NCAA March Madness betting: Picks for the Saturday first-round games

·10 min read

Unfortunately the NCAA tournament won't finish, or even start, without significant stories revolving around COVID-19.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Loyola Chicago line moved from -2.5 to -5 in a matter of a few minutes, and then it went to -6 after reports about Georgia Tech having a positive COVID-19 test. Virginia has a player who won't play this weekend due to COVID-19, and the team won't fly out to Indiana until Friday, the day before its first-round game. Oklahoma said it will be without its second-leading scorer, De'Vion Harmon, due to COVID-19.

It's sad and a reminder that the pandemic is not over. But all the NCAA tournament games will go on (for now anyway), and there are point spreads on them. We broke down the Friday first-round games and made those picks already, and here are the Saturday games. All times are Eastern and point spreads are from BetMGM:

No. 5 Colorado (-5.5) vs. No. 12 Georgetown, 12:15 p.m.

On one hand, Georgetown is a 13-12 team that is an unimpressive 55th at KenPom. But it's fair to view the Hoyas as a team peaking at the right time, and in this weird season maybe that holds more value than usual. Patrick Ewing's team is 8-2 since Feb. 9 and the only team it has lost to is UConn. No shame losing to the Huskies. Colorado has great balance and McKinley Wright IV is the kind of senior guard you want in the NCAA tournament. The Buffaloes also have some bad losses on their resume. The 10:15 a.m. Mountain time tip doesn't help them much either. I'll take Georgetown to stay hot. This is my least confident pick of the 12 seeds.

Pick: Georgetown +5.5

No. 4 Florida State (-11) vs. No. 13 UNC-Greensboro, 12:45 p.m.

Florida State is deep with a seemingly endless line of huge players with enormous wingspans. So basically, your normal Leonard Hamilton team. FSU is a fine sleeper Final Four pick. UNCG guard Isaiah Miller is the kind of high-volume shooter who the Seminoles should have a defensive answer for. There are a couple No. 13 seeds who look like potential Cinderellas in the first round, but UNCG probably isn't one.

Pick: Florida State -11

Florida State guard Sardaar Calhoun (24) and teammate guard Nathanael Jack (11) congradulate forward Malik Osborne (10) during the ACC tournament. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Florida State guard Sardaar Calhoun (24) and teammate guard Nathanael Jack (11) congratulate forward Malik Osborne (10) during the ACC tournament. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

No. 3 Kansas (-10.5) vs. No. 14 Eastern Washington, 1:15 p.m.

For Kansas, which had its Big 12 tournament cut short due to positive COVID-19 tests, Jalen Wilson (12.1 ppg) and Tristan Enaruna (2.8 ppg) won't be available for Saturday's game. Second-leading scorer David McCormack should be available, however, and that's good news. I worry about a fast-tempo team like Eastern Washington playing against a team with superior talent, but this isn't a typical powerful Kansas team. Add in the disruption of the past week and it seems like Eastern Washington and the points is the right side.

Pick: Eastern Washington (+10.5)

No. 8 LSU (-1.5) vs. No. 9 St. Bonaventure, 1:45 p.m.

It's always a bummer when the committee sticks two good teams against each other in the first round. If you watched the SEC tournament, you wondered how LSU could be a No. 8 seed. The Tigers have too much talent to be just 18-9 this season. St. Bonaventure looked good in the Atlantic 10 tournament and have had a fine season. The Bonnies were 13-5-1 against the spread this season. I'll take LSU, perhaps falling for the siren's song of talent even though it hasn't resulted in a great season to this point, but I'm not loading up against St. Bonaventure. Either of these teams looks like a good play against the spread in the second round against Michigan.

Pick: LSU -1.5

No. 5 Creighton (-7) vs. No. 12 UC Santa Barbara, 3:30 p.m.

Let's make it 4-for-4 picking No. 12 seeds (with moneyline bets on each one too). UCSB is 18-1 since the start of the new year. The Gauchos have been on the radar as a possible first-round pick for a while, and they draw a Creighton team that dealt with a lot more than basketball down the stretch. Creighton went 3-3 down the stretch, with two of the wins against a down Butler team. Creighton is a good team. We've seen that at points this season. But so is UCSB, and this is a fairly easy upset pick.

Pick: UC Santa Barbara (+7)

No. 2 Alabama (-17) vs. No. 15 Iona, 4 p.m.

The line for this game has gone from -18.5 to -17, which is a nod to the brilliance of Iona coach Rick Pitino and ... well, that's it. Iona is No. 210 nationally in KenPom's offensive efficiency and 161st in defensive efficiency. The MAAC is 4-10 against the spread in the first round of the NCAA tournament going back to 2005, according to Matt Eisenberg's tournament guide. If you're betting Iona over an Alabama team I think is a great bet at BetMGM to make the Final Four at +400 odds, you're hoping Pitino has a trick up his sleeve. He might need extra sleeves and many tricks.

