We’re Back! After a long off-season, college hoops returns to the hardwood tonight with another awesome season ready to tip-off. For most of you, the foremost players are expected and familiar; Duke and Kentucky usher in the top two recruiting classes in the nation and are the clear-cut consensus preseason #1 and #2 teams – and in that definite order.
The other names lurking in the Top Ten are familiar ones as well; Kansas, Villanova, North Carolina and Arizona are pretty perennial. Oregon, Xavier and Virginia are becoming customary (perhaps less so with Oregon, who is the most obvious worthy inclusion in 2016-2017) and familiar names like Indiana, Louisville, Gonzaga, Purdue, Wisconsin, Michigan State, UConn, Syracuse dot the landscape. In fact, the only teams outside the usual hierarchy ranked in the preseason are Rhode Island and St. Mary’s – and neither the WCC or the A-10 can be considered too off the grid. In fact, the highest ranked true “mid-major” would be Monmouth or Princeton –each at the very bottom of the “also receiving votes” list. (No Valpo?? Mistake. Trust me.)
So we know that Duke and Kentucky are the clear-cut elite, with cases to be made for returning champ Villanova and Kansas nipping at #2’s heels. But something to keep in mind – the preseason #1 team hasn’t won the National Championship in eight years; not since UNC back in 2008. In fact, in the last six years – the true explosion of the one-and-done era, three teams from outside the preseason Top Ten have ended up cutting down the nets (Villanova ’16 (#11), UConn ’14 (#18) and UConn ’11 (UR)). Two #2’s won it all; Louisville and Kentucky in ’13 and ’12, and Duke was #4 when Jones, Okafor and Winslow cut ‘em down in 2015.
The point? Even when it is OVERWHELMING who the best team is entering the season (Duke is as overwhelming as anyone since perhaps UNC in 2012), that team doesn’t always – in fact usually DOESN’T win it all.
That means, there is VALUE lurking all over the board if we are willing to look for it.
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Here are my FIVE FAVORITE FUTURE VALUES:
#1 – Xavier Musketeers (40-1) – They have some of the key ingredients necessary to be a good March value; tourney experience, an NBA-level emerging star at point guard in Edmond Sumner, a veteran All-Conference scoring wing in Trevon Blueitt, a nice veteran supporting cast, especially if Myles Davis can get his personal issues sorted out and rejoin the team. There are some question marks inside with the loss of Jalen Reynolds, but if transfer RaShid Jennings can fill the void, this is a solid contender to win the Big East. If they can edge past Villanova, who will miss Ryan Arcidiacano and Daniel Ochefu, especially early, they could steal a #1 seed – that makes 40:1 an insane value.
#2 – Indiana Hoosiers (33-1) – I’m generally gun-shy on high-profile teams with returning talent, but who have lost their do-everything veteran leader point guards. It’s why I am wait-and-see on Villanova and North Carolina while others are more bullish. However, long-term, I think this Indiana team could be better than last season’s edition. The main reason? The team will run through All-American center Thomas Bryant and OG Anonuby, who will wind up being an improvement over Troy Williams who departed early for the NBA. Add in the firepower of returning James Blackmon, Jr and the Hoosiers could very well be special by March.
#3 – UCLA Bruins (50-1) – There is something a little dangerous about being bullish on a team that went 15-17 last season, but the influx of freshman talent is the best crop Steve Alford has brought to Westwood and Lonzo Ball and company could be a real formidable foe by March. Bryce Alford and his late-game moxie are back, but fortunately, he ISN’T their best player this season. If he can accept that and cede some of the offensive burden to the youth (Alford shot 35% last season), UCLA become a dangerous contender in the Pac 12. Add in some injury concerns and the eligibility issues of Alonzo Trier at Arizona, and UCLA looks like they have a good shot at no worse than second in the Pac-12, making 50-1 pretty enticing.
#4 – NC State (60-1) – This one is edging into “longshot” territory, but there is some value here. NC State is the most undervalued team in the country right now from a polls standpoint. They enter unranked. And yes, only one unranked team has won a national title in the last 15 years, UConn, and no, NC State probably isn’t winning a national title. When I get into the 50 to 1-plus range, I’m looking for sneaky Sweet 16 teams people aren’t talking about to possibly secure some interesting hedge value for March. NC State is bringing in one of the best freshman in the country; he doesn’t have the hype of Markelle Fultz or Josh Johnson, Dennis Smith might be the most impactful freshman by the season’s end. More than a few ACC pundits have remarked this team is Sweet Sixteen or even Elite 8 good… that makes 60-1 a fun little flyer.
#5 – St. Mary’s Gaels (200-1) – OK, 200-1 is big time longshot territory, but with Gonzaga floating around 50-1 and more than a few experts screaming that St. Mary’s, not Gonzaga, is the team to beat in the WCC. Call it the Australian Junior Olympic team if you want, but the seven Aussies, led by big time point guard Emmett Naar, is a really good basketball team. No other Top 20 team is getting odds anywhere CLOSE to this fat. The three teams ranked immediately ahead of them, Purdue, UCLA, and Gonzaga are all 50-1. The four teams after them are just as lean, with the high-water mark being West Virginia at 66-1. Is St. Mary’s winning the title? No. Could they be a top four seed and sneak into the Final Four? Possibly. At that point a 200-1 hedge position would be pretty outrageous.
Florida State is picked anywhere between seventh and tenth in the LOADED ACC, but could have three of the Top 100 players in the country with Jonathon Isaac joining Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes. Florida State is going to be competitive at worse, REALLY good at best. The ACC is loaded and no fewer than 13 teams enter the season with Tourney dreams and a realistic chance TEN of them will receive bids if they can handle the non-con business. Also in the ACC, Notre Dame loses a ton, but has made consecutive Elite Eight’s despite being ranked outside the Top 20 the last two preseasons.
Also, Valpo should be the best mid-major in the country (not counting MWC or A-10 or WCC teams at “mid-majors”) led by All American candidate Alec Peters. Bryce Drew is off to Vanderbilt, but the Crusaders should flirt with 30 wins this season. If they can steal a game at Oregon in December, WATCH OUT.
Teams that Look WAY Diffferent:
North Carolina is ranked as high as fourth in preseason polls. But don’t underestimate the losses of veteran point guard Marcus Paige and the inside efficiency of Brice Johnson. Add in the hype-competitive ACC (we didn’t even TALK about Virginia, Louisville, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Pitt, etc.) and I could see this team losing eight to ten games this season. Gonzaga also has to reload on the fly; and I think they will thanks to some big time transfers, but losing Wiltjer and Sabonis is a BIG change to the core of this team.
Teams I want to really watch the lines on early include: Wisconsin, Xavier, Purdue, Oregon, Cincinnati, and Rhode Island. These teams return a ton of their key personel, which could provide a November edge.
Overall Look Around the Nation:
The ACC is the class of the nation, but the Big Ten is close. They have four Final Four contenders (Indiana, Wisky, Purdue and Michigan State) and a fringe contender if Melo Tremble can regain his 2014 form for Maryland. Ohio State, Michigan, Illinois, Penn State and Northwestern will be capable teams as well. Top heaviness can be GOOD for a league seeking seven or eight bids if they can beat up on Rutgers and Minnesota and stack up some wins.
The SEC is a better’s nightmare. Kentucky is great. Everyone else is… is…?? Who knows. Florida and A&M are the likiest to break out but just about all thirteen non-Kentucky teams are pretty close (and average). Likewise, the Big Twelve is a grabbag, albeit a FAR more talented one, but outside Kansas, the battle for #2 is crowded.
In the last ten years, only two preseason #1 teams have won it all. In the last six years, four unranked teams ended up in the Final Four. Nine Elite Eight teams have come emerged from preseason unranked, and in only ONE year did more than TWO Final Four participants start the year in the Top Ten. There is a ton of volatility in the college basketball season, so keep your eyes open for value teams and be cautious buying in the “automatic win” narrative.
We will be here all season with picks and insight and are looking forward to yet another great year of hoops!