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Best Bets: Eight top ten teams on the road, which underdogs have a chance to win?

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There is a wild weekend of basketball on tap.

The No. 1 team in the country is heading down to Tallahassee to take on a top 15 team, and they are one of eight top ten teams that will be playing on the road this weekend. 

One of those games is a rivalry game. Two of them involve elite mid-major teams visiting the second-best team in their league. Two elite Big 12 defenses face-off while Kansas takes another road trip in the league. Indiana tests themselves at Maryland. Myles Powell vs. Markus Howard. And, surprisingly enough, a battle between two Mississippi schools that carries quite a bit of weight. 

But the game of the weekend is the features a pair of teams that reached last year’s Elite Eight, one of whom has an entirely new roster and the other who returned basically everyone from a season ago.

As always, this column is running on Friday morning. The official Vegas lines will not come out until Friday night or Saturday morning, so we will be using projections from KenPom and Haslametrics. KenPom is typically better for projecting what the lines will be, while Haslametrics tends to be more useful to gauge if I’m on the right side of the bet or not. 

No. 1 DUKE at No. 13 FLORIDA STATE, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Duke 81, Florida State 73
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Duke 85, Florida State 71

This game is projected to be quite high scoring, as Duke plays at the ninth-fastest pace nationally while Florida State averages better than 70 possessions per game, and it’s worth noting that the only two losses that Florida State has taken on this season have come in their two slowest games — Villanova on a neutral and at Virginia.

There aren’t a lot of teams that want to run with Duke, but my guess is that the Seminoles will be one of those teams — they are in the 63rd percentile nationally in points-per-possession in halfcourt offense, and average 0.15 PPP more in transition than they do in a halfcourt setting. There are two reasons for this: They do not have good point guard play and they are not a good three-point shooting team. If they have to go up against a set defense, one that can clean the defensive glass, they are in trouble. (They were down 65-36 to Virginia, which is all the evidence you need.)

Duke is not Virginia in the halfcourt, but what they are is a top 30 team nationally in steal percentage playing a Florida State team that turns the ball over on 20.6 percent of their possessions. In fact, they actually rank second in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric as of today, while Virginia ranks third.

So this is how I see this game playing out: Tre Jones overwhelms whoever is trying to initiate offense for the Seminoles. Duke gets their quota of “pick-six” dunks and layups off of live-ball turnovers, and Florida State’s press struggles to slow down a team that starts four players that can bring the ball up the floor. The only real concern that I have here is that Duke will be playing on the road against a good team for the first time this season, and I don’t love taking heavy favorites on the road.

PICKS: This matchup favors Duke, and if the line ends up close to what KenPom is projecting, I would probably take the Blue Devils and the over. I can’t see the game not getting into the 80s, and I don’t think that Duke will smother the Seminoles like Virginia did. Their defense isn’t about suffocating teams, it’s about turning steals and rebounds into easy buckets.

No. 3 TENNESSEE at FLORIDA, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Tennessee 67, Florida 65
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Tennessee 67, Florida 65

I just do not see it with Florida this year. This is a young group whose two best returners — Jalen Hudson and Kevaughn Allen — have seemingly forgotten how to score the ball. They are 9-5 on the season. Their three best wins came against West Virginia, Arkansas and Butler, none of whom were in our more recent bracket update. Only Butler was close, and the Bulldogs split with the Gators.

Should I mention that Florida lost at home to South Carolina?

PICKS: I will say this about Florida: They are terrific defensively. They grind teams down and force a bunch of turnovers, although I’m not sure that will have too much of an effect on a Tennessee team that protects the ball. I love Tennessee and I think the computers are overvaluing Florida at this point in the season, but the fact that both KenPom ad Haslametrics are projecting the same score is worrisome. I like the Tennessee side better, but I’ll probably stay away.

No. 4 VIRGINIA at CLEMSON, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ACCNET)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Virginia 65, Clemson 58
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Virginia 67, Clemson 54

Virginia has played two ACC games this season and both of them were essentially 30-point blowouts. Clemson has played two ACC games this season and gotten rocked by Duke and Syracuse, both on the road. Coming back home will help, but the Tigers are a team that struggles with turnovers and can’t shoot it from the perimeter, which is what you have to be able to do to beat the Pack-Line.

