LAS VEGAS--What a marvelous weekend we have coming up. Baseball season begins on Sunday with the Cubs and Cardinals. The NBA and NHL are coming down the stretch. The Masters is not far off. And while they will all get a lot of action from bettors this weekend here in Las Vegas, there is no doubt that most of the attention – and money – will be on the Final Four on Saturday down in Arizona.
Since North Carolina, Gonzaga, Oregon and South Carolina won their regionals, we have been watching the early betting. And like the early returns in a presidential election, some trends are starting to emerge. The biggest one is that the public loves the Tar Heels.
If Kris Jenkins had not made that last shot for Villanova last year, who knows how big a favorite North Carolina would be this year as a defending national champion? Yet even as they come back from being a runner-up, the Tar Heels with their experience and their size are strong favorites to win not only Saturday’s national semifinal against Oregon but also Monday night’s championship against either Gonzaga or South Carolina.
“Some of the sharpest money we’ve had has been on North Carolina to win it all,” said Chris Andrews, director of the South Point sports book just outside our VSiN studio. “We moved them down from 3-to-2 to 135. I raised Gonzaga from 8-to-5 to 165, Oregon from 5-to-1 to 5½-to-1, and I had to lower South Carolina from 8-to-1 to 7-to-1.”
As for their game Saturday night, the Tar Heels have been bet from a 4½- to a five-point favorite with the over-under total gradually moving from 149 to 152 points. While these reflect only the very earliest betting, I find myself agreeing with the public here.
This figures to be the game where Oregon finally feels the loss of injured shot blocker Chris Boucher. North Carolina is simply too big for the Ducks and too much to handle on the boards. It goes beyond senior forward Kennedy Meeks, who averages 9.3 rebounds per game. Theo Pinson at 6-feet-6 and Justin Jackson at 6-8 have caused matchup problems for almost all of the Tar Heels’ opponents this season, and Oregon will be no exception.
The Tar Heels really pick it up with offensive rebounding, which is the best in the nation. They have a huge edge on the Ducks with an average of 43.68 total rebounds per game to Oregon’s 36.45.
Oregon still has Dillon Brooks, who might yet be a difference maker on Saturday. And yes, Joel Berry II is playing with a tender ankle has coach Roy Williams saying he is “scared to death.” But I do not think Tyler Dorsey can do enough against him on the point to make a difference in the outcome of the game.
I do like the Tar Heels laying the five points to get the job done against Oregon.
As for the other semifinal I am of two minds, and it seems as if I am not alone. While I like Gonzaga to win, it may be time to buy back on South Carolina. Nobody outside of their home state expected the Gamecocks to get this far, yet Sindarius Thornwell has shown himself to be as good an offensive player as we have this weekend. So now South Carolina is getting seven points.
Yes, that is a big number to give a red-hot team in a Final Four game. But longtime oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro made an excellent point when he reminded me on Thursday that Gonzaga would have been favored by an even bigger number if it had been playing South Carolina early in the tournament. “If we had made this price a month ago,” he said, “it would have been 11½.”
What drives me to reconsider that seven-point line is the job Frank Martin had done in developing the South Carolina defense. It allows only 64.9 points per game, and it is anchored by sophomore forward Chris Silva. If he stays out of foul trouble Saturday, Gonzaga will have its hands full.
That does not take away from the fact that I believe that this is the deepest, most complete team that we have seen Mark Few put together up in Spokane. It only starts with Nigel Williams-Goss from the outside and Przemek Karnowski down low.
If Thornwell comes up big, it would not be a total surprise to see South Carolina pull off the upset as a seven-seed. So I appreciate the thought of hedging early bets on Gonzaga with a buyback on the Gamecocks plus seven. And I like the ’dog with the points on Saturday.
The point spread, the total and the future bet on who wins the championship Monday night are not the only ways to play the Final Four. There are also yes-no props on each of the four teams to win it all as well as early lines on each of the four possible matchups that could come to pass on Monday.
According to the numbers on the South Point board Thursday afternoon, North Carolina would be favored by two over Gonzaga and by 7½ over South Carolina, Gonzaga would be minus-3 against Oregon, and the Ducks would be a 3½-point favorite against the Gamecocks on Monday.
Again, the early money has been solidly on the side of the Tar Heels. But let me emphasize again it is early. Through Thursday we have seen only 10-15 percent of all the money that will be bet on the three Final Four games.
“We’ve had steady action,” Vaccaro said, “but it will start to pick up when the tourists get here for the weekend.”
As such the spreads have not moved much all week.
“If you are the smarts or value hunters right now, there is no sense moving in now, because nothing has changed,” Vaccaro said. “If they wanted these numbers they would have bet them already. They’re just waiting for a quirk one way or another.”
If you believe in the favorites I would think that North Carolina would be bet up to a 2½- or even a three-point favorite against Gonzaga, and Gaughan Gaming oddsmaker Vinny Magliulo agreed. He said some of that is because the Tar Heels will leave the more lasting impression by playing in the later game.
“Typically what we see is what’s most recent and freshest in folks’ minds is more impactful because it just happened,” Magliulo said. “If the Tar Heels win convincingly in that game, yes, the starting point will be two points and maybe a little bit higher.”
The things you learn from a bookmaker. That is why you better believe we will be watching closely on Saturday – and not just the games themselves.