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No. 13-seed UC Irvine pulls off upset of No. 4-seed Kansas State

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And the Anteaters go marching on.

Max Hazzard hit five threes, including a critical three with less than two minutes left on the clock to give UC Irvine a five-point lead, and scored 19 points to lead the No. 13-seed to the first real upset of the NCAA tournament.

Evan Leonard added 19 points, six boards, four assists and four steals, making four free throws to ice the game in the final 20 seconds, as No. 4-seed Kansas State went down, 70-64.

Kansas State entered this game as the co-Big 12 champion, but they were playing without their star, Dean Wade, who is dealing with foot issues that cost him the Big 12 tournament as well. His absence hurt. He is the best shooter, the best passer and the best player for the Wildcats, and his absence contributed to Kansas State’s 38.6 percent shooting now and an 8-for-27 performance from three.

But that should not take any of the credit away from Irvine. Remember, Kansas State reached the Elite 8 last season with Wade playing.

The credit belongs to Russell Turner, his game plan and the way his team executed it. Turner is a former Standford assistant that had a shot at getting the Cal job when the Bears hired Wyking Jones. He’s won four of the last six Big West regular season titles and advanced to the NCAA tournament twice in his five year tenure. This is the kind of performance that will make him an in-demand coach during the carousel this season, and he should have been all along.

But that’s neither here nor there.

The truth is that this Irvine team is really, really good. They take away the paint, they are as good defensively as any high-major that you’ll find and they have the size to match up with anyone. They are going to be a tough out for whoever wins tonight’s Wisconsin-Oregon first round battle.

Jarrett Culver’s big game leads No. 3 Texas Tech past No. 14 Northern Kentucky

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All-American Jarrett Culver had a monster outing as No. 3 seed Texas Tech cruised to a 72-57 win over No. 14 seed Northern Kentucky during a Friday afternoon NCAA tournament first-round game in the West Region.

Finishing with 29 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, Culver was efficient and dominant for the Red Raiders as they opened up the game in the second half. Only a 30-26 lead for Texas Tech at the break, the Red Raiders clamped down and used the offense of Culver and it’s No. 1 overall defense to break the game open.

The Big 12 Player of the Year had one of the best individual games of any player in the first round as he was 10-for-17 from the floor and 3-for-5 from three-point range. Big man Tariq Owens also finished in double-figures for Texas Tech with 12 points while Davide Moretti added 10 points.

Northern Kentucky (26-9) stayed in the game for a half thanks to the hot shooting of junior guard Tyler Sharpe as he finished with 23 points on 8-for-13 shooting. The Norse couldn’t generate much consistent offense outside of Sharpe, however, as Northern Kentucky shot 5-for-21 from the three-point line. Horizon League Player of the Year Drew McDonald was held to only five points on 2-for-12 shooting as he struggled to get going. Dantez Wilson (11 points) was the only other double-figure scorer for the Norse.

The Red Raiders advance to face either No. 6 seed Buffalo or No. 11 seed Arizona State in Tulsa on Sunday.

Oklahoma advances past Ole Miss in rout

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Rashard Odomes and Christian James both popped off for 20 points and Kristian Doolittle added 19 points, 14 boards and five assists as No. 9-seed Oklahoma blew out No. 8-seed Ole Miss, 95-72, in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The Sooners, with the win, will advance to face No. 1-seed Virginia as long as Virginia can get past Gardner-Webb in the first round.

This was something of a cathartic win for an Oklahoma team that was among the handful of at-large invites that had thoroughly mediocre performances in league play. The Sooners opened the Big 12 season with eight losses in their first 11 games and finished with a 7-11 record in the conference.

One game samples really should not determine whether or not a body of work merited inclusion in an event like that, but it’s hard to see the performance that this team — and the Big 12 as a whole — put together thus far in the event and think the committee was wrong to add a sub-.500 team from the Big 12 to the field.

It’s also a sign for what this Oklahoma program is and can be under Lon Kruger.

It’s difficult to compare things like this year over year, but it is certainly interesting to note than not only did Oklahoma get a better seed this year than they did last year, with Trae Young on the roster, but they advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, which is something they did not do with Trae.

