Daily Dunk: Best College Basketball Bets on Sweet 16 Thursday (Trust Favorites)

College basketball betting preview, prediction and best bets for Sweet 16 Thursday, including how to bet Iowa State vs. Illinois.

Mar 23, 2024; Charlotte, NC, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels guard RJ Davis (4) against Michigan State
Mar 23, 2024; Charlotte, NC, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels guard RJ Davis (4) against Michigan State / Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The NCAA Tournament resumes action on Thursday night with a quartet of high level games.

The top of the West Region held serve with the No. 1 seed North Carolina set to face No. 4 Alabama on Thursday with a spot in the Elite Eight on the line while No. 6 Clemson faces a steep step up in No. 2 seed Arizona.

Both favorites have my attention in the West Region games, but the most intriguing game on Thursday will be the East Region semifinals between No. 2 Iowa State and No. 3 Illinois in a battle of the best defense (Iowa State) vs. the best offense (Illinois).

Season Long Record: 209-206-9, +9.81U

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Best College Basketball Bets Today

  • North Carolina/Arizona ML Parlay
  • Iowa State (-120) ML vs. Illinois

Alabama vs. North Carolina Prediction and Pick

Alabama’s suspect defense is ripe to be exposed against the Tar Heels. The Crimson Tide are outside the top 100 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency and are a poor matchup against North Carolina’s physical and rim-running offense. 

The Tar Heels are an elite offensive rebounding team with positional size all over that does a good job of getting to the free throw line. The two-man game of RJ Davis and Armando Bacot helped the Tar Heels get efficient looks from all over the floor, but also rank inside the top 80 nationally in both offensive rebounding rate and free throw rate. 

Meanwhile, Alabama is outside the top 200 in defensive rebounding rate and also has an opponent free throw rate outside the top 300 nationally. The Crimson Tide’s inability to keep teams off the free throw line will have the Tar Heels generating easy buckets all game. 

Alabama’s offense is elite, but North Carolina does a fine job of defending the 3-point line and funneling teams inside to the likes of Bacot. Further, Alabama will struggle to generate second chances against UNC’s top 10 defensive rebounding rate. 

I believe UNC can win the free throw battle and also find more second chances to out-pace the Crimson Tide and advance. 

With the number pushing past four ahead of tip-off in Los Angeles, I'm opting to pair it with Arizona moneyline.

Clemson vs. Arizona Prediction and Pick

Clemson’s offense has been dynamic all season, capable of scorching the nets from the perimeter with the likes of Joe Girard shooting 41% from distance with PJ Hall plays inside and out, but the concern has constantly been the defense. 

The Tigers don’t turn you over, bottom 25 in the country in TO%, but its compact nature has been able to turn teams into jump-shooting outfits and outlast its opponent in that style of game. 

The Tigers are a middling transition defense, and also can’t stop post-ups. The team is 46th percentile in terms of points allowed per possession on post-ups, per Synergy Sports, which is a big issue against Ourmar Ballo and Arizona. Hall and fellow big man Ian Schieffelin are the only two who can hang on him, but the Tigers have been prone to foul trouble in the front court. 

Clemson may be able to hang around if its shots are falling, but the team’s inability to slow down Arizona around the rim or in the open court will lead to this game getting out of hand. 

The Tigers were able to catch Baylor on an off-shooting night as the team shot 25% on 3-point shots and 61% from the free-throw line but did let the Bears shoot 50% on twos. Arizona is a more dynamic offense than the Bears, who are far more reliant on its jump shooting. I think this is a big step up in class and Arizona rolls to the Elite Eight. 

I'd prefer to avoid laying the points here given Clemson's ability to shoot to stay within striking distance, but I believe the Wildcats advance to the Elite Eight.

PICK: North Carolina/Arizona ML Parlay (+106)

Illinois vs. Iowa State Prediction and Pick

This is a battle of clashing styles, the best offense in the nation taking on the best defense.

Let’s start with when Iowa State has the ball. The team is a capable 3-point shooting outfit but would prefer to get to the rim, outside the top 300 in 3-point rate. Illinois does a great job of running teams off the perimeter, top 10 in opponent 3-point rate, and using its length to contest mid-range jumpers.

However, the Fighting Illini defense has proven to be incredibly unreliable despite plenty of length and sound rebounding. The team is a poor transition defense, grading out “below average” in the open court, per Synergy Sports, allowing more than one point per possession. If Iowa State can run off misses, this can be where it thrives, grading out as one of the best offenses in transition all season, 91st percentile while shooting over 59% in these situations. 

Further, Illinois is bottom three in the country in turnover percentage, its inability to force turnovers has led to plenty of high-scoring affairs. 

But, this is the best offense in the country. Illinois has plenty of positional size with Hawkins operating as a point center of sorts and Terrance Shannon Jr. and Marcus Domask providing plenty of relief as downhill threats that get to the basket and go to the free-throw line at a high clip. 

The Fighting Illini are 31st in effective field goal percentage and are elite at grabbing their misses, 16th in offensive rebounding rate. The unit is potent but also hasn’t seen a ball-pressure defense like Iowa State’s before. 

The Cyclones are second in the country in turnover percentage, forcing TOs on more than a quarter of its defensive possessions. It’s worth noting that the elite turnover-minded defenses have thrived against Illinois in terms of forcing turnovers. 

In five games against teams inside the top 40 nationally in turnover rate, Illinois went over its season-long average in all of them, and over 20% in four of them, going just 3-2. 

While the Fighting Illini play a five-out offense that can give them advantages in isolation situations, the team's lack of a true point guard may be exposed against this rugged Cyclones defense.

I trust Iowa State’s defense to slow down Illinois while finding enough answers to pull out a win, especially given the unique nature of its defense.

PICK: Iowa State ML (-120)

Game odds refresh periodically and are subject to change.