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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).

N.C. State forward Jericole Hellems released from hospital

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RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina State says sophomore forward Jericole Hellems has been released from a hospital and is in “good spirits” after an injury in Saturday’s win at Wake Forest.

The team announced the news Sunday on Twitter. Hellems had fallen on a rebound attempt and banged the back of his head on the court with 28 seconds left. He was alert but had to be carried from the court on a stretcher. Then he was taken to a hospital for precautionary reasons to rule out a possible lower back injury as well as to be evaluated for a possible concussion.

The team says Hellems will meet with NC State doctors in the coming days, while coach Kevin Keatts will address his status later in the week.

NC State travels to UNC Greensboro next Sunday.

AP Poll: Louisville remains No. 1, Ohio State jumps to No. 3

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Louisville and Kansas finally provided some consistency to what has been a volatile Top 25 poll this season, while perennial bluebloods Michigan State and North Carolina continued to tumble after another wave of defeats.

The Cardinals solidified thier place at No. 1 in the AP Top 25 released Monday by routing then-No. 4 Michigan in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and breezing past Pittsburgh over the past week. The Jayhawks stayed at No. 2 after returning from their Maui Invitaitonal title to thump former Big 12 member Colorado.

“I think it’s two games in a row, where we got stops,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “We didn’t allow second shots. We ran the clock on offense. We got great looks. We got layups, and that’s a killer.”

Ohio State jumped from sixth to third following its 74-49 rout of then-No. 7 North Carolina and a Big Ten blowout of Penn State. Maryland dropped one spot to fourth despite continuing to pile up wins, while Michigan slid one spot to round out the top five after Juwan Howard’s bunch ran into the Louisville buzzsaw for their first loss of the season.

The Spartans continued their fall from preseason No. 1 after losing to Duke, this time dropping from 11th to No. 16. The Tar Heels tumbled 10 spots to No. 17 after getting crushed by Ohio State and losing to No. 9 Virginia.

San Diego State joined the rankings at No. 25.

1. Louisville (55)

2. Kansas (4)

3. Ohio St. (5)

4. Maryland

5. Michigan

6. Gonzaga

7. Duke

8. Kentucky

9. Virginia

10. Oregon

11. Baylor

12. Auburn

13. Memphis

14. Dayton

15. Arizona

16. Michigan St.

17. North Carolina

18. Butler

19. Tennessee

20. Villanova

21. Florida St.

22. Seton Hall

23. Xavier

24. Colorado

25. San Diego St.

Others receiving votes: Utah St. 160, Washington 144, Purdue 130, Indiana 13, Marquette 11, Liberty 9, Saint Mary’s (Cal) 8, Texas 6, Florida 5, Penn St. 5, Georgetown 4, West Virginia 3, Richmond 3, LSU 2, Duquesne 1, DePaul 1, VCU 1.

Monday’s Overreactions: Naji Marshall owns Cincinnati, Ohio State is No. 1, Joel Ayayi

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Naji Marshall, Xavier

Marshall has lived up to the hype through the first month of the season, but the biggest and best game that he has played in 2019 happened on Saturday. Squaring off with archrival Cincinnati, Marshall went off for 31 points, eight boards, five steals and three assists, hitting four threes and totally outplaying his Bearcat counterpart, Jarron Cumberland.

As a team, Xavier has been a little bit up and down this season. Their issues shooting the ball have been prevalent all season long, and as good as the likes of Tyrique Jones, Quentin Goodin and Paul Scruggs – hell, and Marshall himself – can be, there has been some inconsistency to date.

There was not any on Saturday.

Marshall took over and led Xavier to their biggest win of the season.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Ohio State Buckeyes

Can we even consider anyone else?

On Wednesday, the Buckeyes went into Chapel Hill and ran North Carolina out of their own gym, leaving with a 74-49 win. On Saturday, Chris Holtmann’s club hosted Penn State, and that did not go well for the Nittany Lions, who lost by 32 points while giving up 106.

This team is starting to look scary, and there’s a valid argument to make that they should be sitting at No. 1 in the AP poll this morning.

