#2 Ohio State (-16) vs #15 Oral Roberts
3:00 pm, CBS
Contrary to popular belief, the 15/2 upset is not very common. People think that it is because of 2012, when TWO 15-seeds won, including Lehigh shocking Duke, and then the very next year was Dunk City making the Sweet 16. But, there has only been one since 2013 and there were only 4 before 2012. In all, 15-seeds are 8-132 in the first round. However, if it is gonna happen this year…this might be the one (for the record, I am not picking this or even considering picking it – just saying).
When the Buckeyes beat Penn State on Feb 18, they were 18-4, ranked 4th in the country and were sitting as a projected 1-seed in pretty much all bracketologies. But, they lost their last 4 reg season games and looked to be sliding. Until the B1G Tournament, when they beat Minnesota, Purdue, and Michigan before losing in OT to Illinois in the title game. They look to be back in midseason form. 6’7” SO E.J. Liddell (16.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 49% FG, 37% from three) has become a superstar, and 6’3” JR Duane Washington (15.3 ppg, 2.9 apg, 37% from three) is so fun to watch because he’s so smooth with a soft touch. He and his awesome “no f’s to give” attitude dropped a 30-spot on the Illini 6’1” SR PG C.J. Walker (9.1 ppg, 4.2 apg) is about as rock solid as they come, and 6’7” JR Justice Sueing (10.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg), a Hawaiian who started his career at Cal, has really become a nice player to go with his great judicial name. One issue with the Buckeyes is the tallest guy on their roster is only 6’8” and that’s SR Kyle Young (8.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg), who is dealing with a high ankle sprain and will not be 100%. But, if they are up late, they can finish the game because their two primary ballhandlers are RIDICULOUS FT shooters – Washington (90%) and Walker (95%).
Now, I’m not going to “mid-major shame” anyone here because I don’t expect everyone – even people who cover college hoops for a living – to pay attention to the little leagues. They don’t really matter, I get it. And, that’s fine. But, don’t pretend to follow them. Don’t pretend that reading a kenpom page makes you an expert on that team. And, there are a LOT of professional college basketball writers who act as if they care about mid-major hoops, but don’t pay the least bit of attention. And, do you know how I know that? Because I have heard countless people, in the last week, talk about ORU as a threat to OSU. That is true. But, they do so while referencing how great of a scorer Max Abmas is. And, that is also true. But, when you hear them say “Max Ab-miss,” you know that they’ve never actually seen an ORU game. The dude plays 37 minutes a game for the Golden Eagles…and his name is clearly pronounced “Ace-miss.” I have no idea why it’s spelled Abmas, but it’s pronounced “Ace-miss.” And, Mr. Abmas is the only player in the country who averages more points per game than Luka Garza. The 6’1″ SO Max Abmas is averaging 24.7 ppg on the strength of 84 three-pointers with ridiculous percentages of 49/46/90%. WOWOWOWOW! Abmas also averages 3.2 rpg, 3.3 apg, and 1.5 spg. And, all of this usage and he only averages 2.0 TO per game. You will not see a better pure shooter on any team in any tournament in America over the next two weeks plus he averages 3.5 assists per game. And, yet…he still might not even be the best all-around player on his own team. 6’8″ JR Kevin Obanor (18.6 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 50/46/88%) is an absolute monster! These two are unbelievable on the mid-major level and lead a top-70 offense. They are not good at all defensively, but they can score with anyone.
Obviously, OSU is a much better team, but don’t be surprised if there are a lot of points on both ends. ORU is 11th in the nation in 3pt% (38.8%) and the best free throw shooting team OF ALL-TIME (82.6%). They also take care of the ball (25th lowest TO rate). However, where this game could get away from them is the fact that they are really, REALLY bad on defense and on the boards. They give up almost 108 points per 100 possessions (285th in adjusted def efficiency) and allow an offensive rebound on 33% of their missed shots (328th in the country).
