Favorites advance for first time in March Madness history

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After struggling on Thursday and Friday, favorites made a comeback in the NCAA Tournament’s second round over the weekend.

For the first time ever, all 16 favorites (Auburn, the fifth seed in the Midwest, was a 2-point favorite over No. 4 Kansas) advanced in the round of 32, going 10-6 against the spread.

Underdogs on the opening line were 22-9-1 against the spread in last week’s first round. (Purdue, which opened as a 13-point favorite, and Villanova, favored by 6 originally, both covered as favorites at tip time, and No. 9 UCF was bet to a 1.5-point favorite over No. 8 VCU in the East Region.)

With the favorites ruling Round 2, we’re left with a chalky Sweet 16 and no Cinderella in sight (sorry, 12th-seeded Oregon, you don’t count).

Let’s have a look.

Thursday

West Region: No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 1 Gonzaga, 4:09 p.m.

This is a rematch of the Seminoles’ 75-60 win in last year’s Sweet 16. The Bulldogs learned a little before tipoff that they would be without leading scorer Killian Tillie. That Zags team also didn’t have 6-foot-8 junior forward Brandon Clarke. The San Jose State transfer became the third player in tournament history to record at least 35 points with five blocks in Gonzaga’s 83-71 win over Baylor on Saturday. The other two: Shaquille O’Neal and David Robinson.

Florida State raced past Ja Morant and Murray State by playing tough interior defense (Morant was just 2-for-9 inside the 3-point line) and hitting the offensive boards (at a 42.9 percent rate). The Seminoles’ size will be key against Clarke and the Zags’ other big men, the 6-foot-10 Killie and 6-8 forward Rui Hachimura. Canadian 6-foot-10 forward Mfiondu Kabengele, who scored 43 points, grabbed 17 rebounds and blocked four shots in Florida State’s first two wins, is joined by 7-4 center Christ Koumadje and 6-7 swingman Terrance Mann, who’s 13-for-17 in the tournament.

Fun fact: Former NBA star Dikembe Mutombo is Kabengele’s uncle.

Moving on: Clarke’s presence, combined with Tillie’s return from injury, gives Gonzaga scorers at every position. While the line (Bulldogs -7.5) seems like a toss-up, the Zags should turn the tables this season.

South Region: No. 3 Purdue vs. No. 2 Tennessee, 4:29 p.m.

The Boilermakers and Volunteers meet up with questions:

For Purdue, can Carsen Edwards keep up this pace? The 6-foot-1 junior scored 68 points in the two games in Hartford, Conn., and was 9-for-16 from deep in the Boilermakers’ 87-61 rout of defending champion Villanova on Sunday. But Edwards made just 7 of 33 3-pointers in Purdue’s previous three games. Which Edwards will show up in Louisville, Ky.? Interestingly, the Boilermakers won back-to-back road games against Indiana and Nebraska last month while Edwards went a combined 1-for-20 from long range.

For Tennessee, can the Volunteers put together a complete game? In the first round, Colgate came from 16 points down to within three in the final five minutes. And the Volunteers built a 25-point first-half lead against Iowa but needed overtime to put away the 10th-seeded Hawkeyes. Tennessee isn’t the most athletic team in the field, but coach of the year Rick Barnes’ roster is deep and skilled.

Fun fact: Volunteers senior star Admiral Schofield, saddled with four fouls late against Iowa, advised Barnes to put in 6-foot-11 center Kyle Alexander instead. “We’re a team,” said Schofield, who didn’t play in the overtime win. “In that moment, I just wanted to win, and I didn’t think I was giving us the best chance.”

Moving on: If the Volunteers can defend Edwards on the perimeter and avoid a second-half lapse, they can make it to the weekend.

West Region: No. 3 Texas Tech vs. No. 2 Michigan, 6:39 p.m.

Do you like defensive basketball? Not really? Well, that’s what you’re getting as the nation’s No. 1 (Red Raiders) and No. 2 (Wolverines) units clash in Anaheim, Calif.

Texas Tech overwhelmed high-scoring, sixth-seeded Buffalo in the second half of a 78-58 win. It was the worst offensive output of the season for the Bulls, who had scored fewer than 71 points just once prior to Sunday. The Red Raiders, whose offense was just 99th at KenPom.com after a Feb. 2 loss to Kansas, has at least 70 points in 11 of their 12 games since then.

