Mega Sweet 16 Betting Preview For All 4 Thursday Matchups

Mega Sweet 16 Betting Preview For All 4 Thursday Matchups article feature image
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Mar 17, 2018; Boise, ID, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Rui Hachimura (21) reacts during the first half against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the second round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament at Taco Bell Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

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The long, tortuous wait between the second round and Sweet 16 is almost over. Cherish the games while you can, as we only have 15 left in the entire tournament. Sad!

Just as everyone predicted, the first day of the Sweet 16 will not feature a single No. 1 or 2 seed. But betting value knows no seed. In the first part of our Sweet 16 preview, we will comprehensively cover each of the four Thursday NCAA Tournament games from all betting angles. We will examine the matchups on both ends of the floor in each game, and also look at trends, interesting nuggets, sharp action, and provide our experts’ favorite bets. We even take a look at an NBA Draft outlook for a Kentucky player on the rise.

Check back here up until game time for insight into last-minute sharp action, significant line moves and any other betting market info. Also, keep your eyes out for a similar betting preview for the four Friday Sweet 16 games at some point on Thursday.

Let’s get to it!

All spreads as of Wednesday afternoon. 


#11 Loyola Chicago vs. #7 Nevada -1.5 | O/U: 143.5

Atlanta, GA | 7:07 p.m. ET on CBS

Schematic Analysis 

By Jordan Majewski

When Nevada Has The Ball

Head coach Eric Musselman built his entire offensive gestalt around positionless basketball. The 6-foot-7 Martin twins on the perimeter are the heart and soul of that philosophy. (Cody is the distributor, while Caleb is the elite scorer.) Every Wolfpack player can shoot, dribble, pass, and play on the perimeter. One of the Martin twins will usually initiate Nevada’s pick-and-roll offense. And with lethal perimeter threats like Kendall Stephens and Jordan Caroline serving as screeners, Nevada has unlimited options out of ball screens.

Musselman has embraced the pace-and-space revolution more thoroughly than any college basketball coach. It’s why his team is in the Sweet 16, scoring at the sixth-most efficient rate in D1. Nevada scored 1.26 points per possession (ppp) against Cincinnati and Texas, which rank as the second and 12th most efficient defenses in the country, respectively. Teams don’t put up that kind of offense against elite defenses in March by accident.

Can Loyola combat this positionless offensive attack? The Ramblers defense certainly hasn’t seen anything like the Pack in the Missouri Valley, a league filled with traditional half-court motion offenses that rarely look to push the tempo in transition. However, Loyola has been an outstanding pick-and-roll defense, thanks to the versatility and length of Aundre Jackson, Donte Ingram, and Lucas Williamson, and most importantly the bulldog perimeter defense of Ben Richardson.

That said, the mobility, or lack thereof, of big man Cam Krutwig could hurt Loyola in this matchup. He will struggle to stay with Jordan Caroline in rim-facing situations, which is basically every Nevada offensive possession, as the Pack rarely run post offense. Nevada forces all five opposing players to defend on the perimeter. While the Ramblers can switch 1-4, they don’t have a good answer for Caroline. Loyola head coach Porter Moser has put Jackson on mobile bigs in the past (such as Alize Johnson of Missouri State). However, every Nevada player is essentially a mobile big.

Loyola does have a very good pick-and-roll defense, but if Nevada can create mismatches against Cincinnati and Texas, it can also do so against the Ramblers. Where I am more confident in Loyola defensively is in transition. Musselman loves to utilize his team’s length and athleticism in the open floor, but the Ramblers allow transition attempts at the 28th-lowest rate in the country.

When Loyola Has The Ball

Whereas Nevada attempts shots at the rim at the 66th-lowest rate in the country, the Ramblers work strictly inside-out, attempting shots at the rim at the 47th-highest rate, per hoop-math.com. Moser, a former Rick Majerus assistant, runs the same 4-out, 1-in ball-screen motion offense that emphasizes high percentage looks at the rim. He also has sharp shooters on the perimeter to make teams pay for over-helping defensively. Consequently, Loyola owns a top 15 FG% offense on both 2-point and 3-point attempts. The maestro of the offense is point guard Clayton Custer, who is quietly one of the most valuable players in the entire country. Per hooplens.com, Loyola’s offense improves by 16 points per 100 possessions with Custer on the floor.

