After one of the wildest opening weekends in March Madness history where upsets abounded and two of the number-two seeds went home way too early, it’s hard to remember one of the salient truths about making Sweet 16 picks. I know it seems counterintuitive, but the fact remains that the favorites are a better pick overall.
Need some convincing? Sure you do. Let’s look at last year.
Wisconsin was a -6.0 point favorite against an overachieving UNC team last season, and won 79-72. Louisville pulled off another cover as narrow favorites, with a -2.5 line to cover against NC State during a 75-65 victory.
Duke also escaped against Utah as -4.5 favorites with a 63-57 win while Gonzaga ripped apart UCLA 74-62 with a daunting -8.5 point spread. In one of the tightest lines out there, the lightly favored Michigan State Spartans edged Oklahoma 62-58 in a virtual pick ‘em.
Of course there were still some mild upsets. Wichita State, which was one of the darlings of the tournament, was blown out by Notre Dame 81-70 as -2.0 point favorites. One of the largest lines for Sweet 16 picks last season pitted Arizona as a -10.5 favorite against Xavier, and Musketeers were able to rally to a 60-68 loss that covered that chasm of a betting line.
The biggest line last year had Kentucky as -13.5 favorites against West Virginia, and they made short work of that spread by doubling their opponents 78-39.
For those too lazy to keep track, that’s a pretty lopsided 7-1 SU and 6-2 ATS record for the Sweet 16 favorites last year after an equally mystifying round of upsets and takedowns in the opening weekend of March Madness.
That swirling vortex of chaos has also scared the oddsmakers a little. There isn’t a single, double-digit line on the entire board. In fact, there’s no game that even comes close.The largest spread in Sweet 16 picks this week is Kansas-Maryland with a -6.5 line facing the tournament favorites.
Explanations tend to be very simple as to why the Round of 16 is much easier to bet on. Simply put, the top teams finally shake out their nerves and start to gain confidence. Gone is the fear of going home early or being embarrassed by an unaccomplished program. By all rights and freedoms, everyone who has made it this far deserves to be there to a certain point.
The “win or go home” doom cloud still hangs over everybody’s head, but there’s also a light at the end of the tunnel. Win the next two games and you’re in the Final Four. There are just three wins standing between you and a shot at the national championship. That’s a lot easier to handle mentally than seeing an upstart like Stephen F. Austin across the floor and wondering just how rabid those caged animals actually are.
So where are the upsets in Sweet 16 picks? Well, we’ll have to sift through each matchup to find one, right? Let’s do it.
#2 Villanova Wildcats -4.0 over #3 Miami Hurricanes (Thurs., 7:10pm EST)
Villanova has multiple gears. They can unload points on you at will, or slow things down to a crawl. If anything, Miami wants to make this game a plodding slugfest. That’s the type of tempo they try to impose on a matchup.
They won’t be able to do that against Villanova unless the Wildcats come out with tight leashes around their own necks. Making one of your Sweet 16 picks on Miami essentially means that you’re hoping that they can contain Villanova for a full forty minutes. That’s not happening.
#2 Oklahoma Sooners -2.5 over #3 Texas A&M Aggies (Thurs., 7:37pm EST)
It’s not that I want to ignore what Texas A&M did to Northern Iowa in the last round. That comeback was one of the best I’ve ever seen at any level. The thing is that I can’t get past the fact that the Aggies were down by 12 points…to Northern Iowa. Oklahoma is not Northern Iowa. They’re one of the best rotations in the whole country. These teams are much more evenly matched than you’d probably believe, but Oklahoma has the x-factor here and his name is Buddy Hield.
#1 Kansas Jayhawks -6.5 over #5 Maryland Terrapins (Thurs., 9:49pm EST)
Yeah, if the oddsmakers are willing to give me -6.5 points on the tournament favorites against a team that’s only had to play South Dakota State and Hawai’i, I’ll take it. Gladly and heavily. If you’re going to put too much stock in to Maryland’s near-win against Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament, then I should probably remind you what happened to the Spartans in the last big game they played.
#4 Duke Blue Devils +3.0 over #1 Oregon Ducks (Thurs., 10:07pm EST)
This is really the only upset I’m willing to push on the Thursday slate, and it’s for good reason. Oregon has been a pain in the ass to assess from a betting standpoint, and it’s worth pointing out that this line doubled from where it opened at ORE -1.5. The oddsmakers like this team a lot.
The surprising part about that is that Duke came in to the tournament with a big chip on their shoulder, some very capable talent and a national title to defend. They also remain one of the larger public bets in all of college basketball betting. So why shade away from them?
