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NCAA Tournament: Friday Previews, Vegas Odds, and Predictions

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The Hoos are on to Saturday, but first we have another glorious day of basketball action

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Virginia vs North Carolina-Wilmington Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t easy but UVa advanced to the round of 32, beating UNC-Wilmington 76-71 behind great performances by Marial Shayok and London Perrantes. The unsung hero, however, was Darius Thompson. The junior from Tennessee sunk two huge free throws late to give Virginia a two-possession lead and then had the wherewithal to miss two late to ensure that the Seahawks still covered. That’s veteran savvy at its finest. Overall we went exactly .500 with our picks on Thursday, so we’re looking to improve on Friday.

ATS Tournament Prediction Record: 6-6-1

Note: For Friday 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 Louisville is 19.5 points better than Jacksonville State be my guest, but our focus will be on the closer matchups and tighter point spreads.

Midwest Region

#7 Michigan Wolverines (24-11, 10-8 in Big 10) vs. #10 Oklahoma State Cowboys (20-12, 9-9 in Big 12)

Time/Channel: 12:15pm, CBS

Point Spread: Michigan -2.5

Common Opponents: 3:
Texas: Michigan 53, Texas 50; Texas 82, Oklahoma State 79; Oklahoma State 84,Texas 71
Maryland: Maryland 77, Michigan 70; Maryland 71, Oklahoma State 70
Central Arkansas: Michigan 97, Central Arkansas 53; Oklahoma State 102, Central Arkansas 90

Overview: Friday’s action opens with a clash of power conference teams heading in complete opposite directions. While tenth seeded Oklahoma State struggled late, losing their final three games against fellow tournament teams Iowa State (x2) and Kansas, Michigan caught fire. The Wolverines famously weathered an airport scare in which their plane skidded off the runway only to arrive at the Big 10 Tournament in Washington, DC and be forced to play in practice jerseys for their opening matchup. Real jerseys or not, Michigan won four straight in the nation’s capital, defeating Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota, and Wisconsin on their way to the Big 10 Tournament crown and raising a number of questions in the process, namely:

1) If the Wolverines had never been forced to confront their own mortality would they still have played with the necessary urgency that fueled them to a Big 10 title?

2) If Michigan’s plane doesn’t skid off the runway, and the Wolverines don’t play with a renewed vigor after narrowly dodging death, do they still beat Illinois and force the Illini to fire their coach and consider offering Tony Bennett almost $5M per year to head to Champaign?

We may never know the answers to these questions, but I do know that for whatever reason this Michigan team is peaking at the right time and will overwhelm the Cowboys.

The Pick: Michigan -2.5

#3 Oregon Ducks (29-5, 16-2 in PAC 12) vs. #14 Iona Gaels (22-12, 12-8 in MAAC)

Time/Channel: 2pm, TBS

Point Spread: Oregon -15

Common Opponents: None

Overview: Throughout the majority of the college basketball season Oregon was probably the biggest under the radar national title contender in the country. After all, this was a Ducks squad that made it to the Elite Eight last season and returned star guard Dillon Brooks, a player who became known for torching Duke during last season’s tourney, forcing Coach K to lecture him about sportsmanship as though a man who coaches Grayson Allen has earned the right to serve as the moral arbiter of college basketball.

Despite their success last year, Oregon never got the credit they deserved in 2016-17. The Ducks started slow, losing two of their first four to Baylor and Georgetown, before regaining their form and winning 27 of their next 29 games. Alas, just as it seemed Oregon might be re-emerging onto the national stage they lost senior forward Chris Boucher, the team’s leading rebounder and third-leading scorer to a torn ACL and lost in the PAC 12 title game to Arizona. While the loss of Boucher is tragic and likely removes Oregon from the national title conversation, it shouldn’t impact their ability to dismantle the Gaels on Friday. Iona finished third in the regular season in a weak MAAC conference, and lost by 28 to a terrible Rider team less than a month ago. The Gaels earned their way here through a fortuitous run in their conference tournament, but their stay will be short-lived.

