Happy Holidays! For the millions of people across the world skipping work, school, or working half-heartedly while watching streaming hoops or surreptitiously checking scores and monitoring their brackets, there are few days in sports as exhilarating as the first day of NCAA Tournament action.
We will be covering tons of games and posting picks throughout the tourney, and for the opening weekend will have a separate column for both the afternoon and evening sessions of games, so be sure to check back often.
There is a ton of great action, so let’s dig right into the picks.
Valparaiso Crusaders vs. Michigan State Spartans -10.5
Valpo is a trendy upset pick, mainly because of the lingering memory of the Bryce Drew miracle from 1999. Bryce is now on the sidelines as the head coach, but don’t expect any similar miracles today. Michigan State is a team capable of winning it all. They have good size, defend with tenacity and have excellent guard play. They also have one of the best tournament coaches in the country in Tom Izzo. When it comes to March, Izzo just wins.
Michigan State also has the advantage of playing in Detroit today, where you can be sure tons of loyal Spartans will be in attendance this morning. Valpo has a little bit of name recognition, but Michigan State is significantly better, and playing nearly at home. I expect them to win with ease and cover the 10 ½ points.
Free Pick: Michigan State Spartans -10.5
Bucknell Bison vs. Butler Bulldogs -4.5
The ultimate NCAA Cinderella, Butler, finds themselves in an odd situation today; the favorite many have circled on their brackets as ripe for an upset. The main reason is Bucknell is every bit as good as Butler, and has the advantage of having the best player on the floor today in Mike Muscala.
Butler struggled a bit down the stretch, losing to nearly every NCAA-caliber team they played, and often in pretty unimpressive fashion when it came to VCU and St. Louis. Granted, both those teams are better than Bucknell, but I think Butler has been exposed a little bit.
I think today will be a good game, but I wouldn’t be surprised a bit if Bucknell wins outright. That makes getting 4 ½ points a pretty good value.
Free Pick: Bucknell Bison +4.5
Wichita State Shockers vs. Pitt Panthers -4
Pitt is the scary second round matchup that everyone has circled for Gonzaga. I do as well – BUT Pitt has to get there first. Wichita State is a tough matchup for Pitt, and I expect today’s game to be close. Give me the Shockers in, well, not a shocker, but in a bit of a surprise.
Free Pick: Wichita State +4
Oregon Ducks vs. Oklahoma State Cowboys -2
Oregon might be the most under-seeded team in the tourney, but Oklahoma State might be the most under the radar legit Final Four threat. Oklahoma State has a legit star in Marcus Smart, and great supporting players in Le’Bryan Nash and dunking sensation Markel Brown. I expect them to make enough plays to get the win in what could be the day’s best game.
Free Pick: Oklahoma State Cowboys -2
New Mexico State vs. St. Louis Billikens -9.5
Every year there is a top four seed that gets picked off out of nowhere by a school nearly no one has heard of. This year a lot of people have Davidson circled as that team (over #3 Marquette), but it is usually someone much less heralded.
I don’t think it is going to be this game though. St. Louis is too tough, too physical and too focused.
I think they come out sharp and focused tonight and take their first step toward gaining some national recognition. The game may stay close through the first half, but eventually St. Louis wears them out and pulls away.
Free Pick: St. Louis Billikens -9.5