Yesterday was one of the craziest days of the NCAA Tournament that I can ever remember. It busted a lot of brackets, and also led to my worst day against the spread in the seven years that I've picked all of the games.
One of the things that I preach about every year, but which is constantly forgotten, is just how tiny a 40 minute sample size is. Crazy things can happen, and trying to draw narratives about players, teams, coaches, or programs over single NCAA Tournament games is irrational and dumb.
So for example, when Middle Tennessee beats Michigan State, nobody suddenly thinks that this proves that Middle Tennessee was better than Michigan State this past season. Nobody thinks that it means Tom Izzo can't coach in the NCAA Tournament either, because neither of those are narratives that we're interested in. Yet we do it with other teams and coaches. Purdue lost? Fire Matt Painter! Arizona lost? Sean Miller just can't take this team to the next level! Baylor lost? LOL Scott Drew sucks. But why? Why is Purdue's loss or Arizona's loss or Baylor's loss any more meaningful than Michigan State's loss? Why have we mentally decided that one game is a fluke, while another means something? Particularly when so many games yesterday were decided right at the buzzer.
As a side note, I think West Virginia's putrid performance needs a special mention. Since we're all obsessed with scores, I saw that the "college basketball quality of play sucks" crowd in the media was fixated on the low Wisconsin/Pittsburgh score, but that game was low scoring more because of the crazy slow tempo (54 possessions) than the scoring. Pitt scored 0.80 PPP in the loss, which was identical to what West Virginia scored against Stephen F Austin. And I watched a significant chunk of Wisconsin/Pitt, and both teams were getting decent shots, but they were just not shooting well. In contrast, a full 80% of the points West Virginia scored were at the free throw line, in transition, or as second chance points. When West Virginia was in a halfcourt offense, it was just completely hopeless. Of all the college basketball I have watched in my life, I have literally never seen a more hopeless offense than West Virginia yesterday. And I say that as somebody who has watched about twenty different West Virginia games over the last two seasons - I'm familiar with how ugly "Press Virginia" looks even when it's going well. But West Virginia simply picked the worst time of the year to put on their ever worst performance.
Anyway, let's get to today's games, which surely can't live up to yesterday, but which hopefully will have fewer surprises against the spread.
Yesterday ATS: 5-11-0
2016 Tournament ATS: 17-18-1
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)
Wichita St (-2) over Miami: Wichita State is really good, as we already know before they dominated what is probably the best team in the Pac-12. So this line, while surprising to some, is fair. Wichita State's defense has been great all season, and it was great against Arizona as well. They are particularly good at keeping scorers out of the lane and forcing jump shots, which is not what Miami wants to do. Offensively, Wichita State is not a good jump shooting team, but they hit jump shots poorly against Arizona and it didn't matter.
Duke (-6) over Yale: Defensive rebounding will obviously be the concern for Duke here. Yale is an excellent rebounding team, but it's worth noting that they were outrebounded by a Baylor team that is pretty bad at defensive rebounding themselves (though not as bad as Duke). But with a spread this small, you only want to take Yale if you really think that this is a toss-up game, and I just don't see that. Duke's offense is so athletic and talented.
Kentucky (-3.5) over Indiana: As much as Indiana's defense has improved this season, they are still heavily dependent on their offense, and specifically on outside shooting to carry them. They shot the lights out against Chattanooga (10-for-16 on threes), and so they won in a rout. But with a poor shooting night, they easily could have lost. As much as Kentucky's defense has dropped off this season in the paint, John Calipari teams are always good at preventing three-pointers. Kentucky was 17th in the nation, and 1st in the SEC, in defense 3PA/FGA. It's hard to fathom Indiana winning this game in the paint.
Iowa State (-6.5) over UALR:
Yesterday, while I was on twitter bemoaning what a toxic waste dump the West Virginia offense was, one person suggested to me that Iowa State today would cleanse my palette. I hope they're right. Iowa State is also the luckiest team playing today. Purdue was an absolutely
nightmare match-up for them with their size and depth. By knocking them
out in the craziest game of the Round of 64, UALR poses a far, far
easier challenge. Also, as a team that doesn't go after offensive
rebounds and doesn't draw a lot of fouls, they can't take advantage of
Iowa State's two weaknesses. I like the Cyclones in a rout here.
Virginia (-7.5) over Butler:
This is probably the toughest game of the day to pick against the
spread. It's a very fair line. Butler's offense against Virginia's
defense will be something of the unstoppable force vs the immovable
object, though Virginia's defense has been particularly "immovable" over
the past six weeks or so (after some relatively ugly defensive
performances early in the season). But the part of Virginia that the
media never mentions (due to pacism) is how incredibly efficient the
Virginia offense is. Butler might really struggle to stop them, and
that's why I'd be stunned if they actually pull the upset.
Kansas (-8) over UConn: Both of these teams are fantastic defensively. The difference to me is how well Kansas shoots the ball. The Jayhawks hit 42.1% of their three-pointer this season, which was third best in the nation. Daniel Hamilton is an excellent player, but UConn just does not have the overall firepower offensively to keep up with the Jayhawks. This game is hardly a mismatch, and UConn has the ability to win this game if the Jayhawks go cold, but Kansas is clearly the significantly better team.
Gonzaga (PK) over Utah: This spread is not a surprise at all. Not only is Gonzaga a strong 11 seed, but Utah is easily the weakest of the 3 seeds. Utah deserved their seed, but they got there by going 10-2 in games decided by six points or fewer. The Domantas Sabonis/Jakob Poeltl match-up will be worth the price of admission alone, but Utah is not likely to test Gonzaga's lack of depth, particularly in the backcourt. One significant advantage that Utah has is that they led the nation in defensive FTRate, something which will come in handy against a Gonzaga team that hit at a 76% clip during the season. But I think Gonzaga is truly the stronger team, and anytime a stronger team has a significantly lower seed, I think that's a great bet.
North Carolina (-10) over Providence: This seems like a big spread, but it's really not. North Carolina is favored by 11 in Pomeroy and by 12 in Sagarin. Providence was lucky in close games this season, and was not nearly as strong as their resume. North Carolina also has waves and waves of athletic, long big men who can both defend Ben Bentil and also get after the glass, where Providence struggled. The Tar Heels are not at all dependent on jump shooting, so the only way Providence can pull this game out will be if all of their key players have big nights at the same time. I'd bet against that.