Entering this tournament, we have a good feeling about who has the best chance of getting to Houston and winning it all.
It’s a top-seeded team.
Since 1985, a No.1 seed has captured the national championship 24 times, No. 2 seeds have five, and four for No. 3 seed winners. Those bettors holding tickets on Houston, Kansas, Alabama, Purdue, UCLA, Arizona, Baylor, Texas, Gonzaga, should have varying degrees of optimism heading into tournament play.
From an investment standpoint, these are the teams worthy of most of the media attention post-bracket reveal, not the beloved longshots or sleepers that seem to dominate conversations. Names like VCU, George Mason, Loyola Chicago and friends will be mentioned prominently during tournament coverage; remember though, none of them cashed a national championship ticket.
Since 1998, only the 2014 Connecticut Huskies (No. 7 seed) went on to win a national championship after beginning the tournament seeded higher than the 3-line. Odds wise, following that surprise UConn win, the average number of the eventual national champion entering the first round of the tournament is just over 8-1.
For the most part, those teams seeded five and above are more “roadblocks”—squads that can derail the top contenders—than viable tournament-winning options. Let’s analyze the recently released brackets from the perspective of the top contenders and examine what teams they should fear the most.
Obviously, as the tournament dwindles down to the Elite 8, all teams, regardless of seeding, become both contenders AND roadblocks. Evaluating the problematic areas for the contenders should assist futures bettors in gauging the value of their in-pocket plays and whether a contingency plan is needed.
This can also help bettors judge the lines for daily plays. Based on seedings, odds and recent performance, here are the top contenders for a national championship along with opponents they lost to in the regular season, shared similarities of those opponents and other teams in their bracket that fit the profile.
National championship odds courtesy of DraftKings
Houston ( +550)
No.1 seed Midwest
Losses: Alabama, Temple, Memphis (tournament)
Shared similarities: Not much comparison between the contending Crimson Tide and the lowly Owls. The Temple game was likely an aberration since it came in late January when the Cougars were probably losing concentration in AAC games. Still, these two losses show that a defensive-minded team has a chance against KenPom’s top team in the country if Houston has a poor shooting night (33% from 2-pt range against the Owls). The Tide’s pressure and defensive depth were the difference as they pulled away from Houston late en route to the December 10th win.
Who to fear most: A team that can play at a fast enough pace to get the score into the mid-70s and above. In Houston’s best wins of the year—against Oregon, Saint Mary’s, Virginia and Memphis (2)—the Cougars kept the game in their favored range of the mid-60s. When an opponent eclipsed 70 points, Houston lost to Bama and played closer-than-expected tilts against USF and UCF.
Both possible second-round opponents can score—Iowa averages over 80 points per game and Auburn close to 73 points per contest. Neither will likely beat Houston but can keep it closer than expected. A faster-than-expected game could cause Houston issues if Marcus Sasser isn’t up to speed.
Looking ahead, Indiana is a major issue in a Sweet 16 matchup against the Cougars. The Hoosiers have Jalen Hood-Schifino who can score against Sasser and Jamal Shead and will have the best player on the court in Trayce Jackson-Davis.
Texas has fewer roadblocks than top-seeded Houston in this bracket.
For those bettors who got Houston at its peak price of 10-1, consider adding a Texas Final Four bet for some insurance.
Alabama ( +700)
No.1 seed South
Losses: Connecticut, Gonzaga, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas A&M.
Shared similarities: The way to beat Alabama is to limit its scoring, not outscoring them. Gonzaga beat the Tide in a 100-90 race in Birmingham, otherwise, their other losses came when they were held to 69 points or lower. They averaged 82.8 points per game over the season.
Who to fear most: Media members from all different outlets (sports, news, etc.) who will now use the Brandon Miller story as fertile territory to generate interest, debate and clicks as they cover Alabama’s tournament run. Miller’s legal issues became known in late February and the topic is still a focal point for every game. Having a favorable crowd that traveled to Nashville to support the Tide in the SEC tournament helped ease some of the distractions. That is going to change when the NCAA Tournament becomes a national story and Miller will face even more of a hostile environment.
On the court, the teams who can keep Alabama below 70 points are San Diego St. and Virginia. Either one can keep the Tide out of the Elite 8 by using a defensive style that stays consistent throughout the game and can limit Bama from coming back after a slow start—a characteristic it has shown of late.
Kansas ( +750)
No.1 seed West
Losses: Tennessee, Kansas State, TCU, Baylor, Iowa State, Texas, Texas (tournament)
Shared similarities: Other than a late November loss to the Volunteers, the other strikes against the Jayhawks were from the talented and deep Big 12 roster. Obviously, those teams have familiarity with Kansas and three of the four conference losses came away from Lawrence. Outside the Big 12 and the Vols, Bill Self’s group was spotless against the other big boys it faced (Duke, N.C. State, Wisconsin, Missouri and Indiana). In all of the Jayhawks’ losses - except an OT contest against K-State, they were held below 69 points. Overall, when Kansas failed to get to at least 70 points, its record was 7-5.
