DFS College Basketball: Opening Round Preview

DFS College Basketball: Opening Round Preview

This article is part of our DFS College Basketball series.

The NCAA Tournament is upon us, and that means bigger contests, bigger prize pools and hopefully, some brand new players in the College Hoops DFS world. Whether you're just looking for a taste, or entering 100 lineups in Thursday's opener, hopefully there's something worthwhile in today's column.

What's unique about the season opener? For one, we have larger slates. DraftKings is putting all 16 games from Thursday on one slate, with $10,000 going to the winner of the $10 Tournament Opener. They are also introducing a "survivor" format, which is basically like a 50-50 that lasts Thursday through Sunday. Finish in the top half, advance to the next day.

FanDuel is operating things a little differently. They are splitting Thursday up into two slates – main and late – and are not including teams scheduled to play play-in winners in contests that launched early. DraftKings has included both Maryland, Buffalo, Duke and Gonzaga, and will add the play-in winners as games conclude. FanDuel gets a slight bump in prize pools as well, but the largest contests are found on DraftKings.

Skip this part if you're a veteran, but I suppose this is a good time for a refresher on the RotoWire College Basketball DFS tools that are at your disposal. I'll start with our most popular – the CBB Lineup Optimizer. This tool generates "optimal lineups" from our mathematically-based projections, but does a whole lot more than just that. You can exclude players that you don't want a piece of, and lock in players you think are a sure thing. You can also "like" a player to boost his projection by 20 percent, or manually adjust each projection you disagree with. It can also generate up to 20 lineups given your specifications, and you can set any one of them up for e-mail or text alerts.

In addition to the optimizer, we added an Advanced Daily Lineups tool this season. This offers recent player stats, including usage rates – one of the most popular DFS metrics. A player may be getting minutes, but how much are they actually involved in the offense? This is the place to find out. 

One more page worth a look is our Daily Matchup Info. This features sortable and color-coded tables to help DFS players decide what particular matchups to target or avoid. You won't be able to get a player from all 16 games in your lineup, so check here to see which are most favorable for DFS. I generally start here when researching my "Games to Target/Avoid" section below.

With all the book keeping and other basics aside, let's take a look at the Thursday slate.

Top Players:

Ja Morant, Murray State ($12, 700 DK, $10,300 FD): It's the most anticipated matchup of the weekend, and currently the most popular 12-5 upset in ESPN brackets. Morant has the name recognition of the general audience by now, so you're not sliding under the radar using a player from a mid-major team. My DraftKings exposure will be low, since you basically have to pay the cost of two pretty decent players to get him. There are 16 teams on that slate, and I won't pay up here. He's much more reasonable on FanDuel, where the half-day slate gives you less superstar options. I certainly wouldn't be shocked if he scored 35, though he won't have the easiest defensive matchup with Sacar Anim likely to draw the assignment. Furthermore, he averages 5.2 turnovers per game, and those are a full-point deduction on FanDuel. 

Anthony Lamb, Vermont ($10,500 DK, $9,400 FD): Lamb is an absolute stud in the America East conference, averaging 40-plus fantasy points on both sites since Feb. 2. But Florida State is leaps and bounds ahead of any team in that league in terms of pure athleticism. The closest Vermont has seen to that was a Nov. 12 matchup against a fully healthy Kansas team, where Lamb produced 37.0 DraftKings points. He was held to 34.5 two games later against Louisville. That's right around 3.5x on DraftKings both times. Acceptable for cash, but it won't get you far enough in a 16-team GPP.

Dedric Lawson, Kansas ($9,700 DK, $9,200 FD): Lawson might be the best cash game play on the slate, at least among the top tier. He's averaged 39.5 on DraftKings since the beginning of March and gets a good matchup against a mid-major here. Northeastern can't keep teams off the offensive glass, ranking No. 328 in the country in offensive rebounding rate. That is where Lawson will feast with putbacks. Overall the Huskies are 144th in KenPom's defensive efficiency, which bodes well too. Any upset talk here stems from KU being willing to allow open three-pointers, and Northeastern being willing and able to take (and make) a ton of them. Even if it plays out that way, Lawson will still get his.

Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga ($9,600 DK only): Clarke was held under 30 DraftKings points for just the second time since the beginning of February in the Mountain West Final loss to Saint Mary's. He now gets a team outside the top-200 in pace, but there are other factors that make this matchup look great. Fairleigh Dickingson has the lowest adjusted defensive efficiency (No. 294) among any team in the field, and they sit at No. 328 in defensive rebounding rate. Clarke will score and clean on the glass at will for as long as Mark Few keeps him in the game. Note that Killian Tillie will be back for the tournament, and this will be a great spot to get him reps too. Gonzaga is favored by 26.5 points as of Wednesday, so there's blowout potential. But Clarke might only need 25 minutes to hit 4x.

Markus Howard, Marquette ($9,500 DK. $8,700 FD): Howard says the wrist injury is behind him and he's ready to go for the Murray State matchup. The Racers rank fourth in the country in perimeter defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 28.5 percent from beyond the arc. That stat doesn't worry me a ton, because they haven't even came close to facing a shooter like Howard this season. Still, a tough matchup for a player that might not be 100 percent is enough for me to shy away. Murray State doesn't have a defender like Justin Simon or Quincy McKnight – two that have held Howard in check this year – but they'll throw whatever they have at him and make somebody else beat them. There's actually another Marquette player I like a little better, which I'll get into below.

Jordan Caroline, Nevada ($9,400 DK, $7,900 FD): There's a slight injury concern here, as Caroline didn't play in the MW-tourney loss to San Diego State due to what was later described as an Achilles injury. He's since been declared ready for the NCAA Tournament, and I love the FanDuel price. Caroline is a grown man (23 years old) with grown-man skill and athleticism. Florida is a young team with inconsistent upperclassmen. They press just enough to allow Caroline to get out front with favorable one-on-one matchups. Give me Nevada for the win, and Caroline for a 40-burger in DFS (if healthy, of course, which could always shake things up).

Myles Powell, Seton Hall ($9,400 DK, $9,000 FD): Powell is one of the hottest players in the field, averaging 45.4 FanDuel points per game through five March contests. Wofford won't do the Pirates any pace favors, but I expect Seton Hall to speed things up and potentially get the upset. Even if they don't, KenPom projects them to score 69 points, and with a usage rate north of 30 percent, Powell is in play for me.

Jordan Murphy, Minnesota ($9,300 DK, $8,600 FD): Simply put, Louisville is an awful matchup for Murphy and the rest of the Gophers. They have KenPom's 16th-best defense, respectable rebounding rates, and a frontcourt make up of 6-11 Malik Williams and 6-10 Steven Enoch. Generally speaking, the numbers aren't too far off from those of Michigan, who just held Murphy to under 20 DK points. He can reach the 50s on the right day, but doesn't do it consistently enough to warrant cash consideration for me.

Cassius Winston, Michigan State ($9,200 DK, $8,900 FD): Winston has three double-digit assist games in March, and is averaging 33.0 FanDuel and 35.0 DraftKings points per game over six March contests. He's been under 30 points just once on DraftKings. But is there a ceiling game in here? The Spartans draw Bradley – a team outside the top-300 in pace, but also outside the top-100 in KenPom's defensive efficiency. Winston isn't a flashy play, but his floor is high enough to get the job done.

Caleb Martin, Nevada ($9,100 DK, $8,500 FD): I mentioned above that Jordan Caroline is a grown man at 23, but so are Caleb and his brother Cody. If anything, the two brothers get more favorable matchups, as both will see plenty of Andrew Nembhard and Noah Locke – both freshman. If for any reason you think Caroline would be limited, I like going with Caleb Martin here. He actually sports the higher usage rate as well. Florida plays excellent defense at a dreadfully-slow pace, so I'd probably limit the exposure here to just one Nevada option. Basically, we have great individual matchups but a poor team matchup.

Carsen Edwards, Purdue ($9,000 DK, $8,600 FD): Here's your classic GPP play. Edwards is capable of reaching the 50s, but has been under 20 fantasy points twice in his last six games. He'll get his shots up, but draws a top-50 defense with one of the slowest paces on the slate. It's no surprise the game has the lowest over-under. Take with that what you will.