That’s not to say that the team is better without him — frankly, I think that’s a silly argument to make. Guys are a year older and a year better, which matters, and I think that the 7-11 mark in Big 12 play says more than the result of a one-game knockout tournament.

It is, however, important to note that Kruger has this thing to the point that they can lose a guy that is now averaging 18.5 points and 7.8 assists in the NBA and still be good enough to get a bid and win a game.

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

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12:10 p.m.: No. 3 LSU vs. No. 6 Maryland, CBS

  • LINE: LSU (-2)
  • TOTAL: 147
  • IMPLIED SCORE: LSU 74.5, Maryland 72.5
  • KENPOM: LSU 74, Maryland 73

If you love watching soon-to-be NBA big men do battle in the paint, this is the matchup for you. Naz Reid, Kavell Bigby-Williams and Emmitt Williams facing off with Bruno Fernando, Jalen Smith and Ricky Lindo. Buckle up!

I think I lean towards the Maryland side here. The Terps have the size and athleticism on the wings to be able to handle Skylar Mays and Javonte Smart, their big men should be able to keep LSU’s frontcourt in check and Tremont Waters is a pest, I do think Anthony Cowan will be able to avoid the live-ball turnovers that are killers.

PICK: This is a toss-up and a fascinating matchup between two teams with very similar roster constructions. That said, my money here will be on Mark Turgeon, who isn’t exactly the best coach in the world but who should be able to find a way to get it done against Tony Benford, LSU’s interim head coach. This is where it’s worth nothing that LSU blew a big lead in the second half against Florida in the SEC tournament quarterfinals before nearly blowing a bigger lead to Yale in the first round. Thats the difference-maker for me.

2:40 p.m.: No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 7 Wofford, CBS

  • LINE: Kentucky (-5.5)
  • TOTAL: 138.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Kentucky 72, Wofford 66.5
  • KENPOM: Kentucky 72, Wofford 68

P.J. Washington will not be playing in this one, which is a problem for the Wildcats if this is a longterm injury but not necessarily one that I think will cost them against Wofford. The key here is going to be Kentucky’s ability to chase Wofford’s shooters around screens and how well they deal with Cameron Jackson in the paint. I think that Tyler Herro, Ashton Hagans and Keldon Johnson will be able to keep Fletcher Magee, Storm Murphy and Nathan Hoover from going absolutely bonkers. Jackson is not all that dissimilar from Grant Williams in terms of the way he does his job, and Travis did a good job keeping Williams in check when they played.

PICK: I do like the Kentucky side here, although I don’t feel great about it. We’ll see if that line continues to climb, and maybe that would change things.

5:15 p.m.: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 10 Florida, CBS

  • LINE: Michigan (-7)
  • TOTAL: 120
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Michigan 63.5, Florida 56.5
  • KENPOM: Michigan 63, Florida 56

I fully expect this to end up being one of the ugliest games of the tournament. Both teams have top 15 defenses, and Florida has guys that can guard the likes of Jordan Poole and Ignas Brazdeikis. I think this game plays out as a possession-by-possession battle played in the 50s that ends up being a one or two possession game in the final minute.

PICK: I don’t know if Florida will win this game, but seven points is a lot of points in a game that should be as slow and low-scoring as this game will be.

6:10 p.m.: No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 12 Murray State, TNT

  • LINE: Florida State (-5)
  • TOTAL: 143
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Florida State 74, Murray State 69
  • KENPOM: Florida State 74, Murray State 69

This is so tough. On the one hand, Florida State should have the bodies to be able to keep Ja Morant in check. They have a roster full of length and athleticism on the perimeter and they are a top 15 defense nationally. They are going to do a lot of switching, but that shouldn’t matter as Leonard Hamilton has built a team that is designed to defend like that. The matchup, to me, screams Florida State, especially at just (-5).

But my heart?

My heart says that Ja Morant is about to go on a Stephen Curry-esque run. He’s going to be an NBA superstar, and while we saw what he can do as a creator on Thursday, we have not yet seen just how dangerous he can be as a scorer. I want the Ja Morant ride to last.

