2019 NCAA tournament odds: Why each favorite and underdog will cover the point spread in their Thursday first-round game

The 2019 NCAA basketball tournament has officially tipped off. The First Four wrapped up Wednesday afternoon, and the 64-team bracket is officially set. Louisville and Minnesota kick off the first round Thursday at 12:15 p.m. ET, and the tournament wraps up three weeks from now on Monday, April 8, with the national championship game.

There will be plenty of Cinderella stories to keep us entertained, but even when Cinderella comes up just short, she can still win you money against the spread. So, it’s time to start figuring out where we’ll see upsets.

We’ve listed out the spread for all 16 first-round matchups for Thursday’s games, and then spoken with our network of team brand managers to figure out why each team might cover the spread. Everybody has their own philosophy, but getting insight from folks who are particularly dialed in can help get you a necessary edge to turn this March into a profitable one.

2) Michigan State vs. 15) Bradley, 2:45 p.m., CBS

Spread: Michigan State -19.5

Why Michigan State will cover: Whether the line is at 18, 19, or 20 points, Michigan State will absolutely cover in their NCAA tournament opener against the Bradley Braves. There are actual basketball reasons, most important of which is Bradley just isn’t that good at basketball. The Braves are averaging roughly 65 points per game, about the same as what MSU allows on average. A good defense may be crucial to winning a championship for a contender, but a Cinderella needs to be able to score. Michigan State, on the other hand, can put up points on almost any defense, and forces other teams to play at their speed. A fifth-place MVC team, no matter their conference tournament success, isn’t going to keep up. There are issues with Bradley off the court as well. Unlike most upset-minded teams, Bradley doesn’t have the support of the small-school-loving media. After an embarrassing weekend of banning, then unbanning a hometown journalist for “not supporting the brand,” Bradley’s players have had to deal with a whole different kind of media blitz this week. Forget 20 points, get better odds and take MSU at 25. — Kyle Thele, The Only Colors

Why Bradley will cover: Bradley is 301st in adjusted tempo, per KenPom, and 346th (out of 353 teams) in adjusted defensive possession length. In other words, the Braves are likely to slow the game down, meaning Michigan State must be highly efficient on offense to blow it open. — Chris Dobbertean, Blogging the Bracket

3) LSU vs. 14) Yale, 12:40 p.m., truTV

Spread: LSU -8

Why LSU will cover: The most obvious reason to think LSU covers the -7.5 spread against Yale is seeding. LSU’s a three seed for a reason, and Yale, despite being Ivy League champions, is still a mid major school and the rationale is that LSU has the better talent. But that’s too simplistic and frankly the wrong way at looking at Yale; Yale is as quality a team as it gets and the roster is full of experienced players. Yale likes to push the pace, but that’s a weapon LSU can turn against the Bulldogs. A quicker tempo also lends more chances to create turnovers and LSU is eighth in the entire country in steals thanks in large part to guards Tremont Waters and Skylar Mays. Yale ranks 210th nationally in turnovers so LSU is begging the Bulldogs to play uptempo. The Tigers also have a significant size advantage in the front court with Naz Reid, Kavell Bigby-Williams and Emmitt Williams. LSU is the second-best offensive rebounding team in the country for a reason and it’s largely owed to that trio’s length. Between the ample opportunities for points off of turnovers and getting high percentage looks in the painted area, LSU should be able to get to the second round and cover the spread in the process. — Zachary Junda, And the Valley Shook

Why Yale will cover: Yale is arguably underseeded, as our final bracket projection had the Bulldogs on seed line 13. While five of Yale’s seven losses came by eight or more points, four of those came in true road games. That’s not the type of environment they’ll encounter with a 12:40 p.m. ET tip in Jacksonville. — Chris Dobbertean, Blogging the Bracket

6) Maryland vs. 11) Belmont, 3:10 p.m., truTV

Spread: Maryland -3.5

Why Maryland will cover: Maryland limped to the finish in the Big Ten, but the Terps have big men worth betting on. Sophomore center Bruno Fernando earned first-team All-Big Ten honors after averaging a double-double for the season, and only a few teams on Maryland’s schedule all year have been able to contain him. He’s coming off a season-low three points in the conference tournament, but has a staggering 21 double-doubles in 32 games. Fernando and Jalen Smith are as formidable a front line as any in the country, and the Terps have enough playmakers in the backcourt to make life difficult for anyone. — Thomas Kendziora, Testudo Times

