2019 BREEDERS’ CUP: Saturday Analysis and Selections

It’s Breeders’ Cup time, which means it may as well be Christmas morning for handicappers. Two days of full fields comprised of some of the fastest horses on the planet, many of which will win or run well at big prices, is pretty much all we can ask for as horseplayers, and I’m really excited to dive in.

I’ve done a lot of handicapping elsewhere for Friday’s card. I’m proud to dissect a lot of 2-year-old races for Oddschecker US, and I wrote up quick summaries of all five Breeders’ Cup races over there. Additionally, I did a few videos for The Daily Racing Form, where I offered Pick Five analysis and a look at my top pick in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.

However, my analysis for each of the Breeders’ Cup races on Saturday is all below. In addition, there’s another race on the undercard I’m very interested in, and I’ll look at that race as well. As I said on Twitter, this is as much work as I’ll do all year long outside of Saratoga season, but I absolutely love it, and I’m grateful to have an audience that enjoys reading my stuff.

Enough talk; let’s get to it!

RACE #3: Grade 2 Twilight Derby

I’ll never understand why Santa Anita opted to run the Twilight Derby at 11:17 am local time, but alas, here we are. This race came up salty for the level given the restricted condition (it’s only for 3-year-olds), but I think the pace scenario sets up perfectly for one of these runners.

#9 KINGLY has a lot of early speed, and that’s not a trait shared by many other runners in this field. He was last seen in the Grade 2 City of Hope Mile, where he was beaten just a neck by older foes after setting a fast pace. He should not have to go nearly as quickly early on in here, and if he gets brave on the front end, I think he’ll be very tough to catch.

Kingly’s 5-1 on the morning line, and I think that’s an overlay. My hope is that he’ll dictate terms early and have plenty left late, and if he gets home, my day will get off to a flying start.

RACE #4: Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint

The first Breeders’ Cup race of the day is one that carries plenty of Eclipse Award ramifications. #1 COVFEFE could very well lock up Champion 3-Year-Old Filly honors with a win in this race, and she’s logical. Her efforts going seven furlongs have been incredibly sharp, and given her two victories ahead of this event, it can be argued she’s never been better.

However, the rail draw is certainly a concern. She has speed, but the rivals directly to her outside aren’t slow. If she doesn’t break perfectly, she could be in big trouble, and for that reason, she isn’t my top pick.

That distinction goes to #4 COME DANCING, the race’s likely second choice. She’s won four of her last six starts, and the two losses came to top-quality foes Marley’s Freedom and Midnight Bisou (neither of which shows up here). Unlike several of her foes, she does not need the lead in order to win. She could sit a picture-perfect trip beneath Javier Castellano, and I think she’ll have first run on the tiring pacesetters turning for home.

Underneath those two, #6 BELLAFINA and #9 SPICED PERFECTION both make sense. I’ll also throw in #5 LADY NINJA, who has won five of her last seven starts and would also benefit from a pace meltdown. She’ll be a price, and if you’re looking for a longshot to throw in, I think she’s the one to use.

RACE #5: Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint

Much like the race before it, there’s a lot of early speed signed on here. It certainly seems like they’re going to go very, very quickly out of the gate, which should benefit those who do their best running late.

#10 EDDIE HASKELL fits the bill, and he’s my top pick. He loves this route of ground, and while he has a powerful late kick, he’s also got enough tactical speed to not be too far back. Joel Rosario should have plenty left late, and if he can save some ground from a difficult (but not impossible) post, he should be pretty formidable.

The other intriguing closer is #5 STUBBINS, who comes in off a win in the Grade 2 Woodford at Keeneland. He hits me as a 3-year-old hitting his best stride late in the year, and the presence of Flavien Prat is a plus. The faster they go early, the better his chances figure to be, and at his likely price, I absolutely have to use him.

On wider tickets, I’ll also use #6 STORMY LIBERAL, who won this race a season ago but hasn’t found the winner’s circle since. However, the rider switch to John Velazquez is noteworthy, and he’s another who does not need the lead in order to run well. In a race with tons of early zip, that’s valuable, and while he may be past his peak, it’s not like improvement isn’t out of the question.

RACE #6: Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile

I’d love to tell you that I can find a reason to go against #5 OMAHA BEACH, but I can’t do it. He had every excuse to run a clunker in his comeback race, and he instead outdueled Shancelot to win the Grade 1 Santa Anita Sprint Championship. We know he can handle two turns, and judging by his recent bullet workout over this surface, he may be coming into this race better than he’s ever been.