The Pick: Oral Roberts +16
Confidence Level (5-point scale): *
I can surely think of better things to do with my hard-earned money than sweat out this spread here, but I do think that ORU is more likely to cover the 16 than not just because I think they can really score and the OSU defense can be shaky at times. Plus, OSU isn’t built around bruising bigs that would abuse the Eagles on the boards. That said, the Bucks might drop 100 on ORU, in which case, they probably cover 16 with relative ease.
#1 Baylor (-22.5) vs #16 Hartford
3:30 pm, truTV
This game isn’t all that fun. If you are new to college hoops this year and only parachute in for the Tournament (which is totally fine – it’s an incredible event), then spend 5-10 minutes watching Baylor. They’re AWESOME and worth the watch – particularly their backcourt. If you have been tuned in all year and have seen a lot of Baylor, then you should probably focus attention on the other games going on right now.
I think this might be the best team in the country led by the best two-way player in the country, 6’3” JR Jared Butler (17.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 5.0 apg, 2.1 spg, 49/44/76%), who is as good defensively as he is offensively. His backcourt partner, 6’2” JR Davion Mitchell (13.8 ppg, 5.7 apg, 1.9 spg, 52% FG, 47% from three) might be the best perimeter defender in the country and certainly – with Butler – forms the best backcourt in the country on either end. They also have a couple of former Big South stars – 6’4” SR MaCio Teague, from UNCA, who is averaging 16 ppg, and 6’3” SO Adam Flagler, from Presbyterian, who has never played a collegiate game without making a three. 6’5” Mark Vital is the ultimate junkyard dog and a total winning player, and 6’9” Matthew Mayer can play any position on the floor. And, off the bench, they bring in a couple of enormous West Africans (all West Africans are awesome, by the way), the 6’8” 245-pound Cameroonian Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, aka “Everyday Jon,” and the 6’10” 245-pound Congalese monster Flo Thamba. They are awesome and the perfect finishing touches on this championship-caliber roster.
St. Joe’s Man, John Gallagher, has done another excellent job at Hartford this year. He has a lot of guys back from last year, but there isn’t an offensive star here. They have 4 guys averaging double-figures. They are a lockdown defensive team that really guards the 3-point line. They are led by a legit power conference player in 6’1″ SR Traci Carter (11.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.4 apg, 2.6 spg), who is a Philly kid who started his career at Marquette and an absolutely elite perimeter defender. He also runs the offense, which usually goes to 6’4″ SR Austin Williams (13.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg) or 6’10” SO Miroslav Stafl (10.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 54% FG).
Not going to spend too much time here, except to say that Hartford makes their hay on the defensive end, but Baylor is the #3 offense in the country. Traci Carter is absolutely one of the best perimeter defenders in the country – not in the America East…not among mid-majors…in the COUNTRY. But, Hartford only has one Traci Carter on defense…Baylor has a whole backcourt full of them – and they’re all pretty good on the other end, too.
The Pick: Baylor -22.5
Confidence Level (5-point scale): ***
I don’t like laying a ton of points, but this could be a bloodbath. And, the Bears could use a “get-right” game. This could be ugly.
#8 Loyola-Chicago (-5.5) vs #9 Georgia Tech
4:00 pm, TBS
This game was one of the most highly anticipated First Round game this year. But, ACC Player of the Year, Moses Wright, tested positive for COVID and is out. That changes this game enormously. It was always going to come down to tricky zone defense that Tech throws out there against the BEST DEFENSIVE TEAM IN AMERICA. But, with no Wright, it feels like GT is going to get very frustrated.
