Sometimes we have some weird teams in the Sweet 16, but not this year. Other than maybe UCLA and North Carolina State, all 16 teams playing are legitimately among the 25 best in the nation. And with UCLA and NC State playing Friday, our lineup for Thursday night's games is spectacular. I only wish we had the type of staggered start times that we had last week, because inevitably we're going to have two competitive games tonight ending at close to the same time.
While most attention will probably be on the marquee Wisconsin/North Carolina game in the first pair of games and The Kentucky Show in the second pair of games, don't sleep on the interesting Wichita State/Notre Dame contrast in styles or the Sean Miller Bowl between Xavier and Arizona.
As a side note, since many have asked, I have had to push back the start of releasing my 2015-16 conference previews because of so many small conference teams still alive in the CBI and CIT. I've actually written the majority of the conference previews, but am now pushing back the release of the first one until Monday, and might end up posting them out of order. Have no fear, though, because within the next two weeks or so I will finish and release all of them. I'm aiming to release my preseason bracket projection on Friday, April 10th.
As always, feel free to shoot me a comment to this blog post, or tweet at me. I'll do my best to respond to everybody.
Yesterday ATS: 5-3-0
2015 Tournament ATS: 31-21-0 (60%)
2014 Tournament ATS: 40-23-4 (63%)
2013 Tournament ATS: 36-30-1 (55%)
2012 Tournament ATS: 30-35-2 (46%)
2011 Tournament ATS: 40-26-1 (61%)
2010 Tournament ATS: 35-25-3 (58%)
Wichita State (-2) over Notre Dame:
Wichita State is actually favored in this game, and deservedly so. Of course, their win over Kansas closed as a PK in Vegas, yet it didn't stop the announcers and the media from running with the "plucky underdog" narrative. As always, Notre Dame is a tough team to predict because so much of their success is predicated on hitting outside shots. If they get hot from behind the arc they'll likely win this game. Wichita State's perimeter defense led the Missouri Valley in defensive 3PA/FGA, though Indiana was able to torch them, so the Irish could as well. In my opinion, this game comes down to the paint, where Wichita State should be the better rebounding team and the better defensive team. I think they have more ways to win, and wouldn't worry about laying two points.
Wisconsin (-6.5) over North Carolina:
This line is consistent with the computers, and there are some questionable injury situations here, as Wisconsin seems likely to get starting point guard Traevon Jackson back for the first time in two months (though likely only for a few minutes off the bench) while North Carolina is hoping that Kennedy Meeks can play after injuring his knee against Arkansas. But in my opinion, that stuff doesn't matter. Wisconsin is a nightmare match-up for a North Carolina team that relies on scoring in transition and on second chance offense. They led the ACC in OR% and were 30th in the nation in % of initial FGAs taken in transition while they were dead last in the ACC in 3PA/FGA. Wisconsin led the Big Ten in DR% and is always strong at transition defense. If North Carolina is stuck generating their offense from two-point jump shots out of their half court offense, there's just no way that they keep up with the Badgers offense.
West Virginia (+13) over Kentucky:
We know how West Virginia wins games, by generating turnovers and offensive rebounds. They have the worst eFG% of any team that earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, so they're not going to out-shoot anybody. Kentucky's defensive rebounding is a liability, of course. They are just 197th in the nation in DR% and allowed Cincinnati to rebound 45% of their misses in the Round of 32. At the same time, Kentucky's ball handling has gotten much better throughout the season. They have committed turnovers on 15% or fewer of their offensive possessions in 7 of their last 9 games after only doing it in 6 of the previous 17. But if West Virginia can make this an uptempo game dominated by the backcourts, that's not how Kentucky likes to play. It will make it much more difficult for Kentucky's best player, Karl Towns, to have an impact, and John Calipari might be forced to play Tyler Ullis over one of the Harrison twins much more than he normally likes. The Mountaineers will need a fluky good shooting day to actually win this game outright, but I'll take the points.
Xavier (+11.5) over Arizona: Nobody is giving Xavier a chance in this game, probably in large part because of the media pushing hard on the "Big East sucks" narrative. But Xavier is currently 22nd in both Pomeroy and the Sagarin PREDICTOR right now, so they're no joke. The concern for Xavier in this game, of course, is handling Arizona's size inside. The Wildcats led the Pac-12 in both offensive and defensive 2P%, as well as OR%, DR% and FTRate. Xavier is one of the biggest teams in the country, though. And while they don't block many shots, they can physically hold their ground, and both Matt Stainbrook and Jalen Reynolds have the ability to get the Arizona front line in foul trouble. Arizona looked great against Ohio State, but that was in large part because Gabe York had the game of his life (5-for-9 behind the arc) off the bench. In my opinion, Arizona doesn't have an obvious mismatch in this game, and so I'd rather take the 11.5 points.