The Pick: Oregon -15

#6 Creighton Bluejays (25-9, 10-8 in Big East) vs. #11 Rhode Island Rams (24-9, 13-5 in A10)

Time/Channel: 4:30pm, TBS

Point Spread: Pick

Common Opponents: 1:
Providence - Providence 68, Creighton 66; Creighton 70, Providence 58; Providence 63, Rhode Island 60

Overview: If Oregon is the biggest national title contender to be laid low by a crippling injury, Creighton may be a close second. The Bluejays began the season 18-1, with their only loss coming against defending National Champion Villanova, and with impressive victories over Wisconsin, Butler, Seton Hall, and Xavier. In that Xavier win, however, Creighton lost star point guard Maurice Watson Jr. to a torn ACL and the Bluejays have never fully recovered. Since Watson’s injury the Bluejays are just 7-8 and that includes a 20 point loss to a terrible Georgetown team and a season sweep at the hands of Marquette.

Conversely, Rhode Island decided to start the season slow, lulling opponents and college basketball fans into a false sense of security before hitting their stride late in the season. The Rams were actually ranked 23rd coming into the season, but early losses to Providence, Houston, Valparaiso, and La Salle led to a severe tempering of preseason expectations. Yet as the season trudged on the Rams found their identity, rebranding themselves as a defensive oriented team and finishing second nationally in three point percentage allowed and third in blocks. While Rhode Island’s late season schedule didn’t afford the Rams many opportunities for quality wins, they did beat VCU twice, including a 70-63 victory last week to claim the A10 Tournament Title. While Creighton is stuck wondering what could have been, Rhode Island is finally beginning to fulfill their preseason potential.

The Pick: Rhode Island

#8 Miami Hurricanes (21-11, 10-8 in ACC) vs. #9 Michigan State Spartans (19-14, 10-8 in Big 10)

Time/Channel: 9:20pm, TNT

Point Spread: Miami -2

Common Opponents: 2:
Duke - Duke 70, Miami 58; Miami 55, Duke 50; Duke 78, Michigan State 69
Rutgers - Miami 73, Rutgers 61; Michigan State 93, Rutgers 65

Overview: You’re honestly probably better off just flipping a coin as than picking this game using logic. On the one hand, you’re never supposed to bet against Tom Izzo in March. The Michigan State coach routinely has his team peak at the right time and lays waste to unsuspecting top seeds, like Virginia, during the NCAA Tournament. On the other hand, this Michigan State team really isn’t very good. This season Sparty lost to Northeastern, Penn State, Ohio State, and Illinois en route to a 7th place finish in a below-average Big 10. Plus, State is shorthanded after losing senior guard Eron Harris to a knee injury in mid-February.

Moreover, while Izzo is great and all, let’s not pretend as though Jim Larranaga doesn’t know what he’s doing come tournament time. This is a man who took freaking George Mason to a Final Four and beat Hall of Fame coaches Roy Williams, Jim Calhoun, and the magical Tom Izzo along the way. Since leaving Mason, Larranaga has turned Miami into a perennial tournament team, a huge improvement over the Frank Haith era. The Canes only finished eighth in the ACC this year, but unlike the Big 10 the ACC is actually good at basketball. Miami owns wins over Duke, UNC, and Virginia and at their best they could beat any team in this bracket. Plus Izzo’s luck has to run out at some point, right?

The Pick: Miami -2

East Region

#3 Baylor Bears (25-7, 12-6 in Big 12) vs. #14 New Mexico State Rattlesnakes (28-5, 11-3 in WAC)

Time/Channel: 12:40pm, TruTV

Point Spread: Baylor -12.5

Common Opponents: None

Overview: It’s March and Baylor is a high seed, which means the Bears are almost certainly going to lose this game. ‘Is Scott Drew a good coach?’ is the college basketball version of ‘is Joe Flacco elite?’ In the pros column, Drew revitalized a Baylor program that was in utter disarray after one of their players killed another and the head coach attempted to cover it up (don’t worry Baylor learned their lesson and only hired head coaches of high moral character after that incident). In the cons column you have the fact that Baylor lost in the first round each of the past two seasons to 12th seeded Yale and 14th seeded Georgia State, neither of which is exactly a powerhouse program.

This season the Bears started 15-0, ascended to the number 1 ranking in the nation, and then got embarrassed by 21 against West Virginia. Baylor has exactly one good win since November, a rematch victory at home over West Virginia, and the team’s late season struggles have the Bears primed for another disappointment. Who better to crush Baylor hopes this year than a New Mexico State team that’s so anonymous no one reading this had a clue that their actually called the Aggies and not the Rattlesnakes. It doesn’t matter, as long as they’re playing the Bears they’ll be fine.

