Seth Davis’ NCAA Tournament picks: Kentucky-Kansas State, Marquette-Michigan State, more

The Sweet 16 is halfway filled. The other half will arrive on Sunday. I’ve been treading water on my picks for most of this first week of the NCAA Tournament, but I’m ready to have a banner finals day. Enjoy the games, everyone!

All lines are via BetMGM.

NCAA Tournament: 19-25
regular season 2022-23: 45-30

No. 3 Xavier (-4 1/2) vs. No. 11 Pittsburgh, 12:10 p.m., CBS. For a team like Pittsburgh that has struggled on the defensive end this season (108th nationally in efficiency per, having Iowa State clank all those 3-point attempts on Friday was a welcome sight (and sound). The Cyclones shot an abysmal 2-of-21 from behind the arc, allowing the Panthers to advance despite shooting just 34.1 percent from the floor themselves. My predictions don’t always pan out, but I’m very confident that the Musketeers will shoot better than Iowa State did, especially after a poor 3-point shooting performance (2 of 12) against Kennesaw State. Significantly, Xavier was able to come back from 13 points down midway through the second half by relying on its defense, holding the Owls to just six points in the final 10 minutes. The Musketeers lost one of their best offensive players in 6-9 senior Zach Freemantle, a stretch four who averaged 15.2 points on 63.6 percent 3-point shooting, in late January, but promoted the 6-8 senior forward Jerome Hunter to the starting lineup made them a much better defensive team. And Hunter chipped in with a career-high 24 points in Xavier’s first-round win. The Musketeers were tested in the first round and passed it emphatically. I think they will pass this one too. The choice: Xavier

No. 3 Kansas State vs. No. 6 Kentucky (-1 1/2), 2:40 p.m., CBS. The fact that the lower-seeded team is favored should tell us something. Kentucky plays better than its seed, and it showed plenty of heart, toughness and defensive efficiency in its 61-53 first-round win over Providence. It was the Friars’ lowest score of the season. John Calipari is leaning very heavily on his five starters, all of whom played 33 minutes or more. (None of UK’s four bench players scored.) Antonio Reeves is shooting with confidence (22 points, 5 of 9 from 3), and 6-9 senior forward Oscar Tshiebwe is playing like an All-American again. Tshiebwe’s 25 rebounds against the Friars were the most in the NCAA Tournament since 1977, and over his last five games he is averaging 16.4 points and 18.0 boards. I love this matchup for Kentucky because Kansas State relies so heavily on two players, 5-8 senior guard Markquis Nowell (17 points, 14 assists, five turnovers vs. Montana State) and 6-6 senior forward Keyontae Johnson (18 points, eight rebounds, three assists). The Wildcats also have other good players, but those two will need to have good games to counter Tshiebwe’s dominance on the glass. John Calipari wants his guys ready. The choice: Kentucky

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No. 2 Marquette (-2 1/2) vs. No. 7 Michigan State, 5:15 p.m., CBS. Marquette’s Tyler Kolek has arguably been the best point guard in the country, so you’d think his team might need him to be at his best in order to succeed in March. Still, between foul trouble and a bruised right hand (non-shooting), Kolek shot 3 of 11 and had eight points in 26 minutes Friday against Vermont. No problem. Five other players scored in double figures (led by Kam Jones, who scored 18 straight points during the second half), the Golden Eagles shot 5 of 20 from 3, and the Catamounts never had a chance. Marquette is a highly entertaining, highly skilled team, and while a lack of size can leave Maquette vulnerable against taller, more physical teams, Michigan State is not one of them. The Spartans’ starting center, 6-9 junior Mady Sissoko, is averaging 5.0 points in 21.6 minutes. We think of Michigan State as a great rebounding program, but this squad is 224th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage per Ken Pom, and it’s 334th in steal percentage. In other words, it’s just like Marquette, just not as good. The choice: Marquette

No. 4 UConn (-3 1/2) vs. No. 5 Saint Mary’s, 6:10 p.m., TNT. The second half of UConn’s first-round win over Iona might have been the best 20 minutes the Huskies have played all season. They allowed the Gaels to shoot 48 percent (6 of 11 from 3) in the first half and went into halftime down two, but the Huskies erupted in the second half and ended up winning by 24. The strategy wasn’t complicated. UConn continuously fed Adama Sanogo in the post, and he responded by scoring 22 points in the second half. UConn is a popular Final Four pick because it can win at any pace, and it has both athleticism on the wing and size in the middle. Saint Mary’s beat VCU, 63-51, in the first round by owning a 34-20 scoring advantage in the paint, but it will be far more difficult to score inside on Sanogo and his backup, 7-2 freshman Donovan Clingan. The Gaels should improve on their 3-of-17 3-point shooting, their worst performance of the season, but it won’t be enough to overcome a talented, growing, confident UConn. The choice: UConn

