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Updated on 09/17/2011 2:16PM
March Madness: Chalk looks good on Thursday
If you're anything like me, you're probably going through withdrawals since Sunday when four action-packed days of the NCAA men's basketball tournament wrapped up.
But you won't have to use the NIT or the women's tourney as the hoops equivalent of a nicotine patch for much longer.
NCAA play resumes Thursday and Friday with four regional semifinals apiece - still a relative letdown from last Thursday and Friday's full menu of 16 games each day, but the games promise to be just as thrilling. None of the eight games have a double-digit spread, and six of the eight have lines of less than five points.
This is a reflection of the parity of major college basketball in which any team can beat any other team on a given Thursday through Sunday, but the feeling here is that it's also a result of the public being more and more willing to bet underdogs and the oddsmakers being forced to adjust the lines downward.
Last Thursday, I wrote, "We could be starting to see a case where there is actually more value now on the favorites because of this overadjustment in the market" and I went with four favorites and only two underdogs. That didn't pan out as much as I thought as favorites and dogs split the eight games that day, but I navigated the minefield enough to post a 4-2 record.
Well, I see the same thing this Thursday. I prefer three of the four favorites in the regional semifinals and I'm going with two of them - both coincidentally from the East Rutherford bracket - that I feel should have higher spreads.
7:27 p.m. EST at East Rutherford, N.J.
These were my two picks to win it all leading up to the NCAA tournament and I was a little disappointed to see them both in the same region. When I was doing my brackets after Selection Sunday, I thought Oklahoma St. would prevail in this matchup and I didn't see anything last Friday and Sunday to change my opinion.
Pittsburgh plays great defense, which is widely known, as ESPN has pointed out on several telecasts this week that the Panthers have allowed a combined 99 points in their two games. But I'm hear to tell you that Oklahoma St. plays great defense, too, and consider this: OSU has given up only 109 points while playing a more uptempo style of game. That's actually more impressive.
In any sports handicapping, it's important to not judge units that don't face each other. Saying one team has a better defense is irrelevant unless you factor in the offense each defense has to try to stop. And that's where I see Oklahoma St. having the edge in this game.
Pitt can shut down a lot of teams, but I don't see them doing it to OSU. John Lucas (14.9 points and over 4 assists per game) runs the show from the point, but he has a solid supporting cast with Tony Allen (16.1 ppg), the slashing Joey Graham (11.5 ppg), improving big man Ivan McFarlin (12.1 ppg) and the occasional 3-point shooting of Daniel Bobik. The Cowboys don't rely on the trey, but they're very efficient at 38.7 percent on the season.
Pitt has a balanced offense, too - I especially like the penetration of guard Carl Krauser and the inside play of forwards Chris Taft and Chevon Troutman - but the Panthers just don't have that explosiveness to go on runs vs. Oklahoma St. and I think that will prove to be the difference.
An added insurance policy is that the Panthers shoot only 65 percent from the foul line, so if Pitt does get the lead, the Cowboys should be able to get back in the game. I'm counting on that not being necessary.
PLAY: Oklahoma St. for 1 unit.
9:57 p.m. EST at East Rutherford N.J.
This line also seems to be shaded too low. I guess this gives St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli a little more bulletin-board material against Wake Forest, his buddy Billy Packer's alma mater.
A lot of Wake Forest supporters are pointing to how guard Chris Paul will match up with Jameer Nelson of St. Joe's, the likely NCAA player of the year. Paul has had a great freshman year and an outstanding tournament, but while he might help limit Nelson's point production, who is going to shut down Delonte West and Pat Carroll? Nelson is a team player - as he showed when he started cold vs. Texas Tech and let West take the spotlight. Nelson still got his points, but it's that type of team play that should carry St. Joe's to the next round. If the Hawks aren't hitting open jumpers, they'll be making backdoor cuts for easy layups. I can see Nelson getting 10 assists in this game.
Wake Forest doesn't play defense nor hit the boards as hard as a team need to in order to knock off St. Joe's. The Demon Deacons struggled to get past Virginia Commonwealth in the first round and then was nearly upset by Manhattan in the second round. Their run of luck should end here.
PLAY: St. Joseph's for 1 unit.
Other Thursday games
Here's a look at the two games in the Phoenix bracket. As noted below, my non-bankroll picks are well below .500, so take these with a grain of salt. I'm passing them for a reason:
Connecticut (-8 1/2) vs. Vanderbilt: Here's a line that I wish was shaded a little lower. Vandy is lucky to be here - nearly losing to Western Michigan in the opening round and then benefiting from stupid North Carolina St. fouls on 3-pointers and an unnecessary (and highly controversial) intentional foul - while UConn has rolled to its two victories. Vandy doesn't have an answer for UConn's Emeka Okafor, who should lead the Huskies to a comfortable lead. I'm just not making it a bankroll play because of the potential of a backdoor cover.
Alabama (+1 1/2) vs. Syracuse: This is a toss-up as reflected in the line. Alabama benefits from playing against the nation's toughest schedule, and that has helped them in two close wins by a combined four points. I won't be betting this game, but will be cheering for whatever team wins to do it very impressively so I won't have to lay too many points with UConn in the regional final because I think the Huskies rout either of these teams as they both have trouble against big men like Okafor.
Bankroll record through first two rounds: 12-8 for a net profit of 3.2 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). Record on non-bankroll plays: 12-16-1. Record on all tournament games: 24-24-1.
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