In this high-stakes poker game, Billy Donovan is holding a real cool hand. The Florida coach has four senior starters and a sophomore who’s a hot shooter.
For the first weekend, the theory of a wide-open NCAA Tournament held true. But this is when the tale begins to turn, and it’s not a fairy tale. The second week is when the Cinderellas get sent home and the strongest teams thrive, and my power ratings still show the Gators are as good as it gets.
Five of five ESPN experts are sticking with Michigan State as their pick, but Florida was the top overall seed and the oddsmakers’ favorite for a reason.
The Sweet 16 was sliced to 12 on Thursday, when the Gators showed their aces in a 79-68 victory over UCLA, a 5-point underdog that was shown no affection from the betting public.
“It’s all Florida. There’s nothing on UCLA,” MGM Resorts sports book director Jay Rood said. “The night is going to be dictated by UCLA and Florida.”
The Gators did the dictating. Michael Frazier II, their sophomore shooter, hit five 3-pointers and scored 19 points. Scottie Wilbekin, their senior point guard, banked in a tough fadeaway jumper with 2½ minutes to go that essentially finished off the Bruins.
Baylor, Stanford and San Diego State also were handed one-way tickets home, and none of the results were too surprising.
The Bears were blown out and embarrassed while resembling the Sweet 16’s version of the Philadelphia 76ers. The bettors got it right by laying 3½ and 4 points with Wisconsin in its 69-52 win that was not remotely close.
Dayton pulled the day’s only upset, topping Stanford, a 3½-point favorite, 82-72, in a game with balanced betting action.
Xavier Thames carried the Aztecs to the brink of a surprise, but they let an 8-point second-half lead slip away in a 70-64 loss to No. 1-seeded Arizona, a public favorite which briefly flirted with covering the 8-point spread.
Thames, the best player in the Mountain West, was the best player in a tight West Region battle in Anaheim, Calif. He finished with 25 points, drawing a three-shot foul in the final minute and sinking all three free throws to help San Diego State get the cash, if that’s any consolation.
Nick Johnson shot 2-for-12 from the field, but the Findlay Prep product heated up late and hit all 10 of his free throws to push the Wildcats on to a Saturday showdown with the Badgers. Arizona opened as a 3-point favorite.
“Wisconsin has been impressive and is capable of beating anybody,” said handicapper Chuck Edel of Pregame.com and SportsXradio.com.
Two top seeds survived Thursday, and Virginia is the next to be tested. The Cavaliers are 2-point underdogs to fourth-seeded Michigan State, which might dictate the books’ results today.
The Spartans are winning public opinion polls by a landslide, and that could be because the Cavaliers consist of Joe Harris and a bunch of no-names.
“Virginia is being big-time disrespected,” Edel said of the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tournament champions.
Rood confirmed the obvious, saying, “Michigan State keeps drawing money, and it’s not slowing down. From what I see, there’s not a lot of interest in Virginia.”
Edel has bet Michigan as a 2-point favorite over Tennessee — my top play today is the Wolverines — and Kentucky as a 5-point underdog to Louisville, which is 31-5 and the only team in the nation to be favored in every game this season.
The Wildcats, who played their A-plus game in a Sunday upset of top-seeded Wichita State, were 1½-point home underdogs in a 73-66 victory over the Cardinals on Dec. 28.
“Kentucky is playing their best ball, and I think Louisville is a little bit overrated,” Edel said. “I thought 5 was a high number in that game. Louisville can press a lot of teams, but Kentucky has the athletes to handle it.”
The John Calipari-Rick Pitino winner might just see Donovan and his Gators on April 7 in the national championship game. Florida has a man in the middle, senior Patric Young, and the experience to go the distance.
The Gators, who opened as 10-point favorites over Dayton, also have an easier road to the Final Four.
“I would say Florida looks the best,” said Edel, who bet the Gators to win the title at 17-1 odds on Jan. 31. “The thing I like is their defense, which is unbelievable. Defense is what makes them go.
“They rebound, they play physical, they have a lot of weapons, and Frazier is shooting the ball well. That’s a pretty good UCLA team they just beat.”
The Gators (35-2) also can bank on the leadership of Donovan, who won national championships in 2006 and 2007. On top of that, he talks a lot like Ray Liotta in “Goodfellas.”
With four senior starters and a hot sophomore shooter, Donovan’s hand is as good as it gets in a high-stakes tournament that is no longer so wide open.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.