The 2022 NCAA Tournament is finally here, and Thursday's first-round action features some of the bluest of blue bloods, including Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA, North Carolina, and Indiana, in addition to both of last year's finalists, Baylor and Gonzaga. There are also several prime upset opportunities sprinkled throughout the day. The only thing missing is advice to help with your bets, but don't worry, that's why we're here.
Below, we sort through the stats to break down all 16 games and offer up our picks, both for straight-up moneyline bets and bets against-the-spread.
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Michigan is playing much closer to home in Indianapolis, so it should have the crowd on its side. It's also on a win-one, lose-one pattern dating back to Feb. 10, so it's due. Of course, that's not enough reason to lay your hard-earned money on the Wolverines, but they do have the edge in talent and are two spots ahead of Colorado State in the Kenpom ratings. Colorado State is a better outside shooting team, though, so if the Rams get hot, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them get up big on the frustratingly inconsistent Wolverines. Michigan is just 8-14 ATS as a favorite this year, so it makes sense to take the higher-seeded Rams considering you're getting points. Starting point guard DeVante' Jones being out while in concussion protocol doesn't help Michigan's cause.
Pick: Colorado State to WIN.
This is a popular first-round upset, as the Jackrabbits are on a 21-game winning streak going back to the start of conference play. As impressive as that is, it's fair to point out SDSU's best win this year is either Washington State or Montana State, and they had several close calls during their dominating Summit League season. Nonetheless, the top three-point (44.2 percent) and top true-shooting team in the nation is not someone Providence can take lightly, especially after the Friars either lost or needed OT to win six of their final eight games (three losses, three OT wins). Kenpom sees Providence as the most overseeded team in the tournament, and while it still rates ahead of SDSU, this is clearly a prime upset opportunity for the Jacks. Jumping on this popular of an upset seems very square, especially when you're picking against a team that's covered 56.7 percent of the time this year, but we're buying the Jackrabbits' love.
Pick: South Dakota State to WIN.
MORE: Print your 2022 March Madness bracket here
Likely NBA lottery pick Jalen Duren is a big reason why the talented Tigers are favored here, but Boise State has an experienced roster that plays well together. Memphis is a better shooting and rebounding team, but Boise has the edge in defensive efficiency. These teams are neck and neck in the Kenpom ratings, so it's easy to make a case for either side. Ultimately, this will come down to whether the game is played at Memphis' fast pace or Boise's slower style. The Tournament often sees tighter officiating and more of a grind-it-out approach, which would seem to favor the Broncos. Boise's impressive 7-2 ATS record as underdogs combined with Memphis' 11-14-1 ATS record as favorites is why we lean toward the Mountain West champs, and it doesn't hurt they're playing much closer to home in Portland.
Pick: Boise State to WIN.
Games with this large of a spread are always tough -- especially when they involve a school that pulled off one of the biggest upsets in tournament history as a 15-seed back in 2012. Forget about that, though -- there are obviously no players from that Norfolk State squad still on the team. Baylor won last year's first-round game against Hartford by 24, but this team isn't quite as strong. Norfolk State is averaging 72.9 points per game compared to Baylor's 76.5, so they can score at a reasonable clip. However, the Spartans have not played a defense like Baylor's, and in their most comparable game this year, they lost by 40 to Xavier back in November. They also lost by 43 to Gonzaga in the first round of last year's tournament. Norfolk State does get to the free throw line a lot, but it's not a great shooting team, so we have a hard time even seeing a backdoor cover here. It's certainly possible, but the defending champs are 8-4-1 ATS with a 24.2 average margin of victory in non-conference games this year, so the huge spread isn't that scary.
Pick: Baylor to WIN and COVER.
EXPERT PICKS: DeCourcy (Arizona) | Bender (Kentucky) | Fagan (Gonzaga) | Pohnl (Arizona)
Tennessee is as hot as any team in the country right now, and even though Longwood is on an impressive win streak itself, the Vols shouldn't be in any danger of losing. However, they are 8-4 ATS in non-conference games with an average margin of victory of 17.4 this year, so the 18-point spread is right at the point of intrigue. Longwood's most similar game this year was the season opener against Iowa where they lost by 33, but we'll give the Lancers the benefit of the doubt and assume they've improved some since then. What encourages us most about Longwood is the fact it ranks fifth in the nation in three-point percentage (38.6). A hot start and/or finish increases the Lancers chances of staying in the game or covering late.
Pick: Tennessee to WIN but NOT COVER.
Iowa has won nine of its past 10 games, and Richmond would've been hoping for an NIT bid if not for an impressive run through the A10 tournament. The Spiders don't shoot, rebound, or play defense particularly efficiently, so it's hard to see how they'll slow down NBA-bound Keegan Murray and the rest of Iowa's highly efficient offense. Iowa is 8-3 ATS with a 22-point average margin of victory in non-conference games, and while Richmond isn't exactly a November warm-up game, it's reasonable to expect the Hawkeyes to win comfortably. Weird things happen in the tournament -- especially in 5-12 games -- but it looks like Iowa got a nice draw here.
Pick: Iowa to WIN and COVER.
HISTORY OF UPSETS BY SEED:15 vs. 2 | 14 vs. 3 | 13 vs. 4 | 12 vs. 5
Gonzaga won by 43 against Norfolk State in the first round of last year's tournament and by 38 over Fairleigh-Dickinson in the first round in 2019. When the Zags were a No. 1 seed in 2017, they beat South Dakota State by 20. Their average margin of victory in non-conference games is 23.1 this year despite playing Duke, UCLA, Texas Tech, Albama, and Texas. Even though they were just 6-7 ATS in non-conference games, it's clear they take of business against low- and mid-majors. If Georgia State was a better three-point shooting team (32.3 percent), there might be some optimism for a backdoor cover, but we just don't see it.
