During the NFL season, I wrote a weekly story deeming three games too risky to bet either way, and it drew a pretty good reaction from readers. So we have dug it back out for three similar games in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
Midwest Region game from Indianapolis. These teams are offensively similar yet different. Oklahoma State ranks No. 1 nationally in offensive efficiency and is eighth in scoring (85.5 ppg) while playing up-tempo. Michigan is ranked fifth in offensive efficiency, but the Wolverines do it while playing slower than almost any team in the country at 339th in tempo. What UM does better than anyone is protect the ball in giving it away only 9.4 times per game, tops in the country. OSU is the first team to make the NCAA Tournament after starting conference play 0-6 since Maryland in 1985-86. The Wolverines were the lowest seeded team to ever win the Big Ten Tournament at No. 8. They had a plane scare heading to the tournament, but it seemed to bond the players. Great guard matchup here between OSU’s Jawun Evans and UM’s Derrick Walton Jr. Evans led the Big 12 in assists (6.2 apg), ranked second in scoring (19.0 ppg) and third in steals (1.8 spg). Walton Jr. leads the Wolverines in scoring (15.2 ppg) and assists (4.7 apg) and was named the Big Ten Tournament MVP. He averaged 20.5 points, 6.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds in the tourney. Walton is listed at 6-foot-1, 190 pounds. Evans is listed at 6-foot-1, 185 pounds. It’s the first meeting between these schools in the Big Dance since the No. 6 Wolverines upset the No. 2 Cowboys in the 1992 Sweet 16. The Fab Five would lose the title game to Duke.
Midwest Region game from Sacramento. Rhode Island, from the Atlantic 10, is consistently inconsistent. The Rams have won at least four straight games four times and enter on an eight-game winning run. They upset VCU 70-63 in the Atlantic-10 Championship Game. Without that Rhody – which didn’t have a single first-team all-conference selection -- might be in the NIT. The Rams also have lost back-to-back three different times and have bad defeats to La Salle and Fordham. I have no idea which team is showing up here. Rhode Island a No. 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1988, when the Rams advanced to the Sweet 16. The school hadn’t been to the Big Dance since 1999. This could have been the best Creighton team ever before star point guard Maurice Watson Jr. was lost for the season in Jan. 16 game at Xavier. The Bluejays were 18-1 after that win and finished 25-9. You don’t have to be a math genius to see a 7-8 record without Watson, who was leading the nation in assists. Creighton still has two very good players in Marcus Foster (18.3 ppg) and freshman center Justin Patton, a future NBA lottery pick. He averaged 13.1 points and 6.2 rebounds while ranking second in the country in field goal percentage (.694). Creighton and Rhode Island have met once, back in 2008. I usually jump all over pick’em games, but these two are too inconsistent to forecast. I want to lean Creighton, but it is just 1-8-1 ATS in its past 10 NCAA Tournament games.
East Region game from Greeneville, S.C. I’m not sure how the Gamecocks are allowed to play in their home state about 100 miles from campus. It’s not like South Carolina was the East’s No. 1 seed – it’s a seventh seed. Clearly USC should have the fan support in its first trip to the Big Dance since 2004. The school hasn’t won a game in the tournament since 1974, although Coach Frank Martin 6-4 all-time in NCAA Tournament games, with all of those coming while at Kansas State. South Carolina is a stellar defensive team, ranking fifth nationally in turnovers forced per game (17.4) and second in three-point field goal defense (29.2%). Guard Sindarius Thornwell was named the coaches’ SEC Player of the Year, the first player in school history to win that honor. Thornwell scored 30.2 percent of the Gamecocks’ points in SEC play and was second in the league in scoring, sixth in rebounding, third in minutes played and first in steals. That’s all fine. South Carolina stinks offensively when Thornwell isn’t on. USC shoots just 41.4 percent from the field, which is 310th nationally. Marquette is a great offensive team, ranking 17th in points (82.5 ppg) and 15th in shooting (48.7 percent). It led the nation in 3-point field-goal percentage at 43.0. Then again, the Golden Eagles can’t play defense. I’d love Marquette here if the game wasn’t in USC’s backyard. The Gamecocks are just 1-10 ATS on NCAA basketball picks in their past 10 games overall, though.