March Madness bracket betting: Picks for the Sweet 16 games Thursday
This NCAA tournament has been crazy, but most of them are.
There have been upsets, though favorites are doing fine overall. Favorites were 24-23-1 against the spread in the first two rounds. Unders are hitting at a ridiculous level due to terrible 3-point shooting, but it's not as wild of a tournament as you think.
John Gasaway of ESPN.com pointed out that the average seed of this year's Sweet 16 is 4.6, even with No. 15 seed Princeton factored in, and the average since 1985 is 4.5.
That's not to say this NCAA tournament hasn't been great. It has, because the tournament always delivers. On Thursday the tournament continues with four Sweet 16 games. Here are the picks against the spread, with odds from BetMGM:
Kansas State (+1.5) over Michigan State
You won't see this often: A higher seed that is also ranked higher at KenPom.com is an underdog. That's entirely due to Tom Izzo.
Izzo's record in March is impressive. His mastery in the tournament has gotten to the point that Michigan State going to the Sweet 16 as a No. 7 seed after an entirely unremarkable season isn't even a surprise.
But Jerome Tang of Kansas State is proving to be a good coach himself, and he has the better team. Markquis Nowell and Keyontae Johnson are the two best players in this game. That's hard to argue. It's also fine to throw some Big Ten shade on Michigan State in this matchup. There's a reason no other Big Ten team is around in this tournament anymore. The league wasn't very good this season.
Let's take the better team getting points. And if Izzo pulls off another magic act, it won't be a huge shock.
Arkansas (+4.5) over UConn
"Team X will just turn it on in the postseason" is a myth that is told too often. It's very rare that a team is mediocre and underachieving all season and then suddenly becomes better when the games matter most. Yet, here we are with Arkansas.
Arkansas wasn't bad this season but the Razorbacks played nowhere near expectations. They had injuries, and that affected their season. From Jan. 7 through the SEC tournament the Razorbacks were 8-11. Then the NCAA tournament started and they looked like a different team. They blasted Illinois and then upset No. 1 seed Kansas. It's easily the best two-game stretch of Arkansas' season. They're the outlier that has turned it on in the postseason.
UConn didn't need to turn it on. The Huskies had a bit of a midseason slump but mostly they have had a fantastic season. They looked very good in the first two rounds of the tournament. It's a team that has fantastic analytic numbers.
I'll try to thread the needle here: I think UConn wins but a reborn Arkansas team keeps it within the spread.
Florida Atlantic (+5.5) over Tennessee
FAU will get a Cinderella tag if it advances to the Elite Eight or further, and that's partially fair. It's not like Florida Atlantic is a brand name with a ton of history. But it's not a team that came out of nowhere. The Owls were horribly underseeded at No. 9. They are 33-3 and deserved better. The basketball gods made it up to the Owls by giving them Fairleigh Dickinson in the second round (though nobody should assume Purdue would have beaten Florida Atlantic). They are a good, solid, balanced team that didn't get enough national attention because they play in Conference USA. That's not their fault.
Tennessee is the kind of team that won't excite anyone. The Volunteers are not good offensively. They lost their point guard before the tournament. Their coach, Rick Barnes, has a bad history in the tournament. But it is a team that, like UConn, has really strong analytics. They play good defense. The win over Duke was impressive.
It's just that 5.5 points seems like too much to lay with a team that can struggle to score. That's a big reason FAU can get a straight-up win.
UCLA (-1.5) over Gonzaga
What a fun Sweet 16 game. It's hard to go against Gonzaga. Since a weird home loss to Loyola Marymount on Jan. 19, the Bulldogs are 14-1. Most of those wins weren't close either. Their offense is on fire. And UCLA might have a matchup problem against Drew Timme. The Bruins don't have much depth in the middle.
But this UCLA team is impressive too. The Bruins lost Jaylen Clark, perhaps the best defensive player in college basketball and their second-leading scorer, and it hasn't mattered. The Bruins' only loss since Jan. 26 was a very close call against Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament final.
This game could go either way. Gonzaga's efficient offense, which runs through Timme, could carry the Bulldogs. But I lean to a UCLA team that is on a great roll.
Tournament record to date: 23-29