The Line: National Championship Edition

Kentucky -2.5 vs. UConn, 9:10 pm ET
Nobody in their right mind saw this matchup coming before the tournament, and that’s exactly why college basketball’s 68-school free-for-all remains the best playoff format in sports. Most pundits didn’t even foresee Kevin Ollie’s Huskies sliding past St. Joe’s in the first round, while Kentucky, despite being a likely candidate to wreak havoc in the Midwest, still had no business winning the entire region as far as bracket pools outside of Lexington were concerned. The interior advantage that John Calipari’s kids will enjoy tonight should play just as much of a role as everyone expects it to, but it needs to be said how the Huskies were able to dispatch Florida despite allowing the Gators to post a ridiculous 34.3% offensive rebounding rate. Big men Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson combined for eight offensive boards against Wisconsin, and there still hasn’t been a team capable of stopping the alley-oop attack mode from Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee off the bench. The stage will be set perfectly for big-shot artists Shabazz Napier and Aaaron Harrison to put on a show along the perimeter, and it seems fitting that at least one of the two will have a look at a game-winning shot before the final buzzer. Napier should put forth one of the best performances of his career, but it seems unwise to predict anything other than a diabolical Harrison three-pointer as time expires. Kentucky by three in a title game for the ages…

Season record: 114-87-3 (56.71%)

Last 5 days
Apr. 5 (0-0-1)
Mar. 30 (0-1)
Mar. 29 (1-0)
Mar. 28 (1-0)
Mar. 27 (1-0)

Monthly
April: 0-0-1
March: 19-11 (63.33%)
February: 13-19 (40.62%)
January: 18-18 (50.00%)
December: 28-17 (62.22%)
November: 36-22-2 (62.06%)

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The Line: Final Four Edition

Kentucky -1 vs. Wisconsin, 8:45 pm ET
Despite being handed a disastrous No. 8 seed in the most stacked region in the field, John Calipari’s Wildcats came out and gave the selection committee exactly what it wanted to see this year. Not only did Kentucky thwart Wichita State’s undefeated campaign, Calipari’s kids also gave CBS a homerun ratings matchup against Louisville in the Sweet 16. In many ways the Wildcats have been the best team in the entire tournament, and it’s hard to disagree when you look at the numbers. No other Final Four team has dispatched a more impressive trio than Wichita State, Louisville, and Michigan, victories that made it fully clear that a lack of experience means little to nothing right now. Kentucky’s wealth of size and athleticism won’t directly translate to success like many automatically assume, but these advantages make it quite hard for the Wildcats to not play in tight games, and that’s the key here. Stopping the pick-and-pop ability of Wisconsin big man Frank Kaminsky is atop Calipari’s to-do list, and the Wildcats are one of few teams actually capable of frustrating the versatile center. Kaminsky has only made four of his 13 attempts from the perimeter in the tournament, but his performance against Arizona (3-for-5 on 3Ps) offered a glimpse of what can and will happen when defenses fail to step out and check him. The difference tonight, however, might end up being Kaminsky’s counterpart at the other end, Julius Randle. The Wildcats are already deadly on the offensive glass with such a massive lineup, but Randle’s contributions have been continuously putting this team over the top. The future top five pick is bullying opponents down low, snatching missed shots, and getting to the charity stripe with regularity, and there’s not much opponents can do about it. Elite shooting teams like Wichita State and Michigan came up short mainly due to how many second-chance opportunities they afforded the Wildcats, and it shouldn’t surprise anybody when Randle and company rule the paint once again to earn another victory. Kentucky by 3.

Season record: 114-87-2 (56.71%)

Last 5 days
Mar. 30 (0-1)
Mar. 29 (1-0)
Mar. 28 (1-0)
Mar. 27 (1-0)
Mar. 26 (0-1)

Monthly
March: 19-11 (63.33%)
February: 13-19 (40.62%)
January: 18-18 (50.00%)
December: 28-17 (62.22%)
November: 36-22-2 (62.06%)

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(Photo: Jonathan Daniel – Getty Images)

The Line: NCAA Tournament Day 8

Michigan +2 vs. Kentucky, 5:00 pm ET
Linemakers have been dead-on over the last three days, so seeing a No. 2 seed like Michigan listed as a two-point underdog is quite telling. Even so, the thought process behind viewing John Calipari’s inexperienced Kentucky group as a clear favorite is definitely misguided to me, regardless of the outcome. Just like we saw with the Wisconsin-Arizona game yesterday, the public was overly confident in the more athletic side featuring a larger group of NBA prospects. Though Michigan clearly has a handful of future pros on its roster, Kentucky’s significant size advantage has been the only thing people are talking about, and it doesn’t tell the entire story. Free-throw and perimeter shooting each remain very real issues for Calipari’s team, and the Wildcats are facing a Michigan lineup that consistently excels in both of these areas. This is also a Kentucky group that turned the ball over on 24.5% of its possessions against Kansas State, then 17.7% against Wichita State, and then 18.8% versus Louisville. Poor ball control simply comes with the territory with a forward-driven lineup, and with no true floor general to run his offense it’s likely that Calipari will see a different array of defensive schemes from the Wolverines today. Pundits have been predicting Michigan’s tournament demise for a while now, so it really isn’t a huge surprise that the majority of those with a platform are fully expecting a Kentucky victory. All of the size in the world won’t help the Wildcats make more shots from the perimeter today however, so don’t be surprise one bit when Michigan pulls off the “upset”. Wolverines by 2.

