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And then there were 48.
The 2018 NCAA men’s basketball tournament is halfway through the round of 64 following Thursday’s thrilling slate. Another 16 games are on the docket for Friday, with heavyweights like Virginia, Michigan State and North Carolina set to step inside the lines with upset-dreaming sleepers.
Christmas can say what it wants—this is the most wonderful time of the year, on the hoops calendar at least. Let’s celebrate with three picks against the spread on Friday’s slate (via OddsShark).
No. 7 Texas A&M (-2.5) Over No. 10 Providence
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The Aggies opened as 4.5-point favorites, a line that better reflects the gap between these clubs.
Providence might be running on fumes after playing three overtime games in as many days at last week’s Big East tournament. That’s a brutal way to go into a matchup with Texas A&M, which sports one of the better frontcourts in this field.
First-round-pick-to-be Robert Williams and All-SEC first-teamer Tyler Davis both stand 6’10” and possess both the strength to win low-post battles and the mobility to defend away from the basket. Together, they’ve provided 24.8 points, 17.8 rebounds and 3.9 blocks on a nightly basis.
Texas A&M lacks depth, especially in the backcourt. Its outside shooting can come and go. But the weakness of Providence’s defense should play right into the favorite’s hands.
“Teams shoot 51.7 percent inside the arc against the Friars, placing them in the bottom 100 nationally,” Shane McNichol wrote for ESPN Insider. “When Providence lost to Minnesota, the Friars were bullied in the paint, allowing 25-of-42 shooting on two-pointers.”
No. 2 Cincinnati (13.5) Over No. 15 Georgia State
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Double-digit spreads are always scary, especially when they’re attached to the nation’s 52nd-ranked offense. The Bearcats’ methodical, gritty style is hardly the brand of basketball you’d expect to inspire a spread like this.
And yet, the average Cincinnati game this season has been a 17.3-point victory for Mick Cronin’s men. Whenever the Bearcats drew a team they should handle, they usually thumped it.
George State is a team they can handle.
The Panthers’ 24-10 record includes double-digit losses to Troy (13 points, at home), South Alabama (22 points) and Prairie View A&M (15 points). The four teams to topple Cincinnati, by the way, all made the Big Dance—as sixth seeds or better.
The Bearcats have better offensive weapons than their efficiency ranking suggests. Two of their top three scorers are 50-plus-percent shooters (seniors Gary Clark and Kyle Washington), and four of their top five hit 36 percent or better from long range (Clark, Washington, Jacob Evans and Cane Broome).
And remember, Cincinnati can get to a comfortable cover two different ways. Either, its elite defense (second in efficiency) stifles Georgia State’s 102-ranked attack, or Cincy’s own offense erupts against the country’s 107th-ranked offense.
If both things happen, the Bearcats will sprint past this spread.
No. 12 Murray State (+10.5) Over No. 5 West Virginia
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There’s a simple formula for tournament success involving good guard play and sound defense. It’s the same one the Mountaineers hope can carry them on a lengthy run.
But the Racers use the same blueprint, and in some ways they’ve utilized it better.
Murray State sprints into the Big Dance on a 13-game winning streak. Its senior leader (Jonathan Stark) averages more points (21.8 to 17.0) on a higher field-goal percentage (46.0 to 41.7) than West Virginia’s (Jevon Carter). The Racers’ defense surrenders lower shooting rates from both the field (41.0 to 42.5) and outside (30.6 to 37.4) than the Mountaineers’ famed Press Virginia group.
Granted, these aren’t apples-to-apples comparisons given the different levels of competition. But Murray State’s success breeds confidence the same, and it stacks up on paper as a potential problem for West Virginia.
If the Racers can handle the full-court pressure, they can put points on the board.
Three of their top five scorers are 39-percent shooters from three, with Stark doing the most damage. The Ohio Valley Conference player of the year has buried 109 triples at a 41.0-percent clip. That’s 38 more threes than any player on West Virginia and an accuracy rate only one of their shooters can match (at far less volume).
The Mountaineers probably prevail, but the Racers will keep it close.