PICK: My head says Florida State (-5). My heart says go along for the Racer ride. So I’ll probably just take the over.

7:10 p.m.: No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 9 Baylor, TBS

  • LINE: Gonzaga (-12.5)
  • TOTAL: 148
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Gonzaga 80.25, Baylor 67.75
  • KENPOM: Gonzaga 81, Baylor 69

I think Killian Tillie is the important piece in this matchup. He’s such a good shooter, an underrated passer and the piece that should allow Gonzaga’s offense to get unclogged against this Baylor zone. In three games back since returning from his second foot injury of the season, he’s averaging 10.3 points in just 15 minutes per game, shooting 6-for-7 from three and 80 percent from the floor.

PICK: The Bears getting 12.5 points is a lot of points for a team that is going to be able to get only the offensive glass. The biggest issue for Baylor this year is that they turn the ball over like crazy, and Gonzaga has not been all that good at forcing turnovers this season. I think I lean Gonzaga, but I won’t bet it myself unless the line moves towards the Zags.

7:45 p.m.: No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 10 Minnesota, CBS

  • LINE: Michigan State (-10)
  • TOTAL: 141.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Michigan State 75.75, Minnesota 65.75
  • KENPOM: Michigan State 77, Minnesota 67

Minnesota was not great this season. They are playing a wing at the point guard spot because Isaiah Washington has been a mess. They only go five deep at this point, and they were able to run over Louisville because the one guy that can make threes on their roster made a bunch of threes.

Michigan State beat Minnesota by 24 points the one time that they played this season, but they are a team that relies almost entirely on Cassius Winston running ball-screens, and Minnesota has been pretty good defending ball-screens this season.

PICK: With the spread at (-10), I think I would lean towards taking Minnesota. That’s a lot of points. But I think my favorite bet in this game is actually the under. Michigan State looked gassed in the first round after playing three games in three days during their run to the Big Ten tournament title. Minnesota is basically running out a five-man rotation these days. Legs will catch up with them eventually.

8:40 p.m.: No. 3 Purdue vs. No. 6 Villanova, TNT

  • LINE: Purdue (-3.5)
  • TOTAL: 137
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Purdue 70.25, Villanova 66.75
  • KENPOM: Purdue 72, Villanova 67

This is my favorite bet of the Saturday slate. The defense that Villanova runs is pretty simple: They switch everything, 1-through-5, because it forces you out of the offense that you want to run. They dare teams to beat them 1-on-1, betting that their players are good enough to defend a cross-match regardless of opponent.

The problem for Purdue here is that, like Saint Mary’s, so much of what they get offensively comes out of the sets and actions they run. Put another way, Matt Painter doesn’t have all that many guys on his roster that can efficiently create for themselves in isolation. That includes Carsen Edwards, who is a tough-shot taker but, in the last month, has not exactly been a tough-shot maker.

The other part of this that makes me lean towards Villanova is that Villanova shoots more than 53 percent of their field goal attempts from three, and Purdue has not made running teams off the three-point line a priority this year.

PICK: If you are going to give me the defending national champs plus the points, I’ll take it. Villanova, if you’re tracking at home, has won 24 straight neutral court games. They win in knockout settings.

9:40 p.m.: No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 5 Auburn, TBS

  • LINE: PK
  • TOTAL: 147.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Kansas 73.75, Auburn 73.75
  • KENPOM: Auburn 75, Kansas 74

This is tough because Auburn is just so up-and-down while Kansas has looked downright bad for the last month until they faced Northeastern and suddenly turned into Kansas again.

What Auburn wants to do is to is to turn defense into offense. They are going to gamble — for steals, for blocks, for leak-outs — and look to get quick threes in transition once they get possession. For 33 minutes, it worked against New Mexico State. Twice in the last two weeks it worked for 40 minutes against Tennessee. Kansas has been turnover prone this season, particularly their ball-handlers, but they have cleaned that up in recent weeks. Devon Dotson, for example, had a turnover rate higher than 20 percent entering the Big 12 tournament and has committed just three turnovers in the last four games.

