March Madness Best Bets Round of 64 (3/16/23)

The Round of 64 tips off in less than 24 hours. In anticipation of the 2023 March Madness, find best bets for the Thursday slate here, including previews & predictions for Virginia vs Furman, Duke vs Oral Roberts, Texas A&M vs Penn State, & more.

Round of 64 Best Bets – March 16

After a cold stretch followed up a torrid start to the month of March, we’re back on the horse heading into an exciting first round of March Madness basketball. In this article, I’ll break down my favorite plays in the Round of 64 on the Thursday card. Let’s get to work.

March College Basketball Record: 47-38-2 (+3.63 units)

4 Virginia Cavaliers vs. 13 Furman Paladins

In his sixth season as the head coach, Bob Richey has led Furman back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1980. He’s done it with a highly experienced group that ranked 32nd in minutes continuity per KenPom.

Furman is led by a pair of fifth-year seniors in Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson. Bothwell leads the team with 18 points per game, but it’s Slawson who creates the real matchup issues in this offense.

At 6’7”, Slawson often plays small-ball center for Furman where he is an elite passer. His execution of bounce passes to cutters is a big reason why the Paladins lead the country in two-point shooting percentage at 59.1%.

Slawson is also a menace on defense – he’s won the SoCon Defensive Player of the Year in two straight years and averaged 1.6 blocks and 1.6 steals over the last two seasons.

One of the reasons Virginia’s defense is so tough to beat is that they don’t give you opportunities in transition. They rank sixth in turnover rate on offense and face transition offense at the third-lowest rate in the country.

However, Furman is comfortable with playing in the half court. They rank 35th in half-court ShotQuality PPP. Virginia’s pack line defense forces opponents to beat them over the top, and Furman is comfortable from distance as they rank 13th in 3-point attempt rate.

Virginia lost Ben Vander Plas to a broken hand, and while his 7.4 points per game will be missed, it’s his defense that’s the biggest loss. The 6’8” forward would have been the perfect answer to Slawson as a small-ball five.

Without Vander Plas, Virginia will be reliant on slower, bigger centers Kadin Shedrick and Francisco Caffaro. Furman’s lack of size can be hurt by teams that hit the offensive glass, but Virginia ranks just 270th in offensive rebounding as they prefer to set up their transition defense.

If you’re a fan of trends, consider this – Tony Bennett is just 7-13 ATS in the tournament since becoming the Virginia head coach in 2009, making him the third-least profitable head coach over that span.

Furman is a great upset pick for your brackets this season, and I love taking them catching six points on the spread. Look for Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson to make this a dog fight right to the finish.

Best Bet: Furman +6 (play to +4.5)

5 Duke Blue Devils vs. 12 Oral Roberts Golden Eagles

Everyone remembers Oral Roberts from their exhilarating run to the Sweet 16 in 2021 that included wins over Ohio State and Florida before falling just short against Arkansas. The scariest thing about the Golden Eagles this season is that they might be even better than the 2021 version.

Max Abmas is back as the team’s leading scorer, and his unlimited range fundamentally changes the way defenses play this team. This is his third straight season averaging over 22 points and over 3 three-point makes per game.

He’s not alone, though. Arkansas transfer Connor Vanover is a 7’5” menace in the paint and can shoot from all over, making him an elite pick-and-roll partner. Junior guard Isaac McBridge is a Kansas transfer who serves as a secondary ball-handler to take pressure off Abmas.

The 2021 Oral Roberts team was ranked just 219th in adjusted defensive efficiency, and they’re up to 106th this year. Vanover’s rebounding and rim protection is the biggest reason why, and one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in 2021 is now solidly above average.

Vanover will be crucial in this game against a Duke team that has the most height in the country. Duke’s Kyle Filipowski stands 7’0” and is the team’s leading scorer with 15.4 points per game, but Ryan Young (6’10”) and Dereck Lively II (7’1”) also provide physicality in the frontcourt.

Of course, it’s the offense that makes the Golden Eagles hum as they’re 23rd in adjusted efficiency and first in turnover rate on that end. Oral Roberts has five players on the floor at all times who can shoot, and they’re fifth in PPP on off-the-dribble three-pointers where Duke ranks 219th on defense.

Duke’s offense is run primarily through the pick-and-roll with the backcourt of Tyrese Proctor and Jeremy Roach working the ball inside to the team’s big men, primarily Filipowski. However, Oral Roberts is 31st in ball screen defensive PPP.

