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March Madness best bets: Sweet 16 picks against the spread

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The 2021 NCAA tournament is entering the Sweet 16, with four games Saturday and four more Sunday.

VSiN‘s experts — Josh Appelbaum, Bruce Marshall, Tim Murray, Greg Peterson, Wes Reynolds, David Stall, Dave Tuley and Matt Youmans — give their March Madness best bets and most likely upsets for every game.

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Oregon State vs. Loyola Chicago (-6.5, 125.5)

Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham applies pressure to Oregon State forward Warith Alatishe.
Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham applies pressure to Oregon State forward Warith Alatishe during the Beavers’ NCAA tournament win on Sunday.
(Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

Stall: This has all the makings of a slow-it-down, grind-it-out, rock fight. The pace numbers speak for themselves with Oregon State checking 303rd in adjusted tempo, and Loyola even slower at 342nd. Both offenses are certainly capable, but there won’t be many easy buckets in this game. Oregon State’s defensive numbers for the season don’t tell the full story, as they are heavily improved of late, but Loyola’s numbers are self-explanatory: The Ramblers are the best defensive efficiency team in the nation. Not much more needs to be said there.

Laying 6.5 points was not something I was racing to do with Baylor but I expect them to beat Villanova. I also expect Loyola to end the Cinderella run of 12-seed Oregon State.

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It’s odd to say Oregon State is the “Cinderella” in this game but if you watched the Ramblers dismantle Illinois on Sunday, you know it was not a fluke. Loyola has the top-rated defensive efficiency in the country per Ken Pom and it showed against Illinois. The Ramblers held first-team All-American guard Ayo Dosunmu to a season-low nine points (Dosunmu also had six turnovers). Illinois center Kofi Cockburn led the way with 21 points in the losing effort. Oregon State does not have the post presence like Cockburn, but instead is led by a pair of guards in Ethan Thompson and Jarod Lucas. Loyola’s defense should be able to slow down Oregon State enough. Additionally, the Loyola offense is a well-oiled machine running through Cameron Krutwig.

Sportscaster and former UCLA great Bill Walton is having the time of his life with four teams from his beloved Pac-12 in the NCAA tournament Sweet 16.

Thriving as an underdog in the past two NCAA tournaments, Saturday will be a unique spot for Loyola as a 6.5-point favorite in Sweet 16. The Ramblers proved they were underseeded by the committee against Illinois and should continue dancing after their showdown with Oregon State.

Pick: Under 126

Tuley: Another significant betting trend is that the Pac-12 is 9-1 straight up and against the spread so far. The “Conference of Champions” was dissed all season for its supposed lack of quality, but the Pac-12 has exceeded expectations, and Oregon State was the conference tourney champion. Of course, Loyola shocked No. 1 seed Illinois 71-58 in the second round. Frankly, it can hardly be called a fluke if you watched the game. The Ramblers led wire to wire and, even though the whole world was expecting the Illini to rally, were never seriously threatened. Both teams are methodical on offense, working the clock for the best shot. A lot of bettors will be looking at the under, but I’ll pass there as oddsmakers and the betting markets had set this as the lowest total in the Sweet 16 at 125.5 as of early Tuesday night. Instead, I’ll go with the Beavers plus the points as the slow pace should put points at a premium.

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Pick: Oregon State + 6.5

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Villanova vs. Baylor (-6.5, 139)

Villanova's Bryan Antoine passes against North Texas during the Wildcats' win.
Villanova’s Bryan Antoine passes against North Texas during the Wildcats’ win in the NCAA tournament on Sunday.
(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)

Murray: Since Baylor’s COVID-19 pause in February, the Bears had not returned to their January form until Sunday’s 76-63 win against Wisconsin. Entering the game, the Badgers led the nation in fewest turnovers committed per game, but Baylor forced 14 turnovers in the win. Wisconsin senior Brad Davison missed nine of his first 10 shot attempts and seemed out of rhythm for most of the game due to the pressure by Baylor’s guards. Additionally, Baylor was crisp on offense. The Bears assisted on 15 of their 25 field goals, shot 45% from the field, and committed just four turnovers.

