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The Final Four!

   by Jim Feist - 04/01/2009

It is a great weekend for sports fans with the Final Four and the culmination of the college basketball season next Monday in Detroit for the national championship. It is clear that it is not the teams the start the season hot, but the ones that get hot when it really matters -- March and April!
Many things happen over the course of a long season. Some teams play great basketball in December and January, only to break down from injuries or run out of steam down the stretch. Cincinnati is a good example, winning 10 of 12 games to start the season. Overrated (and overvalued), the Bearcats finished the season on a 1-6 SU/ATS run. Two years ago Clemson started 17-0, then failed to even make the Big Dance after a 4-10 SU, 5-9 ATS run. Kansas may have won the title last year, but four years ago it was a very different story: The Jayhawks started 20-1, only to go 3-6 straight up and 1-8 against the spread the last nine games. They never made it to the Final Four because of a 64-63 loss to Bucknell as a 13½-point favorite.
Other times an easy early season schedule, youth, bad coaching, untimely injuries, bad luck, poor team chemistry or a combination of these can cut down a potentially great team. Youth and a loss of its best players certainly fell Florida the last two years after winning back-to-back titles.
Wake Forest had a disastrous finish to what had been a fine season, bowing out early in the ACC tourney to Maryland as a 6-point favorite, then getting upset by Cleveland State as 8-point chalk in the first Big Dance contest. This is nothing new. Last year No. 2 seed Georgetown took itself out of the tournament, blowing a 46-29 lead by trying to stall against Davidson with far too much time left.
Two years ago Wisconsin was a No. 2 seed, but suffered a key late season loss in 6-11 Brian Butch, their leading rebounder and third-leading scorer. They weren't the same group, getting smacked by Ohio State in the Big 10 tourney and an upset loss to UNLV in the Big Dance.
It is very easy for sports bettors to look into trends to try and predict the future. Trends can be helpful if there are reasons to support it. For example, from a betting perspective, what stands out about the last seven Finals Fours?

Score Line
2008: Kansas 84 158
North Carolina 66 3
UCLA 63 135
Memphis 78 3

2007: Georgetown 60 1
Ohio St. 67 130
UCLA 66 131
Florida 76 3

2006: G. Mason 58 132
Florida 73 -6
LSU 45 -2
UCLA 59 123

2005: Louisville 57 144
Illiniois 72 -3
Michigan St. 71 153
North Carolina 87 -2

2004: Georgia Tech 67 139
Oklahoma St. 65 -4
UConn 79 -2
Duke 78 144

2003: Marquette 61 -4½
Kansas 94 153½
Syracuse 95 153
Texas 84 -3

2002: Indiana 73 134
Oklahoma 64 6½
Maryland 97 168
Kansas 88 -1½

What stands out is that it has been the day of the dog. The underdog is 9-4 against the number, with eight dogs winning straight up, including Ohio State last season. In addition, the games have gone 8-6 "over" the total, although the "under" is 4-2 the last three years. You can even make an argument that this would be the right time of the college hoops' season to take a shot with the dog on the money-line. However, this is where one needs patience, because trends can also be a fool's paradise. The last four years the favorites are 5-3 ATS. So if you had used that dog strategy the last two years you would have gone 3-5.
If you go back to the previous three Final Fours before that survey, 1999-01, we find Duke topping Maryland 95-84, Arizona blowing out Michigan State 80-61, Michigan State beating Wisconsin 53-41, Florida topping North Carolina 71-59, UConn beating Ohio State 64-58 and Duke surviving Michigan State 68-62. What stands out is that the favorite won and covered in five of six, for a hefty 5-1 spread record.
Even looking at totals, a similar pattern emerges. The last seven years the "over" has gone 8-6 in the Final Four. The three years before that the "under" prevailed at a 5-1 clip. That's just 11-9 under the last ten years. All of a sudden, those who look solely at trends as the key to the sports betting kingdom are stuck at close to a .500 winning percentage ATS.
For the record, going back the last 14 years, there have been 16 "unders" and 12 "overs" in the Final Four, with 15 dogs covering while 13 favorites have gotten the money. Again, trends are worth examining, but there needs to be reasons behind them if you're serious about putting down hard earned money on a side. Perhaps the most significant stat that stands out is that 12 of the 15 dogs that covered ended up winning the game outright, which shows how competitive and relatively evenly matched the games become when teams get this far in the season.

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