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Wright St. right dog in low-scoring battle
It used to be that you would watch the NCAA selection show on Sunday, then pick up the Monday morning paper or wait until you got to work and someone ran off a bunch of copies of the tournament bracket for the office pool.
Now, in the Internet age, brackets are available online within minutes of the tournament field being set. By midnight Sunday I had no fewer than a dozen contest invites in my e-mail inbox. Turn on the radio or ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU or just about any other sports-related network or show and you'll bet wall-to-wall basketball with more analysis and information than previous generations could imagine, and everyone is a so-called bracketologist. There really are no secrets anymore, and the lines are tighter than ever, making it harder and harder to find mistakes by the oddsmakers. Handicappers can clearly make an argument for either side in each game, and trends and systems can be found to back any opinion, so it's a process of sorting through all information and finding the most relevant nuggets.
After going 15-8 against the spread with my bankroll plays in the Daily Racing Form in 2003 and 19-11 in 2004, I've been trading money the last two years at 14-14-1 and 14-12-1 (a possible result of all of the above?). Here's a look at five of Thursday's 16 games, listed in betting rotation order (all times are Eastern). I'll give the reasons I like my selections, including the matchups on the court and the analysis of trends and situations.
Wright St. (+10) vs. Pittsburgh - 9:40 p.m., at Buffalo, N.Y.
Both teams play good defense, and at 120 points there are only two lower totals in the first round, and I love getting double digits in spot like this. Wright St. guard DeShaun Wood excels on both ends of the court, and if he's hot, the Raiders could pull the outright upset. Even if Wright St. doesn't win, the Panthers' poor free-throw shooting should help Wright St. stay within this number. According to statfox.com (the source for all stats in this column), Wright St. has covered its last eight games against teams with winning records, including two outright upsets of fellow NCAA qualifier Butler (a No. 5 seed).
PLAY: Wright St. for 1 unit.
Boston College (-3) vs. Texas Tech - 12:25 p.m., at Winston-Salem, N.C.
Boston College is the better team from the better conference, and I thought this number would come higher, so I have to lay the short price. Jared Dudley should dominate the inside for BC, which has a big edge on the front line, and unless Jarrius Jackson goes off for Texas Tech, this shouldn't be close. Texas Tech got a lot of ink early in the season when coach Bob Knight passed Dean Smith on the all-time wins list and then the Red Raiders beat Kansas and Texas A&M, but since then they have been mediocre at best, going 6-7 straight up and 4-8-1 against the spread the rest of the way. In fact, Texas Tech is 2-8 against the spread in their last 10 games against teams that had a winning percentage between 60 and 80 percent (BC fits in that subset). This is nothing new: Tech is 50-74 (40 percent) against the spread as an underdog since 1997.
PLAY: Boston College for 1 unit.
Xavier (-1 1/2) vs. BYU - 9:40 p.m., at Lexington, Ky.
Like Texas Tech, BYU has not fared well against better competition, going 10-26 against the spread (28 percent) as an underdog the past three seasons and faring even worse out of conference on the road at 3-12 ATS (20 percent). If Xavier wins, it will be called an upset by some, since it will be a No. 9 seed beating a No. 8, but the oddsmakers know Xavier is the better team and will probably also have a big home-court advantage, with its fans having to make only a short drive down from Cincinnati. Xavier also has more balance, with four starters averaging more than 10 points per game and point guard Drew Lavender coming into his own, hitting 57 percent of his 3-pointers in conference play.
PLAY: Xavier for 1 unit.
Gonzaga (+1) vs. Indiana - 9:55 p.m., at Sacramento, Calif.
Gonzaga was everyone's darlings for years, but the Zags are no longer considered an outsider in the NCAA hierarchy. They've been good for so long that now there's a bit of a backlash to the point where they have a chance to be Cinderella again. Granted, Gonzaga isn't as strong as in years past, but with big man Josh Heytvelt suspended, it will be running a lot and resemble a lovable underdog again, with guards Jeremy Pargo and Derek Raivio being the stars. Gonzaga can certainly hang with Indiana, and the program's postseason success under coach Mark Few should come in hand. Gonzaga can take its act on the road (44-26 on neutral courts since 1997, including 21-6 as underdogs on neutral courts) against an Indiana team that won only two conference games on the road this season.
PLAY: Gonzaga for 1 unit.
Weber St. (+19 1/2) vs. UCLA - 7:25 p.m., at Sacramento, Calif.
UCLA is an enigma. Sometimes the Bruins look worthy of a No. 1 seed and other times are significantly worse. Teams are often focused after losing early in their conferences and getting extra time to rest and prepare for the tournament, but I'm thinking UCLA will come out rusty and allow Weber St. to stick around. This is another game like the Pitt-Wright St. matchup, with two good defensive teams and the dog getting a lot of points. Underdogs in the first round of the NCAA tournament who are getting 10 or more points and have won four of their last five games are 22-3 against the spread (88 percent) over the last five years. Weber St. fits this trend.
PLAY: Weber St. for 1 unit.
Here are my leans for the other 11 games on Thursday, again listed in rotation order:
* Butler -1 1/2 vs. Old Dominion
* Maryland -7 vs. Davidson
* Virginia Commonwealth +6 vs. Duke
* Eastern Kentucky +26 vs. North Carolina
* Michigan St. -1 1/2 vs. Marquette
* Georgetown -16 1/2 vs. Belmont
* Central Connecticut St. +21 1/2 vs. Ohio St.
* Stanford +5 1/2 vs. Louisville
* Texas A&M -13 1/2 vs. Pennsylvania
* Vanderbilt -3 1/2 vs. George Washington
* Washington St. -6 1/2 vs. Oral Roberts.