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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.”

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

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7:09 p.m.: No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 4 Florida State, CBS

  • LINE: Florida State (-7.5)
  • TOTAL: 146.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Gonzaga 77, Florida State 69.5
  • KENPOM: Gonzaga 79, Florida State 72

If this matchup sounds familiar, it should.

Last season, in this same regional and same round, No. 9 seed Florida State, fresh off of an upset win over No. 1 seed Xavier in the second round, picked off No. 4 seed Gonzaga to advance to the Elite 8. It is a bit head-scratching that the same two programs are facing off again, but here we are.

There is a lot about the particulars of this matchup that are fascinating. How does Mfiondu Kabengele matchup with Gonzaga’s super athletic frontcourt? Who on Gonzaga is going to guard Terance Mann? Just how healthy is Killian Tillie, and what kind of impact will he have after missing last year’s Sweet 16 game? Can Gonzaga’s guards hold their own defensively against the bigger backcourt of Florida State?

We dove into a lot of that in the podcast below, but for my money, this game is going to hinge on just how well Josh Perkins is going to be able to handle the pressure that is assuredly going to be coming his way. Florida State’s going to pressure him. They are going to throw waves of big, athletic wings at him. Assuming that David Nichols does not play, their smallest rotation player will be 6-foot-5 Trent Forrest.

This is what Perkins struggles with, and when Perkins struggles, it impacts everything that Gonzaga does offensively because so much of what they want to do is created by Perkins’ ability in transition and the way he operates ball-screens.

PICK: This is one of the worst matchups that Gonzaga could have seen in the Sweet 16 given Florida State’s ability, and willingness, to switch everything 1-through-5. I do think that Tillie being healthy is going to help Perkins, but I think there is a very real chance that he has another game similar to the dud he posted against Saint Mary’s in the WCC tournament.

So I love Florida State (+7.5) here. I actually have Florida State winning in my bracket, and I would be willing to bet on the Seminoles money line (+255) if it continues in the direction it has been trending.

(Harry How/Getty Images)

7:29 p.m.: No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 3 Purdue, TBS

  • LINE: Tennessee (-2)
  • TOTAL: 146.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Tennessee 74.25, Purdue 72.25
  • KENPOM: Purdue 75, Tennessee 74

The tough part about figuring out where to bet this line is figuring out how each team is going to play.

What I mean by that is that Tennessee has a habit of being wildly inconsistent, particularly defensively, from game-to-game and even half-to-half. They were absolutely torched by Auburn in the SEC tournament title game. They were dominant in the first half against both Colgate and Iowa in the NCAA tournament before blowing big leads in the second half of both games. The Vols were No. 6 is defensive efficiency last season, and they are 37th this season despite essentially having the same roster. There’s no rhyme or reason to it beyond the simple fact that sometimes they become complacent and decide they don’t want to guard.

Purdue is a fascinating team offensively. They finished fifth nationally and second in the Big Ten in offensive efficiency despite the fact that Carsen Edwards, who has a higher usage rate than all but nine players in the sport, shot 34 percent from the floor and 30 percent from three in conference play. Put another way, Purdue was unbelievably efficient offensively despite the fact that their resident gunner was super-inefficient.

That’s why, on a night where Edwards hits nine threes and scores 42 points, Purdue can do things like take a 59-24 lead on Villanova.

PICK: And for that reason, I just have no desire to bet any money on the line itself in this game.

I do, however, really like the over here. Both of these teams are more than willing to run. Both of them are top five nationally is offensive efficiency. Both of them rank outside the top 25 in defensive efficiency. But the biggest reason I think the over hits is that the things these teams do well are weaknesses in the other team.

For example: Purdue is a really good offensive rebounding team, especially when Trevion Williams plays big minutes. Tennessee struggles on the defensive glass. Purdue gets 39 percent of their points off of three-pointers (25th nationally) and Tennessee gets lit up from beyond the arc. Tennessee absolutely pounds people in the paint, and the Boilermakers don’t have an obvious matchup for Grant Williams or Admiral Schofield.

I just don’t think there will be all that many stops in a game that I think will be played at a pretty good pace.

The over is the bet for me.

