It took a magic trick by sophomore point guard Trey Burke to get Michigan to the Final Four. To win two more games, he might need to mimic a great escape artist.
Whether in handcuffs or a straitjacket, Harry Houdini always found a way to wiggle free. Once buried alive, he clawed through several feet of dirt and survived. He pulled off countless sensational stunts.
But Houdini never tried to dribble penetrate and score against the Syracuse zone, the Venus flytrap of college basketball defenses. That’s the challenge facing Burke and his Wolverines on the NCAA Tournament’s final weekend.
The odds lean slightly to Michigan, which is a 2-point favorite over Syracuse in Saturday’s second national semifinal in Atlanta. The line has not budged all week, so a fair share of bettors believe the right team is favored.
“Absolutely no movement. Every time we take a bet on one side, we take a bet on the other side,” said Jimmy Vaccaro, director of public relations for William Hill sports books. “I thought the game should have opened pick’em. I think Syracuse money will show.”
Any good defense attorney could make a strong case for the Orange, who held their first four tournament opponents to an average of 45.8 points per game. Top-seeded Indiana, which was scoring 80 per game, was limited to 50 points in a Sweet 16 loss to Syracuse.
A handicapper could make a good case for either side, but Bruce Marshall of The Gold Sheet is going with the Orange. That’s also the side I’m taking after more thought and analysis than a sane person should put into one game.
“I think Syracuse is going to win, so getting any points is a plus,” said Marshall (Goldsheet.com). “Michigan is going to have a lot of trouble. As great as Burke is, I don’t think he’s going to be able to penetrate against the zone and dominate the game.”
Buried alive against Kansas last Friday — if trailing a No. 1 seed by 14 points with less than seven minutes left can be considered buried alive — Burke wiggled free to hit a 3-pointer that forced overtime. The Wolverines escaped with an 87-85 win. On Sunday, against Florida defenders that seemed blindfolded, Burke and Nik Stauskas shot holes through the Gators in a 20-point blowout.
“Florida did an awful job of matching up with Michigan’s shooters,” Marshall said, and what he didn’t need to say is obvious — Orange coach Jim Boeheim’s zone does a superb job of harassing shooters.
Syracuse has a 6-foot-6-inch point guard, Michael Carter-Williams, with the wingspan of a private airplane, and forwards C.J. Fair, James Southerland and Rakeem Christmas all stand at least 6-8. Shooting guard Brandon Triche is no shrimp at 6-4.
The length of the Orange defenders overwhelmed Indiana’s smaller guards and forced 7-foot Cody Zeller to play like a small forward. Michigan won’t be intimidated so easily, not with Burke, Stauskas, Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III and a rugged big man in freshman Mitch McGary.
The last team standing from the Big Ten, the Wolverines are better when they run. But the pace of play will be slow, dictated by the Syracuse zone, and that should handcuff Burke.
I’ll take one ’dog but pass on the other. In the first semifinal, Louisville is a 10½-point favorite over Wichita State. It would be great to see the Shockers, plus-500 on the money line, pull off a stunner, though it would be a surprise if they can stay competitive for 40 minutes.
The Cardinals are 23-15 against the spread, the best record of the Final Four teams, and betting against them is as risky as cheating the IRS.
“The parlays all go to Louisville,” Vaccaro said, and at William Hill, the Cardinals are minus-175 favorites to win the title Monday.
In potential championship game matchups, Louisville is favored by 5 over Michigan and by 4½ over Syracuse.
Wichita State is projected as a 4½- to 5-point underdog if it survives to play Monday. And if that happens, a handful of smart bettors holding futures tickets on the Shockers at 200-1 and 300-1 odds will be close to pulling off a Houdini act.
Through 64 games in the NCAA Tournament, including one pick’em game, underdogs are 33-30 ATS with 20 ’dogs winning outright, according to handicapper Andy Iskoe of TheLogicalApproach.com.
Harvard’s upset of New Mexico, an 11-point favorite, might have been the best game of a profitable tournament for the books, Vaccaro said.
Gonzaga made a great escape by holding off 16th-seeded Southern University, 64-58. The top-seeded Bulldogs were clinging to a one-point lead with two minutes to go. Imagine the sweat pouring from the not-so-smart gambler who wagered $70,000 to win $1,000 on Gonzaga on the money line at William Hill.
“The tournament brings those type of people out,” Vaccaro said. “The handle has been so strong. This is probably one of the best tournaments from beginning to end.”
The tournament is about to end for Michigan, unless Burke can work more magic.
Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM, 98.9 FM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.