Alright folks. We're done with the appetizers and now the NCAA Tournament, as far as most people are concerned, is beginning. This post is an open thread, so please join me in discussion below throughout the day. Also feel free to chat with me on twitter.
At the bottom of this post are my picks of Thursday's lines.
The "First Four" did give us a couple of interesting games on Tuesday... I won't call them "good" because that Western Kentucky/Mississippi Valley State was one of the worst Division I games I've ever seen. That might have been the worst that Western Kentucky has played all season, and they still won.
The story tonight was South Florida destroying California. USF had the game of their season, finishing with a 62.2 eFG% and 1.10 points per possession. USF played 23 games this season (prior to tonight) against teams from BCS conferences, and out-did 1.10 PPP in five of them. Those five games came against Rutgers, Villanova. St. John's, Providence and DePaul, the five worst teams in the Big East. Cal, meanwhile, was the best defense in the Pac-12.
Media dinosaurs like Seth Davis and Mike DeCourcy took to twitter late in the game to crow about how this game proves that the computer ratings (which all rate Cal as the much better team) were all wrong. Of course, this one game doesn't mean any more about team quality or conference quality than Davidson's win over Kansas meant that Davidson is better than Kansas, or that the SoCon is better than the Big 12. But this is sadly typical behavior in the media.
Anyway, here are my picks of the lines (and yes, I did decide to take credit for taking Vermont over Lamar, even though a meeting at work preventing my picking the lines post today from going up until 5 minutes into the game - I didn't want to spend the rest of my life explaining why I only made 66 picks instead of 67 in 2012):
Total through First Four ATS: 1-3-0
2011 Tournament ATS: 40-26-1
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3
UNC Asheville (+15.5) over Syracuse: I'd probably lay off this game, if I were you. It's always difficult to tell how teams will respond to the Tournament atmosphere in their opening game, and that's particularly true for this Syracuse team playing without Fab Melo (as well as the mental knowledge that Melo will not be back). If Melo was playing I'd give the points, but I'm being cautious here.
Kansas State (-5.5) over Southern Miss: I've been waiting a while to bet against Southern Miss in the NCAA Tournament. The key for Kansas State will be attacking and getting into the paint, because I'm pretty sure that there is no at-large team as bad at help defense as Southern Miss. Athletic teams have tended to have layup lines against the Southern Miss defense all season.
Ohio State (-17) over Loyola-Maryland: Loyola-Maryland had a great run to get here, but this is going to be a reality check. They don't shoot the ball well, they don't turn opponents over, and they don't play good defense. In the MAAC they were able to get a lot of offensive boards (they led the MAAC in offensive rebounding percentage), but that obviously won't happen against Ohio State. This will be a romp.
Gonzaga (-1) over West Virginia: In my preview of this game, I talked about the key concern for West Virginia - the interior. Gonzaga's bigs have dominated just about every team they've played this year, and West Virginia has struggled with paint defense and they don't shoot the ball well from outside. Unless Kevin Jones goes off for 25+ points, Gonzaga should win this game.
Kentucky (-24.5) over Western Kentucky: Did you watch that First Four game? Good Lord.
UConn (-1.5) over Iowa State: Everything Iowa State does comes from Royce White. UConn is one of the teams that has the athletic, long defenders to slow him down. They key concern for UConn will be the offensive glass. They rely on teasy putbacks, and Iowa State is very strong on the defensive glass.
Marquette (-6) over BYU: There's been a lot of discussion of whether the quick turn-around from the play-in game matters. I can't fathom that only having two days to prepare matters, because both teams are in the same boat. Certainly there hasn't been enough data to tell one way or the other whether play-in teams have an advantage or disadvantage from that extra game. The biggest concern for BYU is turning the ball over, which they did quite a bit in the first half against Iona. Marquette's defense is vulnerable if they're not getting turnovers. That said, I really wonder how BYU's shallow bench can handle this athletic Marquette team that is very good at drawing fouls. And if there's one thing that the short turnover could test it's BYU's physical fitness after a wild game against Iona followed by another uptempo game here.
Colorado State (+5) over Murray State: I'd feel more confident picking against Murray State with a better 11 seed. Both of these teams are overrated. My general thinking on this game is here, and I certainly like getting five points.
South Dakota State (+8) over Baylor: I picked Baylor to go all the way to the Elite 8, but 8 points are a lot here for Baylor against a very good South Dakota State team. A particular vulnerability here is that Baylor's defense is strongest in the paint, and their perimeter defense is only average by Big 12 standards. South Dakota State is hitting 39.3% of their three-pointers this season, and if they go off then they really could make a game of this. The biggest concern for South Dakota State is that they in no way have the athletes to take advantage of Baylor's poor defensive rebounding.
UNLV (-5) over Colorado: The fact that California played a terrible game against South Florida doesn't mean that the Pac-12 is any worse than we thought it was 24 hours ago, but Colorado was probably the sixth best team in the Pac-12 during the regular season. I'm particularly influenced by UNLV's ability to turn Colorado over, and to cause havoc for Colorado's interior scoring with shot blocking.
Harvard (+5) over Vanderbilt: This is a really tough game to pick. That spread is exactly correct. I did pick Vandy to win this game, but with a five point spread? I'll lean toward the points.
Wisconsin (-9) over Montana: I'm not really sure what the argument is for Montana here. The only argument I can make for them is that with their solid shooting defense, it's possible that Wisconsin could go cold from the field and this could end up being something like a 49-43 finish, in which case Montana would cover the spread. But I wouldn't bet on it.
Wichita State (-6.5) over VCU: This line is influenced by VCU's run last season. Wichita State should be favored by 8 or 9. This is a really good Wichita State team, and VCU's only chance to win is to get 25+ turnovers.
Indiana (-6) over New Mexico State: This is a popular upset pick, but I don't really understand why. Indiana is a strong 4 seed and New Mexico State is at best an average 13 seed. The only way New Mexico State can win this game is if they get Cody Zeller in early foul trouble and they dominate the offensive glass.
New Mexico (-4) over Long Beach State: This is a game I could easily see being very close, but it's just awfully unlikely that Long Beach State will lose this game by 1-3 points. I picked New Mexico, so I'll risk the 4 points.
Davidson (+7) over Louisville: I have Louisville in the Final Four, so I'm obviously high on them, but Davidson is not a good match-up for them. Davidson is comfortable running, they don't the ball over, and they will be able to get quite a few offensive rebounds against Louisville. This could be an awfully close game, and an upset is within the realm of possibilities.