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No. 3 Baylor (-1 1/2) vs. No. 6 Creighton, 7:10 p.m., TBS. All season, the question for Baylor has been whether the defense will be able to match the offense. D was key during the second half of the Bears’ first-round game against UCSB, as they held the Gauchos to 30 percent shooting and forced them into more turnovers (eight) than made baskets (seven) after halftime. It will be much more difficult to defend a Creighton team that ranks 29th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom (compared to the Gauchos, who are 79th). The Bluejays are also 14th in defensive efficiency, and they have one of the nation’s best rim protectors in Ryan Kalkbrenner. He scored a career-high 31 points against NC State, leading the Bluejays to victory despite shooting 3-of-20 from 3. Baylor has the potential to overwhelm the Jays athletically, but it’s not like Creighton hasn’t faced athletic teams in the Big East. For Baylor to win, Creighton needs to help by missing jumpers, and I think this team is too good to have two poor shooting performances in a row. The choice: Creighton

No. 9 Florida Atlantic (-13.5) vs. No. 16 FDU, 19:45, truTV. Previously, I would have expected Cinderella to suffer an emotional slump, but we’ve seen enough examples (especially Saint Peter’s last year) to predict that FDU will show up ready to play. The Knights won’t have the same speed advantage they had against Purdue, but there’s no reason to think they can’t at least keep this thing competitive. The big question is whether the Knights, who are 353rd in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, can slow down Florida Atlantic’s high-powered offense. Zach Edey is three inches taller than Owls center Vladislav Goldin, but Goldin is more mobile than Edey on both ends, so it will be harder for FDU (the nation’s shortest team) to expose him. In the win over Purdue, FDU got 19 points from Sean Moore, who came in averaging 6.7 per game, but Florida Atlantic was also fortunate to get a late comeback against Memphis. This is March! The Owls also only forced the turnover-prone Tigers to cough up eight times on Friday, so their defense is more efficient than disruptive. I think Florida Atlantic will win this game, but it’s going to be a close game. The choice: Florida Atlantic Ocean

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No. 4 Indiana (-1.5) vs. No. 5 Miami, 8:40 p.m., TNT. I’m still trying to figure out how the Hurricanes pulled that rabbit out of their hat on Friday against Drake. They trailed for most of the game and trailed 55-47 with less than five minutes remaining. They finished the game 16-1. Does it raise suspicion that they were down so much, or does it give confidence that they were able to come back? They probably wouldn’t have been able to do it without 6-7 sophomore forward Norchad Omier, who injured his ankle early in the ACC Tournament semifinal loss to Duke and was questionable to enter the game. Omier had 12 points and 14 rebounds in 36 minutes, but like everyone else playing Indiana, he’ll have his hands full with Trayce Jackson-Davis, who was his usual magnificent self going for 24 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and five. blocks in the Hoosiers’ 71-60 first-round win over Kent State. Senior forward Race Thompson, who is usually the Hoosiers’ Glue Guy, chipped in 20 points and nine rebounds. Miami is a gifted offensive team, but it’s coming of age in the men’s NCAA Tournament, and no one fits that description better than TJD. The choice: Indiana

No. 3 Gonzaga (-4.5) vs. No. 6 TCU, 9:40 p.m., TBS. Gonzaga is doing Gonzaga things again. The Zags topped Saint Mary’s by 26 points in the WCC tournament final, and on Friday trailed Grand Canyon by seven with six minutes left in the first half and quickly pulled away for an 82-70 victory. TCU is a better team than Grand Canyon, but it’s a more comfortable matchup for Gonzaga because the Horned Frogs play at a faster pace (54th in pace on KenPom, compared to 291st for Grand Canyon). It’s also tougher for TCU to handle Gonzaga’s frontline trio of Drew Timme, Julian Strawther and Anton Watson without 6-11 sophomore center Eddie Lampkin Jr., who left the team two weeks ago. That wasn’t a problem for the Horned Frogs in the first round because Arizona State doesn’t emphasize post scoring, but Timme is the toughest interior offensive matchup in college basketball and he’s in March mode. The choice: Gonzaga

(Top photo of Kentucky’s Jacob Toppin: Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

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