PICKS: Clemson has struggled this season adjusting to a lineup where they have to play three forwards instead of three guards, and struggling is not something that works against a team as ruthless as Virginia. I expect this line to be around (-8), and I love Virginia there.

No. 5 GONZAGA at SAN FRANCISCO, Sat. 10:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Gonzaga 80, San Francisco 73
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Gonzaga 83, San Francisco 73

Don’t sleep on San Francisco. The Dons already own wins over Stanford, Cal (on the road) and Saint Mary’s. The knock on Gonzaga is on the defensive end of the floor, and while they’ve rocketed up from sub-70 to top 35 in adjusted defensive efficiency, they’ve done so by steamrolling six horrible teams. The Zags have struggled to stop good teams this year, and USF is the second-best team in the WCC.

PICKS: My concern here is that USF doesn’t have the dudes to really take advantage of Gonzaga’s weaknesses. Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell Jr. can be exploited in plus-matchups, and it’s hardly a secret that talented forwards can attack Rui Hachimura, a freak athlete that is still figuring it out defensively. I do, however, have plenty of respect for the Dons defensively, and I think they’ll be able to handle Gonzaga’s ball-screens action. Where the line opens will be interesting. If it gets to double-digit, I’ll be all over USF, but I don’t expect it to open higher than around (-8).

No. 6 MICHIGAN STATE at PENN STATE, Sun. 4:30 p.m. (CBS)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Michigan State 75, Penn State 67
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Michigan State 81, Penn State 64

Penn State has had a brutal start to Big Ten play, and it doesn’t get any easier with Michigan State coming to town. The Nittany Lions are a 7-9 team on the verge of starting 0-4 in Big Ten play. Their backs are against the wall, and unfortunately, the Spartans are hitting their stride.

PICKS: I’m not really interested in this game from a betting perspective. I’m still trying to figure out what Michigan State is, and Penn State always has at least one shocking win in them per season. If I do bet this game, it will probably be just a small moneyline bet on the Nittany Lions.

No. 7 KANSAS at BAYLOR, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Kansas 70, Baylor 66
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Kansas 69, Baylor 66

Kansas is cratering in KenPom. They’re all the way down to 10th after losing two of their last five games, and I still don’t think we truly know that this team is without Udoka Azubuike. Baylor, who plays a tricky zone, will certainly make it difficult for the young Jayhawks and will definitely make a team that can’t really shoot prove they can hit threes.

PICKS: I like the Baylor side here. Playing Scott Drew’s zone — which is somewhere between a 1-1-3, a 1-3-1 and a 2-3 — is always weird, and without knockdown perimeter shooters or their best offensive rebounder, I can see Bill Self’s team getting into some trouble. Iowa State has a similar makeup to what Kansas is right now, and they lost in Waco on Tuesday.

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No. 8 TEXAS TECH at TEXAS, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (LHN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Texas Tech 61, Texas 60
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Texas 58, Texas Tech 57.8

Texas Tech has the nation’s No. 1 defense, according to KenPom, and ranks outside the top 100 in adjusted offensive efficiency. Texas is 11th defensively and 73rd offensively. This will not be pretty basketball.

PICKS: This total is going to open in the low 120s. Take the under. This will be my heaviest bet of the day. I also expect the Red Raiders to win, and fully expect this to end up in the 50s.

No. 10 NEVADA at FRESNO STATE, Sat. 8:00 p.m. (ESPNU)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Nevada 73, Fresno State 70
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Nevada 71, Fresno State 69

Is it safe to believe in Nevada again? They bounced back from an ugly loss at New Mexico by absolutely running San Jose State out of California. But Fresno State on the road will be the toughest game that Nevada has played to date.

PICKS: I’m going to be very interested to see where this line opens up. If I had to guess, I think it will open around (-3) and get bet up a few points once the public sees a top ten team in what’s perceived as a weak league only giving three. I think I’d probably lean towards Fresno State here, but I will wait and see where the line moves before I bet on it.

No. 25 TCU at No. 23 OKLAHOMA, Sat. 2:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Oklahoma 75, TCU 70
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Oklahoma 75, TCU 71

The key here is entirely Jaylen Fisher. If he doesn’t play, then I really like Oklahoma if the line ends up around (-4). This is a really, really good defensive team, and Fisher means so much to the Horned Frogs offensively.

No. 22 INDIANA at MARYLAND, Fri. 7:00 p.m. (FS1)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Maryland 74, Indiana 69
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Maryland 75, Indiana 68

Another injury to keep an eye on here. If Indiana point guard Robert Phinisee is out, I would lean towards taking Maryland, but I don’t really love this spot. I’m not quite buying the Terps the way that the computers are at this point, and while Indiana’s three losses are on the road, two of them were at Duke and at Michigan and the third was a game they probably should have won at Arkansas. They tend to play teams tight, so if this ends up around (-7), it would be tough not to take the points.

Again, a lot of that thinking revolves around Phinisee.

SETON HALL at No. 21 MARQUETTE, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (FS1)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Marquette 78, Seton Hall 72
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Marquette 76, Seton Hall 72

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I do not like betting on Marquette because you’re betting on whether or not you think Markus Howard will go bonkers. I do think Seton Hall’s Myles Cale will be able to disrupt Howard — the key to slowing him down is length, but there really is no “key” to slowing Howard down because he could put 35 on a Monstar if he gets into a rhythm — but again, I don’t like betting Marquette.

PICKS: If I’m going to bet this game, I’ll probably just take the over, assuming it’s in the high 140s. I also like the idea of taking prop bets on points scored by Howard and/or Myles Powell. Always take the over with them.

OLE MISS at No. 14 MISSISSIPPI STATE, Sat. 1:00 p.m. (CBS)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Mississippi State 78, Ole Miss 72
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Mississippi State 79, Ole Miss 72

This is quietly a huge gauge game in the SEC. Ole Miss has won a bunch of games but didn’t beat anyone until they took down Auburn at home. Mississippi State has won a bunch of games and does have some solid Ws, but they also just lost to South Carolina.

PICKS: To be frank, I have no feel for Ole Miss and how good they are, but if we don’t know whether or not a team is good by mid-January, I think we can bet on the idea they aren’t that good. If Mississippi State is (-5) or lower at home in the Egg Bowl, I’d feel comfortable taking them.

Spoilers! Baylor tops women’s NCAA field as bracket leaks

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NEW YORK (AP) — Baylor, Notre Dame, Mississippi State and Louisville are the No. 1 seeds in the women’s NCAA Tournament, leading a March Madness field that was revealed early thanks to a production error.

The bracket was mistakenly put out by ESPN hours before the network had scheduled its selection show. ESPN apologized and scrambled to air an early selection show to release the brackets while screenshots of the field were shared across social networks.

“In working with the NCAA to prepare for tonight’s Women’s Selection Special we received the bracket, similar to years past. In the midst of our preparation, the bracket was mistakenly posted on ESPNU,” the network said in a statement. “We deeply regret the error and extend our apology to the NCAA and the women’s basketball community. We will conduct a thorough review of our process to ensure it doesn’t happen in the future.”

In 2016, the men’s bracket was leaked during the selection show, reverberating on Twitter and elsewhere as fans wondered if the picks were accurate.

The No. 1 Lady Bears are the top team in the Greensboro Regional while defending champion Notre Dame is the first choice in Chicago. Mississippi State is the No. 1 team in the Portland Regional, where Oregon is the second seed. Louisville is the top choice in the Albany Regional, where No. 2 UConn potentially awaits.

“We’re thrilled to have the season we’ve had. We played an outstanding schedule. At the end of the day, I thought we might be going to Albany as 1 or 2,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “It’s really great to be a 1 seed and we know there’s a lot of work in front of us.”

Walz won’t coach the Cardinals’ opening game against Robert Morris as he will be serving a one-game suspension for using profane language toward NCAA officials during the Final Four last year. The veteran coach said he expects to have the support of the UConn fans if his team reaches the Sweet 16 and plays in upstate New York. Maryland is the No. 3 seed in Albany and Oregon State is the 4.

“If we’re fortunate to get that far I’m confident that half of the UConn fans will be wearing Louisville gear and they won’t know who to cheer for,” Walz said, laughing.

It’s the first time since 2006 that the Huskies aren’t a No. 1 seed. UConn will try to continue its record Final Four run, looking to advance that far for the 12th consecutive year.

Tennessee sneaked in to the field as an 11. The Lady Vols have been in every NCAA Tournament since the first one in 1982.

