Oregon, SMU, Kentucky, Princeton round out conference tournament favorites

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One common thread that ties together two of the most tightly bunched futures boards for conference championship week is that – to update an old adage – offense fills highlight reels but defense is what really matters in March.

As conference titles are decided this week ahead of the NCAA tournament, the Oregon Ducks are +160 betting favorites on the Pac-12 tournament champion board at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. The UCLA Bruins, with freshman point guard Lonzo Ball, are more of a media darling and draw in at +170.

Another tight board is that of the AAC, with the SMU Mustangs (+125) just ahead of the Cincinnati Bearcats (+135).

The Ducks play inside-the-shirt defense – not something commonly associated with West Coast teams – and have two seasoned scorers in PF Dillon Brooks and SG Dylan Ennis. The Bruins can score and shoot threes like no one’s business, but they do have the defensively stout Arizona Wildcats (+265) lurking on their side of the draw.

Arizona is capable of keeping a game in the 60s and 70s and has two go-to scorers with PF Lauri Markkanen and SG Allonzo Trier.

In the American, SMU is on a 13-win streak and is 17-1 straight-up across its last 18 games. Forward Semi Ojeleye is also the best player in the conference. Cincinnati accounted for that loss and the Bearcats, with Kyle Washington as the main man in an attack that will often feature five guards, can be a headache to match up against.

One AAC team that could fulfill a craving for a longshot is the third-seeded Houston Cougars (+850). While they won’t make anyone forget the Phi Slama Jamma of yore, PG Galen Robinson Jr. is an excellent playmaker who can set up SG Rob Gray and SF Damyean Dotson.

The Kentucky Wildcats (+100) are set as the betting favorite to win their third consecutive SEC tournament title. They are 8-1-1 against the spread in their last 10 games at the event, and De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk are a great 1-2 scoring punch.

Kentucky is often driven by one-and-done freshmen and it could get interesting if the physical Florida Gators (+165) get through to the final in Nashville on Sunday.

And for the first time the Ivy League is holding a tournament, albeit just a four-team affair at Philadelphia’s historic Palestra. The Princeton Tigers (-135) are better than even money to win after going undefeated in the conference.

Their semifinal foe, the Penn Quakers (+475), might just be happy to be there after squeaking in with a sub-.500 record.  The Harvard Crimson (+350), who play the Yale Bulldogs (+475) in the other semifinal, are a legit threat to Princeton. Harvard’s two losses to Princeton were by a combined five points.

Kansas, Gonzaga, Oregon, Xavier eye Final Four with Elite Eight underway

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) It’s finally time to award the first spots in the Final Four.

And for the four teams chasing those tickets Saturday, it’s another shot to break through an often frustrating roadblock in the regional finals.

Kansas lost in the Elite Eight last year. So did Oregon, which won the first NCAA Tournament in 1939 but hasn’t pushed past the final eight since.

While those two teams meet in the Midwest Region final in Kansas City, Missouri, the West final in San Jose, California, features two teams – Gonzaga and Xavier – who have never won in this round.

Kansas coach Bill Self called it “the hardest game in the tournament.”

“There’s so much emphasis on the road to the Final Four,” Self said Friday. “It’s almost like the Final Four could be the equivalent of the national championship 30 years ago, with the type of intensity and the type of publicity it gets. … If you get beat in this game, you come just that close to getting to the goal.”

Kansas (31-4) has had the most success of that quartet, though there’s been plenty of frustration, too. The Jayhawks, the Midwest’s No. 1 seed, won the national title under Self in 2008 and went to the title game in 2012. But along the way, there have been four Elite Eight losses under Self – three coming despite carrying a 1-seed.

Kansas is chasing its first Final Four since that 2012 run.

Oregon (32-5), the Midwest’s 3-seed, is in the Elite Eight for the fourth time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The Ducks have lost their last three, including to Kansas in 2002.

In the West, both 1-seed Gonzaga (35-1) and 11th-seeded Xavier (24-13) are each in the regional finals for a third time.

“All the games we feel the pressure to move on, to advance,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “This one, a little bit more because that Final Four is the goal of everybody.”

Here are things to know about the NCAA Tournament’s second week:

HEADLINING NAMES: The Midwest final features a national player of the year candidate in Kansas’ Frank Mason III and a preseason Associated Press All-American in Oregon’s Dillon Brooks. Mason, a 5-foot-11 senior, is averaging 20.9 points on 49 percent shooting, while Brooks – a 6-7 junior – is averaging 16.3 points.