Season record: 114-86-2 (57.00%)

Last 5 days
Mar. 29 (1-0)
Mar. 28 (1-0)
Mar. 27 (1-0)
Mar. 26 (0-1)
Mar. 25 (1-0)

Monthly
March: 19-10 (65.51%)
February: 13-19 (40.62%)
January: 18-18 (50.00%)
December: 28-17 (62.22%)
November: 36-22-2 (62.06%)

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The Line: NCAA Tournament Day 7

Wisconsin +3 vs. Arizona, 8:49 pm ET
The Badgers decimated a tough Baylor team at both ends on Thursday night, and the win certainly made it appear like Bo Ryan finally has a group capable of playing for a national title. Arizona is arguably the most dangerous opponent left in the field, but Ryan’s Badgers are more than equipped to dominate the perimeter and pull off an upset. The athleticism advantage that the Wildcats will enjoy tonight could prove vital in the end, even though all of that elite running and jumping didn’t appear to help each of the Badgers’ last two opponents (Baylor and Oregon). The presences of versatile seven-footer Frank Kaminsky is absolutely the difference right now for this Wisconsin team, and his ability to pull opposing big men out of the paint continues to prove invaluable for smaller guys like Ben Brust and Josh Gasser. The shaky free-throw shooting of Arizona forward Aaron Gordon is also a huge red flag, and it’s likely the 42.1% free-throw shooter will actually be forced to make a crucial shot or two for the first time in this tournament. Sean Miller’s team had plenty of issues shooting the ball against San Diego State and look much more vulnerable than expected, so Wisconsin and the points is the best play here. Arizona by 1.

Season record: 113-86-2 (56.78%)

Last 5 days
Mar. 28 (1-0)
Mar. 27 (1-0)
Mar. 26 (0-1)
Mar. 25 (1-0)
Mar. 24 (0-1)

Monthly
March: 18-10 (64.28%)
February: 13-19 (40.62%)
January: 18-18 (50.00%)
December: 28-17 (62.22%)
November: 36-22-2 (62.06%)

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(AP Photo/Andy Manis)

The Line: NCAA Tournament Day 6

Connecticut +1.5 vs. Iowa State, 7:25 pm ET
Fred Hoiberg deserves all the credit in the world for helping his Iowa State program turn a mid-season rut into a sparkling Sweet 16 appearance. The Cyclones have been able to slide past Oklahoma State, Kansas, Baylor, North Carolina, and Kansas State over their six-game winning streak, and it’s entirely plausible this group has one final wave left in its magic wand. But how long can this run truly last with forward Georges Niang on the shelf? The Cyclones were already dangerously small at the forward position even with Niang in the lineup, but now Hoiberg is forced to use reserve junior Daniel Edozie in a role he is clearly not prepared for. Let us not forget how it took a monster performance from DeAndre Kane (24 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists) for ISU to narrowly edge North Carolina, in a game where the final result helped to mask the ease by which the Heels were able to get baskets inside. Don’t expect very much deviation tonight against a much larger, much deeper UConn roster either. The Huskies can change the game anytime seven-foot freshman Amida Brimah steps on the floor, but will be especially potent by going with a smaller lineup of DeAndre Daniels at the five and Niels Giffey at the four. The Huskies also feature an ideal backcourt pairing of Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier — a duo currently averaging 38.5 points per game in the tournament thus far. The lightning-quick slashing ability of both players will prove difficult for Iowa State’s stable of large guards, and it’s a safe bet that Napier will make his presence known again by eclipsing the 20-point plateau. The Cyclones just aren’t the same type of opponent without a high-energy guy like Niang flying all over the court, so look for the Huskies to steal this one in a wildly competitive game. UConn by 3.

Season record: 112-86-2 (56.56%)

Last 5 days
Mar. 27 (1-0)
Mar. 26 (0-1)
Mar. 25 (1-0)
Mar. 24 (0-1)
Mar. 23 (0-1)

Monthly
March: 17-10 (62.96%)
February: 13-19 (40.62%)
January: 18-18 (50.00%)
December: 28-17 (62.22%)
November: 36-22-2 (62.06%)

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(Photo: Stephen Slade/Connecticut Athletics)