March Madness: Pro bettors give their favorite first round upset picks

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Ben Fawkes 


March 20, 2024 12:58 pm ET

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The appetizer of March Madness has begun with the First Four underway. Howard’s comeback against Wagner ended in heartbreaking fashion on Tuesday night while Virginia made fans even more sad about Indiana State being snubbed.

But the entree remains with 32 games combined on Thursday and Friday. There are always first-round upsets in the NCAA tournament, the key to filling out brackets — and betting — is to pick the right ones.

For The Win asked Mike Randle, Chief Content Officer at FTN Network for his favorite first round upset picks. Here’s what he had to say.

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No. 14 Morehead State over No. 3 Illinois

(Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Morehead State has everything you would want in a first-round upset. The Eagles have momentum, entering March Madness on a six-game winning streak. They dominated the Ohio Valley Conference with defense, ranking top 10 nationally in effective field-goal percentage allowed and top 20 at two-point interior defense, while holding opponents to just 31.1 percent from 3-point range (per KenPom). They bring incredible 3-point volume on offense, with over 45 percent of their shots (25th-most) coming from beyond the arc. The Eagles are also great on the boards, ranking 44th in the country in average height.

Illinois is certainly elite offensively, ranking third-best in the country, and Terrence Shannon (23 PPG) was on a heater throughout the Big Ten tournament. Shannon posted consecutive 40- and 34-point games and went 8-of-15 from 3-point range. However, he is the centerpiece of an Illini team that is horrific on defense. Illinois ranks 93rd in adjusted defensive efficiency and simply doesn’t force turnovers (360th). They also allowed Big Ten opponents to shoot 38.3 percent from deep, giving Morehead State the opening it needs to pull off a huge first-round upset.


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No. 12 McNeese State over No. 5 Gonzaga

(Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

Head coach Will Wade is back, and McNeese State is on fire. The Cowboys enter the NCAA tournament on an 11-game winning streak, the third-longest in the nation.

Wade made us take notice early in the non-conference slate with a 76-65 true road win at VCU, an 87-76 true road win at Michigan and an 81-60 destruction at UAB — a team that won the AAC tournament and is a 12-seed in the East Region. TCU-transfer Shahada Wells is a scoring machine, averaging 17.8 PPG while shooting 40.2 percent from 3-point range. Wells also averages 3.0 steals per game, part of a McNeese defense that ranks sixth-best in defensive turnover percentage per KenPom. UMass transfer Javohn Garcia shoots over 45 percent from three and has 10 straight games with double-digit scoring.

McNeese is seventh-best in the nation in 3-point accuracy, posting a robust 39.4 percent from beyond the arc. However, the Cowboys are not overly reliant on the three, generating only 28.7 percent of their points from deep. The counterargument you will hear is Gonzaga head coach Mark Few’s sustained success in this tournament. The Bulldogs have not lost in the first round of the NCAA tourney since 2008, when Stephen Curry’s Davidson team ousted the Zags. This Gonzaga team is solid but struggled within the weak West Coast Conference with two losses to Saint Mary’s and a road upset loss to Santa Clara for the first time in 26 games. McNeese is not a normal small-school program. They have a myriad of transfers and a big-time coach in Wade. I’m picking the Cowboys to send Gonzaga home in the opening round and pull the classic 12 vs. 5 upset.

No. 14 Akron over No. 3 Creighton

(Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

Creighton’s style of play puts it on first-round upset alert against an Akron Zips team that is elite at defending the 3-point shot. The Bluejays are unapologetic about their preference to fire from beyond the arc, generating over 48 percent of their shots within Big East play from long range. Their primary offense near the basket is generated by 7-foot-1 Ryan Kalkbrenner (17.1 PPG), who has failed to improve his limited offensive repertoire. Relying on rebounds and put backs, Kalkbrenner doesn’t force teams to collapse on his post presence, forcing Creighton to shoot 3s from even further away than most teams. That leads to higher variance and opens the door for a classic first-round upset.

Despite being undersized (237th in average height), the Zips rank top 50 in defensive rebounding, including first in the MAC this season. Akron also held conference opponents to just 28.1 percent from deep and was 13th nationally (30 percent) at limiting the competition from deep. That plays well against Creighton and puts more pressure on Kalkbrenner inside. The Zips have the perfect foil to Kalkbrenner in 6-foot-7 forward Enrique Freeman (18.6 PPG, 12.9 RPG, 1.8 BPG). Akron had impressive nonconference performances, including a 65-62 loss on a neutral court to Utah State, and a two-point loss at always-tough UNLV. Creighton will allow Akron to get comfortable on offense, ranking dead-last in defensive turnover percentage, which contributed to a 21-point neutral-court loss to Colorado State and 15-point loss at the aforementioned UNLV. I’m fading the high-variance Bluejays against an experienced Akron coach in John Groce, who has won 22 or more games in three straight seasons.



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