Last year at this time, bettors examining the college basketball futures market were focused on determining the size of the gap between Gonzaga and Baylor with the rest of the country. Those two squads dominated, were lauded by media experts and handicappers as the clear favorites and were given relatively short odds to win it all as early as mid-December.
Before Jan. 1, every other team in the country was a relative long shot.
This year the story is much different.
Gonzaga, Duke and Purdue have held the top spot, but not long enough to give bettors the level of confidence they had in the favorites last year. Baylor is there now. But players like Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague, who helped win a national championship, are not.
So that means CBB bettors this season can scan the futures board a little more broadly and identify plays based not only in value but ones with higher odds that can be alive in March. This year’s field is wide open, with at least 15 to 20 teams legitimately in play for the Final Four.
That depth should translate into value for teams in this group that have yet to receive the same amount of media attention and betting action as the usual suspects.
Identifying those teams is the best way to attack this futures board.
Two legitimate contenders fall into this category, and they just happened to play each other last weekend. Alabama’s 83-82 win over Houston showed that both teams are clearly in the mix for all future plays.
The Crimson Tide’s win over Houston came after a resounding victory over Gonzaga the previous week.
It is somewhat of a surprise that Alabama hasn’t generated a lot of headlines based on these two wins. Likewise for Houston, which is coming off a Final Four season and features Marcus Sasser, a high-impact player, and key role players like Kyler Edwards, Jamal Shead and Fabian White Jr.
The tone of the college basketball season is about to change as it moves to conference play, and when it does, expect to hear more about both squads.
Bettors who already have tickets on both teams should feel good — in fact, really good. For those yet to make a play on the Tide or Cougars, decision time is now to obtain some value.
Let’s look at some of the best ways to play both teams on the futures board right now.
Based on the odds board and play so far, here is the rundown of prime contenders (using DraftKings odds): Gonzaga (+ 500), Duke (+ 800), Purdue (+ 800), Kansas (+ 1200), Baylor (+ 1400), UCLA (+ 1400), Villanova (+ 1600), Texas (+ 2000), Kentucky (+ 2000), Michigan (+ 2000), Alabama (+ 2000), Arizona (+ 2200), Houston (+ 2200), Illinois (+ 2500) and Ohio State (+ 2500).
The eyeball tests say there is little difference among these teams.
Duke beats Gonzaga, Duke loses to Ohio State, Ohio State falls to Florida, Purdue leaves Rutgers as a loser ... you get the point.
It’s Baylor’s turn to get the spotlight this week, and for those interested in betting Alabama and Houston, that is good news. The Bears move up a tier on the futures board, while the similarly talented Crimson Tide and Cougars sit comfortably behind, allowing bettors the opportunity to still capitalize on their value. That’s something the Bears have far less of now after easily handling Villanova over the weekend.
By no means should KenPom be the only tool used to handicap. Think of it more as a resource to compare teams. With that in mind, KenPom has Houston, even with its two losses, ranked fifth in the country. He puts Alabama at No. 11. This indicates some value comparing these numbers with the odds board.
Fitting with the other rankings, KenPom has Baylor as No. 1.
KenPom’s metrics make Houston one of the most special teams in the country. The Cougars rank in the Top 10 in his adjusted efficiency for both offense and defense.
This team is getting attention from the analytics community. Not so much by the mainstream sports media, and when it comes to betting futures, that works out well.
Even though Kelvin Sampson’s team is noted more for its defense, keeping pace offensively with the fast-running Tide is a good indication of Houston’s long-term success.
From a betting perspective, take note of Houston for futures and for daily wagers (7-3 ATS).
Alabama is also in the Top 10 for adjusted efficiency on the offensive side but is just 30th defensively. This team looks to play fast and can score against any defense — case in point, the 83 against those Cougars.
The RPI rankings say Alabama is the top team in the country.
The NET rankings have Houston fifth and Alabama 11th.
As for where these teams fit in according to the bracketologists, Joe Lunardi places both on the 3 line, while TeamRankings.com makes Alabama a second seed and Houston a third seed.
The average seed of the Final Four teams over the last 15 tournaments is 3.3.
Projecting both teams from here is interesting. Houston very likely could end with a higher seed because the Cougars might not lose another game this regular season. Conference rival Memphis is one of the biggest disappointments in college basketball, and while Cincinnati and UCF have live-dog qualities, they aren’t on the same level.
Sure, a slip-up can come anytime, but expect to see a very gaudy win total for Houston once the American Athletic Conference tournament begins in March in Fort Worth, Texas.
Operating out of the Southeastern Conference, Alabama should accumulate more losses along the way. That is the result of playing in what should be considered the best conference in the country.
How to play it? Getting a national championship futures ticket on either team is a wise value play based on their current odds. A wager should be made before the start of conference play — especially on Houston, which should pile up the victories while the other power-conference teams play a weekly game of king of the hill.
A ticket on either team also makes sense to pair with one of the four expected top seeds: Baylor, Duke, Gonzaga and Purdue.
Even though neither Alabama nor Houston is really a long shot, each will have that value in a March-based futures portfolio. A top seed should be included in that portfolio as well since 23 have won the tournament since 1985.
Both teams at these odds have hedge value. However, if you are contemplating taking just one, make it Houston. The Cougars’ final win total might be close enough to 30 to get them back to a No. 2 seed.
And a No. 2 seed at 22-1 is why bettors play the futures market now.
What you just read pertains here and why I believe Final Four futures tickets on Alabama and Houston are some of the best futures plays that can be made at this juncture.
Alabama at + 450 and Houston at + 500 are time-sensitive bets, since this is likely the highest they will be.
For comparative purposes, a Final Four ticket at those prices for Alabama and Houston look better now than the + 300 for Kansas, the + 350 for UCLA and the + 425 for Michigan.
How to play it? Since this bet pays off four ways, bettors can take on more risk and make multiple plays.
Both teams deserve Final Four wagers, with preference again given to Houston. The Tide and Cougars appear to be top-level teams with noticeably higher odds than those currently projected as Nos. 1 or 2 seeds.
Using Lunardi’s projections, Houston would need to defeat the following teams to make the Final Four: Oakland, BYU, Arizona and Baylor.
Of course, defense on defense against Baylor would be hard. Nonetheless, at that point, with a 5-1 ticket in hand, hedging and middling opportunities would be available.
Still, Houston could win a game against Baylor played in the 50s, something not a lot of teams can say. Houston would also have the revenge factor after losing to Baylor in last year’s national semifinals.
While on the topic of Baylor, a Final Four ticket for the Bears is an attractive + 330.
As good as Alabama is and could be in the national tournament, its current odds at + 320 are lacking value since the SEC is so deep and upsets in the conference should happen on a nightly basis in January and February.
This number is no longer high enough for a recommended play. However, I would gladly take that ticket over Kentucky + 260 to win the SEC.
Besides these two squads, Tennessee + 550, Arkansas + 650, Auburn + 650, LSU + 1000 and Florida + 1200 are the top contenders. Even Mississippi State + 2000 and Ole Miss + 3000 are somewhat viable.
There are too many quality teams, and now including the Auburn situation, too many variables for a 3-1 value play on Alabama.
Same holds true for obtaining value on Houston in the AAC at only + 120. Plus numbers always get my attention, but this is pushing it, even though I expect the Cougars to win the regular-season title.
How to play it? For bettors interested in making CBB futures plays, Houston to win the AAC is a sound investment without the sexy ROI. Treat it like a savings bond: Make the bet and lock the money away knowing it should be safe and pay out in early March, just before Selection Sunday. If that happens, you’ll have a little more ammunition to use for March Madness.