The college basketball offseason has been nothing short of disastrous for the game’s reputation. The ostensible bastion of for-the-love-of-the-game amateurism was rocked by recruiting scandals at multiple institutions. We’ve already covered potential fixes to the institutionalized issues, and we’ll undoubtedly have more on the past, present, and future of college recruiting throughout the year. Today, however, is for warmer climes, greener pastures, and actual basketball.
Even with big dominos like Rick Pitino falling, the season will march on, straight to March Madness. Someone is going to win, and it’s time to sort out who, because bettors like us aren’t governed by NCAA regulations and there’s value to be had.
Let’s breakdown the favorites and find the best bet heading into the 2017-18 season.
The Blue Devils pair the best recruiting class in the nation with senior leader Grayson Allen and (underperforming but highly talented) sophomore Marques Bolden. They also have Mike Krzyzewski patrolling the sideline and he isn’t scheduled for any more back surgeries. Last season went about as poorly as possible between myriad injuries and Allen kicking people, yet Coach K still led the team to an ACC tournament title and top-two seed in March Madness.
Betting outlook: In an era where parity is becoming more and more prominent, Duke’s recipe is as good a bet as any for a March run. But 4/1 is way too short a number. While their incoming class has a quartet of five-stars, there’s no generational talent that completely separates Duke from the rest. Marvin Bagley is great, but he’s not going to be Anthony Davis-type dominant. Plus there are questions about Trevon Duval’s ability to be a facilitator at point guard versus a score-first slasher.
MICHIGAN STATE: 6/1
Tom Izzo doesn’t have a five-star haul like Coach K, but he does have the best returning player in the nation in Miles Bridges, plus two more of Sparty’s top-four scorers from last year (Nick Ward, Josh Langford). Experience matters in March, and Izzo has it in spades. He also has top-ten recruit and future lottery pick Jaren Jackson to add to the mix.
Betting outlook: Izzo has a solid March resume and Sparty are a little more enticing at 6/1 than Duke at 4/1. Plus, betting on the Spartans means you get to cheer for a guy named Tum Tum, and that’s always a good thing … not that it’s really come up before. However, on the whole, this still isn’t a bet I’d make.
Arizona might have the best mix of returning and incoming talent between veterans Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins, and Dusan Ristic and newcomers DeAndre Ayton, Emmanuel Akot, and Brandon Randolph. Last season ended in disappointment, losing in the Sweet 16 to what should have been an overmatched Xavier, but there were times when the Wildcats looked like the best team in the nation when Trier returned from suspension.
Betting outlook: These odds would be shorter if the school wasn’t caught up in the recruiting scandal and coach Sean Miller didn’t have a track record of busting early at the tournament. I still chalk the latter up to rotten luck, and I don’t anticipate the recruiting issues to lead to suspensions or a coaching change this season. The investigation isn’t moving all that quickly. This Arizona team could easily hang with Duke and Michigan State, and their 9/1 odds are the best value among the favorites.
Any accolades they win this season might be vacated down the road, but that won’t impact the bets you make (and win) this year.
THE SECOND TIER
Whoa, for the second straight year, John Calipari didn’t get the best recruiting class in the nation. Unfathomable! Instead, he has the second-best frosh class coming in, led by small forward Kevin Knox, power forward PJ Washington, and center Nick Richards. Don’t think the talent is confined to the front-court. Two-guard Hamidou Diallo will also be suiting up for the first time after enrolling part way through last year, and point guard Quade Green is a top-25 prospect.
Betting outlook: On the whole, you have to like Kentucky’s chances of dominating the SEC once again, but betting on them to win it all is a little far-fetched. Cal does wonders getting his freshmen to play as a cohesive unit. But their youth tends to show up in March, and for all the talent that’s come through Rupp Arena in recent years, the school only has one national championship to show for it (2012).
Kansas is adding two more five-stars to its roster, but only one of them is a freshman: power forward Billy Preston. Bill Self managed to lure Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman to Lawrence, and the scary thing is that he may not even start in the Jayhawks’ backcourt. Potential All-American Devonte Graham will run the point after playing off-ball the last couple years, while LaGerald Vick may be called on to play two-guard and 6’8 Svi Mykhailiuk (a top-50 player in the country) mans the wing.
If Preston and center Udoka Azubuike (who missed almost all of last season with a wrist injury) play to their potential in the front court, then Self has himself a balanced team with Final Four potential.
Betting outlook: Given (a) the level of talent that’s on the roster, (b) the fact that Bill Self is a great coach, despite a spotty record in the tournament, and (c) that Kansas will likely roll through the Big 12 once again (just like they have for the past 13 seasons) and pocket another top-three seed, 16/1 is a reasonable number. But you’d be wise to wait a few weeks and monitor how Graham adjusts to playing the point. It should be fine, since he was a point guard in high-school, but there’s also no rush.
This 16/1 number is because of no. 1 recruit and potential first-overall draft pick Michael Porter Jr. This 16/1 number is Vegas stealing your money. Missouri will be much better than last year thanks to Porter and a top-five recruiting class. But when you’re banking on freshmen to turn an 8-24 team into a national title contender, you better have multiple lottery picks and a strong supporting cast, a la Kentucky in 2012. (Did I say 2012? I mean every damn year.) Jontay Porter, Micheal’s brother, will be solid in his first year, as well, and Jeremiah Tilmon was a nice late addition after the center decommitted from Illinois, but this is a top-heavy team led by a coach (Cuonzo Martin) who’s only ever been to one Sweet 16 and needed the softest draw in history to get there.
Betting outlook: No, no, a thousand times no!
WICHITA STATE: 20/1
The Shockers are playing in a new, stronger conference this year. That means they won’t coast to the tournament by running over lesser Missouri Valley opponents all year. It means they’ll roar into the tournament after crushing half-decent AAC teams all year.
Point guard Landry Shamet (ranked as the no. 8 player in the country by ESPN) is back for his junior season. Paired with tenacious leading scorer Markis McDuffie, Shamet will have the Shockers’ offense rolling again. Gregg Marshall also has center Shaq Morris and how-is-he-still-eligible guard Conner Frankamp on his squad, giving Wichita State both a veteran bent and the look of a complete team.
Betting outlook: We’ve seen this type of team win it all recently, even without top-end NBA talent: see 2016 Villanova and 2014 UConn. However, Shamet is not quite Josh Hart or Shabazz Napier, and Wichita will get out-athleted somewhere around the Elite Eight or Final Four. This should be a top-ten team, but that’s probably their ceiling.
Last year’s runner-up was decimated in the offseason: Nigel Williams-Goss and Zach Collins both headed to the pros, while Przemek Karnowski and Jordan Mathews graduated. Now their hopes are pinned on junior point guard Josh Perkins, senior power forward Johnathan Williams, and two very intriguing international prospects: French big-man Killian Tillie (who came up huge in last year’s tournament when Karnowski and Collins got in foul trouble) and Japanese wing Rui Hachimura (who threw down a surprising number of highlight-reel dunks in his 4.6 minutes per game).
Betting outlook: The Zags will be fun, and still the class of the WCC, but they won’t be getting past the second weekend in the tournament. Williams-Goss was the elite point guard mid-majors need to make that kind of run. Perkins isn’t.