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December 13, 2018

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NCAA Tournament by the odds: Vegas picks and preview of the East Region

Carsen Edwards

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Purdue guard Carsen Edwards (3) puts up a shot against Penn State forward Julian Moore (44) and Penn State guard Tony Carr (10) during the second half of an NCAA Big Ten Conference tournament semifinal college basketball game, Saturday, March 3, 2018, in New York. Purdue won 78-70.

Updated Wednesday, March 14, 2018 | 12:13 p.m.

No matter how often it’s stressed to evaluate teams on the largest sample possible, recency bias continues to get the best of bettors.

Bettors are notorious for basing their opinions too significantly on what they’ve seen last, which can go a long way in explaining the perception of the East Region heading into this year’s NCAA Tournament. In the immediate aftermath of Selection Sunday, commentators were declaring No. 1 seed Villanova’s path to the Final Four as set with one of the weaker brackets in the tournament.

The betting odds would offer a rebuke.

The Westgate Las Vegas Superbook lists 17 teams in the tournament at 50-to-1 odds or less to win the national championship. The East Region houses six of those teams, making for two more representatives than any other bracket.

And yet, it’s viewed as weak beyond the Wildcats. That’s almost fully because of the way all the other contenders ended the season.

No. 2 seed Purdue and No. 3 seed Texas Tech were in the discussion for No. 1 seeds a month ago before encountering adversity. The Boilermakers have only covered in one of their last 13 games, while the Red Raiders are riding a seven-game against the spread losing streak.

No. 4 seed Wichita State and No. 5 seed West Virginia have endured rocky stretches of their own, with each getting upset to both end the regular season and lose in their respective conference tournaments. Ditto for Florida on the latter, as it flamed out of the SEC Tournament after having a chance of playing itself into a better seed.

They’ve all been penalized by being put into a group that fans would have decried as unfairly stacked for the majority of the season. A group that is headed by the overall tournament favorite.

Villanova is a co-favorite at most sports books, but it’s sitting at the lowest 7-to-2 odds at the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook. The Wildcats are also the only team in this year’s tournament to not be offered at plus money to reach the Final Four, as they’re minus-110 (risking $1.10 to win $1) to come out of the East Region.

Villanova will find challenges in this bracket, though. A bad stretch doesn’t spoil a season, no matter when it comes.

Check below for picks and analysis on each first-round game in the East Region, and come back for an update after the completion of Tuesday’s First Four contests. Selections are listed in order of confidence. Talking Points will pick every game on the point spread throughout the tournament.

No. 12 seed Murray State plus-10.5 vs. No. 5 seed West Virginia Murray State doesn’t look dissimilar to the Stephen F. Austin team that sunk West Virginia’s title hopes in the round of 64 two years ago. The Racers take their time offensively, shoot effectively from long range and have a senior star in Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year Jonathan Stark. West Virginia should survive, but not by double digits.

No. 4 seed Wichita State minus-11.5 vs. No. 13 seed Marshall The Thundering Herd play at a lightning pace, which served them well in running through most of their Conference USA schedule. The style could backfire in the tournament, though, and play right into the Shockers’ hands. These are not the scrappy Shockers of old as the program’s success has enabled it to land a deep roster of top-notch athletes — highlighted by sophomore guard Landry Shamet — that can feast in a high-possession game against a lesser team.

No. 6 seed Florida minus-5 vs. No. 11 seed Saint Bonaventure The Gators might be the best defensive team the Bonnies have encountered all season. Florida is also well coached under Mike White and available at a discount because of the somewhat fluky way it ended the season. The Gators lost four of their last seven, but three of the defeats were by less than six points. They endured a similiar stretch before last year's tournament, but rebounded to come within a game of the Final Four.

No. 16 seed Radford minus-4.5 vs. No. 16 seed LIU Brooklyn Radford’s Big South Conference was significantly tougher than Brooklyn’s Northeast Conference — and the Highlanders finished with a better league record by two games. Radford coach Mike Jones has found relatively recent tournament success, as he was Shaka Smart’s top assistant during Virginia Commonwealth’s 2011 Final Four run.

No. 15 seed Cal-State Fullerton plus-21 vs. No. 2 seed Purdue To have any chance at beating the Boilermakers, an opponent needs to be able to chase them off of the 3-point line. Conveniently, that’s one of the areas the Titans excel in as only 33 percent of opponents shots on the year came from long range to rank in the nation’s top 50. They’re also an eye-popping 18-9 against the spread, meaning oddsmakers haven’t caught up to the team all year.

No. 9 seed Alabama plus-2 vs. No. 8 seed Virginia Tech The majority of the early money has surprisingly come in on Virginia Tech, despite Alabama rostering the marquee player in the matchup with freshman guard Collin Sexton. The game will come down to Sexton’s productivity, as most of the Crimson Tide’s games do, and he could be poised for a big performance against a mediocre Hokies’ defense.

No. 3 seed Texas Tech minus-11.5 vs. No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin In mid-February, Texas Tech profiled as one of the five best teams in the nation. The Red Raiders then proceeded to lose four straight games, but it’s not far-fetched to believe they could regain their moxie behind now-healthy senior Keenan Evans and shrewd coach Chris Beard. Stephen F. Austin has only one player, senior Ty Charles, who logged minutes in the 2016 win over West Virginia.

No. 16 seed Radford plus-24 vs. No. 1 seed Villanova Villanova's odds to win the tournament have only gotten chalkier as the consensus favorite around Las Vegas in the last week, which indicates how much betting interest surrounds the Wildcats. Expect to pay a tax to back the Wildcats this weekend, and there's no reason to pay a tax on any team this early in the tournament.

No. 11 seed UCLA minus-3.5 vs. No. 11 seed Saint Bonaventure Line looks fair assuming both teams are at full strength, but that might not be the case with the Bonnies. Saint Bonaventure lost its best big man, Courtney Stockard, in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 Tournament and one of those tasked with filling his minutes, Josh Ayeni, in the semifinals. Both are questionable to play against the Bruins, which already have a significant size and length advantage.

No. 7 seed Arkansas plus-2 vs. No. 10 seed Butler Butler often looked a step behind the best teams it played this season, going 5-10 straight-up and 4-11 against the spread facing opponents that made the tournament. But Arkansas wasn’t much better at 7-8 straight-up and 5-10 against the spread. In a game this evenly matched, taking the points is the default the play.

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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