NCAA March Madness betting: Which first-round lines moved right away, and why?

Frank Schwab
·6 min read

The first few hours after spreads for the NCAA tournament are released can be telling.

If there's a line that sharp bettors think is a little off, they'll bet it and that can cause sportsbooks to move the line. Casual bettors aren't the ones grabbing Oral Roberts +17 on Sunday night at BetMGM right after the first-round lines are posted. In a little more than 12 hours, the line had shifted for 16 of the 28 first-round games with a point spread (four games won't be settled until after the First Four games on Thursday).

Lines can move for various reasons, including late-breaking injury news, and the line movement matters. You'll know the first time you get a half-point loss in a tournament game this year. Paying attention to the early line moves is a valuable bit of information.

Here are the lines that moved from Sunday night to Monday morning at BetMGM, and possible clues into why:

Illinois -22 to -22.5 vs. Drexel

The Illini have looked great late in the season, and Drexel doesn't have a lot of size to contend with Illinois big man Kofi Cockburn. The line was a touch low, and it could keep going up.

Illinois players Ayo Dosunmu (11), Andre Curbelo (5), Trent Frazier (1), and Kofi Cockburn (21) are coming off a Big Ten tournament championship. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Illinois players Ayo Dosunmu (11), Andre Curbelo (5), Trent Frazier (1), and Kofi Cockburn (21) are coming off a Big Ten tournament championship. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Oral Roberts +17 to +16.5 vs. Ohio State

Ohio State looked good at the Big Ten tournament, but did lose its last four regular-season games. The Buckeyes play a little slow and Oral Roberts hung in with some good teams in the regular season (lost to Oklahoma State by 5, Oklahoma by 14 and Arkansas by 11) so the line move makes sense.

Baylor -25.5 to -26.5 vs. Hartford

Baylor is going to overwhelm Hartford, which is not a good offensive team. It's easy to see Baylor scoring enough points to beat this big line.

Loyola Chicago -2.5 to -2 vs. Georgia Tech

The Ramblers' impressive KenPom rating (No. 9, with all of the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds holding the top eight spots) didn't matter much to early bettors. Georgia Tech won the ACC tournament title and that's impressive. This line could move back toward Loyola before tipoff.

Tennessee -8.5 to -7.5 vs. Oregon State

Tennessee's underwhelming regular season sent bettors to grab Oregon State right away. The Beavers have been strong against the spread all season, and their ATS record of 18-9-1 finally paid off with straight-up wins and an unexpected Pac-12 tournament title. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes' spotty ATS tournament record is a factor in the line move too.

Houston -19.5 to -20 vs. Cleveland State

The Cougars were the biggest favorite among the No. 2 seeds, and this spread looks like a 1 vs. 16 matchup. Both teams play at a slow pace so it'll be tough for the Cougars to cover a number this big, though their 91-54 win over Cincinnati in the AAC tournament final is a reminder they're more than capable of it.

Texas State +8 to +7.5 vs. Purdue

This is a surprising move. Purdue checks out with analytics (No. 13 in KenPom). Texas State can match up reasonably well with Purdue big man Trevion Williams, putting 6-foot-10 senior Zachary Simmons on him, and perhaps that gives bettors some confidence. It wouldn't be a surprise if this line goes back to 8 or higher.

San Diego State -2 to -3 vs. Syracuse

San Diego State is very good. The Aztecs haven't lost since Jan. 16. They beat UCLA by 15 to start the season. Syracuse is the bigger name in this matchup, but San Diego State has been the better team and the opening line was too low.

West Virginia -12 to -13 vs. Morehead State

Morehead's inability to compete against the best teams on its schedule might be a reason West Virginia is getting the early action. Morehead State lost by 36 to Kentucky, 18 to Richmond, 33 to Ohio State and 15 to Clemson. Those are the only top 100 KenPom teams Morehead State played this season.

Winthrop +6.5 to +6 vs. Villanova

This line move isn't surprising given Villanova's 0-2 record without injured guard Collin Gillespie. The history of No. 12 seeds up setting No. 5 seeds is strong, and it's no surprise Winthrop is getting the early attention.

Georgetown +5 to +4.5 vs. Colorado

Another 12 vs. 5 line move. It's understandable after Georgetown looked very good in the Big East tournament. The early tip time for Colorado — they play the first game Saturday, at 10:15 a.m. Mountain time — is another small factor.

UNC Greensboro +11.5 to +11 vs. Florida State

KenPom projects this game to be a nine-point Florida State win, which is the only logical reason for the line move. The best team UNC Greensboro played this season was Winthrop, ranked No. 91 in KenPom, and UNCG lost by 8. For a UNCG team that gets a lot of its offense from cleaning up on offensive rebounds, Florida State seems like a really bad matchup.

UC Santa Barbara +7 to +6.5 vs. Creighton

If you want UCSB, don't wait to bet them. It's another 12 vs. 5 line move and if there's another line move coming, it's probably toward UCSB. The Gauchos looked very good in the Big West tournament.

Iona +17.5 to +16.5 vs. Alabama

The full point move toward Iona has to be a nod to Rick Pitino, the Iona coach who is among the best ever. There's not much else in Iona's resume that indicates the Gaels can keep this one close.

Grand Canyon +15 to +14.5 vs. Iowa

Grand Canyon lost by only 10 in each of their games against KenPom top 100 teams (Colorado and Nevada) and the Antelopes are a capable defensive team. Iowa is one of the few teams in the field capable of scoring 100 on any given night, but the opening line was just a little too high for early bettors.

Ohio +9.5 to +7.5 vs. Virginia

This line move was the only 2-point move overnight, and it's the most interesting shift due to the COVID-19 uncertainty in the Virginia program. An unnamed Virginia player, who played in the Cavaliers' ACC tournament game last Thursday, according to Tony Bennett, is unlikely to play in the first or second round. Virginia is quarantining and won't fly to Indiana for the tournament until Friday, a day before their first game. The lack of practice time and the likely loss of a rotation player has bettors grabbing Ohio, and the line could continue to move toward the Bobcats if we get more news on Virginia.

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