This article is part of our College Basketball Picks series.
As we approach the tip-off of the Sweet 16, Steve Peralta examines the college hoops matchups on Thursday’s slate of March Madness and presents his best bets for the day.
Michigan State vs Kansas State
Michigan State’s defense has turned it up a notch now that the NCAA tournament is underway. The Spartans held their first two opponents to under 63 points, with their recent performance being among their most impressive of the season, limiting an elite Marquette offensive attack to just 60 points. It was the Golden Eagles’ second-lowest scoring output of the season and only the third time all season that they couldn’t score more than 60 points. Based on Thursday’s matchup, there’s not much reason to think Kansas State’s offense will fare any better.
The Wildcats are a dynamic team offensively with Markquis Nowell leading the charge, although they have a couple of notable issues. First, they’re somewhat limited on the perimeter, making under 34 percent of shots from behind the arc. Nowell and Keyontae Johnson do most of the damage from three-point range, with the rest of the starting lineup shooting well below their numbers. This lack of shooting depth will likely hurt them in this matchup because Michigan State has a strong interior defense, holding opponents to 48 percent on two-point shot attempts this season, ranking in the top 25 percent of the country. Kansas State’s other issue is that it has substantial trouble with turning the ball over. The Wildcats rank in the bottom 25 percent of the country in offensive turnover percentage, which typically doesn’t bode well against a strong defensive team in a pressure cooker-type environment. Considering these flaws, the Wildcats will need their defense to step up if they want to advance to the Elite Eight.
The Spartans will also have a major challenge in trying to score Thursday, as the Wildcats’ defense is among the best in the country. Kansas State currently ranks 17th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency standings, and it has performed just as well thus far in the tournament, holding its first two opponents to under 70 points. The Wildcats’ defense matches up particularly well against the Spartans, as the former is especially tough on the perimeter. Kansas State is holding opponents to under 30 percent on shots from behind the arc, the 15th-lowest percentage in the country, an important stat considering that Michigan State is most efficient at shooting three-pointers. The Spartans have made 39 percent of three-point shots this season, and this advantage is significantly hindered when playing against a team like the Wildcats. Michigan State is barely making 48 percent of shots inside the arc, so it probably won’t have a high-scoring output if the long-range shots aren’t falling.
All things considered, this matchup figures to be a low-scoring battle. Michigan State favors a very slow tempo, ranking among the top 20 percent of slowest-paced teams, so if the defenses perform as expected, then Kansas State will have a difficult time speeding the game up. I’m on the under in this matchup.
College Basketball Best Bet: Under 137.5
Arkansas vs Connecticut
Arkansas survived a thrilling game against Kansas in the Round of 32, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the Razorbacks were losing almost the entire game. In fact, according to KenPom, Arkansas had less than a 10 percent chance of winning the game with 15 minutes remaining, and it never had more than a 50 percent chance of winning until under two minutes. A win is a win, but at the same time, the Razorbacks will clearly need to play better in the Sweet 16 in order to advance.
The problem, however, is it remains to be seen just how much better they can play. Arkansas has one enormous flaw, and it will likely doom them at some point soon — it can’t shoot three-pointers. The Razorbacks are making 31 percent of shots from behind the arc this season, ranking in the bottom 15 percent of the country, and they also rank near the bottom in three-point attempt rate, yielding an extremely low amount of points from long range. Arkansas is scoring just 20 percent of its points from behind the arc, the sixth-lowest three-pointer point distribution percentage among all D1 teams. This might be fine against weaker teams or teams that aren’t so stout inside the paint, but this is far from ideal against a long team like UConn, led by superstar forward Adama Sanogo. Connecticut ranks 20th in the country in three-point field goal percentage allowed and two-point field goal percentage allowed, in addition to ranking 24th in shot-blocking percentage, so Arkansas will undoubtedly have an extremely difficult time scoring.
When it comes down to it, the Huskies are the better and more balanced team. They can score inside and outside, they can defend inside and outside, and at their best, they’ve arguably been the best team in the country. Connecticut already crushed the current frontrunner, Alabama, by 15 points back in November, and outside of a bumpy January, the Huskies have been winning ever since. UConn has now won 12 of its last 15 games, and its only three losses in that span came by three points or fewer. The Huskies cruised past their opponents in the first two rounds of the Big Dance, and based on their matchup in the Sweet 16, I’m betting they’ll advance once again without too much drama. I’m backing UConn in this one.
College Basketball Best Bet: UConn -3.5
Florida Atlantic vs Tennessee
Florida Atlantic soared past Fairleigh Dickinson in the Round of 32, but now it must face a far more difficult challenge. As one might expect, Tennessee easily represents its toughest test to date, and that’s especially true on the defensive end. The best defense that Florida Atlantic faced up to this point was North Texas, which ranks 25th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency standings, and both games between the two teams turned out to be defensive battles with incredibly low scores. The Owls won the first game on Dec. 29, 50-46, and then won the second on Jan. 14, 66-62. Tennessee leads the nation in defensive efficiency, per KenPom’s efficiency chart, and it has stood at the top for most of the season, so one would expect another game where points are extremely hard to come by.
Tennessee’s defense might be the best in the nation, but the same is not remotely true on the offensive side of the court. The Volunteers rank 60th in offensive efficiency and have been held to 70 points or fewer in 10 of their last 14 games. We also can’t forget about the fact that star point guard Zakai Zeigler suffered a season-ending knee injury on February 28. Tennessee has survived so far without him, but his absence will likely be missed at some point soon, as it almost was against Louisiana. Tennessee managed to shoot itself past Duke, making 43 percent of shots from behind the arc, but it’s hard to expect a repeat performance considering the Vols have only made 33 percent of three-pointers on the season.
Ultimately, the best bet appears to be on the Volunteers’ defense. It’s hard to trust Tennessee’s offense, and Florida Atlantic hardly set fire to any of the previous elite defensive teams that it encountered. For these reasons, I’m taking the under.
College Basketball Best Bet: Under 130.5
Thursday College Basketball Best Bets:
Here’s a recap of my best college basketball bets for Thursday:
- Michigan State vs Kansas State – Under 137.5
- UConn -3.5
- Florida Atlantic vs Tennessee – Under 130.5
For up-to-date information on the latest college basketball odds and props from multiple sportsbooks, check out the College Basketball odds page on RotoWire.
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