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October 24, 2014

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NCAA Tournament by the odds: Vegas picks and preview of championship game

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Eric Gay / AP

Connecticut players celebrate against Florida in the final moments of the NCAA Final Four game Saturday, April 5, 2014, in Arlington, Texas. Connecticut won 63-53.

National championship betting

Which side would you take in the national championship game?
Kentucky -2.5 — 50.1%
UConn +2.5 — 49.9%

This poll is closed, see Full Results »

Note: This is not a scientific poll. The results reflect only the opinions of those who chose to participate.

Las Vegas’ two pre-NCAA Tournament favorites are gone now, both banished back-to-back by the hands of Connecticut.

Florida and Michigan State went off the LVH Superbook betting board as co-favorites at 4-to-1 to win the national championship. UConn pulled off an extremely rare feat in subduing both of them. Sports book odds gave the Huskies just a 7 percent chance of consecutively ousting the Spartans and Gators, and yet, they did it without any late-game suspense.

Perhaps UConn should have engaged in something dramatic. Maybe then the Huskies would have gotten the reverence of their national championship opponent Monday night.

Kentucky faced two teams that were 20-to-1 at the start of the tournament — Wisconsin and Michigan — in its last two games. The Wildcats were favored by a couple points in both and, even combining the odds together, had a 35 percent chance to get past the Big Ten duo.

They didn’t escape near as decisively as UConn in either contest, needing a pair of last-second shots, but found themselves as the anointed ones. Kentucky is a 2.5-point favorite over Connecticut in the title game, and not a single national-television analyst picked against the Wildcats once the matchup was set Saturday night.

Will the blog follow course or fade the majority opinion? Find out below in my final pick against the spread after analyzing every game of the tournament.

I’m 30-34-4 against the spread overall — not pretty, but picking every game is an unwinnable strategy reserved for entertainment purposes — but 7-3 in top-confidence plays.

No. 8 seed Kentucky minus-2.5 over No.7 seed Connecticut

The overwhelming public sentiment in favor of Kentucky is the most compelling reason to pick UConn. While a contrarian approach to prognostication is often worthwhile, it’s not enough on its own.

And the action in Las Vegas isn’t that lopsided anyway, at least not yet. Sports books that opened the national championship spread at 3 got bets on Connecticut. Shops that went with 2.5 attracted Kentucky money. The split showed the national championship betting market was efficient from the start.

It was somewhat surprising. I unscientifically made this number minus-3.5 or minus-4 for Kentucky after watching the national semifinals.

The ease with which Kentucky found high-percentage shots against Wisconsin was jarring, continuing a tournament-long trend for the Wildcats. When Kentucky ran offense through its big men or had James Young penetrate, it almost always got a shot at the rim.

Kentucky finished with 46 points in the paint. Aaron Harrison’s 3-pointers are the moments sports channels will repeat on loop until the end of time, but the Wildcats have gotten to this point by pounding the ball inside more than anything else.

If Kentucky sticks to that gameplan — granted, a big “if” given its toddler-aged core’s tendency to drift — the crystal basketball is the Wildcats’ to lose. Florida and Michigan State both had success attacking UConn but abandoned the aggressiveness during critical runs by the Huskies.

UConn has outscored all of its NCAA Tournament opponents in the paint, too, just not to the level of Kentucky. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright might drive better than anyone on Kentucky’s roster, and DeAndre Daniels’ emergence has opened up a swath of easy scoring opportunities throughout March Madness.

The Huskies have navigated through some prolific big men in the tournament, but they’ll have to get past two of them — some combination of Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee — at all times tonight. Kentucky’s defense has improved late in the season, though it still lags behind UConn’s.

That’s a major concern, and one reason why my confidence level on Kentucky rates somewhere between minuscule and nonexistent. But the onus will fall on UConn to make outside shots, which it’s more than capable of pulling off.

The Huskies shot 56 percent from the field in knocking off the Gators, a sky-high figure that should regress. Given the Wildcats’ dribble-drive, they have a better chance to convert on half of their shots like they did against the Badgers in a repeat performance.

Kentucky’s small asking price gets the lean for now.

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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