Pick: Gonzaga to WIN and COVER.
This is another toss-up game, as most 8-9s are. North Carolina grades out noticeably better in the Kenpom Ratings, largely because of its more efficient offense, and while Marquette plays more efficient defense, UNC rebounds at a significantly better rate. Marquette is 11-5-1 ATS as an underdog this year, and while this spread isn't very big, we fully expect a close one.
Pick: North Carolina to WIN but NOT COVER.
REGION BREAKDOWNS:West | South | Midwest | East
UConn grades out well in the Kenpom Ratings (18th), rebounds at a highly efficient rate (eighth in the country), and also sports a very efficient defense (32nd). However, they were just 5-6 ATS in non-conference games this year while New Mexico State was 6-4. Perhaps even more noteworthy is that the Aggies were 4-0 ATS as an underdog compared to UConn being 12-14-1 as a favorite. The numbers point to the Huskies winning despite some offensive issues, but we expect New Mexico State to keep this one close.
Pick: UConn to WIN but NOT COVER.
Kentucky isn't playing too far from home in Indianapolis, and it will certainly have the talent edge over Saint Peter's. The Wildcats are just 7-6 ATS in non-conference games this year, but their average margin of victory is 22.8 points. The Peacocks managed to stay within 14 against Providence back in November, and grade out well in Kenpom's adjusted defensive metrics. However, with mediocre shooting numbers, it's tough to feel great about their ability to keep pace with Kentucky. A late cover is definitely possible, but we think Kentucky jumps out to a big lead and maintains it throughout.
Pick: Kentucky to WIN and COVER.
Both of these teams might be slightly underseeded, especially Indiana, who had to beat Wyoming on Tuesday night just to get here. Saint Mary's will have the advantage of being more rested and playing much closer to home in Portland, so it's easy to imagine the Hoosiers gassing out late while the Gaels feed off the crowd. Based on the Kenpom advanced metrics, both teams are much more efficient on defense than offense, so this could be a rock fight. Saint Mary's is the more efficient shooting team, though, and with an 18-11-1 record ATS this year, they have done a pretty good job taking care of business. Indiana is just 5-5 ATS against ranked opponents this year, so we're sticking with the Gaels.
Pick:St. Mary's to WIN and COVER.
The Kenpom ratings give San Diego State a significant edge, rating SDSU No. 23 and Creighton No. 53. Both teams have issues with offensive efficiency, but the Aztecs sport the No. 2 adjusted defensive efficiency rating. San Diego State is also a much better three-point shooting team (35.8 percent compared to 30.7) even though Creighton is a better overall shooting team. The teams were nearly identical ATS this year, too, with SDSU finishing 17-14 and Creighton ending up at 17-14-2. Unsurprisingly, this is a toss-up, but we'll trust the advanced numbers and go with SDSU.
Pick: San Diego State to WIN and COVER.
Vermont gets to stay closer to home with this game in Buffalo, NY, and the Catamounts are one of the best shooting teams in the tournament (fourth in the country in true shooting percentage and 37th in three-point percentage). Arkansas can really turn up the pressure on defense, but outside shooting is its Achilles' heel (30.7 percent from three). The Razorbacks are 7-6 ATS in non-conference games this year, but their average margin of victory is 11.5 points. Vermont is just 5-6 ATS out of conference, but it did have nice wins against tournament teams Colgate (by 10) and Yale (by 8). Its lone game against a ranked team was an 11-point loss to Maryland in mid-November. If Vermont is making its shots, it could easily cover and win. If it's not, Arkansas' edge on the boards and defensive pressure will likely result in easy fast-break buckets and a likely double-digit victory (which we saw last year when Arkansas beat Colgate by 17 in a similar first-round matchup). Defense is less variable than shooting, so it's safer to pick Arkansas. But, let's face it -- it's definitely more fun to take Vermont. Let's have some fun.
Pick: Vermont to WIN.
San Francisco finished the year six spots higher than Murray State in the Kenpom Ratings, thanks in part to a more efficient defense. This battle of underseeded mid-majors is being played in Indianapolis, so the Racers should have the decided edge in crowd support. These teams have almost identical shooting numbers, but Murray State has a slight edge in rebounding rate. The Racers were also much better ATS this year (16-12-1 compared to 13-18 for the Dons). Basically, it will come down to which offense can break through, and we like San Francisco's chances slightly more.
Pick: San Francisco to WIN.
Akron is actually a slightly better overall shooting team than UCLA, but the Bruins are much more talented and skilled defensively. UCLA is 5-4 ATS with a 16.2 average margin of victory in non-conference games this year. Akron played just one ranked team, but it hung tight with Ohio State before ultimately losing by one. It would be nice if the Zips were a little better from deep (35.6 percent), but we still think Akron can hang around enough to squeak out a late cover.
Pick: UCLA to WIN but NOT COVER.
Kansas is just 6-7 ATS with an average margin of victory of 15.5 this year. It's also worth noting Kansas won by just nine against Eastern Washington in the first round as a No. 3 seed last year. Texas Southern is 3-0 ATS against ranked opponents, losing by 17 to Oregon, 17 to BYU, and 15 to Florida. Of course, none of those schools were ranked by season's end, but Texas Southern also played Saint Mary's tough, losing by just nine. Clearly, the Tigers get up for big opponents, and after starting the year 0-7 before finishing 18-12 and winning their play-in game, this team isn't going to fold if they get behind early. Playing on Tuesday isn't going to help their legs, but the Tigers have what it takes to stay within 20.
Pick:Kansas to WIN but NOT COVER.