Value Plays:

I'll admit this was a real tough slate to pick traditional value plays on. The sites have made sure to refresh their algorithms and offer competitive pricing, and there aren't a ton of injuries to profit from (except maybe the P.J. Washington situation, which I'll go into below). Most of the following guys have potential, but aren't exactly the most consistent plays. Early looks suggest balance appears to be the key on opening night.

Buddy Boeheim, Syracuse ($4,400 FD, $5,000 DK): Point guard Frank Howard is suspended indefinitely for the Orange. While it could just be Tyus Battle that carries the load and sees the extra usage, this insures Boeheim's minutes and makes him a pretty decent value play.

Darnell Cowart, Murray State ($5,400 DK, $5,000 FD): Granted, it's a much more difficult matchup than the 6-8 forward is used to. But, since entering the starting lineup Feb. 2, the junior is averaging 27.1 on FanDuel and 29.0 on DraftKings. I'm definitely in at those prices.

Jazz Johnson, Nevada ($4,900 FD, $5,100 DK): While Johnson is a bench player, he's played 37 and 37 minutes in his last two games. He's a little scoring dependent, and that could go down with Jordan Caroline presumably back, but the Portland transfer can get hot at any moment. He shoots north of 45 percent from beyond the arc.

Sacar Anim, Marquette ($4,500 DK, $4,900 FD): He's going to be on the floor a ton as the man tasked with defending Ja Morant. The only question is whether he can generate enough offense to hit 4x. With double figures in his last three games, I certainly think he can against a medium-caliber mid-major that wasn't even supposed to win the OVC tournament.

Trevelin Queen, New Mexico State ($4,800 DK, $4,700 FD): Queen needed just 23 minutes to produce 43.0 DraftKings points in the Western Conference final, and had 32.0 on DraftKings just a few games earlier. He doesn't start, though, so I probably limit to GPPs.

Isaiah Livers, Michigan ($5,300 DK, $5,300 FD): Since Feb. 28, Livers is averaging 22.8 DraftKings points per game and has two performances of 30-plus. As a bench player, the sophomore could get plenty of run with the game already in tact.

Matt McQuaid, Michigan State ($5,300 DK, $5,600 FD): Dubbed Matt "McFade" by some of the DFS touts out there, he actually gets a decent spot here as one of the last men standing for the Spartans. Bradley is barely top-100 at defending the perimeter, and McQuaid nailed seven three-pointers in the Big 10 final against Michigan. If you're not buying it here, try Aaron Henry ($4,700 DK, $4,900 FD). Both players should get a jump with Kyle Ahrens (ankle) almost certainly out.

Killian Tillie, Gonzaga, ($5,300 DK only): You can only find the Zags on DraftKings, and I think Tillie makes for an interesting GPP flyer. He's been brought along slowly with 12 and 15 minutes off the bench in his last two, but what better setting to let him loose than in a game where Gonzaga is favored by 28?

Michael Nzei, Seton Hall ($4,700 DK, $4,700 DK): Give me a 6-8 forward that has started five in a row against a mid-major team that's barely favored. Over those five games, Nzei has been on the court for 28.2 minutes and is collecting 21.5 DK points/game on average. He's capable of surpassing 30 DK points, which he's done three times this year, including in the Big East semifinal against Marquette.

David McCormack, Kansas ($4,300 DK, $4,100 FD): As I mentioned in the Lawson blurb above, the Huskies have had troubles on the offensive glass. McCormack is the default big man for the Jayhawks alongside Lawson, and while the 6-10 forward was held to single digits against WVU in the Big 12 tournament, he averaged 23.8 on DraftKings over the previous four games.

Quentin Grimes, Kansas ($4,900 DK, $5,200 DK): I'm not absolutely crazy about this one, but he's got roughly a 15-point floor with the potential to hit in the 40s – which he did against West Virginia in the Big 12 tourney. Ochai Agbaji ($4,900 DK) got hot and took away from Grimes in an earlier run, but Grimes has been a starter all year long and is likely a safer play.

I know a bunch of readers skim straight to the "values" section, so check out Theo John (Marquette), Emmitt Williams (LSU), Jordan Hunter (St. Mary's) and the Kentucky frontcourt. I'll dive in further to each of these plays below.