I respect #2 IMPROBABLE and #4 MR. MONEY. However, Omaha Beach beat the former earlier this year, and the latter would definitely need to take a step up from a figure standpoint. With all of this in mind, I’ll happily single Omaha Beach in multi-race exotics and spread elsewhere.

RACE #7: Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf

Unfortunately, this race took a hit when Magical didn’t ship in with the rest of the European contingent. After that defection, #2 SISTERCHARLIE towers over the field and seems to be in great position to record her seventh consecutive victory.

The question is, how do we make money when the favorite appears legitimate? I’m going to key her in exactas with several bigger prices. #1 IRIDESSA won a Group 1 at this distance earlier this year, #8 CASTLE LADY may have needed her run in the Grade 1 QE2 at Keeneland, and #12 FANNY LOGAN has won four in a row, gets Lasix for the first time, and is 5-for-5 at this distance.

If Sistercharlie wins, I’ll likely still make a few bucks. However, if she runs second to one of the horses I’ve used, I stand to connect on a nice score.

RACE #8: Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Sprint

If #4 MITOLE wins, he may very well have a case for Horse of the Year honors. A win would give him six victories in seven starts on the season, with four Grade 1 triumphs ranging in distances from six furlongs to a mile. He’s had a great year, and he merits respect, but while I’m using him, he’s not my top pick.

The only time Mitole locked up with #9 IMPERIAL HINT was in the Grade 1 A.G. Vanderbilt. That day, Imperial Hint won by four lengths and set a new track record at Saratoga. Mitole bounced back with a win in the Grade 1 Forego, but Imperial Hint also added a Grade 1 win of his own in the Vosburgh.

I think these two are pretty equal, but Imperial Hint will likely be twice the price. With that in mind, give me that one and the potential for a bigger payoff.

If you’re looking for a longshot to use in the exotics, I’d recommend #7 WHITMORE, who ran very well in his comeback race at Keeneland. He stumbled at the start and was forced to race very wide, but he rallied to be beaten just a half-length. There’s plenty of early speed in here, and if he steps forward off of that performance, he could absolutely hit the board at a big price.

RACE #9: Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Mile

Every year, the Mile seems like a true grass grab bag. This renewal is no exception, and despite the presence of #6 GOT STORMY and #11 UNI, a European runner may very well go favored.

That’s #9 CIRCUS MAXIMUS, a two-time Group 1 winner from the barn of Aidan O’Brien. His form is already top-notch, and he’s getting Lasix for the first time, which can’t be ignored. It’s not an easy race to handicap, and it’ll be worth seeing how he’s warming up prior to the race, but I think his best effort would make him tough to beat.

Got Stormy and Uni could both win, but there are red flags with both runners. The former hung badly in the Woodbine Mile without any apparent excuse, and the latter drew a poor post that could cause her to lose ground. Both could win, I suppose, but I think there’s more money to be made betting against them than betting on them.

In addition to Circus Maximus, I’ll also use #1 SUEDOIS, #2 LUCULLAN, and #13 HEY GAMAN. Suedois didn’t have a great trip when third in the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland and has shown plenty of talent, while Lucullan is in career-best form and Hey Gaman gets the firm ground he prefers while also adding Lasix for the first time.

RACE #10: Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Distaff

Remember the Dirt Mile, where I said I wish I could find a reason to go against Omaha Beach? Substitute #4 MIDNIGHT BISOU, and you have my preview of the Distaff. Simply put, she looks head and shoulders above the rest in here, and she’s my best bet of the entire card.

I’m going to channel former TVG colleague Dave Weaver with my wagering strategy here, which involves an “ice cold” exacta. I’ll use Midnight Bisou on top of #6 WOW CAT, who may be rounding back into form in her fourth start of the season. Wow Cat was the best of the rest behind Midnight Bisou in the Grade 2 Beldame, and she was a fast-closing second in this race a season ago. If they go quickly early on, that will bode well for her chances to hit the board at a big price here.

RACE #11: Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Turf

Here’s the big question, perhaps the biggest of Breeders’ Cup weekend: Can #9 BRICKS AND MORTAR get a mile and a half? If he can, he’ll likely win and sew up Horse of the Year honors with his fifth Grade 1 win of the year. If he can’t, my inclination is that one of two European runners will capitalize.

