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Better options than favored Zags

November 10, 2021 07:55 PM

Imagine for a moment that the Coach K Farewell Tour is not the sole reason to watch college basketball the next five months. Each dramatic, tear-jerking scene from Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s last season will be captured by TV cameras and recounted by his adoring media scribes.

At his retirement press conference in June, Krzyzewski clapped and danced (sort of) to the Cascada song “Every Time We Touch” to kick off the corny celebration of himself. Imagine a fairy-tale ending in which the Blue Devils win it all. One more shining moment?

Gonzaga is the preseason No. 1 team in almost every magazine and media poll, but imagine a race for the NCAA championship that’s wide open. The truth is this season is about much more than Coach K and the Zags.

“I have Kansas No. 1,” said Kenny White, a veteran Las Vegas oddsmaker and handicapper who specializes in making team power ratings.

The rest of White’s preseason top 10 behind the Jayhawks are, in order: Illinois, Gonzaga, Michigan, Purdue, UCLA, Texas, Ohio State, Villanova and Baylor.

“You want to overrate Duke a little bit because it’s Coach K’s last year, but I couldn’t do it,” said White, who ranks the Blue Devils at No. 22. “He’s never been a favorite of mine in coaching. He just gets great players.”

Krzyzewski landed another great recruit to help redeem the Blue Devils, who missed the NCAA tournament last season for the first time since 1995. Paolo Banchero, a 6-foot-10, 250-pound freshman, should be one of the nation’s top 10 players.

BetMGM lists Duke at 14-1 odds to win the title. Gonzaga, blown out by Baylor in last season’s championship game, is the 6-1 favorite.

Is it possible a Zags team that finished 31-1 yet lost guard Jalen Suggs and forward Corey Kispert, two of the top 15 picks in the NBA draft, could be better this season? I doubt it. Also consider that coach Mark Few must replace versatile guard Joel Ayayi and his top assistant coach, Tommy Lloyd, who left for the Arizona job. Power forward Drew Timme returns to lead the Bulldogs, who welcome 7-foot freshman star Chet Holmgren.

“I don’t think Gonzaga got better,” White said. “I don’t know how good Holmgren is going to be, and the losses of Suggs and Kispert are big.”

Gonzaga’s status as the favorite — a phony favorite, in my opinion — on the futures board creates odds value on other contenders that could have a better shot to win the championship. (Odds listed are the best numbers available from BetMGM, Circa, DraftKings and Westgate.)

Michigan (14-1): Hunter Dickinson, a 7-1 sophomore, is the best big man in the Big Ten and a lottery pick when he leaves for the NBA. Wolverines coach Juwan Howard lost three starters from a 23-5 team, but this season’s team might be more talented with DeVante Jones, Eli Brooks, Brandon Johns and highly rated freshman Caleb Houstan surrounding Dickinson.

Kansas (15-1): This is my top-rated team in the preseason. The Jayhawks’ starting five is rock solid, with the middle manned by 6-10 David McCormack. Coach Bill Self caught a break when junior guard Ochai Agbaji, the team’s leading scorer last season, and forward Jalen Wilson withdrew from the NBA draft. Self hit the transfer market for point guard Remy Martin, who led the Pac-12 in scoring at Arizona State, in addition to guards Jalen Coleman-Lands from Iowa State and Joseph Yesufu from Drake.

“Remy Martin is the biggest reason I like Kansas,” White said. “He’s a playmaker and a go-to guy late in games.”

Texas (15-1): Chris Beard ditched Texas Tech to take his dream coaching job and replace Shaka Smart, who left behind veteran guards Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramey. Beard signed impact transfers Marcus Carr (Minnesota), Timmy Allen (Utah), Devin Askew (Kentucky) and Tre Mitchell (Massachusetts) plus four-star freshman Jaylon Tyson. The Longhorns’ odds opened at 50-1 before Beard moved from Lubbock to Austin and immediately rebuilt the roster.

UCLA (15-1): From the First Four to the Final Four, the Bruins were a remarkable story last season, and this Mick Cronin-coached team will be better. Sophomore guard Johnny Juzang surprisingly decided not to make a run for the NBA money. Point guard Tyger Campbell, Jaime Jaquez, Jules Bernard and Cody Riley return to a team with legit national title hopes. Cronin adds 6-8 freshman Peyton Watson, a McDonald’s All-American, and has a deep bench.

“We have six-figure liability on UCLA, Kentucky, Texas and Kansas, and close to that also on Gonzaga,” MGM Resorts director of trading Jeff Stoneback said. “Those teams all have about the same amount of tickets written.”

Villanova (16-1): Senior point guard Collin Gillespie returns after a left knee injury ended his season in early March. Caleb Daniels, Justin Moore and Jermaine Samuels surround Gillespie, but coach Jay Wright will miss the interior toughness that Jeremiah Robinson-Earl took to the NBA. The biggest problem with the Wildcats is their small front line.

Kentucky (17-1): The Wildcats finished 9-16 last season, but bet on coach John Calipari making a strong comeback. He snagged Kellan Grady, the hottest sharpshooter from Davidson since Stephen Curry, and 6-9 rebounding monster Oscar Tshiebwe from West Virginia, and the rest of the incoming class is loaded.

Purdue (21-1): Shooting guard Jaden Ivey blossomed into a star as a freshman for the Boilermakers, who have the strongest big man combo in the nation with 6-10 Trevion Williams and 7-4 Zach Edey. Purdue is known for hitting potholes on the road to the Final Four, however.

Oregon (45-1): The Ducks might be only a half-step behind the Bruins in the Pac-12. Dana Altman is one of the best coaches in the business. Junior point guard Will Richardson is a rising star. Altman recruited three impact transfers — Jacob Young (Rutgers), Quincy Guerrier (Syracuse) and Devion Harmon (Oklahoma) — and 6-11 freshman Nate Bittle to fill the void left by NBA lottery pick Chris Duarte.

As always, keep an eye out for long shots. Memphis (26-1), Alabama (30-1), Illinois (30-1), Ohio State (40-1) and Syracuse (90-1) are some other teams to watch.


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