March Madness sleeper teams to watch for in 2021

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LAS VEGAS — It would not be a big surprise if freshman phenom Cade Cunningham carries Oklahoma State to the Final Four. It’s also possible the Cowboys could get stunned in the first round of the NCAA Tournament this week.

When filling out brackets for the office pool, most people prefer to pick favorites to advance. It’s easy and safe to forecast the obvious. No. 1 seeds Gonzaga, Baylor and Illinois appear especially strong.

But when betting on tournament games, beware of the big underdogs, specifically in the early rounds. Chaos is waiting around the corner and upsets always happen.

“I lean to ’dogs, I lean to taking points, and that’s the way I play the tournament,” said Richie Baccellieri, a professional bettor and veteran oddsmaker.

The point spread is the equalizer and, now more than ever, the line is blurred between power-conference favorites and small-conference underdogs.

“The ’dogs are much more capable now because of the balance in college basketball,” VSiN oddsmaker Vinny Magliulo said. “There’s more parity, so there’s value with the ’dogs.”

Liberty
Liberty and Kyle Rode could give Oklahoma State all they can handle in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
AP

As recently as a week ago, some sportsbooks offered Oklahoma State at odds as high as 75/1 to win the NCAA championship. No longer considered long shots, the Cowboys are currently getting 16/1 odds at BetMGM.

Cunningham, the projected No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, and the Cowboys look a lot like the Carmelo Anthony-led Syracuse team that made a title run in 2003.

Oklahoma State, a No. 4 seed in the Midwest Region, opened as a 9.5-point favorite over 13th-seeded Liberty in Friday’s first round. That number has dropped to 7.5. The Flames, 23-5 and winners of the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament, have the potential to heat up from 3-point range and put a scare into the Cowboys.

Look at Liberty and seven other hot ’dogs to watch in the first round:

No. 12 Winthrop (+6.5) vs. No. 4 Villanova

It’s no secret that 12th-seeded teams tend to topple teams seeded No. 5. This will be a popular upset pick, maybe too popular. The line moved immediately after the Wildcats opened -7.5. Villanova is vulnerable without injured senior guard Collin Gillespie. The Eagles, 23-1 and champions of the Big South, are loaded with offensive firepower.

“Winthrop might be a ’dog that gets a lot of play,” South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews said. “Some of the power conference teams are not as good as their reputations, and that’s why we see some of the 5-12 upsets.”

Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, 12-seeds have won 50 of 140 matchups against 5-seeds. Since 2000, 12-seeds are 45-34-1 against the spread in this round. In 2019, three of the four 12-seeds advanced to the next round.

No. 14 Colgate (+9.5) vs. No. 3 Arkansas

The 14th-seeded Raiders of the Patriot League have played only 15 games and won 14 times. This hot ’dog is led by senior guard Jordan Burns, who’s scoring 17 ppg and shooting 41.5 percent on 3-pointers. Six of the team’s top eight scorers shoot better than 36 percent from 3.

No. 15 Oral Roberts (+17.5) vs. No. 2 Ohio State

Sophomore guard Max Abmas is the nation’s leading scorer (24.2 ppg), and junior forward Kevin Obanor is another lethal scorer (18.2 ppg) for the 15th-seeded Golden Eagles. Abmas scored 33 points in an 83-78 loss at Oklahoma State in December. The Buckeyes have defensive weaknesses and problems protecting leads. Oral Roberts shoots 38.8 percent from the 3-point line and scores 41 percent of its points on 3s.

Andrews made this line Ohio State -22. Baccellieri, who made the line 14.5, said, “Oral Roberts is a very good Summit League team.”

No. 14 US Santa Barbara (+6.5) vs. No. 5 Creighton

The Bluejays, blown out by Georgetown in the Big East Tournament title game, opened as 8-point favorites over UCSB. The Gauchos, another dangerous 12-seed, are led by point guard JaQuori McLaughlin and 6-foot-9 forward Amadou Sow.

No. 13 Ohio (+7.5) vs. No. 4 Virginia

Bobcats guard Jason Preston is an NBA prospect who poured in 31 points in a 77-75 loss at Illinois in late November. The Cavaliers, who dropped out of the ACC Tournament because of COVID-19 issues, are not expected to travel to Indianapolis until Thursday or Friday and will have limited practice time this week. Smelling an upset?

No. 15 Grand Canyon (+15) vs. No. 2 Iowa

Bryce Drew is an NCAA Tournament legend from his days as a shooting star for Valparaiso. He coached the 15th-seeded Antelopes to the Western Athletic Conference championship with help from 7-foot Asbjorn Midtgaard, who can defend the rim against Hawkeyes star Luka Garza.

No. 15 Iona (+16.5) vs. No. 2 Alabama

Why not bet on Rick Pitino? The Gaels might not win, but a coach who knows all about March magic is getting a lot of points. Senior guard Isaiah Ross (18.4 ppg) leads a veteran Iona team. The Crimson Tide expended a lot of energy to win the SEC Tournament. Crazier things have happened in the first round.

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