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Best Bets: Previewing the best games of the weekend in college basketball

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As of this publication, the lines for the Friday games were the only ones posted. Games on Saturday and Sunday will be discussed using projections from KenPom.

No. 20 WASHINGTON vs. TENNESSEE (-3); 135, Sat. 5:00 p.m. (Toronto)

As weird as it may sound, this looks like it is going to be the best game of the weekend.

And I will be fascinated to see where the line actually opens up, because Tennessee (-3) just seems like it is too high. I make this to be closer to a pick-em and would probably have Washington favored by a point or two, and that’s largely because I think that they just matchup really well with the Vols.

The issue with this Tennessee team is their frontcourt, which is not ideal going up against a Washington team that is going to be featuring Isaiah Stewart on the block. He’s a beast. He made Baylor’s big men look normal last weekend, and Baylor’s bigs are better than Tennessee.

Now, I do think that the Vols have some pieces that will be able to operate against that Washington zone, especially if Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden are actually shooting the ball well. Tennessee is better than where they are ranked right now.

But I think this matchup favors Washington, and if you can get the Huskies (+3), you take them.

PICK: Washington (+3)

No. 15 FLORIDA (-2) at UCONN; 138, Sun. 3:00 p.m.

This is a weird matchup. Florida has looked terrible early on this season, having gotten worked over by Florida State in Gainesville before nearly losing to Towson at home. That’s not ideal.

But UConn is coming off of an absolute mollywhopping at home at the hands of a St. Joseph’s team that has somewhere in the neighborhood of eight scholarship players on the roster.

Put another way, both of these teams stink right now, but Florida is the team that has more talent. They showed some flashes late in the win over Towson of playing their optimal lineup – two guards with Keyontae Johnson and Scottie Lewis around Kerry Blackshear – and I’m still in on them as a contender.

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PICK: Picking small favorites on the road is always risky, but I like to live dangerously. Florida (-2).

MARQUETTE (-1) at WISCONSIN; 131, Sun. 1:00 p.m.

Marquette had one of the most impressive wins that I saw in the Gavitt Games. They erased a 13-point deficit against Purdue without having Markus Howard go nuts. They did it with their defense and with Koby McEwen. This is a different Golden Eagles than we are used to seeing. I think they are going to be able to guard all season long.

Now that said, I do not feel good about betting on them to go into the Kohl Center and win a rivalry game on a Sunday in November, even though I don’t think Wisconsin has a guy that can slow down Howard, who struggles with length and athleticism.

PICK: This game will be a stay-away for me if Marquette is laying points. If Wisconsin opens up as a favorite, however, that’s a line that I will jump on.

No. 12 SETON HALL (-7) at ST. LOUIS; 139, Sun. 4:00 p.m.

St. Louis is playing at a faster place than they have played in recent seasons, and while I’m still not entirely convinced that they are somewhere in the neighborhood of “good” offensively, I do think that they’ll be able to create enough possessions to put up points. Seton Hall, obviously, can score, so if the total is 139 here I think I lean towards the over.

The one question mark is Myles Powell. I think his ankle is actually bothering him and that his 37 point outburst against Michigan State had more to do with his toughness and the way that adrenaline can make pain go away than anything else.

PICK: Over (139)

UT ARLINGTON at No. 14 OREGON (-15); 139, Sun. 8:00 p.m.

I lean Oregon here for one, specific reason: The Mavericks are shooting more threes than anyone else in college basketball right now: 56.5 percent of their field goal attempts this season have come from beyond the arc. Oregon’s matchup zone forces offenses to shoot over the top of it. This would, in theory, be a good thing for UTA except for the fact that they are shooting just 28.6 percent from three on the season and Oregon is allowing opponents to shoot just 23.2 percent from three.

PICK: The Ducks (-15) assuming that Chris Ogden’s team doesn’t turn into the Golden State Warriors this weekend.

NEW MEXICO STATE at No. 19 ARIZONA (-10); 138, Sun. 2:00 p.m.

New Mexico State is one of the best mid-major programs in the country. They are going to be a threat to pull off an upset if and when they get to the NCAA tournament. Chris Jans can really, really coach, and he has some talent on this roster.