Who to fear most: The only other Big 12 team in the West is TCU and the Frogs are on the bottom end. For a team that wants to repeat by scoring, there is plenty to fear in the Sweet 16 round. Either Saint Mary’s or UConn can keep the game in the 60s. Saint Mary’s against Kansas is an opportunity for the dog to cover. The Huskies can absolutely win the game outright. This is not a great draw for Kansas futures bettors.
Purdue ( +900)
No.1 seed East
Losses: Rutgers, Indiana (2), Northwestern, Maryland,
Shared similarities: Physical Big Ten teams not fazed by the presence of 7-4 Zach Edey. Not surprisingly, all of those victorious teams have a roster within the top 80 for height according to KenPom. A deeper dive into those box scores shows in the losses, Purdue was kept to or below the .327 3Pt shooting percentage it had for the season. Edey is going to score his points, in the losses, guards Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer were kept in check. The current late-season version of Purdue (four losses came in February) is not the same as the team who dominated the rankings in December and January.
Who to fear most: The calendar. Purdue won the Big Ten tournament (barely) but Edey took a pounding. The physicality of the Big Ten and its lingering effects is well documented. The last team to win the conference tournament and then earn a national championship was Michigan State in 2000.
Matchup wise, Purdue can face trouble from a team that guards the perimeter well. Other than its first-round opponent, every other team in the top half of the East fits that profile. A second-round game will be against either Memphis or Florida Atlantic, both have a Top 40 KenPom defense. If it is Memphis, the Tigers will have the best perimeter player in the game with Kendric Davis.
This top-seeded team could fail to make it out of the Sweet 16 since it's a game likely against Duke (who should get past depleted Tennessee). The Blue Devils have strong defensive guards and a 7-footer of their own with Kyle Filipowski.
There are major roadblocks ahead of Purdue even getting to the Final Four. If a bettor has a future play on Purdue, consider pairing it with Duke since that ticket can come with a smaller investment because of the Blue Devils’ relatively high odds.
UCLA ( +1200)
No.2 seed West
Losses: Illinois, Baylor, Arizona, USC, Arizona (tournament)
Shared similarities: The four losses were a pair of two road-game losing streaks. Three of the four losses came when they gave up a point total of 77 or higher. A big difference from the 60 points per game the KenPom second-best defensive team averaged allowing over the season.
Who to fear most: The athletic trainer delivering even more bad news. Late-season injuries to defensive stalwarts Jaylen Clark and Adem Bona create great concern for UCLA’s title hopes. Clark appears out and without news on Bona availability, this team is hard to gauge moving forward.
Overall talent should get UCLA two wins to start out the tournament but then Gonzaga should be awaiting them. The Zags have the offense that can move through Mick Cronin’s bruised defense. If this matchup does happen, the Zags could be listed as the favorite.
Questions around their depth make any game past the second round a roadblock for the Bruins. That current 12-1 price is less than desirable.
Texas ( +1400)
Losses: Illinois, Kansas St., Iowa St., Tennessee, Kansas, Texas Tech, Baylor, TCU
Shared similarities: Losses away from Austin. Of the Longhorns’ seven losses, six came on the road or a neutral court.
Who to fear most: The Horns don’t seem to have any major roadblocks until the Elite 8 in a likely game against Houston. They have the lethal combination of a KenPom top-20 offense and defense. Xavier has a 3-seed next to its name but not the depth to keep up with Texas.
The Texas tournament win total should be an ancillary bet to handicap when the line is released. There appear to be at least three ahead of them.
Arizona ( +1600)
No.2 seed South
Losses: Utah, Washington St., Oregon, Stanford, Arizona St., UCLA
Shared similarities: Conference foes once again being the biggest problem for a contender. Other than dropping a contest to slow-paced Washington St., the other Wildcat losses came in games played in the 80s.
Arizona usually at all times has the two tallest players on the court with Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo, and that height is used to do more offensive than defensive damage. The Wildcats, behind Tommy Lloyd, make offense (83.5 ppg) its priority.
Who to fear most: Creighton, the 6th seed, more than 3rd seeded Baylor. A game against Baylor would work well for Arizona since it would be an up-and-down the court shootout. The Bluejays on the other hand have a Top 20 defense and 7-footer Ryan Kalkbrenner who can neutralize Tubelis. Creighton has a contender-like roster and could be playing like one.
Connecticut ( +1800)
No.4 seed West
Losses: Xavier (2), Providence, Marquette, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Creighton, Marquette (tournament)
Shared similarities: Another contender whose only losses came in conference play. The Huskies are going to get a lot of attention in the futures market since they have both high offensive and defensive KenPom numbers. What makes UConn attractive is its ability to win both low and high-scoring games. Six of the Huskies’ seven losses came in less than a one-month span from the end of December into January.