“We felt Tennessee and other teams in our last four in had significant wins,” NCAA selection committee chair Rhonda Lundin Bennett said. “That went into determining they were an at-large selection.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Abilene Christian, Bethune-Cookman and Towson all are making their first NCAA tournament appearances.

The women’s tournament begins Friday. The Final Four takes place in Tampa, Florida, on April 5, with the championship game two days later.

Other top seeds in Greensboro are No. 2 Iowa, No. 3 N.C. State and No. 4 South Carolina. The Gamecocks will play the first two rounds in Charlotte as the men’s NCAA Tournament is being played on South Carolina’s home court.

Mississippi State and Oregon will be joined by Syracuse and Miami as host teams in the Portland Regional.

The Fighting Irish will potentially play their first two games at home before only having to drive 90 minutes to Chicago for the regional. Other top teams in the Irish’s region are Stanford, Iowa State and Texas A&M.

The ACC leads the way with eight teams in the field while the SEC has seven. The Pac-12 and Big Ten each have six teams.

NCAA

Made for TV NCAAs: Louisville-Minnesota hits Pitino intrigue

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Richard Pitino sat calmly in the middle of the room, his eager players flanking him and his restless children in front of him on the floor, as the teams with NCAA Tournament bids flashed on a big screen.

There went Louisville, an awfully familiar name.

Next came Minnesota, his current team.

Pitino simply smiled, fully and immediately aware of the extra intrigue created by the selection committee with this East Region matchup of No. 7 and 10 seeds.

The madness of March has been built on all those low-major upsets and buzzer-beating swishes that bust up the office-pool brackets, but some of the must-see TV each year is arranged before the opening tip.

The Louisville-Minnesota game is one of those predetermined talkers, pitting Pitino and the Gophers against the storied program that fired his father, Rick Pitino, prior to the 2017-18 season in response to the federal investigation into a nationwide college basketball bribery and corruption case. Richard Pitino served two stints as an assistant with the Cardinals under his dad, who has been coaching a professional team in Greece this season .

“Has he talked about Louisville the last two years? Yeah, he has, not in the most positive light,” Pitino said. “It’s not going to be about me. I’m not going to be, ‘Oh, it’s revenge,’ or anything like that. It’s about our players. It’s about this program.”

The Gophers will go to the NCAA Tournament for a second time in six seasons under Pitino.

“We know he’s been there a long time, his dad’s been there, but we can’t make it all about the Pitino family,” senior shooting guard Dupree McBrayer said. “This is a team game.”

The Cardinals and Gophers were sent to Des Moines, Iowa, where they’ll face off on Thursday with a late morning tipoff. That was far from the only assignment made by the committee that carried a dimension beyond the matchups on the court, of course.

Buffalo will get a fresh look at its first opponent when Arizona State plays St. John’s in one of the play-in games on Wednesday night in Dayton, Ohio. If Arizona State wins the right to face Buffalo on Friday afternoon in Tulsa, Oklahoma, well, Bulls coach Nate Oats sure won’t be surprised. Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley just so happened to be his boss, before Hurley left for Arizona State and Oats was promoted by Buffalo.

As the final quarter of the bracket, the West Region, was revealed, Oats had an inkling his Bulls, the No. 6 seed, would wind up next to the Sun Devils.

“You think it was a coincidence? Yeah, me neither. It’s TV,” said Oats, who was trading text messages with Hurley’s brother, Danny, during the selection show.

After Hurley directed Buffalo’s first NCAA Tournament berth in 2015, Oats has now steered the Bulls to three in four years.

“Coach Hurley gave me my shot. I pull for him,” Oats said. “We talk a lot. Emotionally, it’s not going to be fun. For his sake, I hope they get the win.”

If UCF, the No. 9 seed in the East Region, can beat No. 8 VCU, coach Johnny Dawkins will be subject to the same type of mixed emotions. The second-round pairing for the Knights would probably be Duke, provided the No. 1 overall seed takes care of North Carolina Central or North Dakota State. Dawkins both played for and coached under Blue Devils maven Mike Krzyzewski.

The coaches are a major part of the story in March, but they’ll always be on the bench. The players are the true stars of the show, and there are no greater individual standouts than Marquette’s Markus Howard and Murray State’s Ja Morant. Well, guess what? They’re scheduled to play each other right away, too.

