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.

Purdue stays No. 1 in AP Top 25; NC State in at No. 22

Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times/USA TODAY NETWORK
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Purdue’s unquestioned grip on No. 1 in The Associated Press poll is gone after a weekend loss. That didn’t stop the Boilermakers from remaining at the top anyway.

The Boilermakers earned 38 of 62 first-place votes in the poll to remain at No. 1 for a third straight week and seventh time this season. Purdue was the unanimous choice last week, the first for any team this season, before falling at Indiana over the weekend for only its second loss.

The Boilermakers (22-2, 11-2) have a leading candidate for national player of the year in Zach Edey and KenPom’s No. 1-ranked offense (121.1 points scored per 100 possessions) to go with a top-25 defense. But they got down big, committed 16 turnovers and allowed the Hoosiers — up to No. 18 this week — to shoot nearly 53% in a 79-74 loss Saturday.

“When we go to Zach and we make some perimeter shots, the defense gets better sometimes when the offense flows,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said at his postgame news conference. “And you can’t do that. You can always rebound, you can always take care of the ball, you can always make your free throws, those things there.”

The loss meant Houston collected 22 first-place votes as it rose one spot to No. 2, followed by No. 3 Alabama and No. 4 Arizona in each claiming one.

THE TOP TIER

Texas jumped five spots to No. 5, shooting past Tennessee, which fell four spots to No. 6 after losing last week at Florida.

UCLA, Virginia, Kansas and Marquette rounded out the top 10, with Shaka Smart’s Golden Eagles cracking the top 10 for the first time since 2019.

RISING

The Longhorns’ jump marked the biggest of the week, followed by Marquette and Miami each rising four spots. No. 13 Xavier, No. 15 Saint Mary’s and No. 21 UConn joined Indiana in each moving up three positions.

In all, 12 teams rose from last week’s rankings.

SLIDING

Kansas State took the week’s biggest tumble, falling five spots to No. 12 after losing at Kansas and at home to Texas last week. No. 16 Gonzaga joined Tennessee in falling four spots after its overtime loss at Saint Mary’s.

In all, nine teams fell from last week’s rankings.

STATUS QUO

Purdue was the only team to remain in the same position this week.

WELCOME

North Carolina State earned its first AP Top 25 ranking in four years, checking in at No. 22.

The Wolfpack (19-5, 9-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) spent six weeks in the poll during the 2018-19 season. N.C. State already has surpassed the win total for each of the last two seasons and is in contention for the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2018.

Creighton and Rutgers joined N.C. State as this week’s new additions to the poll, though both were ranked earlier this season. The Bluejays were No. 9 in the preseason poll and peaked at No. 7 before falling out by mid-December, while the Scarlet Knights spent a week at No. 23 in mid-January.

FAREWELL (FOR NOW)

Florida Atlantic (No. 19), Clemson (No. 20) and Auburn (No. 25) fell out of this week’s poll.

CONFERENCE WATCH

The Big 12 leads all leagues with six ranked teams, including No. 11 Iowa State, No. 14 Baylor and No. 17 TCU. The Big East is next with five ranked teams, followed by the Big Ten and ACC with three each.

The Pac-12, Southeastern and West Coast conferences each have two ranked teams, while the American Athletic and Mountain West each have one.

Indiana reaches No. 2 in women’s AP Top 25; South Carolina still No. 1

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South Carolina beat a top opponent to remain No. 1 in the women’s poll and now has a showdown with another one looming this weekend.

The Gamecocks (23-0) topped then- No. 5 UConn 81-77 to remain unbeaten and stay the unanimous choice atop the poll from the 28-member national media panel. After facing Auburn, South Carolina will play No. 3 LSU in a matchup of the last two unbeatens in Division I women’s college basketball.

Dawn Staley’s team has won 29 consecutive games and has been No. 1 in the poll for 33 consecutive weeks. That’s one week short of tying the Huskies for the third-longest streak atop the poll. Only UConn (51 weeks) and Louisiana Tech (36) have had longer runs at No. 1.

While South Carolina has had a stranglehold on No. 1 for more than a year, Indiana is making its first appearance ever at No. 2 after Stanford lost to Washington.

“I’m going to relish this for a minute, knowing where the program was to where it is,” Indiana coach Teri Moren said. “We’ve made a lot of history since we’ve been here in our nine seasons and it’s one of the more historical things we’ve been able to accomplish. Give our players credit, I don’t want to discount what a big achievement this is. We’re more than humbled to be No. 2.”

Indiana has won 10 straight since suffering its lone loss of the season to Michigan State. The Hoosiers have a tough stretch coming up, starting with a home game against No. 5 Iowa. Indiana, which hadn’t been ranked higher than fourth, then plays No. 13 Ohio State and 12th-ranked Michigan.

