Posts by cathalloughran

Rumbles of Thunder in the West as OKC have the Playoffs in their sights

waiters

NBA All Star Weekend has just appeared in the rearview mirror as we enter the part of the season when teams begin to get realistic about expectations.  Forget what is mathematically possible, we already know which cellar dwellers are thinking about the lottery.  We also know which teams are trying to creep into the playoff race, those that have their sights set on a title, and the one team in between: the Oklahoma City Thunder.

 

Reigning MVP Kevin Durant suffered a Jones fracture in mid-October and, as a result, has played just 26 games so far this season.  Add to that the 14 games missed by star point guard Russell Westbrook, and you have the reason why the Thunder have already lost more games than they did all of last year.  Now OKC are aiming to become the first Western Conference team since the Phoenix Suns in 1997 to make the playoffs after starting 3-12.  What makes this team intriguing though, is that should they make the playoffs, they would enter April with a much different mindset to the average 7th or 8th seed.

The Thunder parted for the All Star break on a three-game winning streak, and crucially within half a game of the 8th playoff spot in the West.  Both Durant and Westbrook made headlines in New York for different reasons, but coach Scott Brooks and OKC will be encouraged nonetheless.  In response to questions critical of Brooks, Durant launched a scathing tirade against the media in defence of his coach, who will hope that KD can take advantage of this chip on his shoulder.  After all, he’s a bad motha*****r when he wants to be.  On Sunday night, Westbrook stole the show with his performance on the court.  He set a new record for points in a half and finished with 41 en route to being crowned All Star Game MVP.  Both players will need to hit the ground running again, beginning on Thursday night with the visit of the Dallas Mavericks (36-19).

 

Dallas Mavericks v Oklahoma City Thunder Betting Odds:

Mavericks win +180

Thunder win -220

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change).

 

Though Westbrook and Durant are top-10 players in the league, other players in the Thunder rotation will have to step up and provide them with the necessary support to make this run.  Chief among these is defensive ace Serge Ibaka, though he would be better served blocking shots and sticking to midrange jumpers instead of chucking up the maddening amount of 3pt attempts witnessed in recent months.   Another player who is no stranger to maddening is the recently acquired Dion Waiters.  Waiters has been unsurprisingly inconsistent since arriving from Cleveland as apparent insurance in case existing sparkplug Reggie Jackson bolts in free agency.  Nevertheless, Waiters or Jackson could yet prove pivotal in swinging a game or two down the stretch if either can get a hot hand.  The youth and energy of young bigs Steven Adams and rookie Mitch McGary have proven to be welcome alternatives to trotting out the corpse of Kendrick Perkins.  McGary in particular was impressive in a pair of games before the break, and such play will again be needed as Adams faces a three-week layoff.

One other thing the Thunder have in their favour is their fixture list.  According to Elias Sports Bureau, the final third of OKC’s season compares favourably to those of the Phoenix Suns (currently occupying 8th) and the New Orleans Pelicans (1 1/2 games back at the time of writing).  It has been noted in more than one place that the West’s most impressive team thus far, the Golden State Warriors, will be watching the bottom seeds with bated breath.  The prospect of working so hard and playing consistently well all year, only to be rewarded with a first round series against OKC would be gut-wrenching.  Seldom does a potential 8th seed instill so much trepidation in the teams above it, so now might be the time to put some money on the Thunder.  Come playoff time, all bets are off.

Betting Instinct tip – Now could be the time to back the Thunder to win the NBA Championship at +1200 with Intertops.eu

 

Cathal avatar CATHAL LOUGHRAN (cathalloughran) is a student and writer from Ireland, based in Paris.  He  writes about  college basketball and the NBA for Betting Instinct. Follow him on Twitter.

NBA Season Preview: Spurs Old Guard Poised for a Final Shot at Glory

Does Tim Duncan have another year at the top left in him?

Does Tim Duncan have another year at the top left in him?

With less than a week until the new NBA season tips off, it’s prediction time again and the two conferences are intriguing for very different reasons.

