NCAA Tournament Betting Preview: East Region
Overview: We’ll call the East the “Region of Overachievers”; a slew of over-performers relative to preseason expectations. It starts with top seed Michigan who was picked a lowly sixth in the Big Ten preseason media poll. It doesn’t stop there as no. 2 seed Alabama was picked fifth in the SEC (like Michigan, the Tide instead went on to win the regular season title), no. 5 seed Colorado was picked seventh in the Pac-12, and no. 6 seed BYU was not expected to be a tournament team. Selection and seeding are earned, not given, and these squads went out and made emphatic cases throughout a tumultuous season.
Before we dive in, I have to point out the first round matchup between Colorado and Georgetown. Louisville and Colorado State, the first two teams left out of the field, can thank these two for playing key parts in swiping their Big Dance invites. Colorado lost to bid stealer Oregon State in the Pac-12 Championship while Georgetown claimed the Big East auto-bid despite sitting at one point 5-10. To fans of the Cardinals and Rams I will not fault you for any evil things shouted at your TV.
Favorites: After looking completely and utterly dominant at times this season (just ask Wisconsin), Michigan tailed off slightly late in the season. As a result, the Wolverines are viewed as the most vulnerable no. 1 seed by most betting markets, coming in as high as +180 to win the region. To be honest, that makes sense considering the unknown status of key forward Isaiah Livers. He’s one of the best shooters in the country and his size at 6-7 makes him especially deadly. Without him, defenses can send more attention to Hunter Dickinson in the paint and Franz Wagner on the perimeter, thus cramping the Wolverines’ normally pristine spacing.
That leaves Alabama, who stormed onto the scene this year with a hyper-analytical approach on offense (rim, threes, and free throws only) and a stunningly elite defense thanks to a blend of length and switchability. Nate Oats and his deep array of offensive weapons are going off in the +400 to +425 range. The Tide offense has faltered against foes that can take away dribble penetration (Oklahoma, Missouri, and Arkansas), and there are some teams capable of doing that in this region. Plus, the status of starting guard Josh Primo is unknown after he suffered a knee injury in the SEC Tournament. He’s a role player, to be sure, but as a big 6-6 guard who can knock down shots, he fits the scheme perfectly.
The Crimson Tide are actually only narrowly ahead of Texas and Florida State at most books, with the favorite between those two varying by location. Both the Longhorns and Seminoles boast gobs of athleticism all over the court capable of stifling potent offenses – including that of Alabama. Both however are also prone to frustrating mental lapses on on offense and defense.
Darkhorses: Due to the (perceived?) vulnerability of Michigan and Alabama, the East abounds with viable sleeper candidates. No. 6 seed BYU and no. 7 seed UConn both have enticing traits as candidates to make a run. BYU is one of the biggest teams in the country and Mark Pope’s Cougars are playing their best ball right now after winning seven straight non-Gonzaga games – they nearly picked off the Zags in the WCC Tournament final. Pope’s starting lineup tweaks (inserting Gideon George and Caleb Lohner) have been a masterstroke and the Cougars are a lethal perimeter shooting team.
For UConn, it’s about All-American candidate James Bouknight, perhaps the best individual player in the entire region. He’s an electrifying scorer, equally capable of getting hot from deep or exploding to the rim for a thunderous dunk. Areas of concern include sporadic shot selection (the Huskies can get impatient offensively against discipline defenses) and the shaky health situation of key guard RJ Cole who is dealing with a concussion. Cole emerged into a worthy Robin to Bouknight’s Batman, and if he’s out on Saturday, the Huskies’ run could be over before it starts.
Strangely, fifth seed Colorado is being largely ignored in the futures market with most sportsbooks pricing BYU and UConn with shorter odds. This despite Tad Boyle’s team checking in at 17th in KenPom. Part of that is likely due to the Buffaloes being a dominant home team which inflated their metrics slightly thanks to the added home court element of playing at altitude.
If you’re really buying into Michigan being beatable without Livers, then uber-talented LSU or tremendously-coached St. Bonaventure could be an enticing gamble as a super long shot; both are around +2200 to win the region.
Picks: Let’s start with that 8 vs. 9 game between the Tigers and the Bonnies. With a week to prepare, Mark Schmidt had a masterful game plan ready for VCU in the A-10 Championship. Well, Schmidt finds himself in another “time to prep” situation. Both VCU (Mike Rhoades) and LSU (Will Wade) are coached by former Shaka Smart assistants, so that could be an edge for the Bonnies, who I really like in the first round. The primary worry is a lack of depth; if LSU gets center Osun Osunniyi into foul trouble early on, St. Bonaventure could be toast. Regardless, I’m taking the Bonnies as a slight underdog (I would recommend the moneyline).
Elsewhere, the Texas line is too short against Abilene Christian. The Wildcats thrive via overwhelming opponents with size and pressure; the former will not faze the Longhorns in the slightest, and although the latter is a slight concern, Texas has three veteran ball-handlers with which to combat that pressure. This Abilene Christian version is better than the 2019 one that got clobbered 79-44 by Kentucky in the 2 vs. 15 game, but I still think this should be a double-digit spread.
Bonus Round: I also like a side in both First Four games on Thursday. Michigan State and UCLA are going in different directions and I’ll happily ride with Tom Izzo in March against a UCLA team that’s circling the drain. And Mount Saint Mary’s is a well-coached half court team taking on undisciplined Texas Southern who needs to get in transition to score. The Mount as a pick ’em is the play.
Follow Three Man Weave’s Jim Root @2ndChancePoints.