It all comes down to this. After five months of basketball Virginia, and 31 other teams, will take the court Thursday for the opening day of the NCAA Tournament, and for 16 of these teams it will mark the end of their campaign. You can argue the merits of judging a season’s success solely on the basis of a single-elimination tournament, but it’s undeniable that losing early in March taints what may have been an otherwise remarkable year, while an unexpected win or two can make an average year seem exemplary.
Most importantly, however, today marks the beginning of the best three week gambling stretch of the year: 63 games spread over 10 days, including an astounding 48 games by the end of this weekend. To help guide your wallet along this sprint I’ll be examining the Vegas odds for the games, going region by region and making predictions to help you profit.
Note: For today/tomorrow I will not be offering advice on the 1-16 and 2-15 matchups. The top two seeds from each region are likely to advance to the weekend. If you want to bet on whether Gonzaga is 22.5 points better than South Dakota State be my guest, but our focus will be on the closer matchups and tighter point spreads.
#5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (25-9, 12-6 in ACC) vs. #12 Princeton Tigers (23-6, 14-0 in Ivy)
Time/Channel: 12:15pm, CBS
Point Spread: Notre Dame -6.5
Common Opponents: None
Overview: Virginia fans are all too familiar with Notre Dame’s recent run to the ACC Title Game, having watched the Irish end UVa’s ACC Tournament run with a 71-58 victory last Tuesday. While Notre Dame is playing great basketball, Princeton is one of the hottest teams in the country. The Tigers last loss came in December of 2016 as they rampaged through the Ivy League, going undefeated in conference play and winning the first ever Ivy League tournament to earn their bid.
If there’s a knock against Princeton it’s that their level of competition hasn’t been great. The Tigers played just one other team that made the field of 64, a game they lost 81-70 to VCU in Richmond. Princeton boasts an experienced roster with five seniors receiving significant playing time, but none of them have ever played in an NCAA tournament game. Meanwhile, Mike Brey has quietly led the Irish to back-to-back Elite Eight appearances. This will be close for a while, but the Irish are simply too talented and they’ll pull away late on the strength of their free throw shooting to cover.
The Pick: Notre Dame -6.5
#4 West Virginia Mountaineers (26-8, 12-6 in Big 12) vs. #13 Bucknell Bison (26-8, 15-3 in Patriot)
Time/Channel: 2:45pm, CBS
Point Spread: West Virginia -14
Common Opponents: 2:
Manhattan - West Virginia 108, Manhattan 61; Bucknell 76, Manhattan 64
Mt. St. Mary’s - West Virginia 87, Mt. St. May’s 59; Bucknell 81, Mt. St. Mary’s 65
Overview: Another team UVa fans know for all the wrong reasons, Bob Huggins and his Press Virginia Mountaineers will look to wreak havoc with their chaotic full-court press style against a Bucknell team that was the Patriot League regular season and tournament champions. Many readers probably remember a 14th seeded Bucknell team knocking off a loaded Kansas squad back in 2005 and may be tempted to pick the upset, but this is a terrible matchup for those hoping to see the Bison reprise their role as Cinderella.
If there’s one thing West Virginia does well, it’s force opponents to give up the ball as the Mountaineers led the nation with 695 forced turnovers this season. Bucknell meanwhile, not so great at keeping the ball for themselves. The Bison finished 271st in the country in turnovers committed, and they struggled mightily against major conference opponents this year, losing by 20 to Wake Forest and 26 to Butler. This one could get out of hand quickly.
The Pick: West Virginia -14
#8 Vanderbilt Commodores (19-15, 10-8 in SEC) vs. #9 Northwestern Wildcats (23-11, 10-8 in Big 10)
Time/Channel: 4:30pm, TBS
Point Spread: Vanderbilt -2.5
Common Opponents: 2:
Butler - Butler 76, Vanderbilt 66; Butler 70, Northwestern 68
Dayton - Dayton 68, Vanderbilt 63; Northwestern 67, Dayton 63
Overview: Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but this is the first time Northwestern has ever made the NCAA Tournament! I didn’t go to Northwestern and I’m not a journalist (or I’m not a journalist because I didn’t go to Northwestern, I’m not sure which way it works) but the Wildcats first ever tourney appearance has simultaneously been one of the best and overpublicized stories of the 2016-17 season. Thankfully we’ll all get to stop hearing about that soon because Vanderbilt is winning this game.
