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Best Bets: The Bettor’s Guide to Fridays’ Sweet 16 action

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At 9 p.m. the day before every NCAA tournament game day, we will be releasing our Best Bets column, breaking down every single game in the tournament that day.

Odds courtesy DraftKings Sportsbook.

7:09 p.m.: No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 3 LSU, CBS

  • LINE: Michigan State (-6.5)
  • TOTAL: 148.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Michigan State 77.5, LSU 71
  • KENPOM: Michigan State 80, LSU 72

I think Michigan State is the play here for one, simple reason: Tom Izzo.

Look, I love the talent on this LSU team. I think their bigs pose a real matchup problem for the Spartans. I think the idea of Tremont Waters running ball-screens against Cassius Winston and Nick Ward is the kind of thing that should keep Michigan State fans up at night. It’s very clear that LSU has the more talented roster.

But here’s the thing: Michigan State is second nationally in 2PT% defense, and LSU is such a bad three-point shooting team that it doesn’t really matter. The rebounding edge probably favors Michigan State. LSU will get their’s on the offensive glass, but the Spartans are also a terrific offensive rebounding team, and LSU has not seemed to think defensive rebounding is all that important this year.

All of that matters.

The truth, however, is that Tom Izzo is going up a guy that couldn’t get North Texas going.

PICK: My play is going to be betting the LSU first half line and Michigan State second half line. But if you’re looking to make a play at the start of the game, I’d bet Sparty.

7:29 p.m.: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 5 Auburn, TBS

  • LINE: North Carolina (-5.5)
  • TOTAL: 165
  • IMPLIED SCORE: North Carolina 85.25, Auburn 79.75
  • KENPOM: North Carolina 82, Auburn 78

A matchup between North Carolina and Auburn, two teams that love to run and gun as much as any team in college basketball, has the chance to get crazy.

What Auburn wants to do more than anything is to turn defense into offense, forcing turnovers, grabbing defensive rebounds, running the floor and getting a quick, spot-up three against a defense that isn’t set. They lead the nation in steal percentage. They lead the nation in defensive turnover rate. They shoot 38.2 percent from three and take nearly 50 percent of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc. More than 20 percent of their possessions were logged as transition possessions, according to Synergy, and only six high-major programs had a higher number.

One of those six, however, is North Carolina. Another one of those six is Duke, and I mention the Blue Devils because I think that it’s relevant to this conversation: When Auburn and Duke played earlier this year, it ended up being a 71 possession game, a number that is not all that high. Auburn ran when they had clear chances to, but for the most part, they slowed the tempo of the game down and tried to execute in the halfcourt. They knew that trying to beat this Duke team at their own game was not going to work.

I think the same thing is going to happen on Friday night.

PICK: And that’s why the under is my favorite play in the Sweet 16. I fully expect that Auburn is going to take their foot off the gas, because you cannot beat North Carolina playing the game that Roy Williams’ teams play better than anyone. The fact that the Tigers are going to have to throw more bodies at the defensive glass, limiting the number of quick transition opportunities that they get, only solidifies that take.

If I had to pick a side to bet here, I would probably take North Carolina, but that’s assuming that Coby White is going to be able to handle the pressure put on him by Auburn’s defenders and that Nassir Little, who has the flu, is going to be totally healthy.

9:39 p.m.: No. 1 Duke vs. No. 4 Virginia Tech, CBS

  • LINE: Duke (-7.5)
  • TOTAL: 143.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Duke 75.5, Virginia Tech 68
  • KENPOM: Duke 75, Virginia Tech 70

This matchup is interesting because both teams were without their best player the last time they played.

We know how important Zion Williamson is to Duke, but I think that you can make the argument that Justin Robinson is just as important to the Hokies. Not only is he one of the best point guards in the country, Robinson moves Nickeil Alexander-Walker off the ball, which is where he is more effective for the Hokies. See, Buzz Williams runs a ball-screen heavy offense that is perfectly suited to the roster he has built. He has shooters everyone on the floor, he has a pair of point guards that are elite at running ball-screens and he has a big man in Kerry Blackshear that can make threes, beat defenders off the dribble and overpower people in the post.

PICK: The key here to me is going to be whether or not Coach K makes the decision to play Zion Williamson at the five. That is the key to stopping Virginia Tech, and slowing the Hokies down is what Duke is going to have to do to win this game. The first time they played was the worst defensive performance of the season for the Blue Devils, and they cannot afford a repeat performance on that end of the floor.

I’m honestly not even all that worried about what Virginia Tech is going to do because I don’t think it’s going to have much of an impact on how this game plays out. I don’t think they have the personnel to matchup with Duke with a healthy Zion. The Blue Devils are going to be able to sore much more easily than they did against UCF.

The question is whether or not they are going to get stops.

Krzyzewski has opted to play Zion at the five when other things aren’t working, so I can see it happening. I’d lean towards betting Duke (-7.5) in this spot.

9:59 p.m.: No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 3 Houston, TBS

  • LINE: Kentucky (-3)
  • TOTAL: 134
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Kentucky 68.5, Houston 65.5
  • KENPOM: Kentucky 68, Houston 66

It’s tough to know exactly what to bet here because we have no idea just how healthy P.J. Washington is right now.

Yes, he was in a cast until Tuesday because of an injury to his foot. No, Kentucky provided no clarity regarding his situation or how they will use him. Yes, Kelvin Sampson is preparing as if P.J. Washington is going to be healthy. No, I don’t trust anything that is currently coming out of the Kentucky camp.

PICK: I will not be betting this line myself unless we get some clarity on Washington’s status. If he does play, I’ll be on Kentucky, but if he’s only good for 10-15 minutes of limping around, then Houston is the obvious play here.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

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As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

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He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.