College basketball futures: 2 (or 3) choices for Wooden Award

February 22, 2022 10:37 PM
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For most viewers of the Michigan-Wisconsin game Sunday, what happened during the postgame handshake line drew the greatest attention. That wasn’t necessarily the case for futures bettors, particularly those playing the John R. Wooden Award, which goes to the most outstanding player in college basketball.

Johnny Davis of the Badgers continued his late-season resurgence, dropping 25 points against the Wolverines. Davis was seen as a favorite for the award earlier this season but entered Sunday much deeper on the odds board. 

At DraftKings, he was + 1400 prior to his offensive outburst — and Juwan Howard’s, for that matter — against Michigan.

Once attention moved away from the skirmish and back to the Wooden futures, the board looked a lot different. Davis dropped to + 800 and then fell even further to + 600, the current price. 

Davis still trails Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, the rightful favorite at + 175 . He was starting to pull away before Davis’ big game on CBS. 

Then comes Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn (+ 500), Iowa’s Keegan Murray (+ 850), Kansas’ Ochai Agbaji (+ 900) and Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren (+ 2000). 

Just as there are a number of viable options on the futures board for the national championship, the same holds true for the Wooden award. Bettors should draw a line and focus only on those six names when analyzing how their existing tickets stand and who to back moving forward.

A case could be made for Bennedict Mathurin (+ 2200), Jaden Ivey (+ 2200), Drew Timme (+ 2500) and Paolo Banchero (+ 2800), but there are too many names ahead of them.

And in my opinion, bettors should only be concerned with about three of those first six players. It appears the award is going to come down to Tshiebwe and Davis, with Cockburn still having a chance. 

Bettors then need to decide the path they want to take with their units: Go safer with the favorite, Tshiebwe, who has done nothing to lower his stock, or jump on board with Davis, who offers more of a return and can still see his odds drop over the next week.  Following the premise that this race is yet to be decided, the focus needs to be on how these two — plus Cockburn — can separate themselves moving forward.

There is a key point bettors must keep in mind for the Wooden award, or any award for that matter. Don’t be overly swayed by analysts making their case for a player based on stats or performances. Bettors must focus their attention on how the voters will respond to each candidate. You are betting on the mindset of media members/voters.

Another factor to consider when making a Wooden bet now: The award will be announced in April following the tournament, so your money will be tied up for about six weeks. 

Here’s a look at the top three candidates and how the rest of their seasons may play out:

Oscar Tshiebwe

For those interested in making their first Wooden play on the Kentucky double-double machine, they should really thank Davis. Tshiebwe was cruising along as the + 125 favorite, had a big game against Alabama on Saturday and was on a path to even money. 

Then came Davis’ performance against Michigan and a timely in-game tweet by VSiN’s Mitch Moss highlighting his 14-1 price at DraftKings. That generated some betting action on Davis, with Tshiebwe’s odds inching back up. 

The fact the leading candidate is available at + 175 demands attention. If you want to add a futures bet to your portfolio that brings a good level of security at a plus price, stop reading and just make a bet on Tshiebwe now. 

If you already have a Tshiebwe ticket — especially those who nabbed him in the 40-1 range in November — then you’ll be a big Kentucky fan moving forward. The Wildcats have four games remaining: LSU, at Arkansas, Ole Miss, at Florida. KenPom predicts a Kentucky win in all four. The game against the Rebels should be a comfortable victory, while the other three are against hungry opponents. 

Here is one big advantage for Tshiebwe: Winning the award isn’t contingent on Kentucky sweeping those games. He has been the favorite all along despite Kentucky sitting behind Auburn in the SEC standings. According to the bookmakers, he doesn’t need a conference title to win the award. 

Recent injuries to Kentucky guards TyTy Washington and Sahvir Wheeler should work in Tshiebwe's favor. He might get more scoring opportunities, and as long as the Wildcats are competitive, media members will praise him for leading Kentucky through the loss of key contributors.

Over the next couple of weeks, the Wildcats maintaining a top-10 presence, with Tshiebwe adding to his double-double totals, is a very obtainable baseline. 

