Teddy's Vegas Wiseguy Report: The Final Four
I’ve been writing about college basketball consistently since the Super Bowl, and there’s room for one last college hoops column this week. No, I’m not going to break down the NIT Final Four, the CBI ‘best of three’ series between Santa Clara and George Mason, or the CIT Championship Game between East Carolina and Weber State. This column is about the big boys!
Four teams have stood out above the rest on the biggest of stages over the past two weekends: Michigan, Syracuse, Wichita State and Louisville. Bracketologists might be surprised that only one of the top twelve seeds made it this far, with a pair of #4 seeds and a #9 seed joining the top overall seed Louisville in the Final Four.
But bettors know that seeding is essentially meaningless, especially when we’re talking about the bevy of quality teams in the Big Dance. That’s why we’ve seen lower seeded teams favored on more than a handful of occasions here in the tourney, like when Syracuse was the chalk against #3 seed Marquette, in one prominent example this past weekend.
Only one team can cut down the nets in Atlanta next Monday. This week, I’ll take a closer look at all four squads, assessing their chances moving forward. Teams are listed from ‘most likely to win it’ to ‘least likely to win it.”
Louisville is the favorite to win the title – bettors have to lay some juice (in the -140/-150 range) to support the Cardinals to win it all as of Monday morning. And frankly, Rick Pitino’s squad deserves that level of respect from the betting markets, given their level of play right now.
Louisville has been an undervalued commodity for more than a month, riding a 10-1 ATS mark in their last eleven ballgames. And the Cardinals have been pointspread machines in the postseason; 14-1-1 ATS in their last 16 Big East and NCAA Tournament games dating back to the start of the 2012 Big East Tourney. Their spotty shooting during the regular season has been a non-factor here in March, hitting better than 50 percent of their shots since the start of the Big East tourney.
Besides their pointspread success, Louisville has the personnel to give opposing head coaches nightmares. This is a deep, veteran group for Pitino. Senior point guard Peyton Siva has 22 steals in seven games since the start of the Big East tourney while dishing out 38 assists in the process. Siva didn’t have a single turnover in the Cardinals 22 point win over Duke.
Leading scorer Russ Smith, a junior, is averaging 26 points per game here in the tourney, pouring in at least 23 points in all four games. Junior Gorgui Dieng blocked eight shots in two games last weekend while pulling down 20 rebounds. The Cardinals have won the rebounding battle in all four tourney games, and their defense has been nothing short of stellar all season.
Here’s what I wrote in my ‘Who Has What It Takes to Win the Big Dance’ article a month ago, before Louisville’s current hot streak. “The Cardinals have star power, depth, experience and talent. They rebound, play defense and win games consistently away from home. Rick Pitino’s squad meets all the criteria that has been effective at predicting past championship. Plain and simple, Louisville has what it takes to win it all.” I still stand by that paragraph.
Michigan certainly has talent. Point guard Trey Burke will be a lottery pick in the upcoming draft. Glenn Robinson III should be a first rounder and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a likely second rounder. Mitch McGary led the team in both points and rebounds against VCU and fellow frosh Nik Stauskas hit 43% of his shots from three point land this year and led the team in scoring in their blowout over Florida. Stauskas, too, has an NBA future.
When we talk about the concepts central to March Madness success like ‘guard play’ and ‘fundamentally sound team basketball’, John Beilein’s squad is the poster child. Michigan doesn’t turn the ball over, values every possession and does all the little things right. Their offensive and defensive efficiency numbers are exceptional. That’s how Michigan has won and covered all four previous games over the first two weekends of the Big Dance, and why they are live to cut down the nets next Monday.
But Syracuse certainly isn’t going to roll over without a fight. And the Orange match up well with the Wolverines. Michigan’s Nik Stauskas isn’t going to get open looks from the corner against James Southerland or CJ Fair the way he did against Florida. Trey Burke will be up against the tallest opposing point guard he’s seen all year, NBA- ready sophomore Michael Carter-Williams. Rakeem Christmas can bang with McGary in the paint.
The Orange are the #1 ranked defensive team remaining in the postseason, holding foes under 37% shooting for the entire season. And they haven’t even gotten perimeter sharpshooter (and another guy who should be drafted this spring) senior Brandon Triche hot in the tourney yet – Triche was held to single digits twice in their last three games. It’s surely worth noting that Jim Boeheim’s squad is 7-1 SU and ATS in the last eight games that Triche has put up 15 points or more – he’s the real ‘X-factor’ against the Wolverines.
Last, but not least, we have my personal favorite team so far this NCAA Tournament, the Wichita State Shockers. I’ve been on Wichita in all four previous tourney games; so have my clients. And we’ve cashed with the Shockers as an underdog on the moneyline in three of those four contests. There’s been nothing fraudulent about Wichita’s impressive wins over Pitt, Gonzaga, LaSalle or Ohio State; the only team remaining in the field that knocked off both of the top two seeds in their region.
Wichita State won the NIT two years ago and had a Sweet 16 appearance a few years before that. Obviously, their game against Louisville on Saturday is a tough one – there’s a reason Greg Marshall’s squad is a double digit underdog, with the early ‘wiseguy’ money pouring in against Wichita. But the Shockers are a hard-working, physical team that maximizes their talent level. They embrace their blue collar nature; diving for every loose ball and battling for every rebound – essentially, a poor man’s Louisville!
The Shockers have depth, a ten deep rotation. They stay fresh down the stretch of tight games -- not a single player on the roster averages more than 29 minutes per game. And this quote from fellow Missouri Valley Conference head coach Geno Ford (Bradley) speaks volumes about their talent level for a ‘mid-major’ program.
"They're the best recruiters in the league. We're all out there recruiting. They just get the best players. They've been able to beat BCS conference schools for guys. Nick Wiggins could've gone to any BCS school in the country. (Cleanthony) Early turned down several BCS schools to go to Wichita.....Their length and athleticism are the primary concerns. They impact the game with that two ways. They're probably the best defensive team in the league, mixing athleticism with shotblocking and defensive rebounding."
Can Wichita beat Louisville in a best case scenario? More importantly, can they cover the pointspread? In a game that is likely to be rather ugly on the offensive end for both teams, Louisville certainly could struggle to pull away and win by margin. But if the Shockers fall behind early, they lack the requisite offensive playmakers to rally against a superior foe.
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These two teams are moving in opposite directions right now and I think those trends continue here. Columbus has lost seven straight, while behind the strong play of goaltender Corey Schneider the Devils are 6-1-1 in their last eight, most recently coming off a 3-1 home win over Central Division-leading Nashville on Tuesday. If history is any precedence, then New Jersey has to be loving its chances today as it's 6-0-1 with one tie at home in the all-time series vs. the Blue Jackets. The Devils have been particularly efficient on the penalty kill, staving off 21 of the last 22 chances, with Schneider posting a 1.33 GAA in the process. Schneider's numbers are equally as impressive against Columbus, he's 9-1-1 with a 1.71 GAA in 11 starts vs. the Blue Jackets life time, which includes a 33-save effort in last weekend's 2-0 road victory. Columbus comes in with zero momentum, it fell to 0-6-1 in its last seven after a 5-3 setback to Washington on Tuesday; note one big reason behind the Blue Jackets struggles is their inept power play, an NHL-worst 8.7 percent since the All-Star break. NEW JERSEY is now in the playoff hunt and I think is definitely worth the price of admission in this spot, but what do you think? Does the home side lay the hammer down, or can the Jackets score the upset?