NCAA Basketball Betting and Handicapping: Scouting the Week Ahead
by Alan Matthews - 3/25/2014
If you had told me that the Big Ten could have three Final Four teams before the NCAA Tournament began last Thursday, I would've said that wouldn't totally floor me. And indeed it still is possible with East No. 4 Michigan State, Midwest No. 2 Michigan and West No. 2 Wisconsin alive. After all, the Big Ten was probably the second-deepest conference this season.
If you had told me half the Final Four could be made up of Big 12 teams, I could have seen that too. It was by most accounts the deepest conference in the land and got the most bids with seven. We could see both Iowa State and Baylor in Dallas, although I can't say I expected the Bears to get there.
What I definitely could not have expected was three SEC and three Pac-12 teams still left in the Sweet 16. Those were easily the two worst BCS conferences in the land outside of their two powerhouse teams, Florida and Arizona. In fact, we are guaranteed at least one SEC Final Four team if both Tennessee and Kentucky pull upsets this weekend of Michigan and Louisville, respectively. Ditto the Pac-12 if No. 4 UCLA upsets No. 1 Florida in the South and No. 10 Stanford beats No. 11 Dayton in the most unlikely matchup of the Sweet 16.
By far the most disappointing conference has been the ACC, which I liked as the one with the best chance of cutting down the nets with four legit contenders -- or so I thought -- in No. 1 Virginia. No. 3 Duke, No. 3 Syracuse and No. 6 North Carolina. Only the Cavaliers remain, and they are two-point underdogs to the Spartans on Friday night. Reportedly UVa is only the second top seed to be a Sweet 16 underdog in the past 22 years. The last was Washington in 2005 against No. 4 Louisville, and the Huskies were soundly beaten in that game.
Florida was the NCAA Tournament favorite before it began and has done nothing to change that, now +350 at BetOnline. I could easily see UCLA pulling the upset as a 4.5-point underdog Thursday. Remember how the 1990-91 UNLV team blew just about everyone out of the water in the regular season but lost in the Final Four in a rare close game? Florida's season has been very similar in a lack of crunch-time games.
Michigan State is the +450 second favorite but hasn't looked totally overpowering in wins over Delaware and especially Harvard. That said, Virginia was trailing No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina by double digits in the first half of the Cavaliers' opening game. I'd be rather surprised if MSU-Virginia isn't the lowest-scoring game in the Sweet 16 with a total of 127. Arizona-San Diego State has a lower total at 121.5, but they combined for 129 points in a nine-point Arizona win at SDSU on Nov. 14. The Wildcats have looked arguably the most impressive thus far as they thumped a good Gonzaga team in the Round of 32. The Cats have jumped Louisville (+500) at +475 on the national title odds. No other team is below +1000.
Louisville-Kentucky is the other regular-season rematch in the Sweet 16, and the Cardinals are five-point favorites even though they lost fairly soundly in Lexington in late December. I believe that will be the highest-scoring game of the weekend with both teams pressuring each other like crazy. The total is 138.5, behind only UConn-ISU at 146.
It looks as if the No. 2 seed drought continues as that seed hasn't won a title since 2004. At best only one can make the championship game as Wisconsin and Michigan would have to meet in the Final Four, but I see neither getting there. Tennessee looks like great value to cut down the nets right now at +2800 as the Vols are rolling. UT is just a 1.5-point dog against Michigan.
My updated Final Four picks are Florida, Michigan State, Arizona and, yes, Tennessee. The Vols are my only change from the start of the tourney. UT will beat Michigan and then a very physically and emotionally gassed UofL-Kentucky winner.
Most Outstanding Player
I can see why the books release Most Outstanding Player odds now , because it gets you to bet on guys who won't even make the Final Four and it's like found money for the sportsbooks. Remember, that award is for the Final Four, not the entire tournament. Your only value for betting now is getting longer odds on some guys, but you are throwing away money on a lot of them.
Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin is the +700 favorite, followed by Louisville's Russ Smith, who might have won it last year if not for a terrible championship game against Michigan. Michigan State's Adreian Payne and Gary Harris and Arizona's Nick Johnson (all +1000) round out the favorites.
Payne had the game of the tournament thus far with 41 points in the opener against undersized Delaware. I say MSU has the clearest path to the Final Four -- I project wins over No. 1 Virginia and No. 3 Iowa State (which lost one of its best players, Georges Niang, to a season-ending injury in the Round of 64) -- so I'd probably lean Payne. Should Sparty face a smallish team, Payne, at 6-foot-10, can post up. Against a big team (like Arizona) or a zone, he can also hit from 3-point range. Louisville's Luke Hancock is +1800 to repeat. He was the first reserve to win MOP but starts now. Hancock led Louisville with 21 points in the Round of 32 win over Saint Louis. No one has repeated as MOP since UCLA's Bill Walton in 1972-73.
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