On the shocker meter, seeing Gonzaga in the Top 25 ranks somewhere between seeing Seth MacFarlane crack tasteless jokes during the Oscars telecast and the PC police immediately feigning outrage over said tasteless jokes. After all, the Bulldogs shed their “mid-major” label right about the time Monica Lewinsky and her dress were front-page news. But to see Gonzaga sitting at No. 2 in both the media and coaches polls—as the Zags are this week, looking down on such powerhouses as Duke, Kansas, Michigan State, Louisville and Syracuse? Now that’s a stunner.
Since Jerry Tarkanian was shoved out of his Thomas & Mack Center office more than two decades ago, teams from non-power conferences have more or less been relegated to college basketball’s kiddie table. Oh, sure, we’ve seen a Butler and a Virginia Commonwealth crash the Final Four in recent years, but they did so in drone-like fashion. Fact is, aside from John Calipari-led Memphis in the late 2000s, the little guys have garnered little national respect. But with more and more blue-chip talents going the one-and-done route, college basketball is in the throes of NFL-like parity.
This explains how Gonzaga—which entered the final week of February at 27-2, the only Division I team with fewer than three losses—can ascend to the No. 2 spot despite not having a single household name on its roster. It’s also explains how this week’s Top 25 can include the likes of New Mexico, Saint Louis, Memphis, Butler and Louisiana Tech—with Colorado State, VCU, Akron, Wichita State and St. Mary’s knocking on the door—while perennial powers such as Kentucky, UCLA and North Carolina are nowhere to be found.
Just as noteworthy, the powers-that-be in the gambling community—often more skeptical of mid-majors than the biased writers and the crotchety coaches—are even taking notice. For instance, while VegasInsider.com has Gonzaga eighth in its latest power rankings, the Zags are among seven non-power-conference squads featured in the website’s Top 25, with three teams (Memphis at No. 12, New Mexico at 13 and UNLV at 22) ranked higher than in the national polls and another three (Colorado State, San Diego State and VCU) rated 26th, 27th and 28th.
What does this power shift mean as we flip the calendar to March, particularly from a gambling point of view? A bunch of impending sleepless nights for handicappers … on both sides of the wagering counter. So hold on tight to your bankroll and retool your definition of “upset,” because you’ll see the Oscars rehire MacFarlane—and team him with Daniel Tosh and Louis C.K.—before you’ll see a predictable 2013 NCAA tournament.
On to my picks for March 2 (note that all point spreads are projected and all stats are as of Feb. 25) …
$88 on Oklahoma -7 vs. Iowa State: The old cliché “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” has to be ringing in the ears of more than a few UNLV fans as they look at the job Lon Kruger is doing at Oklahoma. The Sooners (18-8) have won four of five (5-0 against the spread), and they’re 10-2 SU and 7-2 ATS at home (two losses by a total of three points). Iowa State did obliterate Oklahoma 83-64 in Ames, Iowa, on February 4, but the Cyclones are coming off a demoralizing overtime home loss to Kansas. They’re also just 2-5 in conference road games. (Side note: These teams are a combined 29-9 “over” the total this year.)
$66 on Wake Forest +2 vs. Maryland: Because the Demon Deacons, who crushed No. 2 Miami 80-65 on Feb. 23, are 7-2 overall and 8-1 ATS in their last nine at home. Also, Maryland is just 1-5 in ACC road games (1-4-1 ATS).
$55 on Kansas -21 vs. West Virginia: Because the Jayhawks freight train, which went off the tracks to start February, is rollin’ again. Kansas has ripped off five straight wins and covers, including three victories at Allen Fieldhouse by margins of 21, 26 and 26 points (with those three foes averaging 52.3 points).
$55 on UNR +5½ vs. UNLV: Because the Rebels, coming off a 65-42 thrashing of Wyoming as a 3-point road favorite, haven’t covered consecutive games outside of Las Vegas in the Dave Rice era. In fact, they’re 2-12 ATS in Mountain West road games under Rice.