It feels like it's been about two months since we've had a college basketball game, right? I mean, we had CIT, CBI, and NIT games, but the last NCAA Tournament game was just an eternity ago. Thankfully, it's back tonight, so let's get back to the previews:
Sunday ATS: 1-1-0
2016 Tournament ATS: 34-29-1
2015 Tournament ATS: 39-28-0 (58%)
2010-14 ATS: 181-139-11 (57%)
Villanova (-2) over Oklahoma: Villanova will never beat back the media reputation that they are a team that lives and dies with the three, but the reality is that Oklahoma is more dependent on outside shooting than Villanova is. While 48% of the shots that Villanova took in their first 15 games this season were three-pointers, only 40% of their shots have been three-pointers since. In contrast, Oklahoma increased their shooting dependency late in the season, taking 44.1% of their shots in Big 12 play from beyond the arc. The one game this NCAA Tournament where they did not shoot above their season average (31% on threes vs VCU) they struggled and nearly lost to a significantly inferior team. In their other three games they have hit a ridiculous 49.3% of their three-pointers. In contrast, Villanova defeated Kansas despite ugly 4-for-18 three-point shooting. Kansas didn't shoot much better, but Villanova won that game with their suffocating defense and their ability to score in the paint. That's not to say that Oklahoma doesn't come to this game with strong defense as well, but their offense just does not have the same number of options, and they will go stagnant if those three-pointers aren't going in. Buddy Hield has been the best player in the NCAA Tournament so far, and he can almost single-handedly win this game for the Sooners, but he's going to need to have one of the best games of his career to overcome the depth of Villanova.
Before I move on, I want to address the "You know that these two teams played and Oklahoma won by 23 points, right?". Yes, I'm aware. But this was back in the early part of the season when Villanova was chucking threes constantly (the majority of their shots from the field, in fact, were three-pointers). More importantly, the shooting was awfully fluky. Oklahoma hit 54% of their three-pointers while Villanova was an atrocious 4-for-32 (13%). In fact, only four other Division I teams in the past five seasons shot 32 or more three-pointers in a game while hitting 13% or fewer. That game was so fluky that it becomes just not at all instructive. So, yeah, if Oklahoma hits 50%+ of their threes and Villanova hits under 15% of theirs then Oklahoma will win big. But if Villanova hits 50%+ of their threes while Oklahoma hits under 15% of theirs then Villanova will win big. Both of those previous sentences fall under the "No, duh" category of analysis.
Syracuse (+9.5) over North Carolina: North Carolina and Syracuse played twice during the regular season, and though the Tar Heels won both games, they were played quite differently. They had a narrow win at a home and a romp of a win on the road. When things went well (the romp on the road), they benefited from Syracuse getting far too jump shot happy. When the Tar Heels struggled, it was they who got caught taking too many jump shots. North Carolina is, in general, a poor jump shooting team - they hit 28% of their three-pointers in ACC play, which was dead worst in the league. The Syracuse zone, as you know, tends to force a lot of long jump shots. Of course, the Tar Heels are also third in the nation in offensive rebounding rate, while this Syracuse team has been horrible on the defensive glass. In the previous round, Syracuse benefited from playing a Virginia team that didn't look to rebound its own misses. That obviously will not be the case here against the Tar Heels.
In the end, this is a fair Vegas line. Both teams have clear weaknesses than can be exploited by the other. To me, the tiebreaker is that Syracuse has been fairly aggressive with the offensive glass in the NCAA Tournament, and that they shoot the three-pointer well. The Tar Heels have struggled to defend against both of those. In the end, I think Syracuse has a good opportunity to turn this game into a slower paced slog, with both teams resorting to launching jump shots and chasing the rebounds. If that's the case, this game turns from a blowout into something of a toss-up, in which case I'll take the points.