Finding (the Earliest) Value for 2018 March Madness
It’s either way too early to start betting on March Madness, or the whole thing’s random anyway and there’s no advantage to this wait-and-see nonsense. Let’s take a look at the odds being offered on as-of-yet untested squads of amateur students playing in a single-elimination tournament ten months from now, and speculate wildly.
Here be traditional blue bloods. These four teams have won six of the last ten titles and aren’t going anywhere soon. They’ll lose the best players in the country to the draft … and replace them with the best players in the country coming out of high school. Of the teams listed at +650, Kentucky and Kansas are the best bets, as they have the most incoming talent.
Duke (+650)Duke has the best odds despite losing arguably the most. One-and-dones Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles are gone. Seniors Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson are also gone. Coach K has some holes to fill. Senior Grayson Allen is returning for one more kick at the can. (Sorry.) His draft stock fell somewhat in the 2016-2017 season — partly due to all the kicking, but mostly due to production — and now he’s coming back to defend his title as the nation’s most hated amateur athlete.
Notably not returning is breakout star Luke Kennard, who declared for the NBA draft and signed with an agent. If they can win a couple of the remaining recruiting battles and bring in small forward Jordan Tucker and a better point guard, they’ll have a strong chance at the 2018 title. If they don’t land Tucker, they’ll only have one other 3 on the roster and will probably have to go shopping.
Betting outlook: Without three of its five best scorers, Duke is going to have to build its 2018 campaign around Allen, who didn’t exactly thrive in the 2017 tournament. Not the best value at this price.
Kentucky (+650)With the same or similar odds as Duke, Kentucky is a slightly more attractive prospect. They lose a lot, certainly; Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo, and De’Aaron Fox will be sorely missed. But this recruiting class is stacked. Nobody brings in more five-star recruits (four) and nobody is better at getting young players on the court than John Calipari.
Cal has a unique problem this year which shows just how much potential there is on his roster: Hamidou Diallo — who enrolled at UK part way through last season but redshirted due to injury — may declare for the NBA draft without playing a single college game. His freak athleticism has him a first-rounder in most mocks, but he has legitimate concerns he’ll be outshined by freshman Kevin Knox and see his draft stock fall by actually playing basketball.
Betting outlook: I wouldn’t want to bet against Kentucky, particularly as their strategy of bringing the most talented players in the country to serve their year before NBA eligibility is both intuitively sound and previously successful. Calipari is always finding new ways to bring in elite talent, and the new one-and-a-half-and-done model could be that next step for the Wildcats. Might be the best bet at this level.
The defending national champions are also going to have to rebuild for the 2018 tournament. Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks are both bound for the draft, and Tony Bradley and Theo Pinson have one foot out the door. Fortunately for UNC, point guard Joel Berry is coming back, and its well of talented underclassmen runs deep. Roy Williams should be able to put a great team together quickly. Look for star recruit Jalek Felton to take on a big role early, as well as some of the other previously underutilized talent on the UNC roster.
Betting outlook: Williams will mold another national title contender in Raleigh. Despite reaching two straight championship games, the Heels have slightly cheaper odds than the other blue bloods. If you’re not ready to pull the trigger, keep an eye on UNC as the season progresses. I have a hunch they could be for real. Rumor has it experienced guards are pretty handy come March.
The Big 12 champion is favored to defend its title … for the 13th straight year. Losing Frank Mason will hurt badly: the Big 12 and national player of the year scored over twenty points per game and filled a position of leadership within the team. Fortunately, nobody is better at bringing in talented transfers than Kansas head coach Bill Self (with the possible exception of Mark Few). Charlie Moore (California), Sam Cunliffe (Arizona State), and the Lawson brothers Dedrick and K.J. (Memphis) bolster the Jayhawk roster and put five-star freshman Billy Preston in the best possible position to succeed.
Betting outlook: Bringing in transfers is arguably a safer bet than relying on talented one-and-dones, so look for Kansas to thrive in 2018. Next to Kentucky, Kansas could be the best +650 team on the board.
If defense wins championships, explain why Louisville hasn’t won since 2013. Rick Pitino’s 2016-17 team fell to Michigan in a second-round upset, and now he loses leading scorer Donovan Mitchell. The team recruited well, bringing in five-star, near-as-makes-no-difference seven-footer Malik Williams and a pair of four-stars. If defense-first Louisville can find a way to score, they have the potential to go a lot further in the tournament than they did in 2017.
Betting outlook: If we’re just going by the Vegas numbers, Louisville should switch places with UNC in the “Favorites” section. But I just don’t see it that way. Their price might be a style-makes-fights thing, or a recency bias thing, but as good as Louisville is, there are better teams available at this price point.
Defending champion Villanova’s second-round loss to Wisconsin was an absolute bracket buster. It was also the end of an era for the Wildcats, who now watch Kris Jenkins, Darryl Reynolds, and last but not least Josh Hart all ride off into the sunset. Returning, helpfully, are Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, and Eric Paschall. Omari Spellman, who was recruited as a five-star but declared ineligible last year, should also return to the roster.
Betting outlook: Their odds are obviously affected by their early exit from this year’s madness, but you shouldn’t let the result of a single-elimination basketball tournament weigh too heavily on your mind. If anything, Villanova is a bargain, particularly compared to the bevy of teams listed at +650. Look for this line to get pricier as the season goes on and betters forget about last March.
I know what you’re thinking: last year’s runner up is listed at more than double the odds of its opponent, and they were only six points from winning the big one. Don’t be too eager, though: this isn’t the same Gonzaga team as last year, and they’ll have more difficulty getting up to speed than their rivals. Zach Collins and Nigel Williams-Goss are both going to the draft; Przemek Karnowski and Jordan Mathews are graduating; and, while Gonzaga’s national rivals load up on five-stars and have a hand-me-down system for draft suits, Gonzaga just isn’t at that level. Yet.
Betting outlook: Make no mistake, Gonzaga will be a national title contender again, and soon, but that doesn’t mean they’re a steal at this price.