Villanova enters the Sweet 16 thanks to wins over 12-seed Winthrop and 13-seed North Texas. Even without PG Collin Gillespie (torn MCL), the Wildcats cruised to double-digit wins in the first two rounds. Jay Wright is one of the top coaches in college basketball, but Gillespie’s loss will be felt against Baylor. After Wisconsin’s 14-turnover performance against Baylor, the Wildcats now lead the country in fewest turnovers per game (8.8). But without Gillespie running point, will Villanova be able to survive the Baylor pressure?

The Wildcats will hope that they can have another big game from beyond the arc (15 of 30 vs. North Texas) but Baylor can match Villanova shot for shot. The Bears enter the game as the top 3-point shooting team in the country at 41.5%.

Peterson: Baylor leads the country in 3-point shooting percentage and gets to face a Villanova team that is without its main point guard from one of the most efficient offenses in the country. Villanova is committing the fewest turnovers per game in the country with 8.8, but Gillespie was a big reason for that. I think the Wildcats will feel his loss against a Baylor defense that ranks seventh in the country in steals per game (9.1) and looked like the team before its COVID-19 pause earlier this season.

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Pick: Baylor -6.5

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Oral Roberts vs. Arkansas (-11.5, 159)

Oral Roberts guard Carlos Jurgens, center, shoots over Florida guard Scottie Lewis and guard Noah Locke.
Oral Roberts guard Carlos Jurgens, center, shoots over Florida guard Scottie Lewis (23) and guard Noah Locke (10) during the Golden Eagles’ win Sunday.
(AJ Mast / Associated Press)

Peterson: This a rematch of a game earlier in the season in which Oral Roberts lost at Bud Walton Arena 87-76, leading in the early part of the second half and winning the turnover battle. Arkansas has six different players that generate at least one steal per game, but Oral Roberts has been playing its best defense of the season, highlighted by the Golden Eagles forcing 20 turnovers against Florida.

Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor average 43.5 points per game, the most of any duo in the country, the team leads the country in free-throw shooting percentage and is hitting 38.2% of its 3-pointers (13th). Oral Roberts should be able to cover just like it did the first time around when the Golden Eagles were 19.5-point underdogs.

Pick: Oral Roberts + 11.5

UCLA coach Mick Cronin has helped transform the Bruins into a Sweet 16 team. What else can he and his talented roster of players accomplish this weekend?

Tuley: There are three other double-digit seeds in the Sweet 16, but the biggest surprise has been No. 15 seed Oral Roberts. The Golden Eagles shocked No. 2 seed Ohio State 75-72 in overtime as 15-point underdogs and + 1000 on the moneyline, then took out No. 7 seed Florida 81-78 as 9-point dogs and + 330 on the ML. I certainly underrated Oral Roberts, but the Golden Eagles have been underestimated by oddsmakers and bettors all season as they’re 11-3 against the spread as underdogs. Abmas and Obanor combined for 113 points in the first two rounds, and they give the Eagles a chance to stay within single digits in what should be a shootout.

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Pick: Oral Roberts + 11.5

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Syracuse vs. Houston (-6, 140)

Syracuse's Alan Griffin dribbles against West Virginia on Sunday.
(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)

Stall: It has been another of those out-of-nowhere runs by Syracuse in March, but I think it ends here. The biggest problem I see for the Orange is dealing with a Houston defense that’s No. 1 in the country in effective FG%. The Cougars play great team and individual defense. They have plenty of strong wings (Quentin Grimes and Tramon Mark, most notably) who will take on the challenge of slowing Orange star and coach’s kid, Buddy Boeheim. The full week off is also huge for DeJon Jarreau, who was really battling to get through the end of that game against Rutgers on Sunday. If he’s back to say 80-85% (or better), that’s a massive boost to the Cougars’ chances.

Pick: Houston -6

Tuley: How does Jim Boeheim do it? Syracuse is in the Sweet 16 for the third time in six seasons as a double-digit seed. Boeheim certainly gets his teams to peak this time of year, and we all know the reputation of his 2-3 zone defense. Syracuse upset No. 6 seed San Diego State as a 3-point underdog and then No. 3 seed West Virginia as a 3.5-point dog. I’m tempted to take the points with Boeheim and his son, Buddy, who is averaging 28.3 points his last four games. But the point spread is a little short for me at + 6 against No. 2 seed Houston. I’ll go with the under here because Houston also plays tough defense and plays at a slow pace of just 67.7 possessions per game (309th slowest in the nation of 347 teams, according to teamrankings.com).

