Elite Eight Sunday Predictions

Posted: 03/30/2014 by levcohen in Basketball, NCAA

Florida and Wisconsin punched their tickets to the Final Four yesterday, which means that I went 1-1 but 2-0 against the spread. Dayton kept it fairly close against Florida en route to barely covering the 10.5 point spread, and Wisconsin won a close overtime game against Arizona, the finishing touches of the demolition of my bracket. For the tournament, I’m now just 31-25 straight up, and 30-25-1 against the spread.

4 Michigan State (29-8) vs 7 Connecticut (29-8) in New York
Spread: Michigan State favored by 5.5
Michigan State continued their run of close, physical wins in their close, physical, 61-59 victory over Virginia. It was a tremendous game that was close throughout. Michigan State led by slim margins for the entire first half, before Virginia edged ahead at the beginning of the second half. Michigan State fought back, before Virginia tied the game with a Justin Anderson three with 1:53 left in the game. Despite Michigan State taking a lead and shooting free throws well, Virginia stayed in the game thanks to three pointers by Anderson, Joe Harris, and Malcolm Brogdon in the final two minutes. It was actually pretty surprising to see Michigan State give up those three pointers, because their defense has been so terrific for the entire tournament. The fact that they’ve done it even as some of their key players haven’t played well is even more impressive. Keith Appling, the point guard and a double digit scorer in the regular season, has scored just eight points total in three tournament games while playing 83 minutes and getting off just nine shots. He might still be injured. Gary Harris, a presumptive top 10 pick in the upcoming draft and the team’s leading scorer, is averaging just 11.3 points per game on 25% shooting from three point range. In their tournament-opening win, Adreian Payne saved MSU with 41 points, eight rebounds, and 17-17 shooting from the line. In their last two wins, Branden Dawson has been the savior, scoring at least 24 points and rebounding the ball at least nine times in each game. He has shot 68% from the field in the last two games. If everyone starts playing well for Michigan State, watch out, because they just beat one of the best teams in the country with star players performing at less than peak performance.

Connecticut is peaking at the right time, and this feels eerily similar to Kemba Walker’s run to become NCAA Champions a few years ago. Everyone knows about Shabazz Napier, who is serving as Kemba. Napier scored 24 points in their first round scare against St. Joe’s, 25 against Villanova, and 19 against Iowa State. But he has also had some help. Guard mate Ryan Boatright is averaging close to 15 points per game in the tournament, DeAndre Daniels went 27 and 10 against the Cyclones, and Niels Griffy, a senior who averaged just 24 minutes per game and 3.8 rebounds per game in the regular season, is over 32 MPG and seven rebounds per game in the tournament. The contributions are coming from everywhere, which explains why UConn has knocked off the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in their region in consecutive games. Can they upset Michigan State? I think they can, and I think they should be favored based on how each team has played this season. But I think that Harris and/or Appling will bounce back, and I think that will be the difference. Michigan State wins. Barely. 76-72.

2 Michigan (28-8) vs 8 Kentucky (27-10) in Indianapolis
Spread: Kentucky favored by 2
This is a great match-up. It’s Michigan’s shooting against Kentucky’s inside dominance. Michigan’s skill and Kentucky’s power. Michigan’s consistency throughout the year and Kentucky’s recent explosion. I keep saying that Michigan isn’t going to go far in the tournament because they eventually will go cold and won’t be able to hit their shots. But Michigan is still alive, simply because they haven’t gone cold, at least for long enough to cost them. They beat Tennessee by two points because of their terrific shooting in the first half, and their poor shooting in the second half didn’t come back to haunt them. The problem is that Kentucky is more talented and better than Tennessee. Michigan will need to shoot well throughout the game if they expect to beat the Wildcats, who are suddenly one of the title favorites. Inside dominance, unlike shooting, doesn’t come and go; it should be a consistent strength for Kentucky. The keys to this game are Nik Stauskas and Julius Randle, the star of each team and embodiment of each team’s philosophy. Stauskas, the Big-10 player of the year, has hit 10 threes so far in the tournament, and is becoming more and more reliant on the three point shot. In the regular season, 52% of Stauskas’s shots came from three point range, and that is all the way up to 70% in the tournament. 45% of his points during the regular season came from three point range, and that’s also up to 65%. Again, he’d better be hot today. Randle, a likely top-5 pick in the upcoming draft, has a double-double in each of Kentucky’s three tournament games. He’s averaging 15.7 points, 12.3 rebounds, five free throws made, and 50% shooting in the tournament. Of Kentucky’s incredible 38 offensive rebounds, Randle has 13. Again, it simply comes down to strength against strength. And I have more confidence in Kentucky’s strength. And no, I’m not a Michigan “hater”. 74-69.

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