Marquette is the No. 5 seed in the West, facing No. 12 Murray State in Hartford, Connecticut, on Thursday afternoon. Nobody in the tournament has scored more this season than the 5-foot-11 Howard (sixth in the country with an average of 25.0 points per game) and the 6-foot-3 Morant (eighth with 24.6 points per game). The sophomore Morant, a dynamic dunker, also leads the nation with an average of 10.0 assists per game. The junior Howard hit the 45-point mark three times.

Let’s go back to Minnesota for a moment, too. If the Gophers beat Louisville, there will likely be an even more familiar foe waiting for them in the next game: Michigan State. The No. 2 seed Spartans play No. 15 Bradley to start. That potential Michigan State-Minnesota matchup would be a big deal for the Big Ten even if not in the rest of the country.

Such an intraconference matchup on the first weekend is a rarity. In 2011, when the Big East sent a record 11 teams to the NCAA Tournament out of what was then a 16-team league, there were two all-Big East games in the second round: Cincinnati-Connecticut and Syracuse-Marquette.

According to David Worlock, the NCAA’s director of media coordination and statistics, the committee tries to avoid such matchups if possible. Tournament principles state that teams who played only once during the season can meet as early as the second round, and this season the Spartans and Gophers only met once. If two teams played twice, they’re allowed to meet as early as the regional semifinals. If they met three times, they couldn’t match up until the regional finals.

NCAA Tournament 2019: College basketball national title futures

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All futures courtesy DraftKings Sportsbook.

TEAM TITLE FINAL FOUR
 1. Duke 9/4 11/20
 1. Gonzaga 23/4 3/2
 1. North Carolina 15/2 2/1
 1. Virginia 7/1 6/4
 2. Kentucky 13/1 11/4
 2. Michigan 20/1 11/4
 2. Michigan State 17/1 4/1
 2. Tennessee 17/1 3/1
 3. Houston 40/1 5/1
 3. LSU 50/1 10/1
 3. Purdue 33/1 5/1
 3. Texas Tech 30/1 11/2
 4. Florida State 40/1 6/1
 4. Kansas 60/1 9/1
 4. Kansas State 60/1 10/1
 4. Virginia Tech 30/1 14/1
 5. Auburn 45/1 10/1
 5. Marquette 80/1 15/1
 5. Mississippi State 100/1 20/1
 5. Wisconsin 150/1 40/1
 6. Buffalo 100/1 15/1
 6. Iowa State 50/1 8/1
 6. Maryland 150/1 25/1
 6. Villanova 33/1 8/1
 7. Cincinnati 100/1 15/1
 7. Louisville 80/1 15/1
 7. Nevada 60/1 20/1
 7. Wofford 100/1 15/1
 8. Ole Miss 250/1 30/1
 8. Syracuse 150/1 40/1
 8. Utah State 150/1 20/1
 8. VCU 200/1 50/1
 9. Baylor 250/1 70/1
 9. Central Florida 200/1 50/1
 9. Oklahoma 200/1 50/1
 9. Washington 250/1 50/1
 10. Florida 200/1 70/1
 10. Iowa 200/1 50/1
 10. Minnesota 300/1 60/1
 10. Seton Hall 300/1 50/1
 11. Arizona State 300/1 100/1
 11. Belmont 350/1 40/1
 11. Saint Mary’s 250/1 40/1
 11. St. John’s 350/1 100/1
 11. Temple 500/1 70/1
 11. Ohio State 250/1 50/1
 12. New Mexico State 250/1 60/1
 12. Liberty 350/1 100/1
 12. Murray State 250/1 100/1
 12. Oregon 250/1 30/1
 13. Northeastern 350/1 80/1
 13. UC Irvine 350/1 70/1
 13. Saint Louis 500/1 80/1
 13. Vermont 500/1 100/1
 14. Yale 500/1 80/1
 14. Georgia State 500/1 80/1
 14. Northern Kentucky 500/1 100/1
 14. Old Dominion 500/1 80/1
 15. Bradley 500/1 100/1
 15. Montana 500/1 100/1
 15. Abilene Christian 1000/1 200/1
 15. Colgate 1000/1 200/1
 16. Iona 1000/1 200/1
 16. Gardner-Webb 1000/1 200/1
 16. Prairie View A&M 1000/1 200/1
 16. North Dakota State 1000/1 200/1
 16. NC Central 1000/1 200/1
 16. Fairleigh Dickinson 1000/1 200/1

NCAA tournament first round betting lines, odds and spreads

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Here are the betting lines, totals and spreads for every first round NCAA tournament matchup.

