Which version of Carsen Edwards will show up in the Sweet 16? The answer will go a long way in determining the winner of this coin-flip game. When Edwards is a hot shooter, Purdue is dangerous. But the junior guard was anything but hot for about six weeks before he torched Villanova for 42 points Saturday night. Edwards hit 9 of 16 3-pointers and the Boilermakers were 16 of 30 from deep. Edwards’ slump might be over, but it’s doubtful he can follow a career-best effort with another huge game. Purdue scored 0.94 points per possession in the first round against Old Dominion before getting 1.38 PPP in the 87-61 demolition of Villanova. It’s tough to trust Tennessee because of what happened Sunday, when the Vols blew a 25-point lead and beat a mediocre Iowa team in overtime. Rick Barnes is getting little from his bench, but he’s got two horses — Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield — he can ride. The Vols have an athletic edge in this matchup. The Pomeroy rankings have Purdue at No. 9 and Tennessee at 10, and the teams have similar offensive and defensive numbers. If Edwards is off, the Boilermakers are in trouble. Williams is more reliable and probably will be the best player on the floor, so this is a lean to Tennessee as a 1-point favorite.
The lowest seed remaining in the tournament, 12th-seeded Oregon, is the hottest team in the field. The Ducks are on 10-0 straight up and ATS runs after beating Wisconsin 72-54 and UC Irvine 73-54. Oregon has allowed 54 points or fewer in eight of its past 10 games. The Ducks check the three boxes that I consider most important for a team — coaching, defense and point guard play. Payton Pritchard is a phenomenal college point guard who can control a game. Dana Altman surrounds Pritchard with long athletes who score from all over the floor and defend the rim. Altman’s game plan on the defensive end will be to push Virginia away from the lane and force 3-point attempts. The Cavaliers, who rank No. 2 in adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 3 in defense (Kenpom.com), have no weaknesses. However, they shot the 3 poorly against Gardner-Webb and Oklahoma, hitting 7-for-23 and 7-for-24 with Kyle Guy going 1-for-15 in the two games. That’s a red flag for the Cavs. With a total of 119, this game is expected to be a grinder and the number is high enough to take 8½ points with the red-hot Ducks.
At full strength, Gonzaga power rates as my No. 1 team. Mark Few coaches the nation’s best offense and the Zags’ defense is in the top 20. Brandon Clarke, a 6-foot-8 forward, totaled 36 points, eight rebounds and five blocks in the second-round win over Baylor. With 6-8 Rui Hachimura and 6-10 Killian Tillie on the frontline, Gonzaga has plenty of scorers with size. If there’s a concern, it’s that guards Zach Norvell and Josh Perkins are erratic shooters. Florida State ranks 10th in adjusted defensive efficiency with its athletes and length. Mfiondu Kabengele, a 6-10 dunker and shot swatter, poses matchup problems in the paint. Leonard Hamilton is not a coaching wizard, but his team does defend, and the Zags need Norvell and Perkins to play well or they will sweat this one out. This is a lean to the Seminoles 7½.
This is a classic matchup of elite coaches. John Beilein is arguably the best in the business, and Michigan ranks No. 2 in adjusted defensive efficiency with a top 20 offense. Chris Beard was a rising star last year and now he’s a solidified star. Texas Tech ranks No. 1 in defense and improved on the offensive end in the second half of the season. The Red Raiders limited an explosive Buffalo offense to a season-low 58 points in the second round. Jarrett Culver, a 6-5 sophomore guard, is averaging 18.8 points and developing into an NBA lottery pick. Beilein has no bench and the Wolverines do endure some shooting slumps, but they have scoring options in Iggy Brazdeikis, Jordan Poole and Charles Matthews. Michigan reached the NCAA championship game last year, when Texas Tech fell to Villanova in the Elite Eight. I love both coaches and both teams and make this a pick’em game, so my play is Raiders 2.
This is a coaching mismatch. Tom Izzo is easy to trust, and his Spartans are 12-1 in the past 13 games with three victories over Michigan and a one-point loss at Indiana. Junior point guard Cassius Winston (18.9 points, 7.5 assists) has been the Big Ten’s best player this season. Tony Benford is tough to trust, though he took over a troubled Tigers team and has done a decent job to reach the Sweet 16. Michigan State, ranking in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency, is far tougher than LSU’s first two tournament opponents, Yale and Maryland. The Tigers rank only 49th in adjusted defensive efficiency. The coaching matchup tilts heavily to the Spartans, who will be a popular public play as 6-point favorites.
No team is luckier to still be alive than Duke. The Blue Devils survived against Central Florida only because Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett are superstars who bailed Coach K out of a mess. Buzz Williams gives Virginia Tech the coaching edge in this game. The first meeting between the teams, a 77-72 win by the Hokies in late February, gets tossed out because Zion did not play. There are plenty of reasons to believe in the Hokies as live ‘dogs getting 7 to 7½ points, but the refs always do Duke too many favors, so this is a pass.
It’s too soon to make a call on this game without knowing the status of PJ Washington, Kentucky’s top scorer and rebounder. Washington is questionable with a foot injury, which is why the Wildcats are only 2½-point favorites. The line would be around 4 with Washington at full strength. Senior guard Corey Davis averaged 23.5 points in Houston’s convincing tournament wins over Georgia State and Ohio State. The Cougars are strong enough on both ends of the floor to win this, especially if Washington remains out.
After Auburn survived a one-point win against New Mexico State in the first round, the Tigers crushed Kansas by making 13 3-pointers. This team lives and dies by the perimeter shooting of Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. North Carolina has a rapidly maturing freshman point guard, Coby White, and more weapons. The Tar Heels rank much better defensively and score more ways close to the rim because of Cameron Johnson, Luke Maye and Nassir Little. The total of 162½ suggests a wide-open shootout, and the Heels should prevail as 5-point favorites.