As we turn the calendar to February, March looms large on the college basketball landscape and the national consciousness. This year's tournament should be wild as no team (outside maybe Purdue) has separated itself. We have yet to see greatness but have seen a lot of good teams capable of making it to Houston and cutting down the nets. But before we have the bracket and break down the madness, there is still money to be made in the futures market on the national tournament -- plus value on some conference winners.
Odds from Caesars Sportsbook
Breaking down the power conference races
And we'll begin there, the power conference races. The Big Ten is a wrap with Purdue at -1800, and rightfully so. Alabama (-240) isn't a lock with Tennessee Volunteers also in the mix, but the Vols have to play Bama again at home and have a tougher schedule to go while currently one game back in the standings. UCLA is -185 in the Pac-12 and while Arizona has the potential to win a national title this year, they have shown inconsistency. That leads me to believe that UCLA, with a better record and a home game left against the Wildcats, will win the conference in the end.
Virginia Cavaliers (-150)
In the ACC, I took Virginia just two weeks ago when they were +180. Now they're where they should be rightfully at -150. The ACC has some good teams in the middle, bad teams at the back and not much top-end talent. The Cavaliers are the most consistent squad, and a home game against Clemson is their only real competition left. They are well positioned to win the title.
Kansas State Wildcats (+250)
The Big 12 is the best conference in college hoops, and it's not close. The market reflects this, with Texas currently the favorite (+180), Kansas (+225) and then Kansas State (+250). Those odds will undoubtedly move after the Wildcats play at Allen Fieldhouse tonight. While Texas is the favorite currently, the Longhorns still have the four hardest road games left on the calendar (Kansas, K-State, Baylor, TCU) and a home game against the Jayhawks. Despite their lead in the standings, I don't think they're the play.
Kansas State has the inverse, the Wildcats have won some of their most difficult road games, at Baylor and Texas. They also have remaining road games that are the easiest (relatively; again this league is loaded) at Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and West Virginia. At +250, K State is getting my money, but I'm also putting some on Kansas. First off because they're KU and the Big 12 title is almost a birthright but also because I believe this going to be a shared title between the Sunflower State rivals. Both are good value as of now, and I expect those prices to come down in the next week.
Marquette Golden Eagles (+135)
In the Big East, Xavier is a slight favorite at -110 and capable of winning it, but Marquette at +135 is where I'm putting my money. Shaka Smart's crew have been a surprise this season; they're the most efficient offense in the nation and lead the Big East in defensive TO rate. They're currently atop the standings and have a favorable schedule to close out the regular season; the Golden Eagles are the play.
Teams to look at ahead of NCAA tournament
All right, let's talk tournament. Picking winners without knowing the bracket can be a futile exercise. However, there are some futures plays that I think are worth your attention.
First off, I really like Houston (+140) and Purdue (+240) to make the Final Four. Being a No. 1 seed significantly increases the odds of a team reaching the Final Four. These two teams will undoubtedly be No. 1 seeds, and one of the two will be the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament. As I said above, Purdue has slightly begun to separate itself with its consistency and 7-foot-4 Zach Edey. The Boilermakers know exactly who they are and are extremely hard to beat. Consistency is key, and Houston has that as well. The Cougars are extremely well coached by Kelvin Sampson and are an elite defensive team that plays with physicality and toughness you rarely see at the college level. They also have offensive weapons, led by All-American contender Marcus Sasser. Houston has made deep tournament runs over the past few years, and the Final Four will be held in Houston this year. However, I am not ready to take Houston (+600) and Purdue (+1000) to win it all just yet. There are other teams at the top end that I think have higher ceilings than they do, but the question is whether they can reach their full potential.
Despite Alabama getting hammered by Oklahoma this past weekend, I still think the team is supremely talented on both ends and could win it all (+1000). The Crimson Tide are modern basketball personified... 3-pointers, layups and free throws. They have a surefire top-5 pick in Brandon Miller along with length and versatility on both ends, ranking in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
Winning back-to-back national championships is extremely hard and rare (the 2006 and 2007 Florida Gators were last to do it) but I think Kansas is capable (+1200). Jalen Wilson is a national player of the year contender, and Bill Self might be the best coach in the business. Playing in the rugged Big 12 Conference prepares the Jayhawks for battles in the tournament.
Those two teams are more obvious choices, but there are two teams with longer odds that I'm monitoring and might invest in within the next week or two. Neither team is ranked now, but I think that will change.
North Carolina Tar Heels (+3500)
First are last year's runner-up, North Carolina (+3500). The Tar Heels started the season ranked No. 1 in the nation. I didn't think that was right, but this team has really grown after a brutal November. The Heels still have the nucleus that led them to the national championship game last year, including first-team All-American Armando Bacot. If Caleb Love starts to play efficiently, as he did at the end of last season, defending at a higher level, this team is capable of doing it again.
Creighton Bluejays (+4500)
Creighton (+4500) is also a team that has been able to right the ship after going through a brutal stretch of six straight losses, most of them without 7-1 center Ryan Kalkbrenner. They have won seven of their past nine games, dismantling Xavier this past weekend, and look like the preseason top-10 team we all thought they were. I think the Bluejays are going to contend for the Big East title (+400) and could even make a run that gets them a top-4 seed in the NCAA tournament. Their price is definitely going to come down in the coming weeks, so if you want to get aggressive toss some money on them now to win it all or even a Final Four appearance (+1200).
We thought last season was the most wide-open season ever yet ended up with four blue bloods (Duke, UNC, Kansas and Villanova) in the Final Four. I don't know whether things will end up like that again this season, but I anticipate there being more teams than we ever thought in the past with the potential to make it to Houston. We'll try to help you decipher who those teams will be and make some money along the way.