After the usual first-week bracket busting of the NCAA tournament, it’s time to sift through the wreckage in search of a new set of underdogs to back. With seven of the eight games featuring point spreads of less than eight points — and four of them less than five points — the expectation is for a lot of close and competitive basketball this week.
The ‘dogs I’m focused on this week:
Sweet 16 Bet: No. 9 Florida Atlantic (+5.5) vs. No. 4 Tennessee
The pick: FAU +5.5
The Owls must handle the physical challenge of the Volunteers, who have become even more of a brass-knuckles team since point guard Zakai Zeigler was lost for the season with a knee injury in late February. “We’re going to study Australian rugby rules,” said FAU coach Dusty May about his team’s preparation for Tennessee.
If FAU doesn’t back down and the officials don’t swallow their whistles, the Owls have the skill and depth to play with a Tennessee team that struggles offensively. FAU shoots a ton of threes and will need to make a decent percentage of them, which can happen. The Vols can’t count on another 27-point game from Olivier Nkamhoua, who has historically failed to follow one big offensive performance with another.
Sweet 16 Bet: No. 3 Gonzaga (+1.5) vs. No. 2 UCLA
The pick: Gonzaga +1.5
The Bruins have made their third straight Sweet Sixteen, which is great. But the Zags are here for the eighth straight time, longest active streak of anyone in the field by far. And they’ve put together the nation’s longest current winning streak at 11 games. They’re a hot team at the right time.
Combine that with UCLA’s injuries, and the Bruins are vulnerable in this rematch of the epic 2021 Final Four battle. Guard Jaylen Clark is out for sure; guard David Singleton sprained an ankle in the second-round game against Northwestern; and center Adem Bona was not back to peak form last week after missing two games with a shoulder injury.
In Timme we trust.
Sweet 16 Bet: No. 5 Miami (+7.5) vs. No. 1 Houston
The pick: Miami +7.5
The Cougars should win this game, but that’s a pretty fat spread. If Miami can handle the interior challenge defensively and on the glass, it has the talent to keep the game close for the full 40 minutes.
Isaiah Wong and Nijel Pack are as good a guard tandem as Houston’s backcourt pillars, Marcus Sasser and Jamal Shead. Wong had 27 (with four three-pointers) in the romp past Indiana, and Pack had 21 (with three threes) in the first round against Drake. If those two and Wooga Poplar (40.2 percent outside the arc) can knock down some key shots, the Hurricanes have a shot.
Kelvin Sampson is a March master, making his fourth straight Sweet Sixteen appearance. But Jim Larranaga is making his second straight, fifth of his career, and like Sampson has been to a Final Four. The coaching matchup is elite.
Sweet 16 Bet: No. 15 Princeton (+10) vs. No. 6 Creighton
The pick: Princeton +10
Like Miami-Houston, the favorite should win. But this might not be the expected blowout.
The Tigers have played their best basketball of the season in the last three games: handily defeating Yale for the Ivy League title; shocking No. 2 seed Arizona in the first round; then routing No. 7 Missouri in the second round. They have decent size up front and above-average length in the backcourt, plus a legitimate leading man in Tosan Evbuomwan (14.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists).
Coach Mitch Henderson didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, either. He’s had one losing season in 12 years on the job at Princeton, and he was part of the 1996 Tigers team that shocked UCLA in one of the iconic upsets of March Madness lore. The longer this game stays close, the more pressure will mount on Creighton.
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