While the college basketball season is still about four months away, championships are won and lost during the off months. Most casual fans focus on the blue-blood schools when pumping up title contenders, but look to the next tier for the best bet to win the 2018 NCAA championship.
Allonzo Trier and the Arizona Wildcats, who won the Pac-12 Tournament and made the Sweet 16 last season, will likely enter the season atop all the polls. The team has an excellent mix of highly touted freshmen and veteran players, spearheaded by the return of Trier and the arrival of athletic 7-footer DeAndre Ayton.
Trier, a guard who put off his NBA plans for another year, is joined in an experienced backcourt by Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Rawle Alkins. Trier missed the first 19 games of the 2016-17 season because of a positive drug test, and Jackson-Cartwright missed six games in December with an injury. If all three can stay on the floor, the Wildcats will be tough to contain.
The depth of coach Sean Miller’s roster is crucial. With Dusan Ristic returning to the front court, and the addition of four-star freshmen Brandon Randolph and Emmanuel Akot, this team can be lethal.
At 12-1 odds, Arizona is a better bet than Duke (5-1) and Kentucky (10-1), teams listed higher on the South Point sports book futures board. Obviously, Miller has yet to reach a Final Four, but there’s no reason to dwell on the past.
Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski is bringing in another filthy recruiting class, but he also lost a ton of talent from a roster that failed to reach the Sweet 16 a season ago.
Frank Jackson, Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Luke Kennard all left Durham to join the NBA, while forward Chase Jeter elected to transfer due to a lack of minutes. Jeter settled on Arizona, though he will not be eligible to play for Miller until 2018-19.
Michigan State, also posted at 5-1 odds, has history and loads of upside on its side.
Tom Izzo has missed the Final Four each of the past two years. That is significant because in his tenure, just one of his senior classes has had a four-year career and not made at least one Final Four. That dubious distinction belongs to the 2014 senior class, which fell short in the Elite Eight against Connecticut.
With the return of Miles Bridges, a player many thought would be a lottery pick if he entered the 2017 NBA Draft, the Spartans should be a power again if they can avoid injuries.
A big reason Michigan State had such a brutal 2016-17 was having the projected starting frontcourt of Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter miss the entire season due to injuries. It's highly unlikely that sort of catastrophe happens a second straight year.
While all the big boys get highlighted on the futures board, there are more teams on the board than you might think. While fans of schools like Holy Cross and Marist might be disappointed that their school was lumped into the field, there are still 99 teams with posted odds. The field is listed at 100-1 odds, with 252 teams lumped in that group, including Bucknell, Vermont, Princeton, Florida Gulf Coast and many other perennially strong mid-major schools.
While we have not soon a school from this far off the board win the title in the tournament's current format, the one-and-done rule has lead to more upsets in the NCAA Tournament than ever before.
Four No. 15 seeds have taken out a No. 2 seed since 2012. Heck, in 2012 the Ohio Bobcats came an overtime period away from going to the Elite Eight.
And it's not just small conferences lumped into the field bet. A lot of teams from the American Athletic Conference, including a Central Florida team that has Top 25 potential and is coming off a run to the Final Four of the NIT.
UCF has something no other team in the nation does in a 7-foot-6 center by the name of Tacko Fall to help lead the charge for Johnny Dawkins, entering his second year as coach. His son Aubrey Dawkins, who formerly played for Michigan, is transferring into the program along with former Louisiana Tech standout Dayon Griffin and Terrell Allen, who began his career at Drexel. I could make a case for UCF alone being a team with odds of around 100-1 to win the title.
While betting the field may not be the best investment you can make with your money, it is a much better bet than many of the other 100-1 long shots, teams including the likes of Connecticut and Virginia Commonwealth.
Of the 100 futures bets you can make, no team’s odds have slipped from where they opened in April. As far as fast risers are concerned, Missouri is a great example. The Tigers had 150-1 odds when the initial lines were posted on April 4. Since then, new coach Cuonzo Martin has lured the nation's top recruit, Michael Porter Jr., to Columbia, lowering the odds to 25-1.
Only 15 teams have better odds to win the title, this despite Missouri's last road win coming on Jan. 28, 2014. For those wondering, the song "Timber" by Pitbull and Kesha was atop the Billboard Hot 100 at that time and Odell Beckham Jr. had yet to play an NFL game.
Considering Wichita State, Florida, West Virginia, Michigan and Butler all check in with odds of 20-1, it makes taking that kind of a risk on Missouri look foolish.
