The first two tickets to the Final Four will be punched tonight in the West and Midwest Regions respectively with two top-seeded teams taking on heavy underdogs. #1 Gonzaga looks to earn their first-ever Final Four appearance (and get a lot of unfair criticism surrounding their program erased) against plucky #11 Xavier. The Musketeers qualify as a legit Cinderella given both their seed and late-season play, but do keep in mind, this was a preseason Top Ten team who plays in the Big East, so we aren’t exactly talking George Mason here…
The second matchup features another pair of preseason Top Ten teams going head-to-head in #1 Kansas against #3 Oregon. The Ducks, much like Xavier, suffered a key injury, albeit far later in the season (Chris Boucher) but have managed to put it behind them and play well in the NCAA Tournament to survive and advance to one step from the Final Four.
Can either upset-minded squad pull it off? Vegas doesn’t seem to think so, as both favorites are in the -350 to -450 range.
But it is March, and as last night’s insane Wisconsin/Florida game reminded us, ANYTHING can happen. Like, dueling three-point runners at the buzzer to force OT and win the game in OT… No point typing anymore, words ruin it. Simply bananas…
Today’s NCAA Tournament Pick:
Xavier Musketeers vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs -8
Bet against Xavier at your own risk at this point. The seed SAYS they shouldn’t be able to do what they have been doing in this Tournament, but at this point, do the seeds really matter? They have not only won their games to advance, they beat two ranked opponents into submission in the first two rounds and might have beaten the best team in the country two nights ago in Arizona. Trevon Blueitt is in the discussion for “Best Player in the Entire NCAA Tournament” after yet another jaw-droppingly efficient offensive domination against Arizona (an elite cabal of perimeter defenders as well), and they seem to have moved well-past the injury to Edmond Sumner with redefined roles and more varied contributions.
Make no mistake, Gonzaga is the favorite and deservedly so. They have been the best team in the country all season and have some really good wins (Florida, St. Mary’s, Arizona) to validate the otherwise soft schedule. I just don’t think this game is the blowout Vegas is predicting.
It goes back to my earliest sentiment in this column. Yes, Xavier lost six in a row late and needed to fatten up on DePaul thrice in order to ensure their bid. BUT, they were reeling from a MAJOR injury losing their point guard and NBA prospect. This is STILL a team that was Preseason Top Ten – so not some under-talented small conference debutante. Xavier has been to the ball before and is no stranger to this stage. In fact, over the last decade, they have had far more Tournament success than Gonzaga.
Xavier will be challenged with Gonzaga’s size, but they managed to cope with Arizona, whose bigs I would give a slight edge in a head-to-head comparison.
I am not going all-in with X on the moneyline, but I don’t think they are getting pinked either. Eight points is a lot, and I’ll take the soft cushion of the points and look forward to another tense NCAA thriller.
My Pick: XAVIER MUSKETEERS +8