My 2021 NCAA tournament future value bets

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During the months preceding Sunday’s bracket announcement, much of the NCAA tournament futures analysis centered on how good Gonzaga and Baylor were, but how unsatisfying such low odds (in the ballpark of 3-1) were to make a play so far in advance.  

Well, that was January and February, not March 14. The futures market for the national champion has shifted from sifting through a multitude of possibilities months out to looking at the team with the best chance to rip off six straight wins.

Just days before the opening tip of the tournament, the Zags are + 275 and the Bears + 350, with Michigan and Illinois + 600, according to BetMGM. 

Sure, one school of thought says it is more profitable to do rollover moneyline plays than to buy a national championship ticket. That doesn’t work well for many bettors, since a hefty bankroll is needed at the beginning when the No. 1 seeds are such big favorites to establish any profit to press. And rolling over the moneyline requires time and effort those who don’t consider themselves professional gamblers might not possess.

Based on establishing value over the course of the tournament, the ticket for any of the top seeds to win it all at the start should be seen as one with a convenience tax built into the price. It doesn’t necessarily have to be monetary for some bettors to find the value they are looking for. 

Gonzaga looks like a national champion, even after some lackluster games and questions about its interior defense. In an office bracket pool, I would write down the Zags as the winners. But if I am looking for value in a futures ticket, I wouldn’t make a play now on Gonzaga but look to make larger bets on single games later in the tournament.

I want to occasionally date the Zags, just not marry them. 

The main rationale here is the recent history of undefeated teams entering the tournament. Excluding what happened with John Wooden’s UCLA teams and others in this situation when the game and tournament didn’t reflect today’s standards, the “recent” performance of undefeated teams makes me shy away from going all in on 26-0 Gonzaga for less than + 300 from the start.

The 1990-91 UNLV Rebels, Wichita State in 2013-14 and the 2014-15 Kentucky squad failed to land national championships -- even though most bettors felt confident banking on Jerry Tarkanian’s and John Calipari’s teams after what they did in the regular season. Bettors shouldn’t be swayed by anecdotal evidence. Nonetheless, if that Tark team can be stopped, be cautious as it pertains to Gonzaga. 

Sure, the narrative of Gonzaga facing off against Baylor for the national championship is still in play since they are on opposite sides of the bracket. But once again, look at tournament history. This game of one-on-one isn’t a regular occurrence and shows the need to look at other seeds for futures tickets. 

Since the field expanded in 1985, two No. 1 seeds have played for the national title just eight times, the last one in 2017, when Gonzaga fell to North Carolina. 

Yes, it could happen again this season, but it’s not worth enough just to blindly bet multiple futures on the top seeds. Still, have at least one top seed in your portfolio because a No. 1 seed has won 15 times since 1999. 

From a value standpoint, Michigan is worth a play. You can get the Wolverines at a slightly better price than Gonzaga and Baylor, and their bracket has a clear path to the regional final, likely against Alabama. Michigan has a top-10 defense, according to KenPom.com, and the height that can stop the high-flying Crimson Tide.  

I recommend getting a Michigan national championship play now, before word becomes official on the availability of Isaiah Livers. The senior forward is out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his right foot. Michigan could win without his 13 points, six rebounds and two assists a game, but if word comes out he is an option to take the court, expect the Wolverines to gain some betting interest. 

Expand the portfolio

A key to making any short-term futures plays this week is to create a reasonably sized portfolio, especially if you go the chalk route. Have multiple teams at higher plus prices to create opportunities to hedge, take points and find multiple avenues for profit as the tournament progresses. 

However, be realistic when looking for winning tickets for teams that don’t have No. 1 next to their names. By and large, those top teams are ones that win. Since 1999, the lowest seed to win the national title was No. 7 UConn in 2014. 

During that same span, the lowest seed other than a No. 1 or No. 2 to win was, as expected, No. 3 -- and it happened three times. Going off this, the most value of any No. 3 seed this year is Arkansas at + 4000 coming out of the South.

The Razorbacks were one of the fastest-rising teams on the board over the last four weeks, and if they hadn’t lost to LSU in the Southeastern Conference semifinals, lower odds and a higher seed would be next to Arkansas’ name. I will back the Razorbacks at this high price and call the SEC tournament loss a value booster.