(Harry How/Getty Images)

9:39 p.m.: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 Texas Tech, CBS

  • LINE: Michigan (-1.5)
  • TOTAL: 126.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Michigan 64, Texas Tech 62.5
  • KENPOM: Michigan 62, Texas Tech 61

If you like tough, physical, defensive-minded basketball, then this is the game for you.

Texas Tech is the No. 1 defense in the country, according to KenPom. Michigan is the No. 2 defense in the country. There are elite defensive players up and down the roster for both of these teams, where ‘toughness’ has become a trademark for both of these programs.

Put another way, this is going to be a fistfight.

PICK: Frankly, I don’t love either side of the line here because I really do think this is going to end up being a one possession game throughout. I really don’t want to bet against John Beilein in a game where the ability of a coach to scheme two or three extra baskets could be the difference between a win and a loss, but I also don’t want to bet against Chris Beard’s program in a game that I think will be determined by who is tougher.

There’s more.

Michigan’s two-best on-ball defenders — Charles Matthews and Zavier Simpson — will be able to matchup with Texas Tech’s two-best creators offensively — Jarrett Culver and Matt Mooney. Texas Tech’s defense is going to be able to take away the ball-screen action featuring Simpson and Jon Teske thanks to the defensive versatility of Tariq Owens, and the Red Raiders will be able to play smaller, which lets them matchup with Iggy Brazdeikis.

I just don’t know if I can see a way that either of these teams are going to be able to create all that much offense.

Which is why I love the under here.

(AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

9:59 p.m.: No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 12 Oregon, TBS

  • LINE: Virginia (-8.5)
  • TOTAL: 118.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Virginia 63.5, Oregon 55
  • KENPOM: Virginia 64, Oregon 54

On the one hand, this looks, on paper, like Virginia caught a break, drawing the only team seeded outside the top five to get to the Sweet 16. I’m not quite sure that’s necessarily true, because I don’t know that there has been a hotter team in the country over the course of the last month than Oregon.

As far as this matchup is concerned, I’m a bit torn.

Oregon has been playing a matchup zone down the stretch of the season, one that dares opponents to shoot contested threes thanks to the amount of length and athleticism that Oregon has in their frontcourt, but I’m not sure this is a good thing against Virginia. Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and Deandre Hunter are elite three-point shooters, and the last time we saw them play against a zone that tried to do this, the Wahoos shot 17-for-23 from three in a 79-53 win at Syracuse.

I also wonder about this matchup. Oregon, on paper, looks a bit like the teams that have beaten Virginia this year — Duke and Florida State — because of that athleticism and versatility. But it is definitely a poor man’s version, and the thing about Virginia this year is that they can matchup with teams like that with Hunter and Brandon Key in their program. And it’s probably worth nothing that, the first time they played, Virginia was up 65-36 on the Seminoles.

PICK: I’m somewhat hesitant to bet against Oregon because I just don’t know how good they truly are right now, but I do think that the Virginia side of this line makes more sense. That said, I like this over in this game a bit more than Virginia (-8.5), mostly because I think that Virginia can get it rolling, and Oregon has proven they have a knack for big second halves.

Kentucky unsure of PJ Washington’s status for Sweet 16

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Kentucky was able to get through the first weekend of the NCAA tournament and into the Sweet 16 without PJ Washington. It’s unclear if the Wildcats will have to try to get out of the second weekend and into the Final Four without him as well.

Washington, who has been sidelined with a foot injury, is questionable for the No. 2 Wildcats’ game Friday against No. 3 Houston in Kansas City with an Elite Eight berth at stake.

“We don’t know if PJ is going to play this weekend yet,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said on his weekly radio show while adding that Washington will shed his cast Tuesday.

The 6-foot-8 sophomore played through the SEC tournament, but did not suit up for either of the Wildcats’ tournament games against Abilene Christian and Wofford. Fifth-year senior Reid Travis was instrumental in Kentucky’s second-round win against Wofford, going for 14 points and 11 rebounds, but without Washington the Wildcats will be devoid of the player that has become much of a focal point of the offense against a Houston team that opened the season 15-0.