PICK: The matchup is going to get won based on how well Kansas protects the ball and how well they defend in transition — they finished the year in the 51st percentile nationally. It’s worth nothing that the Jayhawks struggled with West Virginia once this season but handled them easily on two different occasions in the last three weeks.

I think I will probably stay away, personally, but when it comes down to it, I think Auburn is the better team with the better players.

Thursday Recap: Ja Morant goes off, Nevada dies off, Fletcher’s record

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PLAYER OF THE DAY: Ja Morant, Murray State

Ja Morant was so good against No. 5-seed Marquette on Thursday afternoon that he has really smart people seriously saying they would take him over Zion Williamson at No. 1 in the draft in June. That, of course, is an overreaction by those who probably have not seen Morant before, but it’s not entirely unwarranted.

That’s because the 6-foot-3 Morant put up one of the most dominant performances that I can remember in the NCAA tournament, scoring 17 points on just nine shots while handing out 16 assists, grabbing 11 boards and doing this to Joey Hauser:

The Racers beat the second-best team in the Big East, 83-64, in a game that was never close in the second half.

TEAM OF THE DAY: Kansas Jayhawks

Kansas was one of the trendy upset picks entering Thursday afternoon, playing a Northeastern team that won the CAA and had been dubbed by many — including me — as the Cinderella du jour.

Kansas, of course, won by 34 points.

GAME OF THE DAY: Maryland 79, Belmont 77

Dylan Windler had 35 points to lead Belmont but Jalen Smith and Bruno Fernando combined for 33 points and 25 boards as Maryland launched two different comebacks to knock off the Bruins.

The highlight, of course, was The Deadening:

ONIONS OF THE DAY: Fletcher Magee, Wofford

Magee hit seven threes, scored 24 points and set the NCAA Division I career record for the most three pointers made.

All that is great, but what matters more is that the Terriers knocked off Seton Hall in the first round of the NCAA tournament. This was the biggest shot of the day:

WTF OF THE DAY: Auburn 78, New Mexico State 77

I don’t think either of these teams wanted to win this game.

Auburn did everything they wanted to do for 34 minutes. They forced turnovers, they created offense from their defense, they hit threes, they played with a ton of energy. They were up 13 points with seven minutes left … when they forgot how to pass. Six turnovers and a few missed free throws down the stretch allowed NMSU right back in the game, setting up a wild final possession.

NMSU was down two, drove the lane, passed up a wide-open layup for a three, got fouled on said three, missed two of the three free throws, got the ball back out of bounds with 1.1 seconds left down by two points, got a good look at a three from the corner and missed it by ten feet.

It was a roller coaster.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Minnesota Golden Gophers

I did not think that Minnesota was all that good heading into the tournament, so of course, they went out and smacked around Louisville in the first round.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Nevada Wolf Pack

Nevada finished the season 29-4. Were they the most disappointing 29-4 team ever? My column.

THREE MORE THINGS TO KNOW

1. PHIL COFER’S DAD DIED

Phil Cofer found out after Florida State’s win over Vermont that his father had died. Cofer did not play in the game due to an injury, and the death was not necessarily a surprise — his father had dealt with a “long illness” — but that is still a nightmare situation.

2. NO P.J.

Kentucky’s star forward P.J. Washington did not play in the team’s win over Abilene Christian on Thursday evening. He was wearing a hardcast on his right foot/ankle. Calipari’s statements after the game made it seem awfully unlikely that Washington will play on Saturday, which then puts his status for the rest of the tournament in doubt.

3. WILL WADE ISN’T TELLING THE TRUTH

LSU athletic director Joe Alleva spoke to Stadium in Jacksonville, and he made it clear that he was not happy with the way that Wade had handled the situation.

“I don’t know how deep this goes,” Alleva told Stadium. “That’s the problem, and Will’s refused to talk to us. That’s the hardest part for me. … I wish he’d come in and just tell the truth. Just tell me what went on. I can handle the truth even if it’s bad.”

Wade has been suspended from the LSU team after a report from Yahoo Sports that he was caught on a wiretap discussing a payment for freshman Javonte Smart.

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

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At noon 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.

