If the rest of the NCAA Tournament follows the script of the first weekend, our “One Shining Moment” montage is going to be really depressing. The biggest moments of this tournament so far have featured game-winning attempts clanking off the rim, questionable calls from dubious officials, and bone-headed mistakes from young men who probably won’t be bragging to their friends that they finally became an internet meme.
Yet just because these games haven’t reached a climax on the same level of last year, it doesn’t mean fans are getting treated to some third-rate garbage. The second round was incredibly entertaining: the battle of Caleb Swanigan and Deonte Burton, Coach K’s hilariously red face, Kentucky repeatedly stuffing Landry Shamet, the rim-stuffing Josh Jackson. In fact, with Duke getting eliminated in embarrassing fashion, now all we’re missing is a few buzzer beaters to make this tournament a truly classic one.
Will we get those big-time moments in the Sweet 16? I can’t say for sure; I’m not a psychic.
That being established, I’m still going to forecast each game and pick a winner against the spread. Should these picks not pan out, then I’ll go back to complaining about how terrible this year is.
Wisconsin Badgers vs Florida Gators (-1.5, 131.5 o/u)
The Badgers gave us the first real shock of the tournament, knocking off Villanova 88-81 on Saturday. But if you asked nearly anyone not on the selection committee, eight-seed Wisconsin was criminally underrated. So perhaps knocking off a Jay Wright team in the second round shouldn’t have been a surprise?
What is surprising was how dominant the Gators’ defense was on Saturday, limiting Virginia to 39 points on 16 of 54 shooting. Sure, the Cavaliers aren’t the most offensively gifted team, but that was still the lowest total by a major-conference team in the 2000s.
Florida can’t expect to shut down Wisconsin in the same way, not with the way Bronson Koenig has been shooting the ball. The Badger senior is shooting 47.5-percent from downtown in the month of March, an excellent complement to the post threats of Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ.
As for the Gators’ offense, it’s far more reliant on getting to the foul line, with 22-percent of its points coming from free throws. Bad reffing was one of the big stories of last weekend, so you’d expect there to be some emphasis put on “letting them play” in the coming week. That should benefit Wisconsin, which average 16 fouls per game, but have been booked for far more than that in the last two.
In a game that should be tight, trust Wisconsin to get the clutch buckets more than Florida to get the calls.
Pick: Wisconsin (+1.5).
South Carolina Gamecocks vs Baylor Bears (-3.5, 137 o/u)
I don’t know what the bigger surprise is: the Gamecocks beating Duke to reach the program’s first Sweet 16 since the tournament expanded to 64, or Baylor not choking versus two double-digit seeds? Seriously, which is it?
The Gamecocks enter this game as the underdog and will no longer have a de facto home-court advantage. But even though they won’t have the Greenville faithful (or Duke haters) behind them, it doesn’t mean Sindarius Thornwell and company can’t keep this run going. Baylor still hasn’t really “beaten anyone,” and after coasting into the tourney, may not be ready to respond the next time they get pushed.
However, South Carolina won’t be able to get close if the Bears continue to own the glass. Baylor has the second-best rebound margin in the nation, and should be able to use that advantage over the smaller Gamecocks. It feels weird to say, but I’ll ride with Baylor.
Pick: Baylor (-3.5).
Purdue Boilermakers vs Kansas Jayhawks (-5, 156.5 o/u)
Matt Painter nearly blew another one for the Boilermakers, resting Caleb Swanigan on the bench as Iowa State mounted a furious comeback. But once his star player got back in the game, Purdue took control, setting the stage for an intriguing battle with the Jayhawks in what amounts to a home game for Kansas.
There’s not a single player on Kansas that can guard Swanigan, but the Jayhawks won’t be looking to win this game by locking down the big-man. Instead, their small-ball lineup is going to keep trying to run teams out of the gym. The Jayhawks starting five has put up 164 points in the first two games of the tournament, a number the Boilermakers won’t be able to keep pace with if Painter “rests” Swanigan for too long again.
Pick: Kansas (-5).
Michigan Wolverines (-1.5, 147.5 o/u) vs Oregon Ducks
The Pac-12 has emerged as the power conference in this tournament, racking up an 8-1 record. Surprisingly, its biggest challenge for conference supremacy comes from the supposedly down Big Ten, which is 8-4 in the madness. At the forefront of that movement are the high-flying Wolverines, this year’s “hot team” after winning the Big Ten tournament as an eight seed and rattling off two tight wins in the opening rounds.