Most books had North Carolina at 15-1 to win the 2017 title after the Tar Heels fell in the 2016 title game on a 3-pointer at the buzzer. While the South Point does not currently list any team with those exact odds, blue bloods Kentucky and Kansas are at 10-1, followed by North Carolina, Villanova, Gonzaga, Louisville and Arizona at 12-1.
Kansas' roster will need a revamp with Josh Jackson and Frank Mason gone, but the Jayhawks will have perhaps the best transfer in the nation eligible in former Mississippi State shooting guard Malik Newman.
Louisville must replace first-round draft pick Donovan Mitchell, but the Cardinals still have great size, a few incoming mid-major transfers and a nice stable of guards led by Deng Adel and Quentin Snider.
If you believe a team outside the Top 25 can have the kind of run UConn did in 2014, your best bet is to stay away from from the teams with big names that have odds of 50-1 or greater and focus on the teams that might be a bit further off the radar.
With many of the schools in the 75-1 range, you can find gems with talent returning but lack the pedigree of schools like Texas (40-1), Oklahoma (30-1) and Indiana (20-1). Those three teams not only missed the NCAA Tournament, but missed it by a country mile.
Keep an eye on Northwestern (100-1) and Minnesota (75-1), teams which had breakout seasons in 2016-17 and return the vast majority of their rosters. Northwestern mounted a huge rally against Gonzaga in the tournament’s second round, while Minnesota played its best basketball of the season in February and had the potential to make a run.
Both have the same hurdles to overcome, with Michigan State being the prohibitive favorite in the Big Ten, but the other teams with better odds in the conference — Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and Purdue — all had bigger departures from their rosters. The Badgers lost four seniors, most of the Wolverines’ front court from a season ago is gone, the Boilermakers no longer have Caleb Swanigan, the nation's leader in double-doubles, and the Hoosiers changed coaches in the offseason and might be the biggest question mark in the conference.
Northwestern and Minnesota have built their programs in different styles, with the Wildcats using wise recruiting and the Gophers bringing in some of the nation's best transfers.
It should come as no surprise that Northwestern has a high-IQ team led by point guard Bryant McIntosh, who helped the team assist on more than 59 percent of made field goals. Big men Vic Law and Gavin Skelly are both versatile on offense and good on the defensive end to give the team balance.
Minnesota assisted on 57 percent of its baskets and dominated the boards, ranking first in the Big Ten in that category. With forward Davonte Fitzgerald and center Reggie Lynch, who notched 3.5 blocks per game by himself last year, the Gophers should be able to make loads of hay in the paint again this year.
A similar team that also has long odds at 100-1 is Virginia Tech. The Hokies were a 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament despite an injury to leading rebounder Chris Clarke about a month before the dance and 6-foot-10 forward Kerry Blackshear Jr. missing the entire season. With coach Buzz Williams bringing in more of his guys, Virginia Tech’s win total has increased in each of his four seasons in Blacksburg.
Cincinnati (75-1), Xavier (75-1) and VCU (100-1) are not awful bets, but many questions surround those teams, and making the field of 68 is no certainty.
Southern Methodist, Iowa State, South Carolina and Creighton all lost loads of talent from teams that made the 2017 NCAA Tournament, making it a big question mark as to what you're getting on your bet.
On the flip side, Alabama, Illinois, Utah, Marquette, Syracuse and even Georgetown are selling upside and solid recruits, with Marquette being the only team on this list that made the dance in March.
Among those three lists of teams, Xavier is likely the best option. The Musketeers made the Elite Eight despite point guard Edmond Sumner injuring his knee in late January. It must be noted that Xavier was not playing good basketball in the final 30 days of the regular season, but it did not have a healthy Trevon Bluiett during that time either. With Bluiett, a 6-foot-6 matchup nightmare returning for his senior season along with J.P. Macura, Xavier should be neck-and-neck with Villanova and Creighton for the Big East’ best backcourt.
Villanova has lost most of the players that were key to their 2016 title run, and there are questions surrounding Butler with coach Chris Holtmann bolting for Ohio State in June. All things considered, Xavier should be one of the best teams in one of the nation's top conferences.
Now keep in mind, UConn was hovering around the 40-1 range in the preseason when the Huskies won it all in 2014. Since 1989, just three schools seeded lower than No. 3 have won the title.
When it comes to betting futures in college basketball, do your homework before laying out a bet. There is value to be had, but you have to dig to find it and not just rely on a school's name.
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Greg Peterson’s Top 5 value plays:
Virginia Tech 100-1
Greg Peterson is a VSiN producer. Follow on Twitter: @GUnit_81