Thursday brings one of the best sports days of the year, especially for someone who works at home as I do. It's wall-to-wall hoops - and something to have on as background noise during the day other than wall-to-wall gas bags Stephen Smith or Colin Cowherd. True, it's also one of the most distracting days of the year work-wise, but I'm happy for the trade-off. My Final Four picks are: Duke in the East, West Virginia in the West, Kansas in the Midwest and North Carolina in the ridiculously-stacked South. Two ACC and two Big 12 teams. I'm not ready to pick a championship matchup yet. My shakiest pick would be WVU, but I simply don't trust No. 1 Gonzaga or No. 2 Arizona in the West with their histories in the Big Dance.
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No.12 Middle Tennessee vs. No. 5 Minnesota ( +1 )
South Region game from Milwaukee at 4 p.m. ET on TNT. Don't you love the newbie to your NCAA bracket competition who has never followed college basketball but tells the world he is picking a No. 12 over a No. 5? Like it's a secret trend the rest of us didn't know about. In the past five NCAA Tournaments, a No 12 seed is 10-10 vs. a No. 5. Only four times since the Big Dance first expanded in 1985 has a No. 12 seed failed to win a single game: 1988, 2000, 2007, 2015. I'll just go ahead and say I'm taking Middle Tennessee here - and clearly oddsmakers aren't naïve as the Blue Raiders are slight favorites. I'm sure a No. 12 has been favored over a No. 5 previously, but I can't remember it. Middle Tennessee was a No. 15 last year when it wrecked my bracket, and many others, with an upset of No. 2 Michigan State, arguably the most impressive 15 over 2 upset ever. This year's team might be better because it added Arkansas transfer JaCorey Williams, who leads the team in scoring (17.3 ppg) and rebounding (7.3). MT has won 20 of its past 21 by an average of more than 13 points per game.
Great job by Richard Pitino at Minnesota as the Gophers were a mess last season at 8-23 and with some sexual assault allegations against players. They have staged the biggest turnaround in the country at 24-9. I completely disagree with Minnesota being a five seed, however. The Gophers didn't play a ranked team out of conference and beat two all year: overrated Purdue and Maryland. Minnesota also enters having lost two of three after falling 84-77 to Michigan in the Big Ten semifinals. It played without guard Akeem Springs (9.5 PPG, 38 percent from the 3-point line) in that game due to injury, and he's done with a torn Achilles' tendon. The winner gets No. 1 North Carolina.
Key trends: The Blue Raiders are 6-1 against the spread in their past seven nonconference games. The Gophers are 0-6 ATS in their past six neutral-site games as an underdog.
I'm leaning: Middle Tennessee.
No. 9 Vanderbilt vs. No. 8 Northwestern (+1)
West Region game at 4:30 p.m. ET from Salt Lake City on TBS. Barring huge upsets, this is arguably the most intriguing game of the day because it's the NCAA Tournament debut of Northwestern - you already hear that some bigger programs will try and lure Coach Chris Collins, but he's not leaving for anything but the Duke opening whenever Mike Krzyzewski retires. Just about every ESPN guy is from Northwestern, it seems, as it is one of the country's best journalism programs (Syracuse also churns out a lot of sports media types) so I'm sure you will hear all about this game on Thursday night and all day Friday on ESPN if Northwestern wins. I wouldn't expect the Wildcats to go very far even if they do win. Since 1985, only three NCAA Tournament first-timers have reached the Sweet 16 before being eliminated: 1986 Cleveland State (14 seed), 1987 Florida (6 seed) and 2013 FGCU (15 seed). NU was crushed in its last game by Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament.
A case could easily be made for a couple of NCAA Tournament snubs (Syracuse being one) getting in over Vanderbilt, so I'm surprised the Commodores were seeded ninth. No question what got them in was three wins over ranked Florida. Vandy did play Kentucky well in two losses. The Dores played one Big Ten team this season, losing to Minnesota 56-52 on Dec. 3 in South Dakota. Northwestern lost its lone game vs. the Gophers, 70-66 in Evanston on Jan. 5. The winner faces top-seeded Gonzaga.
Key trends: The Commodores are 8-1 ATS in their past nine. The Wildcats are 5-1 ATS in their past six non-conference games.
I'm leaning: Vanderbilt.
No. 12 Nevada vs. No. 5 Iowa State (-6)
Midwest Region game at 9:57 p.m. ET from Salt Lake City on truTV. This is projected as the latest-starting game of the night, although overtime games in another region could affect that. In my opinion, this will be the highest-scoring game of Thursday, and BetOnline oddmakers agree as the total of 155 is the highest. Nevada, the Mountain West regular-season and tournament champion, averages 80 points per game. Five guys are averaging at least 12 points, led by future NBA draft pick Marcus Marshall, who is at 19.8 ppg (most in conference). The Wolf Pack enter on a nine-game winning streak and scored at least 77 points in each.
Iowa State is always among the nation's top scoring teams and its 27 th nationally at 80.9 ppg. The Cyclones won the Big 12 Tournament for the third time in four years by beating West Virginia in the title game - it helped that TCU did the dirty work for Iowa State by eliminating Kansas early in the tourney. The Cyclones have won nine of their last 10 games, their only loss during that stretch at West Virginia, which obviously they avenged. Monte Morris, Matt Thomas and Naz Mitrou-Long, a trio of senior starters who have played at least four seasons at Iowa State, are the only Cyclones to be on four NCAA Tournament teams. The winner will face either No. 4 Purdue or No. 13 Vermont in Saturday's second round.
Key trends: The Wolf Pack are 2-12 ATS in their past 14 as a neutral-site underdog. The Cyclones are 4-1 ATS in their past five as a favorite.
I'm leaning: Iowa State.
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