TUESDAY, 3/19

6:40 p.m.: No. 16 FAIRLEIGH DICKINSON (-1.5) vs. No. 16 PRAIRIE VIEW A&M, 150

9:10 p.m.: No. 11 BELMONT (-3.5) vs. No. 11 TEMPLE, 155.5

WEDNESDAY, 3/20

6:40 p.m.: No. 16 NORTH DAKOTA STATE (-5) vs. No. 16 NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL, 134.5

9:10 p.m.: No. 11 ARIZONA STATE (-1) vs. No. 11 ST. JOHN’S, 152

THURSDAY, 3/21

12:15 p.m.: No. 7 LOUISVILLE (-5) vs. No. 10 MINNESOTA, 136

12:40 p.m.: No. 3 LSU (-7.5 vs. No. 14 YALE, 160.5

1:30 p.m.: No. 5 AUBURN (-7) vs. No. 12 NEW MEXICO STATE, 142.5

2:00 p.m.: No. 4 FLORIDA STATE (-10.5) vs. No. 13 VERMONT, 133.5

2:45 p.m.: No. 2 MICHIGAN STATE (-18) vs. No. 15 BRADLEY, 133.5

4:00 p.m.: No. 4 KANSAS (-8.5) vs. No. 13 NORTHEASTERN, 145.5

4:30 p.m.: No. 5 MARQUETTE (-4) vs. No. 12 MURRAY STATE, 149.5

6:50 p.m.: No. 7 NEVADA (-2) vs. No. 10 FLORIDA, 133

7:10 p.m.: No. 2 KENTUCKY (-21.5) vs. No. 15 ABILENE CHRISTIAN, 132

7:20 p.m.: No. 6 VILLANOVA (-6) vs. No. 11 SAINT MARY’S, 130

9:20 p.m.: No. 2 MICHIGAN (-16) vs. No. 15 MONTANA, 131

9:40 p.m.: No. 7 WOFFORD (-3) vs. No. 10 SETON HALL, 142.5

9:50 p.m.: No. 3 PURDUE (-12) vs. No. 14 OLD DOMINION, 128.5

9:57 p.m.: No. 8 SYRACUSE (-2) vs. No. 9 BAYLOR, 132.5

FRIDAY, 3/22

12:15 p.m.: No. 7 CINCINNATI (-3.5) vs. No. 10 IOWA, 139

12:40 p.m.: No. 9 OLE MISS (-2) vs. No. 8 OKLAHOMA, 143.5

1:30 p.m.: No. 3 TEXAS TECH (-14) vs. No. 14 NORTHERN KENTUCKY

2:00 p.m.: No. 6 KANSAS STATE (-5.5) vs. No. 11 UC IRVINE, 119.5

2:45 p.m.: No. 2 TENNESSEE (-17.5) vs. No. 15 COLGATE, 151

3:10 p.m.: No. 1 VIRGINIA (-23.5) vs. No. 16 GARDNER-WEBB, 130.5

4:30 p.m.: No. 5 WISCONSIN (-1) vs. No. 12 OREGON

6:50 p.m.: No. 8 UTAH STATE (-3.5) vs. No. 9 WASHINGTON, 134

7:20 p.m.: No. 3 HOUSTON (-11.5) vs. No. 14 GEORGIA STATE, 142

7:27 p.m. No. 5 MISSISSIPPI STATE (-7.5) vs. No. 12 LIBERTY, 136.5

9:20 p.m.: No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (-24) vs. No. 16 IONA, 167

9:40 p.m.: No. 8 VCU (-1) vs. No. 9 UCF, 127

9:50 p.m.: No. 6 IOWA STATE (-6) vs. No. 11 OHIO STATE, 140.5

No. 4 VIRGINIA TECH (-9.5) vs. No. 13 SAINT LOUIS, 125.5

2019 NCAA Tournament: The case against the title contenders

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All that you are going to hear about this week is how good this team is, why that team can make a Final Four and how those guys are going to win a national title.

