After a brief break for teams to recharge after a hectic first weekend of the 2014 NCAA tournament, play resumes with the Sweet 16 starting on Thursday. As the early rounds showed, the level of parity is high, leaving even the best teams with very little margin for error.
The odds back up that outlook. Only one spread out of eight games for the Sweet 16 is higher than five points. It illustrates exactly how close the games are projected to be and leaves the door open for another wave of upsets during the second week of play.
Let's check out all of the updated bracket information heading into the fourth round of action. That's followed by a full schedule and list of selections for the round, followed by the top picks against the spread.
*All odds are courtesy of Vegas Insider.
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Sweet 16 Schedule and Predictions
|3/27||Dayton vs. Stanford||7:15 p.m.||CBS||STAN|
|3/27||Baylor vs. Wisconsin||7:47 p.m.||TBS||WIS|
|3/27||UCLA vs. Florida||9:45 p.m.||CBS||FLA|
|3/27||San Diego St. vs. Arizona||10:17 p.m.||TBS||ARZ|
|3/28||Tennessee vs. Michigan||7:15 p.m.||CBS||TENN|
|3/28||Connecticut vs. Iowa State||7:27 p.m.||TBS||ISU|
|3/28||Kentucky vs. Louisville||9:45 p.m.||CBS||LOU|
|3/28||Michigan St. vs. Virginia||9:57 p.m.||TBS||MSU|
Best Picks Against Spread
San Diego State (+7.5) vs. Arizona
San Diego State and Arizona are two teams that both rank inside the top five in scoring defense and also prefer to play at a slower pace. In other words, this isn't likely to develop into the most exciting game of the round, at least until the final minutes because it should go right down to the wire.
Yes, the Wildcats feature more star power highlighted by the likes of Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson. But in a game where there will be fewer possessions and both teams excel on the defensive end, that advantage is limited. That obviously favors the Aztecs.
The underdogs sport a 31-4 record, including victories over Kansas and Creighton, which might have sounded more impressive before last weekend but still illustrate they are certainly no pushovers. The Aztecs are also trying to set the Mountain West standard, as pointed out by ESPN Stats and Info:
San Diego State will try to be the 1st Mountain West team to win a game in Sweet 16. To do that, they have to beat No. 1 seed Arizona.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 24, 2014
San Diego State also has a go-to scorer in Xavier Thames to lean on in key moments. It probably won't have enough firepower behind him to pull off the upset, but it's a defensive battle that should be decided by one possession one way or the other with the Aztecs covering the spread.
Prediction: Arizona by three
Tennessee (+2.5) vs. Michigan
Tennessee was on the ropes against Iowa in the play-in game before outscoring the Hawkeyes 14-1 in overtime. The Volunteers have been virtually unstoppable offensively since that point, which doesn't bode well for a Michigan team that's mediocre defensively.
The Wolverines rank 95th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. Now they go up against a Tennessee squad that features three different players averaging at least 18 points per contest through three NCAA tournament games.
Cuonzo Martin has been most impressed with his team's ability to overcome adversity. Nicole Auerbach of USA Today passed along comments from the Tennessee head coach, who said his team has become stronger along the journey to this point:
Luckily for our guys, they stayed the course, didn't get caught up in the negativity and continued to get better not only as basketball players, but as men. That's probably the biggest thing I'm proud of—and their love for each other has really grown as a unit. … They took a lot of lumps, bumps along the way.
Michigan has some scoring punch of its own, led by Nik Stauskas, which should lead to a pretty good back-and-forth tussle. In the end, however, Tennessee is the more well-rounded team and is more than capable of pulling off the upset to reach the Elite Eight.
Prediction: Tennessee by two
Louisville (-4.5) vs. Kentucky
The eighth-seeded Wildcats definitely don't lack talent. They showed that en route to an upset of Wichita State in the last round as well as during a win over Louisville back in December. Playing at that level every time out has been an issue, though, which isn't a surprise for a freshman-heavy team.
Which team is the best spread pick of the Sweet 16?
On the flip side, Louisville is a veteran team that showed last season it knows how to go the distance to win a national title. The Cardinals also rounded into form at the right time with just one loss over their last 15 games as they ramped up their championship defense.
The other thing working in Louisville's advantage is it comes from a conference where it became accustomed to playing against teams with effective size. The Wildcats' length seemed to stifle everybody on Wichita State but Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker. That won't be the case in this matchup.
All told, Louisville is the more complete team and is playing better basketball right now than it was when the teams met for the first time. Those factors should allow the Cardinals to exact some revenge for that earlier defeat with a convincing win to advance.
Prediction: Louisville by nine