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November 23, 2014

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NCAA Tournament by the odds: How sports books see the West Region

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk reacts after Saint Mary’s called timeout during the second half of the West Coast Conference tournament championship NCAA college basketball game in Las Vegas.

UNLV 2013 NCAA Tournament Practice

The UNLV basketball team has their photo taken by UNLV photographer R. Marsh Starks before practice for their second round NCAA Tournament game against Cal Wednesday, March 20, 2013 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif. Launch slideshow »

Odds to win the Midwest Region

  • No. 1 Gonzaga — 9-to-4
  • No. 2 Ohio State — 5-to-2
  • No. 3 New Mexico — 9-to-2
  • No. 4 Kansas State — 25-to-1
  • No. 5 Wisconsin — 5-to-1
  • No. 6 Arizona — 12-to-1
  • No. 7 Notre Dame — 25-to-1
  • No. 8 Pittsburgh — 6-to-1
  • No. 9 Wichita State — 50-to-1
  • No. 10 Iowa State — 40-to-1
  • No. 11 Belmont — 60-to-1
  • No. 12 Ole Miss — 40-to-1
  • No. 13 Boise State — 75-to-1
  • No. 13 La Salle — 100-to-1
  • No. 14 Harvard — 1,000-to-1
  • No. 15 Iona — 1,000-to-1
  • No. 16 Southern — 2,000-to-1
  • Numbers from LVH Superbook

Note: This is the third of LasVegasSun.com's betting previews of all four NCAA Tournament regions. Find part one here and part two here. Scroll to the bottom of this page to find lines on all of the opening games in the West Region.

Gonzaga making the Final Four has rested alongside LeBron James winning an NBA title and the NCAA Tournament expanding its field in the vault of basketball inevitabilities over the past decade.

Before scoffing at categorizing the Bulldogs with the other two, both of which have now occurred, consider they are one of four teams to make the tournament every year since the turn of the century.

Gonzaga is the only one of the select group — which also includes Kansas, Duke and Michigan State — to not make the national semifinals multiple times. It felt dirty, like borderline plagiarism, to watch programs such as Butler, VCU and George Mason dance their way within inches of a national championship using the mid-major formula Gonzaga perfected in this era.

But the Bulldogs have two advantages that neither they nor any of the aforementioned bracket busters have ever sniffed before in the 2013 NCAA Tournament: a No. 1 seed earned by merit and a weak draw landed by luck.

The West Region, according to every conceivable Las Vegas measure, is as soft as Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” parka. If the Bulldogs fail to pop some higher-seeded tags this year, it might signal that it’s time to downgrade them from a team annually on the verge of breaking through to one perennially primed for a flameout.

They’ve treaded down the latter path recently, going only 7-12 against the spread and 9-10 straight-up in NCAA Tournament games since 2004 with no Elite Eight berths as an average No. 6 seed.

To understand just how fortunate its slot in the West Region is, however, imagine Gonzaga swapping with any of the other three No. 1 seeds in the tournament. The Bulldogs might be a slight plus-225 favorite to win the West, but they would trail at least one team in every other bracket.

The teams seeded No. 2 through No. 4 in Gonzaga’s region — Ohio State, New Mexico and Kansas State — collectively have about an 11 percent chance to win the NCAA Tournament, according to converted future odds from the LVH Superbook.

At least one team slotted second, third or fourth has an 11 percent chance to win by themselves in the South, Midwest and East.

Then again, a contrarian could argue that sports books have pegged these teams all wrong. A season’s worth of evidence supports the notion that the betting market in Las Vegas never caught up to the top four teams vowing to advance to the Staples Center in Los Angeles for next week’s Sweet 16.

They’ve all exceeded oddsmakers’ expectations to a remarkable extent. The four teams, headlined by 19 covers apiece from the Buckeyes and the Lobos, have combined to beat the spread in 63 percent of their games this season.

All four of them come into the weekend with the lowest odds they’ve had next to their name all season to win the NCAA Tournament.

New Mexico opened the year at 500-to-1 and didn’t get down below triple-digits at the Superbook until the last week of February. The Lobos are now 40-to-1.

Likewise, Kansas State only broke through the 100-to-1 barrier two weeks ago. The Wildcats are now 60-to-1.

Gonzaga trimmed its number from 60-to-1 to 12-to-1 in the past four months. Ohio State is the least drastic, spending most of the year at 20- or 25-to-1 but still at a season-best 15-to-1.

Down to 25-to-1, No. 5 seed Wisconsin also fits in with the overarching theme of the West. The Badgers spent most of the year trapped at a 100-to-1 price.

The trend crashes violently when getting down to No. 6 seed Arizona. No one’s going to use the tried cliché about “peaking at the right time” when it comes to the Wildcats.