“That’s why we take it one game at a time, but you understand the magnitude of what’s ahead of us. I tell the kids all the time we’re in control of our own destiny,” Moren said.

LSU remained at No. 3 after close wins over Tennessee, Georgia and Texas A&M. The Tigers have a week to prepare for the Gamecocks.

UConn moved up one spot to fourth after its close loss to the Gamecocks and Iowa was fifth.

The Cardinal fell to sixth with Utah, Maryland, Duke and Notre Dame rounding out the top 10. The Blue Devils beat the Irish to take over sole possession of first in the ACC and vault up six spots in the poll. It’s Duke’s best ranking since the team finished the 2017 season ranked ninth.

FALLING CYCLONES

It was a rough week for Iowa State, which lost to Kansas by one point and Baylor by six. The Cyclones fell nine spots in the poll from 12th to 21st.

RE-ENTRY

Colorado came back into the poll at No. 25 after beating Oregon and Oregon State over the weekend. The Buffaloes were ranked for four weeks before falling out last week. Middle Tennessee dropped out of the poll after losing both its games last week.

No. 1 South Carolina tops fifth-ranked UConn 81-77

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
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HARTFORD, Conn. – In a rematch of last season’s national championship game, South Carolina came out on top again over UConn thanks to a strong fourth quarter by Aliyah Boston.

Geno Auriemma stepping onto the court to spike a water botte, that helped them, too.

Boston scored 23 of her 26 points in the second half, including 14 in the final period, to help the No. 1 Gamecocks beat the fifth-ranked Huskies 81-77 on Sunday in front of a sellout crowd.

“Aliyah is just relentless, she plays relentlessly although she had a subpar (first half) as far as statistics, she impacted the game,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “She doesn’t get flustered. she knew she didn’t play up to her standards. What does she do? Raise her standard. Bad first half or not she’s going to continue to play.”

While there wasn’t as much on the line as the title game last April, there was a high intensity to it, including Auriemma getting the technical late in the fourth quarter after getting frustrated by the officiating enough to throw the bottle.

“I thought there were a lot of things being overlooked. It was difficult for some of our guys to move out on the floor,” said Auriemma, UConn’s coach. “I didn’t think it was one key play, I just couldn’t keep quiet any longer. It was bad. … Dumb mistake by me. Bad decision.”

The Gamecocks (23-0) have won 29 consecutive games since losing to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament title game last year. They’ve won four of the past five meetings with the Huskies, including a victory in the NCAA championship game last season. That ended UConn’s perfect 11-0 record in title games.

“This was a national championship-like game. I wanted us to feel what it takes to do this,” Staley said.

Now South Carolina finally has a win in Connecticut after winning there before.

South Carolina used its size again to top the Huskies. The 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso and Boston, the reigning AP Player of the Year helped the Gamecocks have a 42-30 advantage on the boards, including grabbing 25 offensive rebounds.

Boston finished with 11 rebounds for the 76th double-double of her career. Cardoso added 17 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.

With her team leading by four in the fourth quarter, Boston took over. She scored the next 12 points for South Carolina, two of those came when Auriemma tossed the water onto the court and was charged with the technical foul.

Boston hit the two free throws. She then hit a jumper, a 3-pointer and another basket to give the Gamecocks a double-digit advantage.

“I’m kind of in attack mode. In the second half I made more shots then I did in the first half,” Boston said.

Despite seeing their starting backcourt foul out, the short-handed Huskies (21-3) wouldn’t go away. They whittled the lead down to 80-77 with 10.8 seconds left on Aubrey Griffin’s three-point play.

Raven Johnson hit the first of two free throws a second later and UConn couldn’t convert to close out the game

“They have a lot to feel good about once they get past what it feels like to lose,” Auriemma said. “I feel better at 3 o’clock today then I did at 12 o’clock. I didn’t know how we’d respond. I knew we’d play hard and compete like hell. I didn’t know who was going to make a big play, who was going to get a big rebound, make a big shot. I know now more than I did at noon and I feel better about my team.”

Aaliyah Edwards led UConn with 25 points.

UConn got off to a solid start, outscoring South Carolina 25-14 in the opening period. Lou Lopez Senechal capped the strong start, hitting a running 3-pointer just before the buzzer.

South Carolina asserted its size in the second quarter with Cardoso scoring 11 points in the period. Her putback with just under 10 seconds left tied the game at 34 heading into the half.

TIP-INS:

UConn is 8-10 against No. 1 teams all time. … The Huskies are still missing guards Azzi Fudd (knee), Caroline Ducharme (concussion) as well as Paige Bueckers (knee) and Ice Brady (knee), who are both out for the season. … Many former UConn players were in the crowd including Sue Bird, Jen Rizzotti, and Napheesa Collier sitting a few rows behind the Huskies bench. … South Carolina has gone 41-6 against ranked teams since the start of the 2019-20 season.

