April 2, 2021

Best Bets: Final Four

The college basketball season we thought might not happen now only has three precious games left.

Naturally, that makes this the best time to place bets. Not only is it fun to make wagers on the Final Four but by this point in the season, but we also have all of the information we need to know about the remaining teams. By this point, every team has played around 30 games, so we should have a good idea of what every team is good at and what every team is bad at.

With any luck, we should know how the four remaining teams match up against one another, which is why we’d like to share our Final Four best bets.

*Odds via DraftKings Sportsbook

UCLA +14 vs Gonzaga

Admittedly, this is going against the grain a little bit.

The Bulldogs won their games in both the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight by more than 15 points, so in theory, they should be able to handle a No. 11 seed like UCLA. But the Bruins are not the usual No. 11 seed, nor did they benefit from a lot of upsets in their region on their way to the Final Four like Houston did. The Bruins took down No. 2 Alabama and No. 1 Michigan to get to this point.

Late in the season, the Bruins have adopted Mick Cronin’s personality and become a hard-nosed defensive team akin to all of Cronin’s Cincinnati squads. They’ve done a great job of forcing opponents to adapt to their style rather than the other way around. That should allow UCLA to give Gonzaga a little more trouble than the Bulldogs are used to seeing. While the Bruins don’t have much size, which is a concern against Drew Timme, they have the size and athleticism to switch on every ball screen and match up against Jalen Suggs and Corey Kispert better than most teams.

Also, one of Gonzaga’s few weaknesses is defending the three-point line. That could allow Johnny Juzang and others to get good looks from the perimeter. There have been a few times this season when Gonzaga’s opponents have gotten off to a fast start shooting the ball and been able to hang around.

With Juzang in the midst of an offensive explosion and the Bruins ready to challenge the Bulldogs defensively, we like UCLA to stay within striking distance and beat the 14-point spread in this game.

Baylor -5 vs Houston

For the last three halves of the tournament, the Bears have looked more like the team they were in the middle of the season before their extended COVID-19 hiatus. They are getting up and down the floor and sharing the basketball. They also made eight of their 15 three-point attempts against Arkansas, so their shooting touch was quick to return after it disappeared against Villanova in the Sweet 16.

In fairness, Houston is one of the best defensive teams in the country. The Cougars have proved that during the tournament, especially in their last two games against Syracuse and Oregon State. The problem that Houston faces is they only have one lock-down defender in DeJon Jarreau while Baylor has three outstanding guards. Even if Jarreau can slow down Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague are just as capable of doing damage.

Ultimately, the Cougars don’t have the firepower to keep up with the Bears, even if they can slow Baylor a little bit defensively. Quentin Grimes and Marcus Sasser will get buckets, but Houston is a little limited offensively beyond those two while the Bears have five or six players who are capable of scoring in double figures.

Finally, the Bears are +40 in the turnover department during the tournament, so the Cougars can’t assume they’ll be able to create more turnovers and transition points than Baylor.

We like the Bears to be challenged but pull away late to cover the five-point spread.

Houston vs Baylor: Under 134.5 Points

On the over/under front, there aren’t a lot of good options, but the under on 134.5 points in the Houston-Baylor game figures to be the best choice.

Granted, few of Baylor’s games this season have fallen short of 134.5 points because the Bears are so dynamic offensively. However, we saw Baylor struggle offensively in the first half against Villanova in a game that finished with just 113 total points. 

It’s reasonable to think that Baylor could get off to a similar start against Houston because of how the Cougars play defense. Even a sluggish five or 10 minutes in the first half could keep Baylor around 70 points, which would make the under the most likely scenario. It’s worth noting that in 31 games, only four teams have scored more than 35 points against the Cougars, who give up an average of 57.6 points per game.

Likewise, Houston hasn’t scored more than 67 points in three straight games. The Cougars had some explosive offensive games in the AAC, but that’s not been the case against better defensive teams in the tournament. Houston’s best chance in this game is to make it ugly and keep the scoring to a minimum. If they can do that, the total should stay under 134.5 points.

Even if they don’t, the Cougars will never keep pace with Baylor’s offense, which is why we feel a little more comfortable with the under.

Baylor +230 to Win National Championship

If you’re looking to bet on a winner before the Final Four tips off, the best value pick is Baylor at +230.

Obviously, UCLA offers the biggest payout at +1600. However, one has to think that Bruins won’t survive a stacked Final Four field. Meanwhile, Houston is an interesting sleeper at +500 because of the way they defend. But beating both Baylor and Gonzaga seems unrealistic for a team from the AAC that hasn’t played a single-digit seed in the tournament.

For what it’s worth, Gonzaga is the safest pick to win it all. The Bulldogs are undefeated, they have a relatively easy semifinal matchup, and they haven’t come close to losing a game all season. But Gonzaga’s moneyline is -250, which means there isn’t much value in picking them. Even if they beat UCLA without a problem, the title game will be a test for them, and the potential payout isn’t worth the risk.

Think back to the midpoint of the season before Baylor's coronavirus outbreak. The Bears and Bulldogs were on level ground with many assuming they’d meet in the title game. At the time, that game would have been more or less a toss-up. There’s no reason to think it would be any different if Gonzaga and Baylor meet on Monday night.

While Baylor has the tougher semifinal matchup, if we assume the Bears will survive against Houston, betting on Baylor creates a lot more upside in a game that could easily go either way. Even though we like Gonzaga a little more, the better value lies with Baylor.

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