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NCAA Tournament by the odds: Vegas picks and perspective of today’s games

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Southern California’s Jordan McLaughlin (11), De’Anthony Melton (22), Chimezie Metu (4) and Bennie Boatwright (25) celebrate their 66-65 win over SMU in a first-round game in the men’s NCAA college basketball tournament in Tulsa, Okla., Friday March 17, 2017.

Sat, Mar 18, 2017 (2 a.m.)

Salutes are in order for USC.

Without the Trojans, it might not really feel like March Madness yet. No. 11 seed USC notched practically the only real upset of the first two days of the NCAA Tournament when it defeated No. 6 seed SMU 66-65 as 7.5-point favorites Friday afternoon in Tulsa, Okla.

Three other teams pulled upsets since Thursday — Northwestern, Xavier and South Carolina — but the point spreads in those games were all less than 2 points. Northwestern and South Carolina were even the lower seeds.

USC brought the only true shock, as many didn't believe it even belonged in the tournament. The Trojans were the one team included in the field that ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi didn’t predict.

But they’ve made the most of their inclusion, starting by coming back from a 15-point halftime deficit against Providence to win 75-71 as 2.5-point favorites in a First Four game Wednesday night in Dayton, Ohio. USC next faces No. 3 seed Baylor on Sunday.

There are a lot more games to get to first.

And while the round of 64 might not have brought a lot in terms of unexpected results, that doesn’t mean there weren’t tense betting moments. Six of the 16 games on Thursday alone had either the point spread or over/under decided by two points or less.

For excitement’s sake, Talking Points hopes there are even more close calls when Thursday’s winners take courts across the country today. It can’t all be left up to USC.

Check below for picks on all of Saturday’s games. They’re listed in rough order of confidence, with lines the best currently available in Las Vegas on the chosen side. The blog has gone 21-14-1 against the spread picking every game so far.

No. 7 seed St. Mary’s plus-5.5 vs. No. 2 seed Arizona The love for the Wildcats has reached such stratospheric heights at sports books that this spread is inflated by a few points. Arizona is in for a culture shock, as it hasn’t played a team that’s both as deliberate and defensively dominant as St. Mary’s in months.

No. 5 seed Virginia plus-2 vs. No. 1 seed Florida Must take the points either way in what seems like the most evenly-matched game of the tournament so far. These teams are even built similarly, relying on suffocating defenses and smart field-goal attempts to make up for deficiencies in other areas.

No. 4 seed Purdue pick’em vs. No. 5 seed Iowa State Purdue beat up on Vermont inside in its 80-70 win as 8.5-point favorites behind national player of the year candidate Caleb Swanigan, who had 16 points and 10 rebounds. The Cyclones are every bit as small as the Catamounts, with no clear solution on how to combat Swanigan.

No. 11 seed Xavier plus-6.5 vs. No. 3 seed Florida State For the amount of talent on its roster, Florida State seems to have underachieved down the stretch including three straight losses against the spread. Xavier seems to have overachieved lately with five straight covers. The latter is always preferable to the former at this time of the year.

No. 4 seed West Virginia minus-2.5 vs. No. 5 seed Notre Dame West Virginia has now failed to cover in eight of its last nine games after only beating Bucknell 86-80 as 14.5-point favorites, but could still blow out Notre Dame on its best day. The ceiling is much lower for the Irish, as a best-case scenario would seem to be a close win against the agitating Mountaineers.

No. 1 seed Gonzaga minus-10.5 vs. No. 8 seed Northwestern Gonzaga played one of its worst games of the season in the first round — scoring less than 70 points for only the fourth time but still nearly covering in a 66-46 victory over South Dakota State as 23-point favorites. The Zags haven’t played poorly twice in a row yet this season.

No. 4 seed Butler minus-3.5 vs. No. 12 seed Middle Tennessee State The Blue Raiders thrive behind an experienced, hot-shooting core that turns the ball over sparingly. The Bulldogs have all those same characteristics; only they’re a little better and a lot deeper.

No. 1 seed Villanova minus-5.5 vs. No. 8 seed Wisconsin Call it a wash on defense, but Villanova is far more efficient on offense. The Wildcats are also more consistent. Taking what could end up looking like a value price, because the spread might close 1.5 points higher.

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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