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Beware of Final Four moneyline parlays

By Jeff Fogle  ( 

Is this finally the year for Mark Few and Gonzaga?
© USA Today Sports Images

It’s one of the greatest gambling spectacles in sports. But, be wary of temptation when betting Saturday’s Final Four.

Temptations and dangers of moneyline parlays 

If you’re like many casual sports bettors, you’re thinking that the favorites are likely to win both semifinal matchups in Saturday’s Final Four. Gonzaga is -7 over South Carolina. North Carolina is -5 over Oregon. You want to figure out a way to make money by just asking “what’s supposed to happen” to happen. 

Laying the points in both games may not appeal to you because you don’t want to lose money if the expected winner survives a nail-biter. They celebrate with their fans while you lose your money. Laying the moneylines to win straight up seems expensive because you’re risking more than 2 to 1 in both games…and your normal bets are 11/10. 

Moneyline prices

Gonzaga -290, South Carolina 245

North Carolina -215, Oregon 185

(Those are the South Point prices as we prepare this report, they will likely change a bit between now and tipoff)

Laying -290 represents the favorite winning 74.3% of the time as a break even. For you to make that bet, you should be thinking Gonzaga is well over 75% to come out on top. (Gill Alexander did a great job of explaining the dynamics of moneyline betting on “A Numbers Game” earlier this week). 

Laying -215 represents the favorite winning 68.2% of the time as a break even. For you to make that bet, you should be thinking North Carolina is at least 70% to come out on top. Obviously even more than that for it to be a “smart” investment. 

Too steep? Parlays seem to lower up-front risk. So the solution feels obvious. Combine the favorites into a moneyline parlay, where the payout is even better than 11/10! If you PARLAY a -290 favorite with a -215 favorite (meaning both sides HAVE to win for you to cash), a $100 bet will win $97. Sounds too good to be true. 

As everyone who loaded up on moneyline parlays a week ago learned with Gonzaga over Xavier and Kansas over Oregon, these can bite you very easily. Gonzaga won a blowout, and bettors felt like they had gamed the system. Alleged “lock to win straight up in Kansas City” Kansas got embarrassed by Oregon. Beating the book wasn’t so easy any more. 

It may seem like two favorites winning is virtually automatic. But, if you multiply those win percentages, you see that a sweep is only a coin flip. 74.3% to win multiplied by 68.2% to win is just 50.7% to win.

As you consider how to bet Saturday’s Final Four action, be sure you don’t fall into any traps that your gut doesn’t see coming. Make sure you can justify the math behind your bets. Maybe the favorites will sweep. Be aware that’s a coin coming up heads…not a two-headed coin that was a sure thing.

Gonzaga goes for glory in Final Four opener vs. South Carolina

Is this the year? Gonzaga has finally broken through to the elusive Final Four. Can they make it all the way to the Championship? Only a Cinderella stands in their way. But, it’s a Cinderella that plays great defense and has peaked at the right time. 

Here’s a look at some key handicapping categories to help you make a sharp assessment. Most of the stats are from Adjusted pace and strength of schedule rankings are from

Gonzaga (-6.5) vs. South Carolina (total of 138)

  • Two-Point Emphasis: Gonzaga 67%, South Carolina 66%
  • Two-Point Defense: Gonzaga 40% (#2), South Carolina 46% (#40)
  • Rebound Rate Ranking: Gonzaga #7, South Carolina #138

Both of these teams prefer to work the ball inside on offense, and have stellar two-point defenses. (There’s some media perception that Gonzaga is trey-heavy. Not this group. In fact, 70% of Gonzaga’s shots from the floor have been deuces over the last three tournament games.) Gonzaga’s full season defense and rebound rankings are probably a bit optimistic because they played such a soft schedule. But, they do have size, and will discourage South Carolina from getting easy looks out of a set offense. Very similar teams in terms of what they prioritize.

  • Made Three-Pointers per game: Gonzaga 7.3, South Carolina 6.6
  • Three-Point % Allowed: Gonzaga 29.3% (#4), South Carolina 30.1% (#8)

Both teams are fantastic at three-point defense. Analytics used to teach that three-point defense was one of the most random stats. Opponents either made their open looks or they didn’t. But, smart coaches have become very aggressive about defending the arc (Coach K of Duke helped lead this charge). Now, three-point defense is a great indicator stat for quality. 

