In case you missed it, Rick Pitino has returned to college basketball. In exile since a forced exit from Louisville in October 2017, Pitino is coaching the Iona Gaels, and he’s eager to become a leading spokesman for promoting what’s good for the game.
Paying players and hiring escorts to entertain players at parties are not part of his plan.
College basketball, stained by federal and NCAA investigations of cheating coaches in recent years, has a much bigger problem in 2020-21. It’s not breaking news that the coronavirus pandemic, which wiped out March Madness, is threatening to ruin another season. A season that normally would have tipped off in early November has been pushed back to Nov. 25, and that’s when a different sort of madness will begin.
William Hill sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich said what most are wondering: “How many games are going to be canceled? Is there going to be a tournament?”
The NCAA tournament will happen in 2021. Bet on it. But nobody knows when and where it will happen or what the format will look like.
Pitino went to Twitter to announce his ideas: “Save the season. Move the start back. Play a league schedule and have May Madness. Spiking and protocols make it impossible to play right now.”
ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg, a former coach, countered: “Disagree with Rick Pitino. If we learned anything from college football it’s to start earlier and have the flexibility to postpone games. Obviously safety is the priority. With students off campus the next two months you create a more secure environment.”
It's possible to take ideas from Greenberg and Pitino. Start the season now, deal with cancellations and postponements as they come and plan to stage the tournament in May. Or just play the regular season, realize some teams will play a lot more games than others and expand the NCAA field while keeping the tournament in March.
NCAA officials recently announced the entire 2021 tournament would be staged in one location, likely Indianapolis, and would be played in March. Of course, everything could change.
“It’s going to be a complete cluster(bleep),” Westgate SuperBook oddsmaker Ed Salmons said. “You might as well just try to play now and see what happens.”
What happened recently is two elite coaches — Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim — tested positive for COVID-19. College football is the guinea pig, and it’s obvious the Big Ten and Pac-12 accomplished nothing by pushing back their seasons by about two months. Random coaches and players will test positive, and the basketball season will be a mess whether it starts now or in January. A Thanksgiving week tip-off allows the opportunity to squeeze in more games before March.
What does it all mean for bettors and bookmakers? It’s impossible to know, and it’s a fast break we’ll figure out on the fly. Before the first 3-pointer is launched, I see three points of emphasis from a betting perspective:
— It makes little sense to bet favorites on the futures board. The team you bet on in November or December could look completely different by March (or May). Look only for long shots.
— Late-breaking information could create some great betting angles. For instance, star players will be ruled out on game day, and teams will be forced to play short-handed or on short rest or in difficult travel situations. Hopefully, the information pays off more often than not. As we have seen with football, those angles sometimes backfire.
— Minimize home-court advantage unless we see otherwise. College basketball is a home-court sport in which fans influence refs and the outcomes of games, but that is changing this season.
A week from the season’s tip-off date, Circa Sports had not even opened a college basketball futures board, and book director Matt Metcalf said it was because he had not done enough research on the teams. He’s far from alone.
Bogdanovich, a former college hoops player who loves to book and bet on the games, recently said he had not started his homework on the season. William Hill does have futures odds posted, but Bogdanovich said action is minimal. “People don’t want to tie up their money because of all the uncertainty,” he said.
Gonzaga tops the Westgate board at 10-1 odds, followed by Baylor and Villanova at 14-1, with Kentucky and Texas Tech at 16-1. A majority of preseason publications, including Blue Ribbon, are touting the Zags as No. 1. Salmons is not buying it.
“Everyone wants to shove Gonzaga down your throat,” Salmons said. “People just religiously bet Gonzaga every year now. There’s no dominant team.”
I recently made power ratings on about 70 teams and honestly don’t trust my ratings as much as at this point in previous years. I can never remember less hype preceding a college hoops season, and I see fewer elite teams and big-time players.
Blue Ribbon’s top preseason players are Luka Garza of Iowa and Corey Kispert of Gonzaga. Villanova senior point guard Collin Gillespie is one of my favorites.
The order of my top five teams — Villanova, Virginia, Gonzaga, Kansas and Illinois — is subject to change in the first few weeks, and the ratings on most teams could be volatile.
Fire major wagers only when you are completely confident you are getting a good number on a game and oddsmakers have made an apparent mistake. With unprecedented uncertainty, bad numbers will get posted. But there also will be bad bets. If uncertain, be conservative. Bookmakers will be quick to pivot by moving numbers or taking down games.
The Westgate futures rules stipulate the NCAA tournament must conclude by Aug. 1. Vinny Magliulo, VSiN oddsmaker and Gaughan Gaming sportsbook director, posed an interesting idea about posting futures odds.
“You might be better off putting up a futures board before the tournament, if we get there and provided we have March Madness,” he said.
I see three intriguing long shots posted at 80-1 odds at the Westgate — Ohio State, Texas and UCLA — and will be looking for more when the games start. Especially this season, there’s no reason to rush to make futures wagers until you spot something and know your eyes don’t lie.
Watch and learn. None of us, not even Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale, know as much as we think we do now.
In late November 2018, I watched Texas Tech play twice and made a bet at 100-1 odds. The Red Raiders reached the NCAA championship game and lost to Virginia in overtime.
My second-favorite event of the season, the Maui Invitational, has been moved to Asheville, N.C. A phenomenal field includes Alabama, Indiana, North Carolina, Texas, Stanford and UNLV. My Maui trip is canceled. It was in Maui last November when I watched Dayton play twice and phoned in a bet at 200-1 odds. The Flyers were set to be a No. 1 seed before the NCAA tournament was canceled. A refund was no fun.
For some of us, calling off March Madness is worse than canceling Christmas.