I'm setting up one post for all discussions of the Elite 8 games. I don't plan on posting anything else tonight, so this post should still be at the top of the page when the games start up on Sunday.
I already picked the lines for today's games in this post. Both West Virginia and Butler opened up at four point underdogs, and I picked both of them. West Virginia is the easier one for me, because I simply think they're better than Kentucky. Their beat down of Washington in their first game after losing their starting point guard was really impressive, and they've been winning close games over elite teams all season long, while Kentucky has been softened up by a weaker conference and a weaker path to the Elite 8. A big misconception is that Kentucky is good at forcing turnovers (they were actually only 8th best in the SEC), and West Virginia should be even better at taking care of the ball in their second game without Truck Bryant. There was a clear difference just from the first half to the second half of their win over Washington. And finally, despite John Wall being the better overall player and the better NBA prospect, if today's game comes down to the wire I'd rather have Da'Sean Butler take that last shot than Wall. Butler has been the best clutch player in the nation this year.
And as for the Butler/Kansas State game, I do think that the talent levels are fairly even. Jacob Pullen has been hit or miss all season long, mixing in 6-for-12 nights behind the arc with 1-for-7 nights, and at no time this year did he have three of those hot nights in a row. They'll need a third in a row to survive Butler. Kansas State's best team strength is offensive rebounding, but Butler is a very good defensive rebounding team that managed to basically fight to a draw against Syracuse, so they should be able to hold off Kansas State. And K-State's biggest weakness is putting opponents on the line, while Butler is good at getting there, and they shoot at a 74% clip once they get there. And all of the downsides to Kansas State that caused me to pick against them earlier still exist: they're poor at shooting free throws, and they turn over the ball a lot. They've managed to avoid those problems the last two games, but the stats don't lie. The two advantages for Kansas State will be offensive backcourt play and inside offense. If they can pound the ball inside they might be able to score at will. And if Jacob Pullen does put together a third straight superstar night then Butler doesn't have anybody who can guard him. But it's no sure thing. This game is a toss-up for me, so I'm taking the points.
Now, here are my thoughts on Sunday's games:
Day 6 picks against the spread: 3-1-0
Overall ATS through Sweet 16 games: 31-22-3
Michigan State (-2) over Tennessee: Tennessee will be a bigger test for Korie Lucious, who was not good handling the ball without Kalin Lucas back during Big Ten play. Tennessee is much better at forcing turnovers than Northern Iowa is. If Michigan State can avoid a lot of turnovers they will have the very clear advantage inside. They're one of the best rebounding teams in the nation, and Tennessee is actually rather poor. Brian Williams is the only big they have who will be able to bang with the Michigan State post players, and he has a bad habit of fouling himself out against elite big men. Wayne Chism has the size to play down low, but it's not to Tennessee's advantage to have him banging bodies with Delvon Roe and Draymond Green. He's much more valuable in the open floor. The other thing to consider is that Tennessee is actually pretty poor offensively, and they struggle to score against just about any team when they're not getting easy layups off of turnovers. So in the end this game will come down to turnovers. Can Tennessee force enough turnovers to open this game up, and allow them enough easy baskets that they don't get bogged down in long stretches without made field goals? Korie Lucious is playing with so much more confidence this Tournament than I saw all year long when he seemed to be trying too hard (a sure sign of insecurity), and I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt. I think Michigan State will keep the turnover numbers close enough to win the game.
Duke (-4) over Baylor: You have to put that Baylor-Saint Mary's game out of your mind when picking this game. They looked great and absolutely dominated that game, but you always want to be cautious about assuming that a team will play the same way twice in a row. Baylor has actually had an easy route to the Elite 8, as Duke will be the first single-digit they'll have played in this entire Tournament. Baylor has one of the nation's best defensive players in the paint in Ekpe Udoh, but Duke has multiple quality options in the paint. Duke absolutely dominated the paint in the second half against JaJuan Johnson and Purdue. The advantage for Baylor will be on the perimeter, because LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter have carried that team all season long. Both are outstanding three-point shooters, but Duke is the #1 rated three-point defense in the nation, and they've always got good perimeter defense. But the advantage for Baylor will be the lack of backcourt depth that Duke has, and if Dunn and Carter can speed up this game and wear out Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith then they could start torching the Duke defenders off the dribble. Duke has good big men, but nobody like Ekpe Udoh who is capable of erasing the mistakes of perimeter defenders. This will be a very even game, with both teams capable of balancing out the strengths of the other. In the end I'm going to lean on two things: experience and execution. Coach K has been here before and won here before, and his team executes so incredibly well at the end of games. There is no team in the nation that operates in the final two minutes of games better than Duke, and I'd trust them more than Baylor in a close finish. What I'd be more worried about than picking Duke straight up is actually that point spread, which is probably a little bit high, as Duke's point lines tend to be. I could easily see Duke winning this game by less than four. So if I were you, I'd feel more confident taking the money line on Duke than the spread.