Two years ago, the NCAA canceled the men’s basketball tournament as a result of the growing coronavirus pandemic. For the first time since the NCAA Tournament was held in 1939, March Madness was not held.
Last year, the tourney returned, albeit without fans. Still, and of course, we celebrated. College basketball’s greatest event was back. Yet something was off.
“We tried to bring it back in a way where it was similar to the ones we had in the past,” recalled Johnny Avello, director of race and sportsbook operations for DraftKings Sportsbook. “But it just didn’t have the same feel. This one did. … I just think there was a pent-up demand for people to get back to that normalcy for the tournament.”
Indeed, the 2022 NCAA Tournament feels like the true return of March Madness. And the tourney did not disappoint. Historic upsets, unprecedented Cinderella runs, instant thrillers. Now, we are down to the Final Four complete with four blueblood programs.
And these semifinals, one game in particular, could make history itself.
March Madness now down to Final Four
As tradition holds, the NCAA Tournament has featured … well … madness.
Upsets abounded over the first two rounds. Six teams pulled off upsets over opponents seeded five or more spots above them. Three No. 1 seeds didn’t survive past the Sweet 16. Saint Peter’s became the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Elite Eight. Now, the field has whittled to a final four — four of the most storied college basketball programs in the country.
No. 1 Kansas, No. 2 Duke, No. 2 Villanova and No. 8 North Carolina have combined for 61 Final Four appearances and 17 national championships. North Carolina (21), Duke and Kansas (16 each) rank in the top five for most appearances in the semifinals. And no matter the result, either UNC or Duke will move into a tie with Kentucky (12) for the second-most appearances in the national championship, behind only the 13 games played by UCLA.
NCAA Tournament Final Four
Saturday, April 2
Caesars Superdome, New Orleans
No. 2 Villanova vs. No. 1 Kansas (), 6:09 p.m. ET, TBS
No. 8 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Duke (), 8:49 p.m. ET, TBS
“Even after all of that, we’re still down to some of the top teams that were projected to get there,” Avello said. “It’s just that we went about it in a different route. And that’s usually how this tournament shakes out. There’s usually going to be a 1 (seed) in there at least, and at least a 2. But here we are with North Carolina, who was a much higher seed than what they usually are when they make the tournament but playing well now down the stretch at their full potential.”
Battle of Tobacco Road takes center stage
Duke and North Carolina have clashed 257 times over the years. Never, however, have the two ACC rivals met in the NCAA Tournament.
Not even a month has passed since the Tar Heels spoiled the final home game of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, the last time these two programs squared off this season. That game, according to Nielsen, delivered a reported audience of 4,343,000 viewers. As a result, it became the most-viewed weeknight men’s college basketball game in ESPN history.
The highest-rated Final Four weekend game over the past 20 years came in 2015, when Duke beat Wisconsin in the national championship in front of 28.3 million viewers for a 16.0 rating. The all-time record belongs to Michigan State-Indiana State, which drew 35.1 million viewers for a 24.1 rating in 1979.
Could North Carolina-Duke set the record? Perhaps. At the very least, Avello said, it could become “the largest game ever bet for college basketball.”
Fan vs. bookmaker: Avello thoughts on Final Four
Earnestly, Avello would have loved seeing Saint Peter’s continue its magical run through the NCAA Tournament.
As a fan.
“From a bookmaking standpoint,” Avello said, “I’m glad they’re gone. We had a huge hazard on them to win the whole thing. It would have been gut-wrenching to watch them in the final game.”
It makes sense. The No. 15 Peacocks entered the tournament with +10,000 odds to make the Sweet 16. They then became the first 15-seed to advance to the Elite Eight before falling to No. 8 North Carolina. In its wake, Saint Peter’s defeated No. 2 Kentucky (which had the fourth-best odds to win it all at DraftKings Sportsbook NY) and No. 3 Purdue (sixth-best).
“Rooting for them on one side as a fan, but not rooting for them as a bookmaker,” Avello said. “They had a great run. They were eventually going to run into a team that clamped down on them on defense and then not shoot a perfect game. For them to win the whole thing would have probably been the biggest upset in the history of sports.”
Now, according to DraftKings, Duke carries the most liability for the sportsbook. According to Avello, DraftKings would break even with a UNC championship. The operator is in a good place should Kansas or Villanova win it all.
Ideal NCAA Tournament championship includes Duke
Despite the March Madness betting liability surrounding the Blue Devils, Avello still would prefer seeing Duke advance one more time.
After all, what better way to send off Coach K than with a trip to the national championship?
The ideal matchup for Duke, according to Avello: Kansas. And only because of the injury to Villanova guard Justin Moore, who tore his right Achilles in the Elite Eight.
“I think the important part for a dream matchup would be for Duke to move forward,” Avello said. “If Duke doesn’t move forward and Carolina wins this game, for some, it takes the luster out of the final.
“Look, the final’s the final and people are going to look forward to it and people are going to bet it. But I just think there’s this camaraderie around basketball fans to see Duke continue on.”