NCAA Bracket 2012: Top Picks Against the Spread That You Can Take to the Bank

Thad NovakCorrespondent IMarch 15, 2012

NCAA Bracket 2012: Top Picks Against the Spread That You Can Take to the Bank

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    Picking the winners in the NCAA tournament is a science of its own, but things get even more complicated when the point spread is thrown into the mix. Even a No. 1 vs. No. 16 seeding matchup can become a challenge to pick when the favorite has to cover a ridiculous spread.

    By the same token, an underdog who might or might not pull of the upset becomes a great option with a few points in their favor. Picking Virginia Commonwealth to knock off a tough Wichita State team is one thing, but picking the Rams +6 points is a much surer proposition.

    Herein, a look at the best picks against the spread for the first two days of March Madness action.

    All point spreads from docsports.com.

10. Duke -12.5

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    It’s hard to imagine that Duke—which has the smallest point spread of this year’s No. 2 seeds—wouldn’t be favored by more with a healthy Ryan Kelly. The 6’11” junior is battling a sprained foot, leaving his status for tomorrow night’s game in serious doubt.

    Even if Kelly can’t go, though, Duke has too many weapons for 15th-seeded Lehigh to contain.

    Mountain Hawk guard C.J. McCollum is a brilliant defender (his 2.6 steals per game rank fifth in the country), but he can only guard one Blue Devil at a time, and the rest of the Duke backcourt will drain enough treys for the favorites to cover with little worry.

9. Creighton +1.5

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    Creighton may no longer be leading the entire country in scoring—they’ve slipped all the way to seventh, at 80 points a game—but the Bluejays are still a devastating offense.

    Of course, they’re facing a pretty imposing defense in ninth-seeded Alabama (ranked ninth nationally at 58.1 points allowed per game).

    The problem for the Tide, though, is that their offense is even more feeble than their defense is fierce.

    Since standout forward Tony Mitchell’s suspension in February, ‘Bama is scoring just 61.8 points a game, and even its potent D can’t hold Creighton that far below its average.

8. South Dakota State +8.5

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    In a field with few certainties among the No. 3 seeds, South Dakota State gets the biggest boost from the oddsmakers among the teams trying to upset the No. 3s.

    The 14th-seeded Jackrabbits have a real chance to upset Baylor outright, and an 8.5-point spread should make for a comparatively low hurdle.

    The Jackrabbits’ Nate Wolters is the best guard in this matchup (21.3 points, 5.2 boards and six assists per game), and at 6’4”, he’s also bigger than his Baylor counterparts.

    South Dakota State’s three-point shooters (.393 as a team) will compensate for Baylor’s considerable size advantage, and even if the Bears come out on top, it’s not going to be by anything like a nine-point margin.

7. Harvard +6

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    Harvard slid off the national radar after a late-season upset at the hands of Penn, but the Crimson haven’t just been a good team by Ivy League standards.

    Tommy Amaker’s squad ranks fourth in the nation in scoring defense (54.8 points a night), a performance highlighted by a November win over Florida State in which it held the Seminoles to 41 points.

    Harvard could hardly have asked for a better matchup than Vanderbilt, which has dropped its last three tournament openers and isn’t built for a defensive slugfest.

    Sweet-shooting John Jenkins may yet pull out a Commodores victory, but covering the spread is too much to ask against a defense as tough as Harvard’s.

6. Long Beach State +4

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    After a season of moral victories—most notably a six-point loss at Chapel Hill—it’s time for Long Beach State to put up or shut up.

    The 49ers’ No. 12 seed arises almost entirely from their willingness to schedule a slew of power-conference foes on the road, and they’ve gotten rewarded with a very beatable New Mexico squad.

    The post battle between Lobos star Drew Gordon and the 49ers’ T.J. Robinson is too close to call, but Long Beach State’s experience will be an ace in the hole against a green New Mexico backcourt.

    49ers senior Casper Ware is the best offensive option on the floor, and even if Ware can’t quite trigger the upset, keeping the game close enough to win against the spread should be no problem.

5. Murray State -5.5

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    Stuck with a No. 6 seed despite finishing ninth in the final ESPN/USA Today poll, the Racers have to be wondering how badly they’d be seeded as an undefeated team (instead of being “only” 30-1).

    The good news for Murray State, though, is that it landed as good a first-round matchup as they could’ve hoped for: a bubble team without much size and a Louisville site just a few hours’ drive from the Murray State campus.

    Colorado State made the tournament on the strength of some great home wins, but the Rams have been a different team away from Fort Collins, losing at Wyoming by 19 and at New Mexico by 33.

    This isn’t quite a road game, but it’s far enough from Colorado that Murray State should cover a relatively meager spread with ease.

4. Memphis -3.5

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    As inconsistent as Memphis has been at times this season, it would be a serious understatement to say that the Tigers are coming into March Madness on a hot streak.

    Not only have the Tigers won their last seven in a row, but they’ve beaten all seven opponents by at least 12 points (and as many as 31).

    Obviously, ninth-seeded St. Louis is a tougher opponent than the UTEPs and Central Floridas that Memphis has been shredding of late, but not enough to stand up to the juggernaut the Tigers have become.

    Both teams are tough on defense—the Billikens are in the national top 10 in scoring defense, the Tigers in FG percentage defense—but Memphis has too much offensive firepower to fail to cover this slender spread.

3. Virginia Commonwealth +6.5

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    At first glance, it’s hard to argue with the Rams being such substantial underdogs in tonight’s game. They score nine fewer points per game than fifth-seeded Wichita State, thanks largely to a shaky .410 team field-goal percentage.

    For Shaka Smart’s team, however, offensive stats tell only a small part of the story, and the Rams’ superlative full-court press will handcuff even the veteran Shockers offense to take the game down to the wire.

    VCU hasn’t lost a game by more than six points since the end of November—it isn’t going to start now.

2. Kansas State -5.5

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    For all that 5.5 points is a pretty big spread for an 8-vs.-9 matchup, it’s not nearly big enough for the Wildcats’ meeting with Southern Miss. Kansas State is the strongest of the No. 8 seeds, and the Golden Eagles don’t remotely deserve to be as high as No. 9.

    Both teams are putting up similar scoring numbers, but the physical Wildcats are far superior defensively.

    The 6’4” Rodney McGruder is bigger and tougher than any of Southern Miss’ backcourt starters, and 6’11” shot-blocker Jordan Henriquez will hold down the middle for an easy K-State victory.

1. San Diego State +2

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    No, the slide headliner isn’t a typo: sixth-seeded San Diego State is an outright underdog against No. 11 seed North Carolina State. Even for an at-large team from the Mountain West, that’s an awfully dire verdict from the sports books.

    As much as the Aztecs are going to have trouble with the superior size of their ACC foes, NC State doesn’t have the backcourt depth to deal with the SDSU trio of Jamaal Franklin, Chase Tapley and Xavier Thames.

    The Aztecs would be a solid choice if they were giving up a few points in the spread—as it is, they’re as promising a pick as you’ll find in the tournament.