12:15 p.m.: No. 7 CINCINNATI vs. No. 10 IOWA, CBS

  • LINE: Cincinnati (-3)
  • TOTAL: 137.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Cincinnati 70.25, Iowa 67.25
  • KENPOM: Cincinnati 71, Iowa 70

My analysis of this game really isn’t that complicated: I do not think that Iowa is a very good or very tough basketball team. I think that Cincinnati is a pretty good basketball team that beat the hell out of Houston in the AAC title game and that is, definitively, as tough as a three dollar steak.

PICK: Give me the Bearcats.

12:40 p.m.: No. 8 OLE MISS vs. No. 9 OKLAHOMA, TruTV

  • LINE: Ole Miss (-1)
  • TOTAL: 142
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Ole Miss 71.5, Oklahoma 70.5
  • KENPOM: Oklahoma 72, Ole Miss 71

I don’t trust Oklahoma this year. That’s really what this comes down to. The Sooners went 7-11 in Big 12 play and all of the impressive wins they picked up in the non-conference look significantly less impressive now than they did at the time. Ole Miss isn’t exactly full of world-beaters, but I do think that Breein Tyree and Terence Davis are dudes.

PICK: I want to invest my money on the side that has the guards that are game-changers. If I bet this, it will be with Ole Miss.

1:30 p.m.: No. 3 TEXAS TECH vs. No. 14 NORTHERN KENTUCKY, TNT

  • LINE: Texas Tech (-14)
  • TOTAL: 136.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Texas Tech 75.25, Northern Kentucky 61.25
  • KENPOM: Texas Tech 74, Northern Kentucky 61

On the surface, I love Texas Tech here simply because I think that the Red Raiders are closer to being one of the five or six best teams in college basketball than a No. 3 seed. The problem is that the way the Red Raiders defend — by icing ball-screens — is going to leave Northern Kentucky’s best player, Drew McDonald, free for pick-and-pop threes the entire afternoon.

PICK: Personally, I will likely be staying away from this line, but I do think that Texas Tech is the side that you want to be on.

2:00 p.m.:  No. 4 KANSAS STATE vs. No. 13 UC IRVINE, TBS

  • LINE: Kansas State (-4.5)
  • TOTAL: 118.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Kansas State 61.5, UC Irvine 57
  • KENPOM: Kansas State 62, UC Irvine 56

This changes if Dean Wade plays, but since he is currently listed as doubtful for this matchup, Kansas State is a team that is going to rely on penetration and the ability of their guards to get into the paint. The problem with that is that UC Irvine is a really good defensive team that actually leads the nation in defensive two-point field goal percentage. They have a couple of big uglies in the paint that can make things difficult for a Kansas State team that will be without their best shooter and one of their best passers.

Beyond just the matchup, the Anteaters are really, really good and might be underseeded as a No. 13. With the Wildcats banged up, this is a matchup that Russell Turner can get the best of.

PICK: I really like the Irvine side here, but the money line right now is just +170, so I’ll probably take the points.

2:45 p.m.: No. 2 TENNESSEE vs. No. 15 COLGATE, CBS

  • LINE: Tennessee (-17.5)
  • TOTAL: 147.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Tennessee 82.5, Colgate 65
  • KENPOM: Tennessee 83, Colgate 68

I will be staying away fro this game. As good as Tennessee is, there have been too many times the season where we have see the Vols play a team that was objectively worse than them closer than they should. I also have no desire to bet a No. 2 seed projected to scored 83 points not to cover. I’ll pass.

3:10 p.m.: No. 1 VIRGINIA vs. No. 16 GARDNER-WEBB, TruTV

  • LINE: Virginia (-22.5)
  • TOTAL: 130.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Virginia 76.5, Gardner-Webb 54
  • KENPOM: Virginia 77, Gardner-Webb 55

I think Virginia is going to come out with a point to prove. The Cavaliers have heard about how they lost to a No. 16 seed for a full year now. They are coming off of a loss to Florida State in the ACC tournament semifinals that reignited the “Can Virginia win in March?” debate. They are as talented as they have ever been under Tony Bennett, and I fully expect them to absolutely bury Gardner-Webb.