The Ramblers, who are 9th overall team at kenpom (and WOEFULLY UNDERSEEDED here), are led by some dude named Cameron Krutwig. Remember that large, oafy throwback that started at center for Loyola’s Final Four team? Ya, you know who I’m talking about – his game and his, general, well, everything looked like it was plucked out of some gym in rural Indiana in the 1950s? Ya, he’s still there – and he’s probably the best player in The Valley – again. He’s not athletic at all, but has a big body, nice touch and, most importantly, I believe that Krutwig (15.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.1 spg, 1.2 bpg, 58% FG) is, literally, the smartest player in the country. He always knows where to be and calls out the opposing plays like he’s Ray Lewis. And, I have decided that Krutwig’s mug will be officially carved next to the faces of UCLA’s Kevin Love and Richmond’s TJ Cline on the “Mount Rushmore of Best Passing Big Men I Have Ever Seen” (the 4th spot is still available, so if you’re reading this and you’re a 6’7” middle schooler, start working on your passing and one day you might have your face etched next to Cameron F’ing Krutwig!). He’s only 6’9” with more fat than muscle, has made exactly one three-pointer in his three-year career (a game-winner, by the way), and I’m not convinced he can even dunk, and yet he is one of the best players in all of mid-major basketball in 2021. He is as basketball smart as anyone you will ever watch, and he never takes a play off. He’s the heart and soul of the 9th best team in the nation. He does have a lot of help – all of whom can FLAT OUT DEFEND. 6’7″ SR Aher Uguak (7.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 63% FG) is an ELITE defensive player, who can also break out when needed on the offensive end. 6’4″ SR Lucas Williamson (8.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.4 spg, and is as good a dude off the court as a player on it) is a quiet assassin on offense and an incredibly smart and athletic defender. 6’1″ Keith Clemons (7.4 ppg, 47% from three) is the senior leader who everyone looks to tp steady the ship when it gets choppy. 6’1″ SO Marquise Kennedy (7.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.1 spg, 50% FG) has star potential on both ends; 6’6″ SR Tate Hall (7.0 ppg) is a streaky shooter who is as deadly as anyone when hot and really good on the defensive end; and, 6’0″ SO Braden Norris (8.1 pgg, 2.9 apg, 40% from three) has really developed into a nice all-around player running the point here in his sophomore season. Most people say (and the computer numbers agree) that this team is better than the Final Four team. I’m not sure I definitely agree, but it’s definitely a conversation, especially if they continue to just suffocate on the defensive end. They’ve won 17 of their last 18 with the only loss a 1-point OT loss at Drake.
Josh Pastner is leading a top-25 offense and has a couple of HORSES in the stable. Well, he did. 6’9” SR Moses Wright showed steady improvement in each of his first three years in Atlanta, but WOWOWOWOW has he taken off in his senior year, winning the ACC POY. Wright was averaging 18.0 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.5 spg, 1.7 bpg and is shooting 55% from the floor. He is one of those guys with the late growth spurts. He was a 6’4” power forward in high school, who only had two scholarship offers – GT and some D2 school. But, he grew 5 inches before college and has developed himself into a superstar. And, he just tested positive to COVID and is out – OUCH! The team now flips to one of the most fun ACC players to watch and that’s 6’0″ Jose Alvarado (15.5 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 4.2 apg, 2.9 spg, 51/41/88%), who has also a lightly-recruited recruit who has become an all-ACC player under Pastner. Alvarado will have to move mountains without Wright, but the supporting cast isn’t terrible. You can do a LOT worse than 6’5″ JR Michael Devoe (15.0 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.2 spg, 49% from three) as your #3 option, but he’s now the #2. 6’7″ SR Jordan Usher (11.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.6 spg) is a solid role player who can have moments of stardom. And, maybe they will turn to the bench and see 5’10” Bubba Parham, who might remind them that he averaged over 21 ppg for VMI two years ago.
It’s hard to assess any “matchup” here since we don’t know what Tech will be without Wright, but the one thing that the Bees do as well as anyone is force turnovers. They have the 2nd best steal rate in the country. Loyola really takes care of the ball – 29th lowest TO rate – but this zone/press/matchup zone thing is not something that’s easy to prepare for if you haven’t seen it. Without Wright, though, this might be a tall task for Tech.
The Pick: Loyola-Chicago -5.5
Confidence Level (5-point scale): ***
Honestly, from an ATS standpoint, the Wright injury makes me like Loyola less. I would rather have the Ramblers at -2 against a healthy Wright than -5.5 against a team without him. That’s a lot of points for a confident team. But, I still think that Loyola is the better team and who knows what to expect from a team that lost their best player to a contagious disease.