Why Belmont will cover: Belmont will be coming into Thursday’s game fresh off a Tuesday win over Temple which didn’t see them play at their best. This is particularly true for the Bruins’ best player, NBA Draft prospect Dylan Windler, who scored just five points on a poor shooting night. (A 42 percent three-point shooter, he was just 1-of-5 from beyond the arc in Dayton.) At-large First Four winners historically do well in their first-round games in the main draw, and the Bruins offense and quick tempo, which can bother a Maryland team used to playing in a slower Big Ten, should enable them to at least keep this matchup to a one-possession game late. — Chris Dobbertean, Blogging the Bracket

7) Louisville vs. 10) Minnesota, 12:15 p.m., CBS

Spread: Louisville -4.5

Why Louisville will cover: Minnesota is one of the worst shooting teams in the tournament, and, as a result, a lot of the time when they lose, they lose bad. Seven of the Gophers 13 losses this season have come by double-digits, and two of the games that were single-digit defeats came by nine points. Louisville has been an erratic offensive team at times this season, but they’ve been solid in March so far. The Cardinals’ adjusted offensive efficiency rating of 117.8 for the month to date is the 23rd-best in the country. — Mike Rutherford, Card Chronicle

Why Minnesota will cover: Minnesota’s ability to draw fouls keeps them in most games. The Golden Gophers got to the foul line on 42 percent of their field goal attempts this season, a top-15 mark in the country. Jordan Murphy is a dependable inside scorer who controls the glass and Amir Coffey is a big wing who can slash to the rim. As long as Minnesota doesn’t dig itself into a big hole, they can cover 4.5 points. — Ricky O’Donnell

3) Purdue vs. 14) Old Dominion, 9:50 p.m., TBS

Spread: Purdue -12

Why Purdue will cover: Purdue has one of the most efficient offenses in the nation even when Carsen Edwards has not been. Matt Haarms has been playing great basketball down the stretch while Ryan Cline has been hot from three all season. When everything is clicking Purdue is a very dangerous team with Haarms able to play inside and out while running the high ball screen. Edwards has also been better in neutral site games as opposed to true road games, as evidenced by the below from our writer Juan Crespo. — Travis Miller, Hammer and Rails

Why Old Dominion will cover: Old Dominion is another slow team (325th in adjusted tempo) that is strong defensively (45th in adjusted defensive efficiency). But the Monarchs have also gotten themselves in the habit of playing very close games. Of their 33 games so far, just 13 were decided by 10 or more points, with just five of those contests coming since January. — Chris Dobbertean, Blogging the Bracket

6) Villanova vs. 11) St. Mary’s, 7:20 p.m., TBS

Spread: Villanova -5

Why Villanova will cover: Villanova has had a relatively down year this year, but they are entering the tournament fresh off of a Big East tournament championship, their third straight. In St. Mary’s, Villanova faces a team very similar to their own, one who plays at a molasses pace (Villanova and St. Mary’s are 339th and 350th in offensive tempo, respectively), has a relatively thin rotation (296th and 308th in bench minutes), and whose offenses are built around the three (Villanova is third in 3P/FGA, St. Mary’s is 33rd in 3P%). The crucial differences? Villanova is playing 3,000 miles closer to home than St. Mary’s, ‘Nova has the better coach, and the Wildcats are the better team by most advanced metrics. Villanova may have a tough matchup against the Gaels, but Scottie Reynolds will be avenged and Jay Wright’s quad will be able to win by more than five come Thursday night. — Mike Jacobs, VU Hoops

Why St. Mary’s will cover: By the KenPom and NET rankings, the Saint Mary’s-Villanova game is among the closest in the entire first round, closer than many 7-vs.-10 and 8-vs.-9 games. And in many ways, these teams are mirror images of one another. However, the Gaels shoot a little better from outside and if their threes drop, this one will be tight to the end. — Chris Dobbertean, Blogging the Bracket

2) Kentucky vs. 15) Abilene Christian, 7:10 p.m., CBS

Spread: Kentucky -22

Why Kentucky will cover: Kentucky is coming off a gut-wrenching loss to Tennessee in the SEC tournament, which not only cost the Wildcats a No. 1 seed, but also kept them from playing in Louisville for the South Region. They’ll be ready to take out their anger on whoever is up next, which happens to be Abilene Christian, who simply hasn’t beaten anyone of consequence.

According to KenPom, ACU’s best win is over 186th-ranked Campbell, who is also ranked 223rd in the NCAA’s NET rankings (ACU is 154th). The only legitimate foe ACU faced was Texas Tech, who won 82-48 in Lubbock. Jacksonville is a bit of a travel for Kentucky fans, but they’ve typically painted Florida blue whenever the Cats play in the Sunshine State, so it should be a semi-home game for them.

