3. LSU v. 2. Michigan State (-6)
The Tigers got out to 15+ point leads in each of their opening weekend games before blowing both and finding themselves in close ball-games. They needed a Tremont Waters acrobatic layup in the final seconds to survive a game against Maryland in which they once had a 17 point lead. Much has been made about the coaching mismatch in this game between LSU interim Tony Benford and the venerable Tom Izzo; that must be the reason for such a big number as LSU can both match Sparty athletically and has an elite point guard to match up with Cassius Winston. Benford is certainly no Izzo, and I think that asymmetry will manifest itself most obviously at halftime. LSU has been a first-half team all tournament… if you like them in the spot, I’d probably take them in the first half.
Cassius Winston is the best point guard in America. He is 2nd in the nation in Assist Rate, per KenPom, and is one of the best pick-and-roll operators I have ever seen at this level. He is the captain of this Michigan State team and has carried them all year long. If he plays well, this is one of the best teams in America. When he struggles, this whole team struggles. Tremont Waters plays a similar role for the Tigers… he can distribute throughout the offense, look for his own shot, and plays superb defense as well. Both teams rely heavily on the point guard position and which one of these guys gets the better of the other will go a long way in determining that game.
Tremont Waters is 4th in America in Steal Rate, presenting a nightmare matchup for SEC point guards all year long. He uses an aggressive style that matches this team’s personality to both force turnovers and make opposing point guards uncomfortable. Cassius Winston has struggled against ball pressure in the past, but has been much better this season. Waters will be in his grill defensively all night and Michigan State must be ready to protect the basketball and limit transition the other way. LSU can run with Sparty in the open floor, whereas a half-court game puts more weight on the X’s and O’s, exacerbating the in-game coaching edge that Izzo will hold.
These two teams mirror each other in a lot of ways… high-usage lead guards surrounding by a little bit of shooting and a lot of athleticism. In such a game, I think Waters or Winston will go out and win this thing for their team in the second half. With Izzo’s ability to make second-half adjustments (see comebacks in 2nd half of all 3 Michigan games), I expect Sparty to find their way down the stretch and pull away from LSU.
Sparty -6 and Under 148
5. Auburn v. 1. UNC (-5.5)
Much has been made about this being an up-and-down, first-one-to-90 type of game. Fucking Bruce Pearl went on SVP and said to “take the over”. In reality, though, I don’t think this will be as much of a track meet as that narrative suggests: Auburn is 157th nationally in adjusted tempo, averaging just 67.9 possessions per 40 minutes. Carolina, for comparison, is at 6th nationally in adjusted tempo, averaging 74.2 possessions per 40 minutes. Carolina also averages about 2 fewer seconds per possession. I don’t think Auburn wants to get up and down with Carolina — the thing that makes the Heels so darn good is that they seduce opponents into playing their style and then punish them over the course of 40 minutes. Auburn doesn’t have the athletes to match up with Carolina at all 5 positions, and especially not in the open floor.
What Auburn does have is toughness, energy, and the ability to shoot the shit out of the ball. People confuse their style for their pace; they shoot 49.7% of their shots and score 43.5% of their total points from behind the arc. At such a high volume of 3-point shooting, they have a ridiculously high risk profile. They should have lost to New Mexico State, blew the doors of Kansas, and here I am taking them to cover against Carolina. When they shoot it well, though, this is one of the best teams in America. Ridiculously hot shooting down the stretch has them all the way up to 38% 3-point shooting as a team on the year.
Carolina’s size and skill in the frontcourt is the biggest concern for Auburn here. They don’t really have anyone who makes total sense guarding Cam Johnson or Luke Maye. As such, look for Auburn to really try to force some turnovers in this game. Auburn is the best team in America at forcing turnovers, at over 25% of possessions (ridiculously impressive.) If they can turn Carolina over (Coby White has been playing great as of late but is still a freshman), Auburn can create enough extra possessions to get to the point where 35%+ 3-point shooting can put this game away. When Auburn is forcing turnovers, making hustle plays, and hitting momentum 3-balls, they are my favorite team to watch in America. This is a preseason top-10 team that struggled early but is playing to that elite level at the perfect time. Another blueblood goes down.
Auburn +5, small Auburn +190.
4. Virginia Tech v. 1. Duke (-7.5):
This Duke team has been exposed. They have all the talent in the world but their dearth of shooting has now had a spotlight put all over it. The extent to which UCF was comfortable letting Duke shoot the 3-ball was borderline cringeworthy. Duke is 329th nationally in 3-point shooting percentage, hitting just 30.7% of their attempts from beyond the arc. This plays directly into Virginia Tech’s strategy defensively. This Hokie defense is allowing/compelling its opponents to shoot 50.4% of their attempts from beyond the arc. That is the 2nd-highest frequency in America. For a Duke team that struggles to shoot the three but also loves to settle for it, that is a concerning equation. Young teams take the path of least resistance when the going gets tough… Barrett, Reddish, Jones, and even Zion at times are all extremely prone to settling for “open” jumpers when the overall level and physicality of defense is increased.
