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Are Final Four Favorites Villanova the Best Pick?

Sascha Paruk

by Sascha Paruk in College Basketball

Updated Apr 6, 2020 · 3:27 PM PDT

Villanova Wildcats guard Mikal Bridges (25) charges past Seton Hall Pirate Khadeen Carrington
Mikal Bridges will hear his name announced early during the 2018 NBA Draft. Photo by Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire.
  • Villanova remains the national title favorite heading into the Final Four.
  • Even after pulling off four straight “upsets,” Loyola-Chicago is still getting little respect from sportsbooks.
  • Which Final Four team is offering bettors the best value in the championship futures?

And then there were four.

In a tournament full of surprises, this year’s Final Four actually turned out relatively chalky, apart from #11 Loyola-Chicago. Villanova and Kansas, two #1 seeds, emerged from the East and Midwest, respectively, while #3 Michigan — which was the betting favorite in its region at the outset of the tournament — survived an upset-laden West.

Heading into Saturday’s semifinal games, the question on every bettor’s mind is, “Who’s the value pick?” Here’s how we see it, in descending order, with help from our trusty NCAA Tournament Odds Tracker.

4. Michigan Wolverines

The Wolverines have the second-shortest odds (+270, on average) and the best defense left in the tournament, sitting fourth in efficiency on KenPom. But defense has not, historically, won championships in college basketball. As we noted in our Final Four trends, since the beginning of the KenPom era in 2002, “ten national champions have ranked in the top three in offensive efficiency, nationally. Only three have ranked outside the top ten, and only one has fallen outside the top 20 (UConn, 2014).”

Michigan is currently 31st.

There is a serious risk that the Wolverines will go cold from the field, if not for an entire game, then for at least a half. At this stage of the tournament, that’s likely to be a death sentence, even against Loyola. Their inability to both get to the foul line (17.3 FTA per game, 276th in the nation) and make free throws when they do (65.9 FT%, 326th in the nation) limits their ability to atone during off nights.

Michigan didn’t need its offense to be clicking against limited Florida State (58-54) and Montana (61-47) teams. They may even get past Loyola with a mediocre performance. But they won’t wrest the title from Villanova or Kansas without hitting shots, and at +270, the risk isn’t worth the reward.

If you’re dead-set on rolling with the Wolverines, their best odds are (+300).

3. Loyola-Chicago Ramblers

Despite long odds (+950 average), Loyola is not the best value for much the same reason as Michigan. Their offense is similarly limited (60th in efficiency) and their defense is not quite as strong as Michigan’s (18th). That said, they do rank higher than the Wolverines in several key offensive statistics, including three-point shooting (39.8% vs 36.9%), field-goal percentage (50.9% vs 47.0%), and free-throw percentage (72.2% vs 65.9%).

The Ramblers also play at an extremely slow pace (315th in the nation), and their semifinal tilt with the even slower Wolverines (326th) is likely to be a low-scoring game in which clutch shooting and free throws make the difference. Michigan is rightfully the favorite, but the opening line of Michigan -5.0 underestimates Loyola’s chances.

[N]o matter who emerges from the right side of the bracket, Loyola would be facing a top-five offense in the title game, something they haven’t seen all season.

Getting by Michigan is just step one, though, and no matter who emerges from the right side of the bracket, Loyola would be facing a top-five offense in the title game, something they haven’t seen all season. I can hear you screaming “Nevada was sixth when they met in the Sweet 16!” But the Wolf Pack were also without starting point guard Lindsey Drew.

The implied probability of their +950 moneyline equates to 9.5%. While I like that better than Michigan at +270 (27%), it’s still only good enough for the third-best value in the Final Four.

The most lucrative payout for Loyola at the highest-rated betting sites is +1000.

2. Kansas Jayhawks

Kansas’ performance against Duke in the Elite Eight (85-81 OT) was nothing short of phenomenal, yet the Jayhawks — who were three-point underdogs against the Blue Devils — are being given even less of a chance to beat Villanova, opening as five-point ‘dogs.

The biggest takeaway from the Duke game was not that Malik Newman (32 points, 8-19 FG, 11-12 FT) can be a bona fide, outcome-altering star, something he did not show in the regular season. It was that the Jayhawks’ small-ball lineup can compete on the glass when they’re focused. Text-book box-outs and relentless hustle helped the undersized Jayhawks post a +15 rebounding margin against Marvin Bagley, Wendell Carter Jr., and the much taller Blue Devils.

Another key takeaway was that Kansas can beat elite teams without riding Udoka Azubuike too hard. The seven-footer was limited to 19 minutes due to foul trouble, but freshman Silvio De Sousa (a December enrollee) filled in admirably with four points, 10 boards and, crucially, just one foul in 26 minutes.

Between Newman and Devonte’ Graham, Kansas has the elite guard play that so many past March Madness champions have featured. They also have the offensive metrics indicative of a championship team, ranking fifth in the country in efficiency and shooting over 40% from three (slightly higher than Villanova). At +350 (average), Kansas has an implied probability of just 22.2%, which is a number I can get on board with. If you ran this Final Four 100 times, I see them winning at least 23.

The highest payout for Kansas at the moment is +400.

1. Villanova Wildcats

More often than not, the national champion has an elite offense, think top-five in the nation. Anomalies exist, like 2014 UConn, but they’re extremely rare. Villanova doesn’t just have the best offense left in the tournament, it’s had the best offense in the country all year, and by a pretty wide margin. They have a 127.3 offensive efficiency rating on KenPom, which is 4.5 points higher than the second-best team (Purdue: 122.8). That’s equal to the gap between second and 15th (Arizona: 118.3).

Jay Wright has the luxury of the best point guard in the nation (Jalen Brunson), a seemingly endless number of three-point threats (Nova shoots nearly 40% from deep and has seven players with at least 69 attempts), and a dash of NBA-level athleticism (Mikal Bridges, Omari Spellman). He also has by far the best free-throw shooting team left (77.1%), and his guys have been at their best in the tournament (83.7%).

[T]he potential for the Wildcats to grab offensive rebounds and give their top-ranked offense extra looks justifies their status as five-point favorites over the Jayhawks.

Heading into March Madness, the caveat on Villanova was “live by the three, die by the three.” After shooting 16.7% from behind the arc against Texas Tech and still winning by double-digits, that has to be revisited. The Wildcats showed something they hadn’t during the regular season: the ability to clamp down defensively and dominate the glass. They out-rebounded Tech 51-33 and grabbed 20 offensive boards.

In the semis, Nova will meet a Kansas team that also had its best rebounding performance of the season in the Elite Eight, but has generally struggled in that department all year due to playing what is effectively a four-guard lineup. Villanova is not going to hold Devonte’ Graham and Malik Newman to 25% from three — like they did against Texas Tech — but the potential for the Wildcats to grab offensive rebounds and give their top-ranked offense extra looks justifies their status as five-point favorites over the Jayhawks.

No matter who they meet in the finals, they’ll be at least five-point favorites again, and again, the big spread will be justified. Sometimes the favorite is the right play, even at short odds (-110 average).

Currently, the best payout for Villanova is -100.

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