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What did the semifinals reveal about the NCAA title game?

By Jeff Fogle  ( 

April 2, 2017 09:55 PM
Gonzaga probably has the better defense than North Carolina even after you adjust for strength of schedule.
© USA Today Sports Images

One heavily bet blockbuster matchup in Monday’s NCAA Championship will lead to “One Shining Moment.” Did Saturday’s semifinals unveil the key to handicapping North Carolina vs. Gonzaga?

Gonzaga (-7) survives South Carolina to reach Championship Monday

Gonzaga looked to have the first national semifinal in hand Saturday when they led South Carolina by 14 in the second half. A quick 16-0 underdog blitz later…and Cinderella was trying on slippers. Gonzaga righted its own footing, then closed strong to advance through the Final Four.

Gonzaga (-7) 77, South Carolina 73

  • Two-Point Shooting: Gonzaga 49%, South Carolina 39%
  • Three-Pointers: Gonzaga 9/19, South Carolina 7/20
  • Rebounds: Gonzaga 40, South Carolina 36

Those were the stats that keyed victory. The game wasn’t a blowout because South Carolina won the made free throws category 16-10 (on an attempts edge of 22-13) and forced turnovers 5-12. (If the Gamecocks had won, we’d have used their key stats!). 

Excellent offensive execution from the winners because that sharp shooting was coming against a great defense, on an unfamiliar floor, at a fast pace most of the way (about 38 racehorse possessions in the first half slowed down to about 31 in the tight second-half). Both teams emphasized an inside attack that could then set up open looks outside. South Carolina took 70% of its shots on two’s even though they trailed most of the game. Gonzaga finished with a 68/32 percentage ratio of two’s to three’s.

Ultimately, Gonzaga didn’t worry about forcing turnovers, and just dared SC to score over its behemoths inside. SC had to try to force turnovers because it wasn't as big in the paint. No surprises there. 

Generally speaking, the closeness down the stretch was expected by sharps. The markets were very surprised by that frantic first-half pace, though. Both the first-half and full-game totals went Over by double digits.  

North Carolina (-5) beat Oregon in another nail-biter

All bettors were sweating out the ending of Saturday’s second semifinal. Oregon wasn’t a safe cover until the final seconds. Carolina wasn’t safe on the moneyline until the buzzer sounded. The total landed on the closing number because North Carolina missed FOUR very late free throws. 

North Carolina (-5) 77, Oregon 76

  • Turnovers: North Carolina 11, Oregon 16
  • Three-Pointers: North Carolina 8/21, Oregon 7/26

Though North Carolina is known for emphasizing inside play, Oregon actually did a better job in that regard. Worth remembering because Gonzaga is so dangerous inside the arc. Oregon won two-point shooting 47% to 36%, and free throws 25-19 on almost the same number of attempts. Rebounding was a wash at 43-all, which is big for Oregon because North Carolina led the nation in rebound rate this season. 

Ultimately, North Carolina squeezed by because of that 5 edge in turnovers, and because they had five fewer misses on three-point shots (which are often virtual takeaways because NC grabs so many rebounds). Seems like every North Carolina game has stretches where they look unstoppable…but then a second half lull that raises questions about their championship bona fides. 

Handicapping Monday’s North Carolina/Gonzaga Championship showdown

Ever since the number went up late Saturday for Monday night’s Championship game, the point spread has been sitting at either North Carolina -2 or -1.5. Gonzaga bettors were happy to get the two. But North Carolina does have a lot of support in the marketplace, which may push that game back up to two by the time you read this. Be sure you monitor VSiN programming throughout the day for the latest updates from the South Point oddsmakers. 

Let’s take a look at the key handicapping categories we’ve been studying the past several days here in VSiN City. Most of the stats you see below were gathered from the great resource Pace and strength of schedule rankings are from Ken Pomeroy’s respected website,

North Carolina (-1.5) over Gonzaga, total of 154.5

  • Two-Point Emphasis: Gonzaga 67%, North Carolina 70%
  • Two-Point Defense: Gonzaga 40% (#2), North Carolina 47% (#70)
  • Rebound Rate Ranking: Gonzaga #7, North Carolina #1

These teams have so much in common stylistically that it may be tough to differentiate them in the raw numbers. Both prefer to attack the basket because they have talented bigs. But they can kick it out to make treys when the arc opens up. You can see above that both emphasize rebounding to an extreme degree. There is a difference on two-point defense…but some of that may be influenced by Gonzaga’s relatively easy regular season schedule. Still, Gonzaga played great inside defense vs. South Carolina on Saturday (only 39% shooting allowed). Inside the arc, it may come down to how the refs call the game. If Gonzaga can stay out of foul trouble, they can go toe-to-toe with the Tar Heels for the full 40 minutes. 