Pick: Under 140.5

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UCLA vs. Alabama (-5.5, 144)

UCLA's Tyger Campbell controls the ball against Abilene Christian on Monday.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

Peterson: Alabama is 15th in the country (out of 347 D-I teams) in the percentage of its points that come from made 3-point shots and UCLA ranks 199th in opponent 3-point shooting percentage. The Crimson Tide offense grabs the headline (averaging 79.7 ppg) but they actually rank higher in defensive efficiency (17th). UCLA also fails to generate turnovers, ranking 341st in the country in percentage of possessions on defense in which they generate a steal when in a road or neutral court environment.

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Pick: Alabama -5.5

Marshall: UCLA catching fire in the tournament reminds of a couple of Steve Lavin-coached teams that advanced beyond their seed level (or, for old timers, Larry Brown’s underrated 1980 edition that made a shock run all of the way to the finale vs. Louisville), though in all of those scenarios the Bruins eventually hit a hurdle they couldn’t clear. Is Alabama that similar challenge?

The Crimson Tide certainly have a Final Four look about them after early-round work including the destruction of Maryland on Monday after blasting through the SEC and the conference tourney in Nashville. Fundamental matchups, however, do not suggest Mick Cronin’s team is at much of a disadvantage, especially on the perimeter, where Nate Oats has been able to use Bama’s length to his advantage. UCLA, however, has good size on the wings with red-hot Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jacquez combining for almost 40 ppg thus far in the tournament, so the Westwood bunch should not be as unnerved by the Tide’s pressure that has helped Bama rank among the nation’s defensive efficiency leaders.

If Cronin has a concern beyond his depth issues (no Chris Smith or Jalen Hill) that were a problem late in the regular season (but not yet an issue in the NCAA), it’s how 6-foot-9 Cody Riley can deal with Oats’ small-ball deluxe 6-8 pivot Herbert Jones, whose versatility can cause fits. The Tide’s multi-pronged, well-balanced attack can also fill the bucket from all angles, with three other double-digit scorers besides Jones, and able to do real damage in transition with guards John Petty, Jaden Shackelford and former Villanova transfer Jahvon Quinerly.

Advancing to the Elite Eight will take quite an effort, but UCLA is certainly capable of keeping this one close and if nothing else continuing the Pac-12’s remarkable March point-spread run (Colorado’s loss to Florida State the only spread setback into this weekend). I like UCLA to stay within the number.

Pick: UCLA +5.5

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Oregon vs. USC (-1, 139)

USC guard Ethan Anderson controls the ball against Drake on March 20.
(Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

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Peterson: Oregon has a very balanced attack with five players averaging over 10 ppg and all five of those players shooting at least 35.7% from 3-point range. Plus, four of the five are pulling in more than 4.5 rebounds per game. USC does not take the ball away from opponents, ranking 342nd in the country in percentage of possessions on defense in which they generate a steal when in a road or neutral court environment. The Trojans average the 14th-most free throw attempts per possession when away from home, but are 328th in the country in free-throw shooting percentage, making 64.3%.

Pick: Oregon ML

Youmans: The Ducks are 12-2 since Feb. 2, with one of the losses to USC in late February when Oregon missed its first 12 shots and trailed 17-1 in a 72-58 blowout. But this will be a different game, and I’ll side with coaching wizard Dana Altman in the rematch. Altman is a master at making adjustments. Senior guards Chris Duarte and LJ Figueroa combined to light up a weak Iowa defense from 3-point range in the second round. The Ducks’ zone defense will cause problems for the Trojans. The team that advances will cause problems for Gonzaga.

Pick: Oregon + 2.5

Reynolds: No conference has been more of a surprise nationally than the Pac-12, as “The Conference of Champions” has four of its five teams in the Sweet 16. It will be guaranteed to have at least one team in the Elite Eight, as West Region No. 6 seed USC meets up with No. 7 seed Oregon. The two clubs met once during the regular season as USC, without the services of 6-foot-10 sophomore Isaiah Mobley, stormed out to a 15-0 lead and never looked back for a 72-58 victory on Feb. 22.

