The NCAA tournament’s best Sweet 16 games will be played on Friday evening. Which teams will emerge in heavyweight fights, plus the game with the tournament’s darling?
Michigan State Spartans vs. Duke Blue Devils
Friday, approx. 9:45 PM ET
College Basketball Betting Odds: Duke -2
In this matchup, there’s a fundamental split between the frontcourt and the backcourt. Michigan State should control the action near the rim. Duke big man Mason Plumlee has struggled over the past month. On Friday, Plumlee will have a very hard time going up against Michigan State big man Derrick Nix, who is much more powerful than most of the bigs Plumlee has played against in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Michigan State’s size and power will be very hard for Duke to deal with on Friday, and that’s the biggest reason to take the Spartans. Adreian Payne, who scored 14 points and had 10 rebounds plus five blocked shots on Saturday against Memphis, has been terrific for Michigan State in recent weeks at both ends of the floor. He is a very imposing NBA prospect who gives MSU great energy and consistency. Duke’s Ryan Kelly is going to have a tough matchup with Payne, giving the Spartans yet another key advantage.
In the backcourt, though, Duke should hold sway. Keith Appling of Michigan State is the Spartans’ primary ballhandler, and he’s dealing with shoulder and knee issues entering this game. Gary Harris is a streaky shooter who is not as consistent as he needs to be. Duke, meanwhile, is getting reliable scoring production from Seth Curry, who is carrying on the Curry family’s fine tradition of creating formidable knockdown shooters (father Del Curry and then older brother Stephen Curry).
This feels like a toss-up, but it’s easier to trust good interior play than good perimeter play. As long as Michigan State doesn’t turn the ball over, it should be able to prevail on the college basketball odds.
Pick: Michigan State +2
Michigan Wolverines vs. Kansas Jayhawks
Friday, 7:37 PM ET
Odds: Kansas -2
This contest could be a Final Four national semifinal. Instead, it will be a regional semifinal in Arlington, Tex. Michigan was in the running for a No. 1 seed for much of the season before three late-season losses dropped the Maize and Blue to a No. 4 slot. Kansas looked like a No. 3 seed in the middle of February before surging in the final weeks of the regular season to earn a No. 1 seed. Michigan, though, has played more like a top seed than Kansas has in this tournament, chiefly because point guard Trey Burke has stopped shooting long threes when the offense breaks down. He is becoming a lot better at going to the rim and forcing defenses to rotate to stop him. When Burke is stopped, he doesn’t force shots. He gives the ball to teammates, who have been hitting open looks. Michigan is playing with the right mindset, and that will matter against Kansas big man Jeff Withey, a formidable shot blocker who might not have a place on the floor if Burke kicks out to wing shooters who put the ball in the basket. Kansas needs a big shooting performance from one of its guards to win this game, but the Jayhawks have not shot well in this tournament. Michigan will win what is essentially a toss-up.
Pick: Michigan +2
Florida Gulf Coast Eagles vs. Florida Gators
Friday, approx. 10:07 PM ET
Odds: Florida -13
This is not a five-star showdown, but it’s going to get plenty of national attention because it is a fascinating game that looks like a David-versus-Goliath confrontation, but might be something different when you peer beneath the surface.
At first glance, Florida appears to be the vastly superior team. No one on Florida Gulf Coast’s roster will have an answer for Florida big man Patric Young near the basket. Young is a specimen who will overwhelm his man within five feet of the rim. Florida should be able to control the boards, and it has multiple ballhandling guards who will be able to handle FGCU’s pressure defense. The Gators have a lot of specific matchups in their favor here.
However, Florida Gulf Coast is not playing the way a No. 15 seed plays, and it has the skill set of a No. 6 or No. 7 seed. Generally, No. 15 seeds are slower, less aggressive, and less athletic than a third-seeded team such as Florida. However, Florida Gulf Coast loves to run, attack the basket, and play above the rim. The Eagles have NBA-level leapers on their team and try to win by applying pressure, not by using junk defenses or other tactics that try to confuse opponents. Underdogs generally need to win by throwing the opponent off balance; Florida Gulf Coast tries to win by imposing its will on the game and playing a more athletic game than its adversary. That’s usually how a top-seeded team plays. FGCU will be fearless in this game, and that will keep the Eagles close for 30 minutes. However, Florida has too much skill and talent to lose this game. The Gators won’t win by a massive margin such as 30 or 35 points, but they will cover the college basketball spread in the final minutes.
Pick: Florida -13