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NCAA Tournament: Gonzaga the favorite ... again

February 23, 2022 06:25 PM
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It’s not an official date on the calendar, but the college basketball version of Groundhog Day is sometime in February, a week or two after the Super Bowl. Football betting talk fades away and many of the talking heads turn their attention to Gonzaga being the favorite to win the NCAA Tournament.

Instead of Punxsutawney Phil, we have Mark Few. Again this year, we will hear predictions about six more weeks of the Zags’ dominance through March and into early April.

It’s a credit to Few, who has spent more than two decades coaching Gonzaga from a Cinderella team to a frequent title contender. While he’s 0-for-2 in title games, it won’t be surprising if he gets a third crack at it in New Orleans on April 4.

Gonzaga is the consensus NCAA title favorite, in the + 350 price range at Circa Sports and the Westgate SuperBook. But is Few’s crew really that much better than the rest of the field to warrant 7-2 odds?

“The Zags are like five points clear of the field and should probably be 3-1 or 5-2 to me,” Circa book director Matt Metcalf said. “In my mind, if Kentucky or Arizona get knocked out early, Gonzaga is even money. The market probably thinks they are a couple points better, not five, but I just think they are the only proven commodity and haven’t touched their ceiling. I think their floor is everyone else’s ceiling.”

Metcalf is a razor-sharp oddsmaker with an opinion that will be challenged by a strong group of contenders led by Arizona, Auburn, Duke and Kentucky. Others in the hunt are Kansas, Purdue, Texas Tech, UCLA and Villanova. The list of title-worthy teams does not end there.

A year ago, Gonzaga was touted as an all-time great team, a theory I tried to shoot down for several weeks. The Zags had flaws — specifically their slow perimeter defenders and weak rim defense — that could be exposed by the right opponent. Baylor turned out to have the right stuff. The Bears were too fast and physical and ran the favored Zags ragged during an 86-70 rout in the championship game.

So here we go again with the same song and dance. Gonzaga is punishing the competition in the West Coast Conference, winning its 12 league games by an average of 27 points, and is the unanimous No. 1 in this week’s AP poll. College basketball analytics expert Ken Pomeroy (kenpom.com) also rates the Zags as the top team by a margin similar to Metcalf’s rating.

For what it’s worth, my power ratings show Kentucky No. 1, one point better than Duke and Arizona and 1.5 points better than Gonzaga. Call me crazy if you wish.

VSiN contributor Aaron Moore, a sports media professor at Rider University and a longtime college hoops writer, explained why the Zags are his top team with an asterisk.

“Right now, I have Gonzaga as No.1 in the country, based on wins and metrics,” Moore said. “But I don’t have them as No.1 going into the tournament. I think the analysis needs to change with power rankings for the tournament.

“Going into the tournament, I base it on what teams can win with as many different styles as possible and that is why I have power rankings going for the national champ based on tournament play. I think just looking at it from a tournament perspective, separate from everything prior to that, these are my rankings and would make odds accordingly — 1. Kentucky; 2. Arizona; 3. Auburn; 4. Gonzaga; 5. Purdue.”

It’s sometimes convenient to forget that Gonzaga (23-2) dropped neutral-court games to Duke and Alabama early in the season and has played only four true road games, none against a top-25 opponent. The Zags will get tested at San Francisco and Saint Mary’s to close the regular season before coming to Las Vegas as the top seed in the WCC tournament.

Few has two of the nation’s best big men who can score inside and out with 6-foot-10 Drew Timme and 7-foot freshman Chet Holmgren, who has improved significantly since early December. Andrew Nembhard, Rasir Bolton and Julian Strawther are talented guards who each shoot 35% or better from 3-point range. The starting five is as good as it gets. What should be questioned is the Zags’ depth and their ability to beat elite teams away from home.

It might be wrong to call the Zags phony favorites, but there is value with several other teams because of Gonzaga’s short odds of + 350. I have been playing NCAA futures since the summer and see these as my best bets going into March:

Duke (12-1): The Blue Devils, who have lost three ACC games by a total of four points, are physically mature and tough. Paolo Banchero, a 6-foot-10 freshman, is a future NBA star. While 3-point shooting is a concern, Duke has the front-line size to match up with big teams such as Arizona, Gonzaga and Purdue. It’s also reasonable to assume the NCAA selection committee will deal coach Mike Krzyzewski a favorable draw for his farewell tournament.

UCLA (16-1): This wager was made when junior guard Johnny Juzang announced his return to school after leading the Bruins to last year’s Final Four. I don’t hate the bet, but I don’t love it, either. Circa is currently offering 18-1 odds.

Kansas (18-1): My preseason No. 1 team has been a little disappointing, especially in an 80-62 home loss to Kentucky in late January. Senior guard Ochai Agbaji could be a transcendent star in March, so there’s hope.

Arizona (30-1): While the Wildcats’ odds were as high as 60-1 in the preseason, it became obvious by late November that Arizona was elite. Tommy Lloyd, a longtime Gonzaga assistant to Few, is proving to be a coaching wizard in his first season in Tucson. I love this play on the Wildcats, who have a huge front line and sharpshooting guards.

Purdue (30-1): The Boilermakers, now getting 11-1 odds at Circa, boast two skilled big men and a future NBA scoring guard in Jaden Ivey. A big problem is soft perimeter defense, plus Purdue has a history of choking in March. This play has odds value but I’m not optimistic about a Final Four run.

I made a bad bet on Texas (20-1) and regret missing a good number on Kentucky, but I won’t make any more futures plays until seeing the brackets on Selection Sunday, March 13. I have nothing on Gonzaga and hope to beat the favorite again this year.

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