It’s one-and-done time for Kentucky, and that’s not a reference to coach John Calipari’s preferred recruiting strategy. One loss in this week’s Southeastern Conference tournament will mean the Wildcats’ season is done.
It’s tough to top the drama of college basketball’s tournament setting in March, when upsets and inspirational runs by underdogs highlight the surprise party. Long-shot teams still have hope when a conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament is up for grabs.
Kentucky is rarely in the dog role at this time of year, but the Wildcats are stumbling into the SEC tournament as the No. 8 seed with a 9-15 record. As the losses piled up on Calipari, his media cheerleaders started looking for excuses. Don’t cry for Calipari, and don’t expect him to pull off a stunning winning streak this week in Nashville, Tenn.
Arkansas coach Eric Musselman had excuses available but needed none. The Razorbacks (21-5) are riding an 11-game winning streak in SEC play and enter the tournament as the second seeds.
“It’s definitely no secret now, but Arkansas is dangerous,” William Hill sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich said. “I think Musselman is as good as any coach in the country.”
Musselman lost four starters and 84% of the team’s scoring production from last season. Two months ago, the Razorbacks were 2-4 in the league and reeling from a 31-point loss at Alabama. The emergence of freshman guard Moses Moody has energized an Arkansas team set up for a No. 3 seed in the NCAA field. Moody scored 24 points when the Hogs turned the tables on the Crimson Tide with an 81-66 win Feb. 24.
When eyeing futures wagers on conference tournaments, always shop for the right prices and examine the brackets. The bracket is not a pretty situation for Kentucky, which would have to beat Mississippi State on Thursday before going through top-seeded Alabama.
Arkansas is in the other half of the bracket with third-seeded LSU. In Ken Pomeroy’s ratings at Kenpom.com, the Razorbacks rank in the top 30 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, while the Tigers’ shortcoming is their No. 127 defensive efficiency ranking.
Look to bet on hot teams and the best coaches in March. Musselman, a former NBA head coach with Golden State and Sacramento, is one of the strongest. He’s also extremely emotional and has been known to rip off his shirt for a bare-chested postgame celebration, which he could get the chance to do again this weekend.
Best bet: Arkansas 7-2 at BetMGM
Here are scouting reports on the other five power conferences plus the Mountain West.
Mike Krzyzewski started looking for excuses in early December, when the Duke coach lobbied to pause the season. The agony of a season-ending defeat is coming soon for a team that went in 11-11 and seeded 10th in the conference tournament. The various odds offered on Duke range from ridiculous to realistic — 12-1 at South Point, 20-1 at BetMGM, 50-1 at DraftKings. But forget all that because the Blue Devils, who opened Tuesday against Boston College in Greensboro, N.C., are going down.
“I would keep an eye on Georgia Tech, which is a senior-laden team,” The Gold Sheet handicapper Bruce Marshall said.
Top-seeded Virginia is the 5-2 co-favorite with second-seeded Florida State. The Cavaliers are vulnerable and in the same half of the bracket as fourth-seeded Georgia Tech and No. 5 Clemson, a couple of live long shots. Josh Pastner is a problem because he’s not an elite coach, yet double-digit odds are worth a look with the Yellow Jackets, who are led by seniors Moses Wright and Jose Alvarado.
Best bet: Georgia Tech 10-1 at BetMGM
A season-ending knee injury to senior guard Collin Gillespie has essentially erased Villanova from the NCAA title picture and opened up the Big East bracket. The Wildcats are also expected to be without injured guard Justin Moore this week in New York.
BetMGM lists Creighton as the + 175 favorite with the Wildcats at 3-1. Bluejays coach Greg McDermott is catching heat for an insensitive comment he made recently, a controversy that can be handicapped as either a potential distraction or an emotional advantage.
“I think Creighton will rally around the coach,” Bogdanovich said.
Fourth-seeded St. John’s is a long shot to watch at 20-1 odds in Villanova’s half of the bracket. On the other side, third-seeded Connecticut is a hot team — 6-1 in its last seven games — buoyed by the return of star guard James Bouknight, who averages 20.2 points per game.
“I think UConn should be favored to win the Big East right now, especially with Gillespie out for Villanova,” Marshall said. “The Big East is sort of collapsing around UConn. Now that Bouknight is back, the Huskies can do some business in the Big Dance too.”
Best bet: Connecticut 3-1 at BetMGM
Michigan State’s late resurgence likely means the conference will get nine teams into the NCAA field. The Spartans, who upset Michigan on Sunday, could face the top-seeded Wolverines for the third time in nine days if the teams meet in Friday’s quarterfinals.
Michigan might open play in Indianapolis without senior guard Eli Brooks because of an ankle injury, and that would make the Wolverines fragile favorites at + 180. Ohio State is a hungry dog on a four-game losing skid. The Buckeyes, considered a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA field just two weeks ago, are worth consideration at around 10-1 odds.
Iowa is capable of winning three games in three days with senior star Luka Garza, but the Hawkeyes are a little too soft defensively in a tough league. Illinois ranks in the nation’s top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Illini finished 16-4 in conference play, so go with the hottest team that’s 11-1 in the last 12 games and is led by NBA prospects Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn.
Best bet: Illinois + 320 at DraftKings
Baylor, the odds-on favorite at -150, overcame a three-week COVID-19 hiatus to finish 21-1. The Bears’ half of the bracket includes Oklahoma State and West Virginia. The Cowboys are a question mark until the status of Cade Cunningham, the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, is clarified after the freshman guard injured his ankle last week.
The bracket’s other half is an alley fight with Kansas, Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma.
“It’s difficult for me to pick anybody but the Bears to win the Big 12 tournament,” Texas-based handicapper Paul Stone said. “Their offense is such that all five players on the floor can score at any time. If it’s not Baylor, I think it’s got to be either West Virginia or Texas, in that order. It’s not sexy, but I’ll stick with chalk and say Baylor wins it.”
It’s no disrespect to the Bears to say six other teams could win in Kansas City, Mo. ESPN analyst Sean Farnham said he expects “chaos” in this tournament. I’m unlikely to make a futures play here, but I would look to play this only at double-digit odds. Red Raiders coach Chris Beard tends to thrive in tournament settings, and he’s capable of creating chaos.
Best bet: Texas Tech 15-1 at DraftKings
Oregon, which won the regular-season title, has the best coach in Dana Altman and the smoothest path to the title game with Colorado and USC in the other half of the bracket. The Ducks won this tournament the last time it was played in 2019.
No long shots look live in Las Vegas, so invest in Altman. If Oregon reaches the championship game, it should be the favorite, so having + 250 in pocket would be a nice price.
Best bet: Oregon 5-2 at BetMGM
San Diego State is a lock to make the NCAA field, win or lose, but mailing it in is not the Aztecs’ style. Boise State, Colorado State and Utah State are sitting on the bubble and playing with desperation in Las Vegas.
The Rams are an intriguing option at 5-1 odds. Underrated coach Niko Medved can go to 6-foot-5, 250-pound forward David Roddy in the low post and count on Isaiah Stevens, a 42% 3-point shooter, from the perimeter. I’ll project a Colorado State-San Diego State title game. The Aztecs, No. 19 in the nation in the Kenpom rankings, rate in the top 10 in defensive efficiency and clearly are the class of the conference.
Best bet: San Diego State + 125 at BetMGM