LEGACY: Gonzaga’s Few has built a consistent winner in the Pacific Northwest, though that Final Four is the glaring omission from the resume. Still, Few has routinely refused to be consumed by the pursuit.

“It would be awesome for the school and for the Spokane community to be able to feel good about and hang their hat on,” Few said. “But my legacy is going to be about other things, at least as far as I’m concerned.”

SUMNER’S ABSENCE: No one expected Xavier to be here, especially after losing point guard Edmund Sumner to a season-ending knee injury in January. The Musketeers also lost six straight before regrouping to reach the Big East Tournament championship game and now an Elite Eight after upsetting 2-seed Arizona on Thursday night.

“We’re all tough guys,” junior guard J.P. Macura said. “We stuck together. And we’ve been playing tough together. And we’re not really backing down from anybody. And if you have that mentality, you can beat a lot of teams.”

BLUEBOOD BRACKET: Kentucky beat UCLA in the South Region semifinals on Friday night in Memphis, Tennessee, to claim a matchup of teams with a combined 19 NCAA titles. Now the second-seeded Wildcats are preparing for another marquee name in 1-seed North Carolina, which cruised past Butler, on Sunday.

A NEW SEC TOURNAMENT: The Southeastern Conference enters the regional finals standing alone among leagues. The SEC has three of the eight teams still standing with Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina – and is assured at least one Final Four team considering the Gators and Gamecocks play Sunday in the East final.

FINALLY, AN OVERTIME: The Gators’ 84-83 win against Wisconsin on Friday night on Chris Chiozza’s running 3-pointer marked the first overtime game of the tournament. And that came only after Badgers guard Zak Showalter hit an off-balance 3 with 2.5 seconds left in regulation to force the extra period.

FAREWELL: It didn’t take long after UCLA’s loss to Kentucky for star freshman point guard Lonzo Ball to say he was moving on from the college game. He had been considered a likely one-and-done NBA prospect all year and called Friday’s loss “my final game for UCLA.”

Elite Eight betting preview: Gonzaga, Kansas among the weekend favorites

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One trend to take into the Elite Eight is that the Gonzaga Bulldogs and star guard Nigel Williams-Goss rarely lose when they have fresh legs.

The Bulldogs are listed as eight-point favorites against the Xavier Musketeers with a 145.5-point total for their West Region final betting matchup at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

Gonzaga is 14-1 straight-up in its last 15 games with one day of rest, as well as 5-0-1 against the spread in its last six games as a favorite of eight or fewer points. Xavier, which will have to break down Gonzaga’s stifling defense in order to get forward Trevon Bluiett his touches, is 5-0 ATS in its last five games as an underdog of eight points or fewer.

The total has gone UNDER in six of Xavier’s last seven games. The total has gone UNDER in six of Gonzaga’s last eight games. Neither team has ever made the Final Four, which is set for next weekend in Glendale, Arizona.

The Kansas Jayhawks are listed as 7-point favorites against the Oregon Ducks with a 156-point total in the Midwest Region final betting matchup. The Jayhawks and Frank Mason III are playing close to home in Kansas City, while Kansas is also 22-2 SU in its last 24 games against the Pacific-12.

Oregon, an athletic team with leaders such as Dillon Brooks, should challenge Kansas’ interior defense. Oregon is 7-3 ATS in its last 10 games against the Big 12. The total has gone OVER in eight of Oregon’s last 10 games.  The total has gone OVER in Kansas’ last five games.

The other two tickets to the Final Four will be awarded on Sunday.

In a betting matchup involving college basketball bluebloods, the North Carolina Tar Heels face the Kentucky Wildcats in the South Region final as 3-point betting favorites.

North Carolina is 7-3 ATS against Kentucky since 2006-07, although the Wildcats have had the better of the matchup more recently. Historically speaking, North Carolina is 7-3 SU and 6-4 ATS in the Elite Eight since 1997. Over that same span, Kentucky is 6-4 SU and 5-5 ATS.

And the Florida Gators and South Carolina Gamecocks meet in an all-Southeastern Conference matchup to decide the East Region final. Florida is 8-2 SU and 6-4 ATS in their last 10 games against the Gamecocks, but all of the Gators’ outright defeats were within the teams’ three most recent meetings. Florida is a 3.5-point betting favorite for the matchup.