Early Madness: Our Magnificent 7

Mar 9, 2004 7:30 AM

So who’s going to win it all?

March is here and you know what that means. Hoop heaven for basketball fans, with a nonstop cornucopia of tournament games around the clock. Here’s a look at some of the top teams that will try and survive toward the Final Four and beyond.

Stanford: Would you believe this team was 40-to-1 at the start of the season? Stanford has rolled through the Pac 10, outscoring its opponents by a blistering 75-60 average. The defense has been strong all season, behind its big frontcourt of 6-foot-8 junior Josh Childress and 6-10 Rob Little. The ”˜D’ has helped Stanford go 10-5 "under" the total.

Sophomore Chris Hernandez and senior Matt Lottich have been unselfish all season. Hernandez has averaged close to five assists per game, while Lottich is just below four. The Cardinal have been a great example of what the term "undervalued" can mean in sports betting circles: During its 25-0 start, Stanford was 18-6 against the spread, including 8-1 on the road.

St. Joseph’s: There’s an old adage that guard play is king when March rolls around. You need to have at least one quality ball-handler during tournament play, and St. Joe’s happens to have two great guards in senior Jameer Nelson (20 ppg) and junior David West (18.9 ppg). Both players average roughly five assists per game and hit over 40 percent from three-point land.

A key piece of the puzzle has been 6-foot-11 sophomore Dwayne Jones, who leads the team in rebounds and frees up the guards to run the court. A 27-0 regular season is certainly impressive, but how about 15-0 SU and 8-5 ATS on the road? The Hawks hope to make a better March run than a year ago, when they lost 65-63 to Auburn in the first round as a 3-point favorite. St. Joe’s was 75-to-1 to win the NCAA title back in November.

Mississippi State: What a combination of offense and defense the Bulldogs have. Mississippi State is the fifth best defensive team in the SEC, holding opponents to 40 percent shooting, and the offense is ranked second in scoring and shooting, just behind Florida. This team was rebuilding to start the season, which is why State was 80-to-1 back in November.

The Bulldogs got a huge lift from Baylor transfer junior Lawrence Roberts. The 6-9 forward is a strong low post player, shooting 54 percent, averaging 17 points and grabbing 10 rebounds per game. Speaking of undervalued, the Bulldogs are 18-4 ATS and a remarkable 9-0 on the road! They’re certainly not intimidated playing away from home, which will be a huge plus in the tourney.

Gonzaga: The Zags were 28-to-1 before the season began and didn’t disappoint, rolling through the West Coast Conference regular season at 14-0. In fact, they only lost two regular season games, a 73-66 season-opening setback to St. Joe’s and an 87-80 defeat at Stanford. Those were the only two undefeated teams during the season!

Coach Mark Few has a strong backcourt with sweet-shooting senior Blake Stepp, and a monster frontcourt with 6-8, 250-pound senior Cory Violette and 6-9 junior Ronny Turiaf. Gonzaga is 11-2 SU and 9-4 ATS on the road. They will be fun to watch in March — unless you happen to be playing them.

Duke: The Blue Devils learned to play on the road this season, something that was a weakness a year ago. After going 5-7 SU, 4-7 ATS on the road last season, Duke went 8-2 SU and 6-4 ATS away from home this year. As usual, Coach Mike Krzyzewski has tons of depth, with J.J. Redick, Daniel Ewing, senior Chris Duhon and 6-8 freshman Luol Deng, who has lived up to the high expectations.

Duke plays terrific defense at home (59 ppg allowed), but surrenders nearly 70 on the road. This is important for "totals" bettors. The "under" was 6-4 in games at Cameron, but away contests were 6-3 "over" the posted total.

Pittsburgh: No one likes to play the Panthers and their aggressive, pounding defense.

Pitt is No. 1 in the Big East allowing 56.9 ppg. They like to play the muscle game with 6-7 Chevon Troutman and 6-10 freshman Chris Taft up front, while last season’s Big East tournament MVP Julius Page (12 ppg) provides senior leadership.

The big guys are the reason Pitt finished second in the Big East in rebounding differential, with +6.5 boards per game. Like last year, poor team free throw shooting is a weakness. The Panthers shoot 64 percent from the line, tenth in the Big East. Failure to hit a late free throw was a factor in the first home loss in 40 games recently and could be a factor in close tourney games.

Connecticut: Jim Calhoun’s Huskies were a preseason No. 1. They didn’t play as well as some had perceived, hence the 9-16 record ATS. Still, this is a formidable, talented team anchored by 6-9 junior Emeka Okafor, who is a dominant low post player (19 ppg, 11 rpg).

UConn is No. 1 in the Big East with a +9.7 rebounds edge on opponents per game. They have plenty of backcourt depth, too, with junior Ben Gordon (17 ppg) and senior Taliek Brown (6.8 apg). Like Pitt, UConn was poor from the free throw line (60 percent), finishing 13th in the Big East. That could hurt in close games.