Connecticut’s performance at the end of its semifinal loss to Marquette in the Big East tournament definitely brings up some concerns about late game decision-making. Including that game—UConn last’s four losses were decided on the final possession.
Who to fear most: An offensive-minded squad that can somehow get into 80 points has the best chance since UConn opponents who reached that mark were 3-1 against Danny Hurley. Iona has a coach who wants to do that, not really the roster though to execute it against a Big East foe.
Saint Mary’s is the type of team that could stifle the Huskies on offense but UConn has proven it can win ugly half-court defensive games.
Looking at the West bracket as a whole, other than Kansas, UConn surprisingly doesn’t have much to fear for being a No.4 seed. However, UConn's late-game issues will be a factor.
Gonzaga ( +1800)
No.3 seed West
Losses: Texas, Purdue, Baylor, Loyola Marymount, Saint Mary’s
Shared similarities: Other than an improved Lions squad, it takes an elite-level program to bring down the Zags. They are KenPom’s top offensive team in the country and the key to beating Mark Few’s group is keeping them in the 60s or low 70s. An early season win against Michigan State is the only time the Bulldogs emerged victorious when scoring less than 70 points. The Zags appear most vulnerable when they are held to around 73 points.
Who to fear most: A team that can hold the high-powered Drew Timme, Julian Strawther led-offense to a point total in the low 70s. That would be a healthy UCLA, but without Clark and Bona, the Zags will have the room they want to operate on offense.
Because of what appears to be a diminished UCLA team, it’s easy to see a path for Gonzaga to make the Elite 8. The Zags are going to be a very popular futures play.
Baylor ( +2200)
No.3 seed South
Losses: Virginia, Marquette, Iowa St., TCU, Kansas St. (2), Kansas, Iowa St., Iowa St. (tournament)
Shared similarities: Another great offensive team (KenPom 2nd in the country) that this year uncharacteristically struggles guarding opponents (104 in KenPom's defense). The Big 12 style which can vary between slow fights and sprints took a toll on the Bears who enter the tournament with 10 losses.
Who to fear most: Iowa State, a team that downed the Bears three times this season. Good news for Scott Drew. There are no cyclones in the South bracket. Unfortunately for the Bears, every team in the bottom of their bracket is one to fear, even UCSB in the first round. The Gauchos can run on pace with the Bears. According to the metrics, Creighton is very similar to the aforementioned Iowa State club.
A Baylor futures ticket that looked pretty good in early February no longer has the same appeal. And is not one that needs to be added to a portfolio now.
Marquette ( +2500)
No.2 seed East
Losses: Purdue, Mississippi State, Wisconsin, Providence, Xavier, Connecticut
Shared similarities: Tournament quality-like squads facing the Golden Eagles on the road. The exception being Wisconsin which beat Marquette at home in overtime right before Christmas.
Who to fear most: The start of a new tournament. Marquette solidified a No.2 seed by drumming Xavier to win the Big East tournament. Now, because of their conference affiliation, they will be compared to Jay Wright’s recent victorious Villanova teams. Not necessarily a good comparison, however. The Golden Eagles spent a lot of energy getting past St. John’s and UConn prior to the Xavier championship game. They have the conference’s top player in Tyler Kolek, but don’t have the same depth as those Villanova squads.
Since Marquette wants to play at a fast pace, Michigan State with an average offensive possession length of 18.4 seconds can slow the game down. If the Golden Eagles get past the Spartans, then the other games in the lower end of the East should work—even against K-State—in their favor. The teams to fear the most are on the top end of the bracket.
Duke ( +3000)
No.5 seed East
Losses: Kansas, Purdue, Wake Forest, N.C. St., Clemson, Virginia Tech, Miami, Virginia
Shared similarities: ACC and national contending teams that played the Blue Devils prior to mid-February. Since Feb 11th when Duke lost to UVA in a controversial OT game and Kyle Filipowski and Dereck Lively scored a combined 2 points, John Scheyer has found a way to get healthy and create cohesion with his veterans and newcomers. ACC tournament winner Duke is one of the hottest teams in the country. Perhaps if a call went its way in that Cavaliers game, its seed would be even higher.
Who to fear most: Duke enters the tournament with a nine-game winning streak and a Walter White-like persona. “Say my name.” That’s the way Duke is playing. Its main fear should be its designation as the 5th seed. No team from that line since 1985 has ever won the national championship.
The public interest in Duke is heating up. Prior to the championship game win against UVA in the ACC tournament, the Blue Devils were 40-1 to win the national championship. There is reason to buy into the Blue Devils because, even with a 5th seed, the bracket doesn’t give them a lot of fear. If Duke gets through the East, it has the length and athleticism to compete against Alabama in the Final Four. At 30-1, Duke to win the national championship is a ticket that a bettor should consider adding.
Kansas State ( +4000) and Xavier ( +4000) have the seeds that indicate contender but the odds that say roadblock.