Last Updated: 2017-11-07
College basketball season officially starts Friday. I say “officially,” but really, more than any other sport, college hoops has what I like to call a “soft open.” Unlike college football, where week 1 you can do serious damage to your playoff hopes, or end them entirely, in college basketball the season slow gathers momentum towards March, which is when all of the meaningful parts of the season occur. The non-conference schedule, which begins now and goes through the holidays, acts as an opportunity for teams to figure out what works, what their rotations should be, and what they need to fix entering conference play. The games do matter, yes, because if Duke goes 0-13 in non-conference play, they are most likely not going to receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament. But aside from very polarized records one way or another, major-conference teams have a lot of wiggle room (small conference teams, in any sport, never have it).
Because the season takes a while to get rolling in terms of public awareness, team performance, “sharpness” of play, and notable storylines, the futures market can be slow to react too. Example: North Carolina last season opened around 20/1, and was hovering around the 20/1 even after a fast start, and during their Maui Invitational run, when they destroyed everyone in their path. After the title game of that tournament (won by the Heels), the futures re-opened the next day with UNC about 12/1, they were never any higher, and the Tar Heels ended up winning the title. Even with the most public team out there, the books took a little while to catch on. That means you can use your eyes, and use metrics, to help you figure things out while the season is going on. In College Football, if you bet Bryce Love 175/1 to win the Heisman, you can’t wait to watch him play a game. The value’s gone the moment he starts thrashing Rice. This sport isn’t like that.
There also isn’t a lot to bet on in the futures world of College Basketball. There are no win totals. There are no conference futures. The Wooden Award, basketball’s version of the Heisman, does not receive nearly the fanfare, and so there is no market. There is only one bet (with regard to futures): a team to win the title. And the fact remains that no matter how good you may feel about a team now, the overall accomplishments they build for the next 5 months don’t necessarily correlate to doing well in March, in a single-elimination tournament. For that reason, there aren’t many teams I would ever bet on now.
My 2 biggest examples of that, would be my 2 favorite teams this year: Arizona, and Michigan State. They are both incredibly deep, versatile, and talented. They both have superstar players (Miles Bridges, and Allonzo Trier/DeAndre Ayton). Michigan State may go 10-deep this year without a drop-off in ability. With regard to futures, aside from maybe picking off a rogue number compared to the rest of the market (example: Arizona at 11/1 at Heritage right now, compared to lower prices everywhere else), there isn’t a need to bet these teams. The market thinks these are 2 of the 3 best teams in the country (along with Duke), the market is right, and that’s that. If you tie up your money with Arizona at something like 8/1 and Michigan State at something like 7/1, you are essentially saying that you think those odds will go down, so there is a need to act now. History tells us that’s just not true. The only teams that enter the tournament with odds under about the 5/1 threshold are historically good Kentucky teams in the past decade. That’s about it. With so many shops offering slightly different odds, and at least a handful of competitive big-name teams sure to be near the top of the rankings, Arizona’s going to be 8/1 now, and Arizona’s going to be about 8/1 later. Meanwhile, look how much can happen along the way. It isn’t worth it, to maybe get a tiny, tiny bit of number value in 4 months. Just monitor Arizona’s progress throughout the season, and decide based on their draw later whether you think betting the Wildcats is worth it.
With that philosophy in mind, it raises the question, “what futures SHOULD I be betting right now?” Like with any futures market, the goal is to get a price now that you don’t think will be available later, giving you the option to set up a hedge with varying degrees of complexity if you wish, or to simply win your bet with the most possible value taken. In NCAA Basketball, the only teams you should be trying to identify at this point are, in my opinion, teams that can be 1 or 2 seeds but whose prices don’t reflect that right now. If a team has a successful enough campaign to earn one of those seeds, their odds will have steadily fallen from this point onward, and settle somewhere in the 7/1-20/1 zone. The only exception would be a team whose odds are so high right now (at least 200/1) that by entering the Top-25, and getting a relatively high seed in the tournament, their odds can settle on a lower tier.
