I can’t remember a better first weekend of the tournament (though, I expect I say something to that effect every year, but this one seemed different), and now I can’t explain how great this Sweet 16 is looking. There isn’t one total mismatch and all 16 of these teams are playing very well and none should be just “happy to be there.” And, yet, there is not a clear favorite or underdog. Obviously, Dayton and Stanford are surprises to be here, but they play each other and both are playing really well. There is only one team that is more than a 5-point underdog and that San Diego State, who spent most of the year in the Top 10 in the country and even cracked the Top 5. At least a dozen (maybe even 13 or 14) of these teams are legit Final Four contenders where we wouldn’t look back and think it absurd that they made it. And, about half of them are legit title contenders. This is going to be spectacular. So, let’s make some picks, shall we? The stars rate my confidence – going by a 5-star scale where 5 stars is a mortal lock.
Memphis, TN – Thursday, 7:15 – Dayton vs Stanford (-3)
These are the two “Cinderella” teams of the bunch and they happen to play each other in the region that holds the #1 team in America possibly waiting for them in the Elite Eight. But, these two teams (particularly Stanford) are not your typical “happy-to-be-here” underdogs that we see in most years (Florida Gulf Coast in 2013, Ohio in 2012, Richmond in 2011, Cornell in 2010…well you get the idea). Dayton is a legitimately solid team that earned an at-large bid from a 6-bid league, while Stanford has top-level talent, even though they muddled through various parts of the season. I might be the only one, but I really like this Stanford team and think they have the talent to play with the best teams in the country. Chasson Randle is a special point guard, and Dwight Powell is a borderline star. Plus, when they added Josh Huestis to the starting lineup, they got INCREDIBLY big. Their starting lineup is 6’2″, 6’6″, 6’7″, 6’10”, and 6’11”. That’s NBA size that I think will overpower Dayton here. A game like this usually begs me to take the points, but I am going to lay the 3 here.
The Pick: Stanford -3 (**)
Anaheim, CA – Thursday, 7:47 – Baylor vs Wisconsin (-3.5)
Did any team in the tournament look any better than Baylor last weekend? They pounded a good Nebraska team before absolutely annihilating Doug McDermott and Creighton in the second round. And, this after a blisteringly hot February that led into a run to the Big XII title game. I am not sure anyone wants to play this Baylor team right now, but you know Wisconsin won’t be scared. Bo Ryan’s teams are always prepared (though, they seem to underachieve a bit in the tournament) and this team, in particular, does something that Bo’s teams of the past didn’t do – score. They do give it up defensively more than usual, but the Badgers can spread you out with all 5 guys showing long-range potential, even their 7-foot center Frank Kaminsky. This should be a fantastic game, but I am not sure that Wisconsin can keep up with the athletes that Baylor has – if the Baylor of the past month shows up…which is still a question mark. But, with Baylor playing so well, I feel you have to take the 3.5 here, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them win outright.
The Pick: Baylor +3.5 (***)
Memphis, TN – Thursday, 9:45 – UCLA vs Florida (-5)
As good as the Baylor-Wisconsin game should be, this is probably the game of the night. A game of contrasting styles to the max, as UCLA loves to get up and down the floor, as the 15th fastest team in the country on offense without sacrificing any efficiency, as they rank 12th in the country with 1.17 points per possession. This team is so gifted offensively with matchup nightmares all over the court, most notably their 6’8″ point-forward Kyle Anderson, who is averaging a ridiculous stat line of 15 points, 8.5 boards, and 6.5 assists per game. Those are outlandish numbers in a 40-minute game with a :35 second shot clock. And, what makes this game so great is that this incredibly fast and efficient UCLA offense is going up against maybe the best defensive team in the country (they are actually ranked #2 behind Arizona in adjusted dEff). When UCLA has the ball, this is going to be unbelievably intriguing. However, the other side is where the mismatch occurs and probably where the game will be decided. Florida – known for their suffocating defense – is actually a very efficient offensive team – which will be going up against UCLA defense that has taken its lumps publicly this year. The fast-paced tempo of the Bruins offense actually belies the relative effectiveness of their defense, so I think they are very underrated on that end of the court, but it is still hard to make the case that they are any better than “decent” on the defensive end. Because of this, I think Florida makes just enough plays to win the game, but, personally, I think the right side of this is to take the points.
The Pick: UCLA +5 (**)
Anaheim, CA – Thursday, 10:17 – San Diego State vs Arizona (-7.5)
If you like defense, take a nap this afternoon so you can stay up and watch this one. These two teams really get after it on the defensive end. They don’t just hold teams down because they are slow and plodding and conservative. These two teams have long, athletic defenders all over the court and they seem to absolutely love to play straight-up man-to-man, in-your-face defense. And, the numbers reflect this, as both teams are ranked in the top 10 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency (Arizona is #1, SDSU is #7). The problem for the Aztecs is that they really only have two scorers that they can rely on – Xavier Thames and Winston Shephard – and if you could pick any two guys in the country to take and matchup against those two, you might pick Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon, who both happen to play for Arizona. So, the two big questions for this game are (1) can SDSU find offense from their gritty, hard-nosed role players like Josh Davis and J.J. O’Brien (or off the bench from guys like Dwayne Pollee), and (2) will the defensive efforts of Johnson and Gordon still allow them to contribute on the other end or will the offensive load fall on UA’s secondary scorers like Kaleb Tarczewski and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson? Whatever ends up happening, this is another fascinating game and, as maybe the ultimate sign of how great this tournament continues to be, is the largest spread of the round…at only -7.5. At the end of the day, I do think Arizona will win the game, but I don’t think I can possibly give 7.5 when the game is likely to be in the 60’s.
The Pick: San Diego State +7.5 (***)