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I’m sticking with Duke

Nevada Appeal Staff Reports

College basketball’s March Madness constantly provides its fans with quality entertainment. Last weekend’s Oklahoma State-St. Joseph’s and Georgia Tech-Kansas regional finals were true classics, and with three games left, we have a favorite, but no sure-fire national champion.

The future looks bright for college hoops because the tournament will always deliver surprise stories, and parity will be a common theme. The reduction of team scholarships from 15 to 13, and superstars defecting to the NBA or bypassing college altogether have helped even up the talent levels. Apparent powerhouses like Kentucky and Stanford will go down in flames while unexpected schools like Nevada will capture the country’s imagination.

And speaking of Nevada, all Wolf Pack fans should be ecstatic over the news that Trent Johnson is remaining as head coach. Johnson has proven to be one of the best coaches in the nation, and many people in his situation would be looking to move on to a more prestigious basketball program. Nevada is lucky that Coach Johnson is one of that rare breed who has the integrity to stay loyal to the school that gave him his first opportunity.

Predictions: With four fairly evenly-matched teams left, nothing should come easy to handicappers this weekend. But with my 6-3 spread record last week and 12-5 mark overall for the tournament, confidence is high.

Final Four – The common threads to all four clubs are team play and defense. There are no Carmelo Anthonys carrying a team this year, and all four schools hold opponents to 40 percent shooting or less. From 1993 to 1999 in this round underdogs covered at least one of the two games. In 2000 and 2001 the favorites won and covered both semis. In 2002 both underdogs produced outright upsets, and last year there was one surprise.

Oklahoma State vs. Georgia Tech – 68-year-old Oklahoma State head coach Eddie Sutton is the sentimental choice, and his decision to bust out the football pads and helmets during practices has toughened up his squad. Opponents are scoring a paltry 55 points a game against the Cowboys for the tournament, while Georgia Tech’s offense has averaged the least of the four that remain alive with 68.

Tech’s field goal and three-point defense led the ACC, and the Yellow Jackets stung Nevada by holding the Pack to 21 percent shooting in the second half and five assists total for the game. The Ramblin’ Wreck is athletic and deep with four different players leading the team in scoring in their four respective games.

I expect Oklahoma State to advance to the final, but I am not willing to lay the five points. All of the tournament games involving these two teams went under 140 points in regulation. I’m taking Under 142 total points.

Connecticut vs. Duke – These equally-matched teams seem to be the best in the tournament. Both can score and both play excellent defense.

Connecticut has won the last three meetings, which must eat away at Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who is looking for revenge for the 77-74 loss in the 1999 championship game. Back and right shoulder injuries to UConn’s first team All-American Emeka Okafor increase the likelihood of a very close battle.

That’s where Duke has an advantage. So far UConn has not been tested, having had the easiest road while facing no higher than a No. 6 seed. Down the stretch Connecticut’s poor free throw shooting should become a factor in a close game. I picked Duke to win it all before the tournament started, and I’ve learned never to change horses in midstream. I’m sticking with Duke +2 in a mild upset.

– Golf’s first major, the Masters, begins next Thursday. Picking the winner of a golf tournament involves a ton of luck and is extremely difficult. Betting on player head-to-head match-ups is much easier.

Since the Masters is always played at Augusta, past champions such as Tiger Woods, Vinjay Singh, Mike Weir and Jose-Maria Olazabal should do well. Players who have come close to winning include Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen. Young guns with a shot could be Adam Scott, Chad Campbell and Padraig Harrington.

– The National Hockey League playoffs begin Wednesday, but it appears at press time that none of the series opponents have been officially paired up. The hottest teams are Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Edmonton, Toronto and San Jose. Playoff teams that have been struggling are Colorado and Montreal.

In the meantime take advantage of your last opportunities to bet against the worst teams in the league, because by Sunday, many of those clubs’ seasons will be finished.

Joe Ellison is the Nevada Appeal Betting Columnist. Contact him at cwhisnand@nevadaappeal.com.