But Arizona has been arguably the most impressive team through the first 10 days of the season, and laying 10 points against a mid-major program at home is just not enough points.

PICK: Arizona (-10)

No. 8 GONZAGA (-7) at TEXAS A&M; 143, Fri. 9:00 p.m

Texas A&M will be without T.J. Starks, who was suspended for this game. Gonzaga has looked really impressive through two wins against mediocre competition. I think I would lean towards the Zags in the Admon Gilder revenge game.

ALABAMA at RHODE ISLAND (+1.5); 149, Fri. 7:30 p.m. (NBCSN)

Alabama has already lost at home this season, dropping a game against Penn in overtime, and now they draw a good URI team that has a talented backcourt in a road game. I like the URI money line here.

Best Bets: National title futures to buy, fade

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We are still more than three months away from the start of the college basketball season, but that doesn’t mean it is too early to start betting on college basketball.

Futures, baby!

There are already plenty of places where you can find lines on next season’s national champions, so we would be in the wrong if we weren’t advising you on who to put your money on considering that now is when you will likely be getting the best odds. 

One thing to note: These odds come from DraftKings Sportsbook, and like a number of the legal Sportsbooks operating in New Jersey, it allows you to cash out futures bets for a profit if the odds get better. So, for example, last year I bet on Marquette at 200/1 odds in September. By late February, their odds had moved to 50/1. When the team lost four in a row late in the year, I was able to cash out that bet to more than triple my investment.

That option plays a significant role in the futures that I am going to be investing in. If you don’t have the ability to cash out, some of your decision-making should be more conservative. A future bet may be a great value, but just because I think Utah State should be 60/1 vs. 150/1 doesn’t change the fact that you won’t get paid unless Utah State wins the title.

So with all that in mind, here is your as-of-today college basketball futures breakdown.

(AP Photo/Jeff Swinger)

THE FAVORITES

  • Kentucky (8/1)
  • Michigan State (8/1)
  • Duke (10/1)
  • Virginia (11/1)
  • Kansas (12/1)

The way I see it, there are four teams that are in the mix as the best team heading into the 2019-2020 season — Kentucky, Michigan State, Duke and Kansas. As the reigning national champs, it makes sense that Virginia would have their odds in this range as well.

BEST BET: At this point, I think that it is probably KANSAS (12/1) for the simple fact that they have the best odds and there really isn’t all that much of a difference between them and, say, Kentucky or Michigan State. Hell, there are smart basketball people out there that will tell you that the Jayhawks are the best team in college basketball this season. They lost Dedric Lawson and Quentin Grimes with eligibility remaining, but they did bring back Devon Dotson (a potential breakout star next season) and Udoka Azubuike. That wasn’t a guarantee. The addition of Isaiah Moss adds some perimeter shooting while Ochai Agbaji should be in line for a significant jump in minutes and production. Throw in Marcus Garrett, Silvio De Sousa, Tristan Enaruna and Jalen Wilson, and there is as much versatility on this roster as there is talent.

I do think that KENTUCKY (8/1) and MICHIGAN STATE (8/1) are worth betting as well. That’s decent value. For my money they are the best two teams in the country heading into next season, and the Spartans return my Preseason Player of the Year in Cassius Winston. DUKE (10/1) also seems to be the right price. They don’t have as much talent this year, but the pieces should fit together better. But at 12/1, Kansas is clearly the best value in this tier. 

EASIEST FADE: It’s VIRGINIA (11/1) and it’s not close. I’m actually bullish on the Cavaliers heading into next season. I love Jay Huff and I *love* Mamadi Diakite, and Braxton Key should be able to play the three alongside both of them. But there are real questions that need to be answered about their perimeter play. I don’t know if Casey Morsell is going to be ready as a freshman. Tomas Woldentensae can really, really shoot but the staff has concerns about what he will be defensively. Kody Stattman is supposed to be the guy they rely on to be a defender and a floor-spacer on the wing but he is coming off of a 9-for-41 effort from three in the FIBA U-19 event.

I like Virginia this season more than a lot of people. I do not like Virginia at this price.

(AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

THE CONTENDERS

  • Gonzaga (18/1)
  • Memphis (18/1)
  • North Carolina (18/1)
  • Florida (20/1)
  • Louisville (20/1)
  • Villanova (20/1)
  • Texas Tech (25/1)

BEST BETS: My two favorite futures heading into the 2019-20 season are in this tier: FLORIDA (20/1) and LOUISVILLE (20/1).

We’ll start with the Gators, who have actually seen their odds change significantly over the course of the last month. When Kerry Blackshear announced that he will be playing his senior season in Gainesville, there were still places where Florida was available at better than (50/1). For a team that is going to enter this season in everyone’s preseason top 10, that was insane value. They are certainly priced better now, but at (20/1), the value is still there. Remember, this is a team that already had an elite perimeter – Andrew Nembhard, Scottie Lewis, Keyontae Johnson, Noah Locke, Tre Mann – of versatile defenders capable of thriving in small-ball, and they added an all-american redshirt senior that anchored the frontline for a Virginia Tech team that played the same way last season.

Louisville should be obvious, really. They are misspriced. They return Jordan Nwora (my Preseason ACC Player of the Year), Dwayne Sutton, Steve Enoch and Malik Williams, they add a loaded six-man recruiting class and bring in a grad transfer point guard in Fresh Kimble that averaged 15 points in the Atlantic 10 last season. Throw in the fact that their head coach is one of the very best in the business, and I would buy the Cardinals up until they are priced where Virginia is priced today.

TEXAS TECH (25/1) is also interesting to me because Chris Beard always finds a way to win, but I’m not sure there is much value there; they seem to be priced accurately. I’m intrigued by VILLANOVA (20/1), but I’m not ready to invest too heavily in a Villanova team that is going to have as many as five or six freshmen and sophomores playing in their rotation.

EASIEST FADE: For me, it is MEMPHIS (18/1). I already have a Memphis future. I got them at (50/1) way back in April. That was when they were a sneaky value. With James Wiseman and Precious Achiuwa on the roster, they are going to have the talent to play with any one in the country this season. My concern is just how young they are. They have just three players on the roster that are returning, and only two members of a seven-man recruiting class ranked No. 1 in the country are guys that can be slotted as surefire one-and-dones. More than 70 percent of that class are program guys, players that should be on campus for two or three years.

Throw in the fact that two of the three returning players are undersized point guards that likely aren’t going to be the starting point guard, and I think Memphis should be priced closer to (25/1) or (30/1). At (18/1), I’m staying far away.

GONZAGA (18/1) is interesting given who they landed in the grad transfer market, but this is not the team that I am betting on to win the first national title for the Zags. And while I love Cole Anthony, I think that NORTH CAROLINA (18/1) is too expensive for a team that will be replacing so many important pieces.

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THREE MORE FUTURES I LIKE

Maryland (40/1): This is the one team that I just cannot wrap my head around. Personally, I think that Maryland is a team that will deservedly end up being a top ten team in the preseason. They have an all-league point guard in Anthony Cowan and a big man in Jalen Smith that surprisingly returned for his sophomore season. Beyond that, they are loaded with capable role players on the wing – Eric Ayala, Darryl Morsell, Aaron Wiggins, Serrel Smith – and have a sneaky-good sophomore big in Ricky Lindo. There are going to be some deserved questions about their youth, and I understand anyone that is against betting on a team coached by Mark Turgeon, but (40/1) is absolutely nuts. I think they should be priced alongside the likes of Villanova, Gonzaga and North Carolina.

Seton Hall (50/1): Legal Sportsbooks in New Jersey are not allowed to accept bets on college teams located within the state so there are no odds available for the Pirates, but there are places where you can bet on the Pirates and they are listed at (50/1). Again, this number just doesn’t make sense to me. The Pirates return everyone, including All-American Myles Powell, and look like they could end up being the best team in the Big East. It’s worth a few bucks.

Baylor (80/1): This might actually be the best Baylor team that Scott Drew has had. They are old, they are deep, they are balanced and they are a roster full of dudes with something to prove. There is a chance that this is the best team in the Big 12 not named Kansas or Texas Tech, and (80/1) is a nice price for them right now.

