Wednesday, March 14, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Bettors and bracket-poolers have boiled the Midwest Region down to a multiple-choice question.
“Which team will win the Midwest,” might as well be presented in SAT-format with the options listed as, a) Kansas, b) Duke and c) Michigan State. A staggering 94 percent of the brackets submitted to Yahoo! Sports so far have one of those teams reaching San Antonio to play in the Final Four.
Sports books don’t see the perception as too far off. The future odds at the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook imply a 77 percent chance that one of the top three seeded Midwest teams ultimately prevails.
That percentage might sound short, but consider that futures are conservative estimates by nature and that share is still significantly higher than any other three region-mates in the field.
Where popular opinion and betting perspective begin to clash is in which order to list the three teams. No. 1 seed Kansas has unsurprisingly edged No. 2 seed Duke and No. 3 seed Michigan State in bracket count, drawing just short of 33 percent of the nods on Yahoo.
The Jayhawks, however, are looking up at both the Blue Devils and the Spartans on the Superbook betting board. If Kansas advances to the Elite 8 to play either one of them, they’ll be the underdog.
That’s not a guarantee, though.
The history of the NCAA Tournament is littered with cautionary tales of looking too far ahead to anticipated matchups and sure things that never materialize. Just look to last year for an instance that seems similar to this one.
It wasn’t three teams, but two that virtually every bracket had coming out of the East Region — co-favorites Duke and Villanova. Neither the Blue Devils nor the Wildcats made it out of the round of 32.
Of course, that’s an even bigger anomaly but it’s not as if this year’s Big Three in the Midwest are without their faults. Duke continues to be sharper on offense than defense, a formula that’s gotten the Blue Devils upset on the first weekend five times in the last 11 years.
Michigan State already lost to Duke once this year, 88-81 as 1.5-point favorites in the early-season Champions Classic. It was the rare close game where the Spartans didn’t come through as they’re an unsustainable 8-0 in games decided by decided by six points or less.
At least Michigan State and Duke can make compelling arguments that they’re fielding their best teams of the last few years. No one’s buying that when it comes to Kansas, as the Jayhawks have graded out a rung below the last two editions, both of which fell a game short of the Final Four despite No. 1 seeds. Kansas’ depth is thinner this year, but the Jayhawks appeared to adjust to it and caught fire late in going 8-1 straight-up, 6-3 against the spread in their last nine games.
Those are all nitpicks against a trio of teams that have spent the year among the national championship favorites for a reason. In all likelihood, one of them will win the four games necessary for a chance to add to their school’s extensive trophy case.
None of them are invincible, but an outsider will have to string together a number of perfect performances on major tests to get through the Midwest.
Check below for picks and analysis on each first-round game in the Midwest Region, and come back for an update after Wednesday’s First Four contest. Selections are listed in order of confidence, with lines the best currently available in Las Vegas. Talking Points will pick every game on the point spread throughout the tournament.
No. 10 seed Oklahoma plus-2 vs. No. 7 seed Rhode Island Athletes regularly say nothing is more motivating than everyone being against them. Everyone is against the Sooners after they were included in the field despite losing eight of their last 10 games, and that certainly includes Las Vegas. William Hill sports books reports 80 percent of the action has come in on Rhode Island, which would explain why the spread moved from opening at pick’em. The Sooners played the second toughest in the schedule in the nation, per kenpom.com, while the Rams barely ranked in the top 100.
No. 11 seed Arizona State minus-1 vs. No. 11 seed Syracuse The Sundevils are the only team in the field with a pair of double-digit wins over No. 1 seeds, as they easily handled both Kansas and Xavier early in the season. Yes, they’ve faded since then — including going 1-5 against the spread over the last month — but those two wins alone show their ceiling is higher than Syracuse’s. The Orange went 7-8 straight-up, 5-10 against the spread versus tournament teams this season.
No. 13 seed College of Charleston plus-10 vs. No. 4 seed Auburn Charleston is well-coached, plays deliberately and doesn’t turn the ball over. That should be enough to stay competitive with Auburn, which has been in a free fall since losing starter Anfernee McLemore to an ankle injury a month ago. Given the void McLemore left on the Tigers’ roster, it’s not overreacting to look at their 2-4 straight-up, 1-5 against the spread record without him as a cause for alarm.
No. 2 seed Duke minus-19.5 vs. No. 15 seed Iona The buy signs are on with Duke, which is likely the most talented team in the nation and built for sustained success in the tournament. It would be preferable to wait a round or two when the number is more subdued to act on Duke, but there’s also a decent chance it could make a statement and blow the opening game open early.
No. 16 seed Penn plus-14.5 vs. No. 1 seed Kansas Kansas ran through the Big 12 Conference tournament by bombing away from three-point range, making 34 of 75 attempts. That’s not going to continue, certainly not against Penn, which has some of the best three-point defense in the tournament. Bookmakers also rate the Quakers as one of the toughest-ever No. 16 seeds.
No. 8 seed Seton Hall minus-2 vs. No. 9 seed North Carolina State From their faster-than-average pace to their poor free-throw shooting and even down to their 21-11 overall records, these teams look remarkably similar on paper. Seton Hall’s edges on defense and in the paint, where it’s led by senior center Angel Delgado, might give it the slightest of advantages.
No. 5 seed Clemson minus-4.5 vs. No. 12 seed New Mexico State Seeing as it’s Clemson’s first tournament berth in seven years, complacency has no chance of being a factor in a potential New Mexico State upset bid. The Tigers are among the most balanced teams in the tournament, whereas the Aggies lean heavily on senior guard Zach Lofton to contribute the scoring load. There are simply not enough points to entice a bet on New Mexico State.
No. 3 seed Michigan State minus-14 vs. No. 14 seed Bucknell The Bison are at such a disadvantage that they would need the Spartans to be playing far below their best for a shot at the upset. It’s hard to imagine Michigan State falling into that trap after nearly two full weeks of rest. Bettors who like Michigan State shouldn’t wait; this number may only increase.
No. 6 seed TCU minus-4 vs. No. 11 seed Syracuse Take the team that's as offensively explosive as anyone in the country but defensively lagging or the team that's defensively dominant but prone to prolonged outages on offense? There are no easy answers here. The slightest of leans to the Horned Frogs since they've been more consistent this season, and coach Jamie Dixon has years of preparing for Syracuse's famed 2-3 zone to call upon from his time at Pittsburgh.