The Sweet 16 is halfway filled. The other half comes Sunday. I’ve been treading water on my picks for most of this first week of the NCAA Tournament, but I’m ready to have a banner final day. Enjoy the games, everyone!
All lines are via BetMGM.
NCAA Tournament: 19-25
2022-23 regular season: 45-30
No. 3 Xavier (-4 1/2) vs. No. 11 Pittsburgh, 12:10 p.m., CBS. For a team like Pittsburgh that has struggled on the defensive end this season (108th nationally in efficiency per KenPom.com), it was a welcome sight (and sound) to have Iowa State clank all those 3-point attempts on Friday. The Cyclones shot a ghastly 2 of 21 from behind the arc, which allowed the Panthers to advance despite shooting just 34.1 percent from the floor themselves. My predictions don’t always pan out, but I’m very confident that the Musketeers will shoot better than Iowa State did, especially coming off a poor 3-point shooting performance (2 of 12) of their own against Kennesaw State. It was significant that Xavier managed to come back from 13 points down midway through the second half by relying on its defense, holding the Owls to just six points in the final 10 minutes. The Musketeers lost one of their best offensive players in 6-9 senior Zach Freemantle, a stretch four who averaged 15.2 points on 63.6 percent 3-point shooting, in late January, but the promotion of 6-8 senior forward Jerome Hunter to the starting lineup made them a much better defensive team. And Hunter poured in a career-high 24 points in Xavier’s first-round win. The Musketeers got tested in the first round and passed it emphatically. I think they’ll pass this one as well. The pick: Xavier
No. 3 Kansas State vs. No. 6 Kentucky (-1 1/2), 2:40 p.m., CBS. The fact that the lower-seeded team is favored should tell us something. Kentucky is playing better than its seed, and it showed a lot of heart, toughness and defensive efficiency during its 61-53 first-round win over Providence. That was the Friars’ lowest-scoring total of the season. John Calipari leans very heavily on his five starters, all of whom played 33 or more minutes. (None of UK’s four bench players scored.) Antonio Reeves is shooting with confidence (22 points, 5 of 9 from 3), and 6-9 senior forward Oscar Tshiebwe is playing like an All-American again. Tshiebwe’s 25 rebounds against the Friars were the most in the NCAA Tournament since 1977, and over his last five games he is averaging 16.4 points and 18.0 boards. I love this matchup for Kentucky because Kansas State is so heavily dependent on two players, 5-8 senior guard Markquis Nowell (17 points, 14 assists, five turnovers vs. Montana State) and 6-6 senior forward Keyontae Johnson (18 points, eight rebounds, three assists). The Wildcats have other good players as well, but those two need to have great games in order to counter Tshiebwe’s dominance on the glass. John Calipari will have his guys ready. The pick: Kentucky
No. 2 Marquette (-2 1/2) vs. No. 7 Michigan State, 5:15 p.m., CBS. Marquette’s Tyler Kolek has been arguably the best point guard in the country, so you’d think his team might need him to be at his best in order to succeed in March. Yet, between foul trouble and a banged-up right (non-shooting) hand, Kolek shot 3 of 11 and had eight points in 26 minutes on Friday against Vermont. No problem. Five other players scored in double figures (led by Kam Jones, who scored 18 straight points during the second half), the Golden Eagles shot 5 of 20 from 3, and the Catamounts never had a chance. Marquette is a highly entertaining, very skilled team, and though a lack of size could leave Maquette vulnerable against taller, more physical teams, Michigan State is not one of them. The Spartans’ starting center, 6-9 junior Mady Sissoko, averages 5.0 points in 21.6 minutes. We think of Michigan State as a great rebounding program, but this squad is 224th in the country in offensive rebound percentage per Ken Pom, and it’s 334th in steals percentage. In other words, it’s just like Marquette, only not as good. The pick: Marquette
No. 4 UConn (-3 1/2) vs. No. 5 Saint Mary’s, 6:10 p.m., TNT. The second half of UConn’s first-round win over Iona may have been the best 20 minutes the Huskies have played all season. They allowed the Gaels to shoot 48 percent (6 of 11 from 3) in the first half and went into halftime trailing by two, but the Huskies erupted in the second half and ended up winning by 24. The strategy wasn’t complicated. UConn continuously fed Adama Sanogo in the post, and he responded by scoring 22 points in the second half. UConn is a popular Final Four pick because it can win at any tempo, and it has both athleticism on the wing and size in the middle. Saint Mary’s beat VCU, 63-51, in the first round by owning a 34-20 scoring advantage in the paint, but it will be far more difficult to score inside on Sanogo and his backup, 7-2 freshman Donovan Clingan. The Gaels should improve upon their 3-of-17 3-point shooting, their worst performance of the season, but it won’t be enough to prevail over a talented, surging, confident UConn. The pick: UConn
