Thoughts from UMBC’s Stunning Win, Plus Saturday NCAA Tournament Picks/Analysis

Word has long been out on Las Vegas serving as the place to be during the first week of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Every casino with a sports book holds an event, and lines to bet often rival those at ritzy nightclubs (except these lines actually move and you may get something out of your investment).

What happened Friday night only served to emphasize that point further. 1-vs.-16 games aren’t the most fun to bet on. Most major sports books don’t even offer money lines for those games, and point spreads are often in the 20’s. Prior to this year, top seeds were 132-0 against the perceived runts of the litter, only occasionally being driven to the point of having to work for a victory.

And then, UMBC came along, and this year’s tournament suddenly ascended to a level that had never been seen before.

This wasn’t the plucky, lovable upstarts from Hickory High eking out a one-point victory to win the state title. No, this was Delta Tau Chi raising holy hell on Faber College’s homecoming parade. UMBC didn’t heroically stick with Virginia for 39 minutes before running a miracle play at the buzzer. The Retrievers systematically destroyed the Cavaliers, solving the ACC champs’ relentless defense with 16 assists on 26 made fields goals while outrebounding their opponents 33-22. Mind you, this was a squad that lost to an average UAlbany team by the score of 83-39 earlier this season, and one that was down nine points with less than nine minutes to go in a true road event that doubled as the America East championship game.

This is the fifth year my dad and I have made the trip to the desert for the first two rounds of March Madness. We didn’t have money on the game, and we watched most of it from a restaurant between Flamingo and The Linq. In the second half, when the Retrievers couldn’t miss, the entire place was rocking with gasps and shrieks. Through all of the talk about how a 16-seed would eventually win a first-round game, it seemed as though we were all stunned that it was actually happening.

This was underscored by what happened in the last minute. In that moment, there was no hooting and hollering. Nobody had winning tickets to celebrate. This wasn’t a great gambling moment, like so many games have already been this year. This was a seminal sports moment, certainly the greatest upset in the history of college basketball, and it was as if we all decided to savor it.

One note on Virginia before we move to plays for Saturday: It’s entirely possible that program has been on the receiving end of the two most shocking defeats in college basketball. Their loss to Chaminade in the 1980’s looms large as well, and while it takes a snake-bitten program to take the top two spots on that dubious list, it’s tough to argue anything else threatens that pair of inglorious moments.

The tournament moves on without them, as it also does for traditional power Arizona and fan favorite Wichita State. The round of 32 kicks off Saturday, and while it’s appealing to back prospective Cinderella stories once again, I’m taking the stance that the slate of games offers several chances for college basketball to experience a reversion to the mean.

#3 Tennessee -5 ½ over #11 Loyola-Chicago
#5 Kentucky -5 ½ over #13 Buffalo

It isn’t that I like being a killjoy (though others may disagree with that), but both of these games have very similar storylines. Loyola-Chicago and Buffalo are far from powerhouse programs, but they won in fun ways. The Ramblers beat the buzzer in knocking off Miami, while Buffalo played a perfect second half in dispatching Arizona.

With that in mind, sentimental money has certainly come in. Both of these lines opened at -6 and dropped down, which stuns me. While it’s fun to root with one’s heart, I’m betting with my head. I think the two SEC teams are simply much better than their opponents, so I’ll give the points and hope for blowouts.

#4 Gonzaga vs. #5 Ohio State: OVER 143

Gonzaga could not have POSSIBLY played worse against UNC Greensboro. In that 68-64 win, the Bulldogs went 5-for-23 from three-point range and 13-for-25 from the free throw line. They did just enough to get by, and with that clunker out of their systems, I think they’ve got a real chance of snapping back into a groove. Ohio State, meanwhile, prevailed in one of the most fun games of the tournament, an 81-73 shootout against South Dakota State. Still, by the numbers, the Buckeyes weren’t all that efficient. They shot 37.5% from the floor, prevailing in large part thanks to the Jackrabbits’ inability to get anyone but Mike Daum going (he was 9-for-20, while everyone else went 15-for-43).

What I’m saying here is that both offenses have a lot to build on, and because of that, a 143-point total seems low. I’ll happily take the over and hope for a shootout between two teams that can certainly provide one.

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