Utah State (150/1): I love the Aggies this year. Assuming that Neemias Queta’s injury is not too serious, they are a top 15 team in my mind. I don’t think they are winning the national title, but if I can get them at 150/1 and cash out at, say, 50/1, that is a nice little win.

THREE LONGSHOTS THAT ARE TOO CHEAP

Xavier (100/1): The Musketeers return their top four from a team that won six of their last seven Big East games a season ago. To me, they are clearly the third-best team in the conference.

Alabama (125/1): Alabama’s loaded with talented guards and wings. Kira Lewis, Herb Jones, Beetle Bolden, John Petty, their three freshmen. If we know anything about Nate, it’s that he knows how to have success with teams that have talented perimeter options. I also really like LSU (120/1) in theory, but I think there’s a non-zero chance that the Tigers end up doing something crazy like self-imposing a postseason ban to try and assuage the NCAA’s enforcement staff.

Davidson (225/1): I think VCU (125/1) is too cheap for a team that won the Atlantic 10 regular season title, reached the NCAA tournament, returns every single member of their top nine that they wanted to bring back and should get their star point guard, Marcus Evans, back to 100 percent. Davidson – who went 14-4 in the A-10 last year, returns their top six and has one of the 10-15 best backcourts in the country – is almost half the price. For me, this is strictly a bet that I will look to cash out before Selection Sunday, but both of these teams are top 25 teams in my mind.

THREE TEAMS TO FADE

Memphis (18/1): We already discussed Memphis, but for me they are easily the easiest fade of the teams in the top two tiers.

Arizona (33/1): I think Arizona is going to be good. I think they are the best team in the Pac-12. I think their recruiting class is loaded. I don’t think that this is a team that is going to be good enough to get to Sean Miller’s first Final Four, let alone win a national title. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that they have this NCAA investigation staring them in the face.

Texas (40/1): The Longhorns are priced as a top 15 team, according to Vegas. I actually think there’s a chance that they will be better than expected – and I can see them getting back to the NCAA tournament this season – but at (40/1), they have worse odds than almost half of my preseason top 25.

Love live-betting? Make sure you’re tracking three-point shooting

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By now, I think we all have probably figured out that Ken Pomeroy, the brains behind KenPom.com, is the best numbers wizard currently analyzing college hoops. If you haven’t figured out that you should be mining his site for score projections that are significantly different from Vegas betting lines, then you are missing out on an edge when it comes to winning money.

I bring this all up because of a study that Ken did last week, one that I think is quite relevant as we get ready to ramp up for another season of betting more than we can afford on college hoops. Essentially what happened is that Ken went through and tried to determine what box score stat had the biggest impact on winning, and he did this by looking at how win probabilities change for conference games that were tied at the half.

The answer is first half three-point percentage. The team that shot worse from three received a 7 percent bump in win probability relative to their opponent if they shot a lower percentage from beyond the arc in the first 20 minutes.

On the surface, this might seem a bit strange, but logically it makes perfect sense. I don’t have any data to actually back this up, but outside of a star player getting into foul trouble and having to sit for a significant amount of time, three-point shooting is the one aspect of basketball where it is the easiest to have an outlier performance, and where said outlier performance has the biggest impact on the result of a game, or a half.

Think about it like this. Let’s say that your team shoots 40 percent from three on the season and averages 10 threes per half of basketball. That means that in a given 20 minute period, we can expect your team to shoot 4-for-10 from beyond the arc. If you shoot 6-for-10 from three in the first half of a game, that is an extra six points that we cannot project for the second half. The opposite is true is you shoot 2-for-10 from three in the first half.

Now imagine that the team that shot 6-for-10 from three is playing the team that shot 2-for-10 from three and that the score is tied at the half. That’s a 12-point swing on four actions in a game that probably had around 70-75 possessions in the first half. Assuming that three-point shooting will regress to the mean – meaning that both teams return to their average of 4-for-10 shooting – the team that shot worse from three in the first half should be expected to have a better second half performance.

Logically, that all makes sense.

But it is nice for Ken to prove it to us.

