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Opening thoughts on Final Four

Jeff Fogle
VSiN.com

north_carolina
North Carolina won the battle of blue bloods vs. Kentucky.

The “N” in NCAA stands for National. And college basketball lovers from sea to shining sea will be treated to a Final Four showcasing the Atlantic Coast and the Pacific Northwest. South Carolina and North Carolina won Sunday to join Gonzaga and Oregon as the only remaining survivors in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

Let’s see how it happened and take a peek at the early lines. . . .

South Carolina (plus 3) wins the East over fading Florida
We begin with a brief look back at a key paragraph from Sunday’s VSiN City preview of this matchup…

The case for South Carolina: the Gamecocks are playing their best ball of the year right now, and are much fresher coming into the game because they had an easy win Friday while Florida had to go overtime before surviving Wisconsin well past midnight local time. In terms of “current form,” SC is playing better at the moment. Being fresher could make this a surprisingly easy win for the dog if Florida doesn’t have its legs.

Basically, Florida had its legs for a half…then ran out of gas. That can be seen in three-point shooting, which ironically mirrored extremes seen during two regular-season meetings.

  • Florida was 7 of 12 on treys in the 1H (like its sharp 9 of 19 in regular season win)
  • Florida was 0 of 14 on treys in the 2H (like its horrific 0 of 17 in regular season loss)

Florida won the first-half scoreboard 40-33. South Carolina owned the second-half scoreboard 44-30. Once the Gators’ legs went, long jumpers started clanking off the rim. And we saw a Gamecock second-half runout that was similar in style to their upset of Duke last weekend.

Checking in with the showcase stats we’ve been studying this weekend….

South Carolina (plus 3) 77, Florida 70

  • Two-Point Emphasis: S. Carolina 81%, Florida 57%
  • Two-Point Shooting: S. Carolina 56%, Florida 53%
  • Rebound Rate: S. Carolina 52%, Florida 48%

South Carolina was so comfortable attacking the basket vs. fading Florida that the Gamecocks only attempted 10 treys. No reason to launch bombs if you’re hitting 56% inside the arc. Florida was able to shoot well if they got the ball inside. They launched 26 treys because that wasn’t so easy. And, you know from yesterday’s discussion that Frank Martin’s bunch is great at forcing turnovers. Let’s update those stat lines. . . .

  • South Carolina allowed 54% on two-pointers and forced 18 turnovers against Marquette
  • South Carolina allowed 46% on two-pointers and forced 18 turnovers against Duke
  • South Carolina allowed 33% on two-pointers and forced 16 turnovers against Baylor
  • South Carolina allowed 53% on two-pointers and forced 16 turnovers against Florida

Defense wins championships. Defense just won the East regional, and has a shot to earn a brass ring and One Shining Moment for a feisty Cinderella.

South Carolina advances to Glendale, Ariz., and the Final Four to face Gonzaga. That means Gonzaga has a week to figure out how not to commit turnovers vs. this intense attack.

North Carolina (-2) wins the South at the buzzer over Kentucky
From yesterday’s matchup preview. . . .

Kentucky and NC use their athletes to fly at the basket and challenge opposing defenses. That can lead to an easy bucket…a trip to the free throw line…or even a kick out to an open look trey. Similar philosophies (near 70% two-point emphasis)…What’s the main difference? North Carolina is better at two-point defense because Kentucky tends to back away from contact more often.

Now our stat box:

North Carolina (-2) 75 Kentucky 73

  • Two-Point Emphasis: Kentucky 71%, N. Carolina 74%
  • Two-Point Shooting: Kentucky 43%, N. Carolina 56%
  • Rebound Rate: Kentucky 44%, N. Carolina 56%

That’s certainly according to form. Both teams flew at the basket, and North Carolina did a better job protecting the rim. All that got them was a tie in the final seconds! Then Luke Maye drained a jumper from just inside the arc to send the Tar Heels to Glendale.

Why was it so close given Carolina’s edges in two-point defense and rebounding? Two key factors:

  • Three Pointers: Kentucky 7 of 19, N. Carolina 3 of 15
  • Turnovers: Kentucky 9, North Carolina 16

There really shouldn’t be that much of a difference between these two teams from behind the arc. But, Carolina ran cold in a way that almost cost it the game. Kentucky obviously did a much better job of forcing turnovers even if the Wildcats didn’t put up enough of a fight when the Tar Heels got close to the rim.

