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.