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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Friday, March 30, 2012 at 11:05 AM

You tell us: Is this a foregone conclusion when it comes to this week's Final Four/NCAA Championship Game?

Are the Kentucky Wildcats just that much better than everyone else in the College Basketball universe and will it show up that way come Saturday - and than on Monday night too?

Hey, from a distance it appears the 'Cats are a slam-dunk to win it all this year and thus hand head coach John Calipari his elusive first-ever national championship but here's some of the arguments against that scenario happening:

  • Kentucky's still too young and inexperienced in big stage games and will melt down at some point either Saturday evening or Monday night;

  • If early foul trouble gets to Kentucky's frosh mega-star Anthony Davis (in either one of his games), it could mean "curtains" for the kids from Lexington;

  • And, last but certainly not least, there's the Calipari factor: The brash coach has taken UMass, Memphis and Kentucky to Final Fours before and never won 'em and he even had his Memphis team in 2008 up four points inside the game's final minute of regulation play against Kansas and lost it in overtime - in short, is Calipari one of those tragic figures in sports who simply cannot get it done in a big spot?

 

THE FINAL FOUR - NCAA TOURNAMENT

Superdome - New Orleans, LA - Saturday, March 31, 2012

#1 KENTUCKY (36-2) vs. #4 LOUISVILLE (30-9) - 6:09 p.m. ET, CBS
The Bluegrass State's been going ga-ga over this matchup for the past week - hey, there have even been reports of fisticuffs in the great state of Kentucky in the past 48 hours - and that leads us to an interesting question here:

Does it benefit either one of these teams to have a "physical" game here?

The knee-jerk reaction is to believe it benefits Louisville who may have to resort to something to knock Kentucky off its mark on offense:

The 'Cats - as you can see on our accompanying Jim Sez chart below - have scored 80-plus points in all four of their NCAA Tournament games thus far and keep in mind what Calipari's been saying all year long and that he has seven players on his team that averaged 25-or-more points in high school and so he can turn in most any direction and get production on that end of the floor. The problem for Louisville here is Rick Pitino's team is not very deep as in-season injuries really chewed away at the club's depth and so it's indeed walking a fine line between getting physical with Kentucky and yet not getting into major foul problems.

The strategy?

Let's face it, Louisville - like it or not - will have to go zone for major minutes at a time here so that its starters can stay relatively fresh and than it's all about the fundamentals: Big man Gorgui Dieng must box out and get double-digit boards while not allowing the aforementioned 6-foot-11 Davis to hurt 'em in the low box plus Cardinals guards Peyton Siva, Kyle Kuric and Russ Smith (among others) must get out and defend the triple here and do keep in mind Kentucky's Doron Lamb shoots the three-ball at an amazing 47.1 percent. Note that Kentucky copped a 69-62 verdict against Louisville way back on December 31st at Rupp Arena and we say Pitino would "sign" up keeping the 'Cats to 70-points or less and take a shot that his guys have a spur or two in 'em that could swipe this one.

Naturally, Smith - who scored 30 points in that first meeting with Kentucky and who rescued the 'Ville in last Saturday's come-from-behind 72-68 win against Florida in Elite 8 action - must provide some "instant offense" but the real key on this end of the floor is Siva as he must limit his silly turnovers and get folks their shots from comfy places (see fresh F Chase Behanan who is averaging 14 ppg in this tourney).

If Kentucky stars Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones get enough openings to go straight to the hoop here, than 8 ½-point pup Louisville surely will be sunk and so keep close attention to how many in-the-paint points the Wildcats get here - if it's 25-or-less on the game than the upset-minded Redbirds will have a shot.

KENTUCKY'S NCAA TOURNAMENT GAMES

DATE FAVORITE SPREAD DOG RESULT
3-15 Kentucky - 26.5 Western Kentucky Kentucky 81-66
3-17 Kentucky - 12 Iowa State Kentucky 87-71
3-23 Kentucky - 9.5 Indiana Kentucky 102-90
3-25 Kentucky - 8.5 Baylor Kentucky 82-70

LOUISVILLE'S NCAA TOURNAMENT GAMES

DATE FAVORITE SPREAD DOG RESULT
3-15 Louisville - 5.5 Davidson Louisville 69-62
3-17 Louisville - 2 New Mexico Louisville 59-56
3-22 Michigan State - 5.5 Louisville Louisville 57-44
3-24 Florida - 1 Louisville Louisville 72-68

 

#2 OHIO STATE (31-7) vs. #2 KANSAS (31-6) - approximately 8:45 p.m. ET, CBS
If defense wins championships, than maybe it's the Kansas Jayhawks who will be wearing the national championship crown come Monday night.