Out West, the same old question has taken on new significance after the Spurs triumphed in the Finals last season: “Are they too old to contend?”  Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have an average age of almost 36, but the evergreen band is back together along with most of last year’s supporting cast.  Kawhi Leonard has another season’s experience, as the Finals MVP no less, and rookie Kyle Anderson may just have landed in the best place to utilise his unique talents.  Write off Gregg Popovich at your peril, and the Spurs are the likely favourites to come out of the West in May.  But surely this is the last time.

 

NBA Western Conference Betting Odds:

San Antonio Spurs +225

Oklahoma City Thunder +260

Los Angeles Clippers +450

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

The two teams best placed to dethrone the Spurs have questions of their own to answer.  The Oklahoma City Thunder must find a way to manage without reigning MVP Kevin Durant for the first two months of the season while he recovers from a Jones fracture.  Expect to see Russell Westbrook in full gunslinger mode, while sparkplug Reggie Jackson will get more touches early on to prove he deserves a contract extension.  Even then, the Thunder may struggle without the 32ppg Durant averaged last year, but it’s better to be without them in November and December than in April and May.  The Thunder will stay afloat without KD early on, and he will have enough time to play himself into form before the postseason, where he and Westbrook will have renewed aspirations of their first title.

Meanwhile the Los Angeles Clippers, free from the drama that marred last season, must finally decide if they are ready to take the next step in their transformation and compete for a championship.  Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are entering their third season together in “Lob City”, but have yet to make it past the second round of the playoffs.  Last year Paul was the best passer in the league, Jordan led the NBA in rebounding and Griffin finished third in the MVP voting – if each can build on their individual games and play as the team we know they can, the Western Conference crown could belong to the “other team” in LA.

 

Things are a lot easier to predict in the Eastern Conference, where two superstars will take to their home floors again with the NBA title in their sights.  LeBron James’ decision to return to Cleveland shook up the landscape of the NBA even more than most of us could have predicted it might.  Depending on who you choose to believe, the Cavs, at the request of James, brokered a deal with the Timberwolves that would bring All Star forward Kevin Love to Ohio for a package centred around this year’s heralded No. 1 pick, Andrew Wiggins.  Kyrie Irving completed Cleveland’s new “Big Three”, which immediately made them the bookies’ favourite to represent the East in the Finals.

The only team with a reasonable chance of upsetting these odds is the Chicago Bulls.  Former MVP Derek Rose appears to have done everything right in his latest recovery from a serious injury, impressing at the FIBA World Championships and the preseason.  And while Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls have always been known for their prowess on the defensive end of the floor, this offseason they surrounded Rose with more firepower to ease his scoring burden as he returns.  Pau Gasol remains as skilled as ever, and should still have plenty in the tank, especially as he will play fewer minutes in a strong frontcourt rotation that includes Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson.  Rookie Doug McDermott’s shooting and size on the wing will prove a valuable weapon, and if former Real Madrid star Nikola Mirotic can adapt to the life in the NBA the Bulls may be the most well-rounded team in the conference.

 

The rest of the playoff seeds are where it gets really interesting, as young and emerging teams battle for their place against old heads who are desperate for one last shot at glory.  The Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors made great strides last season, and noises coming out of both organisations suggest that neither will be shy in trying to go one step further this time around.  An injury to Washington’s Bradley Beal will hurt Washington in the first eight weeks of the season, though they re-signed Marcin Gortat and added Paul Pierce, veteran influences that will definitely help come playoff time.  The Raptors did well to keep the young core of last season’s impressive squad together, and as they continue to grow as a unit this could be the team to make a surprise appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals.

It is unlikely that either of last year’s finalists will be there again, due to the loss of both their star players.  The Miami Heat, of course, lost James, but re-signed Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.  Any chance of success returning to South Beach depends on the notorious knees of the latter, but they will likely retain a playoff berth by default in the weaker East.  The Heat’s opponents in last year’s ECF, the Indiana Pacers, were dealt a cruel blow when Paul George suffered a horrific injury in a scrimmage with Team USA at the beginning of August.  This further weakened a roster that had already lost Lance Stephenson to the renamed Charlotte Hornets, and will now struggle to make even the lower seeds.

 

Betting Instinct tip – don’t underestimate the impact of the returning LeBron James. Back Cleveland to win the Eastern Conference at +110 with Intertops.eu

 

With a number of new-look teams going into the new campaign optimistic of a playoff berth, who do you see meeting in the finals next June? Have your say in the comments section below.