The Pick: New Mexico State +12.5

#6 SMU Mustangs (30-4, 17-1 in American) vs. #11 USC Trojans (25-9, 10-8 in PAC 12)

Time/Channel: 3:10pm, TruTV

Point Spread: Southern Methodist -6.5

Common Opponents: Each Other: USC 78, SMU 73 on November 25th.

Overview: After a remarkable comeback win over Providence on Wednesday night, the USC Trojans advanced to the main draw, where they’ll face sixth seeded SMU in the first 2017 Tournament rematch of teams that met in the regular season. The Trojans won the regular season meeting between these two teams, pulling away late to secure a 5 point home win around Thanksgiving. That win moved USC to 5-0 on their way to a 14-0 start to the regular season, but once the competition ramped up the Trojans wilted. USC finished just 11-9 in their final 20 games, and they went just 1-8 against the top 5 teams in the PAC12. USC feasted on the conference’s bottom dwellers, doing just enough to sneak into the First Four game they played Wednesday.

In contrast, there’s been absolutely nothing sneaky about SMU since the Thanksgiving holidays. The Mustangs are 26-1 in their last 27 games, their sole defeat came at fellow six seed Cincinnati and they went on to beat the Bearcats twice later on in the season. If you’re trying to impress your very nerdy, basketball-oriented friends with your extensive SMU knowledge, just remember the name Semi Ojeleye. The junior forward spent his first two seasons at Duke before transferring and he paces the Mustang attack, averaging 19 points per game. Expect SMU to continue their winning ways here, and watch out for this team to make some noise later on in the bracket as well.

The Pick: Southern Methodist -6.5

#7 South Carolina Gamecocks (22-10, 12-6 in SEC) vs. #10 Marquette Golden Eagles (19-12, 10-8 in Big East)

Time/Channel: 9:50pm, TBS

Point Spread: South Carolina -1.5

Common Opponents: 2:
Vanderbilt - Vanderbilt 71, South Carolina 62; Marquette 95, Vanderbilt 71
Georgia - South Carolina 67, Georgia 61; South Carolina 77, Georgia 75; Marquette 89, Georgia 79

Overview: This game is the epitome of March mediocrity. In a contest featuring two middling teams from lower tier yet well-known basketball conferences there just isn’t that much about which to get excited. Even TV pundits only seem to mention this game in the context of the winner’s second round matchup with Duke. Will Duke have to play South Carolina in South Carolina, or will Coach K face off against his old protege Wojo who now coaches Marquette? Unfortunately, you have to watch this slapfight to find out.

While neither team ended the season on a high note, South Carolina’s limp entering the tournament is a little more noticeable. The Gamecocks lost six of their final nine, including games to also-rans Ole Miss and Alabama (twice). Carolina will be playing in front of a home crowd in Greenville, and Sindarius Thornwell is one of the best players with one of the best names that you’ve never heard of, but this team is just too mediocre to be laying points.

The Pick: Marquette +1.5

South Region

#8 Arkansas Razorbacks (25-9, 12-6 in SEC) vs. #9 Seton Hall Pirates (21-11, 10-8 in Big East)

Time/Channel: 1:30pm, TNT

Point Spread: Arkansas -1

Common Opponents: 2:
South Carolina - Arkansas 83, South Carolina 76; Seton Hall 67, South Carolina 64
Florida - Florida 81, Arkansas 72; Florida 78, Arkansas 65; Florida 81, Seton Hall 76

Overview: Friday’s action in the South Regional tips off with a pair of teams vying for the honor of getting destroyed by North Carolina on Sunday. Arkansas and Seton Hall are both perfectly fine teams deserving of their spots in the NCAA Tournament, but neither team will survive this weekend. Together they combined to finish 1-8 against teams that earned a top 5 seed in the tourney, the sole victory occurring two weeks ago when Seton Hall defeated Butler in Indianapolis.

