In this post-PASPA era, sports betting is becoming increasingly acceptable along social/political lines. To feed the growing beast, below is an in-depth preview of this year’s Final Four. #FadeTheNoise or #FollowTheNoise is entirely up to you and, as always, this is a tout-free zone.
Game 1: Auburn vs. Virginia
Trendy trends: Auburn is 7-1-2 ATS in its past 10 games; Virginia is 25-11 ATS on the season
Consensus line/total (from Sports Insights): Virginia -5.5, 131
Persevering through profuse Bruce Pearl sweats, catastrophic injury and general adversity, the Tigers have impeccably played the role of underdog. Similar in style and substance as the Kemba Walker-led 2011 UCONN team, Auburn caught fire in its conference tournament and has fanned the flames ever since scorching New Mexico St., Kansas, North Carolina, and SEC rival Kentucky to reach Minneapolis. Without Chuma Okeke, who tore his ACL against UNC, can it possibly continue to stave off elimination?
Virginia, meanwhile, made it to the Land of 10,000 lakes via more conventional means. The Cavs experienced a brief scare from Gardner-Webb, but handled more formidable opponents Oklahoma, Oregon and, in a heart-stopper, Purdue. After last season’s historic UMBC disaster, Tony Bennett no longer has a 500-pound gorilla on his back.
What will the Final Four’s opening act come down to? Here are four areas to watch:
1) Pace command. This matchup is a classic contrast in styles. Auburn relishes playing at a breakneck speed. It flies in transition, converting on quick-trigger threes and flashy dunks. However, Virginia, which ranks No. 353-of-353 in adjusted tempo, prefers to move unhurriedly. As evidenced against Purdue, the Cavs are capable of shedding their tortoise disposition, but dominating the action with a methodical half-court pace best suits them and is their likely game plan.
2) Rock protection. Auburn, which is the nation’s pacesetter in turnover percentage defense (24.9), most often manufactures transition opportunities via opponent mistakes. The problem for the Tigers: UVA rarely shoots itself in the foot. On the year, the Cavs turned it over on just 14.7 percent of their possessions. If the Tigers want to continue their postseason prowl, they must force at least 15 turnovers.
3) Extending the pack line. The impenetrable nature of Virginia’s scheme is well documented. It’s an arduous chore to score inside or accumulate second chances against it. For Auburn to be successful on offense, it must do what it does best: Carpet bomb. Draining 12.8 made threes per game in their past nine contests and stroking money balls at a ridiculous 38.3 percent clip on the season, the Tigers are entirely capable. Its foe, however, ranks No. 3 nationally in three-point percentage D on the season (28.7%).
4) Guardians of the (Hoops) Galaxy. The battle between Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome vs. Bryce Brown and Jared Harper will be a throw-down of epic proportions. All can pile up points whether off the dribble, along the arc or at the line. Guard play is everything in March and it explains why both teams are still dancing. It will also determine each school’s national title fate.
Bottom line, if Auburn drains 15 treys and cultivates double-digit turnovers against the disciplined Hoos and yours truly will chug multiple Orange Vanilla Cokes. It’s been a riveting run for the Tigers, but this where they reach the end. Sorry, Chuckster. Virginia, consistently the most well-oiled team across-the-board this season, ranking top-five in offensive and defensive efficiency, is simply too balanced. Even if Guy and Jerome have average performances, Mamadi Diakite and De’Andre Hunter are sure to wreck havoc.
My pick: Virginia -5.5 (-105), Virginia 68-61 final
Additional action: Virginia -2.5 first half (-110), UNDER 131 (-110)
Game 2: Texas Tech vs. Michigan St.
Trendy Trends: Tech is 12-2 ATS in its last 14 games; State is 27-11 ATS on the season
Consensus line/total (from Sports Insights): Michigan St. -2.5, 132.5
At first blush, this matchup features a battle between a tranquilized grizzly bear and a parked Winnebago— a pair of immovable objects which could only be displaced by a sonic force. After all, Texas Tech has hit the under in three of its last four games; Michigan St. five in its past six contests.
With the Red Raiders No. 1 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, yielding a minuscule 0.84 points per possession and Sparty not far behind at No. 8 in the category, the assumption is whoever blinks last will ultimately prevail. Though true to some degree, this clash of defensive titans will be determined in four key ways:
1) Turnover battle. When it comes to applying on-ball pressure, Chris Beard’s kids are a flock of Marvel super fans determined to score a pair of first-showing “Avengers: Endgame” tickets. They pester, annoy and inevitably force mistakes. On the year, opponents have coughed it up 23.1 percent of the time against them. Sparty, which at times has struggled with turnover bouts (e.g. 22 TOs vs. Minnesota in the Round of 32), must shackle the rock.
2) Paint command. Due to the length of Nick Ward, Xavier Tillman, Kenny Goins and Aaron Henry, Michigan St., unsurprisingly, thrives around the basket. It generates a second chance on 34.2 percent of its possessions, often cashes in on point-blank put-backs and seals off the interior defensively (No. 2 in 2PT% D). Tech did a magnificent job collapsing and swarming inside on Gonzaga. Tariq Owens and Norense Odiase must exhibit a similar effort for the Red Raiders to advance.
3) Jarrett Culver vs. Cassius Winston. The NBA prospects are sure to showcase their wares soon on another big stage. The former, currently the frontrunner for Player of the Year according to KenPom’s advanced metrics, is a smooth-shooting wing who peppers opponents with mid-range jumpers, transition daggers and the occasional three. The latter, meanwhile, is one of college basketball’s premier distributors. He’s No. 2 nationally in assist rate, is a stout defender and converts 40.4 percent from distance. Which star shines brightest is sure to prove pivotal.
4) X-factors. On the Tech side, Davide Moretti is the country’s best free-throw shooter (92.2%) and one of the deadliest arc assassins (46.3 3PT%). South Dakota transfer Matt Mooney is a jack of all trades. Meanwhile, for Sparty, Matt McQuaid, who shoots 42.2 percent from the arc, is capable of scoring outbursts. Goins has been clutch in various ways. And Aaron Henry recently became the last player since Grant Hill in 1994 to post 20 points, eight rebounds and six assists in a Sweet Sixteen game. Among the unheralded, whoever steals the show could push his club over the top.
Bottom line, after a delightfully entertaining Elite Eight, Tech/State, and their brilliant coaches, should pick up where that round left off. Beard might just be the next Tom Izzo, an ascending skipper soon to earn legendary status. Due to his team’s unselfishness, balance and scoring upsurge (1.17 pts/poss in its last 12 games), it will find a way to march on, or at least cover.
My pick: Texas Tech money line (+140), Texas Tech 66-64 final
Additional action: Texas Tech first half +1.5 (-110), UNDER 132.5 (-110)
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