Arizona, during a 14-0 start to the season, covered the spread in eight of its first 11 games. Providing nice symmetry, the Las Vegas number beat the Wildcats in eight of their final 11 games before the NCAA Tournament.

Once as low as 12-to-1 to become national champions, Arizona is now 50-to-1.

Arizona is a popular choice to get upset in its opening game against Belmont in bracket pools across America, but not at betting windows in Las Vegas. Not yet at least. Bettors actually drove up the opening spread a half-point to minus-4.5 in favor of Arizona at several sports books.

Gamblers could be influenced by recent NCAA Tournament history with regards to Belmont. Despite having steam behind them two years in a row as a 3-point underdog against Georgetown in 2012 and a 4-point underdog to Wisconsin in 2011, the Bruins were blown out in both contests.

Arizona vs. Belmont is one of four second-round games with a spread of less than 6 in the West Region. Two are particularly intriguing stylistic matchups.

For the second straight year, No. 10 seed Iowa State is a questionable underdog against a mediocre Big East opponent. The Cyclones, getting 1.5 points, topped Connecticut by 13 in the 2012 NCAA Tournament.

This year, Notre Dame lays 1 point against Iowa State. The Cyclones — with guards Will Clyburn, Tyrus McGee and Korie Lucious — chuck more 3-pointers than any team in the tournament with 27 per game.

That could work well against Notre Dame’s zone defense. But the Cyclones can’t match the Irish’s strength in the frontcourt. Iowa State’s roster contains no size to combat senior Jack Cooley, who averages a double-double.

In the No. 5 vs. No. 12 game, Wisconsin and Ole Miss will try to force their desired pace on each other.

The Rebels rate 12th nationally in tempo, according to Ken Pomeroy, and are an offense-first team behind polarizing guard Marshall Henderson. The Badgers are 310th in the same statistic, focusing on defense above all else with players such as Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans.

Wisconsin comes into the contest as a 6-point favorite.

Both teams’ unique approaches worked late in the season, as Ole Miss won its first SEC Tournament Championship since 1981 last week while Wisconsin advanced to the finals of the Big Ten Tournament.

All of the top five seeds in the West played in their conference tournament final, something no other region can claim. The five combined to go an eye-opening 11-3 against the spread and 12-2 straight-up in their conference tournaments.

These teams are all hot, but it doesn’t change the fact that Gonzaga lucked out on a macro level. Exchange the "a" for an "i," though, and the Bulldogs' red carpet begins to lose some of its tint.

Gonzaga’s first two games potentially look more difficult than what’s lined up for the other No. 1 seeds. Gonzaga got the toughest No. 16 seed in Southern, a team that ranks second in the nation in effective field goal percentage defense.

The Bulldogs should cruise past the Jaguars but might have to face the best No. 8 seed in the history of the tournament next. Sports books only posted 16 teams ahead of Pittsburgh to win the NCAA Tournament.

That means the Panthers would have been a No. 5 seed if oddsmakers built the brackets. Pomeroy’s worshiped rankings place Pittsburgh as seventh in the nation, the best rank for a No. 8 seed in the history of his data.

With an inside-outside combo of Kelly Olynyk and Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga presents matchup problems for most teams it faces. But the Panthers, with guard Tray Woodall and forward Talib Zanna, might be the best-equipped team in the region to combat the Bulldogs.

Gonzaga should root for capable, defensively suffocating No. 9 seed Wichita State, a 4.5-point underdog, to do it a solid and take care of Pittsburgh.

Maybe giving the Bulldogs an ultimatum to reach the Final Four once and for all is a classic case of looking too far ahead. Gonzaga will need to first concentrate on getting out of the weekend unscathed.

Pick to win the region: Pittsburgh at plus-600 It’s practically an annual duty to pick one long shot to survive its region. With a criminally underrated seed and a bevy of talent, Pittsburgh fulfills this year’s requirement.

West Region Picks Against the Spread (in order of confidence)

Note: It's never wise to bet every game, but we'll pick every one throughout the tournament here and keep track of the record for fun. Talking Points finished last year's tournament 32-31 overall and 8-3 on top-confidence plays. The blog also made a killing on the conference tournaments last week, correctly picking three teams at plus-money for a gain of plus-14 units. Come back after the First Four games for picks on the official second-round matchups.

No. 6 La Salle +6 over No. 4 Kansas State

No. 2 Ohio State -13.5 over No. 15 Iona

No. 10 Iowa State +1 over No. 7 Notre Dame

No. 12 Mississippi +6 over No. 5 Wisconsin

No. 4 Arizona -4 over No. 13 Belmont

No. 8 Pittsburgh -4.5 over No. 9 Wichita State

No. 16 Southern +22 over No. 1 Gonzaga

No. 13 La Salle +1.5 over No. 13 Boise State

No. 14 Harvard +11.5 over No. 3 New Mexico

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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