If ripping scabs off old sports-related wounds were an Olympic sport, my name would be mentioned in the same breath as Jim Thorpe, Carl Lewis and Michael Phelps. There’s a reason—well, several, actually, but a main one—why I frequently receive the following email or text message: “Jacob, you’re such an asshole!” It might come from a friend who’s a Yankees fan after I mention—apropos of nothing—the year 2004. Or a Raiders buddy after I alphabetize their starting quarterbacks from the past decade (from Kyle Boller to Andrew Walter).
Hell, just last week, seconds after Kansas’ epic Elite Eight meltdown against Michigan, I fired off a “Rock Choke Jayhawk” text to several Kansas friends (and not just because Michigan was my best bet).
I mention all this as a sort of warning to UNLV basketball fans: You might want to turn the page—or at the very least skip ahead a couple of paragraphs—because I’m about to pour salt in a laceration that’s still fresh more than a dozen years later: Louisville coach Rick Pitino is on his way to his sixth Final Four (and second in a row). The same Rick Pitino who mere weeks before taking the Louisville job—and just three days after quitting as Boston Celtics coach in early 2001—said this to The Boston Globe about a move to UNLV: “It’s not set yet, but this looks like a good situation. I’ve talked to the people about the job, and they say it’s a gem. I could take it. I really could.”
Alas, he didn’t, not so much because his wife didn’t want to move to Las Vegas (the Pitino “official statement” at the time) but because UNLV’s then-president and athletic director botched the hire. Since that moment, the Rebels—under coaches Lon Kruger and Dave Rice—have posted a 3-6 record in six NCAA tournament appearances, including four consecutive first-round flameouts. At the same time, Pitino has led Louisville to a 20-9 record in 10 NCAA tournament appearances, including three Final Fours and—here comes the rubbing alcohol—an all-but-certain 2013 national championship.
All together now, Rebel fans: Jacob, you’re such an asshole! With that, let’s cap a profitable March Madness with my Final Four selections …
$280 on Louisville (-140) to win the championship: I love the Wichita State story (partly because I drafted Wichita in a fantasy pool, which I won thanks to the No. 9 seed’s Final Four run). But you’ll see me in the middle of the Strip leading a “Harlem Shake” flash mob before you’ll see the Shockers pull off a shocker against the Cardinals. If you accept that as fact, then it comes down to Louisville beating either Michigan or Syracuse in the title game. Well, the Cardinals faced Syracuse three times in Big East play, and their performance improved exponentially in each contest: a 70-68 home loss on January 19, a 58-53 road win on March 2 and a 78-61 win in the Big East tournament championship game on March 16. Safe to say Pitino’s figured out Jim Boeheim’s complex zone defense.
So that leaves Michigan, a team I really like because of its talented backcourt … except Louisville’s backcourt is every bit as good (if not better), one that will bring the kind of constant on-the-ball pressure the Wolverines haven’t seen. Bottom line: Louisville would be at least minus-180 against either Syracuse or Michigan, so there’s value in this pre-Final Four future bet—especially since Pitino’s club is 17-1 dating to January 28 (including 11-1 away from home). The loss? 104-101 at Notre Dame … in five overtimes.
$110 on Louisville -6 vs. Wichita State (first half): Combined, Wichita and Louisville are 8-0 against the spread in the first half during the tournament. The difference? The Shockers have faced two overrated opponents (Pittsburgh and Gonzaga), a plucky-but-overmatched No. 13 seed (LaSalle) and an Ohio State squad that needed last-second 3-pointers in consecutive games to reach the Elite Eight. Meanwhile, the Cardinals’ last three victims—Colorado State, Oregon and Duke—all would be favored against Wichita on a neutral court.
Louisville’s average halftime lead in the tourney: 11.8 points, including a scant three-point advantage against Duke after playing the latter part of the half in a daze following teammate Kevin Ware’s horrific broken leg. Also, since February 23, the Cardinals are 10-2 ATS in the first half.
BEST OF THE REST: Michigan -2 vs. Syracuse ($66); Michigan-Syracuse first-half UNDER 61 ($55); Louisville-Wichita State OVER 131 ($55); Michigan-Syracuse UNDER 131 ($44).