 

Cathal avatar CATHAL LOUGHRAN (cathalloughran) is a student and writer from Ireland, based in London.  He  writes about  college basketball and the NBA for Betting Instinct. Follow him on Twitter.

Manchester United need a response against West Ham

Marcos Rojo could feature in an unfamiliar centre-back pairing

Marcos Rojo could feature in an unfamiliar centre-back pairing

The show must go on.

I tried to see the funny side of Leicester’s 5-3 comeback victory over Manchester United, but this was no MK Dons (at which I was in convulsions).  This was genuinely frustrating.  Forget growing pains and forget patience; it is pretty much unacceptable for any side to squander a two-goal lead over a newly-promoted team, never mind concede another two afterwards.  Saturday’s tie with West Ham isn’t a ‘bounce back’ fixture.  The Leicester game was like dropping an egg – no bounce and a small mess.  What United now must do is forget about that mess and turn their attention to the recipe.  There are plenty of eggs left in the carton.

 

Manchester United v West Ham United Betting Odds:

Manchester United win 3/10

West Ham United win 7/1

Draw 17/4

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

No matter how bad things got under David Moyes, and they got pretty bad, the most widespread criticism from United fans was the style, or lack thereof.  Last year United limped and sputtered through games, sometimes appearing to resign themselves to mediocre results.  Individual performances were often just that, and more often not enough.  This season, or in the last two games at least, they have already shown enough to be labelled a juggernaut going forward.  Swagger has replaced stagnation, and United are once again the most exciting team in the league to watch.

Usually we have to wait for new signings to ‘click’, but Ángel di María has been electrifying in his last two appearances and Falcao looks sharp as a tack.  The latter’s movement and cross in the buildup to Robin van Persie’s opener were impeccable, while the former’s goal was genius of the sort not seen in red since Cristiano Ronaldo.  After the first few months of Moyes’s reign had passed, I rarely found myself looking forward to watching a match.  Now I can hardly wait for the next one and I’m certainly not alone.  Need to sort out that defence though.

 

Liability Insurance

When Jonny Evans limped off early against Leicester, it was no doubt worrying, but we assumed it would be something to worry about after the final whistle.  Instead, United’s makeshift defence, with Phil Jones injured and Luke Shaw on the bench, was short of both quality and leadership.  Chris Smalling became something of a scapegoat after the game, but in truth Marcos Rojo and Rafael were both awful at full back as well, even if the penalty given against the Brazilian was a soft one.  Tyler Blackett was probably United’s best defender before Cambiasso’s goal, but then the capitulation began.  The youngster eventually showed his inexperience and Daley Blind was simply overrun in the second half.

All eyes will be on United’s defence against a West Ham side that looked good in their 3-1 win over Liverpool.  Evans’s scan has ruled him out for about a month, while Smalling picked up a thigh injury in training, further limiting van Gaal’s options at the back.  If Smalling is deemed fit, he will be partnered by Rojo at centre half, allowing Shaw to make his competitive debut at left-back.  If not, United will have to look at the bottom of the barrel for someone to pair with Rojo.  With go-to makeshift defender, Michael Carrick also an injury doubt, van Gaal could call on a youngster or even Darren Fletcher.

 

Nothing to Shout About

Many, myself included, were never in favour of making Rooney captain.  He held the club to ransom twice and was welcomed back with open chequebooks on both occasions.  If anything, agent Paul Stretford should be wearing the armband – at least he’s resourceful.  Rooney showed his idea of crisis management on Sunday when, after his failed clearance led to a Leicester goal, he screamed at anyone within earshot in a show of authoritah.  Rooney lent nothing to the team’s performance, but will of course be preferred to Juan Mata on Saturday in spite of recent form or, y’know, ability.

But one problem at a time.  Going forward, the team has played well in spite of Rooney, not because of him.  If van Gaal can assemble a back four for Saturday’s game, his side should be able to dispatch of West Ham.  I can still remember when United fans didn’t use the word ‘if’.

 

Betting Instinct tip – With United strong in attack and porous in defence, more than 3.5 goals looks good value at 5/4 with Intertops.eu

 

Cathal avatar CATHAL LOUGHRAN (cathalloughran) is a student and writer from Ireland, based in London.  He  writes about  college basketball and the NBA for Betting Instinct. Follow him on Twitter.

