Top seeds finding a way to stay alive

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There’s little doubt that somewhere, some editor has the headline ready for next Tuesday’s newspaper or late Monday night’s website article reporting on the NCAA Men’s Basketball national championship game should Virginia capture its first title.

That headline will read: “From Infamy to Immortality.”

Recall that in last season’s Tournament, Virginia became the first and only No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16. Just one season later, the Cavaliers are just two wins away from winning the national title.

In this year’s Tournament, Virginia is the only No. 1 seed to reach the Final Four, defeating Purdue in overtime last Saturday to win the South Regional. Virginia was one of three No. 1 seeds from the ACC. Duke and North Carolina were the other two. The fourth 1 seed was Gonzaga.

Duke’s good fortune finally ran out. After barely escaping losses to both Central Florida and Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils fell in its Elite Eight game against Michigan State, the No. 2 seed in the East.

Virginia will face Auburn in the first of Saturday’s Final Four games in Minneapolis. Auburn has had perhaps the most impressive wins in the Tournament, having defeated college basketball royalty in its last three games with wins first over Kansas, then North Carolina, and finally Kentucky in last Sunday’s Midwest Regional Final.

To put that feat into perspective, fifth-seeded Auburn defeated the Number 1, 2 and 4 seeds en route to the Final Four with the win over Kentucky needing overtime.

In Saturday’s nightcap, second-seeded Michigan State will face Texas Tech, the 3 seed in the West which upset Gonzaga in the Regional Final.

The quality of play in the four Elite Eight games was of the highest quality. Not only were two of the games decided in overtime but all four were decided by six points or less. It provided the madness we come to expect every March.

Revised odds from the Westgate Las Vegas opened Virginia as +150 to cut down the nets Monday, followed by Michigan State at +175, Texas Tech at 4-1 and Auburn at 7-1.

At the start of the Tournament, there were several potential storylines that could have played out over Final Four weekend. Virginia’s bounce back from last season’s loss to 16-seeded UMBC was just one. Others included the possibility for the season to end the way it began where Kentucky and Duke could reach the Final Four. Duke had opened the season with a 34-point, neutral-court rout of Kentucky when Zion Williamson served notice that he was going to be one of the best freshmen of all time.

But Auburn saw to it that that repeat didn’t play out. Nor will we get to see Duke avenge its only pre-ACC loss to Gonzaga which defeated the Blue Devils in the Maui Classic championship game the day before Thanksgiving.

However, that does not mean a lack of other storylines surround this Final Four. Two of the teams – Auburn and Texas Tech – are each in the first Final Four. And a third team is also seeking its first championship as Virginia returns to its first Final Four since 1984.

Ironically, the season before that Final Four appearance, Virginia had the ignominy of having lost in Hawaii to Chaminade, an NAIA team in what was considered at the time the greatest upset in the history of college basketball. Virginia was the No. 1 ranked team in the nation at the time.

Michigan State is the lone team among this group to have won a national championship, having won the title in 2000 under current head coach Tom Izzo. 

Three issues back, I did predict that Michigan State would defeat Virginia to win the national title. So far, so good. I also predicted that Izzo would be the only coach in the Final Four to have previously won a championship. That is also true as Virginia coach Tony Bennett, Auburn’s Bruce Pearl and Texas Tech’s Chris Beard seeks their first.

However the two other coaches and teams I envisioned reaching this weekend were Kelvin Sampson of Houston and Eric Musselman of Nevada. Those predictions did not fare as well.

I’ll stick with my prediction of Michigan State over Virginia but I would not be at all surprised if either or both Auburn and/or Texas Tech pull upsets. 

On Saturday, I will be playing on one favorite and one underdog. In what handicaps as a low-scoring contest between Auburn and Virginia, the five points loom large. Especially when you factor in the lack of experience of both teams at this level of the tournament. Auburn +5 is an attractive take.

Consider that 15 of the tournament’s first 64 games have fallen within 2 points of the closing point spread. That’s astoundingly just under 25 percent of the games played!

Michigan State and Izzo have a huge edge in experience over Chris Beard and Texas Tech so I will be looking to lay -2.5 with the Spartans as there should be support in the markets for the underdog, Texas Tech. 

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About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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