Don’t get me wrong, neither of these teams are very good. Both finished in the middle of the pack in bad basketball conferences and Vanderbilt actually has the most losses by any at-large team ever selected, but I’m still willing to lay the points because unlike Northwestern, the Commodores peaked down the stretch. While the Wildcats lost seven of their final 12 games, Vanderbilt won seven of their last nine including three wins over ranked teams (Florida x2 and South Carolina). It took a while but this team has finally found an identity under first year coach Bryce Drew and they’ll move on.
The Pick: Vanderbilt -2.5
#7 Maryland Terrapins (24-8, 12-6 in Big 10) vs. #11 Xavier Musketeers (21-13, 9-9 in Big East)
Time/Channel: 6:50pm, TNT
Point Spread: Maryland -2
Common Opponents: None
Overview: Another game featuring two bad teams, both of which played some of their worst basketball down the stretch! The vastly overseeded Terrapins lost four of their final six, including a de facto home loss to Northwestern in D.C. during the Big 10 Tournament. The Terps seem to have perfected the art of starting strong, allowing Scott Van Pelt to get his hopes up, and then wilting as the season progresses. At least Xavier has an excuse for their struggles as the Musketeers downturn began with the loss of second-leading scorer Edmond Sumner to a torn ACL.
Though it’s easy to understand why Xavier is struggling, the degree to which they’ve fallen off has been catastrophic. The Musketeers have just four wins in their last 11 games, and three of those came against a Depaul team coached by Dave Leitao and therefore don’t count. Yes, they showed signs of life in the Big East tournament, beating Butler and taking Creighton to the wire, but Xavier hopes of a March run ended when Sumner went down.
The Pick: Maryland -2
#7 St. Mary’s Gaels (28-4, 16-2 in WCC) vs. #10 Virginia Commonwealth Rams (26-8, 14-4 in A10)
Time/Channel: 7:20pm, TBS
Point Spread: St. Mary’s -4.5
Common Opponents: 1:
Dayton - St. Marys 61, Dayton 57; VCU 73, Dayton 68; Dayton 79, VCU 72
Overview: This is one of a pair of Thursday/Friday games, along with Wichita State-Dayton, featuring two powerhouse midmajor teams with the talent to make a deep run and bust your bracket. Wouldn’t it be more fun to watch these teams play power conference foes as opposed to forcing one to go home early? Yes, but bigger schools means bigger fanbases, more name recognition and bigger ratings and the NCAA is running a business here, so this is what we get.
If you’re a St. Mary’s fan you have to be ecstatic to be playing any team other than Gonzaga. The Bulldogs were responsible for three of the Gaels four losses this season, the other came to UT-Arlington way back in December, and this St. Mary’s squad has looked almost invincible against anyone else, with their last eight wins all coming by double-digits. On the other side, VCU was probably closer to the bubble than they care to admit before making the A10 tournament final. The Rams won eight straight games at one point this season, but they also have puzzling losses to Georgia Tech (at home), Illinois (by 18 and at home!), and Fordham (bad anywhere!). Neither of these teams has a great signature win, but this St. Mary’s team takes care of the ball (10th nationally in turnovers) and plays a hard-nosed stingy defense (2nd nationally in points allowed per game). Trust the Gaels against non-Gonzaga teams.
The Pick: St. Mary’s -4.5
#3 Florida State Seminoles (25-8, 12-6 in ACC) vs. #14 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles (26-7, 12-2 in A-Sun)
Time/Channel: 9:20pm, TNT
Point Spread: Florida State -12
Common Opponents: 1:
Florida - Florida State 83, Florida 78; Florida 80, FGCU 59
Overview: Dunk City returns to the Big Dance with a matchup against another Sunshine State foe in Orlando. As someone who has watched zero Florida Gulf Coast games this season I have no idea whether the Dunk City moniker still applies, but it’s become synonymous with the school and might simply be here to stay at this point.
