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Gonzaga, Baylor making March 2-horse race?

Mark Few is the new face of college basketball. Once upon a time, Few was an underdog who coached Gonzaga teams that played the role of Cinderella in March, but the small-school, long-shot theme is an old storyline.

A quirky, COVID-crazy season is headed toward madness and leaving a couple of blue-blood programs behind. Duke is dancing on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble, and coach Mike Krzyzewski has been whining since he started losing home games in early December. Kentucky has become a punchline. Kansas, North Carolina and UCLA are only flirting with relevance.

A humble fly fisherman coaches a new dominant team in blue.

For the first time in Few’s two decades, Gonzaga will enter the NCAA field as the consensus favorite. The Westgate SuperBook lists the Zags as the 5-2 top choice, followed by Baylor at 3-1. At Circa Sports, Gonzaga is + 195 and Baylor is + 410. At several books, every other team on the futures board is getting double-digit odds.

“It’s a massive amount of Gonzaga and Baylor (futures) money,” William Hill sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich said. “Gonzaga has the most money and Baylor has the second-most money, and it’s by a country mile over the third-place team.”

Many college hoops bettors sweat out games on a daily basis. Few has not been forced to sweat an outcome in more than two months. The Zags (20-0) have won 17 consecutive games by double-digit margins as they coast through a weak West Coast Conference. The Bears (17-0) have been tested a few times in the Big 12, arguably the strongest conference in the country. Those are the final two undefeated teams.

Is half the Final Four a foregone conclusion?

Inspired by the public perception of a two-horse race, Bogdanovich recently posted a prop price on the NCAA basketball champion: Field -120; Gonzaga/Baylor + 100. William Hill’s line moved to -125/+ 105 after Saturday’s initial wagering.

“I think there are more teams that can win it than you might think,” Bogdanovich said. “There are plenty of teams that could get hot.”

In the NBA playoffs, the superior team typically advances in a long series. The NCAA tournament’s one-and-done format leads to much more volatility.

A top-heavy futures board favoring the Zags and Bears means odds value should exist for other teams that could heat up and spring surprising runs in Indiana next month.

Bogdanovich cited Florida State, Houston, Illinois and Iowa as teams with “a puncher’s chance.” While every team has flaws, beauty is in the eye of the bet-holder. Who are the true contenders?

 

Michigan (10-1): The Wolverines returned to action Sunday for the first time in 23 days and immediately showed why they are the Big Ten’s best hope to stop a 20-year national title drought. Senior guard Isaiah Livers scored 20 points and 7-foot-1 freshman Hunter Dickinson had 15 rebounds and five blocks in a 67-59 comeback win at Wisconsin. After that result, some books lowered Michigan’s odds to 7-1. 

This is my best futures bet. I played the Wolverines at 30-1 in early January, but the secret is out, and even the current BetMGM price of 10-1 is no steal.

Shawn Harnish, a college hoops handicapper from Boston, noted that since 2002 each NCAA title team but one ranked in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings (Kenpom.com). Teams currently fitting that profile are Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan (No. 7 in each category), Illinois and Houston.

“I’ve used this system each year around this time to cut down the number of teams to think about adding futures to and eliminating all other teams,” Harnish said. “Find value with odds between 20-1 to 50-1 with teams that qualify.”

Ohio State (16-1) is another potential No. 1 seed from the Big Ten that’s worth a look, but the Buckeyes rank 61st in defense. Iowa ranks 108th in defense.

 

Villanova (16-1): A 16-point loss Saturday at Creighton exposed the Wildcats’ shortcomings. Villanova is elite in offensive efficiency (No. 5) but awful in defensive efficiency (No. 90). The upside is coach Jay Wright has another month to make things right, and veteran point guard Collin Gillespie and forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl are talented enough to carry the offense a long way. I hold tickets on the Wildcats, my preseason No. 1 team, at 16-1 and 20-1 odds.

 

Alabama (20-1): Nate Oats has no fear. He publicly criticized Coach K in December, when the model for black hair dye cried about the wisdom of playing during a pandemic, and Oats’ team plays with his bold attitude. The Crimson Tide defense is something Nick Saban would admire. Alabama, which is scoring 80.8 points per game and ranks 25th in offensive efficiency, is No. 2 in defensive efficiency. Good guards win in March, and the Tide can roll with John Petty and Jaden Shackelford.

 

Virginia (40-1): The reigning NCAA champions from 2019 — there was no tournament last year, remember?  — are not loaded with NBA prospects, so this team’s margin for error is small. The Cavaliers remain atop the ACC standings and rank 15th in offense and 22nd in defense. Tony Bennett is a coaching master who imposes his will as Virginia forces most opponents to play at its slow pace. Bennett does not always get his way. The Cavaliers, 11-2 since taking a 98-75 whipping from Gonzaga on Dec. 26, were crushed 81-60 on Monday at Florida State. The Seminoles, who rank No. 9 in offense and No. 43 in defense, are tempting at 40-1. While most books are offering Virginia in the 20-1 range, the Westgate has the top value price at 40-1. (One more shot at Coach K — Duke has slipped to 500-1.)

 

Oklahoma (65-1):  The Sooners rank in the top 30 in offense and defense and own an impressive resume that includes a win over Alabama, yet they remain underrated in the betting market. Lon Kruger is a quiet, underrated coach who has a track record of winning in March.

The Big 12 is loaded with contenders aside from Baylor. In an odd twist, Kansas is an afterthought. Oklahoma, Texas (30-1), Texas Tech (35-1) and West Virginia (50-1) rate around the top 30 in offense and defense plus have the combination of coaching, talent and toughness to reach the Final Four.

 

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