2022 NCAA tournament: Potential roadblock teams for title contenders

March 12, 2022 06:21 PM
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Over the course of the college basketball season, our handicapping of the futures board has keyed in on a smaller list of legitimate national championship contenders. 

Recent history suggests NCAA Tournament winners are priced at around 9-1 or lower entering their conference tournament, are a top-three seed in the NCAA Tournament and have a roster with at least three NBA-quality players.

Having all of these traits doesn’t guarantee a national championship; it’s more of a barometer bettors should look toward when making futures plays. 

Longshots are nice talking points but rarely cash the final ticket.

For every 2014 Connecticut, there are numerous No.1 seeds — with names such as Baylor, Virginia, Villanova and North Carolina — that went from high expectations to national champion.

Those recent Final Four surprises that come to mind, such as No. 11 seeds UCLA and Loyola of Chicago, No. 7 South Carolina and No. 5 Auburn, were all good stories but cashed only a Final Four appearance ticket. 

So bettors should consider making partial-unit plays on the longer shots and a larger investment on teams in the legitimate contender category. With less than a week to go before Selection Sunday, that ever-dwindling list now includes just eight teams (with DraftKings odds):

— Gonzaga + 350

— Arizona + 650

— Kentucky + 700

— Baylor + 1200

— Auburn + 1200

— Duke + 1200

— Kansas + 1400 

— Purdue + 1400

That list places teams such as Villanova, Texas Tech and UCLA in the outsider category. Others such as Tennessee, Houston, Illinois, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Alabama, Connecticut and Texas are in an even riskier group. 

Kansas and Baylor are on the fringe of legitimate contenders. They remain in that group due to possible high seeds. According to BracketMatrix.com, Baylor is in line for a No.1 seed and Kansas is close behind with a No. 2. The Bears have significant injury concerns, and the Jayhawks don’t have an elite roster of talent besides Ochai Agbaji. 

I am one of the few voices in the VSiN universe that has not written Matt Painter’s squad off yet, so Purdue remains on the list. The Boilermakers have the best offense in the country, and if one or two of their heartbreaking losses went their way, the current perception would be much different. 

This refined and defined list of legitimate contenders helps bring the futures handicapping process into the next stage. Now, prior to Selection Sunday, is the time to identify the list of teams that could prove to be roadblocks for these contenders on their way to New Orleans. 

Bettors need to know the types of opponents these eight squads are most susceptible to. Having that information before the brackets are released can help your decision-making prior to the public getting involved. 

Identifying roadblocks allows bettors to see who has the clearest path to the Final Four, alert them to any threats to their existing tickets and provide them with a contingency plan if needed. 

Listed below are the eight legitimate contenders, with opponents they lost to, shared similarities of those opponents and other possible schools in the tournament that fit the profile. This analysis doesn’t include conference tournament results. 

Gonzaga

Losses: Duke, Alabama, Saint Mary’s. 

Shared similarities: All are ranked in the KenPom Top 25. These three teams all had players listed at 6-foot-10 and taller get significant minutes. With one of the best offenses in the country, the Zags are difficult to outscore, but Duke and Alabama both showcase a KenPom top-15 offense. These three teams also played their best games of the season at the expense of Mark Few’s marquee group. That means it takes an elite team playing at full capacity to defeat the Zags. Saint Mary’s might have shown a model to defeat Gonzaga. SMC is a team with capable big men who can slow the pace and force Chet Holmgren and Drew Timme to run all 94 feet each time down the court. 

Other teams fitting this profile: Staying within the KenPom Top 25, other teams that possess height or can slow the pace are Wisconsin (when it has Johnny Davis), Illinois, Purdue, UCLA, Houston, Auburn and Arizona.

Who to fear most: Kentucky doesn’t totally fit the criteria but has an abundance of Final Four talent. Expect a Zags-Wildcats championship game to be a trendy prediction once brackets are released. Arizona and Purdue also pose major challenges to a potential first-ever Gonzaga title. Based on current projections from BracketMatrix.com, a matchup against Arizona and former assistant Tommy Lloyd would come in the championship game. The Boilermakers could possibly be the No. 2. seed in Gonzaga’s bracket. The number of teams that can truly be a roadblock to the Zags is limited, which is why they’re -120 to make the Final Four. That’s a fair number for bettors to consider even though it comes with a minus.

Arizona

Losses: Tennessee, UCLA, Colorado. 

