This could be one of the more intriguing Games of the first round, mostly because Kansas State is only a -5 point favorite (at 5Dimes Sportsbook) in the 4-13 matchup. Some of that has to do with Dean Wade’s iffy status, but it’s not like he’s worth multiple points in the spread, at least to oddsmakers. Without Wade, the Wildcats aren’t exactly a reliable team as seen in their 2-3 Conference record. He’s one of their best offensive rebounders and can also run the offense from the Four spot. He missed the entire Big 12 Tournament and Bruce Weber didn’t know his status earlier in the week.
That should at least give UC Irvine a chance in this Game. In addition to being on a 16-Game winning streak, the Anteaters won at Texas A&M early in the season, something K State couldn’t do in the middle of its Big 12 Schedule. That’s a big reason some will take the upset in this matchup because the Wildcats didn’t beat anyone relevant in non-Conference play.
This is going to be a slow Game, there’s almost no way around it. Kansas State is one of the slowest teams in the country and UC Irvine isn’t far behind. But while the Anteaters had the best offense and defense in the Big West, they haven’t seen a defense like this all season as the Wildcats rank Fourth in the country in terms of efficiency. Of course, UCI’s defense is also a strong suit, ranking first in two-point percentage and fifth in effective field goal percentage. Some of that has to do with the Big West, but it’s still a relevant stat. When UCI was last in the Tournament, 2015 as a 13-seed, it almost stole a win against Louisville, which eventually went to the Elite 8.
There aren’t a ton of advantages for the Wildcats in this matchup, especially if Wade doesn’t play. They don’t have a huge post presence in Makol Mawien so that’s not an area to exploit. These teams match up fairly even in terms of team composition, with K State’s leading scorer Barry Brown (14.9 ppg) probably the best player in the Game. To beat the Wildcats, you usually have to limit what he does and while he’s not a huge scorer, if he’s having success creating his own shot, that’s usually not good for the opponent. Otherwise, KSU’s scoring is fairly balanced with a smaller Xavier Sneed playing more in the Four spot with Wade hurt. Carter Diarra just returned from injury and he’s someone that can give a spark to the team, scoring 15 points last Game. Kamau Stokes is another guy that will get his buckets, scoring at least 10 points in the last seven Games.
UC Irvine isn’t much different in that only two guys average more than nine points per Game. Max Hazzard, Evan Leonard and Collin Welp do most of the scoring, but there are five or six other guys that usually help out. No one on the Anteaters plays more than 26.1 minutes per Game so depth isn’t an issue, but it’s a wonder if anyone will be able to find a groove against the KSU defense.
Hazzard is the guy UCI will turn to, as he’s 16-for-37 from three in the last five Games. Leonard always hits a couple threes and reaches double-digits, while Welp is more of the x-factor as a stretch Four off the bench. Welp has scored at least 15 points in three of the last five Games and he’s someone that would benefit if Wade doesn’t play.
These teams aren’t that much different and the absence of Wade could mean everything. Built around defense, the Wildcats will need to use their athleticism to win this Game and hope Barry Brown does his thing. Either way, this has all the makings of a close, low-scoring Game throughout, and that usually means a possible upset.
Our Pick – Kansas State -4.5