TST’s Sweet 16 best bets and analysis

The Sporting Tribune's Danny Burke shares some of his top plays for the round of 16.

Anecdotally speaking, I haven’t heard, or seen, one person who felt content at the conclusion of the first two rounds of March Madness. 

Respected, professional handicappers that I know got crushed, sportsbooks were beaten and I turned off my TV with a feeling of disgust on Sunday Night. 

Bad days and bad weeks are going to occur, it’s only natural. But, it’s just remarkable in the fashion of how it happened this past weekend that makes bettors sick. Unless of course you are someone who blindly bets the favorites.

When the final buzzer sounded between San Diego State and Yale – marking the end of the first four days of the tournament, favorites had finished 36-12 straight up and 29-18-1 against the spread (61.7%). Not quite the outcome we expected in a tournament that’s typically flooded with Cinderella stories. 

Nevertheless, there are still plenty of games to be played and plenty more chances for the underdog to prevail.

Thursday, 7:39pm ET – #5 San Diego State vs #1 UConn 

My first wager throughout the Sweet 16 will reside in a rematch between the two teams featured in last year’s National Championship. The Huskies had full control over the Aztecs in that game, winning 76-59.

Yet again, San Diego State returned to this year’s tourney as a five-seed and are looking to enact revenge. 

The expectations of that coming to fruition are a bit bare, however. For their upcoming game, the Aztecs opened as low as a nine-point underdog and we have since seen that line leap to as high as 11. 

In last year’s meeting in Houston, the Huskies were laying around -7.5 and covered with ease. So now we’ve seen an adjustment of over three points in favor of the reigning champs. 

Is it deserved, though?

Well, last year, according to KenPom rankings, UConn finished 3rd in adjusted offensive efficiency and 7th in adjusted defensive efficiency. This season they are 2nd and 8th in those categories respectively. In 2023 they ended 23rd in offensive effective field goal percentage, 5th defensively, and, currently, they are 7th and 3rd respectively. 

Also, if you recall, last year’s Huskies team came into the tournament as the four-seed. The forecast of this present group has certainly been loftier than that 2023 squad. 

On the other side, when assessing the Aztecs – we usually attribute them to featuring a ferocious defense. And that is still the case as they rank 8th in AdjD and 26th in eFGD%. But, in comparison to last season (4th in AdjD, 20th in eFGD%) they have seen slight regression. Not much, but some. 

Beyond the perimeter, not only are they shooting the ball at almost three percentage points lower (34% compared to 31.8%), but they are also allowing their opponents to connect on more looks from deep (30.8% compared to 28.3%). UConn is knocking down over 36% of their shots beyond the arc. 

SDSU offers less bench production and experience on this year’s roster. Yes, they still have some pieces that remain from 2023, but – overall, not as much depth. 

Being the number one seed, the Huskies have had the luxury of staying on the East Coast in these first few rounds, which means less travel between games and less distance away from campus. The Aztecs cannot say the same being based in California and playing their first two games of the tournament in Spokane, Washington. 

Seldom do I seek laying large numbers in a basketball game – especially a collegiate one; however, due to the nature and dominance of Coach Dan Hurley’s team, along with the recognition that this is not an improved SDSU bunch, I believe we can break old habits and back the chalk in this spot. 

Play: UConn -10.5 (-110); Risk 1.10 units to win 1.00 

10:09pm ET – #2 Iowa State (-2) vs #3 Illinois 

The opening line for this matchup was all over the place. We saw shops such as DraftKings, who have been posting lines first this tournament, list ISU as a -3.5-point favorite. Then Circa, a heavily respected “sharp sportsbook,” posted the Cyclones as just a -2.5-point favorite. 

Either way, it appears that the initial love has gravitated toward the Fighting Illini. It’s difficult to disagree with the infatuation people may have toward this squad as they are now ranked as the number one team in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.

More importantly, it’s hard to go against one of the best players in the country in Terrence Shannon Jr. Throughout 30 games this season, the Senior from Chicago has averaged 23.3 points on 48% shooting.

In Illinois’ first game of the tourney, he scored 26 points and went 9-16 from the floor. Then, afterwards against Duquesne – he tacked on 30 points on over 71% shooting. This is the exact type of guy who can carry a team through March and help overcome a top defense like the one they will face in Iowa State, who ranks 1st in KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency. 