At first glance this seems like a mismatch. Unlike Georgetown of a few years ago, Florida State is an uber-athletic team replete with NBA talent and at one point this season was ranked in the top 5 nationally. Moreover, in their one game against a common opponent Florida State prevailed against Florida while FGCU got trounced. Yet while I know little to nothing about FGCU, I know that this Florida State team peaked earlier in the year. Since February, Florida State has just one win against a ranked opponent and they lost to ACC bottom-feeder Pitt by 14. Remember: Pitt is garbage and good teams don’t lose to Pitt. FGCU may not win this game, but they have a high-octane offense averaging almost 80 points per game that should be willing to get out and run with the Noles. The Eagles cover.
The Pick: FGCU +12
#5 Virginia Cavaliers (22-10, 11-7 in ACC) vs. #12 NC-Wilmington Seahawks (29-5, 15-3 in CAA)
Time/Channel: 12:40pm, TruTV
Point Spread: Virginia -7.5
Common Opponents: 2:
Clemson - Virginia 77, Clemson 73; Clemson 87, UNCW 73
East Carolina - Virginia 76, ECU 53; UNCW 81, ECU 71
Overview: The game you all came here to read about, assumed I’d lead with, and then angrily scrolled through the earlier 1,600 words to arrive at. Unlike in the past three seasons, Virginia’s ability to play a second NCAA Tournament game isn’t a given this year. While the Wahoos are the rightful favorites, they’ll face a tough test against a UNCW team that has won eight straight and features a pressing, up-tempo style of play.
In recent years Virginia has had success with teams that try to speed the game up by pressing and forcing turnovers. In victories over VCU, Louisville, and West Virginia, the Cavaliers took care of the ball, controlled the pace of the game and forced their opponent to play a half-court style for which they were ill-suited. While I think UVa will succeed in playing this game at their desired pace, there is still for concern for Cavalier fans. Virginia’s famed packline defense has been as stingy as ever this year, but when its struggled it has been against team that can spread the floor and attack individual matchups off the dribble, preventing UVa from playing the hard-hedge and recover style that the Cavaliers execute to near perfection. Think Virginia Tech in the second half in Blacksburg, Duke in the second half in Charlottesville, or Notre Dame all game in the ACC Tournament.
Admittedly UNCW lacks the talent of those three schools listed above, but the Seahawks will employ a similar style. None of their starters are over 6’7”, and they all possess the ability to attack off the dribble and finish inside the arc as the Seahawks rank 12th nationally in 2-point field goal percentage. The health of Isaiah Wilkins will be key in this game. If Wilkins is healthy, UVa can utilize four-guard lineups with him as the lone big man and match UNCW’s speed and ability. If Wilkins can’t go, however, that likely means more time for Jack Salt or Jarred Reuter, solid players but not guys who are used to defending their man out to the three-point line. UVa is certainly, and deservedly, on upset-alert here and while I ultimately think the Cavaliers will prevail I expect a close matchup.
The Pick: UNCW +7.5
#4 Florida Gators (24-8, 14-4 in SEC) vs. #13 East Tennessee State Buccaneers (27-7, 14-4 in SoCon)
Time/Channel: 3:10pm, TruTV
Point Spread: Florida -10.5
Common Opponents: 2:
Tennessee - Florida 83, Tennessee 70; Tennessee 72, ETSU 68
Mercer - Florida 76, Mercer 54; ETSU 67, Mercer 58; ETSU 88, Mercer 71; ETSU 73, Mercer 66
Overview: If Virginia is able to prevail over UNC-Wilmington, the Cavaliers will face the winner of this clash between the Florida Gators and ETSU Buccaneers. While I’m certain UVa fans will be cheering for a Buccaneer upset, or will have thrown a remote through their TV screen if UVa loses before this game, the odds of that taking place are slim.
