournament, and that’s a big loss. Plus, Rick Barnes has a history of struggles in the tournament. He’s 16-25-1 ATS in the tournament as a favorite.
Lastly, I’ll take Arkansas -2 vs. Illinois. I don’t know what happened to Brad Underwood’s team this season after they lost the Braggin’ Rights Game to Mizzou, but it was a disaster. If they weren’t a Big Ten team, they may not have made it into this field. I know the Razorbacks were a disappointment as well, but the SEC provided better competition, and they’re just a more talented team.
Fortenbaugh: Drake +2.5 over Miami. Having won 13 of their past 14 outings, the Bulldogs are white-hot thanks to an offense that ranks top-50 in 3-point shooting and top-20 in free throw shooting. Further, Drake boasts one of the most experienced lineups in the entire tournament.
Furman (+185) on the moneyline over Virginia. The Paladins enter the dance having won 14 of their past 15 contests and are built to beat a team like Virginia, thanks to their love of the 3-pointer (top-10 in 3-point attempts per game). Furman’s weakness is its rebounding, which I don’t see the Cavaliers exploiting.
Which betting upset are you targeting?
Borzello: I’m looking at two 13-seeds: Furman (+6.5, +185 ML) against Virginia and Kent State (+4, +158 ML) against Indiana. I have both teams winning outright. Virginia hasn’t looked its best in recent weeks and lost Ben Vander Plas for the season, while Furman has two legitimate high-major-caliber players in Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson. Meanwhile, Kent State should be able to limit Jalen Hood-Schifino with elite defender Malique Jacobs, and Sincere Carry is as tough as they come on the offensive end. Trayce Jackson-Davis should get his, but he’ll need help.
I also like Penn State (+3) as an underdog against Texas A&M. The way to beat the Nittany Lions is to win the 3-point battle: make your own 3s and limit their 3s. A&M ranked near the bottom of the SEC in 3-point attempts and percentage of points from 3, while also ranking dead last in the league in 3-point attempts allowed.
Cuff: I really like Furman and Kent State, as Borzello pointed out. I like Creighton, but NC State (+5.5) could easily win that game. I think the winner of that game beats Baylor and is going to the Sweet 16. The Wolfpack have a top-20 pick in the NBA draft in Terquavion Smith and another dynamic bucket getter in Jarkel Joiner. With D.J. Burns Jr. on the interior, other shooters on the floor and an ability to turn teams over and play fast, the Pack are dangerous.
Fulghum: Looks Like Furman (+6.5) is going to be really popular. VCU (+4) and Iona (+9) also stand out to me as two teams that we could see pull off upsets and meet in Round 2 … putting at least one 12- or 13-seed into the Sweet Sixteen.
12-seeds are 8-4 ATS (4-4 outright) vs. 5-seeds the past three tournaments. Is there one you like here?
Borzello: I like VCU (+162) to beat Saint Mary’s outright. Both teams perform at a high level defensively and are comfortable in a half-court setting, so don’t expect offensive fireworks. The difference for me is VCU’s quickness and tenaciousness on the perimeter defensively. Ace Baldwin was the best defensive player in the Atlantic 10, while Jayden Nunn and Nick Kern Jr. love to hassle opposing guards. Their size and length will make life difficult for Aidan Mahaney and Logan Johnson.
Why sports bettors shouldn’t sleep on Oral Roberts
Joe Fortenbaugh explains why Oral Roberts getting the points is one of his favorite bets of the week.
Cuff: I love Oral Roberts, but their draw with Duke is a bad matchup. I said earlier I am on No. 5 SDSU over No. 12 Charleston and No. 12 VCU ML over No. 5 St. Mary’s. That leaves No. 5 Miami vs. No. 12 Drake. If Norchad Omier isn’t healthy for Miami, Drake could pull the upset. Tucker DeVries is legit and Roman Penn and Darnell Brodie were both key players on the 2021 team that beat Wichita State in their first-round matchup. As much as I love Miami and their great guards, this is a tough matchup, as evidenced by a 2.5 line in favor of the Canes.
Fulghum: VCU (+162) is the 12-seed that I have advancing furthest in my bracket. They’re only a 4.5-point underdog in the first round against St. Mary’s, and despite some metrics that indicate to the contrary, I haven’t been all that impressed with St. Mary’s this season.
Fortenbaugh: Oral Roberts (+240) over Duke. I think the Blue Devils are overrated after running through a mediocre ACC. Oral Roberts plays fast (38th in adjusted tempo), shoots the lights out and does an excellent job protecting the basketball (first in NCAA in turnover percentage).
Anything else you are looking to bet before the tournament tips off?
Borzello: Kansas State -8 vs. Montana State. Here are Montana State’s past three games against major conference competition: 21-point loss to Arizona, 30-point loss to Oregon and then a 35-point loss to Texas Tech in last season’s NCAA tournament. I like Kansas State by double digits.
It’s also worth taking a shot on Duke to make the Final Four at +850. The Blue Devils’ region should open up pretty nicely for them, especially if 1-seed Purdue gets bounced by Memphis in the second round. The Boilermakers look vulnerable, 4-seed Tennessee doesn’t have Zakai Zeigler anymore and 3-seed Kansas State has lost two in a row and is 8-8 in its past 16 games. Throw in the fact that Duke would play the regionals at Madison Square Garden, which is often a pseudo-home environment for the Blue Devils, and they would feel optimistic against Marquette as well.
Two Sweet 16 bets I also like: Furman at +790 and Memphis at +425
Cuff: I’m with Jeff; Memphis +425 to the Sweet 16 is one of my favorite plays in the bracket. I’m out on Purdue and their freshman guards. The Tigers’ defensive chaos and Kendric Davis are too much … if they can get by Florida Atlantic first. Duke +180 and UConn -115 to the Sweet 16 seem almost too good to be true. Love the Huskies’ draw.