Oral Roberts is riding a 17-game win streak into the tournament. They’re one of the most experienced teams in the country and Abmas is joined by seniors Kareem Thompson and Carlos Jurgens as members of that magical 2021 team.

Of course, Duke is also hot with a nine-game win streak. However, I’m lower on the ACC as a whole this season, and three of those nine wins were graded as box score losses by ShotQuality. They were also fortunate to face Virginia without Ben Vander Plas and Miami in a game where Norchad Omier left with an injury in the ACC Tournament.

We already know the Golden Eagles are capable of upsets this time of year. Nobody will be caught off guard by Abmas and company this time around, but that doesn’t mean they still aren’t out for blood. Duke is fully on upset alert in this game, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Oral Roberts makes a run well past the first round of this tournament.

Best Bet: Oral Roberts +6.5 (play to +5)

7 Texas A&M Aggies vs. 10 Penn State Nittany Lions

Let’s get this out of the way first – Texas A&M got absolutely hosed by the committee. The Aggies were the 26th-best team in the country this year per KenPom and were top 40 in adjusted efficiency on offense and defense. They also finished 15-3 in SEC play.

The Aggies had seven Quad 1 wins, the 15th-most in the country, and went 12-7 overall against Quad 1 and Quad 2 teams. How that’s the resume of a seven seed I have no idea. This matchup is also a nightmare for them for several reasons.

Texas A&M is credited with having an elite three-point shooting defense – they allowed opponents to shoot just 32.3% from deep which ranked 82nd in the country. However, you have to consider the context for that number in the SEC as a whole.

The SEC was full of awful shooting teams this season. Mississippi State was the biggest culprit, finishing dead last in the country while shooting 26.6% from 3-point range. It wasn’t just them, though – only one SEC team was top 100 in 3-point shooting and five of the 14 teams in the conference were outside the top 300.

The Aggies ranked outside the top 200 in open 3 rate allowed but rarely faced an opponent that could take advantage. Penn State can. The Nittany Lions have three shooters who hit over 40% from deep and they rank ninth as a team with a 38.5% clip from long range.

Those three 40% shooters surround Jalen Pickett, a great shooter in his own right but mostly an elite passer who averages a 42% assist rate to just a 12% turnover rate. Leave him one-on-one in the paint, and he can score. Collapse in, and you’re dead – he’ll find the open shooters and deliver timely passes.

Texas A&M thrives on turnovers on defense, but Penn State is seventh in turnover rate on offense. Penn State will force the Aggies to play in the half court where they rank 13th on defense in PPP. The Lions also rank 38th in defensive foul rate, so the Aggies, who get to the line at the third-highest rate, won’t be able to use that as a crutch.

Texas A&M will have the rebounding edge in this game as they rank 25th in rebound rate while Penn State ranks 268th. However, that was the case for the Nittany Lions all season. Penn State’s five-out structure was at a constant disadvantage as they played in a Big Ten full of physical frontcourts.

Micah Shrewsberry zigged while the rest of the Big Ten was zagging towards big interior presences, and while the early results were mixed, Penn State is peaking at the right time after an impressive run in the Big Ten Tournament. Texas A&M isn’t ready to face this type of shooting prowess and I like Penn State to shoot its way to a win here.

Best Bet: Penn State +3 (play to +1.5)

4 Tennessee Volunteers vs. 13 Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns

There are two prevailing narratives surrounding the Tennessee Volunteers this week. First, the Vols are getting written off after guard Zakai Zeigler was lost to a season-ending torn ACL. Zeigler was the team’s leading assist man and their best go-to scorer.

However, the team is only 0.01 points per possession worse without him in the lineup this season – that’s negligible. In general, injuries in this vein are often overrated by the public betting market.

The other prevailing narrative is that Rick Barnes, Tennessee’s head coach, has struggled in the tournament. While that’s true – he’s advanced to the Sweet 16 just once in his previous three trips to the dance – this is the best defensive team he’s coached.

The Vols are arguably the best defense in the country. They’re second in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom and second in eFG% allowed. That makes this a complete mismatch against their opponent on Thursday.

Louisiana ranks just 287th in half-court PPP per ShotQuality. They play through the post at the 40th-highest rate with Sun Belt player of the year Jordan Brown leading the offense, but that won’t be as effective against the type of athletes Tennessee has.

