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4 months later, Izzo finally on upswing

All it took was patience, and a lot of it. More than four months after being voted preseason No. 1, Michigan State finally resembles one of the 10 best teams in college basketball. The bettors who believed in coach Tom Izzo and never lost faith are winning again.

The Spartans recently claimed a share of the Big Ten regular-season title and carry a five-game winning streak into this week’s conference tournament in Indianapolis.

In early November, senior point guard Cassius Winston was featured on the cover of VSiN’s first College Basketball Betting Guide. The Spartans, the top team in my power rankings at the time, were eyeing their first NCAA championship in 20 years. But they looked nothing like title contenders in mid-February.

Michigan State’s season opened with a loss to Kentucky, soon followed by a loss to Virginia Tech in the Maui Invitational and a double-digit home setback to Duke in early December. In early January, Izzo took a 29-point beating at Purdue. The Spartans started February by losing four of five.

I considered quitting on this Izzo team Feb. 28, the day before Michigan State’s revenge game at Maryland. Winston was not playing well. Izzo appeared to have no answers. But it’s darkest before dawn, and I decided to stick with the Spartans as small underdogs against the Terrapins. The result was a blowout 78-66 win, the turning point of their season.

Michigan State goes into the conference tournament as the No. 2 seed and the favorite. Izzo is money in March, at least until he gets to the Final Four. A year ago, the Spartans denied Duke and Coach K in the Elite Eight — ending the brief Zion Williamson era — before getting knocked out by Texas Tech. How will this season end for Izzo?

It’s unlikely the Spartans will win Izzo’s second NCAA title. It’s tough to say how good they really are and how good the Big Ten will be in the NCAA tournament, but I suspect the league is overrated and no more than three teams will reach the Sweet 16. Michigan State shared the regular-season title with Wisconsin (more toughness than talent) and Maryland (smoke and mirrors).

“This love for the Big Ten is a hoodwink by ESPN and a lot of people,” said Bruce Marshall, editor of The Gold Sheet. “Does that league deserve 10 or 11 teams in the NCAA tournament?”

In Ken Pomeroy’s ratings (Kenpom.com), 12 Big Ten teams are power rated in the top 40, led by Michigan State at No. 7 and capped by Indiana at No. 40. Ten teams are likely to make the NCAA field, with Minnesota and Purdue on the wrong side of the bubble and Indiana on the right side for now.

In this week’s league tournament, the easy answer to the riddle would be to take Izzo and the Spartans at 220, the price posted at the South Point sportsbook. It might also be the right answer. But it’s typically smarter to try to beat short-priced favorites in conference tournaments. The Big Ten is intriguing, with at least eight teams capable of winning the title, so let’s hunt for a live dog.

Best bet: Michigan 12/1 at South Point and Westgate. I will bet on a little chaos in Indianapolis and take double-digit odds with the Spartans’ primary rival. Michigan owns the league’s best nonconference win, 82-64 over Gonzaga in the Bahamas. Obviously, the Wolverines have slumped since late November, partly because of injuries, and they looked weak in recent losses at Maryland and Ohio State. Leading scorer Isaiah Livers has returned to give coach Juwan Howard a solid eight-man rotation. Zavier Simpson is a senior point guard who’s had success in this tournament. With the Spartans and Terrapins in the other half of the bracket, Michigan’s obstacles are Rutgers, Wisconsin and, if the seeds hold, Illinois. Per the Kenpom ratings, the Wolverines are the highest-ranked Big Ten team (No. 16) in their half of the bracket. This pick could bust out early, but there’s also a shot the Michigan team from November resurfaces.

With 16 tournaments tipping off from Tuesday to Thursday, this week excites some basketball bettors even more than the NCAA’s first week. A look at the other five major-conference tournaments (Circa, South Point and Westgate odds):

ACC: Duke is the favorite despite being the fourth seed in Greensboro, N.C. Louisville (3/1), regular-season champ Florida State (7/2) and Virginia (7/1) are the other teams posted at single-digit odds. The defending NCAA champion Cavaliers are streaking, with eight straight wins and a defensive, grinding style always makes them a tough matchup. Bubble teams in desperation situations are usually popular with bettors. North Carolina State, Notre Dame and Syracuse are a few of those teams, and each is listed at 30/1.

Best bet: Duke 125 at South Point. The Blue Devils are flawed, but they are in their backyard, and Tre Jones is the conference’s top point guard. There’s not enough value to bet the favorite at this price, so I’ll pass.