ETSU had a great season, finishing tied atop the Southern Conference and avenging two earlier losses to UNC-Greensboro in the SoCon Tournament title game to earn their bid, but they played absolutely nobody. The Bucaneers’ two games against tournament teams were losses to Dayton and UNCW, a team they’ll meet again if all hell breaks loose. They’ll be facing off against a Florida team that was a dark-horse Final Four contender before starting center Joel Egbunu tore his ACL in mid-February. Even without Egbunu though, the Gators have been a strong basketball team with their only late-season losses coming at Kentucky and twice to a Vanderbilt team that is a terrible matchup for them. The Gators roll in front of partisan Orlando crowd.
The Pick: Florida -10.5
#8 Wisconsin Badgers (25-9, 12-6 in Big 10) vs. #9 Virginia Tech Hokies (22-10, 10-8 in ACC)
Time/Channel: 9:40pm, CBS
Point Spread: Wisconsin -5.5
Common Opponents: 4:
North Carolina - UNC 71, Wisconsin 56; UNC 91, Virginia Tech 72
Syracuse - Wisconsin 77, Syracuse 60; Virginia Tech 83, Syracuse 73
Michigan - Wisconsin 68, Michigan 64; Michigan 64, Wisconsin 58; Michigan 71, Wisconsin 56; Virginia Tech 73, Michigan 70
Nebraska - Wisconsin 70, Nebraska 69; Virginia Tech 66, Nebraska 53
Overview: Apart from victories by UVa and ETSU, few things would make Virginia fans happier than watching Virginia Tech get trounced and sent home early by Wisconsin. This game should appear aesthetically similar to UVa’s two clashes with the Hokies earlier this season. Much like Virginia, Wisconsin is a team that slows the tempo, takes care of the ball, and defends vigorously, while Virginia Tech is at their best when they can force the action and turn the game into a track meet.
The difficulty then, comes in trying to figure out which Wisconsin team shows up. Apart from an early season blowout loss to NC State, Virginia Tech has been fairly consistent: they’ve beaten bad teams, and pulled the occasional upset over a ranked opponent (see UVa, Louisville). Meanwhile, Wisconsin has been one of the most perplexing teams in the nation. The Badgers entered the season with high expectations, ranked #9 after a Sweet 16 appearance a year ago. After a hot start, at one point they won 17 out of 18 games, the Badgers promptly lost five of six including head-scratchers to Ohio State and Iowa. Thankfully, Wisconsin appeared to right the ship in the Big 10 Tournament, advancing to the title game before succumbing to an en fuego Michigan team. This game could really go either way, but ultimately I’m banking on Wisconsin regaining their form and for talent to prevail.
The Pick: Wisconsin -5.5
#4 Butler Bulldogs (23-8, 12-6 in Big East) vs. #13 Winthrop Eagles (26-6, 15-3 in Big South)
Time/Channel: 1:30pm, TNT
Point Spread: Butler -11
Common Opponents: None
Overview: If you can name more than two players participating in this game then congratulations, you’re either an alum of one of these schools or you love college basketball more than I do. Despite the lack of high-wattage stars, this contest isn’t completely bereft of talent. Butler is led by talented junior Kelan Martin who reached double figures in each of the team’s last six games and is joined by senior forward Andrew Chrabascz (pronunciation guide sold separately) and former NC State point guard Tyler Lewis. Winthrop meanwhile relies heavily on senior guard, and Big South Player of the Year, Keon Johnson. Johnson’s ability to score, he averages over 22 points per game while shooting over 40% from three, coupled with his diminutive stature, he’s listed at just 5’7”, will surely combine to make him a viewer favorite.
Johnson will need to have the game of his life for the Eagles to pull the upset but it’s not as far-fetched as you may think. This Butler team is solid, but they’re not particularly great at anything. They’re terrible rebounding the ball, and their offense is heavily reliant on shots inside the arc. Meanwhile, Winthrop is adept at defending both the two (55th nationally in 2 point percentage allowed) and the three (20th in 3 point percentage allowed). Yes Butler beat Villanova twice, but they also lost to Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s, Indiana State, and a depleted Xavier team. The Bulldogs are hardly a powerhouse. Winthrop pulls the upset (or at least covers).
