- Chad Millman
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Cross these teams off the list of NCAA title contenders right now: Memphis, LSU, Villanova, Michigan State. I don't care where they end up seeded or who they open against. I am telling you these four teams will not be serenaded to One Shining Moment.
In fact, I'll take it even further: Your 2009 college hoops champs will come from this group: Gonzaga, Louisville, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, UCLA or UConn. Really, my readers, this is important. While your square buddies are cramming on power ratings and Cinderellas, I'm giving you the answers to the final exam.
Welcome to the second installment of BTB's mini-stimulus bill (here was the first), designed to give you an edge in filling out your bracket, leading to a windfall of lucre you can then pump back into the struggling economy. This week's lesson: Embrace the "now or never" teams.
Before you start getting wistful for scrappy seniors who nail giant-killing 30-foot jumpers, get over yourself. Yes, now or never teams are the squads whose last chance at winning with its current group of players is right now. But they aren't just senior-laden teams trying to keep the clock from striking midnight. There's a lot more to the now or never theory than destiny and string music and memories of Bryce Drew. Like, you know, actual math and stuff.
In fact, think about your brackets like a wiseguy—that's the only way to turn this into a moneymaking opportunity. For one: forget the emotional angle come March.
"Emotions have more of a chance to have an impact on a team during the regular season," says a Vegas wiseguy I know who goes by Adam. He's been a pro for seven years, after spending a decade bookmaking for one of the bigger casinos. "During the tourney, everyone should be jacked up because everyone could be playing their last game of the season. There shouldn't be any down games."
Now or never teams have a lethal combination of savvy senior leadership and pro-caliber talent. And Gonzaga, Louisville, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh UCLA and UConn are the only teams in the likely field of 64 with at least two seniors starting and two NBA-bound players next season.
Now, Joe Lunardi may want to throw me into his bracketology mixing machine for spewing such nonsense, but I've got numbers to back me up.
Six of the past eight teams that played for the title were now or nevers, including Kansas and Memphis last year, Ohio State in 2007, UCLA in 2006 and Illinois and North Carolina in 2005. Meanwhile, since 2005, 14 now or never teams have made the tourney, and only three of those lost in the first round.
In fact, take a look at the latest NCAA odds from the Las Vegas Hilton's bookmaking pro Jay Kornegay. These now or never teams are a great combination of sure things and value bets:
North Carolina: 3 to 1
UConn: 6 to 1
Pitt: 6 to 1
Louisville: 10 to 1
Oklahoma: 10 to 1
UCLA: 30 to 1
Gonzaga: 30 to 1
(Ask yourself this when calculating value on odds: If the tourney were played three times, would North Carolina win it one of those times? If the tourney were played 30 times, would UCLA win it just once?)
There are now or never exceptions, but even those prove the rule. When the Gators won in 2006 they were a group of overachieving super sophs. You could argue though, that because they had gelled so well as a unit, they played with more maturity and purpose than your typical team during that first title run. They knew they were creating something special, that they all might leave school early, and didn't want it to end. When they decided as a group to come back for one more season, they became the quintessential now or never team. There was no doubt it was their last time together and that 2007 tourney was their one chance to not just win it all again, but make history while doing it.
I'm not convinced there's a Florida in this year's field. But if you're looking for some now or never wild cards, think about teams without any starting seniors but at least two likely-to-go-pro starters. Could be Kansas, with Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich. Or maybe Kentucky, if it makes it to March, because of Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson. Duke, with Gerald Henderson and Kyle Singler is at least a possibility, too (although I have yet to find a wiseguy who trusts Coach K enough to bet on him).
The smart money, though, is on Wake Forest. Jeff Teague, James Johnson and Al-Farouq Aminu are all top 16 picks come June, according to Chad Ford. No other team in college hoops can make that claim. If this trio doesn't make a run now, it might never get the chance again.
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Chad Millman is a Senior Deputy Editor at ESPN The Magazine, and once wrote a book called The Odds. His column takes a close look at the culture surrounding the bet.
If you pick your Final Four, these teams better be in it.