Best Bets To Place For 2024 NCAA Tournament First Round Before The Lines Move (Who To Target Now)

Mar 14, 2024; New York City, NY, USA; Creighton's Trey Alexander (23) drives to the basket against Providence
Mar 14, 2024; New York City, NY, USA; Creighton's Trey Alexander (23) drives to the basket against Providence / Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

March Madness is coming in hot as a loaded 16-game schedule is on the menu for both Thursday and Friday. Games will tip from early in the afternoon to late at night across the country. There is nothing quite like these four days which are amongst the greatest in sports. 

We are still a few days away, but we have the tournament field finally in our grasp. The format is set up with teams ranked 1-16 in their respective regions (East, West, Midwest and South). The release of the bracket has been headlined by heated arguments on bubble teams that got in and questionable seeding decisions by the committee. What teams are being undervalued? Which dominant team will struggle the most? Here are some early picks to help your bankroll this March.

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Best First Round Bets To Take Right Now 

  • No. 12 McNeese +6.5 vs. No. 5 Gonzaga
  • No. 13 Samford +7.5 vs. No. 4 Kansas
  • No. 3 Creighton -12.5 vs No. 14 Akron

McNeese vs. Gonzaga Prediction and Pick

We are treated to a very unique matchup in the opening round between McNeese and Gonzaga in Salt Lake City. This one is taking on an exciting vibe simply due to the schools involved. From the Southland conference, 30-3 McNeese has been looked upon as a team that nobody wants to face in March. This is the first tournament appearance for the Cowboys since 2002.

For Gonzaga, it has been considered as somewhat of a down year despite a mark of 25-7 out of the West Coast conference. The Bulldogs are consistently a March contender who have reached the Sweet 16 in each of the previous three editions of the tournament and a pair of national championship games in 2017 and 2021.

This matchup feels like a good draw for McNeese, who everyone is about to watch likely for the first time on the national stage. They are led by senior guard Shahada Wells, who ranks top 100 in the country in both scoring and assists (17.8 PPG, 4.8 APG). Wells is coming off a stellar conference tournament run, scoring 27 points in both games versus Lamar and Nicholls, contests that McNeese won by double digits.

The Cowboys are a dangerous three-point shooting team, good for seventh best in the country at 39.4 percent. They shot 12-30 from beyond the arc in their championship game against Nicholls. While they don’t live and die by it from game to game, they can certainly be efficient. This will be a threat to a Gonzaga team that has struggled against defending the deep shots all season long as they rank in the middle of all Division I teams, 184th (34 percent).

The Bulldogs are no strangers to the tournament and have plenty of experience which they will have to fall back on in this matchup with returning starters Ryan Nembhard, Nolan Hickman, Anton Watson, and Ben Gregg in for another run. Forward Graham Ike has been a star transfer for the Zags after losing star Drew Timme who graduated last season. He ranks 56th nationwide in field goal percentage (60.5 percent) and is the leading scorer on the team with 16.7 PPG, according to TeamRankings. He can drive into the lane and finish in close range, quickly scoring in spurts. Gonzaga also ranks 30th in defensive rebounding, another area that he can excel in.

When it comes down to it, I’m on McNeese. This is a team that has lost three games all year by a combined 14 points. Head coach Will Wade has had controversy surrounding him since leaving LSU but has his Cowboys at full throttle going into the tournament in his first season. This line will likely continue in their favor with a lot of public money flowing in on them. This is a hungry team looking to continue building on an incredible year for an up-and-coming mid-major program.

Pick: McNeese +6.5

Samford vs. Kansas Prediction and Pick

We stay in Salt Lake City for the other Thursday night contest between Samford and Kansas in a 4-13 seed Midwest region tango. This is a battle of the Southern Conference champions Bulldogs versus the Jayhawks who were a quarterfinal exit in the Big 12 tournament.

Kansas is facing significant problems with health. The team has been missing cornerstone offensive weapons, center Hunter Dickinson, and guard Kevin McCullar during the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City. Head coach Bill Self provided recent updates on both in a press conference held Sunday after the selection show. Dickinson will “go contact on Monday,” said Self to KSNT Topeka. As for McCullar, his status remains up in the air for Thursday. 

Dickinson dislocated his shoulder in the regular season finale at Houston while McCullar continues dealing with a bone bruise on his knee. The two are both starters and are the leading scorers and rebounders, absolutely crucial to the Jayhawks' success in 2023-24. Dickinson additionally averages a double-double (18.3 PPG and 10.8 RPG). Even if one is missing, this will be a dynamic shift in the offensive game plan. The weight will remain on juniors Dajuan Harris and K.J. Adams to take over offensively if either can’t play.

On the other side, Samford enters the draw as one of the most dangerous 13 seeds that we’ve seen in a while. They rank 25th in offensive efficiency and 5th in effective field goal percentage according to Bart Torvik. Forward Achor Achor (yes that’s his name) has been feasting inside for the Bulldogs as of late, averaging 21.7 PPG and nine rebounds in the Southern conference tournament. The 6’9” junior can play bully ball and post up in the paint on any defender. As a team, they rank 8th in three-point percentage. This is a veteran squad, led by four seniors in the starting lineup.

Injuries can unfortunately derail a team’s season and that appears it could be an ultimate downfall for Kansas. They can still win this game, but beyond that, I can’t envision positive results the rest of the way. This is my favorite play of the entire first round for a Samford team that shoots it exceptionally well. Back the Bulldogs confidently in this spot.

Pick: Samford +7.5

Akron vs. Creighton Prediction and Pick

A pair of midwest teams find their way into the hometown region when Creighton faces off with Akron. The Blue Jays enter off a 23-9 campaign in the Big East, losing to Villanova in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. The 24-10 Zips of Akron sealed a 62-61 win late in their conference championship game after an unnecessary intentional foul by Kent State in the final seconds.

Miracles are what define March. Akron is going to embrace that role coming into the game. Their heart and soul are centered around senior forward Enrique Freeman, an Ohio native. He is a high-caliber player, the best rebounder in the nation with 12.9 boards per game. Freeman went bonkers in the MAC tournament with 24 points, 21 rebounds, and 7 blocks against Ohio in the semifinals. The Zips bring veteran experience to the table with four seniors in their lineup, but a major concern is their recent inability to take care of the rock. As a team, they averaged 14 turnovers per game in their three MAC tournament games.

For Creighton, this is not a team you can mess around with. Between Baylor Scheierman, Trey Alexander, and Steven Ashworth, these are some of the most exciting guard players to watch in all of college basketball and they will make you pay. They check all the boxes offensively with elite ball distribution, ranked 13th in assists amongst all teams. Bart Torvik ranks them 3rd in effective field goal percentage (57.5 percent). If that wasn’t enough, they average 10.6 three-point shots per game as they are never afraid to fire it from deep.

Creighton has been a dominant force all season in the Big East and this line is a perfect opportunity to jump on it. There are heavier favorites in the opening round that might not be able to match up with the strength of Creighton. This is where head coach Greg McDermott’s squad begins what I believe to be a very strong run out of a favorable Midwest region. This is a stealthy 3-seed that carries a ceiling of going to Arizona for the Final Four. The Blue Jays will be soaring in this game.

Pick: Creighton -12.5

**These are EARLY odds, they are subject to change.**