Speaking of the elder Mobley brother, he may have provided some bulletin board material for the Ducks earlier this week by saying: “Oregon is a really good team. They’ve been on a roll. I don’t want to say necessarily they got lucky, because they are a good team. But they stole the Pac-12 championship from us. I think we match up well, though. We both have chips against our shoulders because we beat them, and they got the championship from us.” Oregon finished with one less win (14-4) than USC (15-5) but earned the regular season championship due to a better winning percentage.

Both squads enter the Sweet 16 off games in which they fired on all cylinders. Oregon ousted No. 2 seed Iowa, 95-80. The Ducks scored 1.27 points per possession, shot 27-for-43 (62.8%) from inside the arc and 11-for-25 (44%) from 3 against Iowa’s permissible defense in an up-tempo game. It should be tougher sledding for Oregon against the Trojans, who rank No. 5 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom. USC stomped No. 3 Kansas, 85-51, and held the Jayhawks to an anemic 0.75 points per possession and just 29% from the floor. Five “Men of Troy” also scored in double figures, including the Mobley brothers (Isaiah 17; Evan 10).

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Currently, USC is a two-point favorite over Oregon with a posted total of 139. The point spreads are as tight as they can be at this point in the season and this number seems fair. The better betting looks for this game is on the total.

Both clubs are certainly more than capable offensively of big nights, but USC and Oregon will provide substantially bigger challenges defensively. USC had the best defense in the Pac-12 all season and led the league in adjusted defensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage, free throw rate, two-point defense, and blocked shot rate. While Oregon was middle of the pack defensively, the Ducks did lead the conference for forcing turnovers and steal percentage. Furthermore, with a likely spot in the Elite Eight against No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga on the line, possessions could get extended, and the game could slow to a crawl toward the end. The regression monster from the 3-point line looms for both teams.

Picks: Under 139 and 1H Under 65

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Creighton vs. Gonzaga (-13, 158.5)

Creighton forward Damien Jefferson celebrates after a basket against Ohio on Monday.
(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

Peterson: Gonzaga is hands down the best offense in the country, scoring 4.2 more points per 100 possessions than any other offense and making 63.6% of its two-point shots; the only other team to make above 60% of its two-pointers this season was Furman at 60.8%. Creighton is no slouch on offense, though, ranking 40th in the country in points scored on a per-possession basis and among qualifying players, Christian Bishop is second in the country in field goal shooting percentage at 68.2%. Gonzaga is 18th in the country in total possessions per game and with both teams ranking in the top 36 in lowest percentage of their possessions that end in a turnover, this has the makings of a shootout.

Pick: Over 158

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Florida State vs. Michigan (-3, 145.5)

Florida State center Balsa Koprivica, left, gets a hug from teammate Scottie Barnes after a dunk.
Florida State center Balsa Koprivica, left, gets a hug from teammate Scottie Barnes after a dunk against Colorado on Monday.
(Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

Peterson: Florida State has done a great job of being able to guard the 3-point arc away from home, as opponents are shooting 27.5% from distance (fifth in the country). Michigan probably will be without second-leading scorer Isaiah Livers, or if he does play he won’t be at 100%. Michigan has been stout on defense without him, allowing 68 points or fewer in two of its three full games without him. With Michigan also ranking third in the country in opponent two-point shooting percentage and the Wolverines ranking 246th in the country in possessions per game, this figures to be more of a crawl than many might think.

Pick: Under 145.5

Tuley: Michigan is the only Big Ten team to make the Sweet 16 after nine made the tournament field. When I filled out my bracket last week, I handicapped this game and had Florida State upsetting Michigan to make the Elite Eight. And that was before seeing how overrated the Big Ten ended up being, plus it’s still looking like injured Michigan star Isaiah Livers won’t be returning. Florida State does everything Michigan does, and I like the Seminoles’ defense better, even though Michigan ranks No. 9 at kenpom.com (though maybe we’re learning that’s an indictment of the style of play in the Big Ten). Florida State is ranked No. 29 in that category, and coach Leonard Hamilton is adept enough at mixing up zone and man-to-man defenses that I can see it frustrating the Wolverines. The number is a little short for my liking, but I guess if I expect the Seminoles to win outright, any points are a bonus.

Pick: Florida State + 3

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