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I don’t know about you, but I believe today is the best sports day of the year because you have baseball’s Opening Day to go along with the end of college basketball’s season. Shoot, this year we’ve even got Tiger Woods facing the full media for the first time. The TV will be on all day!
But, obviously, the big event from a betting standpoint is the college basketball national championship game between Duke and Butler. The Bulldogs, whose campus is about six miles from Lucas Oil Stadium, should have a major home-court advantage in terms of fan support. Plus, it’s not like many Americans have much trouble rooting against Duke anyways.
However, Butler could be at a major disadvantage because starting center Matt Howard appears to be a game-time decision after suffering the "mildest of mild concussions" in Saturday’s Final Four victory over Michigan State. That Butler beat the Spartans with just 15 minutes, four points and two rebounds from Howard – the team’s third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder -- is fairly shocking. But the Blue Devils will kill the Bulldogs on the boards without Howard (he’s easily the team’s most physical presence) as Butler isn’t a great rebounding team as it is and doesn’t have anywhere near the height that Duke does. And I question if Butler can find enough offense overall after shooting just 30.6 percent against Michigan State. Star Gordon Hayward likely will need to have his best game of the year to keep it close, and guard Shelvin Mack will need to be money from the three-point line – he is 13-for-18 from the arc in this tournament.
This certainly should be a battle of opposites, as the Bulldogs are the fourth team in NCAA tournament history (first since 1985) to hold their first five opponents under 60 points. The Dukies are a Top 25 scoring team in the nation behind the trio of Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, college basketball’s highest-scoring threesome. The Blue Devils led wire-to-wire in their semifinal against West Virginia and shot a stellar 52.7 percent from the floor. Scheyer had been off from the floor in the first three rounds of this tournament but has found himself by totaling 43 points in the past two games. The Big 3 had 63 points against WVU, which had only 57 as a team. If Scheyer, Singler and Smith are all on again, Butler has no chance.
But Butler deserves to be here, as it is on the nation’s longest winning streak at 25 straight. The Bulldogs have not lost since Dec. 22, when they dropped a 10-point decision at UAB. Butler, the Horizon League regular-season and tournament champ, held Michigan State to its second-lowest point total of the season (50) and had a whopping 12 steals. The Bulldogs have held 12 of their last 13 foes below 60 points and are 20-0 this season when holding their opponent below 60 points. They also take care of the ball, as Butler has had 10 or fewer turnovers in four of the five games in this tournament. The Bulldogs had a 20-2 advantage over Michigan State in points off turnovers. They simply must win the turnover battle tonight.
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The pick: Everyone says that this isn’t a “Hoosiers” story because Butler was a preseason Top 11 team. But its basketball budget is $1.7 million and this is its first national title shot. Duke, with its 15 Final Four appearances and three national titles, has a basketball budget of $13.8 million. So I believe the David vs. Goliath angle still works. Thus, this would have to go down as one of the biggest upsets in finals history, although still not on the level of Villanova over Georgetown or N.C. State over Houston. I don’t think there’s much doubt that Duke wins this game, however. But eight points is too many (that’s the line at Bodog), whether Howard plays or not. And the ‘under’ of 129 seems like perhaps the best bet of all.