Eyeing futures in college basketball

January 8, 2021 05:22 AM
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With college football setting the precedent that a season can be played to its conclusion, it’s time to remove any remaining trepidation and jump into the college basketball futures market.

A viable futures portfolio based on the more than 300 Division I teams, 31 conferences (no Ivy League this year) playing for regular-season titles, conference tournaments and a national championship can help offset some bumps along the daily wagers boulevard.

This column will track changes within the college basketball futures markets and provide insight on the how and why. Viewing futures as a commodities market, we will try to predict fluctuations and identify the best times to buy and consider any cash-out options.

Just keep in mind that making a futures play is giving the sportsbook an interest-free loan for three months. Is locking up the money worth the payday down the line?

Let’s start by determining if we want chalk dust on our hands.

Gonzaga, with freshman Jalen Suggs, senior Corey Kispert and sophomore Drew Timme, seems like the team to invest in for a national championship. But certainly not for an early-January price of + 350 and even far less at -220 to reach the Final Four.

The end of March Madness is too far away and too many things can happen for that type of return. Even the preseason + 1,000 felt more like putting money under a mattress than making a lucrative futures play.

That same + 350 payout is currently available for Florida State, the favorite, to win the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. In this case it’s a better play. Gonzaga must jump over many more hurdles to get to the Final Four than the Seminoles would need to for an ACC crown.

Contemplating that + 350 in mid-February would be a great way to spend Valentine’s Day.

Keep these other factors in mind when making 2021 CBB futures bets.  

Timing: Individual games create volatility that demands attention before making any CBB futures bet. Analysis must be performed on both the micro and macro levels.

Take Shaka Smart’s Texas Longhorns as an example. At some books, they were + 1,600 to win the national championship before last Saturday’s game against Kansas. After the 84-59 statement win over the Jayhawks in Lawrence, Texas immediately dropped to + 1,400 at some books (like many other futures bets there is variance between books, so it is imperative to shop around). 

Likewise Kansas’ odds rose to around + 1,900 after the loss.

Just that one game puts a bettor in the position of buying high on Texas and low on Kansas. If you have an eye on a team for a futures bet, make sure to look ahead at the schedule.

Going back to Gonzaga, with just West Coast Conference games remaining, the dates to keep an eye on are Jan. 16 at St Mary’s, Jan. 30 at Pepperdine, Feb. 6 hosting BYU and Feb. 27 at BYU. Those games feel like the only chances of a Bulldogs loss. If they slip up in any of these, there might be a small window of time to get a better price. Still steep but more palatable if Gonzaga is a must-have for you.

It’s similar to the NFL when just three weeks ago Kansas City was less than + 200 to win the Super Bowl. After some mediocre performances, the Chiefs are now over that + 200. They’re the same team, just available at a better price at a different time.

Think about Kansas at + 1,900 as a timely addition with an even longer shot San Diego State at a healthy + 4,500 after it lost a weekend game to Colorado State.

Seniority: Before this season, teams were judged by who had the best one-and-done stars and new lineup of transfers. Those assets immediately got the attention of futures bettors. Time to adjust the handicapping. With so many lulls within the schedule, seniors and returning players are more valuable.

The national media is now paying more attention to Wisconsin, which features five senior starters with an average age of 22.6. That storyline is getting played out after Wisconsin wins over Michigan State, Louisville, Minnesota and upstart Loyola-Chicago.

The clock is ticking on making a Wisconsin play. Greg Gard’s group can capture a crowded Big Ten tournament and then make a run to the Final Four.

Wisconsin began the season at + 3,000 to win it all and now is as low as + 900.

The Badgers will be a popular sleeper selection in March. Not that they are a sleeper, but the media will brand them as one and the public will take the bait.    

Staying in the Big Ten, Illinois is another team to think about because of its veteran core of Kofi Cockburn (sophomore), Ayo Dosunmu (junior) and steady senior Da’Monte Williams. Yes, in today’s basketball, a sophomore is a veteran.

The Fighting Illini have just three losses, but all to fellow ranked opponents — Baylor, Missouri, and Rutgers.

Once again come late February the odds for Illinois will become less favorable than the current + 12,000 as more media attention will be lavished upon the Big Ten with headlines of it being the best and most experienced conference in the country.

In the futures market, be in front of the talking heads’ narratives.

The top two contenders behind Gonzaga to win the national championship, Villanova (+ 700) and Baylor (+ 800), demonstrate that the market is emphasizing experience in a manner not seen in years.

The Wildcats and Bears likely will lose a conference game or two, so there is no rush with them.

On the other end, John Calipari’s new cohort of freshmen and transfers are lost offensively and show little promise of doing what they have in the past —  jelling as the season progresses. The Wildcats began the year at + 1,400 to win the national championship. That number has ballooned to more than + 3,000 at some books and will likely rise.

Don’t let these odds next to a blue-blood program fool you. They are this high for a very good reason.   

Ability to win ugly: To make a correlated point about experience being key during an unpredictable schedule, the same holds true for teams that win by playing more rugby than ballet.

Rebounding, defense and toughness will travel better and withstand postponements more than teams relying on offensive fluidity.

Wisconsin consistently creates and excels in ugly games.

Other teams fitting this criteria and worth a national-championship play are Tennessee at + 1,300, West Virginia at + 1,500, Rutgers at + 2,000 and Virginia at + 2,500.

These squads along with Saint Louis in the Atlantic 10, Tulsa in the AAC, Texas Tech in the Big 12 and Colorado State in the Mountain West are ones to keep an eye on before their conference tournaments. 

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