Do you remember last year's NCAA Tournament? The first Thursday was one of the wildest days ever in the Big Dance with buzzer-beaters and upset galore. The Friday, however, was pretty bland and mostly chalk. Here's hoping that changes this season as the Round of 32 will be finalized by around midnight. Would you be willing to bet all four top seeds make it to the second weekend? The two most in danger of not, in my opinion: Oregon and Virginia.
No. 10 Pittsburgh vs. No. 7 Wisconsin (-2, 130)
East Region game from St. Louis at 6:50 p.m. ET on TNT. The winner probably gets No. 2 Xavier on Sunday. Pittsburgh (21-11) might not have gotten in the NCAA Tournament without a 72-71 win over Syracuse in the teams' ACC Tournament opener. Then the Panthers were blown out by North Carolina and they ended up losing four of their final six. Pitt, which is 10-10 in its past 20 games, had no quality nonconference wins, losing by 13 at home to Purdue in the only good team it played. And the team's only good ACC wins were at Notre Dame and against overrated Duke. A lot of Pitt fans want the school to dump Coach Jamie Dixon barring a long run in this tournament, especially after missing the Big Dance in 2015. Pitt hasn't won more than one game in the NCAA Tournament since 2009. Dixon has the support of the school's AD for what that's worth. And he has led the Panthers to 11 NCAA Tournament appearances in his first 13 years as head coach, tied for third-most in NCAA history for a coach through his first 13 seasons.
Wisconsin (20-12) looked lost in mid-January at 9-9 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten. About a month earlier, the most successful coach in school history, Bo Ryan, had retired so he could help get long-time assistant Greg Gard the full-time job. But then everything changed when freshman Ethan Happ scored with 10 seconds left against No. 4 Michigan State on Jan. 17. The Badgers won that game 77-76 and took off (Gard got the full-time gig). They have lost just three times since, although UW didn't look good at all in its Big Ten Tournament-opening loss to a mediocre Nebraska team. The Badgers are coming off back-to-back Final Fours, including losing last year's national title game to Duke. Only 11 schools have ever reached three straight Final Fours, last UCLA from 2006-08. The Badgers have advanced to the Sweet 16 or beyond in four of the last five years.
Key trends: Pitt is 3-9 against the spread in its past 12 NCAA Tournament games. UW is 10-4 ATS in its past 14 games overall. The "over/under" has gone under in eight of Wisconsin's past nine games.
I'm leaning: If you want a point of comparison, Wisconsin did lose twice to Purdue. But I'll go Badgers here and under.
No. 11 Michigan vs. No. 6 Notre Dame (-3, 143)
East Region game from Brooklyn at 9:40 p.m. ET on CBS. The winner faces either No. 3 West Virginia or No. 14 Stephen F. Austin (the only team to not lose a conference game in the nation this season). Since 2011, five teams have won additional NCAA tourney games after winning in the First Four. Three of those reached at least the Sweet 16. I don't happen to think Michigan (23-12) deserved an at-large NCAA bid over the likes of Monmouth, Saint Mary's or San Diego State, but the Wolverines likely punched their ticket with an upset of Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. In Wednesday's First Four game against Tulsa, a team that 100 percent didn't belong in the Big Dance, the Wolverines won 67-62. Zak Irvin's 3-pointer with 53 seconds left put Michigan up 62-60 and UM sealed it from the free-throw line. Irvin co-led the team with 16 points, while Duncan Robinson finished with his first career double-double, scoring 13 points and adding 11 rebounds. Michigan lives and dies from deep and has set a school record by making 332 3-pointers and counting.
Michigan and Notre Dame won't play each other in football anymore, sadly, so we will have to settle for this. The Irish (21-11) finished tied for fifth in the ACC and beat Duke in overtime in the ACC Tournament opener. But then Notre Dame was utterly destroyed by North Carolina, 78-47. How will this team respond to that? Notre Dame is good enough to beat anyone -- it took out the likes of UNC, Louisville and Duke (again) in the regular season -- but also able to lose to any team. The Irish are a very good offensive team, ranking 10th nationally in offensive efficiency. Defense has been a problem. So really these two teams are a lot alike. Notre Dame is just 7-15 all-time vs. Michigan, but they haven't played since the 2006 NIT. The schools had several common opponents this season. Perhaps the most telling: the Irish beat Iowa on Nov. 27 and UM lost twice to the Hawkeyes.
Key trends: Michigan is 2-6 ATS in its past eight after a win. Notre Dame is 5-1-1 ATS in its past seven after a loss. The over is 5-2 in the Irish's past seven non-conference games.
I'm leaning: Love the over here. Take the Irish.
No. 11 Northern Iowa vs. No. 6 Texas (-4, 124.5)
West Region game from Oklahoma City at 9:50 p.m. ET on TBA. The winner gets either No. 3 Texas A&M or No. 14 Green Bay. To me, this might be the most interesting game of the day, but if you like high-scoring, up-and-down basketball this definitely isn't for you. UNI (22-12) plays at one of the slowest paces of the nation and tries to make it a half-court game. This total is the lowest of any first-round game. The Panthers as usual are one of the nation's top defensive teams, allowing only 62.9 points per game. And they are on fire. UNI was 10-11 overall and 2-6 in the Missouri Valley Conference following a 76-67 loss at Illinois State on Jan. 23. Northern Iowa has lost once since and beaten Wichita State twice in that stretch -- and you saw what Wichita did to Vanderbilt on Tuesday in the First Four. When will some Power 5 school hire UNI coach Ben Jacobson? His team has wins over No. 1 North Carolina and No. 5 Iowa State this season.
Shaka Smart was one of the best mid-major coaches like Jacobson while Smart was at VCU, but he landed the Texas gig this past offseason. Predictably, the Horns (20-12) are a much improved defensive team with Smart's "Havoc" pressure scheme. Center Prince Ibeh was named Big 12 Defensive Player of the year even though he averages only 18.1 points per game. He wasn't a starter to begin the season but moved into that role when fellow big man Cameron Ridley went down with a broken foot near the end of 2015. Ridley only returned in the Big 12 Tournament opening loss to Baylor. He played just two minutes in the loss. Smart is hoping Ridley, who averaged 11.8 points and 9.2 rebounds before going down, can play as many as 20 here. UT would be very dangerous if he's at full strength.
Key trends: UNI is 11-1-1 ATS in its past 13 games. Texas is 0-7 ATS in its past seven NCAA Tournament games. The under is 5-0 in UNI's past five.
I'm leaning: If you are wondering from a common opponent standpoint, Texas split with Iowa State and also beat North Carolina. That's a small total but I'll go under. Take UNI.
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