NBA Finals – Spurs injury doubts could open the door for Miami

Manu Ginobili (right) will hope to inspire a reverse of last year's series defeat against LeBron James and Miami

Manu Ginobili (right) will hope to inspire a reverse of last year’s series defeat against LeBron James and Miami

They say the journey is more important than the destination, but in basketball it’s all about the destination.

Background

The next 4-7 games will define this season, at least in terms of basketball, for the 2014 Playoffs thus far are most likely to be remembered because of one odious old racist. Though it should not be forgotten that basketball stood strong, persevered, and invigorated its loyal spectators who witnessed some truly marvellous matchups. The San Antonio Spurs were tested from Day One in a seven-game all-Texas series against the Dallas Mavericks, and this continued against the surprise package Trail Blazers and the miracle of Serge Ibaka. The Miami Heat’s route was somewhat more straightforward, waltzing past Charlotte before seeing off the Brooklyn Nets after a one-game scare. In the Eastern Conference Finals they advanced past the Pacers (and the buffoonery of Lance Stephenson) and will now face the same foe they bested in seven games last year.

The last time two teams played each other in consecutive NBA Finals, it was Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls facing off against John Stockton and the Utah Jazz. The first of these meetings tipped off mere weeks before one Timothy Theodore Duncan was selected by the Spurs with the first pick in the 1997 NBA Draft. Since then, Timmy and coach Gregg Popovich have been crowned NBA champions four times, and were five seconds and a Ray Allen 3-pointer from making it five last year. Instead, LeBron James and the Miami Heat won their second straight title and now have their sights set on a ‘three-peat’.

 

San Antonio Spurs v Miami Heat Game 1 Betting Odds:

Miami Heat +170

San Antonio Spurs -200

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

What to Watch

Big 3s – Power trios were certainly not unheard of in the NBA before the summer of 2010, but when LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh convened in South Beach the phrase took on new significance and expectations. This wasn’t least because of the now-infamous “not five, not six, not seven…” prediction that James boldly made at their unveiling. Hyperbole or not, the Heat strove for multiple championships, a feat which had already been achieved by another ‘Big 3’ in South Texas. Now, as Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili hope to add to their tally at the expense of the James and co., it is undoubtedly these six men who will have the greatest say in crowning the 2014 NBA Champions.

LeBron James is the most dominant player on the planet and the tide sets its watch by Tim Duncan – there is only so much that can be said about greatness.

 

Perhaps the biggest variable in this series will be the left ankle of Tony Parker. The Spurs will need the Frenchman not just to play, but to play at his best, if they are to take down the two-time defending champs, though Adrian Wojnarowski reports that Parker “should be ready” to go in Game 1. Meanwhile, the conservative strategy Miami adopted to preserve Dwyane Wade’s knees during the regular season appears to have paid dividends in the playoffs. Wade described Game 7 of last year’s series as “hell”, as he was forced to have fluid drained from one knee in order to play, but this year he appears to be fighting fit – a huge boost to the Heat’s title aspirations.

It would be unfair to call Chris Bosh and Manu Ginobili the ‘forgotten men’ of the Big 3s, even if they don’t command the spotlight as much as their teammates. Bosh went from underrated to overrated, before finally settling at appreciated, in his spell in Miami. He will again be tested by the Spurs’ bigs as the center in coach Eric Spolestra’s favoured ‘small ball’ lineups, but Bosh has shown he can bang when he has to, and his improved outside shot has given the Heat another weapon this season. Ginobili did just about everything in the final two games of the Western Conference Finals. In last year’s Finals he did very little. San Antonio already has an advantage over the Heat in terms of roster depth, so in coming off the bench Ginobli himself could very easily determine whether or not he wins a fourth ring.

 

The Supporting Cast

This year, the Spurs’ depth is one of the main reasons why they have been installed as slight favourites. It is unlikely that anyone will steal the show in its entirety from the host of superstars on display, but the other starters and bench contributors could swing the balance one way or the other. The Heat’s wing rotation currently leaves a lot to be desired, with Rashard Lewis getting the starting nod in the last few games due to Udonis Haslem’s injury. These ‘small ball’ line-ups are a lot riskier against the Spurs, however, given the presence of Duncan, Boris Diaw, and Tiago Splitter. Such size will require the Heat’s wings to help inside, leaving the likes of Danny Green and Marco Belinelli free to drain 3-pointers all night long.