Shared similarities: The Colorado loss was out of place but not unexpected over the course of a season. The Volunteers and Bruins are KenPom top-15 teams. These three teams are all defensive-minded squads that were able to neutralize Arizona’s powerful offense. Very few teams can outscore the Wildcats, but these three showed that limiting their offense is the way to beat them.

Other teams fitting this profile: Baylor, Texas, Houston, Texas Tech, Connecticut, Illinois.

Who to fear most: ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Longhorns as a possible Sweet 16 matchup. That might pose some trouble for an Arizona squad that otherwise looks like a No. 1 seed and a Final Four team. Going along with Lunardi’s forecast, Arizona would be happy to see Kansas as the No. 2 in its bracket. Because of Arizona’s height (second-tallest team in the nation), a Final Four appearance at + 150 is one of my favorite pre-bracket wagers. Gonzaga has the size to beat the Wildcats. 

Kentucky

Losses: Duke, Notre Dame, LSU, Auburn, Tennessee, Arkansas. 

Shared similarities: The Irish are the outlier as the others are all KenPom top-20 teams — both overall and on defense. Besides Duke, the others are all SEC opponents, which could be an issue for the Wildcats as Lunardi expects five other SEC teams to join them in the field of 68. The loss to the Blue Devils came at Madison Square Garden and the other five were road games in front of hostile SEC crowds. Losses away from home is a common denominator with most of these contending teams. As a result, that factor might be negated for all of the contenders. Kentucky, which scores 80.4 points per game, was held to fewer than 74 points in all of its losses.

Other teams fitting this profile: Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, Baylor, Houston, Arizona, Illinois. 

Who to fear most: Of the teams mentioned above, Gonzaga, Baylor, Arizona and Illinois would come late in the tournament, so that bodes well for Kentucky futures. Villanova has the offense to slow down a game but a defense ranked north of 35 according to KenPom. Lunardi has Kentucky as the No. 2 seed in a bracket with Auburn at the top. If that comes to fruition, it would be good news for Big Blue as an Auburn matchup would come on a neutral court in Philadelphia. At + 700 to win it all, the Wildcats still have some value. While Gonzaga is the likely overall No. 1 seed, the Bulldogs may have more roadblocks than UK. The Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s game showed the Zags have issues playing in the 60s if the opponent can keep it there. Kentucky has won games in the 60s, 70s and higher. 

Baylor

Losses: Texas Tech (2), Oklahoma State, Alabama, Kansas. 

Shared similarities: A common theme continues: Rivals from deeply talented teams are going to create some losses over the course of a season. The Tide’s home-run-hitting offense can beat anyone when they don’t swing and miss on the mental side of things.

Other teams fitting this profile: Big 12 and SEC opponents. 

Who to fear most: Probably the hardest team to handicap at this point since KenPom has the Bears as a top-five team and BracketMatrix.com has them slated for a No. 1 seed. Those ratings still seem tenuous because Baylor has health issues with leading scorer LJ Cryer. Without Cryer’s nearly 14 points a game and without injured big man Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, any team in the Sweet 16 could knock off Baylor. That volatility makes it more practical to bet the Bears on a per-game basis rather than be locked into a futures ticket. Scott Drew has already said he is treating Cryer’s availability as day-to-day for the rest of the postseason. Lunardi’s bracketology leads to the possibility of a Baylor-Houston game in the Sweet 16. That rematch from last year’s tournament would certainly be a roadblock for the Bears, even though the Cougars have injury issues of their own. For those who still want to take the Bears to repeat, there’s no need to do it now. Wait until the brackets are released and be certain that is the move you want to make.They are priced at 12-1 with the expectation of getting a No. 1 seed. If they fall early in the Big 12 tournament, those odds will likely go higher. 

Auburn

Losses: Connecticut, Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee. 

Shared similarities: All quality teams and all losses happened away from home for Auburn. The UConn loss was in double overtime and came early in the season in the Bahamas. The Gators and the Volunteers kept Auburn in the 60s by limiting the production of anyone not named Jabari Smith. The Tigers’ best player — and possibly the top pick in the NBA draft — is going to get his points. The key is to keep Walker Kessler, K.D. Johnson and Wendell Green Jr. from doing the same. 

Other teams fitting this profile: Houston, Texas Tech, Big Ten opponents (namely Rutgers), North Texas/UAB.

Who to fear most: Arkansas and LSU — but in the SEC tournament. Auburn will likely face one of those teams in the SEC semifinals and needs to reach the SEC title game to have a chance for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and stay in the top half of the bracket. Gonzaga, Arizona and Kentucky would be favored over Auburn in an NCAA championship game. 