With that in mind: here is an analysis of some of the prices available in the market:
Duke (+615 at 5D), Kentucky (+1000), Kansas (+1500), North Carolina (+1800): The blue bloods, so to speak. I want no piece of any of them at these prices. Duke and Kentucky are fascinating from a talent standpoint, featuring teams made up almost entirely of highly-touted freshmen (and in Duke’s case, freshmen + Grayson Allen), but it is incredibly unlikely their prices can fall much further unless these other teams suffer a rash of losses and injuries. They are complete unknowns right now, being rated as if they are known quantities. You’re looking for the opposite. North Carolina quite simply lost way too much to be rated in this area, even with Joel Berry coming back. My guess is you will see a very polarizing Carolina team this season, with weeks where they look like a Top-10 team, and weeks where Roy Williams is perpetually throwing his jacket. Kansas is the only moderately intriguing price of the group, because they are absolutely the favorite to win their conference again, and a 1-seed, “standard” dominant Kansas team would enter the tournament with lower odds for sure. But I really can’t get past the fact that this team will go as far as Devonte Graham takes them, and this is a guy who was the third option on last year’s team and had his worst game in their most important game of the season.
Wichita State +3000: Now we’re talking. My love of this price knows no bounds. I believe it is more likely than not that they will be a 1 or 2 seed, despite the fact that the American gets jobbed on seeds almost as much as even smaller conferences. This team basically played Kentucky to a draw in the tournament last year, brings back EVERY starter and significant player, with more experience, and Landry Shamet is supposed to start playing in exhibition games this week (which means maybe his foot is going to be just fine.) Oh, and they still have one of the best coaches in the country. I have a really hard time picturing this price going up, unless Shamet aggravates his injury. If anything, it just hovers in this zone for a while, and this is a team I’m going to be buying in March anyway, so that’s not even that bad. This is one of the few teams that I think can be truly great this year.
USC +6000, St Mary’s +8000: These are high-seed price grabs. I don’t realistically think these teams can win, but I think they can both have phenomenal regular seasons and get a very high NCAA Tournament seed. Let’s go in reverse order. St Mary’s returns much of the core of last year’s team, including Jock Landale, their best player. The Australia pipeline Randy Bennett has set up will be on full display this year, as I’ve never seen the word “Tasmania” written so many times on a roster. Gonzaga will be worse this year, and people tend to forget the success the Gaels had last season because of the Zags success – St Mary’s went 28-4 last year, and lost to Gonzaga 3 times. A season with that type of win percentage is absolutely possible again, only this time the games with Gonzaga won’t be so one-sided. For USC, if Andy Enfield is really a great coach, there’s no reason this team can’t be a 2 or 3 seed. They bring back all 5 starters from a team that made the NCAA Tournament a year ago, and add in Duke transfer Derryck Thornton, who is sort of an unknown quantity but has tons of talent, AND they add McDonald’s All-American Chuck O’Bannon, Jr. (Ed O’Bannon’s nephew). They are loaded, and only Arizona should have lower odds to win the conference.
Minnesota +9000, Xavier +10000, Seton Hall +12500, Cincinnati +13500: I’ll call these successful-season price grabs. I think there’s an outside shot these teams can crack the 2/3 seed line, but more realistically, I think they can fall in that 4/5 seed territory, and depending on the draws they get, these prices could all very reasonably come down. The tie that binds these teams together is returning groups of successful players with even more experience. Highly-touted freshmen generally get over-priced in the market – Missouri at +2000 with Michael porter being an example. To find value means sometimes identifying teams that bring everyone back while other programs are losing players to graduation and the draft. Minnesota brings back all 5 starters from a team that was a 5-seed a year ago (granted, that was a terrible decision by the committee), Xavier brings back most of their core including Trevon Blueitt, and Seton Hall brings back 4 members of their greatest recruiting class in history, all seniors (with NBA player Isaiah Whitehead being the only one who didn’t stay this long to join up with the rest). Cincinnati has developed into a program under Mick Cronin that doesn’t just play rock-fight 40-38 games anymore, and their ability to score as well as defend with a lot of returning players makes them intriguing at this price also.
The best part about all of this? There’s no real pressure to get the bets in quickly. You can use your eyes, you can read, you can consume information and analysis and statistics to make an informed decision. Who has the potential to be truly great in March? On Friday, we start finding out.