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July 31, 2014

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NCAA Tournament by the odds: Vegas picks and preview of the Final Four

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Mark J. Terrill / AP

Wisconsin guard Traevon Jackson (12) competes against Baylor forward Cory Jefferson (34) for a rebound during the second half of an NCAA men’s college basketball tournament regional semifinal,Thursday, March 27, 2014, in Anaheim, Calif.

This year's Final Four counts as a living example of why sports books don’t allow wagers parlaying the winners of the four NCAA Tournament regions.

A $100 bet stringing Florida, Wisconsin, Connecticut and Kentucky to reach the national semifinals together would have paid out $109,000 at the LVH Superbook.

No. 7 seed Connecticut and No. 8 seed Kentucky were both 10-to-1 to win their respective regions, boosting the imaginary parlay with No. 1 seed Florida at even money and No. 2 seed Wisconsin at 7-to-2.

Let’s be real: It’s highly unlikely anyone would have gambled on that combination. Out of the millions of brackets submitted to Yahoo! Sports, only 191 labeled the four correct Final Four teams.

But that’s still more exposure than sports books are comfortable giving.

Since striking it rich that way wasn’t an option, it’s back to picking games against the spread. A 3-1 record on the Elite 8 leaves the blog’s overall NCAA Tournament record at a meager 29-33-4 picking every game — an unwinnable long-term strategy employed for entertainment only — but an outstanding 6-3 on top-confidence plays.

Find the picks for the Final Four below, which are listed in order of confidence as always.

No. 2 seed Wisconsin plus-2 over No. 8 seed Kentucky

Rewind two weeks ago, and Kentucky would have never been favored over Wisconsin, let alone taking enough action to push the spread further in its direction. This might sound hypocritical after I justified taking Kentucky over Michigan by writing that the Wildcats were playing like everyone expected at the beginning of the season, and therefore, deserved a point or two extra.

But the difference is Michigan had looked somewhat unimpressive eking out a 2-1 against-the-spread record in the tournament versus a path of patsies to the Elite 8. By contrast, Wisconsin has played — gasp — better than Kentucky. The Badgers are 4-0 against the spread in the NCAA Tournament, covering by an average of 11.5 points per game. The Wildcats are also unbeaten at the betting window but covering by just four points per game. As well as Kentucky has played, three straight games have come down to the last minute, where it’s been fortunate to escape.

The popular reason for picking Kentucky is its advantage in athleticism. That sounds more like a negative perception of Wisconsin teams from the past than anything based in reality. True, the Badgers can pummel opponents in their half-court sets. But they’re just as likely to pile on points in transition. Wisconsin’s tempo, according to the Pomeroy Ratings, is just marginally slower than Kentucky’s on the year. Wisconsin junior Frank Kaminsky, who can score from anywhere on the court, might be a tougher matchup than any of Kentucky’s future NBA All-Stars.

Take more than the point spread. Think about Wisconsin at plus-110 (risking $1 to win $1.10) on the moneyline and consider rolling over the winnings to Monday night’s national title game because this team is championship caliber.

No. 1 seed Florida minus-6 over No. 7 seed Connecticut

I’ve rolled back and forth as much as a husky begging for a belly scratch trying to pick this game. That’s a sign that the point spread is lethally accurate.

Even though they lost to the Huskies earlier this season, the Gators are clearly the far superior team. But they don’t tend to blow teams away, even ones way more overmatched than UConn, with an 18-15 against-the-spread record that rates the worst of the Final Four teams. With the Gators 2-2 against the spread in the tournament, they haven’t served as a nuisance to sports book directors by cashing tickets for the public in bulk like recent No. 1 overall seeds. UConn has been straight gold to the casinos, coming through in every game while money flows in on the other side.

And now, suddenly, it’s changing. Early reports indicate slightly more bets on UConn than Florida in the Final Four. It’s a perfect time to jump off of the public underdog. It’s hard for bettors to know what they’re going to get out of UConn anyway. The Huskies have the highest variance rank, according to ESPN’s Basketball Percentage Index, out of any of the Final Four teams. Florida rates dead last nationally in variance. The Gators are dangerously consistent.

Kevin Ollie has done a masterful job getting UConn to this spot, but the often-overlooked coaching edge is squarely in Florida’s corner. Billy Donovan is even sharper with time to prepare, and he’s gone 3-0 against the spread covering every game by at least seven points in the national-semifinal round. He’ll have a plan for dazzling UConn senior Shabazz Napier.

The Kemba Walker comparisons will cease prematurely.

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

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