Tshiebwe, who is averaging more than 16 points and 15 rebounds, has 22 double-doubles so far. Double-doubles are good talking points, create headlines and help to differentiate the Tshiebwe campaign. If the forward has a down scoring stretch, he can still make a lot of noise on the boards. 

The Wildcats as a whole are better on the boards than their four remaining opponents (44.3 per game compared to a combined average of 33.3). Tshiebwe should have some room to operate. 

While the last three winners of the award — Luka Garza, Obi Toppin and Zion Williamson — all worked the glass well, it was points that got them most of the acclaim. 

Johnny Davis 

The guard’s ascension back up the odds board will continue if he can keep scoring around 20 points per game in Wisconsin’s final four matchups: at Minnesota, at Rutgers, Purdue, Nebraska. 

But that is going to be challenging, especially against the defensive-minded Scarlet Knights. 

In games against these four opponents earlier this season, Davis is averaging 19 points. However, that number is deceiving since a career-high 37 came against a porous Boilermakers defense. Davis' second-lowest total of 11 points came against Rutgers on Feb. 12.  

Since Davis is an underdog to Tshiebwe, he needs a boost and that could come in the form of a Big Ten regular-season title. The Badgers are tied with the Illini for second place, one game behind Purdue. 

A March 1 showdown between Purdue and Wisconsin in Madison could have big futures implications. KenPom has Wisconsin going 3-1 over its final four games, with a close loss to Purdue. 

While Davis’ campaign got a jolt Sunday, he still has obstacles in front of him, namely Tshiebwe, the Rutgers defense and the Boilermakers. 

All of this fairly translates to 6-1 odds.

Kofi Cockburn 

There is a built-in bias working against Cockburn: his 7-foot frame. Someone with his massive size hasn’t won the Wooden award since Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky in 2015. And Kaminsky was far from a traditional post player. 

Today’s game is dominated by 3-point shooting and perimeter play, which makes it hard to get behind Cockburn for the award.

Announcers calling Kentucky games often compliment Tshiebwe for his rebounding prowess because “he is only 6-9.” Voters who watch these games can be influenced by this type of ongoing narrative.

At 7-foot, 285 pounds, there’s an unfair expectation that Cockburn should get his 11.2 rebounds per game (and 21.7 points) without really having to expend himself. 

Those numbers are definitely Wooden worthy. However, Tshiebwe has him covered in double-doubles (22 to 14) and Davis has the optics advantage with his smooth drives through the lane being his highlight, compared to Cockburn’s heavy lifting on the blocks. 

For Cockburn to win the award, he will need both Tshiebwe and Davis to stumble multiple times over the last four games. 

Illinois finishes the season with Ohio State, at Michigan, Penn State and Iowa. E.J. LIddell and Hunter Dickinson have the potential to neutralize the Illini big man.

Media steam

Davis’ movement on the odds board is correlated with the media coverage he received last week. By doing a Google News search for this past week, Davis dominated the mentions compared to the other two. “Johnny Davis Wisconsin Guard” had more than 4,000 mentions, while “Kofi Cockburn Illinois Center” had more than 800 and “Oscar Tshiebwe Kentucky Forward” had a little more than 700.

While Davis has media quantity on his side of late, one report in particular weighs heavily in Tshiebwe’s favor. On Feb. 19, The Athletic wrote: “College basketball player of the year straw poll: Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe leads Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis.”

That is the type of report that awards bettors must treat accordingly. 

How to play it  

There should be plenty of optimism for any bettor holding a Tshiebwe ticket. 

Ride it out, or if someone in this group is inclined to hedge, this is a good opportunity. Cockburn is alive but this really feels like a two-man race, so Davis at 6-1 as a late hedge to go with Tshiebwe makes perfect sense.

Any bet on Davis, whether it’s a hedge or an initial bet, must come soon since the Google News mentions demonstrate momentum for his campaign. Once the odds go lower, the margins are no longer worth it. 

For bettors looking to get in on the Wooden action for the first time, there are three options: invest in Tshiebwe, invest in Davis or make plays on both and hopefully lock in a profit since both come at plus prices. 

The Tshiebwe bet is the more prudent of these choices based on his previous work and his remaining games. For those more open to risk, fading the favorite for a live dog in Davis brings a bigger potential payout.

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