You’ve heard analysts talking about potential “shooting backdrop” effects in this domed stadium. These two defenses are already great at making it difficult to make treys.

And, be aware that a study is showing what it calls “the misguided tenets of the dome effect.” Over the last 10 seasons, domes have played host to better three-point shooting than other arenas. Serious handicappers should spend a few minutes with this article before making their Final Four decisions.

  • Turnover Avoidance: Gonzaga #29, South Carolina #141
  • Forcing Turnovers: Gonzaga #218, South Carolina #4

Gonzaga has great guards. Those guards will be challenged by this aggressive South Carolina defense. Some pundits liked Gonzaga against West Virginia (ranked #1 at forcing turnovers this season) because of guard experience…only to watch that Sweet 16 matchup come down to a coin flip ending. South Carolina is less likely to have “ballhandling” turnover issues, but they could run into trouble trying to force things inside. 

  • Pace: Gonzaga #73, South Carolina #139
  • Strength of Schedule: Gonzaga #99, South Carolina #28

Both teams are faster than average (Pomeroy measures more than 350 teams). And, with the condensed pace caused by a shot clock, there’s very little meaningful difference here. South Carolina is more battle tested…and has done an amazing job of going 4-0 in this tournament without being favored a single time. Gonzaga has cleared its hurdles so far…but those were lower hurdles.

Current Pomeroy rankings of victims:

  • Gonzaga: #185, #38, #7, #30
  • South Carolina: #31, #13, #14, #5

Gonzaga played a coin-flip with kenpom #7 (West Virginia), and had some sluggish moments vs. #38 (Northwestern). South Carolina just beat #’s 13-14-5 (Duke, Baylor, Florida) by 34 combined points.

There are some math reasons to like South Carolina and the Under. But Gonzaga may well be a team of destiny that won’t be satisfied with anything less than a title. South Carolina may be due for a crash after playing over its head (which is arguably what happened to Gonzaga’s last opponent, Xavier).

Good luck with your pick!

Oregon must play giant-killer again vs. powerful North Carolina 

What’s your reward for beating Kansas in Kansas City? You have to play North Carolina in the national semifinals. The Oregon Ducks won’t shy away from that challenge. They executed a smart game plan vs. the favored Jayhawks. They’ve had several days to get ready for talented but inconsistent North Carolina.

North Carolina (-5) vs. Oregon (total of 152)

  • Two-Point Emphasis: North Carolina 70%, Oregon 61% 
  • Two-Point Defense: North Carolina 47% (#70), Oregon 46% (#63)
  • Rebound Rate Ranking: North Carolina #1, Oregon #57

Two ends of the spectrum here. Even though North Carolina is much better at finding good looks on treys than they used to be, they still prefer to attack the basket. Oregon is the most trey-heavy team remaining. They’ll be happy to read about the dome myth! Oregon probably “has” to make treys to spring the upset. Remember that they were 11 of 25 vs. Kansas last week (just 5 of 25 for the Jayhawks). Both teams are good at defending the paint. Both teams are excellent rebounders, though Carolina obviously gets the nod for leading the nation in percentage of available rebounds grabbed this season. Edge to NC inside. 

  • Made Three-Pointers per game: North Carolina 7.1, Oregon 8.6
  • Three-Point % Allowed: North Carolina 33.9% (#111), Oregon 31.1% (#16)

This is the ballgame. If inexperience with this backdrop isn’t a hindrance, Oregon can win this category against a defense that’s only “okay” at defending the arc. Though there’s a lot to like about Oregon coach Dana Altman, how he emphasizes both offense and defense at the three-point circle is arguably the major key to this program’s recent sustained quality. Edge to Oregon.

  • Turnover Avoidance: North Carolina #19, Oregon #66
  • Forcing Turnovers: North Carolina #154, Oregon #93

That all basically cancels out. Oregon’s better at forcing turnovers, but Carolina’s better at avoiding them. 

  • Pace: North Carolina #50, Oregon #241
  • Strength of Schedule: North Carolina #10, Oregon #55

Those differences in pace help set the stage for how these offenses will attack. Oregon will work patiently to get good looks from productive scoring areas. North Carolina will fly at the basket and challenge Oregon to stop them. If missed Oregon treys lead to Carolina fast breaks…LOOK OUT! Blowout city. But, if Oregon can run a virtual replay of the Kansas game by controlling the flow and making treys…then a repeat upset will be in the offing. 

