We had to suffer through some ugly basketball in the First Four games (aside from, unsurprisingly, Wichita State/Vanderbilt). But the green veggies are over and it's time for the steak. The real NCAA Tournament is here. Let's do this.
Remember that if you still haven't finished filling out your bracket, I picked the full thing here.
Yesterday ATS: 1-1-0
2016 Tournament ATS: 3-1-0
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)
UNC Wilmington (+10.5) over Duke: This line is just a wee bit ridiculous. I know, I know... you're shocked to see Duke with a very "public" line in an NCAA Tournament game. Me, too. We'll get through this together.
On a serious note, the Colonial was the most underrated conference in the nation this season, and UNC-Wilmington's 14-4 record was impressive. People see the name "UNC Wilmington" and assume they are from some tiny conference, when in fact they won a regular season title in a conference stronger than the Mountain West. They are also a team that will run Duke's outside shooters off the three-point line (11th in the nation in defensive 3PA/FGA). I'm not saying that UNC-Wilmington will win this game, particularly since I'd worry about a big game from Grayson Allen, but they should keep this close.
Butler (-4.5) over Texas Tech: Using nothing but computer metrics, Butler is the obvious pick here. Texas Tech, as I've written about extensively, got its high seed because they did a beautiful job of gaming the RPI with their schedule. Throw in some luck in late season close games, and both Sagarin and Pomeroy rate Butler the better team. In terms of personnel, I don't like how bad Texas Tech's three-point defense is considering Butler's 39% season-long three-point shooting. If the Red Raiders pull the upset, it'll be because they got Butler's (relatively thin) front line in foul trouble.
UConn (-3.5) over Colorado: Everybody and their sister is picking UConn to win this game. In large part that's because of UConn's two recent miraculous tourney runs, which personally say nothing to me about how they'll do this year. But UConn is simply the better team. Colorado is another team that (like Texas Tech) had an inflated RPI. Colorado also had some good luck in close games (they're only 55th in Pomeroy), and was particularly bad on the road. In road/neutral games, Colorado was 0-10 vs the Pomeroy Top 100, while UConn went 7-7. Colorado would need a significant match-up advantage for me to pick them here, and I don't see one.
Iowa State (-8) over Iona: This is a fair line, and it's hard to feel too strongly one way or other other. My biggest concern with taking the points here is how high scoring this game will be, with the winner having a good chance to finish with 90+ points. If Iowa State gets an early lead, they could blow this game open awfully quickly. Iona has certainly been a better team in conference play with AJ English, but I'm not sure how they can ever get a defensive stop against this Iowa State starting lineup. And Iona doesn't have the players to take advantage of Iowa State's biggest problem: rebounding.
Yale (+5) over Baylor: If there's going to be a 12/5 upset, this is the one I think is most likely. For Yale to win, however, they're going to need to prove that their excellent rebounding efficiencies are true skill, and will not disappear against a Baylor front line that is far more athletic than what Yale faced in the Ivy League. The Justin Sears/Rico Gathers match-up will be worth the price of admission alone.
Virginia (-24) over Hampton: It's impossible to have strong feelings about 1/16 games. Virginia could dominate this game and Hampton could backdoor cover. That said, if I have to pick one side here, I don't like that Hampton is a team that wants to run and get easy second-chance points. Virginia will not allow any of that.
Austin Peay (+26) over Kansas:
Once again, it's hard to have strong feelings here. Realistically, Austin Peay has no chance to seriously compete in this game, but Kansas is a jump shot heavy team, so they're going to need to shoot well to cover.
Purdue (-9) over UALR: This is a fair line, but as one of the shortest teams in the country I can't fathom how UALR defends the massive Purdue front line. Smaller teams can cause Purdue trouble when they press defensively and force turnovers against Purdue's underwhelming backcourt, but UALR doesn't do that either. Little Rock was 21st in the nation in 3P%, but Matt Painter teams are almost always good at getting shooters off the three-point line. I like Purdue to win fairly easily here.
