Best Bets: The Bettor’s Guide to the Elite Eight

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SATURDAY, MARCH 30

(All times eastern, all lines and totals via DraftKings Sportsbook)

6:09 p.m. No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 3 Texas Tech

  • SPREAD: Gonzaga (-4.5)
  • TOTAL: 139.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Gonzaga 72, Texas Tech 67.5
  • KENPOM: Gonzaga 72, Texas Tech 69

Texas Tech is the best defensive team in college basketball. They are also one of the very best defensive teams in the country at stopping ball-screen actions. They rank in the 99th percentile on Synergy in defending pick-and-rolls, which is significant because so much of what Gonzaga does in the halfcourt offensively comes down to what they can get out of ball-screen actions featuring Josh Perkins.

So once again, Perkins is going to have his work cut out for him against one of the best defenses — and best defensive point guards — in all of college basketball. Matt Mooney can flat out guard, and he is going to ensure that everything Perkins does is hounded. Against Florida State, Perkins put on a clinic in the first half, finishing with 11 points and four assists in the first 20 minutes as Gonzaga built an 11 point lead. That lead was big enough to survive a 10 minute stretch in the second half where Perkins lost his mind, committing four turnovers and finding himself at fault for a shot clock violation.

He was good enough in the first half that it didn’t matter.

And that is going to be critical for Gonzaga that he does the same on Saturday.

I also think that it is important to note here that with Killian Tillie back in the fold, Gonzaga looked downright impenetrable defensively at times. Tillie didn’t add much to the box score against Florida State, but it was striking how often he was in the first place at the right time. His presence on the court lifts a Gonzaga team that is already much-improved on that end of the floor, and it allowed Gonzaga to play lineups with Tillie, Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke that had all kinds of length and athleticism.

That might be where Gonzaga’s real advantage here lies. Texas Tech, for as good as they are, doesn’t have a ton of size, length or athleticism outside of Tariq Owens, at least not when compared to the players Gonzaga has. The question is going to be how well Gonzaga matches up Jarrett Culver. Tech’s all-american is a 6-foot-6 wing that plays as an initiator for the Red Raiders, and the best matchup Gonzaga has for him might actually be Jeremy Jones or Geno Crandall. In three tournament games, Culver is averaging 22.3 points, 7.3 boards and 5.3 assists. Slowing him down slows down Texas Tech’s offense.

PICK: I tend to lean Gonzaga here. As much as I love this Texas Tech team, I think Gonzaga ends up finding a way to pull out a win in this one. With the way the Zags are guarding right now, I think they get enough stops to cover. I also think this will be a close game and I’m not sure I feel comfortable needing a five-point win, but Gonzaga will certainly be the side I’m on.

8:29 p.m. No. 1 Virginia (-4.5) vs. No. 3 Purdue, 127

  • SPREAD: Virginia (-4.5)
  • TOTAL: 127
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Virginia 65.75, Purdue 61.25
  • KENPOM: Virginia 67, Purdue 63

The best way to breakdown Virginia’s vaunted Pack-Line defense is to run offense that involves a lot of movement and off-ball screening action. You want to force Virginia’s defense to chase, to get them moving so they are pulled out of the paint.

No team left in the tournament runs more beautiful and complicated actions that Purdue, and frankly, it’s out of necessity. They don’t really have anyone that can create in isolation. When, for example, they get to the end of a shot clock, the best play for them isn’t putting someone in a ball-screen and letting them go, it’s to run Carsen Edwards or Ryan Cline off through that dribble-handoff action and dare the Hoos to try and chase them.

I think that it is also worth noting that the Pack-Line dares teams to beat them over the top with the three-ball. Purdue shooting 37.1 percent from three, takes more than 45 percent of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc and gets nearly 40 percent of their scoring off of threes, which is 21st nationally.