This is a game Kentucky should absolutely win by 25 points or more, so I feel good about the Lexington Cats covering the spread vs. the Abilene Cats. — Jason Marcum, A Sea of Blue

Why Abilene Christian will cover: Abilene Christian forces turnovers, particularly steals, and shoots three-pointers at a good clip. If the Southland champs deploy those two weapons successfully, they should keep this one within 22 points. — Chris Dobbertean, Blogging the Bracket

4) Kansas vs. 13) Northeastern, 4:00 p.m., TNT

Spread: Kansas -8.5

Why Kansas will cover: At first glance, Northeastern looks like a team that could slay mighty Kansas. They take over 46 percent of their shots from behind the arc, and they are a top-15 team in terms of three-point percentage. However, Northeastern is a sub-250 team in several key defensive measures, and they don’t have anyone who can match up with KU’s bigs, especially Dedric Lawson. Additionally, the Huskies haven’t seen anyone with Devon Dotson’s quickness on the perimeter; it will be a tough order for them to stay in front of KU’s point guard defensively. Kansas should be able to score at will, and Bill Self has plenty of time to figure out how to get his defense to stay in front of Northeastern’s shooters. Also keep in mind that Northeastern struggled to score against their P5 opponents this year (Alabama, Virginia Tech, Syracuse). Even though they went 1-2 in those games, their highest point output was just 68, and that was the win over Alabama, an NIT team. It may be a popular upset pick in some circles, but look for the Jayhawks to cover relatively comfortably. — Mike Plank, Rock Chalk Talk

Why Northeastern will cover: Northeastern has five players who make their three-point attempts at better than a 39-percent clip. If at least three of them get hot, the Huskies will at least keep it close. — Chris Dobbertean, Blogging the Bracket

5) Auburn vs. 12) New Mexico State, 1:30 p.m., TNT

Spread: Auburn -7.5

Why Auburn will cover: Auburn is one of the best teams in the country at converting turnovers into points. New Mexico State runs a slow-paced offense, but will have to contend with Auburn’s press, which will try to force the Aggies to get out of their half-court sets. It worked against Tennessee in the SEC championship, and Auburn will cover because they will have way more possessions than the Aggies want them to have.

Oh, and Jared effing Harper. — Jack Condon, College and Magnolia

Why New Mexico State will cover: New Mexico State is one of the deeper teams in the country, as head coach Chris Jans has a rotation that features 10 players who play at least 10 minutes per game. That means the Aggies will be able to rotate their players in and out enough to contend with the Tigers’ pace and tempo. — Chris Dobbertean, Blogging the Bracket

7) Wofford vs. 10) Seton Hall, 9:40 p.m., CBS

Spread: Wofford -3

Why Wofford will cover: In a game that should be a delight for fans who like to see players hit big shots, Wofford has plenty of guys who can shoot the three. Not only do the Terriers have Fletcher Magee (41.3 percent from beyond the arc), they have Storm Murphy (50.6 percent), Nathan Hoover (46.1 percent), Tray Hollowell (44.8 percent), and Cameron Johnson (38.9 percent) roaming the perimeter. That’s a lot of scoring power for Seton Hall to contend with. — Chris Dobbertean, Blogging the Bracket

Why Seton Hall will cover: Myles Powell is one of the most electric scorers in the entire tournament, having recorded 22 20+ point games this season. Between Powell’s gifts on offense and the recent emergence of guard Myles Cale as a secondary scorer and three-point threat, the Pirates should be in good shape against a Wofford defense that struggled against high-major opponents in conference play. — Robert O’Neill, Big East Coast Bias

1) Gonzaga vs. 16) Fairleigh Dickinson, 7:20 p.m., TBS

Spread: Gonzaga -26.5

Why Gonzaga will cover: The Gonzaga Bulldogs will easily beat the spread against the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights for one simple reason: Gonzaga beat its conference opponents this year by an average of 27 points per game. The Knights are ranked No. 207 by KenPom, which would put them as the third-worst team in the WCC. Gonzaga’s offense is too good to stop, and Mark Few will be looking for a statement from his squad after that abysmal loss to Saint Mary’s in the WCC tournament championship game. — Peter Woodburn, The Slipper Still Fits

Why Fairleigh Dickinson will cover: While Gonzaga has been a No. 1 seed twice, their two first-round wins both came by less than the spread for Thursday’s contest. In 2013, the Bulldogs only defeated Southern by six, while in 2017, they took down South Dakota State by 20. With Fairleigh Dickinson being an excellent perimeter shooting team, the Knights can definitely use the three ball to ensure history repeats itself. — Chris Dobbertean, Blogging the Bracket

