Wagerers back Big East

A combination of outside scoring by senior guard A.J. Price and inside strength by Hasheem Thabeet has helped Connecticut dominate opponents during the NCAA Tournament.

The Huskies, 4-0 against the spread en route to the Final Four, are 4-point favorites over Michigan State in Saturday’s semifinals at Detroit.

North Carolina is a 71/2-point favorite over Villanova in the other semifinal, and the Tar Heels also are perfect against the spread in the tournament.

But a betting pattern is showing support for both Big East Conference teams.

“By looking at the early ticket count, I think the general public is focusing in and targeting UConn and Villanova,” Las Vegas Hilton sports book director Jay Kornegay said. “The entire tournament has been a love affair with the Big East, and this Final Four is no different.”

Again in the underdog role, the Spartans and coach Tom Izzo get a chance to dance past another public favorite from the Big East, less than a week after upsetting Louisville.

Izzo is a regular guest at the Final Four, making his fifth appearance in the past 11 seasons. But this time, Michigan State has the home-state advantage at Ford Field.

But that edge for the Spartans is not enough to keep Vegas Insider handicapper Mark Franco from backing Connecticut, which has averaged 87.2 points in its four NCAA Tournament wins.

“There is way too much talk about this being a home game for Michigan State,” Franco said. “Most of the tickets were bought up months before this game is played. Yes, the Spartans will have a couple thousand more fans in the building, but that is not going to be much of a factor.”

A bigger factor, Franco said, will be the backcourt leadership of Price and the interior play of the 7-foot-3-inch Thabeet and forwards Jeff Adrien and Stanley Robinson.

“Connecticut was the second-best rebounding team in the nation during the regular season with Thabeet and Adrien. Robinson is quietly playing great basketball and will be a key contributor in this game,” Franco said. “The Huskies will be able to wear down Michigan State.

“Price runs the show, and while the team doesn’t need a huge scoring effort from him to win, he does need to hit his open looks.”

Franco (francosports.com) said he puts stock in the big-game results of UConn coach Jim Calhoun, who is 4-0 in the Final Four and won national titles in 1999 and 2004.

North Carolina, which has won its four tournament games by an average of 22.5 points, has been on a roll since point guard Ty Lawson returned from a toe injury.

The line appears inflated on the Tar Heels, but their offensive firepower might cause bettors to pause about taking Villanova.

“Lawson is just awesome. If he’s hitting that outside shot, forget about it,” Kornegay said. “He makes a world of difference running that offense for Carolina. If he’s making outside shots, Carolina can be unstoppable.”

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907.

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