The Pick: Winthrop +11
#5 Minnesota Golden Gophers (24-9, 11-7 in Big 10) vs. #12 Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (30-4, 17-1 in C-USA)
Time/Channel: 4pm, TNT
Point Spread: Middle Tennessee -1
Common Opponents: 1:
Vanderbilt - Minnesota 56, Vanderbilt 52; Middle Tennessee 71, Vanderbilt 48
Overview: Not only is Middle Tennessee the trendiest pick to pull the annual 12-5 upset, the Blue Raiders are actually favored in the game! While young Dicky Pitino, your Big 10 Coach of the Year, must be furious at the lack of respect his team is getting it’s pretty simple to see why people like Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders are really freaking good.
Coming off an upset over 2nd seeded Michigan State last year, they then lost to Syracuse but hey who hasn’t, Middle Tennessee laid waste to Conference USA this year. The Blue Raiders have won 20 of their final 21 games, with the sole blemish a three point loss on the road. This is a team that can flat out score, they’ve gone over 80 in their last four games and rank 12th nationally in field-goal percentage. I’m aware that Minnesota is also playing well, winning nine of their final 11 to finish fourth in the Big 10, but I’m honestly unsure how much better the Big 10 was than Conference USA this year. The Blue Raiders roll on.
The Pick: Middle Tennessee -1
#4 Purdue Boilermakers (25-7, 14-4 in Big 10) vs. #13 Vermont Catamounts (29-5, 16-0 in America East)
Time/Channel: 7:27pm, TruTV
Point Spread: Purdue -10
Common Opponents: None
Overview: Vermont will forever be the owner of one of the greatest moments in NCAA Tournament history:
Unfortunately for Vermont, neither TJ Sorrentine nor Gus Johnson is involved in this game, and Syracuse will be watching from home. The Catamounts enter tonight’s game as the owners of the nation’s longest winning streak, having won 23 games in a row including exactly zero wins over good teams. In fact, Vermont has managed to go an entire season without beating a good team unless you want to count wins over either Yale or Harvard, and you shouldn’t. I’m not positive the Boilermakers are a good team, but they possess one of the country’s best players in Caleb Swanigan and he alone was good enough to lead Purdue to the Big 10 regular season title.
Swanigan’s stat line is absurd. The 6’9”, 250 pound sophomore averaged 18 points and 13 rebounds while shooting 53% from the field, 79% from the line, and 43% from beyond the arc. For reference all of UVa’s big men, Wilkins, Salt, Reuter, and Diakite, combined to average 18 points and 14 rebounds per game. Swanigan should feast against a Catamount lineup whose largest player is 6’8”, 215 pound junior Payton Henson. Expect Biggie to put up a 20-20 performance as the Boilermarkers cruise to victory.
The Pick: Purdue -10
#5 Iowa State Cyclones (23-10, 12-6 in Big 12) vs. #12 Nevada Wolf Pack (28-6, 14-4 in MWC)
Time/Channel: 9:57pm, TruTV
Point Spread: Iowa State -6.5
Common Opponents: None
Overview: The final game of the day features two conference champions in Big 12 tournament champ Iowa State against Mountain West regular season and tournament champion Nevada (Note: It’s Nev-ad-uh not Nev-ah-duh, I think). Iowa State is making their sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance and they always seem to be a trendy pick in March due to their high-powered offense and the fact that they keep winning the Big 12 tournament. Last week’s victory over Kansas State gave the Cyclones their third Big 12 tournament championship in the past four years, but Iowa State can’t seem to turn that early March momentum into late March success. In their previous five appearances the Cyclones made it to the second weekend just twice, losing to a UConn team that went on to win the National Championship and getting trounced last year by a Virginia team that did not.
Meanwhile Nevada has been one of the quietest success stories in the country in just their second season under former Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors head coach Eric Musselman. While Musselman struggled to lead an NBA squad, he’s worked magic with the Wolf Pack (it’s two words NC State, take notes) and his Nevada teams are among the nation’s best in rebounding (17th nationally) and three-point defense (13th nationally in three-point percentage allowed). That’s bad news for an Iowa State that relies heavily on the deep ball for their offense and was an abysmal 327th nationally in opponent rebounds. Nevada pulls the upset as the Cyclones disappoint once again.
The Pick: Nevada +6.5