Glass slipper should fit Belmont perfectly

clarkno1Devastation of apocalyptic proportions in Japan (which followed recent horrific natural disasters in New Zealand, Chile and Haiti). The U.S. economy still in the tank. The NFL in the midst of a work stoppage with no end in sight. Charlie Sheen quickly fading from the national consciousness.

Pretty depressing world we’re living in these days. And so we look for distractions, which is why the good Lord created novelists, treadmills, amusement parks, booze, Internet porn … and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

This week, in celebration of the latter, tens of thousands of hoops junkies from all corners of the country will infiltrate Las Vegas sports books for a four-day college basketball bender. Over the course of 48 games, we will ingest copious amounts of artery-clogging grub and wash it down with enough beer to make Norm from Cheers look like a lightweight. We will wager—often more money than we should—on our alma mater and bet against the schools we hate (read: Duke!). And we will attempt to turn those wagers into winners as only men can: by screaming at television sets and peppering our commentary with language that would make Chris Rock cringe.

In other words, welcome to what sociologists would surely dub the grandest of all male-bonding experiences (at least where a brass pole isn’t involved).

Wherever you choose to partake in the Madness, here’s hoping the weekend ends with more money in your pocket than you started with! (Note: I went 5-1 on NBA plays last week, winning $177 to push my bankroll up to $6,656.)

$550 (to win $500) on BELMONT (+4½) vs. Wisconsin (March 17 at 4:25 p.m.): Belmont is 0-3 all time in the NCAA Tournament, losing opening-round games in 2006, 2007 and 2008. Wisconsin is in the Big Dance for the 13th consecutive year, and the Badgers are 8-1 in their last nine opening-round contests. So why is Wisconsin barely favored here? Because smart bettors are aware that Belmont—with its explosive offense, stingy defense and experienced roster—has the look of a team that could be wearing Cinderella’s slipper by week’s end.

The Bruins are 30-4 and come into the tournament on a 12-game winning streak, having won the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament’s automatic bid with an 87-46 rout of North Florida on March 5 (it was the 19th time in 34 games that Belmont scored at least 80 points). Meanwhile, Wisconsin closed the regular season with a 93-65 loss at Ohio State, then went one-and-done in the Big Ten tournament with an embarrassing 36-33 loss to Penn State as a 7½-point favorite.

While the Badgers have had a lot of opening-round tournament success lately, it hasn’t always been easy. Two years ago, they needed overtime to beat Florida State 61-59, and last year they barely got past Wofford 53-49 (failing to cover as a 10-point favorite) before getting destroyed by Cornell 87-69 in the second round. And in 2008, another small school (Davidson) sent Wisconsin packing in the Sweet 16 (73-56), making the Badgers 1-4 against the spread in their last five NCAA Tournament games.

Last week I mentioned how nine No. 13 seeds have advanced to the second round since 2001. Does Belmont make it 10? I think so.

$220 (to win $200) on GEORGE MASON (-1½) vs. Villanova (March 18 at 11:10 a.m.): Villanova has as much business being in this tournament as Dina and Michael Lohan have of co-hosting a class on parenting. After starting the season 16-1, the Wildcats went 5-10 the rest of the way, losing their last five, including a shocking 70-69 loss to South Florida as a 9½-point favorite in the opening round of the Big East tournament.

Not only did Villanova stumble to the finish line, but you would’ve been better off investing with Bernie Madoff the last couple of months than the Wildcats, who cashed just once in their last 13 games, failing to cover in their last nine. George Mason, on the other hand, had the best point-spread record in all of college basketball (22-8 ATS). And prior to getting upset by Virginia Commonwealth in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, the Patriots were riding a 16-game winning streak (which pushed the Patriots into the Top 25).

Last year, as a No. 2 seed, Villanova barely survived against Robert Morris in the first round (winning 73-70 in overtime) before getting knocked out by St. Mary’s. Now the Wildcats are a No. 9 seed (clearly not as good as last season) and facing a George Mason squad that’s better than Robert Morris or St. Mary’s were a year ago.

$220 (to win $200) on OAKLAND (+9½) vs. Texas (March 18 at 9:15 a.m.): Last year, my biggest opening-round play was on Texas as a 5½-point favorite against Wake Forest. Result? Wake Forest 81, Texas 80 in overtime. I knew when I made the pick that I was violating one of March Madness’s 10 commandments—“Thou shalt not lay points with a Rick Barnes-coached team in the postseason”—and I paid the price for it. Not this year, as I’m more than happy to fade Texas (which split its last eight games) and back an Oakland squad that—like fellow No. 13 seed Belmont—can pile up the points and has the potential to spring the outright upset.

The Golden Grizzlies averaged more than 85.6 ppg this season, including more than 91 ppg during a season-ending eight-game winning streak. In fact, since a 92-63 loss at Ohio State on Dec. 23, Oakland is 18-1 straight up and 13-4-1 ATS—all in the role of favorite—and scored at least 82 points in 17 of those 19 games.

Another reason to like the Golden Grizzlies: They don’t figure to be blinded by the Big Dance spotlight, as their nonconference schedule included NCAA Tournament teams Ohio State, West Virginia, Purdue, Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State and Tennessee (with Oakland upsetting the Volunteers). Oakland also covered in six of its last eight games as an underdog and 14 of its last 18 at neutral sites, and the Grizzlies will be looking for redemption after a poor showing in last year’s tournament (an 89-66 loss to Pittsburgh).

$110 (to win $100) on Missouri-Cincinnati OVER 138 (March 17 at 6:50 p.m.): Most parents have to threaten their kids with bodily harm (or worse, the removal of electronic devices) to get them to eat vegetables. I mention that because it’s analogous to how Missouri treats defense—that is, they’d just as soon not bother with it. Missouri last week gave up 84 and 86 points in two Big 12 tournament games against Texas Tech and Texas A&M (neither of which is very prolific offensively), and over its past five games surrendered 77.8 ppg and allowed opponents to make 48.4 percent of their shots (42.5 percent on 3-pointers).

Thankfully for the Tigers, they make up for their defensive indifference with offensive aptitude, averaging 81.4 ppg and scoring 70 points or more in all but three contests this season. Cincinnati is the complete opposite of Missouri (all defense, little offense), but that changed a bit down the stretch. The Bearcats scored 67 points or more in four of their last seven games, and with the exception of two wins over Georgetown (when they allowed 46 and 47 points), Cincinnati yielded 71.6 ppg in the final three weeks of the season.

Finally, these teams historically have put on a show come NCAA Tournament time, as 11 of Missouri’s last 13 tourney games and eight of Cincy’s last nine have gone over the total.

BEST OF THE REST: March 17 – BYU (-8) vs. Wofford ($44); UC Santa Barbara (+12½) vs. Florida ($44); Bucknell (+10½) vs. Connecticut ($33). March 18 – Xavier (-2) vs. Marquette ($55); Washington -5½ vs. Georgia ($55); UNLV (-1½) vs. Illinois ($44); Hampton (+22½) vs. Duke ($33).

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