NCAA Tournament Handicapping: The Sweet 16 Contenders
by Darin Zank - 3/20/2012
After one of the more entertaining opening weekends of the NCAA tournament that I can remember we're down to 16 teams. So as sportsbooks everywhere adjust their Big Dance betting odds, here's a quick look at who's left standing, ranked in order of what I think their chances are of cutting down the nets in New Orleans April 2. Without further ado, here are my Sweet 16 contenders:
No. 1 - Kentucky
Kentucky entered the tournament as the top overall seed and has done nothing to disprove that notion in brushing off Western Kentucky and Iowa State. Now the Wildcats play one of the two teams they've lost to this season, Indiana, in a regional semifinal Friday night. Kentucky is the favorite to cut down the nets on every NCAA futures board I found; the best price being the 11/5 offered at Bovada. It's hard to believe Kentucky won't extract a little revenge on the Hoosiers Friday, and a date with either Baylor or Xavier would follow with a Final Four berth on the line. But in my search for a better price, I'm steering clear of the Wildcats.
No. 2 – Ohio State
The Buckeyes are the No. 2 seed in the East and my personal choice to win the tournament. And they've caught a bit of a break in that the top seed in the East, Syracuse, lost a key player just before the tournament started. OSU is favored by 7.5 points at TopBet for Thursday night's game over Cincinnati, and would then meet either the Orange or conference rival Wisconsin in the regional final. I like the Buckeyes to get through to the Final Four, so I'll bite on the +550 several sportsbooks are offering on Ohio State to win the tournament.
No. 3 – Michigan State
Michigan State tends to sneak up on me. Living in Big Ten country I get to watch the Spartans often, and I guess I've come to underestimate them. Then every other year or so they make a run to the Final Four and I end up asking myself “How the hell did I miss that?” I'm not making that mistake this year; Michigan State is my pick to oppose Ohio State in an all-Big Ten national final. MSU is favored by five points for Thursday's game vs. Louisville then would meet Marquette or Florida in the regional final. Bovada is listing Sparty at 13/2 to win a second title under Coach Izzo.
No. 4 – Kansas
I had some doubt about the Jayhawks before the season started, and although they've had a fine campaign I still do. KU won the Big 12 again but got beat in the conference tournament. And the Jayhawks should feel fortunate to be playing this weekend after Purdue handed them their third-round game Sunday. But the Jayhawks have to be taken seriously; they're favored by eight points at TopBet to beat North Carolina State Friday night, and they would then probably meet a North Carolina team with a questionable point guard situation. Still, I'm not a buyer, even at the +800 TopBet is offering on Kansas.
No. 5 – Marquette
Marquette finished second in the Big East during the regular season, which to me means something. And they made the Sweet 16 last year, so playing at this level isn't anything new. The Golden Eagles are favored by a point and a half at TopBet for Thursday's game vs. Florida, and after that I think Marquette could give Michigan State a very good fight. Bovada is offering the Eagles at +2000 on its NCAA board, and that's tempting.
No. 6 – North Carolina
North Carolina is the No. 1 seed in the Midwest, but suddenly there is uncertainty, because of the status of PG Kendall Marshall, who suffered a broken bone in his off hand late in Sunday's win over Creighton. If Marshall can play Carolina is a contender. If he can't go, or is hampered significantly, the Tar Heels might be in trouble. Either way, I've got Kansas coming out of the Midwest, so even the +700 Bovada is offering on Carolina doesn't interest me.
No. 7 – Louisville
I began liking Louisville's chances many weeks ago before they even won the Big East Tournament, so their appearance in the Sweet 16 comes as no surprise. The Cardinals actually lost four of their last six regular-season games but have won six in a row since. So they're coming together at the right time. They've got a tough road ahead, though; since they'll have to beat Michigan State and then either Marquette or Florida just to reach the Final Four. Still, the +3000 Bovada is offering on the Cardinals is too much to pass up.
No. 8 – Syracuse
The other key personnel development of this tournament, besides Marshall, is the ineligibility of Syracuse center Fab Melo. One of the Orange's few flaws is their work on the boards, and now they're without their leading rebounder. l can't imagine his absence won't be felt. Before news of the Melo situation hit, I was going to take the Orange to win it all. Now, I won't be surprised if they're upset by Wisconsin Thursday night. Syracuse is getting +1100 to win the tournament at several sportsbooks.
No. 9 – Xavier
Yes, I know Xavier went only 11-11 after that brawl with Cincinnati, but they got to the Atlantic 10 Conference Championship Game and I liked what I saw as the Musketeers beat Notre Dame and Lehigh last weekend. And I think they'll beat Baylor Friday night. Unfortunately, they then run into Kentucky, and that's why I can't recommend backing Xavier, even at the +7500 odds they're getting at Bovada.
No. 10 – Wisconsin
Wisconsin is not a great team. They can look bad at times, and they're way too dependent upon the three-point shot. But they do some things very well; they rebound, get back on defense, take care of the ball and they make their free-throws. And if the Badgers are hitting their threes, they're very tough to beat. Of course, you could say that about a lot of teams, but with Wisconsin it's especially true. I think the Badgers can beat Syracuse Thursday, and they've already proven they can beat Ohio State. So I don't think a Final Four berth is out of the question. Bovada is listing Wisconsin at +3000 to win the tournament.
No. 11 – Cincinnati
Cincinnati didn't impress me much during the regular season, but over the last month the Bearcats have beaten Louisville, Marquette, Georgetown, Syracuse and Florida State. So they've gained my respect. However, I just don't think they'll get past Ohio State Thursday night, so Bovada's offering of +5000 on Cincy to win the tournament doesn't interest me.
No. 12 – N.C. State
After a five-year absence not only is North Carolina State back in the NCAA Tournament, they're in the final 16. However, before their victories over San Diego State and Georgetown in this tournament, N.C. State was 0-8 this season vs. ranked teams. Now, can they get by Kansas Friday night? And then North Carolina in the regional final? For those of you who think they can, the Pack are getting +6000 to win the tournament at Bovada.
No. 13 – Baylor
Baylor has almost everything you need to make a tournament run. They've got a future NBA-er down low, a good point guard, someone who can hit threes, they play good defense and they're very good on the boards. Hey, they're good. But for some reason those four losses to Kansas and Missouri stick in my mind. The Bears are favored by six points at TopBet for Thursday's game over Xavier, while Kentucky looms as a regional finals foe. Bovada is listing Baylor at +1600 to win the tournament.
No. 14 – Florida
Florida kind of fell off the basketball map after its back-to-back titles of a few years ago, but they'll be shooting for a second-straight regional finals appearance when they play Marquette Thursday night. Coming off convincing wins over Virginia and Norfolk State to start the tournament, the Gators are now getting +2200 from several sportsbooks to win a third title under Coach Donovan. But I think their season will end Thursday night, so I'll stay away.
No. 15 – Indiana
Indiana has won 27 games this season, knocked off Kentucky, Michigan State and Ohio State, and I still don't quite believe in them. And now they're faced with a very tough task; beating Kentucky again. I'll pass on the +3500 TopBet is offering on the Hoosiers to win the tourney.
No. 16 – Ohio
MAC champion Ohio is the last team left from outside the power conferences. But let's face it, with North Carolina on tap for Friday and Kansas awaiting after that, the Bobcats have basically no chance of winning the title. Bovada agrees, lining Ohio as the longest shot on its NCAA Tournament championship board at +15000.
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