NCAA Tournament Best Bets: 8 Top Picks for College Basketball’s Sweet 16 Games on Thursday
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images. Pictured: Jaylin Williams (Arkansas)
- The Sweet 16 tips off with four games on Thursday night, including Houston vs. Arizona.
- Our staff dives into the slate with eight best bets across three games.
- In fact, we have FIVE top picks for the Cougars-Wildcats game mentioned above.
After three days off, the madness of the NCAA Tournament returns with four Sweet 16 games on Thursday.
The No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga gets us started vs. Arkansas before Villanova takes on No. 11 seeded Michigan. Then in the late-night games, Coach K and Duke square off vs. Texas Tech, while Arizona duels with red-hot Houston.
Below, our staff dives in from a betting perspective by offering up eight top picks.
Start the next four days of hoops on the right foot!
Thursday’s College Basketball Sweet 16 Best Bets
The team logos in the table below represent each of the matchups that our college basketball staff is targeting from today’s slate of games. Click the team logos for one the matchups below to navigate to a specific bet discussed in this article.
|Specific bet recommendations come from the sportsbook offering preferred odds as of writing. Always shop for the best price using our NCAAB Odds page, which automatically surfaces the best lines for every game.|
Arkansas vs. Gonzaga
By Alex Hinton
Arkansas ranks 28th in adjusted tempo and 45th in average possession length on offense. Arkansas wants to play fast, but its second-round matchup with slow-paced New Mexico State featured just 101 points.
Since coach Eric Musselman made the switch to Jaylin Williams over Connor Vanover at center, it has allowed Arkansas to play even faster.
The Razorbacks will be happy to play another team that wants to get up-and-down. The Zags are second nationally in average possession length offensively and fifth in adjusted tempo.
While Gonzaga plays fast, it is also highly efficient on offense. It ranks first nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage and 2-point field goal percentage. That is largely because of its twin towers of Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren.
Timme and Holmgren will have a size advantage against the undersized Razorbacks and will likely face plenty of double teams in the half-court. That will set up big-to-big passing to each other and open looks from beyond the arc.
However, Arkansas has the firepower to keep pace. The Razorbacks have four double-digit scorers led by guard JD Notae at 18.4 points. Guard Stanley Umude averages 12 points and shoots 37% from beyond the arc.
Arkansas will have an edge in speed and quickness, and its pressure defense will lead to some easy buckets, as well.
This game should be a track meet. Gonzaga’s games have gone over 155 in six of its last seven, including 160 in its second-round matchup against Memphis.
I like the over up to 157.
Pick: Over 155 (Play to 157)
Michigan vs. Villanova
This game is going to be very similar to the Ohio State/Villanova matchup because the Wildcats are going to try to slow it down to their snail’s pace. This Sweet 16 duel is going to be played in the half-court, where I think Villanova has some advantages.
First off, Michigan is outside the top-100 in PPP in the half-court, while Nova is top-40 defensively, per ShotQuality.
Michigan likes to run a lot of post-up sets. The one thing you’ll probably hear people say is Villanova doesn’t have the height to compete with Dickinson. Well, the Wildcats don’t because their tallest guy is 6-foot-8. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be able to defend him effectively.
Against Ohio State — which is a top-five post-up frequency team in the nation — the Buckeyes only had eight points on 14 post-up possessions. The Big East had five teams inside the top-40 in terms of average height, so it’s not like Villanova isn’t used to playing against teams with size.
Also, Villanova is a top-30 team in terms of PPP allowed at the rim. So, I don’t think Dickinson is going to be as dominant as everyone thinks.
Villanova is obviously a very high frequency 3-point shooting team, but what’s weird about the Wildcats is they don’t get a lot of open 3-pointers. They’re 332nd in the nation in open 3-point rate, while Michigan is fourth in the country in open 3-point rate allowed, per ShotQuality.
Villanova’s 3-pointers are not going to be of the highest quality in this affair.
