Sweet 16 handicapping questions set to be answered

By Matt Youmans  (VSiN senior editor) 

March 22, 2018 08:23 AM
Gonzaga is a small favorite over Florida State in the Sweet 16, and the coaching edge goes to Mark Few in his hunt for Final Four No. 2.
© USA Today Sports Images

It’s not all buzzer-beating insanity and upset madness. Some of the usual suspects are still standing. Jay Wright has yet to sweat, while Coach K and his black hair dye appear headed for another Final Four.

The odds say to expect a Villanova-Duke showdown in San Antonio next week.

This week’s undercard features 98-year-old Sister Jean and Eric Musselman, and guess which one celebrates by going bare chested and dropping F-bombs. Unfortunately, one will be eliminated after Loyola (Chicago) plays Nevada on Thursday night.

A road littered with losing futures tickets and legendary coaches — wave goodbye to Tony Bennett, Tom Izzo, Roy Williams and those Cincinnati 100-1 bets — leads us to the Sweet 16 and more challenging handicapping questions.

As always, the NCAA Tournament has delivered a few sensational storylines and traditional favorites. Where does the road go from here? Here are my best bets (or guesses) for Thursday and Friday:

* Kansas State (plus-5½) over Kentucky: The sharp money has been on Kansas State, especially at 6, and the public is all over Kentucky. John Calipari’s team advanced by taking advantage of favorable matchups against Davidson, which was not as athletic and shot the ball poorly, and Buffalo, which was too small and coming off of an emotional high by blowing out Arizona. There is evidence that Kentucky’s kids, especially freshman guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, are growing up at the prime time. Kentucky did not make a 3-pointer in its victory over Davidson, but Gilgeous-Alexander totaled 27 points, six rebounds and six assists while making both of his 3s against Buffalo. Kansas State put away Creighton and held off UMBC in an ugly game by winning with defensive toughness. Bruce Weber has the type of physical team that can give Kentucky some trouble, and Weber will get leading scorer and rebounder Dean Wade, a 6-10 forward, back from a foot injury. This game should go to the wire, but the underdog is a hesitant play because it’s difficult to envision Kentucky losing what is basically a home game in Atlanta.

* Loyola-Nevada (Under 144): It’s tough to pick a side, but it might be easier to predict the pace. The Ramblers advanced with two dramatic shots — Donte Ingram’s 3-pointer at the buzzer against Miami was followed by Clayton Custer’s mid-range jumper that sunk Tennessee — while the Wolf Pack made improbable comebacks from double-digit deficits against Texas and Cincinnati. Musselman can ride the most versatile scorers on the floor in Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline. However, Nevada was outrebounded 86-67 in its two tournament games and made only six 3-pointers against the Bearcats. Porter Moser has coached the Ramblers to 30 wins because they run an efficient offense and field the nation’s No. 5 scoring defense (62.2 points per game). Moser knows he needs to control the pace and avoid letting the Wolf Pack run and gun. The point totals in Loyola’s past six games were 125, 126, 114, 116, 104 and 129.

* Michigan (-2½) over Texas A&M: Believe it or not, the Wolverines are the best defensive team remaining in the tournament — No. 3 in the nation, according to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, behind Virginia and Cincinnati. In most cases, Michigan is able to exploit matchup advantages with its big shooters who stretch the floor. Not in this case. This is a pretty good matchup for Texas A&M, which used its defensive toughness and size to overwhelm North Carolina. The Aggies have athletic big men with NBA talent. Tyler Davis and Robert Williams each go 6-foot-10 and can dominate the boards. The Wolverines’ primary edge is their superior perimeter shooting, though they did not shoot the 3 well (13 of 46) in tournament victories over Montana and Houston. Michigan is lucky to be alive, thanks to Jordan Poole’s buzzer-beating 3 on Saturday, yet teams that survive a scare often go on a run. Texas A&M is erratic and will have trouble repeating its phenomenal performance against the Tar Heels. Mo Wagner, the Wolverines’ leading scorer, is due to show up after scoring a total of only 17 points in the past two games. John Beilein gets the coaching edge and has his team riding an 11-game win streak.

* Gonzaga (-5½) over Florida State: The Zags should advance, yet laying this number is risky business. The Seminoles’ uprising is a surprise, mainly because they had lost three of four coming into this tournament. Florida State followed a dominant victory over Missouri by stunning No. 1 seed Xavier, which choked and let a big lead slip away. This is probably where the mini-magic carpet ride ends for Leonard Hamilton, whose team has no single outstanding characteristic. The Zags shoot the 3 better, the emergence of freshman guard Zach Norvell (28 points against Ohio State) is a boost, and the front line of 6-10 Killian Tillie, 6-9 Johnathan Williams and 6-8 Rui Hachimura is hard to handle. VSIN’s Jeff Fogle compared teams by examining three categories — defense, rebounding and turnover avoidance — and Gonzaga (#17 defense, #4 rebounding, #33 TO avoidance) sweeps Florida State (#76 defense, #63 rebounding, #127 TO avoidance). The analytics support the favorite, and the coaching edge goes to Mark Few in his hunt for Final Four No. 2.

* Kansas (-4½) over Clemson: Brad Brownell is one of the nation’s underrated coaches. His teams play great defense, and his guards run the show. Clemson knocked out New Mexico State, a popular underdog pick, before embarrassing Auburn. But the Jayhawks are far more talented than those teams, and beating them in Omaha is a monster task. Kansas coach Bill Self has adjusted to a four-guard lineup, with Devonte Graham (17.4 points, 40 percent 3s) typically asserting himself as the best player on the floor. The Tigers will hang tough, but this is essentially a road game, and Kansas and Duke tend to benefit from the officiating.

* Texas Tech (plus-2) over Purdue: At some point, losing 7-foot-2, 290-pound senior Isaac Haas will catch up to the Boilermakers. Haas (fractured right elbow) leads the nation in low-post points, and he forced defenses to either double down or let him score in 2s. This outcome will be determined by Purdue’s high-volume 3-point shooting and Tech’s perimeter defense. The Red Raiders, who contested 20 of 22 3 attempts by Florida in the second round, are more athletic with Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith. Tech is the second-best defensive team remaining in the tournament, according to Pomeroy’s ratings. Haas’ absence will mean fewer low-post points, fewer kickouts to open shooters and probable second-half fatigue for a Purdue team lacking depth. If Carsen Edwards, Vince Edwards and Dakota Mathias light it up from 3-point range, the Boilermakers should have a good shot to win, but go with the tougher defensive team getting a couple of points in a game that likely goes to the wire.

Tournament: 8-9-1 against the spread

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