This is a rather one-dimensional offense outside of Brown, and the concern here is that he could get into foul trouble. He had four or five fouls in 12 of his 32 regular season games and the Vols will attack him on offense to force the issue.

The Cajuns also get to the line at a high rate – they rank 36th in free throw rate – and Tennessee ranks 245th in defensive free throw rate. However, the Cajuns rank just 320th in free throw shooting as they hit their freebies at just a 67.2% clip.

The Vols also won’t let the Cajuns get out in transition as they are 98th percentile in transition defense. There simply aren’t many paths to easy baskets against this lights out defense for Louisiana.

Tennessee has blown out teams repeatedly this year. Of their 23 wins this year, 11 came by 25+ points. When Louisiana played up in class this year, they got trounced by 28 points against Texas. The Cajuns ended the year with five straight wins, but three of them were graded as box score losses by ShotQuality.

The Tennessee offense might be less effective without Zeigler long term, but it won’t be an issue against this one-dimensional Louisiana team. The Volunteers should shake off that disappointing SEC tournament loss to Missouri in blowout fashion.

Best Bet: Tennessee -11.5 (play to -13.5)

Quick Hitters

The following are the bets that I have placed on Thursday that didn’t quite make my “best bets” article but I still like a lot:

West Virginia -2.5: You can find a cheap-ish Moneyline or a -2 in the market at the time I’m writing this, but I’m not sure those numbers will matter.

West Virginia is 17th in Bart Torvik’s ratings since the start of February, and it makes sense that they’re playing their best basketball as transfers Erik Stevenson, Tre Mitchell, and Emmitt Matthews Jr. have started to gel.

Maryland has been terrible away from home as they are a combined 5-11 on the road and in neutral site games. In addition, Bob Huggins is 34-25 all-time in the tournament and Kevin Willard is 1-5 – I trust the West Virginia coach much more. Take me home, country roads.

Utah State -1.5: Missouri is a team that I’ve had circled as a fade team for weeks now, and this is a great spot to do so. Utah State is an elite three-point shooting team and Missouri has the worst defensive adjusted efficiency rating of any team that made the tournament with an at-large bid.

Missouri uses zone defense on 17.8% of their possessions, which is the highest rate among any tournament team. Well, Utah State scored the most points per possession against zone defense this year. That’s highly concerning for the Tigers.

The Aggies are also in the 91st percentile against press defense which matters a ton against a Missouri defense that presses on 36.2% of possessions. When that press fails, look for Utah State to find even more open 3-pointers against this vulnerable defense.

Utah State’s defense has also been trending up as they rank 11th in Bart Torvik’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings over the last 30 days. Look for that to combine with a lights out three-point effort to buck the trend of the Mountain West’s recent struggles in the tournament.

Boise State +1.5: Speaking of the Mountain West, I love this spot for Boise State. Northwestern’s defense is built to stop the many efficient post offenses in the Big Ten, but Boise State is just 328th in frequency of shots attempted at the rim. Instead, they thrive on catch-and-shoot 3s where they rank 92nd in frequency.

The Broncos boast two shooters in Max Rice and Chibuzo Agbo who are both shooting over 40% from three. Northwestern is 325th in 3-point attempt rate allowed and 256th in PPP allowed on catch-and-shoot three-pointers.

Northwestern looks for a similar approach as they’re 14th in catch-and-shoot 3-point frequency, but they’re just 352nd in open 3 rate and 308th in catch-and-shoot PPP per ShotQuality. Boise State also ranks 46th on defense in open 3-point rate.

The Wildcats’ Boo Buie closed the season on a 20/59 shooting run (33%), and unless his jump shots are falling, this will be a tough game for Northwestern offensively. Boise is top 15 in adjusted defensive efficiency and Northwestern is just 320th in effective FG%.

The Mountain West is 3-11 ATS in the tournament since 2016, and I’m picking two of its representatives to cover on Thursday. What could go wrong?

I've been a huge sports fan for as long as I can remember and I've always loved writing. In 2020, I joined the Lineups team, and I've been producing written and video content on football and basketball ever since. In May 2021, I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in sport management. My goal is to tell enthralling stories and provide meaningful insight on the sports I write about while helping you cash some bets along the way.

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