Traits of a CBB champion: Top-3 seed, 3 NBA players

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With the college basketball season at the midway point, it’s time to thin out the herd on the national championship futures board.

Eight teams from the AP Top 25 dropped games last weekend, including Baylor, which lost its second in a row, and fast-rising Texas Tech, so there’s still some fluidity with futures odds.

Bottom line: The public has yet to fully partake in CBB futures and there’s still some value out there, even for favorites.

An inordinate number of teams have been discussed as national championship contenders, a much different scenario from last year at this time when Gonzaga and Baylor had already broken away from the pack. 

Let’s let history guide this reduction-of-the-field handicapping. 

While college basketball is synonymous with long shots overperforming in March, most of that action comes during the early rounds of the NCAA tournament. 

The teams that cash the last ticket of the tournament tend to be among the top seeds and meet similar criteria as past champions. So, if a bettor doesn’t have any of those top squads already in their portfolio, that’s where the focus should start. 

Of the last 32 teams to win a national championship, 30 of them were either a 1, 2 or 3 seed. Anything outside of this group is a tremendous outlier, and the reason those teams are mentioned each March is not about frequency but historical significance (UConn’s surprise run in 2014, Danny and the Miracles in 1988 and Villanova upsetting Georgetown in 1985). 

According to SportsOddsHistory.com, since 2010, the champions with the biggest futures number prior to Feb. 1 were UConn in 2014 (+ 10000),Villanova in 2015 (+ 1500) and UConn in 2011 (+ 1400). During this time frame, the average odds for national champions excluding the 2014 UConn team was slightly higher than + 900. 

Also, the national champion was favored in the championship game seven out of the 11 years. So when your friends say this year’s long shot (fill in the blank) could be the next VCU, Butler or Loyola, remind them that those teams didn’t win the national championship.

Sometimes in sports betting, brand-name bias is a detriment. In CBB national championship futures, it’s a commodity.

Add in this factor as well: Every national champion since 2010 had at least three NBA-caliber players on the roster. Seven of those 11 teams had more than three. 

So keep this history in mind, and don’t fall victim to betting solely on a desire to see something happen.

With the data and observations provided by the first half of the season, thinning the herd means identifying teams that have a chance of being a top-three seed with current odds and a roster profile somewhat congruent with past winners.

At this point, the population of viable candidates includes 14 teams:

— Gonzaga: DraftKings + 600/BetMGM + 600/Circa + 515 

— Duke: + 900/+ 800/+ 1100

— Purdue: + 900/+ 800/+ 1200

— Baylor: + 1200/+ 1200/+ 1100

— Kansas: + 1400/+ 1200/+ 1100

— Arizona: + 1800/+ 1800/+ 1500

— Villanova: + 1800/+ 2000/+ 1400

— Kentucky: + 1800/+ 2000/+ 1100

— UCLA: + 2000/+ 2000/+ 2400

— Auburn: + 2000/+ 1400/+ 1200

— Illinois: + 2500/+ 2500/+ 2200

— Texas: + 3500/+ 3000/+ 4000

— Alabama: + 4000/+ 5000/+ 4500

— Michigan: + 6500/+ 8000/+ 12500

That puts the following teams just outside the cut: 

— Houston: + 3500 DraftKings (lost key players Tramon Mark and Marcus Sasser to injury).

— Ohio State: + 4000 (top-heavy talent with E.J. Liddell but not enough defense). 

— Texas Tech: + 4000 (don’t overreact in January when buying a March ticket).

— Michigan State: + 4500 (roster filled more with Big Ten grit than elite talent).

— Wisconsin: + 4000 (same as above even though Johnny Davis is the favorite for the Wooden award at + 750).

— Tennessee : + 4500 (not enough scoring to go along with the tremendous defense).

— LSU: + 4500 (same as above).

— USC: + 5000 (need more than Isaiah Mobley).

— Memphis: + 5000 (a team featuring NBA talent that will be mentioned as a long shot come March; let the cheese go untouched).

The nine teams on the outside of our cut list still deserve your attention during the tournament, but for single-game wagers or other futures bets such as reaching the Sweet 16. However, if one of these teams is your only national championship play, better options must be considered. 

Here are 14 teams that made our cut, separated by category to help bettors allocate their funds. 

Tier 1: Championship standards met 

— Gonzaga: + 600/+ 600/+ 515 

— Duke: + 900/+ 800/+ 1100

— Purdue: + 900/+ 800/+ 1200

— Baylor: + 1200/+ 1200/+ 1100

Best value within the tier: There’s little difference between these highly rated teams, and at least one should be in your March portfolio. All four will be in the 6-1 range once the tournament tips off, so timeliness matters. 

Gonzaga’s low number provides no value, so it’s better to look elsewhere in this tier.

Since Duke, Purdue and Baylor are so similar and have the mandatory trio of NBA talent, a play based on value alone goes to the Bears. Those January losses can help pay some dividends in March.

The Blue Devils have the ACC regular-season title in their sights, so Duke’s odds likely won’t go higher.

Purdue’s Jaden Ivey, Zach Edey and Trevion Williams are an appealing group to back. The knock against the Boilermakers is the Big Ten has gone two decades without a title, and a Matt Painter coached team has yet to reach the Final Four. 

Tier 2: If you don’t like the favorites …

— Kansas: + 1400/+ 1200/+ 1100

— UCLA: + 2000/+ 2000/+ 2400

— Arizona: + 1800/+ 1800/+ 1500

— Auburn: + 2000/+ 1400/+ 1200

— Villanova: + 1800/+ 2000/+ 1400

Best value within the tier: For bettors receptive to backing multiple teams, adding a team or two from this group to your Tier 1 pick makes sense. 

These five teams are all trending toward single-digit odds ahead of the tournament.

Based on current value, Auburn, with the prerequisite level of NBA talent, offers the most. Joe Lunardi says the Tigers are a No. 1 seed. The odds on the Tigers have dropped considerably over the last month, and books might be moving them up to Tier 1 status as soon as next week.

Kansas and Villanova are deficient in meeting the standard of NBA talent. Arizona’s odds have plateaued over the past two weeks. UCLA and its three NBA-level players will be a popular public play, and rightfully so. 

Tier 3: If everything goes right …

— Kentucky: + 1800/+ 2000/+ 1100

— Illinois: + 2500/+ 2500/+ 2200

— Texas: + 3500/+ 3000/+ 4000

— Alabama: + 4000/+ 5000/+ 4500

Best value within the tier: Illinois is a KenPom top-25 team on both ends of the court. The Illini are a wise value play now that point guard Andre Curbelo is back from injury. Their current odds are not reflective of his return. Expect Brad Underwood’s group to push toward a No. 2 seed. With Curbelo, the Illini can move up a tier. 

This year’s Kentucky squad is older than recent versions. I need more than 18-1 odds to see if John Calipari has earned an advanced degree in chemistry.

Tier 4: Hail Mary

— Michigan: + 6500/+ 8000/+ 12500

I have no desire to put money down on the Wolverines and don’t recommend you do, either. When healthy, though, Michigan still possesses the experience and talent to gain some late-season momentum.

Final thoughts

With a little over a month left in the regular season, don’t become overly impulsive. And don’t keep adding tickets based on what team is hot on any particular day. 

A futures portfolio must not come close to reaching the point of diminishing returns. Keep some units disposable in case an added play needs to be made once the field of 68 is announced.

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