Jay Webster (@JayBWebster) takes a look at the final stages of March Madness.
It’s taken 68 teams, 64 games, five rounds, three weeks and a lot of nail biting, but the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament, aka March Madness, is down to its Final Four teams Stateside.
It’s a simple and appealing process. Teams are seeded and put into brackets divided into four regions. If teams win, they move on to the next round. Lose and they go home. In theory, the higher seeded teams should win out, but naturally, over the course of 67 raucous college basketball games, upsets are as inevitable as spilled drinks at a toddler’s birthday party. That’s where the ‘Madness’ comes in.
March Madness is also tailor made for betting. Over the course of the entire tournament, more money is wagered on the NCAA Tournament than any other sporting event in America – over $12 billion in total by some estimates, much of it not legislatively sanctioned, if you catch my drift – topping even the Super Bowl.
So who are these fabled ‘Final Four’ – the winners of their respective regions who are headed for a date at the Superdome in New Orleans this coming Saturday night? Well, the selection committee got one right, as the No. 1 seed in the South Region, the Kentucky Wildcats came through. They are hot favorites to win it all at 11/8 and have been the No. 1 team in the country for much of the season, losing just two games all year.
The Wildcats feature (at least) two future pros in Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who could be first two names called at this year’s NBA Draft. Kentucky has waltzed through the tournament so far, and is looking like an unstoppable freight train at this point and time.
The unenviable task of stopping that train falls to their in-state rivals, the Louisville Cardinals. The Cardinals finished the regular season with a 26-9 record, losing four of their last six games, and grabbed just a No. 4 seed in the West Region. However, they went on a tear in the Big East Conference Tournament, and maintained that momentum into the NCAA Tournament to find themselves the lowest seeded team heading to the Big Easy.
The Cardinals are substantial 9-point underdogs, and few feel they have what it takes to compete with the mighty Wildcats. They do have a big man in Gorgui Dieng who can match up with Davis inside, and the entire Louisville team has been playing a stifling brand of defense that could give Kentucky some difficulties. If Dieng can stay out of foul trouble, the Cardinals could beat the spread, if not shock the world by toppling the giant.
The other semi-final game is a matchup of No. 2 seeds – and Player of the Year candidates – in Jared Sullinger’s Ohio State Buckeyes and Thomas Robinson’s Kansas Jayhawks. Just watching those two go head-to-head will be worth the price of admission. The point spread on this game is much tighter – just 2.5 points – as these teams match up much closer.
The Buckeyes have been favoured to reach the Final Four since Sullinger announced he would return to college for his sophomore season after losing in last year’s Sweet 16. Along with Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas and William Buford, the Buckeyes have a lot of firepower. While it hasn’t all been smooth sailing this season (losing three out of five games in February) this team is right where they feel they belong.
The Jayhawks, on the other hand, lost several key players from last year’s team, and many wondered if they would be able to rebound this year. But the team continued to improve all season behind Robinson. Center Jeff Withey has become a formidable force inside, and Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson have provided a lethal backcourt.
While both teams have great supporting casts, this game could well come down to whether Sullinger or Robinson can carry their team farther.