Imagine if the NFL’s conference championship games in January had the Steelers and Jets battling for the AFC title while the Panthers and Lions were clashing for the NFC crown. Or picture a bikini contest down to the last four contestants, with Minka Kelly and Brooklyn Decker on one side of the stage … and Susan Boyle and Rosie O’Donnell occupying the other. Even better, how about a Last Comic Standing competition where the winner of Chris Rock vs. Jerry Seinfeld faced the winner of Dane Cook vs. Pauly Shore (or Gallagher … or Carrot Top … or any female comedian ever).
The reason for such a hypothetical? So you can fully comprehend the improbable reality that is this year’s Final Four, which features two national powers (Connecticut vs. Kentucky) on one side of the bracket opposite two schools that aren’t exactly on the public’s radar (Virginia Commonwealth vs. Butler). Not that I’m complaining. Oh sure, the 23 brackets I filled out are a bigger mess than downtown Tripoli, Libya, but I’m hardly alone there. Besides, I always root for March Madness chaos (after all, isn’t the world a happier place when Duke loses?), and, boy, did we get chaos this year.
To review: For just the third time since the current seeding format was adopted in 1979, not one No. 1 seed reached the Final Four. This is also the first year the national semis don’t include at least one No. 1 or No. 2 seed. Furthermore, of the 11 Big East teams that qualified for the NCAA Tournament (the Big East was regarded by many as the nation’s top conference this season), only two advanced past the first weekend (the same number as the Mountain West). And perhaps most startling of little-known facts: Butler now has as many Final Four appearances in the past 12 months as Texas, Louisville and UNLV have combined for over the last 20 years.
So how will this zany three-week event end? Well, given how unconventional the tournament has been to this point, the logical move would be to pick the Butler-VCU winner to cut down the nets in Houston. That said, I’m putting my money on the team that’s won all 12 of its neutral-site games this season, the team that has the best player remaining in the tournament and the team that last week gave me my biggest win in the history of this column ($880 to win $800)—a win that highlighted a 5-3, $619 week and pushed my bankroll to $6,961.
$440 (to win $400) on UConn (+2) vs. Kentucky (April 2); $100 (to win $180) on UConn (9-to-5) to win the national championship: With all due respect to Kentucky, which is riding a 10-game winning streak and has ripped off consecutive victories over West Virginia, Ohio State and North Carolina to reach its first Final Four since 1998, I’m not stepping in front of the UConn freight train. The Huskies won nine straight games over 19 days from March 8-26, beating Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville on consecutive days in the Big East tournament, followed by Big Dance victories over Cincinnati (another Big East squad), San Diego State (a team that was 34-2, with both losses to BYU) and Arizona (which 48 hours earlier dismantled top-seeded Duke, 93-77).
Even though UConn failed to cover in its Elite Eight victory over Arizona (65-63 win as a 3½-point favorite), the Huskies are still 8-1 against the spread during their nine-game winning streak, not to mention 9-1 ATS in their last 10 nonconference games, 7-2 ATS in their last nine NCAA Tournament contests, 11-1 ATS at neutral sites this season and 6-0 ATS in their last six as a neutral-site underdog.
Included among those latter two figures is an 84-67 rout of Kentucky as a 4½-point underdog in the Maui Invitational on Nov. 24. True, that game was four months ago, and much has changed for each team since then. But you can’t ignore the fact that UConn guard Kemba Walker (10-for-17 shooting, 29 points, six assists) dominated his counterpart, Kentucky’s Brandon Knight (3-for-15, six points, five turnovers). Nor can you ignore what Walker has done over his last 10 games, averaging 25.3 points while playing 384 of a possible 405 minutes.
Put it this way: There are two sure things in life right now. The first is Kemba Walker and UConn on a basketball court. The second is Miley Cyrus getting arrested in the next six months. And I ain’t betting against either!
BEST OF THE REST: Butler (-2½) vs. VCU ($110); UConn (+1) first half vs. Kentucky ($55); VCU-Butler UNDER 133 ($44); VCU-Butler UNDER 62½ first half ($33).