PICK: Not only will I be betting Virginia (-22.5) here, but I think that I am also going to be on the under. I think an angry Virginia team is going to hold GW under 50 points.

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4:00 p.m.: No. 6 BUFFALO vs. No. 11 ARIZONA STATE, TNT

  • LINE: Buffalo (-5)
  • TOTAL: 156
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Buffalo 80.5, Arizona State 75.5
  • KENPOM: Buffalo 82, Arizona State 75

I really like Buffalo here. The Bulls are a tough, veteran team that is going to get out and pressure Arizona State and try to force them to turn the ball over. Where the Sun Devils are inconsistent, Buffalo churned out a 30-win season that included going into West Virginia and Syracuse and getting Ws. Arizona State lost by 16 at Vanderbilt.

PICK: I’m taking the tougher team to win here even if it means betting against the more talented underdog. I just can’t see C.J. Massinburg letting the Bulls lose.

4:30 p.m.: No. 5 WISCONSIN vs. No. 12 OREGON, TBS

  • LINE: Wisconsin (-3)
  • TOTAL: 116.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Wisconsin 59.75, Oregon 56.75
  • KENPOM: Wisconsin 61, Oregon 56

There may not be a hotter team in the country right now than Oregon, who rolled through the end of the Pac-12 season before winning the Pac-12 tournament, beating Washington in impressive fashion twice in the process. The question is going to be how Wisconsin goes about breaking down the zone Oregon will run, and while I do think that Ethan Happ can really pick it apart, it is important to note that the Ducks will be running out Kenny Wooten. He is as good of a defender as there is in the paint, and I would not be surprised to see him slow Happ down.

Also worth noting: The line is this game has moved from Wisconsin (-4) to Wisconsin (-1), then it bounced back up to Wisconsin (-3).

PICK: I’ll lean Oregon here, and I’ll probably wait to see just how high this line will climb. If I can get Oregon (+4.5) I’ll be ecstatic.

6:50 p.m.: No. 8 UTAH STATE vs. No. 9 WASHINGTON, TNT

  • LINE: Utah State (-3)
  • TOTAL: 135
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Utah State 69, Washington 66
  • KENPOM: Utah State 68, Washington 65

This goes along with the thinking that you should fade the Pac-12 in March. Think about this: The only reason that Washington has a win over an NCAA tournament team this season is because they lost to Oregon in the final of the Pac-12 tournament, giving the Ducks an automatic bid to the dance. Washington beat Oregon in January.

PICK: Utah State has one of the most underappreciated players in the country on their roster in Sam Merrill. Craig Smith is a magnificent coach that will be at a bigger program soon. Take the Aggies.

7:10 p.m.: No. 1 DUKE vs. No. 16 NORTH DAKOTA STATE, CBS

  • LINE: Duke (-27)
  • TOTAL: 148.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Duke 87.75, NDSU 60.75
  • KENPOM: Duke 87, NDSU 63

This spread is just so monstrous. I don’t think I really want to bet it, but if I do, it will be the Duke side. The Bison are one of the worst defensive teams in the tournament, and asking them to try and slow down Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and the rest of the Dukies is going to be a big, big ask.

7:20 p.m.: No. 3 HOUSTON vs. No. 14 GEORGIA STATE, TBS

  • LINE: Houston (-11.5)
  • TOTAL: 141.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Houston 76.5, Georgia State 65
  • KENPOM: Houston 77, Georgia State 65

Georgia State is always going to be a dangerous mid-major because of the way they run and the talent they have, but I just have too much faith in this Houston team. They aren’t the best or most talented team in the country, but I do think that they are disciplined, well-coached and good enough defensively that they are not going to beat themselves.

PICK: I’ll take the Cougars (-11.5), but I won’t feel all that comfortable about it.

7:27 p.m.: No. 5 MISSISSIPPI STATE vs. No. 12 LIBERTY, 7:27 p.m. TruTV

  • LINE: Mississippi State (-6.5)
  • TOTAL: 133.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Mississippi State 70, Liberty 63.5
  • KENPOM: Mississippi State 71, Liberty 65

This is a tough game to get a feel for. For starters, Liberty was the second-best team in the Atlantic Sun this season, even if they did pick up a couple of wins against Lipscomb. They also run the Pack-Line defense, which is the kind of thing that can give the Bulldogs, who are without Nick Weatherspoon, some issues.

