One of the most exciting NCAA Tournaments of all time comes to a close this weekend as the much anticipated Final Four tips off Saturday at 6:00 pm EST. This year’s national semifinal games will feature the Michigan Wolverines taking on America’s sweethearts the Chicago Loyola Ramblers followed by the blue-blooded Kansas Jayhawks and 2015-16’s champions the Villanova Wildcats.
All four teams have had unique journeys as they’ve scratched and clawed their way to the pinnacle of college basketball betting (and basketball betting in general), and there are cases to be made for betting on each one of them. This preview will serve as a breakdown of each program’s road to San Antonio, odds, advantages and our official pick in hopes of helping potential betters bring home the bacon.
Let’s start with the longshots who sport one of the most intriguing Cinderella stories in years. The Ramblers have thus far proven any and all doubters wrong on a remarkable run to basketball immortality. It would be easy to expect the double-digit-seeded Loyola to just be “happy to be here” but that would ignore the way they got to the Alamodome.
Coach Porter Moser’s squad isn’t so much lucky to be in the Final Four as they’ve gotten progressively better and scarier with each tournament victory. It took two lucky shots in the first two rounds to get past sixth-seeded Miami 64-62 and then third-seeded Tennessee 63-62. That would’ve been satisfying enough for any Chicagoland fan, but Loyola rambled on to the Sweet 16 to hold off a frantic comeback from Nevada 69-68.
By the time they reached the Elite Eight, the Ramblers were a well-oiled dream crushing machine as they dominated ninth-seeded Kansas State 78-62. In that game as the school marched on to its first Final Four since 1963, the Ramblers didn’t look happy to be there. They looked like they belonged there.
Loyola still faces 10/1 odds with top bookies at cutting down the nets on Monday, but picking against the Ramblers and Sister Jean has already driven betters crazy throughout March. The Wolverines’ offense has been smoking, but Loyola is adept at cooling off hot shooting teams and forcing them to play its slow methodical game.
The Ramblers take care of the basketball, don’t get spooked by big moments and know how to match their opponents blow-for-blow. They play with authority while forcing their opponents to scramble and know exactly what they're doing with the ball on every possession. Michigan will be the best team the Ramblers have faced by quite a big margin, but they’ve earned every bit of a close 5.0-point spread.
Michigan needed a miracle to advance to the Sweet 16, but since then have been the hottest team in the tournament. That’s because the Wolverine’s offense finally caught up with its punishing defense creating a lethal one-two punch that’s been tough to bet against. They’re the best defensive team left in the tournament and there’s reason to expect a grueling slugfest against Loyola in the first national semifinal matchup.
The Wolverines held off 13th-seeded Montana 61-47 in the first round, then beat sixth-seeded Houston 64-63 as time expired on freshman Jordan Poole’s deep beyond-the-arc prayer. After seventh-seeded Texas A&M dismantled the defending champion North Carolina Tarheels, it met its match against Michigan in the Sweet 16 as the Wolverines pummeled the Aggies 99-72. The domination continued against Florida State despite a late Seminoles rally that was too little, too late.
John Beilein has been here before coaching in his second Final Four in five years, so he has the experience that could help Michigan manage the pressure of college basketball’s biggest stage. He’s also riding the high of the birth of a grandson which he said “brought a tear to his eye” while making the Final Four “did not.” Beilein faces 5/2 odds to get his first national title and his team is the 20/43 favorite against Loyola according to experts among some newer bookmaker sites.
If the Wolverines march on to the Championship Game, expect them to cover the spread thanks to their offense putting them over the edge and putting the Ramblers in the rearview mirror. If Michigan can manage to get a big lead in the first half, it should have the defense to keep Loyola from catching up, and that would be to their benefit as Loyola has been phenomenal in close games.
The Pick: If you’re expecting this, then bet the over as Michigan’s major advantage is its hot shooting. Loyola +5, Under (129.5)
Kansas heads into a clash of top seeds after beating Duke in the Elite Eight in one of the games of the tournament. After a Grayson Allen shot came up just short as regulation expired, the Jayhawks capitalized on their second life in overtime and put Coach Bill Self through to his third Final Four. Before that, the Jayhawks handled their opposition with professionalism in a businesslike trek to San Antonio.
After outlasting Ivy League champs Pennsylvania in the first round and gritting out an 83-79 battle with the tough Seton Hall Pirates, Kansas got by one of the ACC’s best in Clemson 80-76. The Jayhawks have proven they can beat anyone in the country over and over again this season and with Udoka Azubuike back, healthy and anchoring the paint, their frontcourt can create nightmares for any remaining opposition. Add that to plenty of offensive weapons and the Jayhawks can be expected to keep things close and have a chance to win against Villanova.
The 5.5-point spread gives the Wildcats a lot of credit, as Kansas has done little to earn its dog role versus Nova in the tournament, so expect the Jayhawks to beat the spread at the very least. The Jayhawks are third most likely to win it all facing 3/1 odds, but should outperform those chances given their body of work. They’ll be matched up against the most offensively gifted team in the tournament with 41/20 odds at victory, but they can go tit-for-tat with Villanova.
The Pick: If you’re picking them, take the over (155).
Monday could cap off an incredible second national title run in three seasons for Jay Wright’s Wildcats, as after a second-round hiccup last year, Villanova is back and ready to cut down the nets again. The offensive juggernaut is favored to do so at 11/10 odds being the most impressive overall team left led by an AP First-Team All-American and Wooden Award candidate in Jalen Brunson. Brunson’s toughness and ability to make the Villanova machine churn has been too much for all comers thus far and there’s little evidence to suggest that the Wildcats won’t chug along right through Monday to glory.
Nova avoided falling into the trap that Virginia succumbed to, dispatching its 16-seed in Radford 87-61. The Wildcats found themselves in a halftime dogfight with ninth-seeded Alabama in the Round of 32 but ran away from Collin Sexton and Co. 81-58. They struggled out of the gates again, falling behind in the second half to Bob Huggins’ Press Virginia, but righted the ship and sailed past the Mountaineers 90-78. Then came the hot-shooting Texas Tech Red Raiders who were no match for the battle-hardened Cats as they never really let Tech catch them off-guard in a 71-59 Elite Eight victory.
If picking 20/43-favorite Villanova to cover 5.5 points, there’s little reason not to take the over as there will be offense a plenty in this national semifinal shootout. The team that plays better defense at just the right time should be the victor and Nova has been a master of that so far. While showing their vulnerability here and there, the Wildcats have always turned it on at the right time showing great team situational awareness that could pay dividends Saturday and beyond.
The Pick: Kansas +5.5, Over (155).