We’re down to four games for spots in Atlanta in the Final Four. We’ll preview each of the four regional finals, and look back on the games from Thursday & Friday. The East & West finals go on Saturday, with the South & Midwest on Sunday.
Syracuse-Marquette (4:30 PM ET, CBS, Washington D.C.)
Marquette 71 Miami 61—This one was a victory for old-fashioned basketball. Miami shot the three-pointers, making 8-of-26, but Marquette played tougher defense, and shot 54 percent from the floor by working inside the arc. The loss of Hurricane center Reggie Johnson undoubtedly hurt, but there’s no explaining away the Golden Eagles’ defensive work on Durand Scott and Trey McKinney-Jones, who combined to shoot 6-of-23. A worst-case scenario for me, as my national championship pick gets taken out by the archrival of my favorite team (Wisconsin).
Syracuse 61 Indiana 50—Syracuse’s zone defense got the media attention in the aftermath of this game, and justly so. But we have to call out Tom Crean at least a little bit. It’s not like a 2-3 zone is on the cutting edge of basketball strategy and with five days to get ready, Crean should have been able to have his players a little more comfortable than they were. Yes, I know the Orange have great length and can cause problems. But it’s not like they’re unbeatable—Ohio State beat them in the regional finals last year and Wisconsin nearly upended the ‘Cuse in the Sweet 16—and it’s not like Indiana plays with a bunch of stiffs. Those who believe Crean’s coaching strength lies in his recruiting, not his ability to tactically plan for a game like this got a big boost to their argument.
THE SATURDAY FINAL: Syracuse is a 4 ½ point favorite, with a posted total of 127, and if you average that out, that’s an expected final score in Las Vegas of about 66-62. I’m going to disagree. My bracket blew apart here with Miami’s loss, and my hopes of a darkhorse run by Cal, so I can start fresh. I like the way Marquette is playing defense right now, they won’t be as adrift against the Syracuse zone and Vander Blue is comfortable with the ball in end-game situations. Marquette moves on to the Final Four.
Wichita-Ohio State (7:05 PM ET, CBS, Los Angeles)
Ohio State 73 Arizona 70—I’ve been picking against Ohio State the whole tournament, and they keep grinding out the wins. DeShaun Thomas had 20 points and the Buckeyes were more efficient offensively—they only attempted 13 treys and made 7, while Arizona went 6-for-18. What’s more pertinent is that no one is exploiting Ohio State’s vulnerability on the boards. Thomas only had one rebound, but none of the Wildcats’ big guys came up and cleaned the glass. It’s a disappointing end to a disappointing year in Tucson.
Wichita 72 LaSalle 58—Now Wichita cleaned the glass. Carl Hall had eight rebounds, along with 16 points and the Shockers had a big 44-23 edge in rebounding. It was a good all-around game by Wichita, but the bigger story was that LaSalle was clearly out of its league, and Wichita is an underrated team—including by me.
THE SATURDAY FINAL: Ohio State is a 6 ½ point favorite, and the total is up there a bit at 133, projecting out to a score in the neighborhood of 70-64. I know I shouldn’t keep going against the Buckeyes. They keep proving me wrong and Thad Matta does have a solid tournament track record. But I just can’t get past this team’s flaws, their narrow escapes and the relatively softer competition in this bracket that they’re doing it against. Of course Wichita as a regional final opponent meets the latter criteria, but I’m not ready to pick Ohio State. I’m leaning Wichita to be our surprise entrant in the Final Four, and definitely taking the Shockers against the spread today.
Michigan-Florida (2:20 PM ET, CBS, Arlington)
Michigan 87 Kansas 85 (OT): You don’t see high-caliber offensive basketball that often anymore, but that’s what went down here in arguably the best game of the tournament to date. Trey Burke nailed the NBA-range trey in the closing seconds of regulation to tie it, and than Kansas had a very poor possession at the end of overtime when they settled for a forced three-pointer to win after getting some penetration into the line that could have tied it. Burke is clearly the leader of the Wolverines, but it continues to be apparent that forward play is the key to their ultimate success. Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III combined for 38 points and 22 rebounds.