All that public support is odd: two weeks ago, there was no way Michigan would have been favored in this game. Since then, the Ducks lost Chris Boucher to injury and many expected that would spell their downfall, but the offense continues to roll without him. The Ducks’ defense has regressed without the big-man, but the Wolverines were going to score anyways. This game is going to be another shootout; don’t side with the public sweetheart. Oregon has more experience, and also the better value.
Pick: Oregon (+1.5).
Butler Bulldogs vs North Carolina Tarheels (-7.5, 152.5 o/u)
While UNC got a real scare from Arkansas, Butler quietly glided through the first weekend with no issues. The Bulldogs, who have shown the potential to be both great (see wins over Villanova) and terrible (see losses to Indiana State and Georgetown) has chosen the superior third option: steady.
The Tar Heels had trouble with the Razorbacks’ aggressive defense on Saturday, nearly blowing a 17-point first-half lead. While Butler doesn’t flock to the ball as much, it’s pretty stout in it’s own end, allowing just 68.5 points per game. North Carolina can have success offensively against the poor rebounding Bulldogs, but they’ll need a better shooting night from Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson.
Even with the big advantage UNC has on the glass, Butler has been shooting well enough this tournament that I’m confident they can be yet another dog to cover. Berry’s murky injury status gives me a little extra confidence.
Pick: Butler (+7.5).
UCLA Bruins (-1, 168.5 o/u) vs Kentucky Wildcats
The most exciting game on the slate will be a rematch of a December game that UCLA won 97-92 on Kentucky’s court (their first home loss in 42 games). The Bruins bring college’s most efficient offense to Memphis, but the Wildcats have players drawing attention from NBA scouts, with three potential first-round selections (Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo).
It’s odd to see Kentucky as a dog, considering they’re riding a 13-game win streak, but that’s just how impressive Lonzo Ball and the Bruins have been in this tournament. Meanwhile, the Wildcats have had their struggles, particularly Monk, who is shooting an abysmal 28.5-percent from the floor in the last two games. While he’s still impacting games with his defense, Kentucky will need more out of him if they’re going to advance to a fifth Final Four in Coach Cal’s tenure.
In a battle of teams this talented, coaching will take a back seat, which is why you should roll with the Bruins. They’re a deeper team, scoring-wise, and can take it to a short Kentucky bench.
Pick: UCLA (-1).
West Virginia Mountaineers vs Gonzaga Bulldogs (-3, 148.5 o/u)
Gonzaga’s next test comes from a Mountaineers team that is number one in the nation in steals per game. It’s been said guard play is what wins in the tournament, so Nigel Williams-Goss will need to have a clean game against this aggressive D in order for the Bulldogs to make only their second Elite Eight under Mark Few.
The biggest concern in backing a team like West Virginia is that they may be too deep. Much like Florida State, the Mountaineers rotate at least 10 players, and when you’re playing in high-leverage spots like this, there’s not enough time to get that many guys in a rhythm.
Regardless of who is on the court, West Virginia won’t be able to stop Przemek Karnowski and the Zags’ bigs, so if they can’t harass these guards, they won’t be moving on. Spoiler Alert: they won’t.
Pick: Gonzaga (-3).
Xavier Musketeers vs Arizona Wildcats (-7.5, 144.5 o/u)
Sean Miller takes on his old team as the clammy coach tries to get the Wildcats back to the Elite Eight for the fourth time in the last seven years. They’re big favorites over Xavier, but it won’t be easy … to get the cover anyways.
The Musketeers have done some impressive things since their tournament eligibility was hanging in the balance, upsetting Butler in the Big East tourney before knocking off Maryland and Florida State in the first two rounds. Trevon Bluiett is leading the way, shooting over 50-percent from the floor in his past four games and averaging nearly 23 a game.
There’s nothing overly impressive about Xavier; they’re just a solid all around team. Arizona should be able to exploit a mismatch with Lauri Markkanen, but they need to keep feeding the big man. Florida State got away from a similar advantage with Jonathan Isaac and that allowed the Musketeers to run away with it.
The more talented Wildcats should move on, but Xavier has been such a scrappy team this past few weeks, I’d hate to underestimate them again. They’ve covered in six straight, and I expect that to move to seven.