With the regular season coming down to what appears to be a crazy finish in the closing weeks, programs across the nation will battle mercilessly in an attempt to secure themselves a place in the NCAA Tournament. Considering the amount of parity that has abounded throughout college basketball this season, it seems plausible to postulate that there is still a multitude of exciting and shocking upsets yet to come. Although some conferences are predisposed to fostering exciting matchups every week (ACC, Big 12, Big 10), even the lesser conferences have been home to some thrilling contests that have continued to leave fans and pundits in awe at just how this type of chaos is possible. While everyone may be gearing up for tournament play, this is the time of the regular season where a sense of desperation kicks in and every team that has ambitions of making it to the postseason start to assert themselves that much harder in the hopes of being noticed.
West Virginia Mountaineers (21) vs. Baylor Bears
In the Big 12, no one is safe. Recently, the Mountaineers have learned this the hard way as they were unable to protect a double-digit halftime lead in a devastating loss to Kansas. However, if we have learned anything from watching college basketball this year it is that programs that are seemingly on the brink of disaster can usually bounce back in a meaningful way. Against Baylor, West Virginia is in an ideal situation as they are facing off against a team that lacks serious competitive continuity on either offense or defense. With that being said, the Baylor Bears have quietly won four games in a row with two of those wins coming against opponents ranked in the top-10. Yet, even for how inconsistent the Mountaineers have been the last few weeks, they have the talent and capable defense that should be able to bounce back on the road against a Bears program that may a bit overconfident going into this contest.
Final Score: Mountaineers 77 Bears 74 Spread:
Kentucky Wildcats vs. Arkansas Razorbacks
Although the lack of a denoted ranking by the names of either of these programs may initially indicate that this contest is doomed to be a subpar affair from an entertainment perspective, both of these gritty SEC programs will actually be playing for a lot in this contest. For the Wildcats, they desperately need to establish some type of continuity on either offense or defense as the absence of an identity has hurt them tremendously this season. To a degree, the lack of recognition the Razorbacks have received this season is somewhat understandable given the amount of parity that has permeated throughout college basketball. However, the Razorbacks have quietly been one of the most deadly shooting programs in the country as they are shooting 48.4% from the field and are capable of knocking down three-point shots quickly and often. While the Wildcats have the better athletes, the Razorbacks have an established albeit one-dimensional identity that has worked for them, especially against programs that have struggled to keep up with them when it comes to perimeter shooting (Wildcats 3P%: 33%).
Final Score: Wildcats 68 Razorbacks 78 Spread:
Louisville Cardinals vs. Duke Blue Devils (5)
As far as the middle of pack teams are concerned (of which there are many), the Louisville Cardinals have been one of the most competitive non-ranked programs in college basketball this season. Although the Cardinals have the swift athletes that can get to the basket and rebound consistently (37.6 RPG), they lack the perimeter shooters needed to keep up with the offensively gifted teams, especially down the stretch of tight games (36.4 3P%). Normally, the Blue Devils would be a bit worried about having to face a team that has length and can physically impose their will when getting to the basket. However, Duke has looked noticeably better defensively as they were able to stimy the shooting barrage of the tenacious Virginia Tech Hokies last week (Hokies FG%: 51.1%). Assuming the Blue Devils get Marvin Bagley III back, the Cardinals will struggle mightily to get inside the paint, which is essential to them being successful against teams that are more talented than them.
Final Score: Cardinals 69 Blue Devils 80 Spread:
North Carolina Tar Heels (10) vs. Syracuse Orange
Offensively speaking, the Tar Heels have been incredibly potent, especially during their five-game winning streak. Although North Carolina lacks the necessary size to play physical defense, they have plenty of tenacious athletes that are capable rebounding consistently especially as it pertains to the offensive glass (43.3 RPG). However, when the Tar Heels have struggled to score, it has been against programs that are opportunistic on defense while having decent enough shooters to score on them inside the arch. Defensively, the Orange are adept at using their hands to garner steals consistently (eight SPG) while their top three shooters are all reliable when it comes to making free throw shots. While the Orange’s over-reliance on their defense could pose a problem if the Tar Heels get out to an early lead, Syracuse is also an effective rebounding team (38 RPG), which will be vital in them preventing North Carolina from garnering extra opportunities on offense.
Final Score: Tar Heels 73 Orange 75 Spread:
Michigan Wolverines (17) vs. Penn State Nittany Lions
Currently three games back in the Big 10 Conference standings, it may appear that the Wolverines are out of contention for a conference title. However, the feisty and competitively persistent Wolverines have been undeterred by this notion as they have won their last three games fairly comfortably. Although their relentless defense has been the catalyst for the majority of their success (63.5 PAPG), they have also fared well when taking high percentage shots from the field (47.2 FG%). While the Nittany Lions have struggled to put together impressive wins consistently, they have actually been highly competitive in most of the games they have played this season, which is impressive considering their woeful past as it relates to their basketball program. Even though the Nittany Lions have the capable shooters to make shots from mid-range, they will have a difficult time establishing any type of effective offense against a Wolverines defense that is currently hitting its stride.
