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September 21, 2014

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NCAA Tournament by the odds: Vegas picks and preview of Sunday’s games

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Fernando Salazar / AP

Wichita State’s Chadrack Lufile and Nick Wiggins celebrate their perfect 31-0 season after defeating Missouri State 68-45 in an NCAA basketball game in Wichita, Kan., on Saturday, March 1, 2014.

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They called for the team with the nation’s best record to crumble when faced with better competition, to wilt against more talented opponents.

Undefeated Wichita State had to listen to doubters for the duration of its historic regular season. In third-round NCAA Tournament action today, the Shockers have a chance to silence them.

No. 1 seed Wichita State takes on No. 8 seed Kentucky, the team everyone believed had the most talent at the beginning of the season, at 11:45 a.m. today in Saint Louis. The Wildcats are the third- toughest task of the season for the Shockers, according to the point spread.

Wichita State is minus-3.5 in Las Vegas sports books, the fewest points it’s given all season except in a December trip to Alabama when the Shockers prevailed 72-67 as a 1-point favorite. They were an underdog just once all season, beating Saint Louis 70-65 getting 3.5 points.

Despite their disappointing season, the Wildcats rarely took points. Kentucky was an underdog just five times, going 2-2-1 against the spread and 1-4 straight up.

For the first time this year, the Wildcats have covered four games in a row. It’s impressive but somehow lackluster next to the Shockers’ nine straight.

Wichita State vs. Kentucky is the most anticipated game on the final crowded day of college basketball this season. Another down performance Saturday where the blog went 3-5 — and was certainly fortunate to eke out that record — leaves the overall NCAA Tournament against the spread record at 19-24-1.

Find brief analysis and picks on the all of them below, listed in order of confidence.

No. 1 seed Virginia minus-6 over No. 8 seed Memphis Now that they’ve shaken off the jitters, the Cavaliers will look more like the team that blew out Coastal Carolina by 16 points in the second half of their first-round game than the one that was down at halftime. The Tigers were sloppy throughout their first-round win over George Washington, which won’t work against a more polished opponent.

No. 11 seed Tennessee minus-7.5 over No. 14 seed Mercer The five No. 14 or higher seeds to win their first-round games over the past six years have gone 1-4 against the spread in the next matchup. And most of those matchups were against teams weaker than Tennessee.

No. 6 seed North Carolina plus-1.5 over No. 3 seed Iowa State The Tar Heels outrebound opponents by 5.2 boards per game; Iowa State’s ratio is just plus-1.6. There’s the difference in what projects as a high-flying, up-and-down affair.

No. 2 seed Kansas minus-6 over No. 10 seed Stanford A good matchup for the Jayhawks, who can combat the Cardinal’s backcourt with better — and more — guards of their own. Stanford has fared well versus evenly-matched or poor competition, but not against the elite. The Cardinal are 2-4 straight up, 1-5 against the spread this season against teams that wound up with a No. 4 seed or higher in the tournament.

No. 8 seed Gonzaga plus-7 over No. 1 seed Arizona Not comfortable fading the Wildcats, who feel due for a breakout, but the Bulldogs’ defense is on too much of a roll to give this many points. Gonzaga has held opponents to 26 percent from the field during a six-game win streak.

No. 12 seed Stephen F. Austin plus-9 over No. 4 seed UCLA One cover over Tulsa isn’t enough to start putting money behind a team coached by Steve Alford, who’s just 3-7 against the spread in the NCAA Tournament this century. An Alford-coach team hasn’t made the Sweet 16 since Southwest Missouri State in 1999.

No. 1 seed Wichita State minus-3.5 over No. 8 seed Kentucky The smartest approach is probably to not get involved or at least wait until halftime to make a second-half bet after seeing how these teams respond to each other. But at 25-6-1 against the spread, the Shockers are certainly more trustworthy.

No. 6 seed Baylor plus-3.5 over No. 3 seed Creighton Number looks dead-on, similar to how these two teams will shoot against each other’s leaky defenses. Going with the “when in doubt, take the points” theory here.

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

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