Ultimately, very little separated these teams, or really all of the projected elites if you run through two weeks of results. The only Final Four entry that didn’t survive a last second nail-biter was South Carolina, a #7 seed. A lot of deserving teams will be home next weekend watching the Final Four with the rest of us.

Early lines: Gonzaga -6.5 over South Carolina, North Carolina -4.5 over Oregon
There was general agreement offshore and in Nevada that Gonzaga should have been power rated about 5 points better than South Carolina on a neutral court (as Vinny Magliulo discussed during Sunday’s broadcasts). But the market is aware that the public is looking to stay on what's been a very profitable season-long Gonzaga bandwagon. That led to an opener of Gonzaga -6.5 in most stores. Oddsmakers will wait to see if South Carolina will generate “sharp” interest (and some public Cinderella affection from non-Gonzaga fans) at this price, or if will take plus 7 (or more).

North Carolina received a lot of interest Sunday on the money line to win straight up (cashing a $100,000 ticket for a South Point bettor), but there was skepticism about the Heels comfortably getting distance from Kentucky. That same issue may be in play this week at a slightly higher price. Oregon looked so great at 6.5 vs. Kansas that the Ducks were likely to get more respect in the Final Four. They did with the consensus market opener of North Carolina -4.5.

Here are updated estimated market Power Ratings for the four survivors:

  • Gonzaga (84), South Carolina (78)
  • North Carolina (85), Oregon (81)

Should the favorites win, North Carolina would likely be a slight favorite over Gonzaga (possibly pick-em given the margin-for-error in those estimates). You can easily eyeball the other possibilities from those numbers. Obviously market perceptions are subject to change based on injuries, or surprising victory margins in the national semifinals. If Gonzaga wins a blowout, while Carolina barely gets by Oregon. it’s easy to see Gonzaga moving to a slight favorite.

We now take a breather from what’s been an exciting tournament. We will check in through the week on game lines, futures prices, and any creative props that the braintrust at VSiN comes up with. In the meantime, get ready for a lot of NBA.

Keep your eyes on the NBA playoff picture, particularly teams trying to get in.
Brent Musburger talked Sunday during “My Guys in the Desert” about the importance of handicapping motivation and “need” for all playoff contenders near the eight-team cut-off. That proved to be prescient as teams #7, #8, and #9 (Indiana, Miami/Chicago) in the Eastern standings all covered the point spread later in the day in their efforts to earn postseason bids.

Let’s look at those first, then run through the rest of the card. . . .

Indiana (-8.5) beat Philadelphia 107-94. Sure, beating Philadelphia isn’t necessarily something to write home about. But the Sixers have been showing up with enthusiastic efforts lately. The Pacers took care of them in workmanlike fashion to end a two-game losing skid. Philadelphia is still 8-2 ATS its last 10 games.

Miami (plus 6) covered in a 112-108 loss to Boston. This game was huge to both teams, so it had a playoff feel to it. It might have been an actual playoff preview. Boston is trying to chase down Cleveland for the #1 seed. Miami won the rebounding category 40-35, which is one of the most important “hustle” stats in pro hoops, and forced 16 turnovers from the hosts. If not for a sub-par 7 of 29 performance on treys, the Heat just might have pulled off the upset. They did get the cover, moving to 25-6-1 against the spread their last 32 games. Boston is 2-4 ATS its last six.

Chicago (plus 6.5) surprised Milwaukee 109-94. Chicago won rebounding by a stunning 49-34 count. Guards Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo combined for 23 assists…and big man Nikola Mirotic was 11 of 14 from the field. Clearly Chicago showed up to play. Note that the Bulls are 5-1 ATS since losing Dwyane Wade for the season to injury.

We’ll take the rest of Sunday’s results as they fall in Nevada rotation order. . . .

Brooklyn (plus 7) beat Atlanta 107-92. The Hawks may have felt safe a couple of weeks ago. This was their seventh loss in a row, which will now drop them down to the range where they have to sweat every result. Are chemistry issues rearing their ugly heads? Possibly. Atlanta only had 16 assists on their 34 made baskets. The Hawks were just 29 of 71 on two-point shots, and a sad 5 of 23 on treys. VERSUS BROOKLYN (who’s fourth worst in the NBA in defensive efficiency). That’s 9 of 12 covers for the young Nets, who are playing with enthusiasm lately despite a 16-57 straight up record.