What did Saturday’s results suggest about Monday? Gonzaga was able to express their advantages inside the arc all day vs. South Carolina. North Carolina was NOT vs. Oregon, and needed some poor decision-making from Oregon on long passes and rushed three-pointers to maintain an edge on the scoreboard. 

  • Made Three-Pointers per game: Gonzaga 7.3, North Carolina 7.1
  • Three-Point % Allowed: Gonzaga 29.3% (#4), North Carolina 33.9% (#111)

What jumps out there is obviously North Carolina’s relative weakness at guarding the arc (better than average nationally, but not great when compared to Gonzaga). Both teams are averaging just over seven makes per game. Both shot effectively Saturday (Gonzaga 9 of 19, NC 8 of 21). If you’re looking for reasons to bet Gonzaga…the fact that they might be able to squeeze out an extra trey could loom large with such a tight spread. 

  • Turnover Avoidance: Gonzaga #29, North Carolina #19
  • Forcing Turnovers: Gonzaga #218, North Carolina #154

Again, similar philosophies. Both offenses have great guards who treasure possessions. That can be hidden in raw totals because both play so fast. But when you evaluate turnover avoidance on a per-possession basis, both offenses ranked in the top 30 this season. Interestingly, both defenses don’t particularly prioritize stealing the ball. They don’t mind if opponents try to drive inside because they’re confident of forcing a miss and grabbing the rebound. Gonzaga only had 5 takeaways vs. South Carolina in a fast-paced game Saturday. North Carolina did get a surprisingly high 16 takeaways from Oregon, which may have been more a reflection of Oregon panic. 

  • Pace: Gonzaga #77, North Carolina #42
  • Strength of Schedule: Gonzaga #93, North Carolina #8

Both teams like to run. North Carolina was faster for the season. But Gonzaga has really been emphasizing pace in recent first halves. You saw that vs. South Carolina Saturday. That was a track meet. That could make for a very entertaining game…and a truly frantic first half. 

Current Pomeroy rankings of victims:

  • Gonzaga: #185, #38, #7, #31, #24
  • N. Carolina: #212, #35, #25, #4, #10

We used this the other day to evaluate the height of the hurdles these teams had been clearing. If you assume that the first game is a gimme regardless of whether a team is ranked #185 or #212…then North Carolina has had the slightly tougher path. They’ve just played two games against top 10 kenpom opponents, Kentucky and Oregon. Gonzaga’s only top 10 opponent was West Virginia back in the Sweet 16. Interesting that all three of those games were basically dead heats between the 39-minute mark and the 40-minute mark. Should Carolina get bonus points for being more battle tested vs. elites? Or, does the fact that neither team could get much distance between themselves and other top 10’s mean Monday’s game is a toss-up? 

The case for Gonzaga: These teams are so close to dead even that the value has to lie with the underdog, even if it’s just a point or two. Gonzaga probably has the better defense even after you adjust for strength of schedule. Defense wins championships. To the degree the crowd will be involved, most of the noise will probably be for the slight dog than the dynasty favorite. A lot of NC’s great offense depends on putbacks off missed shots. Those are harder to get vs. Gonzaga’s size. Remember, Carolina only shot 36% on deuces vs. Oregon, and didn’t win the rebound battle. North Carolina only beat Oregon by one…and Gonzaga looks more composed than Oregon.

The case for North Carolina: These teams are extremely similar, but Carolina has more depth. If the refs don’t swallow their whistles, those extra minutes that go to the better bench should be enough to sway the cover. Also, the Tar Heels are much more experienced this year at playing high pressure games vs. quality. That doesn’t disqualify Gonzaga from winning. But it’s another “little” thing that could be enough to determine who makes the right play at the right time in the final moments. It should also be pointed out that Gonzaga’s recent breakneck early paces could play right into the hands of North Carolina. They will be in their comfort zone, and better suited to dealing with any foul trouble that a fast early pace creates. 

Early indicators from all over Nevada suggest this game will have an extremely high betting handle. Enjoy the fun…and good luck with your pick!

Final Four Weekend Started with huge SHOCKER, but an Itty Bitty upset

Let’s not forget that Final Four weekend in college basketball actually started Friday night with one of the biggest shockers in recent sports history. Diminutive point guard Morgan Williams (fondly nicknamed “Itty Bitty”) hit a shot at the overtime buzzer to lead 20-point underdog Mississippi State over women’s college basketball juggernaut Connecticut 66-64

The UCONN women had won 111 straight games, and were four-time defending National Champs.

Yes, it feels like old news here on Monday. But the lessons from Mississippi State’s performance and the boxscore are timeless. You heard the VSIN experts talk for the last month about the importance of guard play in tournament basketball. Williams’ performances through the tourney were reflective of that. As were the tenants about defense and rebounding mattering so much.

