Sunday’s emotional NCAA Tournament finish between Duke and UCF left viewers to take away something much more profound than the final score of 77-76.
In case you didn’t notice, college basketball is back. With a vengeance.
Wasn’t it just a few years ago that pundits were saying college hoops was dead, buried, boring, lifeless, a pain in the neck to watch on TV? There’s “just no talent” anymore now that the NBA takes teenagers. Division 1 will remain “slow and boring” unless a 24-second shot clock is put in, said the experts. (Gee, what a great idea the 24-second clock would have been – making the NCAA into a 4th-tier NBA clone ranked beneath the D-League and summer exhibitions in Europe.)
Nobody called Coach K’s misty-eyed embrace of Johnny Dawkins boring or lifeless.
2019 is clearly part of a new era. Just as in college football, we’re watching the pro superstars of the next decade light it up in their watershed years. Yes, the supporting casts aren’t comparable to NBA lineups. But that doesn’t make it all a big bummer. It took America only a couple of years to figure that out again.
Now that people other than hoops junkies are paying attention to March Madness, who might fool around and win?
My pick to prevail in Minneapolis plays in the Midwest Region…and is about to face a dangerous 5th-seeded upstart in the Sweet Sixteen.
Gamblers Wait and See on UNC
North Carolina continues to hover around 6 or 7-to-1 to win the NCAA Men’s D1 Basketball Championship, which illustrates how skeptical bettors can be in the modern era. Roy Williams’ squad not only plays a unique style of college ball, they’re proving upset-proof against tough challenges from higher seeds.
UNC is also my pick to cut down the nets in Minnesota, which makes it a mind-warp to try to analyze other teams in the Midwest. Of course I still think the Tar Heels will reach the Final Four and beyond, but that doesn’t mean bookies can’t misprice any of the schools remaining on their side of the bracket.
Auburn’s odds to win the Region are just (+425), a line which is priced way too short in my opinion. The North Carolina vs Auburn contest set for Friday afternoon represents the real “easy draw” of the Sweet Sixteen, even easier than Virginia’s lot against #12 seed Oregon.
UNC was bothered briefly by Iona in the opening game and by Washington in the Round of 32 – each contest became a run-away win in the 2nd half.
Roy Williams has clearly been paying attention to international basketball. His cagers dash to the bucket to score on put-backs and finesse shots. Most importantly, it’s hard to get any kind of momentum going against the Tar Heels because the team’s FIBA-like transition game can answer in less than 5 seconds.
Several times over 80 minutes of hoops, Iona and Washington nailed 3-pointers or dunked the ball to wild cheers. Tic-tac-toe from in-bounds pass to Coby White to Luke Maye, and the points are erased in an eye-blink. So is the opposing crowd noise.
Teams might as well spot UNC a 15-to-20 point lead at the opening tip-off and swap half-court possessions after that.
Oh, and don’t forget the offensive boards. The Tar Heels grab 2 of those in the first 5 seconds of this highlight reel from Sunday against UW:
Tigers, Cougars, and Pizzazz, Oh My
Auburn deserves loads of credit for thrashing the Kansas Jayhawks in the Round of 32.
But look at the stats – the #5 seed went almost 44% from downtown, shot 80% from the stripe, and committed 21 fouls. If the hot outside marksmanship ever goes away or if there’s foul trouble in the next game, at that point UNC will take advantage of the SEC school and win comfortably once again.
Midwest bracket rival Kentucky was tested by – some would say was fortunate against – Wofford in the Round of 32. Whoever wins the Wildcats’ game against Houston on Friday may give North Carolina its first tense final 5:00 of the tourney.
The pickings are slim among underdog Region futures bets that don’t have serious glitches. You can go with Oregon from the lowly Pac-12 to reach Minneapolis at ((+800) at Bovada Sportsbook), or the Virginia Tech Hokies (+700) to be the team to actually beat Duke (and then win again).
But Houston is the longest shot with a rock-solid chance at (+425).
Senior guard Corey Davis Jr. is producing consistently at the Big Dance, scoring 47 points in a pair of blow-out wins over GSU and Ohio State. He doesn’t have quite the pizzazz of a Coby White (who could lend a hair stylist) or a Ja Morant, but the latter of that pair isn’t even dancing anymore. The Cougar upperclassman will get noticed by the media in short order if Houston continues to win.
Kentucky will probably miss P.J. Washington again for Friday’s Sweet Sixteen match-up in Kansas City, and the Wildcats are favored by (-2 ½) points based on reputation only. Fletcher McGee went 0-for-12 from beyond the arc against the Wildcats, or the original “one and done” program would have been “1-1 and done” at the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
I’m liking Houston to win and advance to the Elite Eight, at (+140) on the Bovada moneyline.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.