Games To Target:

LSU (-7.5) vs. Yale, o/u 157, 12:40 p.m. EST

It's the highest over/under on the slate, as both teams have top-65 KenPom tempo ratings. Yale has NBA talent in Miye Oni ($8,600 DK, $8,100 FD) – a 6-6 wing that LSU doesn't really have a great answer for. But the main focus of this game for me is in the LSU frontcourt. Yale hasn't seen a player with the skill/athleticism combo of Naz Reid ($7,300 DK), but you'll pay a premier price for it. The same could be said of Kavell Bigby-Williams ($6,000 DK), but he's at a bit of a discount. Look for KBW to get a ton of points from rebounds and blocks, even if the scoring isn't there. Along the same line of thinking, give Emmitt Williams ($4,500 DK, $4,400 FD) a look as a possible value play. The 6-6, 225-pound freshman averages 5.5 RPG, and nearly half of them are on the offensive end. I expect him to be on cleanup duty off the bench, and if Bigby-Williams or Reid get into foul trouble, Williams' minutes could skyrocket. I saved Tremont Waters ($8,500 DK, $8,200 FD) for last. He's a perfectly fine pivot from some of the star guards, especially with the pace-boosted matchup that could end up closer than the 7.5-point spread.

Marquette (-3.5) vs. Murray State, o/u 149.5, 4:30 p.m. EST

Ja Morant. Markus Howard. Pick a side and start there. The spread on this game has narrowed to 3.5 points, though it can be argued a lot of that is public money due to the Ja Morant fascination. If it is a back-and-forth affair, this game has potential to crush the over. Morant is a player that will play at the next level and is capable of breaking slates, even if the price is outlandish. The same cannot be said of other players on the Racers. Both Tevin Brown ($6,800 DK) and Shaq Buchanan ($6,800 DK) have been under 20 DraftKings points in two of their last four, and get one of their toughest matchups of the year. One guy I can get behind is Darnell Cowart ($5,400 DK, $5,000 FD),

I'm very intrigued about the Marquette side here, however, with several players to discuss in addition to the Howard and Anim mini-profiles I did above. That starts with Sam Hauser ($7,900 DK). Give me Hauser at a price cheaper than Howard after logging 40 DraftKings points in two of his last four games. At 6-8, it doesn't matter if the Murray State perimeter defense is good – he'll simply shoot over everyone. The Racers' tallest rotation player is a 6-9 freshman, and Hauser should eat in just about any matchup they throw at him. Finally, look at Theo John ($4,400 DK) in GPPs. Similar to Williams above, he'll be tasked with protecting the lane, and provides a presence Morant hasn't really seen this year. His production has been limited of late by foul trouble (and an ejection in Friday's loss), and fouls are always a risk here, but the payoff could be big. He's hit 30-plus on DK a few times this year, with a season-best 41.0 against DePaul in January.

Kentucky (-22) vs. Abilene Christian, o/u 132, 7:10 p.m. EST

Watch the status of P.J. Washington ($8,000 DK, $8,200 FD) closely, as plenty of Kentucky value plays could open up if he is absent or limited in any way due to his current foot injury. It's not the greatest of pace matchups, but UK still has an implied point total right around 77. The main player I'm looking at is Tyler Herro ($6,900 DK, $7,300 FD), who would suddenly become an elite play due to a big usage jump. Even with PJ in the lineup, Herro has played 35 or more minutes in every March game with two 20-point efforts along the way. I'd also look at Nick Richards ($4,200 DK, $4,000 FD) and EJ Montgomery ($4,200 DK, $4,400 FD) if we get any kind of bad news on Washington. Reid Travis ($5,600 DK, $5,800 FD) is in play as well. He sat out five games recently due to a knee injury, but was back in the starting lineup and played 28 minutes in the semifinal of the SEC tournament. He also gets a giant price drop. I'd stay away from point guard Ashton Hagans ($5,200 DK, $5,600 FD), though, as Abilene Christian has the eighth-best turnover rate in the country.

