I’ve been writing about college basketball consistently
since the Super Bowl, and there’s room for one last college hoops column this
week. No, 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 on the biggest of
stages over the past two weekends: Michigan, Syracuse, Wichita State and
Louisville. Bracketologists might be
surprised that only one of the top twelve seeds made it this far, with a pair
of #4 seeds and a #9 seed joining the top overall seed Louisville in the Final
But bettors know that 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
Only one team can cut down the nets in Atlanta next
Monday. This week, I’ll take a closer
look at all four squads, assessing their chances moving forward. Teams are listed from ‘most likely to win it’
to ‘least likely to win it.”
Louisville is the
favorite to win the title – bettors have to lay some juice (in the -140/-150
range) to support the Cardinals to win it all as of Monday morning. And frankly, Rick Pitino’s squad deserves that
level of respect from the betting markets, given their level of play right
Louisville has been an undervalued commodity for more than a
month, riding a 10-1 ATS mark in their last eleven ballgames. And the Cardinals have been pointspread
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 here in March, hitting better than 50 percent of
their shots since the start of the Big East tourney.
Besides their pointspread 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 points
per game here in the tourney, pouring in at least 23 points 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
Here’s what I wrote in my ‘Who Has What It Takes to Win the
Big Dance’ article a month ago, before Louisville’s current hot streak. “The Cardinals have
star power, depth, experience and talent. They rebound, play defense and
win games consistently away from home. Rick Pitino’s squad meets all the
criteria that has been effective at predicting past championship. Plain and simple, Louisville has what it takes to win it all.” I still stand by that paragraph.
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.
certainly isn’t going to roll over without a fight. And the Orange match up well with the
Wolverines. Michigan’s Nik Stauskas isn’t
going to get open looks from the corner against James Southerland or CJ Fair
the way he did against Florida. Trey
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 #1 ranked defensive team remaining in the
postseason, holding foes under 37% shooting for the entire season. And they haven’t even gotten perimeter
sharpshooter (and another guy who should be drafted this spring) senior Brandon
Triche hot in the tourney yet – Triche was held to single digits twice in their
last three games. It’s surely worth
noting that 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.
Last, but not least, we have my personal favorite team so
far this NCAA Tournament, the Wichita State
Shockers. I’ve been on Wichita in all
four previous tourney games; so have my clients. And we’ve cashed with the Shockers as an
underdog on the moneyline in three of those four contests. There’s been nothing fraudulent about Wichita’s
impressive wins over Pitt, Gonzaga, LaSalle or Ohio State; the only team
remaining in the field that knocked off both of the top two seeds in their
Wichita State 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 Wichita. 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 ten 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. And this quote from fellow Missouri Valley Conference
head coach Geno Ford (Bradley) speaks volumes about their talent level for a ‘mid-major’
best recruiters in the league. We're all out there recruiting. They just get the
best players. They've been able to beat BCS conference schools for guys. Nick
Wiggins could've gone to any BCS school in the country. (Cleanthony) Early
turned down several BCS schools to go to Wichita.....Their length and
athleticism are the primary concerns. They impact the game with that two ways.
They're probably the best defensive team in the league, mixing athleticism with
shotblocking and defensive rebounding."
Can Wichita beat Louisville in a best case scenario? More importantly, can they cover the
pointspread? 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.