Consider that Bill Self's club is yielding just 58.5 points per game in this year's tourney (note that Ohio State is allowing just 65.3 points a game) and even the veteran head coach has gotten a chuckle from this "winning ugly" talk but the reality of the situation is that seven-footer Jeff Withey has become a "goaltender" or "rim protector" - we're using Self's words, folks - and so scoring on the Jayhawks has become a tall task and than consider the Kansas guards have become more active defensively as this tourney's gone on with PG Tyshawn Taylor getting five steals in last Sunday's Elite 8 win against North Carolina.

How does 2 ½-point favorite Ohio State counter the Kansas defensive strengths?

In short, the Buckeyes must have great ball movement here with point guard Aaron Craft needed to be much sharper than he was in last week's two wins in Boston against both Cincinnati and Syracuse - might Craft need to relax a bit here because the soph star looks awfully jacked-up in these NCAA Tournament games? No doubt that Ohio State head coach Thad Matta must stress that the ball needs to be moved side-to-side quickly so as to keep the likes of Withey, Taylor and F Thomas Robinson off balance but - that said - Buckeye F Deshaun Thomas (averaging 22.3 ppg in this tourney) and F/C Jared Sullinger (17.6 ppg this tournament) have to be aggressive and count on this tandem getting 35-to-40 shots between 'em if the Big 10 team knows what is good for 'em!

Yes, everyone knows that G William Buford remains in a major offensive funk and time is running out trying to figure how to fix him but we believe someone on O-State's bench is gonna have to make some big plays here - remember the bench chipped in just 8 points and 5 rebounds in 20 man-minutes against Syracuse last Saturday night - and so Matta may need C Amir Williams or reserve F Sam Thompson to give the 'Eyes a boost here.

Finally, keep your eye on this X-factor at work: The Buckeyes shot a collective 50-of-69 last weekend in those two games - folks, that's 19 missed FTs and something that's bound to come and haunt a team if it's not careful. Hey, with all these missed free throws all throughout this tournament (and all throughout the year) would it really be a surprise if some team here cost itself a shot at the championship game with foul-line blunders?

OHIO STATE'S NCAA TOURNAMENT GAMES

DATE FAVORITE SPREAD DOG RESULT
3-15 Ohio State - 17.5 Loyola-Md. Ohio State 78-59
3-17 Ohio State - 7.5 Gonzaga Ohio State 73-66
3-22 Ohio State - 7.5 Cincinnati Ohio State 81-66
3-24 Ohio State - 2.5 Syracuse Ohio State 77-70

KANSAS' NCAA TOURNAMENT GAMES

DATE FAVORITE SPREAD DOG RESULT
3-16 Kansas - 13.5 Detroit Kansas 65-50
3-18 Kansas - 8 Purdue Kansas 63-60
3-23 Kansas - 8.5 N.C. State Kansas 60-57
3-25 Kansas - 2 North Carolina Kansas 80-67

MORE FINAL FOUR GOODIES

Kentucky (SEC), Louisville (Big East), Ohio State (Big 10) and Kansas (Big 12) each represent one of College Basketball's power conferences - no ACC or Pac-12 reps this year - and so here's a look at how these leagues have fared spreadwise thus far in this 2012 NCAA Tournament: Note that the four power conferences left standing in this year's Final Four have a collective pointspread record of 34-27-2 ATS (against the spread) that equates into a .557 winning rate.

CONF/LG WON LOST TIED PCT
SEC 7 3 1 .700
Big 10 10 6 0 .625
Big East 12 10 0 .545
Big 12 5 8 1 .385

 

THE NBA NOTEBOOK

Wasn't this lockout-abbreviated NBA 2011-12 season supposed to wear down the likes of the "old" San Antonio Spurs?

Hey, that's hardly been the case as the Spurs - winners of nine of their last 10 games while heading into Saturday night's home game against Indiana - actually enter this last weekend in March with the fourth-best regular-season record in the NBA with a sizzling 35-14 mark and who is counting them out now as possible NBA champs? Not us!