And while context will be important in every situation where we use this as a way to try and make money next season, do remember that the team with a lower three-point shooting percentage was the one stat that impacted second half win probabilities the most.

So keep that in mind next season when you are live-betting games at the half.

Best Bets: Previewing the Final Four games

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No. 1 VIRGINIA vs. No. 5 AUBURN, 6:09 p.m.

  • LINE: Virginia (-5.5)
  • TOTAL: 131
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Virginia 68.75, Auburn 63.25
  • KENPOM: Virginia 70, Auburn 64

What’s fascinating about the way that this matchup is going to play out is that the things that Auburn does well are the things that Virginia’s roster is specifically built to take away.

Specifically, the transition game.

So much of what Auburn does offensively is a direct result of their ability to turn defense into offense, whether it is grabbing a defensive rebound and getting out in transition or forcing turnovers and turning those into layups. The thing about Virginia is that everything they do is specifically designed to take that away. They send two guys to the offensive glass at the most. They are one of the nation’s very best when it comes to avoiding turnovers. One of the keys for Auburn in this game is creating ways to be able to beat Virginia’s defense down the floor and score before they get set, but that is very much easier said than done.

The other part of this is that Virginia will not have to deal with finding a way to stop Chuma Okeke. Talk to coaches who have played Auburn and what they will tell you is that Bryce Brown is their most dangerous player, Jared Harper is their most important player and Okeke is their best player. He is the guy that makes it so that you get punished when you switch defensively. He is the guy that can beat up a smaller defender and pull a bigger defender away from the rim. He is one of the keys to their ability to get out in transition. Without him on the floor, it will be that much easier for Virginia to key in on Auburn’s two best players — Harper and Brown.

The great equalizer here is that Auburn loves to shoot threes and Virginia’s defensive is more or less designed to force someone into shooting threes. If you are going to beat Virginia, you are going to have to make a whole bunch of tough jumpers. That’s precisely what Purdue did when they took Virginia to overtime in the Elite Eight. And not only does Auburn like to shoot threes, but they can make a lot of them on any given night. Danjel Purifoy hit four in a row in the second half against North Carolina. Bryce Brown is capable of reeling off six or seven threes in a half. Jared Harper can get it going from deep. J’Von McCormick and Malik Dunbar can make threes.

Auburn is really, really dangerous, and the thing that they do best is the thing that Virginia’s defense is designed to give up. Put another way, Tony Bennett can live with his opponents taking contested jumpers, but Auburn is good enough that they can beat just about anyone with contested jumpers.

PICK: I lean towards Virginia here, but I think I like the over more than either side.

No. 2 MICHIGAN STATE vs. No. 3 TEXAS TECH, 8:49 p.m.

  • LINE: Michigan State (-2.5)
  • TOTAL: 132.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Michigan State 67.5, Texas Tech 65
  • KENPOM: Michigan State 67, Texas Tech 66

This is another fascinating matchup of strength on strength.

There may not be an offense in the country that is better at getting a star point guard into a ball-screen. There may not be a team in the country that runs more ball-screens or has a more elaborate system of set plays to create those ball-screen actions.

Texas Tech?

Their entire premise defensively is doing what they can to take you out of what you want to do. They are going to keep your entire offense on one side of the floor if they can. They do not want to allow a ball reversal.

Where this becomes interesting is that Michigan State’s offense is exactly the kind of offense that you want to run against a defense that Texas Tech plays. They run a lot of weakside action. They reverse the ball. They have good screeners and execute their offense. This will be a fascinating battle of strength of strength.

PICK: I think Texas Tech is the side that you want to be on. I think that, picking straight up, I tend to lean slightly towards Michigan State because of their transition game. Cassius Winston is the best in the country at those hit-ahead passes, and if I was forced to pick a winner outright, I think that Michigan State’s ability to beat Texas Tech’s defense down the floor is the difference-maker.

That said, we aren’t picking outright. Texas Tech is getting 2.5 points, and if I can get 2.5 points in a game that is, more or less, a pick-em, then I’ll take the 2.5 points.

Kentucky’s PJ Washington’s status for Sweet 16 still uncertain

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PJ Washington is moving toward getting back on the floor, but if it’ll be in Kentucky’s Sweet 16 game against Houston remains to be seen.

