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Using ATS records as tourney barometer

Mar 16, 2004 8:34 AM

No doubt "bracketologists" are filling in the sheets for office pools, parlay cards and futures bets. Thursday begins the Madness, guaranteed to have 63 teams eventually losing.

But, we don’t have to.

Here are some teams to hang you’re hat on as possible Final Four candidates, or at least some first round winners that hopefully will bankroll you to further rounds.

Gonzaga (27-2 SU, 17-11 ATS)

The Bulldogs won their fifth West Coast Conference championship in six years. Gonzaga enters the NCAA tourney riding a 20-game winning streak, including 19 double-digit victories since an 87-80 loss to Stanford back on Dec. 20.

The one close game occurred in the WCC semifinals when Santa Clara, on its home court, fell 63-62 as a 15-point underdog. Gonzaga’s other defeat was as a one-point favorite on a neutral court against St. Joseph’s in the season opener, 73-66. The Zags were double-digit favorites 20 times and a respectable 7-5 ATS outside the league.

West Coast bias probably has much to do with Spokane’s finest not garnering a No. 1 seed. Still, this is the deepest and best-balanced team Gonzaga has had and fully capable of going all the way. Cinderella no longer applies to this consistent, unheralded winner.

Liberty (18-14 SU, 0-1 ATS): The Religious Right is hot right now, which may explain how the Flames routed High Point by an astounding 45 points in the Big South Conference title game. Not much is known about Liberty, making just its second visit to the Big Dance.

In fact, only twice all season did the Las Vegas books put a point spread on a Liberty game. The Flames were 0-1-1, pushing against Duke as a 29-point underdog (76-47) and losing to Seton Hall as 17½-point dog (65-47). Liberty also fell to NCAA-bound Arizona by 16, but did manage to score 91 points.

No team seeded No. 16 has ever won a first-round NCAA tourney game, but we see the Flames as a very live underdog. I don’t care who it is, winning a league title game by 45 is impressive. Liberty can’t move with Duke, but it’s no statue either.

Xavier (23-10 SU, 17-14 ATS): If ever a team benefited from a conference tournament it was the Musketeers. The X-men closed the season with six consecutive wins and covers, including a stunning 87-67 triumph as a 7½-point dog over previously unbeaten St. Joseph’s in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals.

The Musketeers were an easy pick in the A-10 tourney, going 13-1 both SU and ATS since a Jan. 31 loss as a 3-point road dog to Dayton, 74-67. During that run have come wins and covers against C-USA champ Cincinnati, St. Joe’s and Dayton twice, including the A-10 championship game.

While most of the attention will be on St. Joseph’s, it could very well be Xavier that wiseguys should back in the NCAA tourney. This is a longshot capable making the Final Four. Take those points, if they’re available.

Northern Iowa (21-9 SU, 18-10 ATS): Momentum is everything coming into the NCAA tournament and this is the Missouri Valley Conference’s hot commodity. UNI has won eight in a row, going 7-1 ATS during that streak.

In the league tournament, the Panthers upset both Southern Illinois (68-52) and Wichita State (63-56) as 3-point underdogs. Still it took a 79-74 win as a pick’em over Southwest Missouri State in the MVC title game to earn a berth to the NCAA’s. The Panthers are in our book the best team in Iowa, beating the Hawkeyes as a 6-point dog (77-66) and covering against Iowa State as a 10-point road dog (losing 79-76).

A knock against UNI could be its lack of games outside the Midwest, but the resume is solid against teams that have made an impression in past NCAA tourneys. Critics could point to non-conference losses to Butler (56-54) as a 1½-point dog, and Creighton (58-47) as a 10½-point dog, but this will be a loose group that figured not to be dancing.

Washington (19-11 SU, 18-12 ATS): Nobody in November gave the Huskies any chance of making the NCAA tournament, but just ask Stanford and Arizona about this bunch.

Though, the Cardinal avenged their only loss with a win over UW in the Pac 10 title game, the Huskies enter the NCAA’s with a 9-2 SU mark over the last 11 games. Washington has reeled off seven straight "covers" during that stretch, before the setback to Stanford.

The Huskies are one team where seeding and region placement could be critical. Washington began the season going 1-5 ATS, which included failures against Portland State, Cal-Riverside, Wyoming and Houston. The Huskies also lost big as a 5-point dog to Gonzaga, 86-62. But if you go by the "what have you done for me lately approach,"

Washington has done a lot — like home and away wins at Arizona.

Nevada (23-8 SU, 19-9 ATS): A Nevada team will be dancing among the 64, and it’s not UNLV. Reno gets a big boost from the Wolf Pack, which finished the regular season with a seven-game winning streak that included a victory in the WAC title game over Texas-El Paso.

During the seven-game run, which includes a current 6-0 ATS mark, Nevada has not allowed more than 64 points. In fact, UNR is 13-3 ATS in its last 16 games. These Wolf Pack lack the prestige and recognition value of North Carolina State, but they definitely belong in this year’s NCAA tournament.

Nevada earned early respect back on Nov. 24 after defeating UNLV at Thomas & Mack as a 2-point dog, 74-62. One month later came arguably the biggest win in school history, a 75-61 decision against Kansas as a 6-point home dog. The Pack also "covered" in a 93-79 loss at Connecticut as a 17-point dog. The WAC was especially strong this season so look for Nevada to make some noise.