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 in the Big Dance over the past two weekends: Michigan, Syracuse, Wichita State and Louisville. Bracketologists might be surprised only one of the top 12 seeds made it this far, with a pair of No. 4 seeds and a 9 joining the No. 1 overall Louisville in the Final Four.
But bettors know 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.
Here’s a closer look at all four squads, assessing their chances moving forward. Teams are listed from “most likely to win it” to “least likely.”
Louisville is the favorite to win the title – bettors had to lay some juice (in the -140/-150 range) early in the week to support the Cardinals. 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 11 games. And the Cardinals have been point spread 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 in March, hitting better than 50 percent of their shots since the start of the Big East tourney.
Besides their point spread 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 ppg in the tourney, pouring in at least 23 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.
Standing behind what I wrote a month ago, Louisville has what it takes to win it all.
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.
Syracuse certainly isn’t going to roll over without a fight. And the Orange match up well with the Wolverines. Stauskas isn’t going to get open looks from the corner against James Southerland or CJ Fair the way he did against Florida. 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 top ranked defensive team remaining in the postseason, holding foes under 37% shooting for the entire season. And they haven’t even gotten perimeter sharpshooter (another guy who should be drafted this spring) senior Brandon Triche hot yet. Triche was held to single digits twice in their last three games. 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.
Wichita State is my personal favorite so far this NCAA Tournament. I’ve been on the Wheat Shockers in all four previous tourney games as have my clients. We’ve cashed with the Shockers as an underdog on the money line in 3 of those 4 contests. There’s been nothing fraudulent about Wichita’s impressive wins over Pitt, Gonzaga, LaSalle or Ohio State.
Wichita 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 them. 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 10 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.
Can Wichita beat Louisville in a best case scenario or cover the point spread? 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.