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NCAA Tournament - First Four Best Bets

Wednesday brings the final two “play-in” games to officially round out the field of 64 teams in the NCAA tournament, as NC Central, Texas Southern, Arizona State, and Syracuse all look to make it to Friday's action.

Texas Southern (-5) and Arizona State (-1.5) come into Wednesday's games as the chalk, but will both of them live up to that billing and move on? (truTV, 6:40 p.m. ET)
NC Central vs Texas Southern (-5); Total set at 146.5

Despite finishing the year four games under the .500 mark, Texas Southern comes into this First Four game as a five point favorite against NC Central. Southern's 15-19 SU record is by far the worst of any team in the tournament, but thanks to getting hot at exactly the right time and dominating the games they played in their conference tournament, Texas Southern looks to be well supported by the oddsmakers. Based on record alone there are going to be plenty of bettors taking the points with NC Central, but this time of year is a great time to “side with the craziness” in terms of point spreads that may not make much sense at first glance and that's precisely what I'm doing here.

NC Central got hot at the right time as well winning four games in five days to earn their entry to dance, but this is not going to be a good matchup for them at all. The NC Central Eagles prefer to keep the tempo slow and the games in the mid-to-high 60's tops, while Texas Southern wants to have 60 points scored sometime early in the 2nd half.

Texas Southern has four guys who average 12.6 points or more per game, and with there two top scorers in Demontrae Jefferson (23.4 ppg) and Donte Clark (18.6 ppg) manning the backcourt and dictating pace with the ball in their hands quite often, the Texas Southern Tigers could end up running NC Central out of the gym.

Don't get too persuaded by the disparity in records as this Texas Southern team knows how to score the basketball as the fact that they hit the 2nd most free throws in the entire country tells you they are utterly relentless in attacking the basket. Offenses can struggle under the bright lights of the NCAA tournament and NC Central does have the advantages of being the more defensive-minded club and being in this exact position a year ago – they lost 67-63 to UC Davis – but experience can only take you so far when you simply can't maintain a pace.

Those attributes in NC Central's favor may cause this line to drop slightly the closer we get to tip off, but I fully expect Texas Southern to win this game going away and laying the “crazy” number as the team with the much worse record on paper is no problem here.

Odds per -

Best Bet: Texas Southern -5 (truTV, 9:10 p.m. ET)
Arizona State (-1.5) vs Syracuse; Total set at 143.5

There are a lot of detractors for both of these programs getting invited to the big dance, but both are here now and one will be moving on to face TCU in the next round. Arizona State got in thanks to two early season wins against Xavier and Kansas – two #1 seeds in this tournament, while Syracuse's strong start to the season pushed them over the top as well. But with no more second chances available, which program seizes the moment here and books their date with the Horned Frogs?

Interestingly enough, this line has seen plenty of action already as it opened in the pick'em range, got bet as high as -2 for Arizona, and has since fallen back down to this current number. Syracuse can be a popular pick during March given their proud alumni, history, and that tough zone defense to deal with on short prep, but this Syracuse team just doesn't have the talent anymore to consistently compete with the country's better programs.

Of all the teams in the NCAA tournament that Syracuse has played this year, they've got a 13-point home win over Texas Southern on their resume, a 16-point neutral site loss to Kansas, an OT loss to St Bonaventure, nine and seven point home wins over Iona and Buffalo (0-2 ATS in those two games for Syracuse), and a 3-7 SU record against other ACC teams involved in the tournament. The highest seed they beat was #5 Clemson, and while the Pac-12 may not have the overall depth and talent that the ACC does, Arizona State has already proven this year that they can hang with the big boys in the country when they are playing well.

Playing well is something Sun Devils fans haven't been able to say about their team for quite some time now as ASU enters this game on a 1-5 SU run overall and dropped their last two when they were laying at least 7 points in each game. Current form should always be considered when breaking down games, but the extra time off the Sun Devils got to regroup, combined with their 2nd chance life being included in this tournament, may be just the spark this team needs to regain the form they had at the beginning of the year when they beat the likes of Kansas and Xavier.

Just from a common opponent perspective we've got a great comparison between these two teams with them both playing Kansas. ASU actually went into Kansas and beat the Jayhawks by 10 on their own floor, whereas Syracuse lost by 16 at a neutral site. That's a big reason why this line jumped ASU's way on the outset and I agree with that move wholeheartedly. ASU is on a 10-1 ATS run in non-conference play, while the Orange are just 2-6 ATS in their last eight contests on a neutral floor.

Arizona State may struggle at times against the zone defense Syracuse uses, but the Sun Devils ability to push the pace and score in transition when opportunities present themselves should negate most of that. ASU's 83.5 points per game that they score is going to be extremely tough for this Syracuse team to keep up with, as the Orange are prone to long scoring droughts – especially against top competition – and simply don't have the scorers that ASU brings to the table. In what is essentially still a pick'em game at -1.5, I'm siding with the initial move here with ASU securing their spot against TCU on Friday.

Odds per -

Best Bet: Arizona State -1.5

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