In fact, while the Spurs have been hot-hot-hot lately, there have been other high-powered NBA squads not exactly playing lights-out basketball these days as Sunshine Staters Miami and Orlando both were just 6-4 SU (straight-up) in their last 10 games at last look while the grouchy Los Angeles Lakers may be playing .620 ball despite all these in-game benchings (see Kobe Bryant and Kevin Bynum) but really have to hold on strong to fend off the LA Clippers for top prize in the NBA's Pacific Division.

True, there's still a month of pro hoops before we even get to the playoffs - the final night of regular-season play is Thursday, April 26th - but count the Heat, Magic and Lakers as three "championship-caliber" clubs that would like to be playing better than this right about now.

And talking about the playoffs, there remain fierce battles for playoff berths/seedings and here's a couple of what-to-watch items:

In the NBA's Eastern Conference, there are a batch of teams looking to avoid finishing in seventh and/or eighth place so that they can avoid playing Chicago (41-11) and/or Miami (36-13) in the first round of playoff action and so it's vital that the injury-strapped New York Knicks make a real run at the Atlantic Division where Mike Woodson's guys are 2 ½-games back of both Boston and Philadelphia and it'll be interesting to see where Atlanta winds up as the Hawks have star Joe Johnson back in the fold and note Atlanta's a solid 23-13 against fellow conference foes - finishing in fourth best gets 'em home court in Round I and steers 'em clear of Chicago/Miami/Orlando for the time being.

In the NBA's Western Conference, don't mark down the Oklahoma City Thunder (38-12) as the sure-shot conference champ and #1 seed out West just yet as those aforementioned Spurs could make a run at 'em even though head coach Gregg Popovich wisely rests his star players here-and-there. Count us among the folks that will be fascinated if/when the Utah Jazz makes the playoffs as this club has won seven of its last 10 games overall and somehow rebounded from last Sunday's four-OT loss in Atlanta to win handily in New Jersey the very next night. If the Jazz finishes as high as sixth, than it could be fun stuff watching Al Jefferson and mates battle the Lakers who have become a reality TV show of their own lately. And, yes, it's quite possible that the Dallas Mavericks - last year's NBA champs - won't have home court advantage for any playoff series this spring as the Mavs right now are fifth in the West (would play the Clippers in Round I if the season ended today).

MLB QUICK-HITTER PREVIEW

We promise a lengthy Major-League Baseball Preview column next week as we draw nearer to the "real" Opening Day - that's the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals at the new-look Miami Marlins on Wednesday (7:05 p.m. ET on ESPN) followed by Seven (7) games on Thursday, April 5th - but let's get you our Jim Sez look at the individual award winners plus some more goodies:

NATIONAL LEAGUE

MVP - Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Colorado Rockies - Maybe spring training doesn't "mean anything" but this do-it-all star did lead the NL with 16 RBI and it won't surprise us if he finishes the 2012 season with 100-plus RBI, 100-plus runs scored and a .330 batting average with 25-or-so home runs. We say he beats out Cincinnati 1B Joey Votto and Atlanta 2B Dan Uggla.

Cy Young - Matt Cain, RHP, San Francisco Giants - Five of the last six NL Cy Young award winners have hailed from the West (including last year's winner Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers) and so we'll stay the course here and look for a 20-win season from this talented hurler who could use some run support.

Manager of the Year - Jim Tracy, Colorado Rockies - Last year's 73-89 season is deep in the rear-view mirror and now the Rocks look to rebound with a better starting rotation and if Tracy handles his bullpen/bench right than it could mean a playoff spot.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

MVP - Evan Longoria, 3B, Tampa Bay Rays - If this Gold Glover with power can just stay healthy for 140-to-150 games this year than his stats could have 'em being a runaway league MVP over the likes of new-guys-on-the-block 1B Albert Pujols (Los Angeles Angels) and 1B/DH Prince Fielder (Detroit).

Cy Young - Jon Lester, LHP. Boston - Maybe the heat from last year's September swoon/clubhouse chicken and beer fest will get this southpaw into a serious tone for new manager Bobby Valentine and we're calling for this Bosox hurler to win 21 or 21 games and lead his gang to a playoff berth.

Manager of the Year - Bob Melvin, Oakland A's - The Las Vegas folks claim the A's will win 72 or 73 games this year but expect this Bay Area bunch to be on the plus side of the .500 mark and we promise Melvin will manage the rest of his team's games in North America.

NOTE: More NBA, MLB and NCAA Championship Game News/Notes straight ahead in the next Jim Sez.

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