Thank heavens for betting! Without it, this Sweet 16 would just be a crushing reminder that my bracket is hopeless. But with wagering on my side, I actually experienced real enjoyment out of no. 11 Xavier’s upset win over no. 2 Arizona. In fact, I enjoyed every part of the Sweet 16’s first night, going 3-0-1 in my picks.
So let’s see if we can carry some of that momentum forward into the first half of the Elite Eight. It features three teams no one’s really surprised by, and Xavier, that one lovable party crasher. Who should you side with?
Oregon Ducks vs Kansas Jayhawks (-6.5, 156.5 o/u)
The Ducks’ offense continues to carry this team, after an 8 for 17 night from 3-point land helped them hold off Michigan, 69-68. But they’ll need to recapture their moxy on the defensive end if they’re going to have any hope of stopping the Jayhawks.
In filling the void left by Chris Boucher, junior Jordan Bell has stepped up and answered the… well, the obvious joke. Bell notched his third double-double in the last four games in the win over the Wolverines. But even so, the team is still missing something.
Boucher was an anchor on the defensive end: Oregon was one of the twenty best teams in defensive efficiency with him in the lineup, allowing 0.92 points per possession. During the tournament (sans Boucher), that number has shot up to 1.07.
The Jayhawks haven’t been held under 90 points in the tournament, and their efficiency has been staggering, averaging 1.32 points per possession in their three games. Dillon Brooks and Oregon’s offense has been strong in its own right, but 1.17 points per possession still won’t keep up with Kansas. The Ducks can’t allow the Jayhawks to dictate pace in this game, and need to be better defensively to stand a chance.
In last year’s Elite Eight, a similar Oregon team had no answer for Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield: the guard single-handedly tore apart their defense, shooting 13 for 20 from the field. Kansas has a couple players capable of that kind of night, as Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham showed when each scored 26 in their dominant win over Purdue.
Oregon has done well to reach this point, but for the second year in a row, this is where their season will end. Few teams have been able to slow this Kansas offense, and the Ducks just don’t have enough scoring options to win a shootout. Throw in the insane home-court advantage the Jayhawks have in Kansas City, and they should get their fourth-straight cover in the tourney.
Pick: Kansas (-6.5)
Xavier Musketeers vs Gonzaga Bulldogs (-8.5, 145.5 o/u)
Both of these programs have enjoyed a lot of tournament success over the years, but neither has ever reached a Final Four. That will change for one of them after Saturday. However, despite the weight of history on both programs, the pressure is heavily on one side of this matchup.
This is supposed to be Gonzaga’s year. The KenPom darlings were supposed to be here, but in a rematch with Arizona for the right to move on. Now that the Zags’ biggest obstacle has been removed, they’re massive favorites to move on, which is exactly the scenario Xavier has been thriving in. The decimated Musketeers, who just snuck into the dance thanks to a few wins in the Big East tourney, have been playing with the sort of loose confidence teams get when everyone writes them off.
Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett has held nothing back this tournament, averaging 25 points an outing. He’s been joined by a rotating cast of unexpectedly hot-hands: deep threats Kaiser Gates (14 PTS, 4/5 3PT versus FSU) and Malcolm Bernard (15 PTS, 3/3 3PT versus Arizona) came up big in the last two, while Sean O’Mara (18 PTS, 8/9 FTs versus Maryland) was huge in the first round, attacking down low and getting to the line. It’s surprising that a smaller team like the Musketeers have overcome the size of Florida State and Arizona, but when you’re shooting nearly 53-percent from the field, size really doesn’t matter that much.
The Bulldogs boast the nation’s most efficient defense, and that was on full display late in their win over West Virginia. But the Mountaineers aggressive D gave Gonzaga some trouble of its own, forcing 16 turnovers and limiting Nigel Williams-Goss to just 2 of 10 shooting. The Zags have tons of scoring options, but their offense needs Williams-Goss to run point. If he struggles, the team will. Throw in their rough night from the free-throw line, and it’s easy to understand why Gonzaga barely pulled out the win (61-58).
Whether it was a sign that the pressure is getting to these kids, or just an off night for the Bulldogs, I don’t like them with such a big spread when they’ve yet to cover this tournament. Meanwhile, Xavier has covered in seven straight games. I’ll roll with the Musketeers as the dog once again.
Pick: Xavier (+8.5)