With that in mind, I like Under 135.5 points, especially given the fact that this game is going to be played in the half-court.
Pick: Under 135.5 (Play to 134)
Michigan vs. Villanova
This is the first bet I made as soon as the lines dropped. It pains me to say the Michigan magical run is coming to an end.
This is a stylistic nightmare for the Wolverines, as Villanova will look to abuse Michigan through pick-and-rolls. The Wildcats will attack the paint to potentially put Hunter Dickinson in foul trouble, or they will draw in defenders to hit open shooters for high-quality shots.
This spells trouble for Michigan, as it has had trouble defending the perimeter. Now it will be forced to scramble against a very efficient Villanova offense.
What’s even worse for Michigan is if the Wildcats do get a friendly whistle and put Dickinson in foul trouble, Villanova is one of the better free throw shooting teams in the nation. That will allow the Wildcats to slowly build a lead while keeping Michigan’s best player off the floor.
Not all hope is lost for Michigan, though, as Dickinson will have a strong size advantage in this game, and is poised for a big outing if he can avoid foul trouble.
If Michigan wants to go toe-to-toe with Villanova, Dickinson will need to impose his will on the Nova defense, forcing it to collapse on him before using his vision to hit open shooters.
Villanova does excel at guarding the perimeter, which would disable another component of Michigan’s offense. Dickinson will not be able to do it alone, giving me confidence in Nova at the number.
Pick: Villanova -4.5 (Play to -5.5)
Houston vs. Arizona
Arizona just played TCU in a game where the Horned Frogs grabbed an astonishing 20 offensive rebounds, which almost helped them pull off the upset as a double-digit underdog.
That has to be a concern once again vs. the Cougars, who have that same ability as another top-three offensive rebounding team in the country.
If Houston is either making shots and/or grabbing every offensive rebound, that will keep Arizona from getting out in transition, where the Wildcats are nearly unstoppable.
That will keep this as more of a half-court battle, which clearly favors Houston. This is a pure pace clash between one of the fastest teams in the country (Arizona) vs. one of the slowest (Houston).
I personally think Arizona will adjust and go with a bigger lineup against Houston. If that scenario plays out, that would lend itself to the under.
Arizona won’t be as potent in transition, and Houston won’t get as many offensive rebounds. It’s always scary playing an Arizona under, but I trust Kelvin Sampson here to ensure this game is played more at Houston’s pace.
On the season, Houston ranks 334th in adjusted tempo. I ultimately think the possessions come in under the projections here, and it will just be a matter of avoiding great 3P shooting efficiency (I’m assuming Houston will force the Arizona guards into plenty of bad outside shots) and/or late flukiness.
In regards to the latter, it’s the reason I split some of my wager into a 1H under and full-game under.
Pick: Under 145.5
Houston vs. Arizona
The national narrative seems to be Houston is going to upset Arizona, spearheaded by the recent performances from each program.
I’m not buying it.
Kelvin Sampson’s group defeated a slumping Illinois team that hit 9-of-42 (21%) from deep during the tournament.
The Cougars have faced only two teams that rank inside the KenPom top-10 over the last four seasons. Both resulted in losses, including a blowout loss to Baylor in last year’s Final Four.
Arizona will be the highest-ranked opponent that Houston has played by a wide margin this season.
It has very few holes that Houston can attack, but the key one is defensive rebounds. Arizona typically loves to get out in transition, and that was a pain point against a TCU team that snagged 20 offensive rebounds.
I anticipate Tommy Lloyd will utilize a bigger lineup in this matchup to prevent Houston from doing the same.
Houston’s offense is reliant on its scoring in the paint. That isn’t easy to accomplish against the pure size of Arizona, which ranks second in the nation in both average height and 2-point defense.
The Cougars’ offense ranks 327th in the nation in free-throw percentage and has been streaky from behind the arc.
Houston has faced one offense that ranks among the top-25 in efficiency rating in Alabama. The Crimson Tide torched the Cougars’ defense for 83 points back in December.