That recent hurdle stat was instructive in the prior preview. Let’s see how these teams stack up.

Current Pomeroy rankings of victims:

  • Oregon: #117, #35, #20, #6
  • North Carolina: #212, #36, #24, #4

Wow, almost perfect replicas once you get past the first round. Both have earned their way here, needless to say. Our key stats overall are indicating very clearly that Oregon’s performance on three-pointers will likely hold the key to picking this straight up and ATS winner. If they shoot well, they can spring the upset. If not, the favorite runs away and hides thanks to cheap points off long rebounds. 

TCU obliterates Georgia Tech for NIT Championship 

We talked about a potential difference in class between TCU and Georgia Tech in yesterday’s preview. TCU brought that point home with resounding emphasis in their 32-point win over Georgia Tech in the championship finals of the historic NIT Thursday night.

TCU (-4) 88, Georgia Tech 56

  • Two-Point shooting: TCU 57%, Georgia Tech 33%
  • Rebounds: TCU 44, Georgia Tech 30
  • Turnovers: TCU 12, Georgia Tech 17

Tech was just 14 of 43 on two-pointers, which ended any chance it had of being competitive. TCU entered the NIT with the computer ratings of a Big Dance caliber team. They’ve lived up to that through the whole event. It can be tricky navigating between “team quality” and “resume” when the resume has some tight losses. It’s clear now that TCU should have been in the NCAA’s. And, only getting a #4 seed in the NIT was a crime. They won their Final Four sweep by 47 combined points over Georgia Tech and Central Florida. They finish as a top 30 team in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, ahead of 18 squads who received at-large berths in the Dance. 

In the NBA, Cavs still struggling 

The Cleveland Cavaliers fell back out of first place in the East by half a game Thursday night by losing on the road to the Chicago Bulls in a game many of you probably watched on TNT. 

Chicago (plus 5.5) 99, Cleveland 93

  • Three-Pointers: Cleveland 10/27, Chicago 12/25
  • Rebounds: Cleveland 44, Chicago 51

The good news for Cleveland fans is that this wasn’t another defensive disaster. The Cavs held the Bulls to 40% on two-point shots and forced 14 turnovers. Chicago was hot from long range. Hitting 48% on treys is the equivalent of 72% on two-pointers. To the degree there was a lack of Cleveland effort beyond protecting the arc…it was in the rebounding category as you see above, and in terms of “earning” free throws. Only 16 attempts (and just nine makes) from a team that usually gets more free points from the charity stripe when they attack with alacrity. 

This wasn’t “playoff level” Cleveland. That version performs better in the "energy" stats. But, at least it wasn’t doormat level Cleveland either. The Cavs fall to 1-6 ATS their last seven games. Chicago is now 6-1 ATS since losing Dwyane Wade for the season to injury. 

Four other games on the light Thursday night card…

Detroit (-6.5) beat Brooklyn 90-89. A lot of recent tendencies remained in play here. Brooklyn’s cover pushes them to 10-4 ATS their last 14 games. Detroit falls to 2-8 ATS its last 10 games. Both teams had been on Under runs…and this one stayed below the market total by 35 points despite a fast pace with 98 possessions. Brooklyn’s games are 1-5 to the Under its last six. Detroit’s are 2-10 to the Under its last dozen.  

Minnesota (-11.5) beat the LA Lakers 119-104. A 74-point first quarter helped the game scoot Over its total. The Lakers are 10-2 to the Over their last dozen, while Minnesota is 7-2 to the Over their last nine. Neither is emphasizing defense in the dog days of the season. Only 93 possessions per team here. The Lakers are 1-4 ATS their last five, 3-7 ATS their last 10. 

The LA Clippers (-10) won at Phoenix 124-118. Tough to cover such a big number on night two of a back-to-back. LAC falls to 4-8 ATS its last 12, and 7-16 ATS its last 23 outings. 

Portland (plus 1) beat Houston 117-107. That's now 8-1 ATS the last nine for Portland as they battle Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. This surge of intensity is leading to Unders for what had been a very high scoring team. The Blazers are now 1-5 to the Under their last six.

Enjoy Final Four weekend! We’ll return Monday to run the numbers from Saturday’s semifinals and preview Monday night’s Championship. We’ll also begin our 2017 baseball coverage, as the season begins Sunday night. 

Thanks for checking in with us every weekday. If you have any comments on what you've read today, or if you have recommendations for future topics, drop us an email.

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