College Basketball Best Bets Today: Odds, predictions and picks for Thursday, March 23rd

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College basketball schedule today has 4 games

Four games are on the card for Thursday, as the East and West Region Sweet 16 games are finally here. Shame on the NCAA for running these games simultaneously, so hopefully you’ve got picture-in-picture, a good bar stool or a spot at the sportsbook to keep track of everything that is going on. Michigan State vs. Kansas State is the first tip at 6:30 p.m. ET, followed by Arkansas vs. UConn at 7:15. The late window has FAU vs. Tennessee at 9 p.m. ET and then the main event of the evening with Gonzaga vs. UCLA at 9:45 p.m. ET.

 

I wrote about the NCAA Tournament unders on Wednesday and we also have our running best bets article for the tourney. (Tracking sheet)

Be sure to check out the latest editions of the VSiN College Basketball Betting Podcast, as Tim Murray hosted shows with Matt Youmans and I to break down all things Sweet 16.

Here are some thoughts on the March 23 card (odds from DraftKings):

Michigan State Spartans (-1.5, 138.5) vs. Kansas State Wildcats

I wrote about this one on Sunday night and my position on the game has not changed. I like Kansas State +1.5 at Madison Square Garden. Maybe Tom Izzo is just working the March Magic, but there are a lot of things I like about Kansas State in this game. The Wildcats have a 43.4% shot share on Close Twos, while the Spartans check in at 29.1%. MSG is well-known for being a difficult shooting backdrop and I prefer the team that gets to the rim over the team that doesn’t.

The Wildcats should be able to have success against 3, much like they have all year. Kansas State is 12th in 3P% defense at 29.7%. Given that Michigan State, like many teams throughout the tournament, has struggled from 3, I do worry about their ability to score points in this one. They take a lot of mid-range jumpers and I’m not keen on that strategy. Kansas State, meanwhile, should be able to get those high-percentage looks at the rim. I don’t think they’ll just abandon that strategy like Marquette did.

Kansas State also got to the line a lot more frequently throughout the season. The Wildcats are 48th in FT Rate, while Michigan State is 318th. Kansas State also forces turnovers at a 20.8% clip, which ranks 49th in the nation. Michigan State doesn’t force turnovers at a high rate, checking in 338th at 15.1%. This is also a pace war between the two teams, as Kansas State wants to play with some tempo and Michigan State doesn’t. If the Wildcats are doing well on the offensive glass and in the turnover department, they will be able to have a lot of success.

Give me the better team and the team that has played better against elite competition.

Pick: Kansas State +1.5

Other Games

Arkansas Razorbacks vs. UConn Huskies (-4, 140)

I think this is a tough handicap. I feel like UConn is the better team. The Huskies are top 20 in both 2P% defense and 3P% defense. They’re a top-20 team in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. In fact, they’re a top-five offensive efficiency team and rank second in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage.

However, Arkansas has the better coach and is no slouch defensively. The Razorbacks also pressure really well with a 20.4% TO%. UConn has two good assist men in Tristen Newton and Andre Jackson Jr., but they don’t really have a prototypical point guard. That being said, they do have a ton of size and Arkansas is outside the top 100 in both offensive rebounding percentage and offensive rebounding percentage against.

I appreciate that both of these teams protect the rim well. I also appreciate that Arkansas is better at scoring without shooting 3s, which could come in handy given what we’ve seen throughout the tournament with 3-point shooting. I also just keep thinking about Eric Musselman (with his shirt on) and how strong of a coach he is. The extra time should help the Razorbacks as well.

But, the metrics and the stats point towards UConn. Is Musselman enough to close the gap and pull off the upset? Absolutely. This is a complete no-play for me.

FAU Owls vs. Tennessee Volunteers (-5.5, 129.5)

I really want to bet on FAU here. The Owls are a top-40 team in 2P% and 3P% offense, whereas Tennessee ranks 158th and 218th in those two metrics, respectively. The Volunteers also take way too many 3s for a team that isn’t very good at shooting them and I have no interest whatsoever in backing Rick Barnes.

However, FAU’s only game against a top-30 team this season was the first round win over Memphis and that game came down to the wire. Tennessee’s elite defense includes the nation’s No. 1 3-point percentage against at 26.4% and it’s hard to see FAU getting inside with a lot of success. Opponents only shot 53.4% on Close Twos against the Vols this season.

Maybe strength of schedule doesn’t matter so much at this point, but FAU has played the 128th-ranked schedule per Bart Torvik. They’re 23-0 against Quad III and Quad IV opponents. I do believe that this is a very good basketball team, but I also believe that Tennessee is a step up and a long, physical team at that. It is worth noting that FAU is 10-1 in games decided by six or fewer points, so they are well-versed in close games and I wouldn’t trust Barnes to screw in a light bulb, let alone win a big game in the NCAA Tournament.

I may just say “f it” and take FAU as the day goes along, but I haven’t gotten to that point yet.

Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. UCLA Bruins (-1.5, 145.5)

What is this line with a healthy Jaylen Clark? UCLA -3? 3.5? I’m not sure, but if the loss of arguably the best defensive player in the country is going to show up, this seems like the game when it would. Gonzaga was fairly pedestrian early in the year, but still finished with the nation’s top adjusted offensive efficiency. This remains a stellar offense and one of two teams in the country ranked in the top 10 in both 2P% (2nd) and 3P% (9th) shooting. (Colgate is the other one)

That being said, Gonzaga is the only NCAA Tournament team in the top 20 in 2P% to still be alive (Furman, Marquette, Colgate, Arizona, Oral Roberts, Missouri, Vermont, Illinois, UCSB).  The top five teams in adjusted defensive efficiency are all still alive (Tennessee, UCLA, Alabama, SDSU, Houston). Texas is 10th and still breathing. Arkansas and Creighton are top-15 teams. UConn and Kansas State are top-20 teams. The only teams lower than Gonzaga (82nd) are Princeton (104th) and Miami (112th) per Bart Torvik.

We still don’t know about 3-point sharpshooter David Singleton (42.5%) or big man Adem Bona. Those two guys are really important components in this handicap if this game is played in the 140s and is played more towards Gonzaga’s pace. If you like UCLA, I think there’s some correlation with the under here, even though the Bulldogs have allowed 1.034 and 1.056 points per possession.

This is a really tough game to handicap. Neither team is reliant on the 3, so the rough 3-point shooting of the tournament shouldn’t be as much of a factor. I will say that Gonzaga’s 215th-ranked 2P% defense is a major concern to me here, given that UCLA is far superior in FG% on Close Twos (53.3% to 60.4%).

I don’t have a bet here. Maybe a live opportunity will present itself and it will help pregame to see if Singleton and/or Bona are going to give it a go.

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