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8* Winnipeg (8:05 ET): According to Wikipedia, the game of hockey was developed back in 19th century Canada. Sadly, for our "neighbors to the north," no native team has hoisted Lord Stanley's Cup since Montreal did it back in 1993! Rather infamously, no Canadian team even made the playoffs last year. At least four are likely to make it this year, giving the "Great White North" some chance, but neither of these teams will be among them. Of course, no one expected Vancouver to be a playoff contender this year. Sure enough, the Canucks have responded in kind as they have the fourth fewest points and fourth worst goal differential in the league. Winnipeg hasn't been a whole lot better and it would take nothing short of a miracle for them to play more than 82 games this year. But being the better team on home ice should be enough for an easy two points here.
The Jets are off B2B road losses to the Kings and Ducks that essentially put their season to bed. It's probably a good thing the schedule makers didn't have them go to San Jose as well (why wouldn't they?). But despite a losing record here in Manitoba, I sense a turnaround, at least for a night. The team has won its last two home games, one of them coming against Minnesota. They've also won the L3 times Vancouver has come calling. This will actually be the first matchup of the Western Canadian franchises since December when they split a pair of games in Vancouver. In both instances, the Jets outshot the Canucks and held them to just 47 shots total.
Vancouver won last night (in Minnesota!), so it's probably a good time to fade them. They'd previously lost seven of eight and this will be their fifth straight road game, a trip which has taken them all around North America (Edmonton >> Chicago >> St. Louis >> Minnesota) and now back into Canada. Following a win by two or more goals, the Canucks are just 1-8 SU this year. They're 3-11 SU after scoring 4+ goals in the previous game. For the record, they beat the Wild 4-2 last night. It was one four-goal period that carried them last night, but don't bank on history repeating itself here as this is the third lowest scoring team in the league. Also, they somehow beat the Wild yday despite just 21 shots. Even more confounding was an OT win at Chicago Tuesday where they were outshot 44-15! Goalie Ryan Miller's days of being a "stopper" are long over and his save percentage his L4 starts is just .897. 8* Winnipeg
8* New Orleans (8:05 ET): Pre-DeMarcus Cousins, I could see this line being valid. But the Pelicans seem to have now integrated "Boogie" into the lineup and are a lot better team now, even though they did lose to Houston Friday. Previously, they'd won three straight and five of six. Tonight's game may very well be "for the season" as they are at eighth place Denver. With 10 games to play, they are five back of the Nuggets. A loss here and the Pelicans can probably kiss their playoff chances goodbye. I'll concede that Denver has been hot of late (6-2 SU L8 games, 7-1 ATS), but it's probably about time for them to cool off a bit. Defensively, they are not a good team at all and to me, that makes them unappealing in the role of favorite. Take the points.
Yes, I'm well aware that Cousins is listed as questionable for tonight due to an ankle injury. But given the stakes, I'd be surprised if he didn't play. If he doesn't, I'm actually okay w/ that too. The team has won both games he's missed since coming over from Sacramento, by margins of 16 pts or greater. One of those wins came against the Rockets. With Cousins in the lineup, the Pelicans lost to the Rockets Friday, but note it was actually a one-point game going into the fourth quarter and they did a pretty good job defensively. This will be the first meeting w/ Denver since the season opener, a game the Pelicans lost by five despite 50 pts and 15 rebounds from Anthony Davis.
There's a chance Denver could be w/o its leading scorer, Danilo Gallinari, as well. So the absences could end up "cancelling each other out" here. I noted earlier that the Nuggets are not good defensively. To illustrate that point, they rank 29th in efficiency, which places them right between the Nets and Lakers. They are actually closer to last place than they are 28th! Their last three opponents have all shot at least 50% from the field. It's tough to keep winning when you're allowing that kind of shooting. With a big five-game road trip looming, I wouldn't be shocked if Denver gets caught "peeking ahead" and overlooks tonight's game a bit. That won't be the case for New Orleans, who again faces a must win. 8* New Orleans
10* Under Kentucky/North Carolina (5:05 ET): Lost in all the 5-star recruits and Coach Cal bluster is just how good of a defensive team Kentucky is. Ranked #7 nationally in defensive efficiency, they seen 9 of their previous 10 games stay Under the total. They carry the nation's longest win streak (14 games) into what is certainly the most anticipated Elite 8 matchup, a date with top seed North Carolina in Memphis. The Tar Heels aren't quite as stingy as UK, but can certainly "hold their own" as is evident by their own #20 ranking in defensive efficiency. Both teams average exactly 85.2 PPG for the year and played a very high scoring game in the regular season, a 103-100 win for Kentucky and, no, there was no overtime. Those factors have conspired to make this O/U line a lot higher than it ought to be. Take the Under.
