With the Final Four featuring a trio of No. 1 seeds (including an undefeated squad shooting for immortality) and a talented No. 7 seed (which should’ve been no worse than a No. 4), this NCAA Tournament ended up favoring the favorites. That’s certainly a far cry from last year, when No. 7 UConn cut down the nets after defeating No. 8 Kentucky.
As compelling as this Final Four is for college basketball purists—each team is led by a current or future Hall of Fame coach—it’s not easy to handicap from a wagering standpoint. Which is why your best approach is to zero in on the basics: classic fundamentals. After all, that’s the reason these programs are still alive. And come April 6, fundamentals will likely determine who cuts down the nets—as is usually the case when championships are on the line!
Let’s examine both matchups:
(1) Kentucky vs. (1) Wisconsin
The line: Kentucky -5; Total: 131
Better offense: Wisconsin (by a little); Better defense: Kentucky (by a lot); More meaningful depth: Kentucky.
You may be surprised that I’m giving Kentucky a decided edge on defense. After all, the media has spent a lot of time this postseason raving about Wisconsin’s defense. Truth is, Wisconsin creates the illusion of great defense by holding onto the ball so long on offense. That leads to lower scoring games (which leads to a strong defensive reputation). But holding onto the ball isn’t the same as getting steals, blocking shots or forcing opponents into bad looks.
When you adjust for pace and strength of schedule, Wisconsin doesn’t even have one of the nation’s best 50 defenses on a per-possession basis (according to Ken Pomeroy’s trusted statistical website). On the other hand, after making those adjustments, Kentucky ranks No. 1 defensively. Bottom line: The Wildcats’ defensive fundamentals and skill sets are significantly better.
Now, which team is going to make more plays on offense because of their mastery of fundamentals? The Badgers have a shot to do that (although they don’t figure to knock down 3-pointers at the crazy pace they did against Arizona). Both teams have multiple threats and can score from all over the floor (as well as the free-throw line), and both work the ball to create high-percentage spots.
Kentucky is 5-point favorite because of its defense, and because the Wildcats’ roster is so deep that they can handle fatigue, foul trouble and most anything else—except an opponent catching fire from the 3-point line.
(1) Duke vs. (7) Michigan State
The line: Duke -5; Total: 139.5
Better offense: Duke; Better defense: Very close; More meaningful depth: Michigan State.
Duke joins Wisconsin and Kentucky on the list of the nation’s most efficient offenses, because the Blue Devils can beat you inside and outside while limiting turnovers (they had just three against Gonzaga in the Elite Eight!). Michigan State can’t match Duke’s athleticism or explosiveness, but the Spartans are better than their reputation offensively. Tom Izzo’s squad “plods” its way to effectiveness in a way that doesn’t always please the eye, but the Spartans are a top-20 team in adjusted offensive efficiency.
Defensively, Michigan State has a better reputation than Duke, but once again, that’s an illusion created by pace. Duke likes to push tempo when it can; Michigan State is much more methodical. Once you adjust for pace, these defenses are similarly effective.
Whether or not depth will be a factor in this one will depend on officiating. You saw the Spartans survive in overtime against Louisville despite two players fouling out. Duke doesn’t have that luxury, which means a tightly called game favors Michigan State.
Duke is laying points here because of its superior seed and because it is 4-0 against the spread in the Big Dance. But note that in the Round of 32, Michigan State beat Virginia, the regular-season champ in the ACC (Duke’s conference).
So which of these four teams will be left standing when the final buzzer sounds April 6? The odds certainly favor the coronation of an undefeated champ. But as Notre Dame proved, any talented squad can hang with or beat Kentucky in a 40-minute war on a neutral court. Either way, we’re about to witness history.
Scott Spreitzer is a Las Vegas-based professional handicapper and bettor, and host of Pregame.com’s First Preview sports-betting show, which airs at 10 a.m. weekdays on ESPN Radio 1100-AM/100.9-FM. Follow him at @ScottWins.