Major conferences tend to rule
Final 4

Feb 10, 2004 8:52 AM

It’s not too soon to formulate your brackets for the Final Four.

Since 1992 when Cincinnati finished third in the NCAA basketball tournament, only three times have final Four teams not come from the six power conferences ”” Big East, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 10 and SEC.

One of those occasions was last year when Marquette (Conference USA) finished fourth. The others were Utah (1998, Mountain West) and Massachusetts (1996, Atlantic 10). This information narrows the choices on your futures bets, which is all that anyone can ask.

The Atlantic Coast Conference has not gone back-to-back years without at least one team in the Final Four during this period. Thus, it’s a good bet the ACC will be represented this year because the league was shutout last season.

Stanford and St. Joseph’s are the only two remaining Division I unbeaten teams, but neither is accustomed to regular appearances in the Final Four. The Cardinal, which pulled off a great escape last Saturday against Arizona, haven’t danced in the NCAA semifinals since 1998.

St. Joe’s, part of the Big Five of Philadelphia city basketball, has been out of the mix for 43 years (1961). The Hawks finished third that year to eventual champ Cincinnati. In fact, three of the four semifinalists came from outside the Super 6.

Perhaps a foreshadowing of this year? Certainly, there are plenty of capable teams to choose from. Off the top, we recommend Louisville, Gonzaga, Southern Illinois, Utah State, Cincinnati, Southern Illinois, Western Michigan, Creighton, Dayton, Texas El Paso, and even Air Force.

No school outside the Super 6 conferences has reached the championship game since UNLV won the title in 1990 over Duke. These trends are interesting to research, but difficult to guarantee.

After all, the cast of individual characters never last longer than four years. The teams listed in our breakdown have, in general, a pretty good track record of reaching college basketball’s Holy Grail, but that doesn’t assure championships.

It wouldn’t be a total shock to see another Syracuse emerge ”” one that wasn’t ranked at this time last year only to make a run that culminated in a national championship. We offer Michigan State as a candidate to pull a John Kerry and rise up from the great abyss in the next few weeks.

The ATS trail

Continuing with our unending search to provide you with avenues for winning, both betting with and against certain teams, here are five more schools to consider.

NC STATE (14-5 SU): The Wolfpack are 11-4 ATS, including a stunning 8-1 in the murderous Atlantic Coast Conference. State has covered its last five games, including an impressive 79-63 win at Virginia as a 2½-point favorite. To win at Charlottesville as a road favorite, really caught our eyes.

SO. ILLINOIS (18-2): The Salukis don’t get the notoriety being in the Missouri Valley Conference, but their one-point victory over league rival Creighton as a 3½-point underdog was exceptional. Both those MVC teams will be in Big Dance, mark our words. SIU is 9-3 in the league and is on a 10-game winning streak. Look for more.

UTEP (17-4): The Miners are running neck and neck with Hawaii in the WAC, with both teams hopefully heading to the NCAAs. Bob Knight and Texas Tech gets the ink in West Texas, but El Paso has to be excited about this bunch. UTEP is riding a five-game win streak, including four straight covers.

CITADEL (4-17): Definitely a bet-against here. The gym, once known as "Animal House" for its rabid following of cadets, is now a tomb. The Bulldogs are a pathetic 1-12 ATS, including 1-9 in the Southern Conference. Even Wofford, a former NAIA school, beat Citadel by 10 points last Saturday.

WRIGHT ST (12-10): The Raiders would have to win the Horizon League tournament to make the NCAAs, but they carry one of the nation’s top marks against the number. State is 14-6 ATS and 10-2 in the league. The Raiders come off a 72-66 loss to conference leader Wisconsin-Milwaukee as an 11½ point road underdog.

UPDATE: Cornell has kept up its run of covers in the Ivy League, and Penn is on the rise. Gonzaga continues to breeze through West Coast Conference.