This is why Chris Andersen is so important to Miami; ‘Birdman’ provides the Heat with invaluable size and hustle for eighteen minutes a night, and affords Spolestra an extra degree of versatility with his line-ups. Eighteen months ago one could have been forgiven for laughing at the notion of Birdman ever having a potential impact on a Finals series, while the prospect of the Spurs’ Boris Diaw being involved would have seemed almost as unlikely, though for very different reasons. Before landing in San Antonio in 2012, Diaw was a figure of ridicule in NBA circles; as a member of the Charlotte Bobcats he was overweight, overpaid, and presumed over the hill. Yet as part of the Spurs’ rotation he enjoyed a resurgence of form that Pop has managed to extract from many a so-called ‘has been’. Now Diaw and third-year stud Kawhi Leonard are charged with the unenviable task of guarding the Chosen One, something which Diaw has proven surprisingly capable of in the past.

 

Advantage Spurs?

Another interesting aside sees a reversion to the old 2-2-1-1-1 format after 29 years of playing 2-3-2. The Spurs will enjoy the home-court advantage that Miami held last year, something which may prove decisive as the regular season series was split between the sides, with the home team winning on each occasion. Overall this postseason, Greg Popovich’s squad boast a 12-6 record (.666), going 9-1 (.900) at home. And, after being one of the most miserly outfits in the league this season, you can bet that the Alamo will be well-defended when the Heat come to town.

The San Antonio Spurs are favourites, but only slightly, given that they have home court advantage and greater depth in a series that could easily go the distance. My money is on the Heat, though, because in my eyes a Spurs victory is dependent on too many variables. We can’t be certain that Parker will be or stay fit, we don’t know which Ginobili will show up, and it would be unwise to depend on Diaw’s defensive capabilities. We do know, of course, that LeBron James will be playing for the Miami Heat, so write them off at your peril.

 

Betting Instinct tip Miami Heat to win in 6 is +350 with Intertops.eu

 

Cathal avatar CATHAL LOUGHRAN (cathalloughran) is a student and writer from Ireland, based in London.  He  writes about college basketball and the NBA for Betting Instinct. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

March Madness 2014 Final Four – Can Kentucky Make History?

Can Kentucky's John Calipari repeat his 2011-12 success?

Can Kentucky’s John Calipari repeat his 2011-12 success?

 

No one will ever have it all figured out.  No one wants to.

 

Aaron Craft lay flat on his back on the hardwood and let the madness wash over him. Dayton had just upset Craft’s Ohio State Buckeyes in the first game of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, bursting millions of brackets as Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage pulled up outside college basketball’s Big Dance.  Dayton’s run to the Elite Eight was the standout story of this year’s March Madness for the neutral, as they also toppled the much-fancied Syracuse and fellow giant killers, Stanford, before finally being stopped by No. 1 Florida.  The other major upsets came from Stanford and Mercer, who beat Kansas and Duke, respectively, and saw to it that the top three players in this year’s heralded freshmen class (Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Jabari Parker) would be watching the business end of the tournament from their couches.  This is how Mercer’s Kevin Canevari felt about that.

 

The Final Four is where it gets serious.  Cinderella had her fun, but was escorted out after one too many Jägerbombs.  The true heavyweights remain: Florida, UConn, Wisconsin and Kentucky.  Pay attention to the seedings no more; though UConn is a No. 7 and Kentucky a No. 8, both are power programs which have produced champions in the past four years, while No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Wisconsin have been consistent all season – there are no underdogs.  Still, of the 11 million brackets filled out for ESPN’s Tournament challenge, just 612 predicted that these would be the last four teams left despite the fact that Kentucky was the preseason No. 1 and Florida was the midseason No. 1.

