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Pulling for George Mason

Joe Ellison
Nevada Appeal Betting Columnist

College basketball’s NCAA Tournament always has its share of surprises and Cinderella stories. But this year’s tourney, without a doubt, has been the most unpredictable in history.

For only the second time ever, none of the No. 1 seeds have reached the Final Four. Also for only the second time, a seed lower than 8, No. 11 George Mason is still alive. The last time a Pacific-10 Conference team like UCLA made it, was back in 2001.

One thing that did hold true was that for the ninth consecutive season two schools from the same conference managed to get to the Final Four. But still a surprise came in that LSU and Florida are from the Southeastern Conference, which hasn’t had a single representative in six years.

So, if your office pools were complete disasters, you really have nothing to be ashamed of. This year we didn’t have much of a chance.

Out of the more than 3 million entries in ESPN’s contest, only four correctly picked out the Final Four, and the current leader is a huge Florida fan who mistakenly picked George Mason instead of George Washington.

It will be tough to top this NCAA Tournament when it comes to upsets and Cinderellas, but you can never say never. With scholarships reduced from 15 to 13 per school a few years ago, and the riches of the NBA luring away underclassmen from the best teams, surprise stories will continue to develop. This is a big part of what makes college basketball great and the NCAA Tournament America’s most popular sporting event next to pro football’s playoffs.

George Mason vs Florida – In the regional final when No. 1 seed Connecticut tied George Mason on a last-second basket, it sure looked like Mason’s Cinderella story would soon be ending. Instead, the underdog Patriots showed incredible guts by shooting 5 for 6 in overtime and eliminating the tournament favorite.

Maybe it’s partly because most people would like George Mason to win, and the fans in Indianapolis will be behind them, but the pick here is for the story to go on during this craziest of years. It won’t be easy against Florida, a team that led the nation in field goal percentage and is playing good defense, but the choice is George Mason +5 1/2 points.

LSU vs UCLA – It appears that this game will be mainly about defense. LSU held Texas to 52 points in regulation in its regional final, and Duke to 54 in the regional semis, its lowest total in any game since 1996. UCLA owned a nine-game streak of limiting opponents to less than 60 points before running into high-scoring Gonzaga. This year with the officials allowing for more physical play and calling less fouls, these teams have excelled defensively.

Picking the winner is the tougher call, but the choice here is to go with LSU and Glen “Big Baby” Davis, an athletic 310-pounder who played tailback on his high school football team. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and having five players from Baton Rouge on the Louisiana State roster, it sure would be a nice story. Having UCLA score only four baskets in the second half, like it did against Memphis, would be helpful.

The pick is LSU -2 and Under 121 1/2 points.

Championship Game – From 2000-05, only in 2003 did the underdog pull off an upset in the title contest. However, if George Mason actually makes it, it will be tough to bet against the sentimental choice Patriots. Hopefully George Mason shocks the world and wins it all.

Notes: Odds are also available for the women’s NCAA Tournament.

This Thursday the Masters golf tournament begins, with major threats being Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Retief Goosen, Ernie Els and Jose Maria Olazabal.

Another Major League Baseball season starts Sunday, with World Series, League Championship, and proposition bets available.