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August 22, 2019

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

MSU McQuaid

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Michigan State’s Matt McQuaid (20) celebrates after shooting a 3-point basket during the second half of an NCAA college basketball championship game against Michigan in the Big Ten Conference tournament, Sunday, March 17, 2019, in Chicago.

Updated Wednesday, March 20, 2019 | 10:46 a.m.

A preponderance of betting advice is doled out every NCAA Tournament, spanning a wide range from useful to useless.

Put the guy reliably lurking somewhere in the sports book or watch party proselytizing that, “the point spread doesn’t matter,” and promoting a strategy of, “just pick the winner of the game,” squarely in the latter category. That gospel goes from problematic to downright dangerous when it comes to this year’s East Region.

Yes, the point spread will almost certainly factor into less than a third of the games in the NCAA Tournament — last year it mattered in 14 of 67 contests — but there’s a larger probability of it coming into play when the lines are higher. And the lines should be at their highest as the East bracket plays down to a winner next weekend in Washington D.C.

The two most popular teams to back arguably, top the region. Overall No. 1 seed Duke has already commanded enough action to force bookmakers to lower its odds beyond reason.

The Blue Devils could come in as high as a 35-point favorite in their first round game depending on the outcome of the First Four matchup between North Carolina Central and North Dakota State that will determine their opponent. They should open at minimum a rare 30-point favorite regardless.

Michigan State’s numbers won’t reach that far into the heavens, but the Spartans certainly enter the tournament as the most trusted No. 2 seed after winning both the Big Ten Conference regular-season and tournament titles. Bettors will be all over the Spartans as much as the Blue Devils in every round until the teams’ potential Elite Eight showdown.

This is nothing new. Likely because of their combined 19 Final Four appearances under coaches Mike Krzyewski and Tom Izzo, Duke and Michigan State are annually two of the most publicly-backed programs in March.

It just hasn’t worked out for bettors recently. Since Duke’s national championship in 2015, the two teams have combined to go 5-9 against the spread in the tournament with two premature, upset exits apiece in the last three years.

Many will be shocked if this isn’t the year the Blue Devils and Spartans break out and live up to their billing. Exhaustive support is evident beyond just the future market.

In Yahoo! Fantasy’s tournament pick’em, nearly two out of every three brackets have Duke reaching the Final Four. Duke vs. Michigan State is far and away perceived as the most likely regional final pairing.

Few bargains will be available along the way on either team as sports books will err on the side of caution knowing most bettors’ desires to line up with the top two seeds. Expect the East Region numbers to soar to new heights when it comes to the tournament.

The point spread will matter.

Read below for picks on every game in the East Region, and come back later for updated selections after the First Four games. Lines are the best currently available in Las Vegas on the chosen sides. This is part two of Talking Points’ series previewing the NCAA Tournament and picking every game. Check out part one here, and come back tomorrow for the final two installments.

No. 4 seed Virginia Tech minus-10 vs. No. 13 seed St. Louis Virginia Tech is one of the most solid teams in the nation, as it has no real weaknesses, and might be undervalued entering the tournament. The Hokies have gone an unlucky 1-3 in games decided by a single possession or in overtime, and are getting their best shooter, Justin Robinson, back from injury. This doesn’t feel like a true No. 4 seed vs. No. 13 seed game considering the Hokies are the best 4 and the Bilikens are the worst 13 by almost any metric.

No. 16 seed North Dakota State minus-5.5 vs. No. 16 seed North Carolina Central The Eagles have lost and failed to cover in a First Four game in each of the last two years, and there’s not much to support the idea that they’ll break the trend this season. They barely finished in the top half of the weakest conference in college basketball — the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference — and had to pull off a couple narrow upsets to keep their tournament-berth streak intact.

No. 9 seed UCF pick’em vs. No. 8 seed VCU Game could go either way, but hard to ignore UCF’s offensive edge with explosive guards B.J. Taylor and Aubrey Dawkins to go with 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall. The Knights may have produced at a slightly smaller clip than the Rams on the year, but their strength of schedule in the underrated American Athletic Conference was considerably more difficult.

No. 14 seed Yale plus-8 vs. No. 3 seed LSU This would have been a perfectly acceptable and reasonable line until two weeks ago when turmoil around LSU’s program and freshman point guard JaVonte Smith engulfed into the indefinite suspension of coach Will Wade. That increases the already fair chances of a sharp, hot-shooting Yale team pulling a first-round upset.

No. 15 seed Bradley plus-18.5 vs. No. 2 seed Michigan State Bradley didn’t lose a single game by this many points throughout the season, and though it didn’t face anyone like Michigan State, the Missouri Valley Conference was better than perceived. Storming through the league’s conference tournament to get a tournament bid deserves a little more credit from the betting market. Worst-case scenario, the Braves have a shot at a backdoor cover.

No. 7 seed Louisville minus-5 vs. No. 10 seed Minnesota Not buying Minnesota’s late-season ascent, as it wasn’t even considered a likely tournament team until pulling off four upsets in its last six games. Louisville is stronger defensively, though, than any team Minnesota defeated.

No. 5 seed Mississippi State minus-7 vs. No. 12 seed Liberty Number would have been a point or two higher before the Flames’ five-game win streak, culminating with an upset over Lipscomb to reach the tournament. The Bulldogs are mistake-prone and still may lose, but this number isn’t enticing enough to line up against them.

No. 11 seed Belmont minus-3 vs. No. 11 seed Temple It’s tough to gauge how strong Belmont is given the weakness of its schedule, but Temple didn’t exactly pass with flying colors when it faced better opposition. The Owls went just 2-5 versus fellow NCAA Tournament teams and both wins were by less than six points.

No. 6 seed Maryland minus-3 vs. No. 11 seed Belmont Maryland disappointed down the stretch and has a reputation for early tournament exits, leaving this spread a little lower than it should be. Belmont is the more exciting proposition but it will have a difficult time defending Maryland point guard Anthony Cowan Jr.

No. 1 seed Duke minus-27 vs. No. 16 seed North Dakota State Maybe it's wishful thinking, but hoping for a large-as-possible Duke victory. That could artificially inflate the Blue Devils' numbers going forward and give some value to teams in the next couple rounds that have a chance of sticking with them. This number projected as high as minus-30 before North Dakota State's First Four win with no concrete reason for the 3-point dip.  

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

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