Houston vs Northern Kentucky March Madness Betting Preview
Top-Seeded Cougars Begin Quest for First NCAA Title
First-round NCAA Tournament play begins Thursday, with top-seeded Houston vs. No. 16 seed Northern Kentucky in Birmingham, Ala. Tip-off is scheduled for 9:20 p.m. on TNT. The winner will move on to face either No. 8 seed Iowa or No. 9 seed Auburn in the second round of the Midwest Regional on Saturday.
Houston is currently a 19.5-point favorite and -2800 on the moneyline. The over/under is 122.5.
Houston Cougars: No. 1 Seed Gunning for NCAA Title
This is Houston’s fifth straight NCAA Tournament appearance, excluding 2020, and the 24th all-time. The Cougars are a No. 1 seed for the first time since 1982-83, when they made their first of back-to-back trips to the national championship game. As a No. 5 seed last year, they reached the Elite Eight and lost to second-seeded Villanova, 50-44.
How They Got Here
On the heels of its highest preseason ranking since 1983-84, Houston started 9-0 and was among the country’s best teams all season. The Cougars climbed from No. 3 in the Associated Press poll to No. 1 by December and stayed within the Top 5 along the way to a 31-3 finish.
The Cougars were a lock for a No. 1 seed and may have locked up the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed if not for a 75-65 loss to Memphis in the American Athletic Conference Tournament championship game. Their only other two losses came against Alabama and Temple.
Houston has spent the last two weeks back atop the AP poll and is also ranked No. 1 in both the NET and KenPom.
How Far Can They Go
It’s title or bust for Kelvin Sampson and Co. At +650 odds to win March Madness, Houston and Alabama share the shortest national championship odds. Assuming AAC Player of the Year Marcus Sasser returns from his groin injury, which kept him out of the AAC final, the Cougars should have a relatively smooth path to the Elite Eight, where No. 2 seed Texas may await. And from there, all that’s between them and their first national championship is two wins in the Final Four, which coincidentally will be in Houston.
Northern Kentucky Norse: Horizon League Champs Massive Underdogs
Northern Kentucky transitioned to Division I in 2012 and reached the tournament in their first year of eligibility in 2017. It lost to Kentucky in the first round that season, then fell again in the 2019 round of 64 to Texas Tech. This will be the school’s third tournament appearance.
The Norse did reach the national championship game in back-to-back seasons at the Division II level, losing in both 1996 and 1997.
How They Got Here
The Norse won their final two regular season games, then beat Oakland, regular-season champion Youngstown State and Cleveland State to win the Horizon League Tournament as the No. 4 seed. In doing so, they captured the league’s automatic berth. Coming out of a one-bid league, that was their only path to the Big Dance.
How Far They Can Go
Since the NCAA Tournament expanded in 1985, No. 1 seeds are 147-1 in the opening round. The only No. 16 seed to ever knock off a No. 1 was UMBC against Virginia in 2018.
Predictably, most of those were blowouts. In fact, prior to UMBC’s upset, the last 1/16 game to have been decided by a single possession was Purdue-Western Carolina in 1996, when the Boilermakers won 73-71.
So, basically, Northern Kentucky has a chance to win here, but not really.
Handicapping The Game
Let’s face it, Houston vs Northern Kentucky is a massive mismatch. At 19.5 points, Houston is currently the second-biggest favorite of the first round behind No. 1 seed Kansas, a 20.5 point favorite over Howard.
Northern Kentucky is a respectable 22-12, but it hasn’t played, let alone beaten, anyone in Houston’s weight class. The Norse faced only two Quad 1 opponents in Washington State and Florida Atlantic and lost to both by double digits. Outside of Cincinnati, the Norse didn’t even record any non conference wins of note.
Furthermore, the Norse haven’t seen a pressure defense like Houston’s. The Cougars have made a living on suffocating opponents, holding them to the second-fewest points per game (56.5) behind North Texas. They also rank second in opposing field goal percentage (36.4) and are 23rd in blocks per game (4.8). It’s shaping up to be a nightmare matchup for the Norse, who rank 217th in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom.
The Cougars should overwhelm Northern Kentucky will their speed, length, and physicality, even without Sasser. Star guard Jamal Shead and AAC Freshman Player of the Year Jarace Walker are talented enough to carry the load in Sassers’ absence, especially in this instance. With five players averaging between 9.9 and 17.1 points, per college basketball stats, depth isn’t an issue for Sampson’s team.
When assessing the lines for Houston vs. Northern Kentucky, know that the Cougars are 18-16 against the spread. The Norse, meanwhile, are just 14-18 against the spread.
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