That regular season matchup was played at a frenetic pace. It was 56-51 at halftime. I expect a the tempo to be a lot slower here. Malik Monk scored a UK freshman record 47 points in the regular season win and I don't expect him to come close to that here. Nor is De'Aaron Fox likely to match his 39-point effort from Friday's game against UCLA. The stakes are simply much higher now than they were in Lexington back in December. I don't envision we're going to see both teams shoot 53% from the floor and go a combined 19 of 35 from three-point range. The defensive intensity should be turned up a notch. UK did just hold UCLA to 75 points, which may not sound all that impressive, but the Bruins were the top scoring team in the country and that's 15 PPG below their season average.
North Carolina topped 90 points in its Sweet 16 win over Butler. They also topped 100 in their 1st round victory over 16 seed Texas Southern. But in between, I cashed an Under ticket when they faced Arkansas. Interestingly, of their three Tournament matchups so far, that one was projected to be the highest scoring and ended up being the lowest instead. The Tar Heels have enjoyed a tremendous edge on the board so far in this Tourney (rebounded 43% of its misses!), but that won't exist here. On the flip side, UK hasn't been turning the ball over at all its L3 games, so that should limit UNC opportunities in transition. The Tar Heels are 16-7 Under this season after scoring 80+ pts their previous game while Kentucky has gone Over in nine straight games vs. teams that average 77+ PPG. 10* Under Kentucky/North Carolina
10* Florida (2:20 ET): This line is several points lower than it ought to be and I'm taking full advantage. It always stinks not to be able to cash a winning ticket, but nevertheless I still came away impressed w/ Florida did Friday night. The Gators won what was the "game of the Tournament" thus far, beating Wisconsin 84-83 in overtime on a miraculous three-point shot at the buzzer. How ironic that Wisconsin sent the game to OT on a similar shot. Though it was not a cover for me (had UF -2), being able to win after such a dominant peformance the previous round is pretty impressive. I still put a ton of stock into the Gators' 65-39 dismantling of Virginia in the second round. Meanwhile, I do not believe South Carolina will be able to respond as well from its best Tourney performance to date, a 70-50 beatdown of Baylor in the Sweet 16. Lay the short number here.
Defensive efficiency is so important this time of year and in that department there is no real edge in this matchup. South Carolina may have been considered a "long shot" to make the Tournament, but they rank 3rd nationally in defensive efficiency, one spot ahead of Florida. It was the 70-50 win over Baylor on Friday that moved them slightly ahead. In that game, the Gamecocks held their opponents to just 30% shooting for the game. That's after holding Duke to 38% in the second half in a stunning second round upset. But Florida is no slouch in this department as they held Virginia to 29.6% shooting. Wisconsin shot 50%, but again, that makes winning all the more impressive for the Gators. But the real key here is a massive gap on the offensive end. Florida ranks 25th in offensive efficiency while South Carolina is 115th, easily the worst among the Elite 8 (no one else lower than 27th).
These teams being SEC rivals, obviously we have regular seasons results to analyze. This will be a rubber match w/ each team having won on its home floor. The Gamecocks won 57-53 in Columbia due Florida going an unfathomable 0 for 17 from three-point range. In Gainesville, the Gators were 9 of 19 from behind the arc and won 81-66. The two games have seen South Carolina only shoot 37 of 107 from the floor (including 7 of 27 from three-point range). Often, I might call for those numbers to improve, but not here. Florida holds its opponents to just 30% shooting from three-point range for the year. The Gators are also 25-3 SU when favored this season, going 19-8-1 ATS. 10* Florida
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