So, we’ve got the best offense versus the best defense…what’s the separator here? 

Shannon Jr – obviously, but outside of him it’s got to be efficiency of fundamentals that you are expected to execute successfully throughout the sport of basketball. Yet, unfortunately, we see a lack of it all the time with these college kids. Attributes such as consistently boxing out and hitting free throws are often hard to find at this level. But, for the ones that do it well – those are the teams that I want to rely on this deep in the season. 

The Fighting Illini appear to do that a tad better than the Cyclones. 

According to, Illinois is 70th in offensive free throw rate and 31st defensively. Plus, they are 15th in offensive rebound percentage and 67th defensively. 

ISU sits at 106th in offensive FTR, and 227th defensively. In terms of rebounding, they are 98th on the offensive front and 197th defensively. 

During the regular season those non-flashy aspects of the game may not catch your attention too much, but they matter more than ever at the end of March. 

Furthermore, as good a defense as the Cyclones have, they tend to be vulnerable in the amount of shots allowed beyond the perimeter. According to Barttorvik, they rank 354th in shots allowed from deep; opponents are taking 45% of their looks from there. The Illini are an above-average three-point shooting team (35.6%).

When it’s all said and done, I believe the dominating offense will overpower the formidable defense. As I mentioned in a previous article – a lot of defense can be ascribed to effort, whereas offense takes skill. Illinois can step up on defense when need be, but I’m not too certain that ISU can create constant offense. 

Play: Illinois +2 (-110); Risk 1.10 units to win 1.00

10:09pm ET – #2 Tennessee (-3) vs #3 Creighton

This has to be the most anticipated game in the Sweet 16. I, along with others, have been adamant in saying that the winner of this showdown would represent the Midwest region in the Final Four. 

In my preview heading into the tournament, I mentioned the Bluejays as a team to bet on to make the Final Four at +500 odds. I’m sticking to my guns in that assessment with this Creighton team. 

No, the Bluejays previous game against the Ducks was not pretty by any stretch of the imagination. It took a game-tying shot at the end of regulation and two overtimes to overcome Dana Altman and Oregon (86-73). 

To put things in perspective, though, the Ducks were one of the hottest teams coming into the dance and there was a ton of narrative surrounding Coach Altman facing his former employer. 

And, more importantly, this tournament is all about surviving and advancing – Creighton did just that. 

There’s an old saying in sports betting that goes “No team is as good or as bad as the last game they played.” Meaning, don’t let recency bias dictate your handicap. 

The Bluejays played sloppy and still managed to win by double-digits. This team is full of fighters, they are well coached and have the talent to win this whole thing.

KenPom lists Creighton 11th in AdjO and 23rd in AdjD. The Volunteers come in at 30th and 3rd in those respective categories. 

What has really stood out to me with Coach Gred McDemott’s group, though, is how efficient their shooting efforts can be. Barttorvik has them ranking 3rd in eFG%. Also, they are shooting triples at the 7th-highest rate and knocking down 36.6% of them, which ranks 32nd. 

Inside the perimeter, the Bluejays are making almost 60% of their attempts, which is good enough for 3rd in the country. They are also the best in the nation at limiting opponents free throw damage. 

Much like I mentioned with ISU earlier – Tennessee is vulnerable in the sense of allowing a ton of shots from deep. They are 309th in opponent three-point rate. Creighton has shot 45% from beyond the arc in the first two games of the tourney, and if they can get going in the beginning stages of this game then I find it hard to envision the Volunteers being able to keep up. 

Tennessee is 144th in eFG% and making less than 34% of their three-point attempts.

Also, unlike the Bluejays, the Volunteers are actually susceptible to putting their opponents on the free throw line. They rank 256th in defensive FTR, according to Barttorvik. 

We’ve seen Rick Barnes’ teams collapse at this stage before, and I’m banking on it happening once again.

Play: Creighton +3 (-110); Risk 1.10 units to win 1.00

To hear more thoughts and picks on each and every game in the Sweet 16, check out the latest episode of my podcast “Burke’s Beat.” I am joined by Professional Bettor and Vegas Insider Bruce Marshall.

Click below to listen on Spotify. Go here to listen on Apple.