DEPTH:

The Gamecocks reserves outscored UConn’s 37-0. The Huskies only had eight healthy players.

UP NEXT:

South Carolina: visits Auburn on Thursday before a showdown with No. 3 LSU on Feb. 12

UConn: visits Marquette on Wednesday.

No. 16 Duke tops No. 9 Notre Dame 57-52 for 1st place in ACC

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Celeste Taylor scored 14 points and No. 16 Duke came from behind for a 57-52 victory at No. 9 Notre Dame on Sunday to move into first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Trailing for most of the game’s first 28 minutes, the Blue Devils (20-3, 10-2 ACC) took the lead for good in the final minutes of the third quarter to knock off the Fighting Irish (18-4, 9-3) before a sellout crowd of 9,149 at Purcell Pavilion.

A jumper by Jordyn Oliver put Duke ahead 45-44 with 1:20 left in the third quarter and the visitors never trailed after that.

“I’m proud of my players for finishing the game,” Duke coach Kara Lawson said.

Duke led 48-46 going into the fourth quarter after trailing Notre Dame by as many as five points in the third quarter. A steal by Elizabeth Balogun in the final 15 seconds helped seal the win.

A 13-4 run helped Notre Dame take its biggest lead of the first half for either team at 31-23. The Irish led 31-25 at halftime.

“We fell short, but you know it’s a part of our growth,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said. “It’s part of our journey.”

Taylor scored 10 points for Duke in the second half. Balogun and Shayeann Day-Wilson finished with 9 points apiece and Taya Corosdale and Oliver had 8 each.

Maddy Westbeld, playing all 40 minutes, led Notre Dame with 15 points, Sonia Citron scored 14 and Olivia Miles added 11.

“She’s one of the best players in the country,” Lawson said of Miles, who logged just over 31 minutes. “We didn’t have to go against her for a quarter of the game.”

COLD SHOOTING

Neither team shot well in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame made just 2 of 13 shots from the floor and Duke was 3 of 13.

“We just talked about staying disciplined defensively and making it hard,” Lawson said. “I though we challenged shots.”

Ivey also addressed that stretch of the game.

“Some of those opportunities were in transition and we didn’t get a chance to capitalize,” she said. “We did a good job of finding the open person, we just didn’t nail the shots.”

SUPERB SUBS

Led by Corosdale and Oliver, Duke enjoyed a 21-4 edge in reserve scoring.

“I’m really proud of my players off the bench,” Lawson said. “Jordyn Oliver was really good.

“We needed to have that depth in scoring. Not only did they score but they were efficient from the field.”

The Blue Devils’ bench shot 9 of 15.

SHORT-HANDED IRISH

Notre Dame graduate student Dara Mabrey was lost for the season in the Jan. 22 game against Virginia.

Lauren Ebo, a 6-foot-4 graduate student, has missed the last three games with a lower-body injury.

“Ebo does a great job of being a precence on the block with her size and ability to rebound and play post defense,” Ivey said. “She’s been working really hard (at rehabilitation).

“It’s kind of day to day.”

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame: The Irish fell out of a first-place tie with Duke in the ACC standings.

Duke: The Blue Devils are now alone atop the conference standings.

UP NEXT

Notre Dame: The Irish meet Pitt in two of the next four contests – on Thursday in South Bend and on Sunday, Feb. 19 at Pittsburgh.

Duke: The only regular-season meeting between the Blue Devils and Boston College is Thursday at Boston.

Colorado State sorry for ‘Russia’ chant at Ukrainian player

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
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FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Colorado State apologized for a group of fans who chanted “Russia” at a player on an opposing team who is from Ukraine.

Utah State’s Max Shulga is from Kyiv and was shooting free throws when TV cameras picked up the chant from the student section during the game in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Russia invaded Ukraine nearly a year ago.

“On behalf of Colorado State, we apologize to the student-athlete and Utah State. This is a violation of our steadfast belief in the Mountain West Sportsmanship Policy and University Principles of Community,” Colorado State said in a statement.

“Every participant, student, and fan should feel welcomed in our venues, and for something like this to have occurred is unacceptable at Colorado State.”

Utah State beat CSU 88-79.

On Sunday afternoon, Shulga issued a statement through Utah State that thanked the Colorado State administration and Rams coach Niko Medved for their “immediate support and understanding following the disappointing events during last night’s game.”

Shulga added: “This has been an extremely difficult and challenging year with my family and loved ones so far away and living in constant danger. I pray daily for the conflict to come to a close and for peace to be restored for my people in Ukraine.”

To close his statement, Shulga said that while the chants were “extremely upsetting in the moment, I also know how emotions can run high during competition and people can do and say things they do not really mean. Colorado State and its fans have apologized and I accept and appreciate the apology.”