Charlotte (-12.5) beat Phoenix 120-106. It was 38-18 after the first quarter, as the Suns continue to start a promising D-League team every time out. Phoenix is 1-7 ATS its last eight, which is 0-7 ATS when not having a player score 70 points to lead a garbage time cover! Charlotte is way out of the playoff picture at 33-40, but has covered four of its last five.

Sacramento (plus 13) shocked the LA Clippers 98-97. The Clips were in a back-to-back spot after earning a big win over Utah Saturday afternoon. Took their eyes off the ball here. Note LAC’s starters all had plus-minuses well into the positive range, but the only starter to play more than 32 minutes in the fatigue spot was the coach’s son Austin Rivers. The Clippers’ bench will have to do better than this in the playoffs.

Houston (-6) beat Oklahoma City beat 137-125. Not much of a game as Houston led by 20 at the half and 25 after three quarters. Russell Westbrook got his requisite triple double in the requisite reminder that OKC doesn’t measure up with the West’s elite. They are doing well vs. everyone else lately. OKC is 6-2 ATS its last eight, which moves to 5-0 ATS if you drop out games with Houston, Golden State, and San Antonio.

Golden State (-10.5) beat Memphis 106-94. Marc Gasol missed the game for Memphis. Golden State coasted until finishing things off with a 23-13 fourth quarter. Despite sturdy prices nightly, Golden State is 5-1 ATS its last six.

New Orleans (plus 6.5) beat Denver 115-90 even though DeMarcus Cousins was out with an injury. Too late for the Pelicans to rise up from 31-42 to make the playoffs. They are 9-3-1 ATS their last 13 outings, with two of the three misses coming by a bucket. Denver is still an impressive 7-2 ATS its last nine even with this surprisingly bad result.

Portland (-6.5) beat the LA Lakers 97-81 to climb into the #8 spot in the West. The Blazers are 6-1 ATS their last seven games. The Lakers are 4-12-1 ATS their last 17 outings.

Dustin Johnson holds off Jon Rahm and the world at Match Play Championships
Golf fans were begging for Dustin Johnson vs. red hot Jon Rahm in the finals of the World Match Play Championships in Austin, Texas. They got it. Then threw it back and switched over to North Carolina/Kentucky when Johnson won four of the first six, and five of the first eight holes.

By halftime of the basketball nightcap, Rahm had climbed back within two holes through 15. But Rahm’s rally stalled after getting with one hole after 16. Johnson finished off a 1-up victory in regulation.

The first odds up offshore for the much anticipated showdown were around DJ -135 (Rahm plus 115) once the pairing was locked in after the morning semifinals. Smart and public money hit the American fairly confidently. Sports book director Chris Andrews reports that the South Point opened at DJ -145 (Rahm plus 125), and moved all the way up to DJ -160 (Rahm plus 140) before the first swing.

Rahm would have cracked the World Top 10 with a victory in the finals. The market priced him as a top five player all through the week. He was able to exceed expectations until running into the best player in the sport. Johnson became only the third #1 ranked player to win the Match Play. Tiger Woods did it in 2003, ’04, and ’08. Rory McIlroy pulled it off in 2015.

Results from the final day of action…

Sunday morning’s Final Four

  • Dustin Johnson (1) -330 beat Hideto Tanihara (54) 1-up
  • Jon Rahm (21) -175 beat. Bill Haas (42) 3 & 2

Sunday afternoon’s Championship

  • Dustin Johnson (1) -165 beat Jon Rahm 1-up

Third Place Consolation Match

  • Bill Haas (42) -155 beat Hideto Tanihara (54) 2 & 1

Johnson will enter the Masters as the betting favorite. If you’ve been watching all the CBS promotions of late…you know that will be held April 6-9 in Augusta.

That wraps up today's newsletter. Be sure to check out our live-streaming programs resuming Monday at noon Pacific, 3 p.m. on the East Coast. Thanks again to everyone sending in comments and suggestions. We want VSiN City to be the must-have daily publication for sports bettors everywhere. If you have ideas for future discussion, drop us an email.

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