 

March Madness Final Four Betting Odds:

Florida +110

Kentucky +250

Wisconsin +275

Connecticut +800

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

The favourites before the tournament coming off a 30-game winning streak, Florida is the team to beat.  Here’s where it gets interesting though: two of the other Final Four teams, Wisconsin and UConn, are the only teams to have beaten Florida this season, while Kentucky came within a point in their last matchup with the Gators.  Florida’s record this season is a result of the nation’s best defense, toughness and consistency, all owing to the maturity of the squad.  Before the season, maturity was not a word often associated with point guard Scottie Wilbekin, and his story is definitely worth a read.  Florida would certainly not be here without him.  Wilbekin is one of four seniors in the starting lineup and no Gator is expected to be selected in the first round of this year’s NBA Draft – are Florida the anti-Kentucky?

 

Last season was tough for UConn; their long-time Hall of Fame coach, Jim Calhoun, retired before the season, star players from the previous season, Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb, had left for the NBA and they were banned from the NCAA Tournament for not meeting academic standards.  This year, the Huskies are back with a vengeance that few expected, thanks to coach Kevin Ollie and star player Shabazz Napier.  UConn are also in the NCAA Women’s Final Four, but if they are to have any chance of double success, the Huskies need to hope Napier is on form.  Connecticut are far from a one-man team, and boast a balanced, scoring support behind their point guard, but it is clear that they will go as far as Napier, the tournament’s leading scorer (23.3 ppg) takes them.

 

How to describe the 2013/14 Wisconsin Badgers?  “White guys.”  Frank Kaminsky’s words, not mine.  But the Badgers’ star center’s response to the question of how their last opponents would describe the team tells you all you need to know.  Wisconsin are likeable; a feel-good story.  Kaminsky doesn’t take himself too seriously, even if NBA scouts have started to, and low-key coach Bo Ryan has finally led his Badgers to the Final Four after coming close countless times over the last decade.  Though Kaminsky has emerged as a force in recent games, Wisconsin’s success has been built on a slow, efficient offensive style, rather than star play.  They have already beaten Florida and Kentucky this season, and a tough schedule culminated in that victory over the Wildcats in the last round.  Having last won the tournament in 1941, Wisconsin has far and away the longest drought of any of the remaining teams.

 

Coming into the season with one of the most heralded recruiting classes ever and ranked No. 1 in the nation, many believed that John Calipari’s Kentucky would repeat the success of his 2011/12 championship-winning team.  Individual talent was never an issue, but the team often looked like less than the sum of its parts, with the Harrison twins in particular struggling in the backcourt.  After a huge loss to Florida on March 10, Calipari concluded that a change was in order, and tweaked his tactics to give the players more freedom at the expense of set plays.  The results speak for themselves; Kentucky’s last three games have seen them dispose of last year’s finalists, Louisville and Michigan, and the previously undefeated Wichita State.  Julius Randle has cemented his place amongst the top players in this year’s draft and is certainly the man to watch, but both Andrew and Aaron Harrison have stepped up their play in the last two weeks and Marcus Lee has emerged from nowhere to replace the injured Willie Cauley-Stein.  Kentucky has gained momentum and cohesion to go with their star power and will be very difficult to stop.

 

Betting Instinct Tip – Back Kentucky -1.5 against Wisconsin, at -110 with Intertops.eu

 

Cathal avatar CATHAL LOUGHRAN (cathalloughran) is a student and writer from Ireland, based in London.  He  writes about college basketball and the NBA for Betting Instinct

Even Barack Obama has a go during March Madness as predicting a perfect bracket becomes an American pastime

Is there anyone in the United States who doesn't fill in a March Madness bracker?

Is there anyone in the United States who doesn’t fill in a March Madness bracket?

68 teams.  63 games.  21 days.  Millions of fans.  No second chances.

What happens when something predictably unpredictable becomes so unpredictable that we don’t even know what to expect when expecting the unexpected?  Madness.

The NCAA tournament is one of those rare occasions on which human beings embrace madness.  Every year millions of brackets are filled out in what has become a national pastime in the States, with people entering into online competitions and office pools alike in the hope of predicting the tournament correctly.  Even Barack Obama has a go.  But, clever though he may be, the odds don’t look good: there is about a one in 147.57 quintillion (18 zeroes) chance of picking the perfect bracket.  Why do people subject themselves to such an exercise in futility?  If they needed an incentive beyond the fun, the office pot, or an innate desire to defy the odds (a rare motivation, I’ll admit), Warren Buffett has provided one.  For those unfamiliar with Mr. Buffett, he recently became the world’s second-richest man, and is thus able to promise a $1 billion prize to anyone who can pick the winner of all 63 games.  I wouldn’t bet on it.

