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Michigan, Illinois among true Big Ten contenders

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As a college basketball star in the early 1990s, Juwan Howard helped Michigan reach two NCAA championship games. The Wolverines lost both times, a trend that has haunted the Big Ten for two decades.

In his second year as Michigan’s coach, Howard has a shot to reverse the March curse for the Wolverines and the conference.

“Michigan is good enough to beat Gonzaga and Baylor,” said Vinny Magliulo, VSiN oddsmaker and Gaughan Gaming sportsbook director.

From the first AP Top 25 poll in November through the final weekend of February, the Zags were ranked No. 1 with the Bears No. 2. But the popular notion of a two-horse race for the title is fading as the season reaches the fourth turn. The Wolverines are making a run.

Magliulo and South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews decided to think outside the Gonzaga-Baylor box when recently posting a prop bet pitting the Big Ten teams (+ 175) against the rest of the NCAA tournament field (-200). A great prop sparks media debate and wagering action, and this one accomplishes both goals.

The Big Ten is expected to have at least seven teams — Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin and Maryland — in the field of 68. Rutgers is a good bet to make it eight, even after its 21-point loss at Nebraska. Indiana and Michigan State could stretch the number to nine or 10, and the Spartans get two shots at the Wolverines this week.

In Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, which bettors and oddsmakers use on a daily basis, six Big Ten teams are ranked in the nation’s top 14. The Wolverines just jumped over Baylor into the No. 2 spot in Kenpom.com and the AP poll, where they started the season No. 25.

“In the Big Ten, Michigan doesn’t really have a night off,” Andrews said. “That league is going to be very prepared for the tournament.”

Sharp money showed on the field after Andrews opened the line at -160, and recent history is not on the Big Ten’s side. Since Tom Izzo coached Michigan State to the NCAA title in 2000, the conference is 0-7 in championship games. John Beilein coached Michigan to two of those losses, in 2013 and 2018.

Howard, a key player on the Wolverines’ Fab Five teams that fell short in championship games against Duke in 1992 and North Carolina in 1993, is coaching a Michigan team guided by senior guards Isaiah Livers, Mike Smith and Eli Brooks. Hunter Dickinson, a 7-foot-1 freshman, is the leading scorer and rebounder, and 6-9 sophomore forward Franz Wagner scored a team-high 21 points in each of the last two games.

In Pomeroy’s ratings, Michigan is fourth in defensive efficiency and fifth in offensive efficiency. Gonzaga ranks first in offensive efficiency, but the Zags have been breezing through a weak West Coast Conference, winning their 15 league games by an average of 24.1 points. Nights off? The Zags have been on vacation for more than two months.

“Gonzaga is a 25- or 30-point favorite every night,” Andrews said. “I think Michigan is as good as Baylor, but maybe not quite as good as Gonzaga.”

To his credit, Bulldogs coach Mark Few did test his team with a tough nonconference schedule. Gonzaga defeated Kansas, West Virginia, Virginia and Iowa. The Zags outraced the Hawkeyes 99-88 on Dec. 19 in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Luka Garza, Iowa’s 6-11 senior, is the nation’s No. 2 scorer at 24.3 points per game and is shooting 45.5% from 3-point range. The knocks against the Hawkeyes are their low defensive efficiency ranking (59th) and lack of athletic ability. The defense has improved in the last few weeks, but Iowa will probably get eliminated by a more athletic team on the road to the Final Four. 

Most NBA scouts are lukewarm on Garza and hot on Illinois stars Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, the Shaq of the Big Ten. Inconsistency has been a problem for the Illini, who lost to Baylor 82-69 on Dec. 2 in Indianapolis, and Dosunmu’s broken nose could turn the fearless guard into a less aggressive version of himself.

Ohio State was projected as a No. 1 seed before the Buckeyes’ defensive deficiencies were exposed in losses to the Wolverines, Spartans and Hawkeyes in a recent eight-day span. Wisconsin is another team with limited athletic ability. Purdue is a young team with no seniors, though junior forward Trevion Williams has developed into a low-post workhorse. The Badgers and Boilermakers are tough enough defensively to reach the Sweet 16 with a favorable draw, but that seems to be their ceiling.

The entire NCAA tournament will be played in Indiana, the heart of Big Ten country, but Magliulo said arena familiarity for the league’s teams could be only a “slight advantage.” The Big Ten’s biggest advantage against the field will be its extreme number of teams and the probability that its strongest teams will be separated in the bracket regions.

“I think Iowa has a puncher’s chance with Garza because if you have a kid like that, you can win some games,” Andrews said. “There are a lot of possibilities there with the Big Ten. You have some other teams like Purdue, Rutgers and Wisconsin that are pretty good.”

Andrews’ lofty opinion of the Big Ten is not shared by The Gold Sheet handicapper Bruce Marshall, who said he considers Baylor, Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia, Kansas, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech as Final Four threats.

“I think the Big 12 is the best league and has got more teams that can win the tournament than the Big Ten,” Marshall said. “I don’t think Iowa can win it. The Big Ten could get eight or nine teams in, but I really don’t see anyone other than Michigan that could win it.”

Andrews and Magliulo also posted a prop on Gonzaga, Baylor and Villanova versus the field, with the three teams listed as the -140 favorite before last weekend. The line has moved to pick-’em after the Bears’ loss at Kansas and the Wildcats’ loss at Butler.

My futures tickets on Villanova at 15-1 and 20-1 odds don’t feel so valuable anymore.

“Current form means a lot, and Villanova has been very inconsistent the past few weeks,” Magliulo said. “Villanova is trending the wrong way right now. I have dropped that team two points on the power rating. I think the Big Ten is closing the gap on the Big 12. I would say Michigan and Ohio State could certainly go deep in the tournament, and Michigan is good enough to win it.”

The futures ticket I bought on Michigan at 30-1 in early January — the odds are about 4-1 now — has a real shot. The Big Ten will make headlines by stacking up several wins in the first two rounds, but only the Wolverines appear to have everything it takes to go the distance.

A bettor’s job is to see through the media hype to find value in a number, and when you take a microscope to each Big Ten team other than Michigan, you see the field is the better bet.

 

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