Big East: Top-seeded Creighton is the 3/1 favorite at South Point, with the Westgate posting a shorter price ( 250). After more than two months of conference play, there is no separation atop the standings. The Bluejays finished in a three-way tie for first with Seton Hall and Villanova. Fourth-seeded Providence (7/1) takes a six-game winning streak into Thursday’s quarterfinal matchup with Butler. The Bulldogs follow the lead of senior guard Kamar Baldwin, who scored 36 points and hit a dramatic 3-pointer with one second left in a 72-71 win Saturday at Xavier. The league could send seven teams to the NCAA tournament. The Musketeers sit on the bubble with Marquette, which is ice cold after losing six of seven but features the nation’s leading scorer in Markus Howard. It’s a tournament with a surplus of star power.

“So many of these league tournaments are wide open,” Marshall said. “Providence looks as good as any team in the country right now, so that’s the team I would look at in the Big East.”

Villanova won the Big East tournament each of the last three seasons. The second-seeded Wildcats and third-seeded Pirates are in the same half of the bracket.

Best bet: Seton Hall 425 at Circa. A shooting star with a hot hand can be the difference-maker in March. Senior guard Myles Powell might be that player for the Pirates, who lost to Creighton and Villanova last week. I like the revenge angle for Seton Hall, and playing at Madison Square Garden should be an advantage. It’s payback time for Powell, who scored 78 points in three games to propel the Pirates to last year’s Big East final, where they fell to Villanova.

Big 12: Win or lose this week, Kansas (-125) seems set as the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. Seven-footer Udoka Azubuike is dominant, and Devon Dotson is a slick point guard. It’s for good reason the Jayhawks are odds-on favorites in Kansas City, Mo. Baylor (3/1) and West Virginia (8/1) are safely in the NCAA field, but the Bears are slumping and the Mountaineers rarely win away from home. The only long shot that interests me is Oklahoma, and Circa offers the best odds on the Sooners at 23/1.

Best bet: Texas Tech 8/1 at South Point. The most motivated team should be the Red Raiders, who are projected in the range of a No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament. It’s too easy to pick the favorite, so here’s an upset. The Red Raiders are 0-2 against the Jayhawks this season, with the losses by three and four points, and the teams could meet again Friday in a semifinal. Chris Beard is a proven bet-on coach in tournament settings. Stranger things have happened.

Pac-12: Seven teams have legitimate shots to make the NCAA field. Three teams with some odds value are UCLA (10/1), USC (14/1) and Washington (20/1). The Huskies finished last in the standings but got hot and just swept their two-game trip through Arizona, whipping the Wildcats as 10½-point underdogs Saturday in Tucson. Arizona (7/2) and Colorado (9/2) are considered NCAA locks. The Wildcats are stumbling, losing four of five, and the Buffaloes have dropped four in a row. Arizona State (10/1) and Stanford (10/1) are in bubble trouble, with neither slumping team packing any March momentum for the trip to Las Vegas.

“Obviously, the Pac-12 is wide open,” said Nick Bogdanovich, William Hill sportsbook director. “But I think the teams are all just a little above average. I don’t see any team that frightens me.”

Best bet: Oregon 2/1 at South Point. In the postseason, put an emphasis on veteran point guards and coaches who win in March. This play starts with senior point guard Payton Pritchard, and the bookend is coach Dana Altman, who has won three Pac-12 tournaments in the last seven years. Last year Pritchard led the sixth-seeded Ducks to four wins in four days in Las Vegas. I bet Oregon in last year’s tournament — at longer odds — and will do so again. The path to the title game is much easier this time.

Altman again has his team on a late-season roll. Oregon is 6-1 straight up and ATS in its last seven games. Pritchard scored 29 points Saturday in a victory over Stanford. Look for the Ducks to face USC in a Friday semifinal and UCLA in Saturday’s final. The Bruins are probably worth a shot at double-digit odds. Oregon is the outright regular-season champion, and 200 is a fair price for a team with the best point guard and coach in the conference.

SEC: John Calipari’s teams typically trend in the right direction at this time, and Kentucky (5/2) is the tournament favorite in Nashville, Tenn. Auburn (7/2), LSU (9/2) and Florida (8/1) are the top contenders. The Gators have been underachievers, and skilled big man Kerry Blackshear might be out this week with a wrist injury, so forget Florida. LSU plays little defense.

Best bet: Auburn 350 at South Point and Westgate. Kentucky seems ready to make a deep NCAA run, but point guard Ashton Hagans has some off-court issues. The bracket sets up well for the second-seeded Tigers, and Bruce Pearl is a good tournament coach. But not much about this tournament interests me, so it’s a pass.

 

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