Best bets for the Final Four
If you made your bets or built your 2023 March Madness bracket based on brand recognition, historical comparisons, or pure analytics, metrically-imbalanced San Diego State and Miami weren't the teams for you. But if you actually watched their games this season, you knew they could beat anyone on any given night by relying on what they do well. The Hurricanes have bucket-getters everywhere, and the Aztecs have bucket erasers at every position.
Like SDSU, Florida Atlantic is harder to find on national television on a nightly basis, but the Owls are on the brink of the top 25 in both offensive and defensive adjusted efficiency. They just don't have the brand name.
Relying solely on team profiles of tournament champions past or some statistical precedent means making picks based on comparisons between teams now and teams of a different, pre-NIL parity era. The sooner we accept that what we knew about what a champion might look like as recently as two years ago is no longer reliable, the better off we'll be trying to project the Final Four in the future.
Connecticut, for example, has the pedigree and the analytics, which is why the Huskies are the rare odds-on favorites at -130 to win the national title now. But if we've learned anything over the past two weeks, it's that anything we're sure about is soon followed by a wave of uncertainty - like a whitecap crashing into the sand in, say, South Beach, Boca Raton, or San Diego.
(9) Florida Atlantic vs. (5) San Diego State (-1.5, 131.5)
By now, we're familiar with both Florida Atlantic and San Diego State, two teams that entered the tournament with an air of mystery featured away from the nightly hype machines of the power conferences on ESPN.
The Owls attack with athleticism, getting to the rim or shooting threes with 88% of their shot attempts this season, a rate that was 11th-best among 363 teams in the country. Those numbers suggest they could make up a talent deficiency with offensive efficiency and be candidates to pull off an upset in any game.
While the point spread drifted in the direction of Creighton before the regional finals, we found a winner with San Diego State on Sunday. The thinking was that the Aztecs' 3-point defense - tied with Houston and just ahead of Alabama for second in the country at 27.9% - would limit the Blue Jays' scoring. Creighton went 2-of-17 from deep, and the Aztecs won by a point. That was two days after the Crimson Tide shot just 3-of-27 on their 3-point attempts. That can't be coincidental.
Tennessee had the best long-distance shooting defense in the country, but FAU overcame that in the Sweet 16 - despite shooting under 30% against the Vols - because they got to the free-throw line and converted their chances better than Tennessee did. The Owls then overcame 22 turnovers in the regional final because they dominated Kansas State on the glass and managed to hit threes on the Wildcats.
FAU's rebounding advantage isn't likely to hold against the Aztecs, who can also defend without fouling. In the dome environment of Houston's NRG Stadium, shooting percentages will probably drop - even without SDSU's outstanding defense. This game is likely to be played at the Aztecs' pace, and they score enough in the paint to get the win.
Pick: San Diego State (-1.5)
(5) Miami vs. (4) Connecticut (-5.5, 149.5)
For those who hopped in on Miami when we suggested the Hurricanes had room to improve their chances back in February, there's not much to be done other than hope for another upset. Otherwise, a 5.5-point spread is a little short.
Miami's 13-point second-half comeback over Texas came two points at a time. Surprisingly, the 'Canes didn't need a 3-pointer to stun the Longhorns. Instead, they piled up points from mid-range. While that's not the most analytically efficient method, Miami ranks fifth in kenpom.com's adjusted offense ratings despite shooting just 76% of its shots from deep or at the rim. The Hurricanes will need to continue hitting those shots against UConn and its length.
A total of 149 points with a 5.5-point spread suggests a 77-72 UConn win. After a sluggish opening game of the tournament, Miami has averaged over 87 points per game, befitting a top-five offense that has scored fewer than 74 points just once since January.
UConn, meanwhile, has averaged 81.75 points in this NCAA tournament without being pushed late in games. While shooting can be erratic in a dome, we know the Hurricanes can push pace and score without having to rely on hitting from deep. That should force the Huskies' scoring urgency. Miami's ability to be competitive also suggests this game may come down to late free throws, potentially augmenting total scoring.
Pick: Over 149.5
Matt Russell is the senior betting writer for theScore. If there’s a bad beat to be had, Matt will find it. Find him on Twitter @mrussauthentic.
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