This isn’t the NBA Playoffs, no matter how much casual basketball fans love that comparison.  Yes, the stakes are high and the best players are on display, but what separates March from April, May and June is that every game is Game 7.  The atmosphere doesn’t reach fever pitch, it starts there.  Because every team has a chance.  Bracket busting teams of the past, like Butler in 2010 AND 2011, typified the unpredictability of the tournament with their ‘Cinderella stories’.  Except this year, there are so many teams whose feet might fit the proverbial glass slipper that so-called ‘bracketologists’ will have a harder time choosing than Prince Charming.  There seems to be an abundance of ‘giant killers’, but few, if any, giants to kill.  Obviously there are the big-name programs and stalwart coaches who are present year in, year out, but none has set itself apart.

If the NBA’s new Commissioner gets his way, and the league’s age limit is raised from 19 to 20, March Madness 2014 could be the last of its kind.  This year NBA scouts have been giddy with excitement about possibly the most heralded freshman class in recent memory.  The likes of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Joel Embiid, and Andrew Gordon have not disappointed thus far, but they don’t have much more time to prove themselves.  Because of the increasingly popular ‘one and done’ trend, highly-touted prospects have tended to spend just one year in college before declaring for the NBA draft.  These players and their teams get one shot at the title, in contrast to those mid-major programs comprised of upperclassmen that have been together for years.  It will be interesting to see whether this class of freshmen really is as good as advertised; does any of these players has what it takes to shoulder the weight of a long run in March?  Keep in mind that the team ranked No. 1 in the country, Florida, has just that many freshmen on its roster.

_________________________________________________________

NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Betting Odds

Florida 5.50
Louisville 7.00
Arizona 8.00
Michigan State 9.00
Kansas 10.00

(All odds provided by Intertops.eu are accurate as of today and subject to change)

_________________________________________________________

At the time of writing it’s still championship week, so, if you haven’t already grasped how fickle the nature of this tournament is, here is my disclaimer: while I’ve begun by mentioning the two teams I’m most interested to watch, the unpredictability of March Madness could mean their hopes are up in smoke within a day or two of this preview going live.

Oklahoma State have flirted with being both overrated and underrated since the season began, but the consistent fact of the matter is they will go as far as Marcus Smart takes them.  When he is dialled in, this team can be very difficult to beat, as Kansas found in the second half of their game earlier in the month.  Admittedly I have a fetish for 6’4, 220lb guards (see Wade, Dwyane), but Smart has shown he can pretty much do it all.  Against Texas Tech in the First Round of the Big 12, Smart stuffed the stat sheet and, more importantly, showed the character that has been questioned since the last time the teams met.  If Smart stays focused and gets some help from his teammates, OK State may still justify some of the hype.

After watching UCLA edge out the much-fancied No. 4 Arizona, I don’t see why the Bruins couldn’t make some noise at the Big Dance (especially now that Ben Howland is gone).  They have some intriguing pieces in Jordan Adams and Zach LaVine, but the star of the show in LA this year has been Kyle Anderson.  The 6’8 point-forward was given the keys to the team by new coach, Steve Alford, and has responded with per-game averages not far off a triple-double.  He hasn’t gotten the hype his play has deserved, but a few wins in the coming weeks would change that.  Watch this space.

The fun of the tournament is finding your own teams to follow, so grab a bracket or six and share in the madness.

Betting Instinct Tip – UCLA face Tulsa in their opener, and UCLA -9 is -115 with AllYouBet.ag 

_________________________________________________________

Intertops Sportsbook $25,000 March Madness Bracket ContestIntertops Sportsbook will pay out $25,000 for a perfect bracket — 63 correct picks. If no player manages to select a perfect bracket, the prize money will be divided equally amongst the 25 players with the highest number of correct picks. Entry deadline is March 20th, 2014.

_________________________________________________________

Cathal avatarCATHAL LOUGHRAN (cathalloughran) is a student and writer from Ireland, based in London.  He writes about college basketball and the NBA for Betting Instinct