Where Duke thrives offensively at the rim and, in order to win this game, they must be steadfast in attacking the cup. I am not a huge fan of this Duke team, but there is no denying their ability to pressure the rim offensively and play farther above it than just about anyone in the country… there is an element of poetic justice in that their season was saved against UCF with a Zion drive to the rim and Barrett making an effort play on the offensive glass. Duke is shooting 58% on 2’s this year, 4th-best in America; Zion Williamson is shooting 75% on 2’s this year, also 4th-best in the nation. Virginia Tech’s defense prioritizes defending inside the arc; they allow opponents to shoot just 48% on 2’s. If Virginia Tech can protect the rim in addition to baiting Duke into shooting (themselves in the foot by shooting), this will be an extremely close game.
In order to beat Duke, you have to keep the game out of transition. Repeated half-court possessions put more pressure on the mental toughness required to stay locked in for a full shot clock; Duke is the 3rd-youngest team in America, while Virginia Tech is in the top 100 in KenPom’s experience metric. In their famed February 26 matchup wherein VT upset Duke, the Hokies won the turnover battle 12-6. Forcing 12 turnovers is important, but only committing 6 is monumental. That keeps the explosive Blue Devils out of transition where their superior athleticism can wreck a game. Duke is 3rd in America in Block Rate and 4th in America in Steal Rate; every dribble, shot, and pass that Virginia Tech makes must be methodical and part of a commitment to preventing transition.
The Hokies also have a marked edge at the free-throw line, a crucial statistic to examine in any college basketball handicap. The Hokies hit their freebies at a 76% clip, good for 21st in America. Duke shoots it at 68%, all the way back at 251st. With a 7.5-point spread very likely coming down to either/both a few possessions and late-game free-throw shots, that free-throw advantage is a huge edge for Virginia Tech.
I’m sick and tired of hearing the “Zion Williamson didn’t play, but neither did Justin Robinson” rationale as for why the Hokies are gonna cover this game. Virginia Tech is going to cover this game because they are a veteran group who won’t make dumb mistakes, will hit their free throws, and whose defensive philosophy is uniquely suited to face a team that struggles to shoot it but is susceptible to settling for jumpers.
3. Houston v. 2. Kentucky (-3):
Here is a game where I do think an injury is indeed a major factor. Whether or not P.J. Washington is absolutely massive for Kentucky who will be going up against a Houston team with SEC athleticism. This is not a Wofford team that you can still match up with just fine without your best interior presence; Houston has size and athleticism across the board and Washington’s presence is what makes Kentucky, Kentucky. Either way, this line screams Houston is the right side. It’s hard for me to imagine a March Madness bettor who hasn’t watched much ball this year see Kentucky as a short favorite and not pull the trigger.
If I’m the Wildcats, I’m worried about the cold shooting thus far in the tournament. They shot 4-14 from the 3-point line against Abilene Christian and followed that up with a 3-13 against Wofford. While Kentucky doesn’t rely on the 3-ball heavily at all, Houston will be putting the #1 3-point defense in America on the floor on Friday night — they allow opponents to hit just 27% of their 3-pointers. Will Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson be able to provide scoring pop against this elite Houston perimeter defense?
If P.J. Washington doesn’t play or is hobbled, Kentucky has cause for concern on the offensive end. Houston’s 3-point defensive excellence can neutralize the Wildcats’ wings and put more of a scoring burden on PG Ashton Hagans and their other bigs, namely Reid Travis. These players are going to be responsible for Kentucky’s 2-point scoring pop… Hagans and Travis combined for 26 points (on zero 3’s) in the win against Wofford, providing just enough juice to outlast a Wofford team that held Herro and Johnson to just 18 points on 6/19 shooting combined. This scoring distribution was enough against Wofford, but is pushing the limits of Kentucky’s potential road maps to winning against a tougher Houston opponent.
Houston does not leap off the page offensively, but they have an elite backcourt in Corey Davis and Armoni Brooks. You couldn’t ask for a much better pairing this late in March… upsets come from guard play, winning the turnover battle, and hitting free throws. Both Davis and Brooks are in the top 150 nationally in Turnover Rate; they protect the rock at will. Houston can also generate extra possessions on the offensive glass, where they are rebounding almost 35% of their misses (21st in America).
If Washington plays, I certainly think Kentucky will have more success scoring the basketball. But barring a unencumbered performance from him, I don’t see how they survive another cold-shooting night from Herro and Johnson. Houston’s ceiling might not be national-championship high, but I absolutely love where their floor is at. There is no doubt they will bring that floor into this matchup with Kentucky, who I think will struggle to play with identity against a hard-nosed Houston defense.
Houston Cougars +3