Honestly, that victory over Butler is likely reason enough to favor the Pirates in this affair. While both teams have been up and down throughout the year, Seton Hall’s defeat of the Bulldogs came during a stretch of five straight wins, a streak that was only broken in the Big East tournament during a two point loss to Villanova. This isn’t a knock on Arkansas but apart from a few wins over Vanderbilt and South Carolina, the Razorbacks just haven’t been able to beat quality opponents this year. Expect Seton Hall junior and Brooklyn native Khadeen Carrington to put up a lot of points against an Arkansas team that likes to push the tempo as the Pirates prevail late.

The Pick: Seton Hall +1

#7 Dayton Flyers (24-7, 15-3 in A10) vs. #10 Wichita State Shockers (30-4, 17-1 in MVC)

Time/Channel: 7:10pm, CBS

Point Spread: Wichita State -6

Common Opponents: None

Overview: Friday’s best game is a complete seeding travesty. Dayton and Wichita State are arguably the two best midmajor programs in the country outside of Gonzaga and both teams have the talent and coaching acumen to make a Sweet 16 run. Sadly the committee didn’t seem to value midmajors this year, so one of these two stalwarts will head home tonight while either Marquette or South Carolina gets to keep playing. There is no justice.

Despite being the lower seed the Shockers are the favorite here. Wichita State is a darling of the advanced metrics community, KenPom rates them as the fifth best team in the country, and college basketball fans remember their Final Four run and subsequent undefeated regular season over the past few years. Even considering Wichita’s pedigree, I’m going with Dayton to cover here. Archie Miller has turned the Flyers into a continual Atlantic 10 contender and though Dayton has lost seven games this year, including two straight, only one of those losses came by more than six points. Dayton covers.

The Pick: Dayton +6

#6 Cincinnati Bearcats (29-5, 16-2 in American) vs. #11 Kansas State Wildcats (21-13, 8-10 in Big 12)

Time/Channel: 7:27pm, TruTV

Point Spread: Cincinnati -4

Common Opponents: 1:
Iowa State - Cincinnati 55, Iowa State 54; Iowa State 70, Kansas State 65; Iowa State 87, Kansas State 79

Overview: The second team to emerge from the First Four, Kansas State’s victory over Wake Forest on Tuesday night earned them a date with Cincinnati and also made the Wildcats the only team in the field with a losing conference record. Bruce Weber’s team from the Little Apple of Manhattan, KS has been remarkable in their inconsistency. The Wildcats beat top four seeds Baylor (twice), and West Virginia, but lost to Tennessee and by 30 to a terrible Oklahoma team.

Meanwhile in Cincinnati, Mick Cronin has built the Bearcats into a paragon of consistency. In past years Cincinnati has paired a stifling defense with a borderline unwatchable offense, a combination that’s been good enough for March appearances but little success. The difference this year is that the Bearcats can actually score. They don’t have a go-to playmaker, but Cincinnati has eclipsed 80 points 14 times this season and they’ve held opponents to an average of just 61 points per game. This could be the year Cronin finally breaks through.

The Pick: Cincinnati -4

#3 UCLA Bruins (29-4, 15-3 in PAC12) vs. #14 Kent State Golden Flashes (22-13, 10-8 in MAC)

Time/Channel: 9:57pm, TruTV

Point Spread: UCLA -18

Common Opponents: 2:
Oregon State - UCLA 76, Oregon State 63; UCLA 78, Oregon State 60; Oregon State 69, Kent State 50
Western Michigan - UCLA 82, Western Michigan 68; Western Michigan 92, Kent State 88;

Overview: This one is going to get really ugly. The Bruins have the highest scoring offense in the country while Kent State’s defense is abhorrent. The Flashes were 123rd in two point defense, 162nd in three point defense, and 183rd in points allowed per game. UCLA can probably score 150 in this game if they want.

The Bruins best player is star freshman, and likely top two draft pick, Lonzo Ball. Ball has the ugliest jumper in the country and the most obnoxious father in history, but he’s also a freaking basketball savant. An LA native, Ball is average just a hair under 15 points per game but it’s his 3:1 assist:turnover ratio and overall court vision that have NBA scouts seeing greatness in his future. Tune in if you want to see a lot of points with virtually no defense. Don’t watch if you’re the kind of person who hates those Little League World Series games where one team is down 27-0 and the mercy rule has to come into play.

The Pick: UCLA -18