Duke’s defense hasn’t exactly been impervious for the balance of the tournament. Yale scored 64 points on them, while UNC Wilmington put up 85 in the first game of the tournament. Their +7.5 point differential against low ranked, unheralded seeds isn’t the most bankable trait.
What you might ignore if you look at Duke that way, however, is that they’re simply trying to turn games in to track meets. This is a volume team and nothing else. Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram combined to score 99 points over the course of the weekend, and while they weren’t efficient, they were also relatively unstoppable. If Oregon has any major weak link, it’s in their own defense.
The advanced metrics for Duke are slightly skewed from playing in the cavernously deep ACC this season, and they played the 8th toughest schedule in the country. By comparison Oregon only had the 41st most difficult schedule. Is it no wonder that a Pac-12 team can earn a top seed?
Analyzing this game for the sake of Sweet 16 picks comes down to quality. Duke has faced better competition throughout the year, proven that they can hang with the best and they have an offensive that can go gangbusters at any given moment. They’re a bankable asset in almost every regard and are a slightly better, mirror image of the Oregon Ducks. I’m not saying that Oregon is a lesser standard but…oh wait, yes I am.
If you believe faithfully that Oregon is the team to bank on then use your money as you wish. But if we’re looking for upsets, then you’ve got one right here.
#4 Iowa State Cyclones +5.0 over #1 Virginia Cavaliers (Fri., 7:10pm EST)
Without shattering your interest in reading further, this is the only other upset I’m interested in. And it’s a doozy. Virginia is one of the most complete teams left in the tournament. My biggest concern with Virginia has nothing to do with their talent, but their size.
Iowa State loves attacking the rim. And you’re not going to believe this, but the Cyclones are actually the top ranked offense per advanced metrics. They score the most points of any team per one-hundred possessions with a mark of 120.7 that’s exceeded only by Michigan State. Their defense leaves a ton to be desired, but as with my upset pick above, it doesn’t matter entirely if you’re not preventing points as long as you’re scoring lots of them.
Virginia has one of the most efficient defenses in the league, but I’m not entirely sure that they’re tough enough. They prefer to run a small ball lineup that’s going to leave too many lanes open for the running and gunning Cyclones. This is a refined offense that was previously predicated on brutish athleticism but now finds itself wholly refined.
There’s no arguing with you if you believe that Virginia is the team to back here. The fair majority of the betting community already has already made the Cavs their choice in Sweet 16 picks. I just don’t believe that Iowa State is an accidental Sweet 16 team even though their matchups against Little Rock and Iona would say otherwise.
#7 Wisconsin Badgers PK over #6 Notre Dame Irish (Fri. 7:27pm EST)
If you trust advanced metrics by any stretch, then you should know that Notre Dame isn’t just the worst defensive team remaining in the tournament. They’re the worst defensive team remaining in the tournament by a country mile. Out of all the teams in the country, the Irish are ranked 172nd in adjusted defensive efficiency. Every other team in Sweet 16 picks is at least in the top one-hundred.
Fortunately the Irish make up for that with a sweet, sweet offense that ranks out 7th in offensive efficiency. Will any of that matter? I’m not entirely sure. Wisconsin has this weird feeling about it. They shouldn’t be here, and we said that last year as well.
When it comes to a “how they got here” look back on recent events, I’m probably more inclined to put more in to Wisconsin’s win against Xavier compared to Notre Dame’s tip-in victory over Stephen F. Austin.
#11 Gonzaga Bulldogs -4.5 over #10 Syracuse Orange (Fri., 9:40pm EST)
Am I in love with DomantasSabonis? Probably. I love it when big men explode out of nowhere to give their team an edge nobody else knew existed. Sabonis is a supremely sure-footed, capable and dominant big man. He put up 40 points and 26 boards in Gonzaga’s back-to-back upsets of Seton Hall and Utah. The scary part is that this team would be even better had they not lost their three best players at the onset of the season.
I’m not buying Syracuse stock in the slightest either. They’re the big benefactor of Middle Tennessee’s upset over Michigan State. If any team shouldn’t be in this round, it’s Syracuse.
#1 UNC Tar Heels -5.5 over #5 Indiana Hoosiers (Fri., 9:57pm EST)
Everyone and their mother want to believe in Indiana. I get why. They’re a fun team. But they’re facing one of the scariest collections of talent in the entire tournament. I’ve combed through this matchup as finely as possible, and I just don’t see a game plan where Indiana provides an answer for Brice Johnson. Interestingly enough, Indiana is 3-1 SU and 4-0 ATS when playing UNC in their spaced out history. That streak comes to an end this week. UNC over Indiana in a cover is one of my strongest Sweet 16 picks. I can’t endorse it any more than that.