#5 Tennessee (-8.5) vs #12 Oregon State
4:30 pm, TNT
The Beavers stole Louisville’s Tournament bid by stealing the Pac-12 autobid in surprising fashion, beating UCLA, Oregon, and Colorado in 72 hours. Now, they get a Tennessee team that I am embarrassingly in love with. And, you can’t help who you love, right?
I can’t quit the Vols…I really can’t. This is the best defensive team in America. I love kenpom, and I know he has them 4th behind Loyola-Chicago, Memphis, and Alabama, but this is the best defensive team in the country. The problem is that they have insanely underperformed on the offensive end.. On paper, this is easily a top-10 team in the country, but they just can’t put together consistent offensive performances. The roster is well-constructed and very, VERY talented. They have two experienced seniors, both of whom were poised for breakouts in 6’9” John Fulkerson (9.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and 6’6” Yves Pons (8.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.6 bpg). Fulkerson’s breakout was supposed to be offensively, and that has not happened. Whereas Pons’s breakout was supposed to be defensively, and that ABSOLUTELY HAS happened. This is, in my opinion – and I am not being hyperbolic – the single best defensive player in America. I heard a stat midway through UT’s season season that Pons had allowed exactly NINE points through the first nine games as an on-ball defender. And, this guy typically guards the opponent’s best player, regardless of position. NINE POINTS IN NINE GAMES. He’s insane. So they have those two seniors who were supposed to breakout and then they added a dynamic scorer from Oregon in 6’4” Victor Bailey (11.4 ppg, 38% from three) and brought back two promising sophs in PG 6’3” Santiago Vescovi (8.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.0 spg) and former 5-star athletic wing 6’6” Josiah Jordan James (8.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.5 spg, 1.0 bpg). But, that’s not all. Barnes also went out and signed TWO McDonald’s All-Americans in 6’5” Keon Johnson (10.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.0 spg) and 6’4″ Jaden Springer (12.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.9 apg, 1.1 spg, 48/46/80%). This team is ABSOLUTELY LOADED…on paper! But, they have struggled. And, I don’t know why. The freshmen are really coming into form, and this team has one last chance to put it together. Fulkerson got a concussion in the SEC semis, but should be back – which is important because they are a bit undersized inside. But, watch out…at least in my opinion, but I can’t quit them.
The Beavs somehow won the Pac-12 after a mediocre season the year after Coach Tinkle saw his incredibly talented son, Tres, graduate. So, the elder Tinkle (there’s gotta be a joke there with “eldest tinkle,” but I couldn’t find it) was left with 6’5″ SR superstar Ethan Thompson (15.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.9 apg, 1.3 spg) and a bunch of role players. And, here they are dancing. They do have a couple of efficient bigs led by the former Nicholls State Colonel, 6’7″ JR Warith Alatishe (9.9 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 1.2 spg, 1.4 bpg, 53% FG) alongside 6’10” Maurice Calloo and 7’1″ Roman Silva. On the perimeter are 6’3″ SO Jarod Lucas (12.9 ppg, 39% from three, 90% FT – only 38% FG) and 6’5″ SR Zach Reichle (7.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.9 apg, 34% from three, 84% FT, but only 42% FG), who are “fine,” but inefficient. But, they caught fire in the Pac-12 Tournament. The Beavs have made at least 9 threes in a game exactly four times this year – THREE of them were the three Pac-12 Tournament games. If they shoot like that (defying season-long averages), they are tough to beat.
The matchups all seem to favor UT, and the “eye test” (at least mine) favors them even more. I don’t see a spot where Oregon State can stay with this team, but I didn’t think they’d win a single game in the Pac-12 Tournament either – and they won three in three nights, so….
The Pick: Tennessee -8.5
Confidence Level (5-point scale): ***
That’s a lot of points…and, I ain’t scared. I want to be fair, though, so I will temper my excitement and realize that that is a lot of points. So, I’ll only throw 3 stars on it. I just can’t quit the Vols.