Pick: Alabama -17

No. 2 Iowa (-14.5) vs. No. 15 Grand Canyon, 6:25 p.m.

In 7-foot Asbjorn Midtgaard, Grand Canyon has one of the few players in the nation who can match up size-wise with Luka Garza, Iowa's national player of the year favorite. Grand Canyon also played Colorado tough in the regular season, losing by 10. GC likes to play slow, and if itI can get Iowa playing that pace and limit possessions, there's a chance they can cover.

Pick: Grand Canyon (+14.5)

No. 7 UConn (-2.5) vs. No. 10 Maryland, 7:10 p.m.

UConn looks like a strong No. 7 seed. The Huskies were top-25 in KenPom's offensive and defensive efficiency. They're 16th overall in KenPom's rankings, which indicates they should have been seeded higher. James Bouknight is a great guard for UConn. The Huskies are well coached by Dan Hurley. On the other side Maryland is hard to get excited about. They lost their last two regular-season games, to Penn State and Northwestern. They're a typical double-digit-seeded power conference team, making the tournament due to the number of opportunities they had for resume-building wins. It certainly wasn't their 16-13 record that got them in.

Pick: UConn -2.5

No. 4 Virginia (-7.5) vs. No. 13 Ohio, 7:15 p.m.

This is the most "only in 2021" game to handicap. Virginia has a player that tested positive for COVID-19 and isn't expected to play in the first or second round. Who was it? We don't know for sure as of Thursday morning, though he reportedly got minutes in the Cavalier's last ACC tournament game against Syracuse. Virginia will be quarantined until Thursday, fly out Friday and play Saturday with limited or no practice. We've seen teams struggle in that situation before this season. Even if everything was normal, Ohio is a very good offensive team and projected by KenPom to lose by only 7. Given the issues with Virginia, it's a surprise this line is still at 7.5 (it moved from 9.5). It's hard to pick Virginia not getting the full picture of what it'llI have on the court, and I understand anyone taking the moneyline on Ohio.

Pick: Ohio +7.5

No. 8 Oklahoma vs. No. 9 Missouri (-1), 7:25 p.m.

If you're a power conference team in the 8 vs. 9 game, you have flaws. Missouri was 3-6 down the stretch. Oklahoma lost five of six and the only win was against a bad Iowa State, which barely counts as a win in 2021. Oklahoma has some great wins (West Virginia twice, Kansas, Texas, Alabama) and most of their losses down the stretch were close. Missouri's wins are even better: Oregon, Illinois, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida. But the theme of this game changed when Oklahoma said guard De'Vion Harmon wouldn't play due to COVID-19, removing the Sooners' second-leading scorer at 12.9 points per game. That's a brutal blow for Harmon and you have to feel for him. In a game that's tough to call, you have to go against the team that just lost one of its best players. The line moved from Oklahoma -1.5 to Missouri -1 after the news.

Pick: Missouri -1

No. 3 Texas (-9) vs. No. 14 Abilene Christian, 9:50 p.m.

Texas might be overrated. The Longhorns' good days are really good, but they're also No. 26 at KenPom for a reason. That's a rating for a No. 7 seed, not a 3 seed (not saying Texas should be a 7 seed, just to be a little wary of how good the Longhorns are). Abilene Christian lost to Texas Tech by 7 and Arkansas by 13, so the Wildcats weren't overwhelmed by good opponents. They are a good defensive team with experience and depth. In the 2019 NCAA tournament, Abilene got blasted by 35 against Kentucky and that's a concern. I'll take Texas after its Big 12 tournament title, but I don't feel great about it.

Pick: Texas -9

No. 7 Oregon (-5) vs. No. 10 VCU, 9:57 p.m.

The last game of the first round will be one of my favorite plays. Oregon was 11-2 down the stretch. Dana Altman is a good coach. It's hard to say why Oregon was relatively mediocre the first part of the season, but they were much better late. The Ducks are heavy with juniors and seniors, can score on offense and don't turn it over much, and VCU's defense thrives off turnovers. VCU isn't a bad team but they're not great on offense, shouldn't be able to turn over the Ducks as much as they want, and I don't see how Oregon doesn't win fairly easily. If you want one crazy pick for your bracket, Oregon in the Elite 8 might be it. They're far better than that No. 7 seed would indicate.

Pick: Oregon -5

Games without a line

No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 16 Mount St. Mary's/Texas Southern, 3 p.m.

No. 6 USC vs. No. 11 Wichita State/Drake, 4:30 p.m.

No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Norfolk State/Appalachian State, 9:20 p.m.

No. 6 BYU vs. No. 11 Michigan State/UCLA, 9:40 p.m.

I'll tweet out some picks once the matchups are set and the lines are set, though I already anticipate having USC and Michigan State if they beat UCLA on Thursday.

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