We're now down to the cr¿me de la cr¿me of college basketball teams. We've moved from the Field of 65, to the Sweet 16 to the Elite Eight and now to the Final Four.

Although the two best teams in the country according to my power ratings (Kentucky and Arizona) didn't make it to this weekend's games, Kansas, Texas, Marquette and Syracuse are all quality teams that can win the whole tournament. My power ratings for these teams are: Kansas a 3, Texas a 5, Marquette a 7 and Syracuse an 8.

Three of the four teams had a large regional advantage in last weekend's games. Only Kansas played in an arena not populated by a majority of the team's fans. In New Orleans, Texas will clearly have the crowd behind them, since most of their fans can simply drive to New Orleans in less than a day.

Here's a summary of the point-spread results for the semifinal and final round of the NCAA basketball tournament for the last six years.


Favorites in Final Four
Against the Spread
Year Semifinals Finals
2002 0-2 1-0
2001 2-0 1-0
2000 2-0 1-0
1999 1-1 0-1
1998 0-2 1-0
1997 1-1 0-1
1996 0-2 0-1
Totals 6-8 4-3

Again, there's no clear pattern other than that the favorite has won and covered the point spread in the championship game in the last three years. Here are my selections for the semifinals and the championship game.

The Winners Are ...

Marquette +$1.80 (money line) over Kansas. Kansas is a 4 1/2-point favorite over Marquette. However, if you think Marquette can win the game straight up, you can make a bet to win $1.80 for every dollar that you bet on what is called the money line. I've gone back and forth on this game for most of the week and have finally come to the conclusion that I don't think the points will matter in this game. So I'm taking Marquette to win the game straight up.

Kansas deserves kudos for their consecutive victories over Duke and Arizona last weekend. But I think this week will be different for the Jayhawks, for a number of reasons. Marquette has been a solid team all season. Dwayne Wade has emerged as a certain NBA first-round draft pick. He reminds me very much of Phoenix's Shawn Marion and has the versatility to score in a variety of ways. Kansas has two solid NBA draft choices in Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich, but beyond those two players, their scoring options are very limited. If either Collison or Hinrich gets into foul trouble, the Jayhawks will be in trouble.

The Golden Eagles have more offensive weapons than Kansas. Travis Diener is a point guard who can also score if necessary, while Scott Merritt and Robert Jackson both average more than 10 points a game and can take turns banging bodies with Collison. Steven Novak, a 6'10" freshman, will also be a difficult matchup for the Jayhawks, since he has made a remarkable 55-out-of-104 (52%) three-point shots this season. Both Roy Williams and his team are also bound to be distracted by the continuing speculation this week as to whether Williams will take the now-vacant North Carolina coaching job.

Marquette must not run with Kansas and must get back on defense to eliminate transition baskets. In a half-court game, the Golden Eagles are superior to the Jayhawks, in my opinion. Whether they'll be able to keep the game at a moderate pace is the $64,000 question. I'm betting that former Michigan State assistant Tom Crean can get his team to slow down the tempo and spring the upset.

Texas -3 (points) over Syracuse. Both of these teams enjoyed tremendous regional home crowd advantages last week. This week only one of the teams will have the majority of the crowd with them. With a week to prepare for the Syracuse 2-3 zone and a coach who used to coach in the Big East and saw the zone on a regular basis, I think Texas will be able to cover the spread against the Orangemen.

Naismith award winner T.J. Ford is one of the best point guards in the country, and he'll penetrate the 2-3 zone. Once that penetration is accomplished, a kick out to the three-point shooters Sydmill Harris (38%), Byron Mouton (40%) or Brian Boddicker (43%) should produce uncontested shots. If Syracuse maintains outside coverage to stop the three-point shooters, Ford should be able to dish to center James Thomas, who's making more than 50% of his shots this season, for a high percentage layup.

There's no question that this Syracuse team's zone is a class above most other team's 2-3 zone because of the exceptional quickness of the Orangemen and the presence of an "eraser" in the middle of that zone in Jeremy McNeil, who has blocked 98 shots this season. Syracuse held its opponents to less than 40% shooting during the regular season and has held its first four opponents in the NCAA tournament to 36% shooting. Nevertheless, I think Texas will be able to score against the Orangemen defense.

On offense, Syracuse can put up points, with NBA lottery pick Carmello Anthony leading the way on the inside and Gerry McNamara leading the way on the outside. Yet the Orangemen are a very young team, with only one senior (Kueth Duany) on the roster. With the crowd being pro-Texas and the pressure of the Final Four, I think the young Syracuse team may falter in this contest, and I'll lay the three points with the Longhorns.

In the championship game on Monday night, I project that Texas will be a three-point favorite if they play Marquette and a one-point underdog if they play Kansas. If the line on the game is off by two or more points from my projected line, I'll be betting on the team offering the greater value.


Who will win the NCAA Championship?

Kansas
Texas
Syracuse
Marquette
View the results w/out voting
Barry Lieberman was a litigator with the U.S. Department of Justice for nine years and is currently the general counsel for a company that operates four hotel/casinos in Las Vegas. He has been an amateur gambler for more than 20 years. He welcomes your feedback at Vegasvice@aol.com.