Michigan has held its two tournament opponents to 104 points while recording double-digit wins. The Wolverines are particularly good at defending the 3 (29 percent, fifth in the country) and keeping opponents on the free-throw line. Michigan is also excellent at avoiding turnovers: The Wolverines allow steals on 5.9 percent of possessions, the second-best rate in the nation.

Fun fact: Before last season’s national title game team, Michigan had not had a Top 20 defense since 2004.

Moving on: Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver (18.8 points per game) is probably the best offensive player in this game. He had 29 points in the Red Raiders’ first-round win over Northern Kentucky, 16 against Buffalo and has 18 rebounds, 12 assists and four blocks in the two games.

South Region: No. 12 Oregon vs. No. 1 Virginia, 6:57 p.m.

This isn’t how it was supposed to go for Oregon.

The 12th-seeded Ducks, if you’ll recall, were No. 14 in the preseason Top 25 poll. But they had trouble adjusting to life without 7-foot-2 freshman center Bol Bol, who was injured in December, and without four victories in four days at the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas, Oregon would not have even been included in the field of 68. But beware, Cavaliers, none of that matters now. The Ducks have won 10 straight — including tournament routs of Wisconsin and the last true Cinderella possibility, UC Irvine — while giving up 54 points per game.

Now that its 2018 nightmare — remember UMBC? — has been expunged, the Cavaliers can focus on removing their coach, Tony Bennett, from the list of Best Coaches Who’ve Never made a Final Four. Virginia was workmanlike in its 63-51 win over Oklahoma in the second round. And the Cavaliers accomplished that while getting just four points — and 0-for-10 shooting from long range — from leading scorer Kyle Guy. Virginia remains No. 1 at KenPom.com (second in offensive efficiency and third on defense) and are the biggest favorite (-8.5) in the Sweet 16.

Fun fact: The much-derided (deservedly so) Pac-12 is 4-2 (counting Arizona State’s First Four win over St. John’s) in the NCAA Tournament — a much-needed improvement over last year’s 0-3 mark.

Moving on: If Virginia’s team defense can cool off the Ducks and the Cavaliers get better production from Guy, Bennett could get one step closer to the promised land. 

Friday

No. 3 LSU vs. No. 2 Michigan State, 4:09 p.m.

The Tigers have survived two big comebacks to defeat Yale and Maryland, and they’ve done it without suspended head coach Will Wade. The hero of Saturday’s win over the Terrapins was Tremont Waters, who hit a layup with 1.6 seconds left to break a tie. The sophomore guard is leading LSU with 15 points and nearly six assists per game, but he hasn’t faced an opposing point guard like Michigan State’s Cassius Winston in the tournament.

Winston, the Big Ten player of the year, had 26 points in the first round against Bradley and 13 points and 11 assists in the Spartans’ rout of Minnesota in the second round. 

“What I liked is he found another gear,” Izzo said of Winston, according to the Detroit Free Press. “We talked to Cassius about getting to another level. And each game, I’m trying to get him to another level. ‘Can you now lead better?’ ‘Can you now suck it up better?’ …  He was a one-man wrecking crew (in a crucial stretch against Minnesota). Before that, you know, a little shaky on some things. But I think he grew another step, to be honest with you.” The Spartans will try not to duplicate their 22 turnovers against the Golden Gophers.

Fun fact: This is the Tigers’ first Sweet 16 appearance since 2006 when they advanced to the Final Four as an 11 seed.

Moving on: While Waters vs. Winston will be an interesting matchup, the Spartans will have an advantage on the inside and the bench, where Izzo will be trying to make his sixth Final Four. 

Midwest Region: No. 5 Auburn vs. No. 1 North Carolina, 4:29 p.m.

The Tigers have won 10 straight games — and an SEC Tournament crown — since a loss to Kentucky a month ago. Many of those wins have come via long-range bombs. In surviving against New Mexico State by one and easily dispatching of Kansas, Auburn hoisted 31 and 30 shots from distance, respectively, connecting on 25 of them. The Tigers are eight in the country in rate of three-point attempts and make 38.2 percent of them (16th overall). On defense, they lead the nation in steal percentage.