Defensively, Nevada has struggled defending at the rim all year, which is understandable given its makeup. Loyola must force Nevada to collapse into the paint defensively to open up the perimeter for Custer and Ingram. Otherwise, the Pack can swarm the Ramblers on ball screens with their superior perimeter length. Krutwig, a bruiser on the block, should have his way with Caroline, who struggles to defend in the paint. It may take time to establish Krutwig, but Musselman will eventually have to help on him, especially if he’s drawing contact. (The Pack simply can’t afford to get in foul trouble given their lack of depth.) If Loyola can keep Nevada honest early on the perimeter, it will eventually wear the Pack down inside.

Did You Know?

By Evan Abrams

Loyola enters the Sweet 16 having covered four consecutive games. That has not historically been a good sign for double-digit seeds, which are just 6-22 straight-up in the Sweet 16 overall. Teams in this spot are 1-10 SU, losing by an average of -10.6 PPG.

Getting Trendy

By John Ewing

Unders in the Sweet 16 since 2005 have gone 56-46 (55%). When a majority of bets are on the over, that record improves to 52-37 (58%). Keep an eye on the live ticket count here.

Betting Market

By PJ Walsh

Nevada opened as a 2.5-point favorite and is receiving 59% of spread tickets. Based on the line movement down to +1.5, it appears that a tick of wiseguy action has come in on Loyola Chicago, but not enough to trigger any sharp money indicators via Sports Insights’ Bet Signals.

My Favorite Bet

Stuck: Loyola +1.5
Jordan: Loyola +1.5
Mears: Loyola +1.5


#7 Texas A&M vs. #3 Michigan -2.5 | O/U: 136

Los Angeles, CA | 7:37 p.m. ET on TBS

Schematic Analysis 

By Jordan Majewski

When Michigan Has The Ball

Everyone knows head coach John Beilein is going to run his 2 Guard Front offense and heavy pick-and-roll action to exploit forward Moe Wagner (pictured above) in mismatches. But even when you know it’s coming, defending Michigan’s offense still remains difficult, especially for teams that rely on a traditional, two-big front court (see: Texas A&M). The Aggies, despite heavy personnel losses, have actually been solid in pick-and-roll defense at the point of attack. (Although point guard TJ Starks isn’t as strong of an individual defender as Duane Wilson, whom he replaced.) Texas A&M has struggled against the screener in pick-and-roll defense, however. Big men Tyler Davis and Robert Williams simply lack the mobility to effectively defend in that situation.

It sounds counter-intuitive to zone a John Beilein team, but Michigan has shot inconsistently from 3. It also has struggled to effectively create mismatches in pick and roll against zones. As a result, the Wolverines score in just the 49th percentile in zone offense, per Synergy. I expect head coach Billy Kennedy to utilize his morphing amoeba zone more than usual in order to keep Davis and Williams out of pick-and-roll situations. The Aggies have struggled to rebound in zone defense, but Michigan does not attack the offensive glass, preferring to get back in transition.

When Texas A&M Has The Ball

Expect some old-school post offense. Kennedy will pound the ball inside to Davis and Williams, especially given the massive matchup advantage the Aggies enjoy on the block. Wagner has been exploited in the post all year, while John Teske doesn’t provide much relief. Michigan grades out in just the 15th percentile nationally in post defense. That spells trouble against A&M’s elite bigs.

High energy point guard TJ Starks can either propel the Aggies or slow them down when flustered by ball pressure. Michigan guard Zavier Simpson has become one of the best on-ball defenders left in the tournament. Look for Beilein to frequently pressure Starks. I also wouldn’t be shocked to see him dust off the 2-3 zone he’s busted out on occasion this year, as the Aggies are a poor jump-shooting team. The book on A&M is fairly straightforward: Crowd the paint and force the Aggies to beat you over the top. That’s a strategy Michigan doesn’t inherently employ, as it allows the sixth-lowest 3PT attempt rate nationally.

Michigan’s gameplan is two-fold on Thursday night:

  1. Hit jump shots early to force Texas A&M out of zone defense.

  2. Force jump shots on the other end, which might require zone defense.

Did You Know?

By Evan Abrams

Michigan enters the Sweet 16 with a straight-up and against-the-spread win percentage of greater than 65% on the season. Historically, this impressive of a cover rate does not translate to tourney success. Since 2005, teams with a SU and ATS win percentage of 65%+ are just 7-15-3 ATS (31.8%) in the Sweet 16. If you trim the timeframe to since the 2009 NCAA Tournament, teams in this spot are even worse: 4-16-3 ATS (20%). Duke, Villanova and Loyola-Chicago also fall into this situational fade.

Getting Trendy

By John Ewing

Seventy percent of spread tickets are on Texas A&M +2.5 at the time of publication (check out live odds here). Since 2005, fading trendy underdogs (teams getting a majority of spread bets) has gone 100-69-5 (59%) ATS in the NCAA Tournament.