Mississippi State ( 20) 66, Connecticut 64

  • Two-Point Shooting: Mississippi State 42%, UCONN 42%
  • Turnovers: Mississippi State 14, UCONN 17
  • Rebounding: Mississippi State 37, UCONN 31
  • Shots Attempted: Mississippi State 67, UCONN 46

If you watched, (and the TV audience grew exponentially through the night as the impending upset circulated through social media), you know that Mississippi State slowed the tempo way down. That gave them a chance to hang close. While fighting to make history, they didn’t allow many easy buckets inside…they forced 17 turnovers, which is high for a low tempo game…and they won the rebounding battle. In particular, 14 offensive rebounds gave them repeated attempts at second chance points. 

We included the shot totals because they really told the story. To win this game by a bucket in overtime, the underdog had to take 21 more shots! If you equalize the shots, you get a sense of UCONN’s normal dominance. Miss State scored 66 points on 67 shots, UCONN scored 64 points on only 46 shots. Give them both 60 shots, and the final score is Connecticut 83, Mississippi State 59.

From a sports perspective, the truths are universal. Take your opponent out of its comfort zone. Treasure ball possession. Play defense like your life depends on it. In basketball, rebound like your life depends on treasuring ball possession! For handicappers, bet on underdogs who can do that. Fade underdogs who can’t. 

The Mississippi State women didn’t have much left in the tank after their upset of UCONN. South Carolina beat them for the national title Sunday afternoon 67-55

Rays, D-backs, and Cards cash on MLB opening day

The 2017 Major League Baseball season began Sunday morning Las Vegas time when the Tampa Bay Rays scored early and often on the way to a 7-3 victory over the New York Yankees. Two more games followed through the afternoon and evening. Quick recaps.

Tampa Bay (pick-em) 7, New York Yankees 3

  • Offensive bases (total bases plus walks): NYY 11, Tampa Bay 22
  • Yankees’ pitching: Tanaka 2.2 IP, Layne 1, Warren 2.1, Holder 1, Shreve 1
  • Rays’ pitching: Archer 7 IP, Farquhar 1, Pruit 0, Colome 1

We’ll evaluate games from a variety of directions throughout the course of the season. Right off the bat, we want to emphasize that offensive production is largely a reflection of the bases that are earned at the plate by way of hits and walks. And, that bullpen usage is becoming so important in the modern game that smart handicappers must keep very close tabs on how managers stack reliever innings. If you want to make money betting baseball, you need to know which teams are best suited to get outs in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings. And, how to fad the teams that aren’t!

Arizona (plus 120) 6, San Francisco 5

  • Offensive bases (total bases plus walks): SF 26, Arizona 19
  • Giants’ pitching: Bumgarner 7 IP, Law 0, Blach 0.2, Strickland 0.1, Melancon 0.2
  • D-backs’ pitching: Greinke 5 IP, Wilhelmson 0.1, DeLaRosa 0.2, Chafin 1, Hoover 1, Rodney 1

Giants fans are already fuming about the bullpen. Bumgarner had a no-hitter through five and didn’t get a win! He also hit two homers to help his cause. You can see that that SF offense accumulated more bases overall. But Arizona’s 19 all clustered together effectively in the second half of the game. Already a storyline for handicappers to monitor…focus on the Giants best starters in the first five innings…be wary of backing the team for the full nine.

St. Louis (plus 110) 4, Chicago Cubs 3 

  • Offensive bases (total bases plus walks): Cubs 12, StL 24
  • Cubs’ pitching: Lester 5 IP, Edwards 1, Uehara 1, Strop 1, Montgomery 0.2.
  • Cards’ pitching: Martinez 7.1 IP, Oh 1.2.

A pitchers' duel most of the night. Lester only lasted 5 innings on 102 pitches, while Martinez made it 7.1 innings on 105. Seung Hwan Oh blew a 3-0 lead in the top of the ninth inning for the Cards, allowing night owls to complain even more about bullpens blowing leads! (You know Dick Enberg was thinking "Oh...My" if he watched that Willson Contreras 3-run shot!) Randall Grichuk would put Opening Day to bed a few minutes later with a bases loaded single for the Cards with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

Hope you had a great weekend, and are ready for a HUGE sports week that begins tonight with the NCAA title tilt...races through the season openers in MLB...the playoff chase in the NBA...and the much anticipated Masters golf tournament. VSiN City never sleeps!

Back with you Tuesday to get caught up in the NBA (no games to handicap tonight), and to set the stage for this week's coverage of MLB and golf. Thanks to everyone who's been sending is feedback. If you have any ideas for future reports, Drop us an email.

If you are not yet a newsletter subscriber, this is definitely the time to get that fixed! Get on board by signing up here.

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