Duke

Losses: Ohio State, Miami, Florida State, Virginia, North Carolina.

Shared similarities: Take the UNC loss out of the equation as Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game was a unique situation. The Ohio State loss followed the euphoria of beating Gonzaga the previous game. The other losses were to bubble teams from a mediocre ACC. 

Other teams fitting this profile: Dropping home games to Miami, Virginia and UNC shows Duke can be upset by a number of different styles. 

Who to fear most: Because of the Blue Devils’ interior height (Paolo Banchero, Mark Williams, Theo John), taller teams may create the biggest threat. As a possible No. 2 seed, an unexpected foe such as Davidson, Wyoming, Saint Mary’s or San Francisco could pull off an early-round upset or at least create challenges before the next tier of teams comes into play (think UCLA, UConn or Tennessee). Beating Gonzaga twice in one season doesn’t sound likely. About two months ago, Duke’s odds dropped to 8-1. There should be some concerns for those who bought the Blue Devils at that point. For those holding just a Duke ticket, consider another team on the opposite side of the bracket once the seedings are announced. 

Kansas

Losses: Dayton, Texas Tech, Kentucky, Texas, Baylor, TCU.

Shared similarities: The loss to the Flyers in Florida was somewhat strange. Falling to Kentucky at home doesn’t seem like a bad loss, but Kansas came into that game as a 5-point favorite and was never competitive. It was the Jayhawks’ biggest non-conference test and they failed. The other losses were to a deep roster of Big 12 teams on the road. 

Other teams fitting this profile: Other Big 12 and SEC teams in the NCAA Tournament.

Who to fear most: Kansas can score, so the issue is a defense outside of KenPom’s top 30. This is perhaps the weakest team on our list of legitimate contenders. If the Jayhawks find a way to get a No.1 seed, expect plenty of attention given to the No. 2 seed in that bracket (maybe Kentucky or Auburn). Lunardi currently has Kansas as a No. 2 seed and Purdue as the No. 3 in the same bracket. A team such as Purdue would be a major obstacle for Kansas. If that scenario plays out, there would be a lot of optimism for those holding Purdue futures tickets. Rather than making Kansas a national championship play, consider another option that seems more realistic: Tennessee at + 700 or UCLA at + 600 to make the Final Four.

Purdue

Losses: Rutgers, Wisconsin (2), Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State.

Shared similarities: All were conference opponents familiar with the Zach Edey-Trevion Williams frontcourt. Four of the losses came on buzzer-beating shots on the road. 

Other teams fitting this profile: The Big Ten might get the most at-large bids of any conference, so if the Boilermakers advance, chances are they could face another conference opponent in the middle rounds. 

Who to fear most: As a projected No. 3 seed, Purdue’s defense is vulnerable to any team that can play fast on the perimeter and make it difficult for Boilermakers big men to keep up. The best way to beat the nation’s top-rated offensive team is to outscore them because of their suspect defense. If the Boilermakers get to the Elite Eight, any opponent might fit that profile. Before that, mid-seeded teams such as Murray State, Davidson and Alabama are a threat. Winning the Big Ten tournament and getting a No. 2 seed is imperative for Purdue. If Purdue remains a No. 3, even 14-1 odds aren’t overly enticing. 

Overall takeaways

Other than Gonzaga losing to Saint Mary’s and Kansas to Dayton, this group of contenders was able to avoid setbacks against mid-majors. That doesn’t guarantee anything in the tournament, but it does bode well when analyzing these teams from a futures perspective. 

As for bettors still shopping for a futures ticket before the brackets are released, look to consolidate this list even more. The Zags at + 350 are just too low to play. Instead, consider a moneyline rollover parlay. 

Baylor, Auburn, Duke, Kansas and Purdue have multiple areas of uncertainty. 

That leaves Kentucky and/or Arizona as the best options. Since those two should be on opposite sides of the bracket, there is nothing wrong with making a play on both — or, if you already have a ticket on one, adding the other. 

Having futures tickets on both of those teams while playing Gonzaga on the ML rollover can create some betting flexibility come the Final Four. Just don’t overextend and keep units handy for the multitude of other bets available during the three weeks of the tournament.

This information should also highlight what teams such as Tennessee, Houston, Texas Tech, UConn and Saint Mary’s might offer during the tournament. Don’t play those teams for a title but look to this group for wagers on individual games (especially when they are catching points), Unders in those games and reaching the Sweet 16. 

The Vols, Red Raiders and Huskies could very well be the three biggest wild cards in this year’s NCAA tournament.

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