For any fans concerned that Washington, Kentucky’s leading scorer and rebounder, might be exceedingly cautious in his return to preserve his NBA draft status – a borderline lottery pick – his father had some strong words Monday.

“Where were these same people when he played from January to March last year with a broken finger?” Paul Washington told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “Where were these people saying he wasn’t tough? He laid his health on the line then.

” PJ will play when his body says he can play.”

Best Bets: The Bettor’s Guide to Sunday’s NCAA tournament games

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12:10 p.m.: No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 10 Iowa, CBS

  • LINE: Tennessee (-8)
  • TOTAL: 156.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Tennessee 82.25, Iowa 74.25
  • KENPOM: Tennessee 83, Iowa 76

I love Tennessee this year and I think Iowa is not really all that good this year, so I’m always going to be on the Tennessee side here. But this is the kicker for me: We’ve talked all season long about how Tennessee is unique in the sense that they are one of the nation’s elite offenses from an efficiency perspective despite the fact that they get just 25.6 percent of their points from beyond the arc.

What they do, however, is get 55.8 percent of their points on two point field goals (20th nationally) and shooting 55.7 percent from two point range (19th nationally). Iowa is one of the worst teams in the country in terms of defending two-point shots. That’s all I need to know.

PICK: Tennessee (-8)

2:40 p.m.: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 9 Washington, CBS

  • LINE: North Carolina (-11.5)
  • TOTAL: 147.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: North Carolina 79.5, Washington 68
  • KENPOM: North Carolina 78, Washington 68

I really like North Carolina to cover here because I don’t going zone against the Tar Heels is necessarily ideal. One of the tenets of UNC’s offense is that they pound the offensive glass. We all know how difficult it is to rebound out of a 2-3 zone, and Washington is particularly bad at it — 345th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage.

The other part of this is that North Carolina has not been all that turnover prone this year, and one of the ways that Washington generates offense is with their defense. Pick-six buckets off live-ball turnovers, blocked shots leading run outs, all of the things that Syracuse thrives on. It’s worth noting that the Tar Heels beat the Orange, 93-85, the one time they played this season.

PICK: As impressive as Washington was in the first round, I do think that UNC’s familiarity with the zone that Washington plays will play a factor. Part of the reason that Jim Boeheim made the zone his staple is because it makes his opponents uncomfortable. I don’t see that happening with UNC — according to Synergy, they are actually more efficient playing against a zone than against man — and that’s to say nothing of the fact that their transition game will help reduce the number of possessions they have to face the zone.

5:15 p.m.: No. 1 Duke vs. No. 9 UCF, CBS

  • LINE: Duke (-13.5)
  • TOTAL: 143.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Duke 78.5, UCF 65
  • KENPOM: Duke 77, UCF 66

UCF has not been quite as good defensively this season as they were last season, but this is still a team and a program that is anchored by the way that they can defend. Their strength on that end of the floor is funneling players into the paint where they have one of the world’s 40 tallest human beings — 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall — patrolling. We all know the scouting report on Duke at this point. The Blue Devils attack the rim relentlessly because they are one of the worst shooting teams in college basketball, and I think that UCF will be able to control tempo and muck it up in the paint enough to keep Duke from running away with this thing.

PICK: I think UCF (+13.5) is the play, and I also think that the under here is mildly interesting, the concern that I have is with Duke’s transition game. UCF is hardly Virginia when it comes to protecting the ball and avoiding turnovers, but B.J. Taylor has been pretty effective at protecting the ball this season.

6:10 p.m.: No. 3 Texas Tech vs. No. 6 Buffalo, TNT

  • LINE: Texas Tech (-3.5)
  • TOTAL: 146
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Texas Tech 75.25, Buffalo 71.75
  • KENPOM: Texas Tech 74, Buffalo 70

I honestly don’t have a great feel for this game because I think these teams are just so similar. They both rely on toughness. They both play terrific, physical perimeter defense. They both force a ton of turnovers.

PICK: I’m probably going to stay away, but I will say this: I would never, ever bet on someone out-toughing a Chris Beard team. So if you’re going to make me bet, I’ll take the Red Raiders.