Betting Market

By PJ Walsh

Fifty-three percent of spread tickets and 73% of dollars are backing Texas A&M, dropping the line from Aggies +3.5 down to the current number of +2.5.

My Favorite Bet

Stuck: Looking for TAMU +7 live
Jordan: Under 136.5
Mears: Michigan -2.5


#9 Kansas State vs. #5 Kentucky -5.5 | O/U: 138

Atlanta, GA | 9:37 p.m. ET on CBS

Schematic Analysis 

By Jordan Majewski

When Kentucky Has The Ball

The book on Kentucky this year has generally been “keep them from attacking the rim in transition and you’ll be fine.” That actually couldn’t be further from the truth over the past month. Over the past 10 games, the Cats have averaged 1.21 ppp, with eight of the 10 played at 70 possessions or fewer. Additionally, UK has surprisingly excelled in its zone offense during that stretch. Teams were already reluctant to zone Kentucky because of its prowess on the offensive glass.

Leading the charge of UK’s offensive revolution has been Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who has been absolutely lethal as a 6-foot-6 point guard. He can see over the top of any ball-screen defense that opponents throw at him. It also helps to have matchup nightmares like Kevin Knox and Wenyen Gabriel on the perimeter. If 6-foot-5 guard Hamidou Diallo can keep playing with confidence on the offensive end after his outburst against Buffalo, UK will peak at the perfect time.

Kansas State is actually a very good ball-screen defense, but Barry Brown, Kam Stokes, and even Cartier Diarra can’t match UK’s size on the perimeter. KSU has also struggled in dribble-contain defense all year against straight-line drive offenses like Kentucky. KSU’s defense is predicated on aggressively pressuring ball handlers in the half court and jumping in passing lanes. K-State led the Big 12 in defensive turnover rate.

However, that aggression leaves it vulnerable on the back end against teams that protect the ball. UK has only coughed it up at a meager 15.6% rate in the aforementioned 10-game streak. Turnovers plagued UK earlier in the year, but thanks to Gilgeous-Alexander, it’s now an undeniable strength. KSU’s rim defense isn’t particularly strong, which means UK should get plenty of high-percentage looks. It also will get easy putbacks, as UK ranks eighth nationally in offensive rebounding rate. That spells doom for a KSU squad that clocks in at a miserable 307th nationally in defensive rebounding rate.

When Kansas State Has The Ball

Head coach Bruce Weber has shifted from one of the most prominent motion offenses in the country to a pick-and-roll-heavy half-court attack. It has been a good switch, given his current personnel.

A lot of KSU’s offense will depend on forward Dean Wade’s health. Wade is a one-man wrecking crew with his inside-out versatility in pick and roll. He has been practicing with the team, recently declaring himself “98% certain to play.” A healthy Wade, who scores an impressive 1.34 points per pick-and-roll possession, could give UK forwards PJ Washington and Nick Richards problems. (Both have looked lost when asked to defend away from the rim).

Additionally, I expect Coach Cal to switch into the 3-2 zone early and often, as KSU has struggled on offense against zones. When he does, the Wildcats’ pick-and-roll-heavy offense should grind to a halt. On the season, UK’s defense allows just .665 points per possession in pick and roll at the point of attack.

NBA Draft Outlook: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

By Bryan Mears

Gilgeous-Alexander wasn’t Kentucky’s top point guard entering the year, but he certainly is now. As Jordan alluded to, he’s exploded onto the scene in the past month or so and now looks to be a surefire lottery selection come NBA Draft night. The 6-foot-6 point with an almost 7-foot wingspan has incredible upside on both sides of the ball.

On defense, he can get into guys and stay with them thanks to his lateral agility. His 2.0 steals per 40 minutes is a strong indicator of success at the NBA level. He’ll need to put on some weight to be able to switch across multiple positions, but the length and frame is already there.

Offensively, it’s unclear whether he’s true NBA point or more of a 1-2 combo who would fit well alongside a wing initiator. Still, he has nice vision, and his size and change of pace in the pick-and-roll will be a problem at any level. The biggest question will be his jump shot. He has shot 49.3 percent from the field and an outstanding 41.8 percent from the 3 this season, but at a very low volume. That said, free-throw shooting is fairly predictive of NBA shooting success, and the freshman knocks down a solid 81.5 percent from the line.