Games to Avoid:

Syracuse (-2.5) vs. Baylor, o/u 131

This is a zone vs. zone matchup that will be brutal to watch, and you probably don't want a piece of it in DFS either. I have Syracuse advancing, but its best asset is Tyus Battle ($7,400 DK, $7,400 FD) coming off a back injury. O'Shae Brissett ($7,100 DK, $7,000 FD) will have a size advantage in the post, but isn't a great enough passer (1.8 apg) to rack up huge fantasy totals against the zone. 

Baylor is even messier. Since Tristan Clark went down, we've seen a variety of frontcourt combinations that just haven't clicked. Both Makai Mason ($6,300 DK, $6,200 FD) and King McClure ($5,800 DK, $5,300 FD) have dealt with injuries over the past month, but are now back and both very difficult to price. The mid-tier of Mario Kegler ($6,200 DK, $6,100 FD) and Mark Vital ($6,300 DK, $6,100 FD) are serviceable, but on a slate this big I'd look elsewhere.

St. Mary's vs. Villanova (-4.5), o/u 130.5, 7:20 p.m. EST

Villanova has two clear studs in Phil Booth ($8,100 DK, $8,000 FD) and Eric Paschall ($7,900 DK, $7,400 FD), but it's nearly impossible to determine who has the outlier night between Jermaine Samuels ($5,300 DK, $5,200 FD), Saddiq Bey ($5,600 DK, $5,400 FD) and Collin Gillespie ($5,200 DK, $5,100 FD). Samuels has had 26 or more on DraftKings in his last four, but his price is up almost a grand because of it. Mix that in with a Saint Mary's team that ranks No. 347 in KenPom's tempo metric, and it's no-go for me.

Like Jesse suggests in our South Region preview, I'm a believer Saint Mary's can pull the upset. It's not a super attractive fantasy matchup for them because Nova ranks No. 333 in adjusted tempo rating, but this year's Wildcats defense ranks 65 spots below last year's title-winning team in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency. Jordan Ford ($7,800 DK, $7,800 FD) and Malik Fitts ($7,500 DK, $7,600 FD) have been the usage leaders, but there's little upside there. One wild card I could be talked into is 6-10 Jordan Hunter ($5,400 DK, $5,500 FD), who logged 36.25 DraftKings points in the WCC final against Gonzaga and will have a size advantage over any Villanova frontcourt option.

Auburn (-5.5) vs. New Mexico State, o/u 146, 1:30 p.m. EST

This is a little counter-intuitive, as it's one of the highest over/unders on the slate. The problem here is that NMSU plays roughly 12 players regularly. Do you want to throw a dart and pick which one gets that stats? I personally don't. Queen (mentioned above) is in play due to the monster effort his last time out, but like I noted there, he's a bench player and isn't exactly safe.

For Auburn, Chuma Okeke ($7,700 DK. $8,000 FD) is dealing with a bit of an ankle injury (sort of hearsay, I've got nothing official enough on this to write up for the site). Plus the frontcourt rotation gets convoluted with how much Austin Wiley ($4,500 DK, $4,600 FD) is able to give. New Mexico State has a top-10 offensive and defensive rebounding rate anyway, so even a healthy and stable frontcourt might get into trouble. Jared Harper ($8,000 DK, $7,600 FD) isn't too bad if you want a piece, but along those same lines I'd roll with the senior Bryce Brown ($6,700 DK, $5,900 FD) at a discount instead, who is the better outside shooter and point producer.

Of course, I wouldn't have been able to write up all 16 games and have time for anything else this week, but I'd be more than happy to discuss any other contest or Player A vs. Player B dilemmas in the comments below, or on the RotoWire Discord Server leading up to Thursday tipoff.

The author(s) of this article may play in daily fantasy contests including – but not limited to – games that they have provided recommendations or advice on in this article. In the course of playing in these games using their personal accounts, it's possible that they will use players in their lineups or other strategies that differ from the recommendations they have provided above. The recommendations in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of RotoWire. Jake Letarski plays in daily fantasy contests using the following accounts: FanDuel: rotojakeski, DraftKings: RotoJakeSki.
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Jake Letarski
RotoWire Editor for College Basketball and MMA. Frequent podcaster, plus radio and video guest. Follow Jake on Twitter at @RotoJake.
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