If the first week of the NCAA tournament is a celebration for the Cinderellas, then the second week is when the Goliaths of the college basketball world begin asserting their dominance.
While underdogs like No. 11 seeds Dayton and Tennessee are still alive, they are no longer the tournament's focal point. Rather, with premier matchups on the dock or on the near horizon, next weekend provides an opportunity for the top championship contenders to shine.
To get an early gauge on national perception, here are the early lines for every matchup below, as well as predictions on who will cover those spreads:
|Game||Line||Pick vs. Spread|
|Florida vs. UCLA||FLA -5.5||FLA|
|Stanford vs. Dayton||STA -2.5||DAY|
|Wisconsin vs. Baylor||WIS -4.5||WIS|
|Arizona vs. San Diego St.||N/A||N/A|
|Iowa St. vs. UConn||PK||ISU|
|Virginia vs. Michigan St.||MSU -1||MSU|
|Michigan vs. Tennessee||MICH -2||MICH|
|Louisville vs. Kentucky||LOU -5||KEN|
Let's zoom in on a few of those tougher-to-call contests and dissect who might have the upper hand.
Michigan State (-1) over Virginia
That the fourth-seeded Spartans are actually slight favorites over top-seeded Virginia is a reflection of the perception that Michigan State has been the East Region's favorite all along. Interestingly, despite the likelihood of the Big Ten champs being favored, the numbers actually give a noticeable edge to Virginia:
The Cavaliers' biggest advantage is their defense, which ranked fifth in adjusted defensive rating during the regular season. Since a shaky first half against Coastal Carolina, Virginia has been on absolute lockdown mode, and hot shooting from Joe Harris and Anthony Gill has sustained the offense.
For the Spartans, their offense-by-committee approach is a crucial advantage in cracking the Virginia defense. The X-factor could be forward Brenden Dawson, who scored a season-high 26 points against Harvard in the round of 32.
Ultimately, Michigan State's balanced offensive approach offers numerous methods of attack, from both the perimeter and the interior. It's hard to imagine one of Adreian Payne, Gary Harris or Keith Appling not stepping up and carrying the Spartans into the Elite Eight.
Kentucky (+5) over Louisville
Kentucky was arguably the most disappointing team of the regular season but has finally demonstrated the expected form that made it the top-ranked team in the preseason polls. Now, facing in-state rival Louisville, the Wildcats have a bit of history on their side:
This will be 4th time that John Calipari and Rick Pitino meet in the NCAA Tournament as head coaches. Kentucky won the previous 3— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 23, 2014
Of course, the more relevant history is the earlier meeting between the two teams this season, which the Wildcats won, 73-66, at Rupp Arena. The Harrison twins combined for 28 points in that contest, and coming off a huge combined 39-point showing against Wichita State, the two are hot coming into the Sweet 16.
Russ Smith remains the engine that drives Louisville. It's an encouraging sign that despite two woeful shooting performances from the senior guard, the Cardinals have received clutch performances from the likes of Luke Hancock, Montrezl Harrell and Chris Jones to keep the offense afloat.
Kentucky's frontcourt size is a huge advantage for the Wildcats, and if Harrell picks up any foul trouble, the Cards could struggle on the boards. Unless Smith can turn in a huge game, this line feels a couple points too high.
Florida (-5.5) over UCLA
The top overall seed Florida looked dominant and efficient in the first weekend. While the South Region was subject to arguably more chaos than any other quadrant of the bracket, the Gators never faced significant adversity in their two wins and now stand as overwhelming favorites:
Florida's path to the Final Four looks wide-open now. Gators senior class has been to three straight Elite 8s. No Final Fours.— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) March 23, 2014
If UCLA is to have a chance at the upset, its hot shooting must continue. The Bruins shot 54 percent from the field in dispatching trendy bracket buster Stephen F. Austin, and Jordan Adams has shot a combined 15-of-24 on field-goal attempts over the first two contests.
For Florida, the key will be its backcourt defense. UCLA has a dangerous trio of guards in Adams, Kyle Anderson and Norman Powell who can bust a game open from beyond the arc. Scottie Wilbekin is one of the nation's premier on-ball defenders, and the Gators' willingness to shift between man and zone gives them a multiplicity that UCLA could find difficult to handle.
Even though this is one of the highest lines of the week, the Gators are on a roll that has them looking like the championship favorites. It would be a shock if the Bruins were to come close to ending that momentum.