The flip side here is that I’m not quite sure how Purdue is going to matchup with UVA. I’d assume that Nojel Eastern gets put on De’Andre Hunter, but that means that Grady Eifert will be asked to chase either Kyle Guy or Ty Jerome all over the floor when Virginia has their three-guard lineup in the game. And while they haven’t really shown it yet in this tournament, the ‘Hoos are actually a really dangerous team on that end of the floor. Kyle Guy is 3-for-26 from three in this tournament, but he is unquestionably one of the elite shooters in all of college hoops. Jerome, too. Hunter is a top ten pick that, in this writer’s opinion, is the second-best player in college basketball when he shows up.

But given their pace, given some of their struggles in this event and given the fact that this Virginia program seems to be playing with a mental block that keeps them from getting where they want to get to in March, if Purdue hits them with one of their offensive explosions — like we saw in the first half against Villanova and the second half against Tennessee — UVA could find themselves in a hole they can’t dig out of.

PICK: I tend to lean towards Purdue here, but I don’t feel great about either side.

SUNDAY, MARCH 31

2:20 p.m. No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 5 Auburn

  • SPREAD: Kentucky (-2.5)
  • TOTAL: 142
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Kentucky 72.25, Auburn 69.75
  • KENPOM: Kentucky 73, Auburn 71

Everything about this game changed when Chuma Okeke went down with his knee injury. He’s so important to the way that Auburn wants to play. Not only is he a floor-spacing four-man that can beat slower defenders off the dribble, he’s big enough to hold his own in the paint and is a play-maker defensively.

Put simply: He spaces the floor, he ignites their transition game and he’s the guy that can guard P.J. Washington without mucking up Auburn’s offense.

Kentucky and Auburn played twice this season. Auburn needed a furious second half comeback to lose by two points at home, and they were sandblasted, 80-53, in Lexington. According to HoopLens.com, Okeke was not on the floor for 28 possessions in those two games combined. With Okeke, Auburn scored 1.12 points-per-possession. Without him, they scored 0.64 PPP.

PICK: That’s enough to get me on the Kentucky side. Yes, I know Washington is banged up. Yes, I know that Auburn is still dangerous, and that the likes of Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore and Malik Dunbar will do their damnedest to fill in for Okeke.

I just can’t see them being nearly as effective.

5:05 p.m. No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Michigan State

  • SPREAD: Dule (-1.5)
  • TOTAL: 149.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Michigan State 75.5 Duke 74
  • KENPOM: Michigan State 77, Duke 76

I think this is a tougher spot for Duke than some may realize. The Blue Devils have not been a very good team when it comes to defending ball-screens this season, and the one thing that the Spartans have excelled at more than anything this year is putting Cassius Winston into ball-screen action and letting him roll.

I also think that this is going to be a matchup that the Spartans win on the glass. Like LSU, Duke has a roster full of big, physical athletes that still manage to find a way to get beaten to the offensive glass, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a program not named North Carolina that has consistently been better than Michigan State at getting to the boards in recent seasons. Zion Williamson and company will get their’s when it comes to second chance points, but Michigan State will, at the very least, make them work for it.

The problem for the Spartans starts with the size and athleticism on the Duke roster. Assuming Reddish is healthy and ready to play — which, frankly, is no guarantee — Duke is going to have a serious advantage at every spot on the perimeter. My guess is that Kenny Goins (maybe Xavier Tillman?) ends up on Williamson while Aaron Henry is matched up with R.J. Barrett and Matt McQuaid draws Reddish. Those are going to be tough covers, although I do think that the fact that Tre Jones can be helped off* will do a world of good in saving Winston’s legs.

*(I fully expect Michigan State to help way off Jones, but it is worth noting that he scored a career-high 22 points and hit five threes in the Sweet 16.)

I’m also worried about the fact that Michigan State wants to run, and that Duke will thrive in a game that becomes uptempo. This is, again, where Jones comes into play. He’s a terrific on-ball defender, and if there is a knock of Winston, it’s that he can struggle with turnovers.

PICK: I’m going against everything that I have said all season long, because I think that this is the game where Duke gets done in. They’re only in the Elite Eight right now because: UCF missed an alley-oop and had two layups roll off the rim in the second round after Tre Jones hit five threes as Ahmed Hill’s game-tying layup air-balled.

I will be on Michigan State (+1.5).