7:10 p.m.: No. 4 Virginia Tech vs. No. 12 Liberty, TBS

  • LINE: Virginia Tech (-9)
  • TOTAL: 125.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Virginia Tech 67.25, Liberty 58.25
  • KENPOM: Virginia Tech 68, Liberty 60

Liberty’s head coach, Ritchie McKay, is a Tony Bennett disciple, and what that means is that he runs the Pack-Line, he controls tempo as much as possible and his teams played a slowed down brand of basketball. The evidence? They are 349th nationally in tempo.

Virginia Tech is no different this season. While they have put up some pretty big scoring and shooting numbers this year, this is a group that ranks outside the top 300 in pace, in average possession length on the offensive end of the floor and average possession length on the defensive end of the floor.

PICK: I like the Liberty side, as nine points is a lot of points in what will assuredly be a low-scoring game. The under is also an interesting bet here. This is going to be a 60 possession basketball game, and I think that these two defenses are good enough to keep the game in the high 50s or low 60s.

7:45 p.m.: No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 9 Oklahoma, TruTV

  • LINE: Virginia (-11.5)
  • TOTAL: 127.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Virginia 69.5, Oklahoma 58
  • KENPOM: Virginia 70, Oklahoma 59

The question that you need to ask yourself here is whether or not you think that Virginia shook off their NCAA tournament demons in the first round, because on paper, this is just an atrocious matchup for the Sooners. Oklahoma is not a team that gets much of their offense from beyond the arc, and making perimeter jumpers over the Pack-Line is the way that you typically have to play to beat the Wahoos.

The one thing I will say is this: Oklahoma does have some bigger guards, and Lon Kruger runs them off of a lot of flex cuts and inverts his offense with his guards posting up. This could be exploitable, especially when Tony Bennett runs out lineups that have both Kihei Clark and Kyle Guy on the floor.

PICK: I tend to lean towards Virginia here. Oklahoma has played well of late, but I just don’t think that they have enough answers for Virginia.

8:40 p.m.: No. 3 Houston vs. No. 11 Ohio State, TNT

  • LINE: Houston (-6)
  • TOTAL: 131
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Houston 68.5, Ohio State 62.5
  • KENPOM: Houston 68, Ohio State 62

I think this is where the Ohio State run comes to an end, and it’s because I think that the Cougars will be able to overwhelm Ohio State on the defensive end of the floor. Houston leads the nation in defensive effective field goal percentage. Most importantly there is the fact that they double the post and do everything they can to keep bigs from beating them, which is bad news for an Ohio State team that runs their stuff through Kaleb Wesson.

PICK: There is a part of me that wants to stay away from this game. I have the utmost respect for Chris Holtmann as a coach. He’s proven over and over again that he can get more out of a group of kids than just about anyone, and I fully expect the Buckeyes to be prepared for this game. If I had to bet, I’ll take Houston, but I don’t love it.

9:40 p.m.: No. 12 Oregon vs. No. 13 UC Irvine, TBS

  • LINE: Oregon (-5.5)
  • TOTAL: 122.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Oregon 64, UC Irvine 58.5
  • KENPOM: Oregon 64, UC Irvine 60

Like Liberty-Virginia Tech, this game is going to be slow, physical and low-scoring. And like Liberty, Irvine is legitimately good enough to beat another power conference team. I’ve also reached the point where I am fully bought in on this Oregon team being a legitimate top 25 caliber team. They’ve won nine straight games, and seven of those nine have come on the road or on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Washington twice — both away from home — and smacked around Wisconsin on a neutral court.

The other part of this is that Oregon is a tougher matchup for Irvine than Kansas State was without Dean Wade. The Ducks have more shooters, their wings are bigger and more capable than Kansas State’s were and they don’t rely on scoring inside the arc the way that the Wildcats did.

PICK: It will be interesting to see where the total moves here. 122.5 is a really low number, and based on what’s happened with some other games with low totals, I would not be surprised to see it drop. If this gets under 120, I think I like the over.

I also think that Oregon (-5.5) is the bet here. I have the utmost respect for Russell Turner and the job that he has done with the Anteaters, but Dana Altman has this Oregon team playing their best basketball at the right time.