The Duke guys and Nova’s Mikal Bridges will get buzz as top-10 picks throughout the rest of the tourney, but Shai has certainly made his case to be included in that conversation. For what it’s worth, I think he’s third right now among ball-handlers behind Luka Doncic and Trae Young.

Did You Know?

By Evan Abrams

Kentucky covered the spread in both of its NCAA Tournament games heading into the Sweet 16. John Calipari has covered the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament three times in his last 20 years of coaching (2006, 2010, 2014). His teams are 3-0 SU and ATS in the Sweet 16 in all three of those seasons, covering the spread by an astounding 9.5 PPG.

Getting Trendy

By John Ewing

Kentucky-Kansas State is the most bet Sweet 16 game. In highly bet tournament games, fading the public has been a profitable strategy. The team getting less than 50% of spread tickets has gone 76-49-4 (61%) ATS since 2005. At the time of publication, the public is overwhelmingly on Kentucky (check out live bet percentages here).

Betting Market

By PJ Walsh

It’s a real shocker to report that Kentucky is attracting 72% of spread tickets in this matchup, making the Wildcats the most popular public play of the entire Sweet 16.

My Favorite Bet

Stuck: Under 138
Mears: Kentucky -5.5


#9 Florida State vs. #4 Gonzaga -5.5 | O/U: 152.5

Los Angeles, CA | 10:07 p.m. ET on TBS

Schematic Analysis 

By Jordan Majewski

When Gonzaga Has The Ball

Head coach Mark Few’s ball-screen continuity offense excels at exploiting matchups. Defenses have to account for both an athletic and versatile frontcourt led by Killian Tillie, Johnathan Williams and Rui Hachimura (pictured above), and the steady perimeter attack of Silas Melson, Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell. All three bigs can play facing the rim, while all three perimeter players can shoot. So much balance. Plus, when Few has time to prep for a matchup, his well oiled “Bulldog” offense is typically lethal. FSU is massive 1 through 5, but the Noles’ frontcourt doesn’t defend away from the rim well. Few will routinely pull them out with perimeter threat Tillie and the 6-foot-8 Hachimura, who possesses uncanny ball skills for a player his size.

FSU does defend ball screens well, thanks to the length of guards Trent Forrest and Braian Angola. Head coach Leonard Hamilton will mix in zone when his bigs are being exploited in pick and roll. He will also extend pressure full court with his long athletes. That might not be all that effective against a Gonzaga team that grades out in the 99th percentile nationally in zone offense and 85th percentile in press offense. Gonzaga can also thrive on the offensive glass. Despite its size, FSU struggles on the defensive boards, as it aggressively hunts blocks, which leads to poor rebounding positioning. (Although those blocks were a big reason why FSU allows the ninth lowest FG% at the rim).

When Florida State Has The Ball

Hamilton loves to spread the floor with his positionless brand of basketball, which typically features up to four playmakers on the floor simultaneously. FSU is at its best when it can run and attack in transition. Xavier happily obliged, which ultimately cost it the game. That won’t happen against Gonzaga, which is an elite transition-denial defense, both in terms of efficiency  and frequency of attempts. Also, while not on par with last year’s historically dominant rim defense, the Zags still rank 15th nationally in FG% at the rim.

My concerns with Gonzaga’s defense actually lie in half-court pick and roll at the point of attack. Melson is Few’s only solid perimeter defender. That could be problematic against an FSU team that has so many options to initiate offense. Gonzaga will have to hard hedge with Tillie and Hachimura, which will consequently open up the ubiquitous FSU lob dunks to big Christ Koumandje.

Did You Know?

By Evan Abrams

Since the 2005 NCAA Tournament, Mark Few and Gonzaga are 13-2 SU, but just 4-10-1 ATS when receiving the majority ticket count as a favorite. No coach in the country has been less profitable ATS during that span. At the time of publication, the Zags were getting 63% of the betting tickets (see live ticket count here).

Getting Trendy

By John Ewing

Florida State only averages 69.5 possessions per 40 minutes. Since 2005, slow-paced teams (70 or fewer average possessions) getting points have gone 131-95-10 (58%) ATS in the NCAA Tournament.

Betting Market

By PJ Walsh

With 68% of spread dollars backing Gonzaga, Bookmaker.eu has adjusted this number from an opener of Zags -5 up to the current line of -6.

My Favorite Bet

Stuck: Kentucky/Gonzaga ML parlay
Jordan: Florida State +5.5, Under 152.5


Editor’s note: The opinion on these games is from the individual writers and is based on their research, analysis and perspective. It is independent of, and may not always match with, the algorithm-driven Best Bets from Sports Insights.

Top photo: Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura; credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

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