That’s not what this space is for.

Here, we’re going to spend some time discussing the other side of the coin. 

This is the case against the national title contenders.

REGIONS: East | South | Midwest | West

DUKE

As weird as it sounds, Duke is the heavy favorite to win this year’s national title the same way that Villanova was the heavy favorite to win last year’s title, but the Blue Devils are also the easiest team to project out a loss for. That’s because they are, frankly, a horrible jump-shooting team. Duke ranks 338th nationally in three-point percentage, making a measly 30.2 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. Cam Reddish is supposed to be their floor-spacer and he’s shooting 32.7 percent from beyond the arc, which is actually the highest number of all the freshmen on the roster. Tre Jones is under 25 percent from three. Jack White, an alleged shooter who missed 28 straight threes at one point this season, is at 28.4 percent. There are just two players on the roster that make more than a third of their threes: Alex O’Connell, who has not even shot 75 threes this season because of how limited his minutes end up being, and Justin Robinson, a walk-on that doesn’t play.

Now, to be clear, keeping Duke from getting to the basket whenever they want is a lot easier said than done, and part of what makes them so dangerous is that they are absolutely lethal in transition. They don’t need to be effective running halfcourt offense because they get so many points on the break and on second-chance points. But they are eventually going to run into someone that isn’t going to turn the ball over, that can keep them out of transition and does just enough defensively to force the Blue Devils to rely on the three-ball.

Who that is, I don’t know. But the 2010 Kentucky team that featured John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Patrick Patterson shot 33.1 percent from three, and we all thought that team has major issues from beyond the arc. They lost in the Elite 8 on a night they went 4-for-32 from three. Will that happen to Duke too?

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: A healthy Virginia Tech is dangerous, but I think a matchup with Texas Tech in the Final Four does Duke in.

NORTH CAROLINA

The biggest thing standing between North Carolina and a run to the Final Four is the region that they were put in. The Midwest is a tough play to be. If seeds hold — which is no guarantee — they will be playing Kansas in Kansas City in the Sweet 16. They also have to travel twice as far to get to the Sprint Center as No. 2 seed Kentucky or No. 3 seed Houston, and Iowa State fans already consider that building to be Hilton Coliseum South.

So that’s not ideal.

But that, to me, is not the biggest concern that I have with the Tar Heels. It’s the inconsistency of Coby White. North Carolina’s offense is so heavily based on the way that a point guard can play, especially in a year where they don’t really have a guy that can be a creator outside of him. White is a freshman and a volume scorer, meaning that everything about him is inherently streaky. So while that gives them a ceiling to be just about anyone in the field on the right night, it allows means that an Auburn team whose press is working or a North Carolina team that can harass White and run Cam Johnson off the three-point line will have a real shot at a win.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Whoever they get in the Elite 8 — Kentucky, Houston or Iowa State — is going to be dangerous.

VIRGINIA

I’m just going to get this out of the way now: Yes, I think what happened last season might have some lasting effects on Virginia mentally. No, I don’t think they’re going to lose in the first round of the tournament again, but I do wonder how they are going to be able to handle someone making a run on them with five minutes left in the game.

Beyond that, there are two real concerns with this group. Let’s start with the pace of play. They average the fewest number of possessions in the sport which opens them up to upsets. Think about it like doing a study with a small sample size. There’s a reason that scientists want to get to a certain number when doing an experiment or that pollsters need a certain amount of people to get a correct feel for public opinion. That’s because variance can skew things in a small sample size. The same happens in basketball. It’s easier to hang with Virginia in a 60 possession game than it is to hang with Duke, or UNC, or Gonzaga in an 80 possession game.

I’m also worried about the athleticism factor, and it’s not because of Kyle Guy or Ty Jerome. Those guys tend are usually just fine against bigger and more athletic defenders. I know they lost to Florida State in the ACC tournament semifinals, but they also humiliated Florida State in a game earlier this season. Jerome didn’t seem to have any problem carving up Duke in either of the two games they have played this year. The concern for me is Tony Bennett’s infatuation with Kihei Clark. The fact that he is playing 25 minutes a night is concerning to me. He’s not good enough defensively — yes, he’s a pest on the ball, but he’s also 5-foot-7 — to make up for the lack of an impact he has offensively.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: I can see Virginia losing to Tennessee in the Elite 8, but watch out for that Sweet 16 matchup with Oregon, too.