Speaking of which …

OVERREACTIONS

1. OHIO STATE HAS THE MOST IMPRESSIVE RESUME IN THE COUNTRY

If we ranked teams solely based on resume at this point in the season, I don’t think there is any way to leave the Buckeyes out of the top spot.

They are undefeated. They have beaten Villanova by 25 at home. They have beaten North Carolina by 25 on the road. They have beaten Penn State by 32 at home. Those are three of the top 24 teams in the country, according to KenPom. No one else can match that. Hell, the Buckeyes are currently sitting at No. 1 in KenPom’s rankings.

To put those wins into context, consider this, via Jordan Sperber of Hoop Vision: There have been six instances this season of a top 50 KenPom team losing by 20 or more points. Ohio State is responsible for three of them.

To be honest, I’m not ready to actually call Ohio State the best team in college basketball – I explain why in the podcast below at the 11:20 mark – but they are certainly playing like it.

2. WE FINALLY SAW THE ANTHONY COWAN WE NEED TO SEE FOR MARYLAND TO REACH THEIR POTENTIAL

Look, I know how ridiculous this is going to sound.

Coming off of a performance where Anthony Cowan shot 6-for-14 from the floor in a game where Maryland needed something bordering on a miracle to erase a 15 point second half deficit at home against unranked Illinois, I’m finally convinced?

Well, kinda?

Here’s my logic: I am not sold on Mark Turgeon being the best coach in college basketball, and I am hardly alone in that sentiment. But he does have a roster with some talent, and it is always a good sign when a team’s talent takes over and wins a game where, frankly, they played like crap. That’s exactly what happened on Saturday. In the past, Cowan would not have taken over. In the past, he would not have put the team on his back, scored 20 points in the final 23 minutes and finished with seven boards, six assists and the game-tying and winning points in the final 20 seconds.

All-Americans bail their team out in games they are not supposed to win. Final Four teams win games where they don’t show up until they are getting thoroughly embarrassed. The Terps did both of those things.

Now, would I like to see them finally figure out how to win without sleepwalking through the first half of games?

Absolutely!

But it’s hardly a bad sign to be sitting at 10-0 as you’re still figuring things out.

3. BUTLER IS THE MOST UNDERRATED TEAM IN THE COUNTRY

After taking down Florida in Indianapolis on Saturday afternoon, Butler has a surprisingly impressive crop of wins this season. They beat Minnesota at home. They beat Missouri in Kansas City. They beat Stanford on a neutral. They won at Ole Miss. And now they have that win over the Gators, who we just can’t quite seem to quit.

Either way, the Bulldogs play at Baylor on Tuesday night and then take on Purdue in the Crossroads Classic next Saturday.

We’ll know more about them then, but for now, this is a team that we have to talk about.

That said …

4. … NO ONE HAS MADE US A BELIEVER IN MORE TEAMS THAN FLORIDA

Florida State beat Florida in Gainesville?

The Seminoles must be awesome!

UConn beat Florida in Storrs?

The Huskies are back, baby!

Butler knocks off the Gators in Hinkle?

The Bulldogs are the most underrated team in the country?

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5. JOEL AYAYI IS THE X-FACTOR THAT WILL MAKE GONZAGA A TITLE CONTENDER

Listen, I’m not saying that Ayayi is the best player on this Gonzaga roster.

I think that he’s probably their third-best player, and even that might be generous.

What he is, however, is a guy that fills a role that the Zags didn’t have anyone to fill. The issue with this Gonzaga team heading into the season was in their backcourt. We wondered if they had enough point guard play, perimeter shooting and playmaking to be able to compete with the best teams in the country. It’s one thing to have a great frontline with guards that can get them the rock where they need it. It’s another thing to have a great frontline and no one that an initiate offense or keep defenses honest.

Ayayi has done those things to date this season. He’s averaging 10.1 points, 6.6 boards and 3.8 assists, which is second on the team to Ryan Woolridge, who is quietly having a solid start to the season as well. He provides length, athleticism, floor-spacing, a second ball-handler and creator. He takes the pressure off of Woolridge to carry the lead guard load.

He is more or less everything that Gonzaga fans were hoping Admon Gilder would turn into.