#5 ANTHONY VAN DYCK has been pointed to this race for a while, and for good reason. This year’s Epsom Derby winner was most recently third behind Magical in the Group 1 Irish Champion Stakes, and if you draw a line through his two-back effort at Ascot over softer going, he hasn’t run a bad race all year. I think he’s matured, and that he’s the horse to beat given his proven ability to get this distance.

Meanwhile, #10 OLD PERSIAN came to North America and rolled to an easy win in the Grade 1 Northern Dancer at Woodbine. Most notably, he won the $6 million Sheema Classic in Dubai earlier this year, and his best race could absolutely be good enough to beat this group. Can he fire that shot if Bricks and Mortar gets the distance? That’s a good question.

RACE #12: Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic

I haven’t been shy about voicing my opinion of this race on Twitter, and I’ll do it again here. Simply put, this race just doesn’t excite me as much as it has in past years. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t make money; quite the opposite, actually, as I’m not sold on a few horses that may get action at the windows.

#10 VINO ROSSO was the victim of what I felt was a horrible DQ in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup. I don’t think #11 CODE OF HONOR was ever getting by, and because of that, the DQ ensured the best horse didn’t win. Vino Rosso gets another crack at that one here, and he gets it going a route of ground he won at earlier this year. He’s worked well coming into this race, and he’s my reluctant top pick.

#8 MCKINZIE may go favored, and #6 ELATE and Code of Honor will take money as well. I could see any of these horses winning, but I’ll be leaning heavier on #5 YOSHIDA. I think there’s enough pace in here to set up for his late kick, and the presence of Hall of Famer Mike Smith is a big, big plus.

CHAMPAGNE’S CAMPAIGNS: The Value of Fan Education, And a Tweet Gone Horribly Wrong

This past Saturday, I spent some time at Oak Tree Pleasanton. The folks there invited me to help out with a handicapping seminar, and I had a blast going through the card and offering my thoughts on the day’s races. It apparently went well, as I shook a few hands afterwards and heard from people who enjoyed it.

I’ve always dug doing that kind of stuff, especially when it leads to people potentially making some money (I’m proud to report my top picks went 5 for 10 with a $2.96 ROI, so there was plenty of room for profit). Given how many of us were introduced to the game (being taken to the track by a parent, or a friend, or another family member), I think it’s the responsibility of those in the game to either bring someone to the track or take the time to explain what’s going on.

All of this serves as a preface to the since-deleted tweet that sent the handicapping section of horse racing Twitter into a frenzy Wednesday morning.

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I’m going to try to frame this as delicately as possible, for any number of reasons. On a fundamental level, the content of this tweet is as wrong as wrong can be, and pretty much everyone who responded to it said as much. This is as good a time as any to cue the Richard Dreyfuss line from “Let It Ride.”

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Thanks, Danny!

Racetracks are based on two main sources of income: Owners who buy and race their horses, and gamblers who bet on them. All of this funds the tracks, which put up purse money. Without either part of that one-two punch, tracks are doomed to fail. Saying betting will ruin the sport goes against lots of established logic, because the truth is that large-scale racing could not survive without it.

If people aren’t betting, racing cannot thrive. The question isn’t just, “How do we get racing fans to the track, or to an ADW?” The second question, which is just as important, is, “How do we provide a foundation for new fans to bet with some degree of confidence once they decide to invest their money?”

One of my longtime friends dating back to my two summers in the Saratoga press box is Tom Amello, a longtime handicapper who prides himself on fan education. He did a seminar at the racing Hall of Fame prior to the 2013 meet, and he did a great job of keeping things simple and relatable. His concepts centered around the odds board and four basic types of fields that can assemble in a given race, and it came across as something simple enough for new fans to understand.

Tom knows what he’s talking about, and he’s got a lot of valid points. The problem isn’t that people are betting too much and losing sight of the other stuff. The problem is, in many ways, the exact opposite. It can be intimidating for new fans to come to the races and not have a clue what they’re looking at or how to make money.

One of the things I try to do with my DRF Formulator Angle segments, which more often than not go against likely favorites, is explain why I’m going against the grain. While much of my analysis is grounded in the numbers Formulator provides, a fair part of it deals with various parts of the form that can be spelled out. Every horseplayer has angles they’re partial to. If what I do helps one person find an angle that works for them and the way they’re comfortable wagering, that’s a win. If that person uses that angle to cash a ticket, that’s an even bigger victory.

Racing does a good job of spreading the glamorous reasons to go to the track. Having said that, what are we doing once they get there so that they keep coming back, and not just for Instagram photos? Sorry, folks: Photos in fancy outfits don’t keep the sport going. Cold, hard cash at the betting windows? That’s a different story.

