The driving media narrative about the NCAA Tournament so far is that the Pac-12 stinks and was overrated... which is both true and false. The Pac-12 was overrated, and we knew that they were over-seeded. The bracket was built by the RPI this year, and the Pac-12 easily had the most inflated conference RPI of any of the multi-bid leagues. But drawing conclusions from five or six games is also a bit silly.
Remember, of the six Pac-12 teams to lose thus far, five were Vegas underdogs at tip-off, and the one that wasn't (California) was badly undermanned due to injuries. So even though Oregon State as a 7 seed losing to a 10 seed is being called a "double-digit seed upset", they were a 4.5 point underdog in Vegas. They didn't really "underperform"... we knew they weren't as good as VCU.
On Selection Sunday, there were three teams that were outside the Top 40 of the Massey, Pomeroy, and Sagarin ratings but still earned single digit seeds. All three were in the Pac-12 (Oregon State, Colorado, and USC), and all three lost their opening games as Vegas underdogs.
The thing is that Pac-12 teams could have gotten lucky and pulled some upsets. Arizona could have made the Sweet 16, or Utah, or Oregon State, and then the narrative would have been how the Pac-12 was under-rated. But you can't draw narratives about conferences from a sample size of five or six games. The Pac-12 was over-seeded, and that would have been true even if the conference's teams had all played well the past three days.
As for today's games, this is an awfully difficult batch to pick against the spread. A remarkable six of the eight games have consensus Vegas spreads between 6 or 7 points. All have clear favorites, but how many of those underdogs will cover? It's a tough call.
Anyway, let's get to those games:
Yesterday ATS: 6-2-0
2016 Tournament ATS: 23-20-1
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)
Villanova (-7) over Iowa: This is a difficult spread to pick because of how dependent both of these teams are on outside jump shooting. If one of these teams hits outside shots at a significantly higher rate than the other, they're almost certain to win. There are two reasons to like Villanova here. First, they're simply a better passing team. Iowa has a tendency to get clogged up and force bad hero ball when aggressive defenses disrupt their offense. And Villanova is one of the best teams in the country at keeping opponents out of the paint.
Notre Dame (-1.5) over Stephen F Austin: Considering how horrifically ugly that Stephen F Austin/West Virginia game was, I'm not sure what we really learned about this Stephen F Austin team. What I like about Notre Dame is two things. First, they led the ACC in offensive turnover rate, so I doubt they'll allowing the Lumberjacks the easy baskets they enjoyed against West Virginia. Second, they led the ACC with 77% FT shooting in conference play, which will come in handy against a Lumberjacks team that tends to commit a lot of fouls. The Irish simply have a lot of high basketball IQ players who will avoid the dumb mistakes and make the right passes far, far more than West Virginia did on Friday.
VCU (+6.5) over Oklahoma: Oklahoma has struggled this season against teams that can force turnovers and get after the offensive glass. The Sooners defense is fantastic in the half court, but if you can grab a bunch of easy baskets it puts a lot of pressure on Buddy Hield to have a big game. Offensively, Oklahoma likes to chuck up threes, where they were second in the nation with 43% three-point shooting, but VCU has made a big improvement this past season at preventing threes, leading the Atlantic Ten in defensive 3PA/FGA. You can make a good case that Oklahoma should fear this game more than any potential Sweet 16 opponent.
Syracuse (-6.5) over Middle Tennessee: Middle Tennessee shout out of their minds against Michigan State, hitting 11-for-19 behind the arc. They shot the ball well during the regular season (39% on threes), but expecting that type of explosion again is unrealistic. And considering that they are not known as a good passing team, and have never seen a zone like Syracuse runs, the only hope Middle Tennessee has in this game is to shoot 40%+ on threes again. It's usually wise to bet on regression.
Hawaii (+7) over Maryland: Maryland's inconsistency and late season slide has been a little bit hard to understand. But the complete list of teams that they have beaten away from home since January 9th is: Nebraska, Ohio State, and South Dakota State... and they nearly blew that South Dakota State game on Friday. Just on pure quality of play the last month or two, that spread is too high. I do like that Maryland does a good job of not committing fouls against a Hawaii team that likes to play physical in the paint, but that's not enough of a match-up advantage for me to want to take the Terps here.
Texas A&M (-6.5) over Northern Iowa: It's hard to feel strongly about this line, which is very fair. My biggest concern for Northern Iowa is how they'll deal with the athletic, physical front line that the Aggies possess. I had the same concern about the Texas game, and the Longhorns had a significant advantage in both rebounding and paint points. Northern Iowa won that game at the line (and with their miracle buzzer beater, of course), but the Aggies led the SEC in defensive FTRate, so I doubt we'll see that again.
Xavier (-4.5) over Wisconsin: I wouldn't have too many concerns about Wisconsin despite that 47 point performance. They scored 0.87 PPP despite some awful jump shooting. Their offense hasn't been great, but it's been fairly good over the last month or two. My concern for Wisconsin is that they no longer are elite at defensive rebounding and avoiding fouls. Xavier led the Big East in FTRate and was second in offensive rebounding rate. Wisconsin is either going to need to draw a ton of fouls themselves, or shoot the ball really well, to pull off this upset.
Oregon (-6.5) over Saint Joseph's: In all, six of the eight games today have spreads between 6 and 7 points, most of which are difficult to make calls on. The favored team is favored for a reason. In this case, both Oregon and Saint Joseph's were teams that were overrated for their seeds. Saint Joseph's has been on a really nice four game stretch, primarily due to an offense that has really been clicking. But their offense has been strong because they don't make mistakes, not because they have a great individual scorer. Oregon has a unique defensive weapon in Chris Boucher, who I think should disrupt a lot of those easy baskets in the lane. Certainly it wouldn't be the biggest upset in the world if Oregon lost, and this is probably a "stay away" game, but if I have to pick a team I'll take Oregon.