The Final Four!
So this is what the madness is all about? What a weekend for college basketball fans, as the tournament seemed to put together the greatest string of overtime thrillers and fantastic finishes in the history of March. There was Texas winning at the buzzer on a three-pointer, only to beat beaten in OT by LSU two days later. There was Washington close to upsetting No. 1 UConn, only to see the Huskies rebound on an overtime forcing trey with 1.8 seconds left. And there was UCLA's rise from the dead in a heart-stopping final flourish against shocked Gonzaga. If only Howard Cosell were still around to broadcast these March "Thrillas."
While we catch out breath for the Final Four, let's take a close look and see if something rises from the sports betting ashes to catch our attention. Ahh, there it is, plain as the nose on Howard's face and just as distinct as his nasally voice: DEFENSE was the storyline sandwiched between all the thrilling comebacks and finishes.
And nobody played it better than LSU. The Tigers aren't just big Glen Davis (Mr. Inside) and sensational leaping freshman Tyrus Thomas. John Brady has the guards rotating feverishly to get a hand in every shooter's face and playing help defense. They may not be pretty, but the Tigers make everyone play their game: Slow the pace down and play punishing defense while pushing the ball inside on offense. LSU shot only 39% and 42% against Duke and Texas, but they won both.
They held Duke to an incredible 27.7 percent shooting and 5-of-26 from long range. You have to really digest those numbers again. Duke is a disciplined, dynamic offense that can score from anywhere and Coach K gives everyone on the floor the freedom to shoot if they are open. Well very few were open, especially star J.J. Redick who got stifled into a chaotic 3-for-18 shooting night. Lest anyone think that was a fluke LSU did it to Texas on Saturday allowing 30 percent shooting in their 70-66 upset win in overtime. That puts LSU at 21-10 under the total for the season. LSU topped Texas despite shooting 3-of-18 from three-point land! How many tourney teams can shoot like that from the long distance area code and still be alive to celebrate? They are where they are (still playing) primarily because of defense.
UCLA's defense kept them in the Gonzaga game and allowed them to survive an abysmal start and 40 percent shooting from the field. Yes, they made a miraculous comeback at the end, but rest assured that a weak or average defensive team never would have been in a position to come back like that. Florida held Georgetown to 38.9 percent shooting and Villanova squeezed by BC despite shooting 35 percent
On Saturday, the under was 3-1 in tourney games, with both Memphis and George Mason advancing, allowing 33 percent and 31 percent shooting. The better defensive teams won and covered the number easily in those wins over Bradley and Wichita. You may recall when UCLA and Memphis met earlier in the season, the Tigers won 88-80. Well, Ben Howland got the troops to play better defense in the rematch Saturday, and held Memphis to 21 first half points! Memphis shot 28 percent in the first half and was 0-for-10 from long range. UCLA allows 59 ppg on the season and is 20-12 under the total. Again, defense is the lynchpin that leads to wins, many covers and unders. The unders went 6-2 Friday, Saturday, and Sunday
Kenton Paulino was the hero for Texas Thursday when he beat West Virginia with a 3-pointer at the buzzer. But against the LSU defense on Saturday, notice Paulino went 0-for-5 from outside the arc. LSU is now 8-3 against the spread as an underdog, and UCLA is 7-2 ATS as a dog. Dogs that play great defense are worth a serious look!
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