2) Michigan vs. 15) Montana, 9:20 p.m., TNT

Spread: Michigan -16

Why Michigan will cover: Michigan and Montana faced off last year in the NCAA tournament first round under similar circumstances and the Wolverines only beat them by 14. That team was a bit better than this edition of the Wolverines, but with the spread set at 15.5 for Thursday’s game, I feel like they should be able to cover that coming off of another disappointing loss to Michigan State and knowing what’s on the line now. We saw a much more motivated and ready for March basketball team last weekend in Chicago, and I think they know what they have to do. They’ll cover it. — Anthony Broome, Maize N Brew

Why Montana will cover: Montana returns most of the squad that fell to Michigan in last year’s first round in a No. 3 vs. No. 14 game. The Wolverines, on the other hand, feature plenty of faces that didn’t play the Grizzlies in 2018. While Michigan remains excellent defensively, its offense isn’t quite as predictably great as 2018’s version. That combined with Montana’s familiarity with the opponent should allow this one to remain fairly close throughout. — Chris Dobbertean, Blogging the Bracket

4) Florida State vs. 13) Vermont, 2:00 p.m., TBS

Spread: Florida State -11

Why Florida State will cover: Florida State’s defense is rated ninth nationally, but since Feb. 1 they been playing at an elite level (third nationally). Their length will give Vermont fits and allow FSU to score enough in transition to keep their opponents at bay. — Michael Rogner, Tomahawk Nation

Why Vermont will cover: The best player on the floor won’t be in garnet and gold. Anthony Lamb can bully most everyone on FSU’s team who will be guarding him. And when he can’t? He’ll knock down threes or go to his midrange game. The Seminoles can’t match up. — Michael Rogner, Tomahawk Nation

5) Marquette vs. 12) Murray State, 4:30 p.m., TBS

Spread: Marquette -4

Why Marquette will cover: First, Marquette is the best defensive team that Murray State has seen all season. Marquette is No. 35 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, and Murray State hasn’t even played against a top-80 defense since the calendar changed to 2019. Second, if Marquette has a lead late and needs to hold onto the margin from the free-throw line, they can rely on being a top-25 free-throw shooting team with three starters shooting over 80 percent from the charity stripe. Finally, and it’s the easiest and most obvious answer: Marquette has Markus Howard and Murray State does not. Oh, don’t get me wrong, Ja Morant is great, and does stuff Howard cannot. But Howard is a much more explosive scorer, capable of single-handedly turning a game from a possession or two into a 10-point margin in mere minutes, and you’d only need one hand to count the number of shots that it took him to do it. — Andrew Fleck, Anonymous Eagle

Why Murray State will cover: Murray State should be able to keep this one within a possession because of Ja Morant. And not just because of with his ability to score either. The Racers’ star leads the nation in assist rate, per KenPom, so he’s also capable of getting the ball to his teammates when they’re in better position. That might happen frequently in this one. — Chris Dobbertean, Blogging the Bracket

7) Nevada vs. 10) Florida, 6:50 p.m., TNT

Spread: Nevada -2.5

Why Nevada will cover: Nevada has tons of experience, both in the age of players (the oldest team in the tournament) and postseason experience (after a run to the Sweet 16 last year). The Martin twins — Caleb and Cody — are the most well known on the team, but Jordan Caroline may be one of the most underrated players in the country. He sat out the MWC title game with an Achilles issue, but he should be back for this one against the Gators. The Wolfpack don’t turn it over and run an efficient offense. They can get buckets, and don’t ever count them out (see: comeback vs. Cincy last year). — Caroline Darney

Why Florida will cover: The Gators rank 14th in adjusted defense and rank near the bottom of the nation in adjusted tempo. Nevada has a notably deeper offense, and Florida and will look to slow this game down by a considerable margin. Nevada brings an edge in experience, but if Florida turns this into an ugly slog, they can spring the upset. — David Fucillo

8) Syracuse vs. 9) Baylor, 9:57 p.m., truTV

Spread: Syracuse -2

Why Syracuse will cover: Baylor is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, but Syracuse should be able to weather that storm and cover as the tallest team in the country. The Orange received some inspired guard play in the ACC tournament without Tyus Battle and are now playing at its highest level all season. With Battle back in the fold, look for Syracuse to lock in defensively in the 2-3 zone as it often does in March and cover the point spread. — James Szuba, Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician

Why Baylor will cover: Baylor will cover because Baylor has a massive offensive rebounding advantage — the Bears are second in offensive rebounding rate, and Syracuse is 335th in defensive rebounding rate (explored more here). The Orange let North Carolina, a worse offensive rebounding team, grab 52 percent of their misses. Baylor runs that back and moves on. — Kendall Kaut, Our Daily Bears

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