After so many great seasons ended with near misses in late March, this finally is the year he coaches a team to the Final Four. That coach would be Sean Miller of Arizona.
And not Mark Few of Gonzaga.
Millions of brackets have been filled out, and countless bets are being made. Billions of dollars will be on the line. The NCAA Tournament is here. This is one of the best days of the year.
The unpredictability of this tournament is what makes it great. It’s one and done, not a best-of-7 series, so the pressure is intense. As handicappers, amateur or professional, we are guessing on a lot of these games. We never know for certain if an underdog is live, but we hope.
I’ll start with my Sweet 16 — Villanova, Florida, Southern Methodist, Duke, Gonzaga, Notre Dame, Florida Gulf Coast, Arizona, Kansas, Purdue, Rhode Island, Louisville, North Carolina, Middle Tennessee, Cincinnati and Wichita State.
This could be completely wrong, but I’m predicting mayhem in the South Region, with Cincinnati upending UCLA and Wichita State getting revenge on Kentucky.
In the West, look for Notre Dame to take down West Virginia and top-seeded Gonzaga.
If the Zags do advance, I have them falling to Arizona in the Elite Eight, which has been Miller’s bugaboo. He’s 0-3 with the Wildcats in this round. This time, he gets over the hump.
In early December, when Gonzaga beat Arizona 69-62 in Los Angeles, the Wildcats were without suspended sophomore guard Allonzo Trier. In 15 games since returning, Trier has led the team in scoring (17.3) while shooting 41.4 percent from 3-point range. He makes a big difference.
Miller has a team with size — 7-footers Lauri Markkanen and Dusan Ristic and 6-11 Chance Comanche — and tough guards. This team can score and defend. A 30-4 record against a strong schedule is no fluke.
In a proposition posted at the Westgate sports book, I bet Arizona over 2½ tournament wins at plus-170.
A couple of months ago, I bet Louisville at 20-1 odds to win the NCAA championship. I’m sticking with the Cardinals to beat the Wildcats in the title game, 78-74.
Live dangerously. Resist buckling your seat belt on an airplane and picking almost all of the top seeds to advance. Prepare for a wild ride and bounce back from the inevitable bad beats.
Now it’s time to focus on beating the spread. Here are six plays for Thursday:
NC Wilmington (plus-7½) over Virginia: Contrasting styles make this an intriguing fight. The Cavaliers rank No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense (55.6). The Seahawks rank 10th in scoring offense (85.2). It’s not going to be a surprise if Tony Bennett’s defense dictates the pace. But this is a significant number for a low-scoring team to cover. I’ll go with Wilmington to hang close behind high-scoring guards C.J. Bryce and Chris Flemmings.
East Tennessee State (plus-10½) over Florida: The Gators looked like a Final Four threat until 6-11 rim protector John Egbunu was lost to a knee injury a month ago. Florida still has enough to win this game, but watch out for senior guard T.J. Cromer, who averages 19.1 points and hits 40.4 percent of his 3s. The Buccaneers, led mostly by seniors and juniors, are legit because of Cromer and their size on the front line.
Florida Gulf Coast (plus-12) over Florida State: The Seminoles will have the best player on the floor — sophomore guard Dwayne Bacon — but the worst coach on the bench. I look for spots to bet against Leonard Hamilton, and this is one, although the line has dropped from 14. Junior guard Brandon Goodwin should keep the Eagles within striking distance.
Iowa State (-6) over Nevada: In a weak Mountain West, the Wolf Pack did not get tested like the Cyclones did in a brutally tough Big 12. For some reason, Nevada rarely plays 40 minutes, so I’ll look at first half and halftime bets here, too. Reno boasts four big-time players — Marcus Marshall, Cameron Oliver, Jordan Caroline and D.J. Fenner — so this is a live ‘dog. Still, the class difference and the low line put me on the favorite.
Vermont (plus-10) over Purdue: Despite possessing the talent to reach the Final Four, the Boilermakers tend to underachieve away from home. Purdue will win this matchup because of big men Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas and its array of perimeter shooters. The Catamounts lack size, but they shoot the 3, and a team on a 21-game win streak is not going down easily against the Big Ten champs.
Middle Tennessee (-1) over Minnesota: This play is too popular, and that’s scary, but sometimes the popular side is the right side. The 30-win Blue Raiders might be better than last year, when they upset Michigan State. JaCorey Williams, Giddy Potts and Reggie Upshaw all score and rebound well. The Gophers opened as 3-point favorites, and the line move makes sense.
Sunday: 1-1 against the spread