The NCAA tournament is beloved in part because of its unpredictability. Though the one-and-done nature of the tournament defies accurate prognostication, March Madness is subject to more armchair experts than nearly any other sporting event. Below are all your bracket essentials, including a link to an updated one via Turner Sports:
Moreover, because the teams in the NCAA tourney are generally unfamiliar with each other, it is even more difficult to forecast how close the game will be. So while lines and odds are often set through evaluation of each team in a vacuum, we are often left without the context, since we really do not know how teams will match up with each other.
OddsShark.com has set lines for every round of 64 game. While tourney predictions are always difficult, here are some underdogs who appear most likely to cover the spread.
Colorado (+6.5) over Pittsburgh
It seems a consensus has formed around Pitt as a slight favorite. However, this spread looks far too high, even with Colorado playing without point guard Spencer Dinwiddie.
Jamie Dixon's squad should be favored because of its trademark tough-as-nails half-court defense. Without Dinwiddie, the Buffaloes have been forced to turn to ball screens, where Askia Booker can make plays in space. Nevertheless, with the post scoring of Josh Scott, Colorado has an offensive focal point, which Pitt must game-plan for:
NCAA games in Orlando: Pitt's challenge will be containing Colorado's Josh Scott, who reminds Dixon of UNC's McAdoo. http://t.co/wjSrNuSGtD— Greg Auman (@gregauman) March 20, 2014
The Panthers do not have the same rim-protecting presence they are accustomed to, though their stifling perimeter defense should contain Colorado. If there's one area where Scott could dominate, however, it's on the offensive glass. The Panthers' lack of size makes them vulnerable to offensive rebounds and kick-out threes.
Still, Colorado is below average in every offensive category besides free-throw shooting, making them ill-equipped to exploit that weakness. Pitt's balanced and free-flowing offense should produce enough points to squeak out a win, even if the line is a few points too high.
Nebraska (+3.5) over Baylor
There are two distinct strength vs. weakness matchups in this contest: Baylor should have a huge advantage on the glass against Nebraska's weak frontline, but the Cornhuskers' backcourt should also exploit the Bears' shoddy perimeter defense.
Despite making a run to the Big 12 tournament title game, the Bears' season-long inconsistency makes them a dubious proposition. Baylor's length inside should lead to plenty of second-chance opportunities, something the Bears thrive upon, but their 2-3 zone defense is often subject to overpursuit, leaving them vulnerable to perimeter scorers.
That's where Nebraska's sophomore backcourt tandem of Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields could exploit Baylor. Petteway, a transfer from Texas Tech, leads the team in scoring with 18.0 points per game, and has experienced a meteoric rise during his first season in Lincoln:
Nebraska's Terran Petteway averaged 3.3 ppg at Texas Tech. Won scoring title this year, 1st team All Big 10— Gary Sharp (@GarySharp1620) March 10, 2014
It helps that the Cornhuskers are one of the most relentless defensive teams in the field. Their interior, though physically weaker than most, is long-armed and can make life difficult for the opposition. This is a game Nebraska could not only cover but win outright.
Louisiana-Lafayette (+14) over Creighton
Admittedly, this is the biggest stretch of the three games. Third-seeded Creighton harbors Final Four aspirations, and Doug McDermott is the type of scorer who could blow any line out of the water. However, that hasn't stopped some observers from speculating about a potential upset:
Am I crazy to think Louisiana-Lafayette has a shot vs Creighton? Peaking in March, athletic guards, bigs quick enough to guard perimeter.— Jeff Eisenberg (@JeffEisenberg) March 17, 2014
Louisiana-Lafayette is not only peaking, but has the type of personnel that could present problems for Creighton. The Sun Belt champs are a small team led by junior guard Elfrid Payton, who has NBA potential. The Ragin' Cajuns also have a terrific interior presence in center Shawn Long, who is just a tick behind Payton in scoring at 18.9 points per game.
Creighton is built upon shooting and solid rebounding, and the Bluejays should dominate the latter category against a tiny opponent. However, if Louisiana-Lafayette's pressure-based defense can harass McDermott and Co., into poor shooting and turnovers, the No. 14 seed has a realistic shot at an upset.
More likely, the Ragin' Cajuns keep the game close for a while before Creighton pulls away. Still, it's not inconceivable that Louisiana-Lafayette could pull off the biggest upset of the second round, and at the very least, they should cover this generous spread.