Arizona ranks seventh in the nation in offensive efficiency and is averaging 85 points per game. The Wildcats have scored 80 or more points in 12 of their last 13 games.
This Houston program has struggled against teams that can speed it up, and lost all four of its regular-season Quad 1 matchups.
Arizona will answer the wake-up call from its matchup with TCU and make the adjustments needed to get past Houston.
Pick: Arizona -1.5 (Play to -2)
Houston vs. Arizona
By D.J. James
Arizona barely squeaked by TCU on Sunday to cap off the first weekend of college hoops in the NCAA Tournament.
Houston handled a solid Illinois team by limiting it on the arc before pulling away significantly at the end of the game.
These two will pair up, and even though Arizona is the top seed in the South Region, Houston may have a slight edge.
Houston has a significant rebounding advantage here. Per ShotQuality, it ranks first in offensive rebounding and 33rd in defensive rebounding versus second and 110th, respectively.
This means the Cougars will manufacture second chances on offenses at will and will not yield as many to the Wildcats. They defeated a strong rebounding team in the Fighting Illini with this tactic.
In addition, Arizona has had trouble all year with turnovers. Houston ranks 29th in turnover percentage on defense with a 21.8% rate, per KenPom, while Arizona turns the ball over at an 18.2% clip offensively.
This could become a concern for team turnover leader Kerr Kriisa at the guard position if he’s pressured.
Now, Arizona does have a slightly stronger offense due to its ability to knock down 3s. That said, Houston is still shooting 34.7% collectively on the season.
The difference here is that Arizona is allowing opponents to shoot 32.5% on the year, ranking 114th, per KenPom. If Houston starts hitting 3s, it already negates the impact from Arizona in the paint.
The Cougars should cover this short number and possibly even win outright.
Pick: Houston +1.5 (Play to PK)
Houston vs. Arizona
Arizona head coach Tommy Lloyd has to make a decision on how to manage his team’s defensive rebounding issues in this game.
TCU nearly beat the Wildcats on Sunday because of its 20 offensive rebounds, and Arizona will lose this matchup if it lets a better Houston team — which ranks third in offensive rebounding rate — get that many second-chance looks.
I’m expecting Arizona to go bigger to try to rebound better, and that will hurt the Wildcats’ ability to push the pace in transition.
Whether it’s more minutes for Oumar Ballo or Azuolas Tubelis alongside Christian Koloko, Arizona should have two bigs on the floor to compete for defensive rebounds.
Houston’s defense is also elite in transition and doesn’t let teams run on it, which all points toward fewer possessions than expected in a normal game.
Houston’s ball pressure can take the Arizona offense out of its rhythm in the half-court, too.
Arizona’s offense could be limited if Kerr Kriisa is still not shooting well from the perimeter in his return from injury.
The Cougars won’t get as many easy points off of ball screens because of Koloko’s excellent ability to guard in space. That provides switchability for the Wildcats.
However, Houston will get enough offensive rebounds to control tempo. The threat of that and the Cougars’ defense in transition will do enough to keep the pace down in this game.
Pick: Under 145.5
Houston vs. Arizona
The Houston Cougars rank sixth in the nation in defensive efficiency, allowing just 89.1 points per 100 possessions.
The peaking Cougars have been riding a red-hot defense, hitting the under in seven of their last 10 matchups.
Houston is well positioned to handle the Arizona offense with its excellent perimeter defense.
The Cougars rank third in the nation in defensive effective field goal percentage, presenting a difficult matchup for the sharpshooting Wildcats.
Defense aside, look for the differentiator in this game to be Houston’s dominance on the offensive glass. The Cougars rank second nationally in offensive rebound percentage.
I am projecting the total for this Sweet 16 matchup at 136.25 points. This presents over nine points in edge to the line Vegas hung.
Houston will be able to keep Arizona’s offense in check and extend its own time of possession by controlling the glass on offense.