NCAA Tournament Preview: Providence vs. Kentucky

NCAA Tournament Preview: Providence vs. Kentucky

Kentucky Wildcats vs. Providence Friars

Line: Kentucky -4.5

Total: 143.5

Where: Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, North Carolina

When: Friday, 3/17 at 7:10 p.m. ET

TV: CBS

No. 6 seed Kentucky will try to put last year’s disastrous opening-round performance in the rearview mirror when it faces No. 11 seed Providence on Friday night.

The Wildcats were upset by No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s in the first round last year, and they have another challenging opponent to open the 2023 NCAA Tournament. Providence reached the Sweet 16 last season before losing to eventual national champion Kansas.

Kentucky opened the campaign as one of the favorites to win the title at 10-1, but the Wildcats are 35-1 at FanDuel heading into the first round. Providence has been hovering around the 100-1 mark for most of conference play, and it is 150-1 as of Thursday morning.

Caesars Sportsbook opened Kentucky as a 4.5-point favorite. The number moved to -4 but is back up at -4.5 as of late this morning. The total opened at 144.5 points, but it’s down to 143.5.

Providence has gone ‘over’ in six of its last seven games, while Kentucky has gone ‘over’ in nine of its last 12.

The Wildcats were one of the preseason favorites because of reigning Wooden Award winner Oscar Tshiebwe’s decision to return to school. He flew under the radar with another fantastic statistical season, averaging 16.5 points and a nation-best 13.1 rebounds, but the Wildcats were just 16-9 through their first seven games.

They responded with five wins in their final seven games to solidify their spot in the NCAA Tournament field, with both losses coming against Vanderbilt in a 10-day stretch earlier this month. Guard Sahvir Wheeler has missed the last nine games due to an ankle injury, but he is ‘questionable’ for Friday night’s game.

“I think that we have players on the team that love the game and know that even though the season’s winding to an end that it was a long season and we still had time,” Kentucky forward Lance Ware said. “It was just weeks ago when they said that we wouldn’t even be in the tournament.”

They are getting set for a matchup that Friars coach Ed Cooley referred to as “divine providence.” Bryce Hopkins, who began his career at Kentucky last year before transferring to Providence, leads the Friars with 16.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, earning first-team All-Big East honors.

“I can’t wait to prepare for them and play them,” Hopkins said. “I’ll say hello after the game, but before the game, I’m gonna be locked in.”

The Friars need to lock back in after losing four of their last five games, with two of those setbacks coming by 18-plus points. They had their Big East Tournament hopes crushed in a 73-66 loss to UConn last Thursday, with Hopkins scoring 16 points and grabbing seven rebounds.

This matchup features a pair of teams whose identities have been on the offensive end of the court this year. Kentucky ranks No. 14 in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency ratings, while Providence is No. 16. The Friars are an undersized team at No. 277 in average height, but they are No. 16 on the offensive glass.

Tshiebwe has made a living in the paint all year, leading a Kentucky team that ranks second in offensive rebounding. The Wildcats will be seeking improved shooting numbers, as they are No. 149 in effective field goal percentage. Neither defense has been particularly good, with Kentucky at No. 77 in efficiency and Providence at No. 106.

The Wildcats have covered the spread in five of their last seven games, but they are 1-5 ATS in their last six games in March. Providence is 1-4 ATS in its last five games—Kentucky has gone ‘over’ in 14 of its last 17 games as a favorite.

The pick: Providence +4.5

One of my core betting principles has become fading John Calipari in the NCAA Tournament. Tshiebwe is going to put up numbers—he almost always does—but he had 30 and 16 against Saint Peter’s last year and it still wasn’t enough. This is a tricky matchup against a scrappy Providence team that is led by a proven head coach. The ‘Hopkins vs. his former team’ storyline will get plenty of attention, but I’m more interested in focusing on how good Providence has been on the boards, despite being an undersized team. Kentucky has been far too inconsistent to back at this price on Friday night.

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