The Tar Heels have their own shooters, led by 6-foot-9 senior Cameron Johnson who is No. 24 nationally in 3-point percentage (46.1). The unselfish Tar Heels, who were much better in the second half of their wins over Iona and Washington, had 34 assists in those two games.

Fun fact: Against Kansas, Auburn had 22 points in transition — in just the first eight minutes. Said Jayhawks coach Bill Self: “That shouldn’t happen in three games.”

Moving on: North Carolina, however, is horrible at keeping opponents off the 3-point line (314th in the nation in opponents 3-pointers attempted per field goal try), which plays into Auburn’s strength. While the Tigers are at disadvantages in size and athleticism, bombs-away could again be their winning strategy. 

East Region: No. 4 Virginia Tech vs. No. 1 Duke, 6:39 p.m.

Good news for Duke: Virginia Tech does not have a 7-foot-6 center. Bad news for Duke: Tacko Fall and UCF have just might have showed a blueprint for taking down the Blue Devils.

Fall and the Knights guarded the inside, basically inviting the Duke guards to shoot from deep. The Blue Devils made 10 of 25 from beyond the arc — not bad for a team that was 329th in the nation in 3-point percentage. Zion Williamson still managed to score 32 points and grab 11 rebounds, but he and backcourt mates Cam Reddish and Javin DeLaurier all played with four fouls late as Duke survived 77-76.

The Hokies, who beat a Williamson-less Duke a month ago, are in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. After beating 13th-seeded Saint Louis in the first round, Virginia Tech pulled away from No. 12 Liberty late to win 67-58. The Hokies (22 of 53 in the two games) will have to shoot better against the Blue Devils.

Fun fact: In the locker room after beating the Flames, Virginia Tech players doused assistant coach Dale Layer, who was fired by Liberty in 2015.

Moving on: The close call with UCF gave Mike Kryzewski plenty of subjects to get after his young team about. Friday should bring a different Blue Devils team than we’ve seen in the first two rounds. 

Midwest Region: No. 3 Houston vs. No. 2 Kentucky, 6:57 p.m.

The Wildcats miss PJ Washington. Evidence: Their offense struggled against a so-so Wofford defense on Saturday. Without its leading scorer (14.8 points per game) and rebounder (7.5), Kentucky has had to rely on defense. The Wildcats held Abilene Christian and Wofford to a combined 34.9 percent shooting. But the Terriers were 8 of 27 from deep — including an 0-for-12 outing from star Fletcher Magee — and still pushed the Wildcats o the end.

In wins over Georgia State and Ohio State, the Cougars have struggled from long range (13 of 48) but have been efficient on the inside.

Fun fact: Ronald Reagan was president, and college basketball did not use a shot clock or have a 3-point line the last time Houston made the Sweet 16 with its famous Phi Slamma Jamma team.

Moving on: The Cougars defense is No. 1 in the nation in effective field goal percentage (42.3 percent), according to KenPom. Kentucky is 7-for-27 from deep in its two tournament games. HOUSTON

My selections for the Sweet 16: 

Texas Tech vs. Michigan (-2): Watch Tech wing Jarret Culver when the Red Raiders take face the Wolverines Thursday. He could be the difference in a defensive slugfest. TEXAS TECH

LSU vs. Michigan State (-6): In the first two rounds, LSU survived comebacks by Yale and Maryland. Michigan State, which has cruised to two easy victories, is a different animal. MICHIGAN STATE 

Houston vs. Kentucky (total 135): While Houston doesn’t have an elite offense, the Cougars’ defense can be stifling. Just ask Georgia State and Houston. Kentucky with PJ Washington struggled to score points against Wofford, but its defense shut down Wofford star Fletcher Magee, the NCAA’s career leader in 3-pointers: 12 attempts, zero made baskets from deep. UNDER 

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About the Author

Ched Whitney

Ched Whitney has been a journalist in Las Vegas since 1994. He worked for the Las Vegas Review-Journal for 18 years, where he was the paper’s art director for 12. Since becoming a freelancer in 2012, his work has appeared at ESPN.com, AOL, The Seattle Times and UNLV Magazine, among others. ​

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