(Important note: If I turn up missing in the next few days, chances are that paragraph is why!)

I attempt to bridge the information gap every day when handling DRF’s social media platforms. My goal is to make the people who see our content more aware of what’s going on so that they can consume it in the most productive way possible. Hopefully, what I’m doing is bringing content to the attention of fans who will be enriched by it. The rule of thumb I’ve always abided by is that smarter fans are better fans. If smarter fans are compelled to do more to be invested in our game (whether that’s gambling on the races or raising awareness of them), then I’ve done my job effectively.

Speaking from that experience, I think there’s more we could be doing to be more welcoming to newer fans with money to burn, and if you’re taking the time to read this, you’re part of the solution. Making new fans that are inclined to gamble is of paramount importance, and that’s something we need to do given the likelihood of legalized sports betting in the near future.

If racing does not put up a fight, the sport stands to lose significant revenue to its organized sports betting cousins that don’t have this problem. Why would a group of people bet on something they don’t understand when they’ve been watching sports their entire lives and can form justifiable opinions on them without much effort?

Contrary to a tweet that went viral Wednesday morning, we DO need gambling money, possibly now more than ever. Sharing the game and knowledge within it with someone who could benefit from it is the single most productive thing one can do.

If you’ve got insight, share it. If you’ve got advice and new players can stand to benefit from it, help them out. You were there once, and someone helped you understand what was going on. It’s your duty to return the favor, so that there’s a game for us to enjoy in the years to come.

CHAMPAGNE’S CAMPAIGNS: 2018 Kentucky Derby Morning Line

I have a tremendous amount of respect for morning line makers. They have one of the most thankless jobs in all of racing. Nobody congratulates them when they correctly peg the way the public bets a race, but when they get a favorite wrong in a big race, out come the Twitter barbarians.

I’m guilty of criticizing morning lines, but it’s my view that, if you’re going to do that, you need to be prepared to make your own attempt at it. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially in races with large fields. Not only do you need to accurately gauge how gamblers will play it, but it needs to mathematically check out with a point total between 115 and 125 points (for an explanation on odds lines and point values for certain values, click here).

With all of this in mind, I’m going to take a stab at a Kentucky Derby morning line. Mine comes out to 124.2 points, which just barely checks out from a math standpoint. One disclaimer before we dive in: This is not an indication of the way I will analyze the race, nor an indication of which horse I will pick. This is my guess at the way the public will bet the race, and on that note, let’s take a look!

THE FAVORITE

Justify: 4-1

Justify will almost certainly be favored. His three races this year have all been impressive victories, including his Santa Anita Derby score over Bolt d’Oro. There’s a chance he goes off lower than this, but I couldn’t make a morning line that checked out mathematically with him lower than 4-1 (late defections could, of course, change this).

THE EASTERN JUSTIFY

Magnum Moon: 6-1

Like Justify, Magnum Moon will look to defy the Apollo Curse on the first Saturday in May. He didn’t race as a 2-year-old, but he’s 4-for-4 this year, with runaway wins in the Arkansas Derby and Rebel. The way he drifted out in his most recent start is a bit of a concern, but ultimately, I think he’s the most likely second choice.

THE OTHER MAIN CONTENDERS

Audible: 8-1
Mendelssohn: 8-1

Audible has only run twice this year, but both of those starts have been visually-impressive wins in Florida. The Todd Pletcher trainee showed versatility in the Florida Derby, when he rated well off of an insane early pace and made a big move. Meanwhile, Mendelssohn crushed an overmatched group in the UAE Derby and has shipped to the States successfully before. He’s Beholder’s younger half-brother, and while Aidan O’Brien has not won this race before, few conditioners in the world are better than he is.

WAIT, THEY’RE DOUBLE DIGITS?

Bolt d’Oro: 10-1
Good Magic: 10-1

If I had told you, in November, that these two horses would be double-digits on the Kentucky Derby morning line, you probably wouldn’t have believed me. However, Bolt d’Oro was second to Justify in the Santa Anita Derby, and while Good Magic won the Blue Grass, memories of his dud in the Fountain of Youth could be fresh in the minds of horseplayers. It’s possible either or both of these horses come down a point or two, but I couldn’t put them below my projected top four.

IS THE WOOD STILL A MARQUEE DERBY PREP?