The problem here is that Mississippi State got dudes. Quinndary Weatherspoon, Reggie Perry, Aric Holman, Lamar Peters. These are guys that, which someone inconsistent, can absolutely take a game over, especially against a mid-major program.

PICK: I’d lean Mississippi State here, especially at just (-6.5), but I also think that the under is in play.

(AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

9:20 p.m.: No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA vs. No. 16 IONA, 9:20 p.m. TNT

  • LINE: North Carolina (-23.5)
  • TOTAL: 166
  • IMPLIED SCORE: North Carolina 94.75, Iona 71.25
  • KENPOM: North Carolina 95, Iowa 70

I think that I am going to stay away from the line here. If I do bet it, I would be betting on the Tar Heels, mainly because this is a team that can put up 100 on anyone but also because I just don’t think that Iona has the horses to be able to keep up with UNC this year. I also think that I like the under. 166 is a huge number, and while Iona has the reputation for being a team that wants to run, run, run and push, push, push, they are not as breakneck offensively as they have been in the past.

PICK: I don’t love either bet here, but if I am going to have action on this game, it will be UNC (-23.5) and the under.

9:40 p.m.: No. 8 VCU vs. No. 9 UCF, 9:40 p.m. CBS

  • LINE: VCU (-0.5)
  • TOTAL: 126.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: VCU 63.5, UCF 63
  • KENPOM: VCU 63, UCF 62

This best is simple for me: UCF is a great defensive team that has an elite shot-blocker in the paint and wants to funnel drivers into the lane. VCU cannot shoot threes very well, they want to drive and their best player — Marcus Evans — will, at the very least, be banged up for this one.

PICK: I like the UCF ML the play here if VCU is going to be favored. I also tend to lean towards the under. Both of these teams really, really defend, and while VCU is still going to try and force turnovers, they aren’t pressing as much as they have in the past.

9:50 p.m.: No. 6 IOWA STATE vs. No. 11 OHIO STATE, 9:50 p.m. TBS

  • LINE: Iowa State (-5.5)
  • TOTAL: 140.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Iowa State 73, Ohio State 67.5
  • KENPOM: Iowa State 72, Ohio State 68

This line actually appears to be coming down. It opened at Iowa State (-6) and now sits at (-5.5), which is a dream come true for someone like me, that has the Cyclones in the Elite 8 despite decidedly not being back on the Iowa State bandwagon.

Here’s the truth: Chris Holtmann is one of the top ten coaches in all of college basketball, but given the talent disparity between these two teams, if Iowa State shows up to play, they should be able to cover that spread regardless of how Holtmann decides to build his game-plan. The problem is that we can never really quite be sure if Iowa State is going to show up. The Cyclones looked like a top ten team in their run to the Big 12 tournament title. They looked like an NIT team when they lost six of their last eight games during the regular season.

PICK: I think Iowa State has this figured out. I think they win with ease on Friday night.

9:57 p.m.: No. 4 VIRGINIA TECH vs. No. 13 SAINT LOUIS, 9:57 p.m. TruTV

  • LINE: Virginia Tech (-10.5)
  • TOTAL: 125.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Virginia Tech 68, Saint Louis 57.5
  • KENPOM: Virginia Tech 69, Saint Louis 58

The key to betting this game is going to be how healthy you think Justin Robinson is. He is not their most talented player but he is their most important player. The Hokies were a top ten team with him healthy and went just 7-5 after he was injured on Jan. 30th. He matters because Saint Louis is a really, really talented and tough team that can absolutely lock up defensively. They have the athletes to be able to matchup with Virginia Tech’s four-out, one-in scheme and while they have not been great offensively this year, I do think that they have the talent — Hasahn French, Jordan Goodwin, Javon Bess, Tramaine Isabell — to be able to makes plays when they need to.

PICK: I will not be picking Saint Louis to win this game in my bracket, but at (+10.5), I do think they will cover. That is a big number for a good defensive team against a Virginia Tech that wants to play slow.