By Matt Youmans
VSiN senior editor
A year ago, Rick Pitino was swept up in another scandal that threatened to end his days in Louisville. There would be no magic in March, with his team banned from the NCAA Tournament, and an old coach appeared to be aging fast.
Pitino briefly considered rekindling a past relationship with UNLV, but there were troubling issues there, too, so he opted against leaving for Las Vegas or anywhere else.
In many ways, Pitino would have been a perfect fit for the Rebels. It was their loss, something that is painfully obvious now.
Louisville is lucky to have Pitino, who comes with complex baggage and comical denials yet remains a coaching genius. He’s proving it again this year.
Three months into the college basketball season, no true No. 1 team has emerged. Gonzaga is undefeated but relatively untested against heavyweight competition, and Villanova is legit again. The Cardinals (20-5) are equally qualified to be national championship contenders.
In six games without junior point guard Quentin Snider, the team’s No. 2 scorer, Louisville went 4-2. Snider returned from a hip injury Saturday and hit a clutch last-minute 3-pointer in a victory over Miami. Deng Adel and Mangok Mathiang also returned from one-game suspensions.
Pitino’s team is whole again, and it’s a team with few holes. Louisville is loaded with size and versatile players who work both ends of the floor.
Unlike UCLA, which wins with lots of offense and little defense, Louisville can get the defensive stops needed to win tough tournament games. That’s why at the 20-1 odds offered at the South Point and Westgate sports books, there is value in betting the Cardinals on the futures board. The Bruins, at either 5-1 or 7-1, present no value at this point.
With a wide-open tournament looming, bettors should look for teams at double-digit odds that can reach the Final Four.
Gonzaga is getting 8-1 odds at the Westgate and 3-1 at South Point, so forget the Zags, although they do have Final Four potential. There are no bargains out there on Kentucky (6-1), Duke (8-1), Kansas (8-1) or Villanova (10-1). Cases can be made for Arizona, North Carolina and Oregon, but let’s look deeper than the best-available 12-1 odds on those teams.
In Ken Pomeroy’s ratings (Kenpom.com), Louisville is No. 5 in the nation. So taking 20-1 odds on the Cardinals, with a coach as proven as Pitino, is a good bet.
Others futures plays to consider:
Virginia (20-1): The Cavaliers seem unlikely to get it done because of their lack of offensive options, but they are No. 2 overall and No. 3 in adjusted defense in Pomeroy’s ratings. (By comparison, Louisville rates No. 2 in adjusted defense, and UCLA is No. 126.) Tony Bennett could coach this team to the Final Four, but he’ll probably fall short again with no big-time scorer.
Wisconsin (20-1): Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes are among the top forwards in the nation. The Badgers (21-3) are going to win the Big Ten regular-season title because of a 3-0 record in overtime games. But their backcourt is not real athletic, and that could be a fatal flaw in the NCAA Tournament.
West Virginia (25-1): The Mountaineers can be a nightmare opponent due to their relentless defensive pressure. West Virginia suffocated Baylor and Kansas in blowout victories, but it also lost home games to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. With a good draw, Bob Huggins can go deep in the tournament — or he can go home early as he did last year.
Baylor (30-1): The Bears’ rise to No. 1 in early January was phony. Still, they are athletically impressive, and 6-10 forward Johnathan Motley raises their ceiling. Much like Florida State, it feels like Baylor (22-3) is missing something, and it might be an elite coach. It would be tough to bet on Scott Drew if he runs into Pitino.
Purdue (60-1): Few teams can match the Boilermakers’ size — 6-9 Caleb Swanigan and 7-2 Isaac Haas — and array of 3-point shooters. Purdue (20-5) dealt Wisconsin its only league loss and is rated No. 10 by Pomeroy. Similar to West Virginia, this is a team that could reach the Final Four or fail to survive the first weekend.
Florida (100-1): These odds, posted at South Point, will quickly disappear, and the Westgate is offering only 30-1. The Gators (20-5) are rated No. 6 by Pomeroy. Florida flashed its potential in an 88-66 victory over Kentucky on Feb. 4. Mike White is a coach on the rise.
Creighton (60-1) was on this list before losing senior point guard Maurice Watson to a knee injury in mid-January.
Also receiving votes: Butler (50-1), Cincinnati (100-1), Notre Dame (100-1), South Carolina (100-1).