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December 19, 2014

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Three Vegas long shots face off with Goliath Gators in Final Four

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John Bazemore / AP

Florida forward Casey Prather celebrates a 3-point shot against UCLA during the second half in a regional semifinal game at the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, March 27, 2014, in Memphis, Tenn. Florida won 79-68.

Only two teams in the past decade have overcome odds of 25-to-1 or higher at the beginning of the NCAA Tournament to win the national championship.

An event celebrated for upsets has become devoid of them at the tail end of the bracket.

“That’s been the trend lately,” said Ed Salmons, assistant sports book director at the LVH Superbook, who oversees college basketball betting. “All season it’s hard to say any team is a cinch to get to the Final Four, but then someone gets there, and they’re seemingly invincible.”

There’s no debate about which team deserves favorite status heading into this year’s Final Four, which commences Saturday with the national-semifinal games: No. 1 overall seed Florida is by far the most likely champion.

But the Gators’ minus-110 (risking $1.10 to win $1) price at William Hill sports books still calculates to less than a 46 percent probability of them winning it all when adjusting for the house’s hold. That means there’s better than a 54 percent chance, according to converted future odds from William Hill, that a third team will join the exclusive 25-to-1 or higher group Monday night in Dallas.

The three teams other than Florida in this year’s Final Four were relative long shots in Las Vegas sports books two weeks ago.

West Regional champion Wisconsin, a No. 2 seed, went off the LVH Superbook betting board before the start of the tournament at 25-to-1. The Badgers were seen as twice as likely to hoist the crystal basketball as their Final Four opponent, Midwest Regional champion and No. 8 seed Kentucky, which was 50-to-1.

No. 7 seed Connecticut, which came out of the East Regional, is the team that could become the biggest underdog to cut down the nets in nearly 30 years. The Huskies were 100-to-1.

“I think, out of all the teams, UConn is the most surprising,” Salmons said. “I didn’t think they had it in them because they are such an outside, 3-point shooting team, but they managed to do it.”

At plus-750 (risking $1 to win $7.50), Vegas odds give the Huskies a 10 percent chance of winning the title. Kentucky is plus-280, putting its probability right under 23 percent. Wisconsin comes in at 3-to-1, translating to slightly less than 22 percent.

The odds issue a warning: Don’t discount the underdogs’ likelihood of biting back on the Gators this weekend.

Florida’s only two losses, after all, came in games against this set of three teams. The Gators were underdogs on just four occasions throughout the season. Three of the times were against these fellow Final Four participants.

They covered plus-4 in a road game against Saturday’s opponent, UConn, but fell 65-64 outright on a last-second shot by Shabazz Napier. Now the NCAA Tournament’s leading scorer at 23 points per game, Napier handed Florida its second loss of the season with 26 points that included five 3-pointers.

“Florida didn’t look like Florida that night,” Salmons said. “They had a lot of different parts than where they are now, a night and day difference. I’d be shocked if UConn can beat them two times in a year.”

The Gators gave closer to their typical defensive performance against the tournament’s second-leading scorer, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky at 18.5 points per game, in a meeting earlier this year. Florida held Kaminsky to eight points, but Wisconsin prevailed anyway and cashed tickets in the process, covering minus-5.5 by a half-point at home in a 59-53 win.

Kentucky gave Florida points, plus-2.5, in the teams’ first of three meetings February at Rupp Arena when the Gators cruised to a 69-59 victory.

If the SEC rivals were to meet in the national championship, the spread might be just as close to that number as the line from when they first met at a neutral site in their conference’s tournament championship. Florida was minus-6.5, narrowly escaping 61-60, but the perception of Kentucky has increased significantly since it won four straight to reach the Final Four.

“They’ve gone from underrated by the tournament selection committee to overrated by the point spread,” Salmons said.

Salmons still can’t believe he had to post Kentucky as a 1.5-point favorite over Wisconsin in Saturday’s second game. He understands the line was necessary, though, and the action to this point justifies it could have been higher.

Kentucky is getting “completely one-sided support” at the betting window, Salmons said. It continues a lean that began after Kentucky upset Wichita State 78-76 as a 4.5-point underdog in the round of 32.

“The public jumped on Kentucky after they beat Wichita because Wichita was the public’s favorite team,” he said. “When they beat them, the public reversed it and said, ‘OK, we’re going to bet them now.’ They bet them against Louisville and then really bet them against Michigan, so I’m not surprised they’re taking them against Wisconsin.

“But there’s no way they should be favored against Wisconsin. I think Wisconsin is a much better team. This is a battle-tested team with a lot of seniors. This isn’t a team showing up off of the street like, ‘Hey, look, we finally made it to the Final Four,’ but that’s how the public is betting.”

Salmons has less of an explanation for the betting market’s collective thoughts on the first game, in which UConn takes 6.5 points from Florida. Bettors are taking the Huskies on the point spread but overwhelmingly siding with Florida at minus-320 (risking $3.20 to win $1) on the moneyline to win straight up. Gamblers loading up on that chalky of a price is a rare phenomenon.

One possible theory? Bettors know the history and expect a repeat with the favorite gliding past the competition in the end.

“When you get to this stage, anyone can win a game,” Salmons said. “So it’s surprising the favorites just keep winning the tournament year after year.”

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

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