No. 3 Baylor (-1 1/2) vs. No. 6 Creighton, 7:10 p.m., TBS. All season long, the question about Baylor has been whether its defense would be able to match its offense. The D was the key during the second half of the Bears’ first-round game against UCSB, when they held the Gauchos to 30 percent shooting and forced them to have more turnovers (eight) than made baskets (seven) after intermission. It will be much harder to defend a Creighton squad that is ranked 29th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom (compared to the Gauchos, who are 79th). The Bluejays are also 14th in defensive efficiency, and they have one of the country’s best rim protectors in Ryan Kalkbrenner. He scored a career-high 31 points against NC State, which allowed the Bluejays to prevail despite shooting 3 of 20 from 3. Baylor has the potential to overwhelm the Jays athletically, but it’s not like Creighton hasn’t faced athletic teams in the Big East. For Baylor to win, Creighton will need to help out by missing jumpers, and I think this team is too good to have two straight miserable shooting performances. The pick: Creighton
No. 9 Florida Atlantic (-13.5) vs. No. 16 FDU, 7:45 p.m, truTV. In the past, I’d anticipate the Cinderella suffering an emotional letdown, but we’ve seen enough examples (particularly Saint Peter’s last year) to anticipate that FDU will show up ready to play. The Knights won’t have the same quickness advantage they enjoyed against Purdue, but there’s no reason to believe they can’t at least keep this thing competitive. The big question is whether the Knights, who are 353rd in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, can slow down Florida Atlantic’s high-powered offense. Zach Edey is three inches taller than Owls center Vladislav Goldin, but Goldin is more mobile than Edey at both ends, so it’ll be harder for FDU (the nation’s shortest team) to expose him. In the win over Purdue, FDU got 19 points from Sean Moore, who came in averaging 6.7 per game, but Florida Atlantic was also fortunate to stage a late comeback against Memphis. Such is March! The Owls also only forced the turnover-prone Tigers to cough it up eight times on Friday, so their defense is more efficient than disruptive. I think Florida Atlantic wins this game, but it’s going to be a close one. The pick: Florida Atlantic
No. 4 Indiana (-1.5) vs. No. 5 Miami, 8:40 p.m., TNT. I’m still trying to figure out how the Hurricanes pulled that rabbit out of the hat on Friday against Drake. They trailed for most of the game and were down 55-47 with under five minutes to play. They ended the game on a 16-1 run. Does it provoke suspicion that they were down by that much, or inspire confidence that they managed to come back? They probably wouldn’t have been able to do it without 6-7 sophomore forward Norchad Omier, who injured his ankle early in the ACC tournament semifinal loss to Duke and was questionable coming into the game. Omier had 12 points and 14 rebounds in 36 minutes, but like everyone who plays Indiana, he’s going to have his hands full with Trayce Jackson-Davis, who was his usual magnificient self in going for 24 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and five blocks in the Hoosiers’ 71-60 first-round win over Kent State. Senior forward Race Thompson, who’s usually the Hoosiers’ Glue Guy, chipped in 20 points and nine rebounds. Miami is a gifted offensive team, but it’s grown-man time in the men’s NCAA Tournament, and there’s no one who fits that description more than TJD. The pick: Indiana
No. 3 Gonzaga (-4.5) vs. No. 6 TCU, 9:40 p.m., TBS. Gonzaga is again doing Gonzaga things. The Zags trounced Saint Mary’s by 26 points in the WCC tournament final, and on Friday they trailed Grand Canyon by seven with six minutes to play in the first half and quickly pushed out to an 82-70 win. TCU is a better team than Grand Canyon, but it’s a more comfortable matchup for Gonzaga because the Horned Frogs play at a quicker pace (54th in tempo on KenPom, compared to 291st for Grand Canyon). It’s also tougher for TCU to deal with Gonzaga’s front-line trio of Drew Timme, Julian Strawther and Anton Watson without 6-11 sophomore center Eddie Lampkin Jr., who left the team two weeks ago. That wasn’t an issue for the Horned Frogs in the first round because Arizona State doesn’t emphasize post scoring, but Timme is the toughest interior offensive match-up in college basketball, and he’s in March Mode. The pick: Gonzaga
(Top photo of Kentucky’s Jacob Toppin: Jacob Kupferman / Getty Images)