Florida 62 Florida Gulf Coast 50: The dream died hard for the FGC team that I joined most of America in adopting this past week—though unlike most of America, I picked them to win the first game and gave legitimate reasons for doing so (hey, I voluntarily eat crow on the many occasions when I’m wrong, don’t deny me the right to brag). But the Gators were too good defensively and the one thing that was apparent in watching the Gulf Coasters in their wins was that whenever they lost, it would be a 20-turnover game that did them in. They turned it over twenty times last night.
THE SUNDAY FINAL: It’s an even-up game and pretty much seen that way in Las Vegas, with Florida a one-point favorite. I haven’t seen a total posted yet, but I would imagine that question will ultimately determine the winner. If Michigan can push the tempo, they’ll win. If they bog down in the halfcourt, the Gators will be able to create problems. I had Michigan in the Final Four at the start of the bracket and certainly have no reason to change now. From a matchup standpoint, I feel like Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. can make Florida pay for their traps in the halfcourt much more effectively than the Gulf Coast guards and the Wolverines won’t be physically overmatched on the interior. In a matchup that sounds like it should be in the Capital One Bowl, Michigan goes on to the Final Four.
Louisville-Duke (5:05 PM ET, CBS, Indianapolis)
Louisville 77 Oregon 69: The good news for Louisville is that this one was not as close as the score sounds, and Russ Smith looks locked in, scoring 31 points. The bad news is that the ‘Ville did not play its usual trademark great defense—Oregon shot a respectable 44 percent—and Cardinal point guard Peyton Siva had a poor game and center Gorgui Deng a fairly pedestrian one. Both need to be a lot better on Sunday.
Duke 71 Michigan State 61: Another good news-bad news scenario, although any time you beat Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament, the good heavily outweighs the bad. Duke was outrebounded and needed a lights-out night from Seth Curry, who scored 29 points, to win this game. Ryan Kelly has been silent since his monster return game against Miami late in the regular season. Kelly had only seven points last night, and Mason Plumlee’s 14 points/7 rebounds makes him Duke’s answer to Deng—he needs to have more of an impact Sunday.
THE SUNDAY FINAL: Louisville is the betting favorite, giving 3 ½ points, and I’ve had Duke since the start of the tournament in this bracket. I just feel like Louisville’s portrait—its great defense, but smallish guards and questionable offense—are good enough to ensure they won’t get upset, but not good enough to beat a fellow national contender.
It’s the first NCAA Tournament matchup between coaching giants in Mike Kyrzyewski and Rick Pitino (DUH–they only met in the 1992 East Regional Final, arguably the greatest college basketball game ever played), and I’m calling this one for Coach K.
THESPORTSNOTEBOOK’S FULL DISCLOSURE
Two of my Final Four teams are still alive in Michigan and Duke, although the big one in Miami is out, along with an early exit by my longshot pick of Notre Dame. Part of the college basketball coverage here also involved hypothetical betting suggestions on futures. Here’s how those are looking, first the bets just to win regionals and the ones to win the national championship…
East: Lost Cal at 60-1
South: Lost Georgetown at 4-1
West: Lost Notre Dame at 25-1, Gonzaga at 9-4
South: Michigan at 5-1
Midwest: Duke at 3-1
West: Ohio State at 5-2
In case anyone is wondering why teams like Georgetown and Ohio State are on there, when I wasn’t picking them, that was part of a hedge strategy. In the case of the West Regional, the odds on Notre Dame were long enough, that I felt it prudent to also take out equivalent wagers (let’s say five bucks for the sake of discussion) on Gonzaga and Ohio State, where you at least break even if one of the favorites holds form. And I felt like if Georgetown escaped Florida Gulf Coast, they would reach the regional final and play Michigan, putting me in a no-lose spot if that matchup unfolded.
Lost: Indiana at 7-1, Miami at 8-1
Still Alive: Duke at 8-1
I took Indiana because that that number seemed pretty healthy for a team that was #1 in the country most of the year, even though I wasn’t necessarily sold.
If you run the math on all this and assume $5 a bet (I didn’t specify an amount, but trust me when I say my philosophy is to bet them all equally), that would involve an outlay of $50 on ten separate bets. This weekend is when I have to start collecting—I can recoup $25 on Michigan, $7.50 on Ohio State, and $15 on Duke. Then if Duke can win the national championship, that’s a potential $40 to be made. The money’s on the table now.