GONZAGA

With Killian Tillie back in the rotation and, seemingly, healthy, I’m not super-worried about the depth of their frontcourt or whether or not they will be able to space the floor. I’m also not all that worried about some of the issues that the Zags have on the defensive end of the floor. Brandon Clarke makes a lot of mistakes disappear, and you only have to be so good defensively when you score the way Gonzaga scores. For context, in 2009, North Carolina, like this Gonzaga team, was No. 1 in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and they entered the tournament 39th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Gonzaga is 16th. They’re fine.

My concern is Josh Perkins. He has been terrific this season, and there are smart people that will tell you that he has been Gonzaga’s most important player this year. The reason that is a concern for me is that he has not proven to be 100 percent reliable, and we saw that come to fruition in the WCC title game against Saint Mary’s. Perkins had arguably his worst game of the season, and the Zags had inarguably their worst performance of the year.

When your most important player is a guy that has proven to have off-nights the way Josh Perkins has off-nights, you are just one game away from flaming out of the NCAA tournament.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: I think potential matchups with Syracuse and Florida State are just awful draws for the Zags.

MICHIGAN STATE

I have no idea how Tom Izzo is doing it, but he just took a team that starts Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins as the No. 2 and No. 3 offensive options to a Big Ten regular season title, tournament title and No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

And look, I love Cassius Winston. He is a sensational player that can take over games and a joy to watch if you appreciate someone that can run a pick-and-roll. But the burden that he is going to carry for this team is heavy, and the way the bracket unfolded, the Spartans seem fairly likely to see teams they’ve played this season in the second round and in the Sweet 16. You have to think that at some point Winston’s load will become too much to bear.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Can you see Cassius Winston beating Duke?

TENNESSEE

When we recorded the ‘Why Your Team Sucks’ podcast above last month, the concern that both Brian Snow and I had with Tennessee was whether or not their guards were good enough to win big games. Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner have proven that they can be OK against some of the biggest games of the season.

I’m not worried about the Vols offensively.

I’m worried about them defensively.

They’ve been lit up by Auburn twice in the last eight days. They couldn’t guard LSU in a loss in which the Tigers did not have Tremont Waters available. Kentucky has done whatever they wanted offensive against Tennessee in two of the three games they’ve played. This is basically the same team that was a top ten defense last year. What happened?

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Tennessee’s offense is built around making two-pointers, and Virginia’s defense is designed to take that away.

KENTUCKY

The big question for me with this Kentucky team is pretty simple: Are they good enough?

I know, I know, I know. Let me talk this through. Kentucky turned into a top seven team in January when P.J. Washington turned into a superhuman, and as he came back to earth, so did Kentucky. Can he put together a three-week stretch where he is that guy in March? And if he doesn’t, who picks up the slack? Reid Travis has been useful in certain matchups and has looked like a guy that put up massive numbers against a bunch of soft Pac-12 frontlines in others. Tyler Herro has looked like a first round pick at times, and so had Keldon Johnson. They’ve also looked like freshmen in some big games and big moments. And while Ashton Hagans is a terrific player with a bright future, he’s also a point guard that gambles a bit too much defensively and cannot shoot on the offensive end of the floor.

Put another way, Kentucky has a ceiling when their best players are all playing at their best. But more than any of the other top six teams — Duke, UNC, Gonzaga, UVA and Tennessee — I can see the Wildcats having a floor-game at the wrong time.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: They’ve already lost to Seton Hall once this year, but the dangerous matchup to be is a potential showdown with Iowa State in the Sweet 16.

MICHIGAN

The Wolverines just have too many players that are liabilities offensively. Zavier Simpson does not have to be guarded all that tightly. Jon Teske has his moments, but he goes through stretches where he isn’t really a threat. Charles Matthews was really good last year in the NCAA tournament, but that came at a time when he was playing the four in a lineup that featured knockdown jump-shooters at three spots on the floor, including at the five.

That spacing isn’t there this year, and that is why the Wolverines can see their offense get bogged down for long stretches. If that happens in the NCAA tournament against someone like Texas Tech, they could be in real trouble.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Texas Tech is a dangerous team for Michigan to draw in the Sweet 16.