Vino Rosso: 15-1

First of all, can the tradition-first stalwarts among us begrudgingly admit that the graded stakes committee made the right call downgrading the Wood a few years ago? OK, good. Anyway, Vino Rosso finally took a long-awaited step forward in that race, and despite having to sweat out an inquiry/objection, he has the look of a horse that could be moving forward. He’s got a substantial distance to close on the divisional leaders, but the presence of trainer Todd Pletcher and his recent victory ensure that he won’t be an outrageous price.

THE “WISE-GUY” HORSES

Hofburg: 20-1
Noble Indy: 20-1
Quip: 20-1
Solomini: 20-1

Each of these horses has angles to like. Hofburg is still eligible for a non-winners-of-one allowance, but he ran second in the Florida Derby, which doubled as just his third career start. Noble Indy may be Todd Pletcher’s fourth-best 3-year-old, but he showed grit in taking the Louisiana Derby. Quip won the Tampa Bay Derby and was a game second behind Magnum Moon. Finally, Solomini hasn’t crossed the wire first since the Los Alamitos Futurity (which featured a controversial disqualification), but he’s trained by Bob Baffert and has a running style that hints the added distance of the Derby won’t be a problem. If you ask 10 handicappers their opinions of this race, chances are at least one or two of them will bring up one of these horses as a threat to hit the board at a nice number.

GOOD, JUST NOT THIS GOOD (AND A FANCY NAME)

Enticed: 30-1
Flameaway: 30-1
Gronkowski: 30-1
My Boy Jack: 30-1
Promises Fulfilled: 30-1

We’ll get to Gronkowski in a minute. The other four have all won races on the road to the Kentucky Derby, but they seem outclassed by the best of the best in this spot. One or two of them may drift down a few points (most likely hard-trying Flameaway and/or late-runner My Boy Jack), but I felt more comfortable putting them here than anywhere else.

Meanwhile, Gronkowski earned a spot in the starting gate thanks to success in Europe. By any conceivable measure, he’s outclassed in this spot, and on ability alone, he should be 50-1. However, I think he’ll get plenty of money from once-a-year bettors and those betting based on name. That meant I couldn’t put him with my last group, which is below.

UP AGAINST IT

Bravazo: 50-1
Firenze Fire: 50-1
Free Drop Billy: 50-1
Lone Sailor: 50-1

Bravazo and Free Drop Billy may drift down a few points, but when Magnum Moon moved forward enough to be my clear second choice, I had to drop them from 30-1 to 50-1 on my line for it to mathematically check out. Meanwhile, Lone Sailor hasn’t won in a while, and Firenze Fire will almost certainly be the longest shot on the board given his apparent distance limitations.

ALSO-ELIGIBLES

Combatant: 30-1
Restoring Hope: 30-1
All Others: 50-1

Of the horses on the outside looking in, only Combatant and Restoring Hope strike me as anything other than hopeless longshots. Combatant (21st on the list) has had some rough racing luck and could come running late, while Restoring Hope (26th) is a Bob Baffert trainee, which alone is likely enough to move some money. None of the others seem logical, and if those horses get in, they’ll be 50-1 on my line (and other horses will likely come down in price if I have enough wiggle room to do that).

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.

2018 NCAA Tournament: First Round Analysis/Plays

I’m headed to Las Vegas later this week for the first two rounds of March Madness. It’s an annual tradition for my dad and I, and it’s always a blast, especially when sports books get loud as leads change with every basket down the stretch of a game.

I’ve got several plays that I’ll really be focusing on over the first two days of the tournament. There are 32 games combined on Thursday and Friday, so there are plenty of chances to find money-making opportunities. Below is what I’ve come up with, and games/plays are listed in order of how strongly I feel about them (with spreads and totals current as of Tuesday morning).

THURSDAY

#4 Arizona (-9) over #13 Buffalo (9:40 p.m. ET)

I want to like Buffalo because they did what mid-majors are supposed to do. They scheduled tough teams in the non-league portion of the season and built on that foundation in conference play. They finished their season on a six-game winning streak, with all six wins coming by double-digits.

However, Arizona is a horrible matchup for the Bulls (not the Bills, as Ernie Johnson said in the abomination that was the NCAA Selection Show). DeAndre Ayton may be the best player in the country, and he’s flanked by an athletic group that’s come together in the face of the off-court scandal the program is facing. I get that the Pac-12 wasn’t a stellar league this year, but Arizona started 3-3 and has since won 24 of 27 games. Buffalo may keep it interesting, but I think the Wildcats simply have too much firepower and pull away late to win by a convincing margin.