“The doctor said pretty much some good things. So I’m happy where I’m at, and I’m just trying to get better,” Washington, who is dealing with a foot injury, told reporters Thursday in Kansas City, the site of the No. 2 Wildcats’ Friday matchup with the No. 3 Cougars. “I haven’t been practicing. I haven’t put any pressure on it yet. I’ll go out there (in practice) and see what I can do.”

Kentucky had its media availability before its practice Thursday, so Washington’s participation ahead of tomorrow night remains a bit mysterious.

“I kind of stay out of these decisions. Unless the doctor tells me he can hurt himself, then he wouldn’t have a decision to make,” Kentucky coach John Calipari Said. “If this one — you ask me how will I make a decision? Probably be him. If he goes in and he’s 80 percent, then I won’t play him. If he goes in, he plays well and he says “sub me,” I’ll sub him. I’m ready to go. I’ll put him back in.”

Washington, who played in the SEC tournament but has missed both of Kentucky’s NCAA tournament games with the injury, is likely looking at a simple pain-management issue against Houston.

“Greatest thing for him is the doc said that you can’t hurt yourself. And if that were the case, I wouldn’t let him play,” Calipari said. “Doc said, ‘You’re going to be in pain after the game if you do play, but you know how much pain can you deal with.’
“He wants to play. Now, it’s can he play? We don’t know. If anybody is guessing, you know, we just don’t know yet.”

Washington is averaging 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds per game while shooting 51.5 percent from the floor.

“Because he hadn’t played for a couple weeks, people may forget how good he is,” Calipari said. “He’s an All American.”

What Are The Odds? Perfect bracket makes doctor a celebrity

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — He’s changed his Twitter name to Gregg “Perfect Bracket” Nigl.

The 40-year-old neuropsychologist from Ohio has become an overnight celebrity and is just 15 picks away from making that nickname impossibly right.

He’s the only person among tens of millions to fill out NCAA Tournament brackets on major online platforms to pick every game correctly through the first two rounds. That’s 48-0 (a life-changing parlay, for any sucker willing to play it).

“My phone did not stop ringing,” said Nigl, who lives in Columbus but happened to be vacationing in Vermont when the news broke. “I had to delete old voicemail messages because my voice mailbox got full, so many texts, tons and tons of Facebook friend requests. It was wild.”

Nigl (pronounced NIGH-gull) did a Skype interview with Al Roker of the “Today” show, went into a TV studio in Burlington to sit for a CNN interview and chatted with a bunch of other reporters. Buick got in touch and wants to fly him and his 9-year-old son Kaiden to California to see their beloved Michigan Wolverines play Texas Tech in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night.

As a prognosticator, he’s attained sudden and huge respect. But here’s the truth:

Nigl woke up with a terrible head cold last Thursday and nearly blew off filling out this particular bracket. He already was in three other tournament pools with friends and had another invitation.

“I took cold medicine and I was laying there, and I already called into work (sick),” he said. “I was about to go back to bed, and I was like, I’ll just do it real quick on my phone. I came so close to saying just forget it.”

He spent all of about three minutes making the picks.

There were some educated choices, some random, some favorite teams. He grew up a Michigan fan in Saginaw; his wife’s family follows Michigan State. He picked Oregon because he loves to visit there. UC Irvine was a pick because he knows someone one who works at that university.

The bracket was such an afterthought, Nigl wasn’t even checking it. He didn’t know it was perfect until someone from NCAA.com tracked him down Monday after calling his office.

Picking the first 48 winners correctly is ridiculous. The odds of picking a perfect bracket to the end are infinitesimal .

That said, Nigl needs 15 more games to run the table. Piece of cake, right? Here are his picks to get there:

— Elite Eight: Duke, Michigan State, Virginia, Tennessee, Gonzaga, Michigan, North Carolina and Kentucky.

— Final Four: Duke, Gonzaga, Virginia and Kentucky.

— Final: Gonzaga and Kentucky.

— Champion: Gonzaga.

His first three brackets are looking good, too.

“I’m doing pretty well with the other ones,” he noted. “I’m in first place in two of them.”