Buffalo (+14.5) over Miami: This game will likely come down to how it is reffed. Buffalo is a physical team that gets after the glass, controls the paint, and gets to the free throw line. Miami can be susceptible to teams like that, particularly if Tonye Jekiri gets in foul trouble. That said, Miami was 2nd best in the ACC in defensive FTRate, so in general they were pretty good at not having foul trouble. Buffalo will want the refs to call this one tight. Miami has been an inconsistent team this season, so I wouldn't be at all surprised if they run Buffalo off the court, but they also could lose this game outright.
Chattanooga (+12) over Indiana: Indiana is always a tough team to pick against the spread because they are so dependent on outside shooting. If those threes are dropping at a high clip, they'll win in a rout. But if they struggle to hit shots, Chattanooga is good enough to win this game outright. The big difference for Indiana this year relative to last year has been interior defense, primarily in the form of Thomas Bryant (Max Biefeldt). The match-up to watch, for sure, will be how Justin Tuoyo handles the Indiana front line.
Florida Gulf Coast (+22) over North Carolina: This is a fair line, so it's hard to have a strong opinion on this game. I do think that this Florida Gulf Coast front line is athletic and talented, and should be able to keep North Carolina off the offensive glass. The Tar Heels offense has a tendency to get bogged down when they're not getting easy second chance points. They will still win, but I'm betting that it won't be a total rout.
Fresno State (+9) over Utah: Utah has been very lucky in close games this season (10-2 in games decided by six points or fewer), so the computers are not fans of them. They will very plausibly be Vegas underdogs against 11 seed Gonzaga, if those two teams get there. But they have to get there, and Utah has a tough test as well. Fresno State has an aggressive perimeter defense which led the Mountain West in defensive steal rate, and which will cause problems for a Utah backcourt that is underwhelming. If Utah covers, it will likely be because Jakob Poeltl had a monster game.
Arizona (-2) over Wichita State: I took Arizona in my bracket, and I'm going to stick with them here, but this is obviously an unfair Round of 64 match-up. These are two teams that would have been great Final Four sleepers if not for this terrible draw. In the end, I think Arizona is a deeper, bigger roster, and think that they dominate the paint and rebounding battles. As good as Wichita State has been, the lack of competition in conference play puts a little bit of doubt on their efficiency numbers. Arizona, in contrast, has been absolutely fantastic in Pac-12 play ever since they got fully healthy. Even with the early injuries, they still finished as the most efficient team in Pac-12 play (+0.14 PPP, compared to +0.10 PPP for Oregon).
Stony Brook (+14.5) over Kentucky: Unless you were a fan of an America East rival, you were very happy to see Stony Brook finally break through with this core of players. And it will be fascinating to watch what Jameel Warney can do against a Kentucky front line that has been far from intimidating defensively (particularly compared to the incredible paint defenses John Calipari has rolled out for the most part the past five seasons). But this is a very "public" line, as Pomeroy has it at 10 points and Sagarin at 12. The test for Stony Brook will be holding their own on the defensive glass. If they can, they should cover the spread.
Providence (-2) over USC: With a spread this small you just want to pick the team you think is going to win, and I took Providence in my bracket. Providence was probably the slightly better team this season, and Ben Bentil will be a mismatch for a USC front line that has struggled with paint defense and defensive rebounding. Kris Dunn also will be able to lock up Jordan McLaughlin defensively.
Gonzaga (-1.5) over Seton Hall: I took Gonzaga in my bracket. Seton Hall is getting a ton of hype because of that magical Big East tournament run, but for the rest of the season prior to two weeks ago they were a bubble quality team. It's generally smart to bet on "regression" in a situation like that. On top of that, Seton Hall has struggled against strong offensive rebounding teams, particularly if Angel Delgado gets in foul trouble. Domantas Sabonis could have a monster game.