Final Four: Madness Ends in the Big Easy

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 andnow to the Final Four.

Although the two best teams in the country according to my powerratings (Kentucky and Arizona) didn't make it to this weekend's games,Kansas, Texas, Marquette and Syracuse are all quality teams that can winthe 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 lastweekend's games. Only Kansas played in an arena not populated by a majorityof the team's fans. In New Orleans, Texas will clearly have the crowdbehind them, since most of their fans can simply drive to New Orleans inless than a day.

Here's a summary of the point-spread results for the semifinal andfinal 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 wonand covered the point spread in the championship game in the last threeyears. 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 thegame straight up, you can make a bet to win $1.80 for every dollar that youbet on what is called the money line. I've gone back and forth on thisgame for most of the week and have finally come to the conclusion that Idon't think the points will matter in this game. So I'm taking Marquette towin the game straight up.

Kansas deserves kudos for their consecutive victories over Duke andArizona last weekend. But I think this week will be different for theJayhawks, for a number of reasons. Marquette has been a solid team allseason. Dwayne Wade has emerged as a certain NBA first-round draft pick. Hereminds me very much of Phoenix's Shawn Marion and has the versatility toscore in a variety of ways. Kansas has two solid NBA draft choices in NickCollison and Kirk Hinrich, but beyond those two players, their scoringoptions are very limited. If either Collison or Hinrich gets into foultrouble, the Jayhawks will be in trouble.

The Golden Eagles have more offensive weapons thanKansas. Travis Diener is a point guard who can also score if necessary,while Scott Merritt and Robert Jackson both average more than 10 points agame 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 hasmade a remarkable 55-out-of-104 (52%) three-point shots this season. BothRoy Williams and his team are also bound to be distracted by the continuingspeculation this week as to whether Williams will take the now-vacant NorthCarolina coaching job.

Marquette must not run with Kansas and must get back on defense toeliminate transition baskets. In a half-court game, the Golden Eagles aresuperior to the Jayhawks, in my opinion. Whether they'll be able to keepthe game at a moderate pace is the $64,000 question. I'm betting thatformer Michigan State assistant Tom Crean can get his team to slow down thetempo 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 forthe Syracuse 2-3 zone and a coach who used to coach in the Big East and sawthe zone on a regular basis, I think Texas will be able to cover the spreadagainst the Orangemen.

Naismith award winner T.J. Ford is one of the best point guards in thecountry, and he'll penetrate the 2-3 zone. Once that penetration isaccomplished, a kick out to the three-point shooters Sydmill Harris (38%),Byron Mouton (40%) or Brian Boddicker (43%) should produce uncontestedshots. If Syracuse maintains outside coverage to stop the three-pointshooters, Ford should be able to dish to center James Thomas, who's makingmore 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 abovemost other team's 2-3 zone because of the exceptional quickness of theOrangemen and the presence of an "eraser" in the middle of that zone inJeremy McNeil, who has blocked 98 shots this season. Syracuse held itsopponents to less than 40% shooting during the regular season and has heldits first four opponents in the NCAA tournament to 36% shooting.Nevertheless, I think Texas will be able to score against the Orangemendefense.

On offense, Syracuse can put up points, with NBA lottery pick CarmelloAnthony leading the way on the inside and Gerry McNamara leading the way onthe 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 thepressure of the Final Four, I think the young Syracuse team may falter inthis contest, and I'll lay the three points with the Longhorns.

In the championship game on Monday night, I project that Texas will bea three-point favorite if they play Marquette and a one-point underdog ifthey play Kansas. If the line on the game is off by two or more points frommy 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.

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