As long as junior point guard Ty Lawson is at full speed, North Carolina will be tough to slow the next two weeks.
A toe injury to Lawson threatened the Tar Heels' run in the NCAA Tournament. But Lawson returned to action Saturday, played superbly and made certain North Carolina remained in the favorite's role.
The Tar Heels are the 2-1 pick to win the national championship, according to Las Vegas Sports Consultants. If the first two rounds of the tournament showed anything, though, it's that the race will be tight to the finish.
"What strikes me is just how competitive and how vulnerable every team is, and there is no clear-cut favorite," LVSC odds director Tony Sinisi said. "North Carolina doesn't look indestructible. I certainly wouldn't bet my mortgage on the Heels.
"You could make the case for a lot of teams, but I might take a shot with Connecticut."
After 48 games from Thursday through Sunday, the Sweet 16 is set with few surprises. Fourteen of the remaining teams are seeded No. 4 or better. Only Purdue, No. 5 in the West, and Arizona, No. 12 in the Midwest, overachieved by definition of their seeding.
But the Boilermakers were just 11/2-point underdogs in their second-round win over Washington.
The Wildcats closed as slight favorites in each of their victories over Utah and Cleveland State.
"The cream does rise to the top when it comes right down to it," Sinisi said. "The better teams may struggle, but they typically do advance."
The Big East Conference has five teams still standing -- top seeds Connecticut, Louisville and Pittsburgh are joined by Syracuse and Villanova, both No. 3 seeds.
"If I had one thought going into this tournament that has been validated, it's the Big East is the best league," Sinisi said. "Those teams are just battle tested."
In the tournament's first round, underdogs posted a 17-14-1 record against the spread. The favorites rebounded to go 11-5 in the second round for an overall edge of 25-22-1, based on closing numbers.
Connecticut is a 61/2-point favorite over Purdue on Thursday in Glendale, Ariz. Sinisi said he favors the Huskies, who easily covered their first two NCAA games.
"You've got a top-echelon Big East team against the questionable Big Ten," Sinisi said. "I don't think Purdue has seen anything like (Hasheem) Thabeet and Connecticut."
LVSC made Memphis a 6-point favorite over Missouri in the other matchup at University of Phoenix Stadium. The line was 41/2 offshore Sunday night, but Sinisi said, "I anticipate Memphis money."
In Thursday's games in Boston, Pittsburgh is an 8-point favorite over Xavier, and Duke is a 2-point favorite over Villanova.
"I think Duke is vulnerable, like everybody else," Sinisi said. "The Blue Devils are a great 3-point shooting team, but height-wise they are challenged. In my mind, it's about a tossup."
LVSC opened Louisville as a 9-point favorite over Arizona on Friday in Indianapolis. Last week, Sinisi adjusted his power ratings on every NCAA Tournament team, and the Wildcats did not make his top 30.
"I thought Arizona had a very fortuitous draw," Sinisi said. "I have a hard time seeing Arizona winning that game against Louisville."
Michigan State is a 1-point favorite over Kansas in the other matchup in Indianapolis.
In Friday's games in Memphis, Tenn., North Carolina is a 9-point favorite over Gonzaga and Oklahoma a 1-point favorite over Syracuse.
Sooners star Blake Griffin averaged 30.5 points and 15 rebounds in victories over Michigan and Morgan State.
"I actually can make a strong case for Syracuse, because it's a Big East thing," Sinisi said. "But it's hard to knock Oklahoma. Griffin is the one player nobody can stop."
Lawson scored 23 points, 21 after halftime, as North Carolina rallied from a five-point deficit midway through the second half to beat eighth-seeded Louisiana State 84-70 in the second round. The Tar Heels, favored by 12, got what Sinisi called a "miracle" cover.
"Gonzaga typically doesn't play great defense and wants to run, and that's what North Carolina wants to do," he said. "The Tar Heels have superb talent, but they don't always play to that talent. Lawson is the glue to that team."
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907.