We’ll see if this lasts, but his performance against Washington on Saturday was really promising. Ayayi didn’t play or shoot particularly well, but he stepped up with 20 seconds left and buried the biggest shot of the game, a three to give the Zags a 82-76 lead and bury U-Dub.

Mamukelashvili breaks wrist as No. 16 Seton Hall loses to Iowa State

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AMES, Iowa (AP) — No. 16 Seton Hall lost much more than a game in Ames, as starter Sandro Mamukelashvili broke his right wrist in the first half of a loss at Iowa State.

Tyrese Haliburton scored 17 points, George Conditt had a season-high 17 off the bench and the Cyclones knocked off Seton Hall 76-66 on Sunday for its second straight victory.

Rasir Bolton scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half to help the Cyclones avenge an 84-76 loss on Nov. 29 to the Pirates (6-3) in the Bahamas. The rematch was part of the Big East/Big 12 Alliance series.

Mamukelashvili, a 6-foot-11 forward and a facilitator who averaged 12.3 points and 5.3 rebounds a game entering play, went down hard with 15:14 to go in the first half and didn’t return.

Coach Kevin Willard said after the game that it was too soon to know how long Mamukelashvili might be out.

“I don’t know for sure. It’s definitely broken. But we … have to go get an MRI tomorrow and let our doctors and radiologists read it,” Willard said. “There’s definitely a break in there, it’s just that we don’t know where it is.”

Conditt’s free throws pushed Iowa State’s lead to 59-53 with 2:56 left. Haliburton then drew an offensive foul and freed himself for a wide-open 3 at the top of the key. Haliburton drilled it, making it a nine-point game at the 2:23 mark.

Seton Hall fouled Prentiss Nixon from beyond the arc with 1:27 left. Nixon hit all three from the line to push Iowa State back up by nine, and Conditt’s transition dunk sealed the win.

Iowa State won despite shooting just 4 of 19 on 3s.

“Every good team needs a signature win and this was the first one for us,” Iowa State coach Steve Prohm said. “It felt really good beat a ranked team, but also a team that beat us before.”

Myles Powell scored 19 points with eight rebounds for Seton Hall. But Powell was 7 of 20 shooting, had five turnovers and fouled out with 54.4 seconds to go on an offensive foul. The Pirates’ previous defeats came against Michigan State and Oregon by just five combined points.

Seton Hall committed 20 turnovers and was outrebounded 43-40 despite having a major size advantage. The Pirates also gave Iowa State 33 tries from the line, and Cyclones made 26 of them.

“We turned the ball over too much and we fouled,” Willard said. “You can’t go on the road against a good team and turn the basketball over and foul.”

THE BIG PICTURE

Seton Hall: On losing Mamukelashvili, Willard said that “it changes things a lot. But the good thing is, we have some guys that need to get comfortable in that role and step up in that role…we’re going to need everyone to step up.”

Iowa State: The Cyclones have been strangely awful at times this season shooting jump shots — even though they supposedly have enough shooters. It’s a problem that Iowa State will need to get sorted out before it threatens to sink their season. On the plus side, the Cyclones were active with their hands in forcing Seton Hall’s bigs to turn it over, and Haliburton delivered yet another signature performance.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Losing on the road to a Big 12 team that had the opportunity to play them 10 days ago shouldn’t cost the Pirates too much. Iowa State’s Hilton Coliseum can be a brutal place for opponents — especially one that didn’t necessarily know what it was walking into.

HE SAID IT

“It’s a hell of a win for us.” —- Prohm said.

UP NEXT

Seton Hall: At Rutgers on Saturday.

Iowa State: Hosts Iowa on Thursday night.

Monday Overreactions Podcast: Ohio State’s the best, Travis Steele’s the GOAT, is Anthony Cowan good?

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Rob Dauster and Bobby Reagan are back to walk through everything that happened in college basketball this weekend. Is Ohio State the best team in college basketball? Is it actually Maryland? Just how good is Anthony Cowan? Just how bad is Florida? And did Travis Steele do the greatest thing in the history of coaching on Saturday night? He might have.