Final Score: Wolverines 70 Nittany Lions 64 Spread:
Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Auburn Tigers (12)
At times this season, the Crimson Tide have looked completely and utterly dreadful from a competitive standpoint. However, every now and again, Alabama finds a way to dig deep and execute on a high level that they were unable to attain in their previous contest. To their credit, the Crimson Tide do have some capable shooters as four of their five starters are currently averaging double-digit points per game with those same four shooters hitting no less than 40% of their shots from the field. Although the Tigers offense is far more capable and potent than that of their hated rival, it has been their reluctance to pass the ball that has cost them games against inferior opponents. As is the case with any high-powered scoring program, playing unselfishly is vital to a team overcoming a scoring slump, which is something that occurs at some point or another to all college basketball teams. For this reason, I believe the Crimson Tide will eek out a win over a Tigers program that may be a bit too reliant on simply putting up the basketball and hoping their shooters get hot from long range.
Final Score: Crimson Tide 75 Tigers 70 Spread:
Syracuse Orange vs. Duke Blue Devils (5)
From a statistical perspective, these two programs could not be more different. Although the Orange are particularly anemic offensively (68.7 PPG), a detriment that is further worsened by their inability to pass the basketball (11.3 APG), they somewhat make up for it with a fundamentally sound defense that is especially vigilant when it comes to locating and covering the open man (63.4 PAPG). While the Blue Devils have struggled to be competitive defensively this season (71.3 PAPG), they have actually performed far better in their last two games, with their victory over a prolific offensive team in Virginia Tech being particularly impressive. In the end, the Orange have what it takes to prevent the Blue Devils from getting easy looks, they just lack the requisite offense needed to overcome and keep up with a much more talented team.
Final Score: Orange 63 Blue Devils 72 Spread:
Villanova Wildcats (3) vs. Creighton Blue Jays
Although their defense has struggled mightily to hold an opponent to less than 70 points in a game, it has been the electric and incredibly accurate shooters of the Wildcats that has allowed them to be highly successful this season. Shooting 51% from the field, the Wildcats make more of their shots than they miss which makes it incredibly difficult for their respective opponents to overcome an early deficit unless they can trade shots with the fearless shooters of Villanova. However, if there is any program that is not intimidated by the shooting capabilities of the Wildcats it’s the Blue Jays. Shooting just over 50% from the field, the Blue Jays are one of the few teams that can beat Villanova at their own game, a strategy that is almost always futile. If the Blue Jays had a slightly better defense, they would actually have a decent chance of pulling off the upset in this contest. Yet, without any way to stop the Wildcats, the Blue Jays will ultimately fail to keep pace with an offense that is slightly better than they are.
Final Score: Wildcats 85 Blue Jays 81 Spread:
Kansas Jayhawks (8) vs. Texas Tech Red Raiders (6)
Arguably the most important game to be played in the Big 12 this season (which is saying a lot), the Jayhawks will attempt to once again reign supreme in a conference that has been theirs to lose for nearly 15 years. A fantastic shooting program that is cerebral and unselfish when finding the open man (17 APG), the Jayhawks are fearless when it comes to pursuing the basket in transition and are especially deadly when finding open shots in the half-court. Although the Red Raiders may lack the potent scorers and quick-minded players to orchestrate a dynamic offense, they actually possess the kryptonite to the Jayhawks potent offense: a relentlessly opportunistic defense. Allowing just 62.5 points per game while garnering eight steals per game, the Red Raiders will rarely allow the Jayhawks to feel comfortable when finding an open shot and will constantly find ways to trap and attack their better shooters. This game will be incredibly close with both teams having some success executing their respective game plans. In the end, though, the Red Raiders have the ideal defense needed to prevent the Jayhawks from finding their rhythm on offense.
Final Score: Jayhawks 72 Red Raiders 73 Spread:
Auburn Tigers (10) vs. Florida Gators
Similar to the Big 12, the SEC has a plethora of competent programs that are more than capable of taking down the fiercest competition within their conference. Currently, at the top of the conference with a two-game lead, the Tigers have rarely been exposed despite having a below average defense (72.6 PAPG). Up to this point in the season, the Tigers have been fortunate to have several talented shooters that can hit shots from the field while being aggressive enough to garner rebounds off of the glass. Sadly, the Florida Gators have not fared nearly as well this season as their now anemic offense combined with their lackluster defense has relegated them to being a middle-of-the-pack conference competitor. While an upset is possible, the Gators simply lack any type of notable strengths needed to dispatch what has largely been a highly prolific shooting team in Auburn.
Final Score: Tigers 85 Gators 73 Spread: