Editor’s note: We don’t often dip into gambling advice here at Palestra Back. It’s not really our thing. But this week, given the uncertain state of the college basketball landscape, we thought it was an appropriate time to peak at some smart bets on the board. But first, let’s explain why we’re looking at Final Four futures and not something else more granular.
Daily fantasy for college basketball is the Wild West during most years, even without a pandemic upending the sport. With uneven schedules and games played at radically different tempos, finding value is never easy. Betting with the spread or picking moneylines is as tricky in college basketball as it is in any sport. Upsets and bad beats lurk at every turn.
This year, with games being shuffled and cancelled at the drop of a hat, both of those are even more risky than in a typical year. For now, the best bets in college basketball gambling are in the futures market.
Nothing is certain in sports (or life) right now, but the only thing we can somewhat confidently expect from this season of college basketball is a Final Four and a champion. The NCAA has been steadfast that a tournament will occur, though they have been less exact on how many teams will qualify or how they will be selected. No matter how many teams, where the games occur, or how long it takes, there will be two semifinal games billed as the Final Four. From that, a champion will emerge.
Betting on a national champion this year doesn’t have a ton of value. Unless you love the price on Gonzaga (+350) or Baylor (+800) right now, no one else has stuck out as a contender. The Big Ten has four teams that will fight all year long, with their odds shifting in moving throughout the season. If Michigan State or Illinois’ price dips at any point, there could be value there. Stalwarts like Duke, Kentucky, and Kansas have been uneven and none appear worthy of a bet right now.
Elsewhere on the board though, there are teams that have shown enough to make a Final Four run, at the right price. Sitting in mid-December, these five teams jump off the board as teams with a chance for a run in March (all odds courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook).
5. Texas Tech (+700)
Two things show up each and every March: defense and coaching. Texas Tech has both.
The Red Raiders have the top ranked defense in college basketball so far this season, leading KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric. Of the last twenty teams to make the Final Four (2015-2019), only one ranked outside the top 85 in that metric when the NCAA Tournament began (2018 Kansas). Seven of those twenty teams were top 11 in defensive efficiency, including three teams who were the nation’s top defense. Getting stops translates to wins in March. Texas Tech knows that – the Red Raiders were the top D in 2019 when they made a run to the Final Four.
Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard is built for March. His last four teams featured a top ten defense in the nation. In his short time as a head coach (this is his sixth season running a program), Beard has aready had tons of March success. His only season at Little Rock, he led the Trojans to an upset win in the first round. At Texas Tech he already has two Elite Eight appearances, including the 2019 run to the national final.
Anyone can bet on Coach K or Tom Izzo. The value is in finding the next star of the sport. Early returns suggest it might be Chris Beard.
4. Tennessee (+550)
The shortest odds of any of the teams listed here come alongside a Volunteer team that has looked stronger than expected to date this season. Although Tennessee has only played three games to date, the Vols have been impressive in home wins over Colorado and Cincinnati. Rick Barnes returns four starters from last season, slotting in highly touted recruit Keon Johnson to complete the starting lineup. The resulting rotation is one of college basketball’s best defensive teams. The Vols held both Colorado and Cincinnati to under 0.8 points per possession, well below the national average of 1.0. Tennessee’s defense against Appalachian State was even more stingy, allowing 38 points on just 0.64 points per possession.
With a bevy of upperclassmen who know their role and how to succeed in college basketball, Tennessee figures to be in the mix for the SEC crown. That’s especially true given the struggles occurring at Kentucky and the concerning situation at Florida. John Calipari’s Wildcats are just 1-4 and appear to be well behind the learning curve for a typical young Kentucky team. Meanwhile, Florida’s best player, sophomore Keyontae Johnson, was rushed to the hospital and is in stable condition after collapsing on the court last weekend. His long-term health has to be the Gators’ priority at the moment.
This leaves Tennessee as the current favorite to win the SEC (a decent bet itself, at +190), with the Vols chances only seeming to increase in the coming weeks. Rick Barnes should have Tennessee ranked in the top ten and fighting for a high seed. Securing a Final Four future on a team this talented now before the price rises would be prudent.
