This article is part of our NCAA Tournament Preview series.
I went over five-game adjusted efficiency margins last week and for the most part, it worked. While Syracuse's run was a bit of a mirage based around hot shooting and its zone, Oregon State put in another performance unlike anything from the regular season. The five-game trend also would've pointed you in the direction of Gonzaga and Oral Roberts on each of the spreads. Sure, it also said the USC and Michigan games would be close, but I don't want to talk about that.
For the Elite 8, I'm going back to the five-game numbers to see if there is an outlier or something we can take away compared with the odds. All numbers are taken from BartTorvik.
Houston -8 versus Oregon State, over/under 129
Five-game adjusted efficiency margins
Oregon State 35.18
Houston was in a similar spot in the Syracuse game, but the difference is that Oregon State's defense is playing on another level in the tournament. The weird thing is that Houston's offense didn't even play well last game – it was more about Syracuse failing to score 50 points. I think that's where the Beavers could have an edge because, per KenPom, the Cougars have one of the worst free-throw rates in the country.
Conveniently, that's one of the main areas OSU has had success in the tournament and it's why its offense has been more efficient in the past nine games than its overall numbers for the season would suggest. It's yet another reason not to trust seasonal numbers and also why they beat Loyola Chicago. In an ugly, defensive game, the Beavers had a slightly better offense, and that's something that could happen again.
While I'm somewhat worried Houston just played a 2-3 zone and Oregon State has been using that a lot, it's not like the Cougars are carving up opponents, failing to score more than 63 points in their last two. Then again, those were also two of their least-efficient offensive outings of the season, so there's a chance they go back to the norm in this game, which could lead to another double-digit win.
However, I can't get away from Beaver Fever. I think this is another game that should be competitive and low scoring, pointing to an Oregon State cover and the under.
Baylor -8 versus Arkansas, over/under 148
The numbers look weird for these teams and worse than the other six because they're winning despite not playing their best basketball of the season. While the Arkansas defense has been consistently solid, its offense has been a bit all over and had one of its least-efficient performances of the season against Oral Roberts. Oddly, the same can be said for Baylor, who have had two sub-par offensive outings in three tournament games. The difference in the numbers is that the Bears look like a dominant defensive team again after playing below average almost since Big 12 play started.
I think Arkansas's offensive inconsistencies combined with Baylor's improved defense is what will decide this game. There's a chance the Bears play a little slower to their advantage, but they're not afraid to play fast, which has me tentative on the over/under.
Either way, I think Baylor's consistency will be enough to win this game, and since Arkansas likes to go down double-digits almost every first half, a double-digit win is in play as the Bears are unlikely to give away a large lead like the others before them.
Gonzaga -9 versus USC, over/under 153.5
This is the game I'm probably most excited for because it presents two contrasting matchups, as Gonzaga is historically good from two-paint range and USC has a historically good two-point defense. The other part is that the Trojans have put together two of their best offensive performances of the season against Kansas and Oregon.
The Zags get the edge because they've yet to slip up and are consistently efficient on both ends of the court. However, if the Trojan towers of Evan Mobley and Isaiah Mobley present too much of a challenge inside and guys like Isaiah White and Tahj Eaddy continue to hit shots, an upset is in play.
But no matter how USC plays offensively, I think its defense could be enough to cover this game, especially with a spread near 10 points. According to their five-game averages, the spread should be closer to seven points and most of that difference is Gonzaga's offense.
I'm also kind of worried about Gonzaga's depth against a team that draws fouls from a number of positions. Drew Timme is a great player, but this is probably his toughest test of the season and if he can't get his usual buckets, that'll force everyone else on the team into uncomfortable situations they've rarely faced this season.
Michigan -7 versus UCLA, over/under 135.5
Even with the smallest spread, this seems like the game everyone is most confident in because Michigan hasn't lost a step without Isaiah Livers, while everything has seemingly gone right for UCLA up to this point. But even though the Bruins have been lucky, there's no denying their offense has figured things out over the last 10 or so games and their offensive metrics are closer to those of LSU, who gave Michigan some fits because of a variety of guys who could hit shots.
Similarly, UCLA has Jaime Jaquez, Johnny Juzang and Jules Bernard, all of them who have hit big shots in the tournament, along with Tyger Campbell who plays smart at point guard. Michigan's all-around game is the reason it's here, but that's kind of what UCLA has been doing on its winning streak. Yes, the Bruins are the worst defensive team remaining and won't have anyone to stop Hunter Dickinson, but their numbers are at least above average over the last three games.
So while I think this game has a chance to be close, it will require UCLA to continue its recent offensive barrage along with improved defense against one of the most-efficient offenses in the country. It doesn't help that the Bruins haven't faced a team with a player like Dickinson yet and no, Marcus Bingham doesn't count because he's almost 7-foot.