Best bets for March Madness' Round of 32
Now that the Round of 64 has come and gone and most of the inferior competition has left the field (with all due respect to Fairleigh Dickinson), we're in for tight spreads and close games Saturday and Sunday.
Only 16 games are on the board, but there's still plenty of value to be found in our best bets for the Round of 32.
No. 5 Duke (-3.5, 128.5) vs. No. 4 Tennessee
Saturday, 2:40 p.m. ET
Duke and Tennessee were dominant defensively in the Round of 64, maintaining their season-long identities. The Blue Devils' overwhelming size, led by freshmen big men Kyle Filipowski (7-foot) and Dereck Lively (7-1), stifles teams at the rim while avoiding fouls. The Volunteers, meanwhile, are an aggressive, physical unit that forces turnovers and controls the perimeter.
On the other end, Duke's offensive turnover percentage was the ACC's second-worst this season despite the fact it hasn't played a single high-major team ranked in the top 60 in turnover rate, a stat Tennessee ranks 21st in. The Volunteers, meanwhile, have been lost on offense since losing point guard Zakai Zeigler and struggle mightily to get free points at the line, which the Blue Devils won't allow them to do.
Pick: Under 128.5
No. 9 Auburn vs. No. 1 Houston (-5.5, 131.5)
Saturday, 7:10 p.m.
Much is being made of Houston's injury concerns and poor performance versus 16-seed Northern Kentucky, which bring this spread down to just two possessions. The Cougars are a brutal matchup for Auburn, however, as Houston ranks fourth in offensive rebounding rate against a Tigers squad in the bottom 50 nationally in allowing second chances. Plus, Houston forces opponents to shoot the three-ball at a top-20 rate, an area which Auburn struggles mightily in, shooting just 31.5%.
Houston's offense can go through stretches of ineptitude, but Auburn's propensity to foul should give the Cougars their fair share of free chances. At the end of the day, Auburn advanced to the Round of 32 thanks to a huge edge in physicality against Iowa, but that advantage goes to Houston in this matchup.
Pick: Houston -5.5
No. 6 Kentucky vs. No. 3 Kansas State (Ev, 145.5)
Sunday, 2:40 p.m.
Kansas State was able to outlast Montana State, but its lack of interior size and strength could be exposed against a jumbo Kentucky squad. Kansas State ranked last in the Big 12 in defensive rebounding percentage, while Kentucky rosters arguably the game's best offensive rebounder in Oscar Tshiebwe, who picked up an eye-popping 11 in his team's Round of 64 victory over Providence.
Kentucky also has two tremendous defensive matchups against Kansas State's dynamic duo of Markquis Nowell and Keyontae Johnson. Cason Wallace and his elite steal rate can hound the smaller Nowell with his 6-foot-4 frame, while coach John Calipari can rotate ultra-long forward Jacob Toppin and bulky wing Chris Livingston on the high-flying Johnson. So long as Kentucky can score on the interior against a Kansas State team that allowed its Round of 64 opponent to shoot 58% from 2-pont range, it should move on to the Sweet Sixteen.
Pick: Kentucky ML
No. 6 TCU vs. No. 3 Gonzaga (-4.5, 157.5)
Sunday, 9:40 p.m.
The last time Gonzaga played an athletic Big 12 team that thrives in transition, defends the basket well, and forces tons of turnovers, it lost by 19 to Texas back in November. TCU has a similar makeup as its in-state counterpart and could give the Bulldogs fits. Outside of offensive star Mike Miles, every Horned Frogs rotation player stands between 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-9, allowing them to switch screens while having the size to defend star Drew Timme and the speed to recover back to guards.
TCU's halfcourt offense can struggle in spurts, but no team likes to push the pace as frequently as Gonzaga, and a track meet is exactly what the Horned Frogs need for consistent offense. Gonzaga coughed up 20 turnovers in its aforementioned battle against the Longhorns, and a repeat performance would also feed into TCU's transition game. In a spread that stretches over one possession, expect this explosive battle to come down to the wire.
Pick: TCU +4.5