March Madness predictions 2021: 7 safe first-round NCAA Tournament picks against the spread

By | March 16, 2021

A safe bet in the 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament?  

That is going to be difficult no matter what, especially in a tournament played through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. That only adds to the unpredictability of the first round of the tournament.  

That said, there are some trends among the 68 teams which bettors can take advantage of. Sporting News found seven first-round matchups that are among the safer bets, if such a thing is possible.  

MORE MARCH MADNESS: Round 1 odds | Parlays | Printable bracket

Safe March Madness picks against the spread

No. 8 North Carolina (-1.5) vs. No. 9 Wisconsin  

Friday, 7:10 p.m.  

Here is a stat that matters: Roy Williams is 29-0 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. This is a toss-up game, but the Tar Heels are 6-2 ATS when favored since February, and the Badgers are 2-3-1 ATS as an underdog. The low spread makes this pick easier, but that first-round trend is the one to follow.  

Pick: North Carolina covers 

No. 2 Houston (-20.5) vs. No. 15 Cleveland State

Friday, 7:15 p.m.  

The Vikings are 7-3 ATS as underdogs this season, and they have scored at least 65 points in 12 straight games. The Cougars have won eight games by 20 or more points this season, but the line still feels a touch high in a game where the Vikings can hang around into the second half. 

Pick: Cleveland State 

UPSET ALERT: The best sleeper picks for March Madness

No. 3 West Virginia (-12.5) vs. No. 14 Morehead State 

Friday, 9:50 p.m.  

Trust Bob Huggins in the first round? Well, the Mountaineers have made the Sweet 16 in three of the last four tournaments. Morehead State has been a super-dog all season with a 12-3 ATS as an underdog. Look at the three losses. Ohio State, Kentucky and Belmont beat the Eagles by an average of 22 points per game, and Morehead State covered in a 15-point loss to Virginia. Look for the Mountaineers to make a statement in the first round after an abbreviated showing in the Big 12 tournament.  

Pick: West Virginia covers 

No. 3 Kansas (-10.5) vs. No. 14 Eastern Washington  

Saturday, 1:15 p.m.  

How can this be a safe pick? The Jayhawks’ tournament status remains murky after the team pulled out of the Big 12 tournament last Friday. Still, Kansas is 6-4 ATS in games where they were favored by double digits, and this is the lowest of those double-digit spreads. Kansas has won their last four tournament openers by an average of 28.5 points per game, and the closest margin is 16 points.  

Pick: Kansas covers 

BRACKET PICKS: DeCourcy (Gonzaga) | Bender (Illinois) | Fagan (Gonzaga)

No. 5 Creighton (-7.5) vs. No. 12 UCSB 

Saturday, 3:30 p.m. 

The Gauchos are a trendy 5-12 upset pick, and with good reason. UCSB has lost just one game since Jan. 1. The Gauchos are 1-1 ATS as an underdog, but they have just one loss of five points or more this season. Even if they lose, this feels like a tight finish. Take the value with a team that could win outright.  

Pick: UCSB 

No. 2  Alabama (-17) vs. No. 15 Iona

Saturday, 4 p.m.  

The Crimson Tide is 4-2 ATS this season as a double-digit favorite, and Alabama has covered in four of their last six wins. That said, the Gaels have covered in five of their last six games and are 2-1 ATS as underdogs this season. Iona won’t win the game, but we’re counting on Rick Pitino’s team to keep it interesting. The line ticked up a half-point, so there is slight value here.  

Pick: Iona 

No. 3 Texas (-8.5) vs. No. 14 Abilene Christian  

Saturday, 9:50 p.m.  

Abilene Christian is another super-dog that is 3-1 ATS as an underdog and will be fired up to prove it in an in-state matchup. Despite a below .500-record against the spread, the Longhorns are on a five-game win streak — and they’ve covered in every game. The line opens at 10 points, so take the value on Texas here.  

Pick: Texas covers