#12 South Dakota State (+8) over #5 Ohio State; OVER 147 (4 p.m. ET)

It’s tough to find a hotter team (or one with a more fun mascot) than the feisty Jackrabbits, who have won 19 of their last 20 games coming into the tournament. They put up lots of points, and they boast wins over power conference foes Iowa and Ole Miss, as well as a 14-point victory over MAC champ Buffalo and a more-than-respectable 10-point loss on the road against Wichita State.

Ohio State has several good wins on its resume, but they haven’t looked the same since their one-point win at Purdue last month (a weird game where the Boilermakers blew a 14-point lead with 10 minutes to go). The Buckeyes have lost three of their last five, including a pair of defeats against a Penn State team that didn’t make the tournament, and their two wins in that stretch came against non-tournament teams (Rutgers and Indiana). Maybe Ohio State wins, but eight points seems like too big a spread.

I also think these two teams will put up plenty of points. Ohio State’s shown plenty of offensive firepower, and South Dakota State wants to push the tempo behind star guard Mike Daum. If the over-under number stays in this neighborhood, I’ll bet the over and hope for a shootout.

#4 Gonzaga (-12 ½) over #13 UNC Greensboro (1:30 p.m. ET)

Okay, let’s get some kvetching out of the way. St. Mary’s, which served as Gonzaga’s chief conference rival this year, should have been in the tournament. They beat Gonzaga during the season, managed a 28-5 record, and were passed over for a Syracuse team that lost 13 games (including winnable contests against ACC bottom-feeders Wake Forest and Georgia Tech). St. Mary’s got hosed, and you’ll get a glimpse of that if Gonzaga plays to its potential.

The Bulldogs got to the national title game last year, and while this season’s squad isn’t quite as good, the team boasts plenty of experience and is peaking at the right time. UNC Greensboro did not play a strong schedule this year, and while their defensive stats are strong, they haven’t seen an offense like Gonzaga’s yet.

FRIDAY

#12 New Mexico State (+5) over #5 Clemson (9:57 p.m. ET)

After a win over hapless Pittsburgh on February 8th, Clemson was 20-4 and 9-3 in the powerful ACC. What a difference five weeks makes. The Tigers finished the season by going 3-5 in their last eight games, and two of those wins came against non-tournament teams (Georgia Tech and Boston College). They were certainly hurt by Donte Grantham’s injury, and they come into the tournament without much momentum.

New Mexico State, meanwhile, finished the regular season at 28-5, with several high-quality wins (including back-to-back triumphs over Davidson and Miami). They play strong defense and crash the boards relentlessly, both of which could give a struggling Clemson team (playing 3,000 miles from home, by the way) major headaches. I’ll gladly take the points in this spot, and the 12th-seeded Aggies could be a money line play as well.

#4 Wichita State (-11 ½) over #13 Marshall (1:30 p.m. ET)

Marshall showed some promise in the regular season, most notably giving eventual #1 seed Xavier a game on the road before falling by four points. They peaked at the right time, sweeping the season series with Conference USA favorite Middle Tennessee and then eking out a win over Western Kentucky in the conference tournament’s title game.

However, this is a HORRIBLE (yes, it’s all-caps worthy) matchup for the Thundering Herd. Marshall plays an up-tempo style and scores plenty of points. This has served them well, as they’re in the top 12 nationally in both points and assists per game. With that in mind, Wichita State plays the same way, and the Shockers are a much better team on the glass (ninth nationally, with 40.5 rebounds per game). If Marshall starts the game cold and is limited to one shot per possession, I think this could get out of hand in a hurry.

#4 Auburn vs. #13 College of Charleston: OVER 148 ½ (7:25 p.m. ET)

Admittedly, I’m much more confident in the first two Friday picks I’ve given out, and I think the rest of the lines are very fair. This number, though, seems a bit low, given that both of these teams want to play up-tempo basketball and sometimes get lazy on defense (for reference on Auburn, look up how Collin Sexton dissected the Tigers like a surgeon in the SEC tournament).

Charleston has scored at least 79 points in nine of their last 10 games, and it certainly seems like they’ve found their offensive identity. Auburn, meanwhile, has played many games in the 80’s this year, and before laying an egg in the second half against the Crimson Tide, they’d scored 75 points or more in 12 of their previous 13 games. I’m expecting a shootout here, and if you need an extra wager to throw onto a parlay, this is where I’d go.