3. Western Kentucky (+3650)
In a year of uncertainty, there could be a massive opportunity for a Cinderella to emerge. While there are other mid-major teams impressing early on, they don’t have the value found in a Western Kentucky bet. Richmond, San Diego State, and Saint Louis have received national attention and are currently all pricier than +1600 to reach the Final Four. While all three are good college basketball teams, none is impressive enough to fetch those kinds of odds.
Further down the board, Western Kentucky stands out. This team is far more talented than you’d expect from a Conference USA club. Senior guard Taveion Hollingsworth has over 1,600 collegiate points, averaging double-figuring scoring all four years of his career. Guard Josh Anderson was a top 100 recruit, eclipsed only by his teammate Charles Bassey, one of the more surprising commitments in recent college basketball history.
Five-star, top ten ranked recruits almost never choose a school like Western Kentucky. Bassey did, and was dominant as a freshman in 2018-19. After playing only 10 games before fracturing his leg as a sophomore, Bassey is back at WKU as a junior, the lone player in the top 10 of the 2018 recruiting class still playing college basketball. His talent level at his age makes him a force in the paint. Bassey is currently posting 16.4 points and 11.3 rebounds per game, while also being one of college basketball’s best shot blockers. Bassey has 28 blocks in seven games for the Hilltoppers, with the third highest block rate in the nation.
If you’re projecting toward a run in March, Hollingsworth winning on the perimeter and Bassey controlling the game at the rim feels like a recipe for success, even against power conference foes. The Hilltoppers lost close games to West Virginia and Louisville this season, but can boast wins over top 100 teams like Northern Iowa, Memphis, and Rhode Island.
Lock in this bet before Western Kentucky plays Alabama on Saturday. A win in Tuscaloosa would put the Hilltoppers officially on the national radar.
2. Syracuse (+2400)
Thus far, we’ve talked about betting on defense and coaching, as well as trying to predict what might happen amidst a high level of uncertainty.
All of that points towards Syracuse.
Jim Boeheim and his patented zone defense are built for times of chaos. Every March teams dread seeing Syracuse in their region of the NCAA Tournament, fearful they’ll need to prepare for a well taught and sharply executed zone defense with little time to scout or practice. This year, that may be worsened by the ever-evolving possibilities of the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA has already announced that the entire tournament will occur in Indianapolis but has not shed light on the tournament’s timeline. Typically, teams have four or five days to prepare for a first round opponent before turning around with just one day until their next opponent. This is then repeated in the second weekend of tournament play.
Syracuse feasts on teams unprepared to face the nuances of Boeheim’s zone. Any team that doesn’t have the scheme or players to attack the mid-post settles for shooting long range 3-point attempts over the zone. A cold shooting night can fuel a Syracuse win.
On the other end of the court, the Orange have been incredibly efficient offensively. Syracuse has assisted on over 64 percent of its field goals this season, good for 13th highest assist rate in the nation. Boeheim has a crop of shooters that can let it fly from anywhere, with three players making more than two long balls per game.
Tricky defense and hot shooting leads to high variance outcomes, which makes Syracuse’s ceiling high enough to make a Final Four run.
1. Xavier (+3400)
When CBS Sports’ Seth Davis began talking up Xavier as a Final Four team, I was highly skeptical.
The Musketeers first four games were wins, but nothing eye-catching. Xavier blew out a bad Oakland team before winning one possession games over Bradley, Toledo, and Eastern Kentucky. Not exactly wins to write home about.
Since then, the Musketeers beat hated rival Cincinnati and destroyed a solid Oklahoma team. There’s still plenty of questions to be answered as Xavier wades into Big East play, and their first games played outside the city of Cincinnati, yet there’s too much to love about an undefeated team in mid-December at a 34-to-1 payout.
Strong play was expected from preseason second team All-Big East guard Paul Scruggs, who returns as a senior after scoring 12.7 points per game last year. Xavier’s ceiling has been changed, however, by the emergence of sophomore big man Zach Freemantle. As a freshman, Freemantle was a role player, starting less than half of Xavier’s games and scoring 7.5 points per game. This season, he’s been a revelation, averaging 18.7 points per game on 63 percent shooting from the field. Freemantle already has 11 made threes this year after making just 12 all of last season.
The development of another All-Big East level performer elevates Xavier from the middle of the pack in the conference to a potential contender for the league crown. If that’s the case, there’s no reason the Musketeers can’t carry that momentum into March and spark a Final Four run.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.