The wild first weekend of the NCAA Tournament ended with six of the top-16 seeds eliminated, the East region in shambles and one of the all-time Cinderellas (St. Peter’s) advancing to the second weekend.
But at the top of the food chain, there is no change:
Gonzaga remains the betting favorite to win the national championship.
After a narrow escape against Memphis in the second round, the Zags are +230 to cut the nets in New Orleans, according to BetOnline — meaning a $100 bet would pay $230 if they win the title.
Next in line are Kansas (+525) and Arizona (+600).
Two other betting trends, courtesy of ESPN:
— The favorites are 24-26
— The Over is 28-24.
Our choice picks for the Sweet 16 …
No. 1 Gonzaga (-9.5) vs. No. 4 Arkansas (Thursday): The Zags looked vulnerable in their second-round escape from Memphis, but we don’t expect a repeat thriller in the Sweet 16. This matchup is all wrong for the lower seed, which is not only challenged offensively (31 percent shooting from 3-point range) but lacks the size to contain Gonzaga’s big men. Once the Zags lock in — and that could take 25 or 30 minutes — they should have little trouble pulling away while the Hogs struggle to score. Pick: Gonzaga
No. 2 Villanova (-4) vs. No. 11 Michigan (Thursday): Two programs that started the season on equal footing — the Wildcats were No. 4 in the AP preseason poll, the Wolverines No. 6 — then followed divergent paths through the regular season (as shown by their NCAA seeds) but now find themselves separated by just four points on the betting line. Villanova must contain UM big man Hunter Dickinson (27 points vs. Tennessee in the second round), while the Wolverines need a first-class collective performance from their second-rate defense. Should be in doubt with 30 seconds left. Pick: Michigan.
No. 4 UCLA (-1.5) vs. No. 8 North Carolina (Friday): These bluest of blue-blood programs, which have combined for 17 NCAA titles (not to mention 39 Final Four appearances), should produce a game reasonably worthy of their ultra-rich histories. The Bruins have struggled against big frontcourts, and the Tar Heels have plenty of size. But UCLA’s comfort level in close games and its edge in coaching experience will be decisive down the stretch. Key number: If Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Johnny Juzang combine for at least 35 points, the Bruins will be in great shape. Pick: UCLA.
No. 10 Miami (-1.5) vs No. 11 Iowa State (Friday): The fourth No. 10 vs. 11 matchup in tournament history — and first since 2016 — won’t be as close as the seeds indicate. The Cyclones are an elite defensive team but struggle to score; the Hurricanes are flush with playmakers but wobbly on defense. At this point in the tournament, offense wins, especially when combined with a coaching edge: UM’s Jim Larranaga has been to the Final Four (with George Mason), while Iowa State’s T.J. Otzelberger has never coached in the Sweet 16. Pick: Miami
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