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After charging through a regular season full of upsets and buzzer-beaters, college basketball finally takes center stage and crests into its peak with March Madness kicking off this week.

While the play-in games of the First Four may suffice as an appetizer, the Round of 64 looms large as one of the most fun stretches of the year for basketball fans and bettors.

With 32 matchups ranging from projected blowouts to sure-to-be classics, there is plenty to debate and discuss. With that in mind, here are my favorite bets on the board for Thursday and Friday’s action.

March Madness First Round picks and predictions

North Carolina -3 vs Marquette (-110)

The recipe for the Tar Heels is simple. Marquette was the worst rebounding team in the Big East, on both sides of the floor.
On the offensive end, Marquette abandons the offensive glass to prioritize getting back in transition defense. North Carolina will gladly take those rebounds and get off to the races with their secondary break action.

When Marquette is on defense, Kur Kuath is the anchor at the rim, though he tends to overextend for weak side blocked shots when the more prudent play is a box out for a rebound. When Kuath isn’t on the floor, 6-foot-7 forward Justin Lewis bumps up to the center spot and can be dislodged in the fight for rebounds.

Both of those options should intrigue North Carolina big man Armando Bacot. Marquette’s only prayer to keep him off the glass and quiet on the stat sheet is a closely officiated game that sends Bacot to the bench with foul trouble. His dominance in the paint should be the difference for the Heels.

Colgate +7.5 vs Wisconsin (-110)

The Raiders and Badgers fit the profile of a classic upset.

Wisconsin likes to play slowly, allowing a low possession and high variance game. That is a scary proposition for a Wisconsin team that has snuck by with some lucky wins this season – the most wins of eight points or less in college basketball. On top of that, Badger star Johnny Davis hasn’t looked like himself as he nurses an injury.

Colgate is the wrong team to roll the dice against. The Raiders are the second best 3-point shooting team in college basketball this season and they love to let it fly. Only 20 teams in the nation scored more of their points from outside the arc.

In a low possession duel, a hot shooting night from Colgate should keep this within the spread, if not put the Raiders on top when the buzzer sounds.

Richmond +10.5 vs Iowa (-110)

Consider this a cry for sanity from the betting public. The Hawkeyes have become a red-hot pick to make the Final Four, with this first round game versus Richmond a seemingly foregone conclusion. Based on how Iowa played at the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis last week, that’s reasonable. The Hawkeyes looked the part of conference champs, yet if Jordan Bohannon had not banked a 3 to beat Indiana, would Iowa still be getting all of this love?

The Hawkeyes are a fireball offensively, yet have major questions on the other end. Iowa was the worst defensive rebounding team in the Big Ten, giving away valuable possessions. Richmond will be eager to make Bohannon a defender, especially if and when he’s matched up with shifty point guard Jacob Gilyard.

Iowa should win here, though this number is simply too high. Richmond has a team laden with veteran experience that should not be discounted. Fran McCaffrey’s Iowa teams have disappointed before, never once reaching the Sweet Sixteen. I’m happy to bet against that track record.

Providence -2 vs South Dakota State (-110)

The Friars have been fortunate enough to survive an avalanche of close games this season, on top of some shooting luck that is set to regress at any moment. Every gambler and analytics junkie has been sitting and waiting for the Friars to get paired up with a possible Cinderella. Many were quick to jump on the Jackrabbits without even considering the matchup.

Unless you want to blindly wager on the chances Providence’s luck runs out, South Dakota State doesn’t match up well against the Friars.

Big man Nate Watson should have his way on the interior for Providence and the Jackrabbit defense struggles to swarm to open shooters. Friar defensive ace Justin Minaya profiles as the perfect person to guard South Dakota State star Baylor Scheierman.

And if you believe in shooting regression for Providence, South Dakota State could see the same. The Jacks lead the nation in 3-point percentage by almost 4 percentage points. That anomaly could shrink with the kind of off night South Dakota State had in losses to Alabama and Washington.

At the end of the day, the numbers only mean so much. Providence won the Big East outright. The Friars shouldn’t be a single possession favorite over a team whose second most impressive win was over Bradley.

Over 148.5 in Gonzaga vs Georgia State (-120)

Georgia State was underseeded as a 16, thanks to the committee ignoring some of the injury issues that plagued the Panthers all season long. That doesn’t mean they’ll give Gonzaga nightmares, though this shouldn’t be a blowout from the tip.

As they chase Gonzaga, Georgia State will full-court pressure and double team defensively. Gonzaga, which loves to play up tempo, should be able to handle the pressure. Even if the pressure cracks the Zags at all, Georgia State isn’t interesting in slowing things down.

Points will go up on the board and should get this game over the total, even at this high number.

Other bets to watch:

Under 133.5 in Memphis vs Boise State (-110)

The opposite will be true of the game directly prior to the Zags and Panthers. Boise State and Memphis both find their identity on the defense end of the floor. Even though Memphis likes to push the pace, and played at the fastest tempo in the American Conference, Boise State should be able to pump the brakes enough to keep this to a low total.

Colorado State +2.5 vs Michigan (-105)

Michigan has the rare distinction of being favored as an 11-seed, despite very mixed results this season. The Wolverines had the 11th-ranked defense in the Big Ten and one of the worst shooting offenses. There were credible calls for Michigan to be sent to Dayton or outright excluded from the list of at-larges. I like David Roddy and the Rams to win this one, though I would advise keeping an eye on the line to be greedy and hope maybe it pops back up to +3.5.

Virginia Tech +1 vs Texas (-110)

I’m a little scared to overweight the Hokies recent play at the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn, although they looked undeniably sharp. That would cause trouble for a Texas team built on transfers who never seemed to find their footing together. I’d jump on this game if the line sneaks higher than just one point.