If the numbers hold true, Arkansas’ speed and its scoring average of 82.4 points will provide a good matchup against No. 2 Ohio State and then top-seeded Baylor. Having a team at a + 4000 price in your pocket is a wise addition to a portfolio. 

Also from a value standpoint, Florida State at + 1600 makes sense for a medium-level play. The Seminoles’ defense, height and experience line up well against Michigan, Alabama and Texas in the East. This will also help back up any Michigan tickets.

Timing is everything in the futures market

When discussing value for No. 1 seeds, Illinois is now + 600. But during the first half of the Big Ten title game, the number at BetMGM was an even better + 1000.  

Little doubt existed that even if Illinois lost, it would still be a No. 1 seed. That was the time to take Illinois, not when the value was reduced by 40% in less than an hour. Keep this in mind next March when looking to land futures tickets right before the field of 68 is released.

Final Four futures action

The chance to find value on an underdog to go far in the tournament should be directed toward the Final Four. Sticking with the 1999-and-later time span, the Final Four has included a No. 11 seed three times: Loyola (Chicago) in 2018, VCU in 2011 and George Mason in 2006. 

Eliminating the No. 2 seed from the equation, the average lowest seed to make the Final Four since 1999 is 5.80. In 2007 and ’08, the Final Four had no seeds higher than No. 2.

Using this number as a reference point and looking at the Nos. 5-6 seeds to find value for a Final Four futures ticket, here are some options worth a play. Both are No. 6 seeds: Texas Tech in the South and San Diego State in the Midwest. 

The Red Raiders (+ 300 on DraftKings to make the Final Four) have the defense, the potential of Mac McClung to go on a scoring rampage, and familiarity with Baylor. 

The Aztecs’ defense, which KenPom ranks 11th overall, gives them a playable chance to knock off West Virginia, Houston and then Illinois. SDSU to make the Final Four is available on DraftKings at a value-laden price of + 900. 

If you go with a Michigan national championship future, might as well get a piece of the + 200 to make the Final Four as well.

Unless you can find a very high number, which will be unlikely since sportsbooks will look to pick off recreational bettors overly influenced by high seeds, avoid any prop bet about all No. 1 seeds advancing to the Final Four. Since 1999, it has happened only once, in 2008. 

First Four futures action

The tournament has featured the First Four games to open the tournament since 2011. Two games feature No. 16 seeds facing each other for the right to play No. 1s, while the other two feature ostensibly the last four-at large bids. Let’s disregard the action of the No. 16 seeds and look at what happens in the next game for the winning First Four teams against higher-seeded foes.

The record for those winners in the next round over the last nine tournaments is a very pedestrian 8-10. Other than the 2019 tournament when both teams lost, the record has been a consistent 1-1. 

Here is an angle for a small play to find some value and create a possible built-in profit. Go off recent history and make straight moneyline plays on the winners of the Wichita State-Drake and Michigan State-UCLA games.

That is, if both winners are underdogs in their next games — against sixth-seeded USC and BYU, respectively — because at plus money, it just takes one win to lock in some level of profit. 

It is no guarantee, though, that the First Four winners will be dogs against USC or BYU. Either way, keep the winners of those games in mind when looking to make a first-round wager against the sixth seed. 

If given the chance, I would be very happy to take Michigan State over BYU. 

The winners of the First Four games will have a slight advantage in already facing action in Indianapolis, while the sixth seeds will be coming out of their initial quarantines. 

One last nugget

Over the course of the season, we have advocated adding some long shots to the portfolio for low-level plays that could create big rewards. Just look at the smiles on the faces of those who cashed conference championship tickets on Georgetown and Georgia Tech.  

Here are two teams to think about and hope they get at least close enough to the finish line to create a hedge. 

Think about adding San Diego State (+ 5000) for a small price. I can see an SDSU run through the Midwest happening regardless of the odds; the 50-1 just makes it prettier to envision. Also at + 5000 is Oregon in the West. As No. 7 seeds, the Ducks can make a run out of the bottom of the West bracket and face Gonzaga for the right to go to the Final Four. Make the sportsbook pay for having to offer such high odds because the selection committee erred in placing Oregon on the 7 line. 

A team like Oregon in this place is why I will hold off on any Gonzaga futures and focus more on game-by-game wagers with the Zags.

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