Three weeks from today is one of the best days of the sports year. The first Thursday of the tournament.
By then, we’ll know everything. Who got snubbed, who got under-seeded, over-seeded, properly seeded, improperly seeded. We’ll know that Duke got an easy path. We’ll know that Wichita State has to play the Golden State Warriors in their region, somehow.
We’ll know whether contenders are really going to be at full strength. We’ll know if Marvin Bagley is back for Duke, and whether Keenan Evans is going to be able to give Texas Tech anything productive.
Before we get to Championship Week, Selection Sunday, and that wild first Thursday of the Tournament, let’s examine some prices in the futures market that are interesting this week:
Kentucky +5000 (5D)
This may mark the first time in the history of the written word that Kentucky’s futures price is perceived to have value this late in the season. But here we are. Helping matters is the fact that the team has no perceived superstar, and has avoided the type of media scrutiny typically reserved for the Wildcats. The media has instead taken all of that scrutiny and apparently put it on Trae Young, or Duke, or Michigan State. Kentucky never really got everyone’s hopes up, so when they lost 4 in a row earlier this month, they didn’t really let anyone down either.
All of that narrative-type stuff really just means that because expectations never got that high, the price is still completely reasonable. Kentucky’s now in the Top 25 in KenPom, and they are in the top 15-20 in terms of futures odds. They really scary thing is: are they the answer to the question: “Which team will have the greatest improvement from now until the tournament?”
Hard to argue with Kentucky in that spot. The team plays all freshmen, has all year, will all year. Although this recruiting class wasn’t nearly the best coach John Calipari has ever had (not even close), it also can’t be outright dismissed. There’s a ton of talent here, and the talent is developing as the season goes on. We spend a lot of time looking at the 1 seeds this year – Villanova, Virginia, Kansas, Purdue among others – and wondering how we got here. These teams look really beatable, we think. No one is that dominant. The Wildcats are the flip-side of that coin. What will Kentucky look like in 3 weeks? Hard to imagine they dip noticeably considering where they’ve been and who they’ve got. It sounds like a buy point to me.
Also helping matters for the Wildcats is they host Missouri and Ole Miss in their next 2, which absolutely need to be wins. They play at Florida in the finale, and I have absolutely no idea what to make of the Gators now that they’ve stumbled their way through the last 6 weeks. 3 wins down the stretch means 22-9 (11-7), and a strong performance in the SEC Tournament can get Kentucky very high up on the seed line. Also, they are Kentucky, not Nevada or Rhode Island, so the likelihood of them getting a higher seed than they deserve is greater than for many teams in the field.
Alabama +25000 (5D)
Different SEC team, same intriguing 3-week outlook. Not a whole lot else to say, other than you are getting a team that has essentially secured their berth in the tournament, who has a lottery pick that can easily be the best player in the tournament, and you are getting 250/1.
Baylor +20000 (5D)
One of the weirdest teams of the season. I appeared on the BangTheBook podcast with Adam Burke a couple months ago, and performed a (way too early) examination of team’s KenPom metrics, and how those fit with past champions. The idea was more about generating conversation than really nailing down who could win the title in the season. At that point, Baylor was under .500, and no one was talking about them. No one. But the metrics still loved them, and that was interesting to me. I said as much.
Now, here we are. Baylor is in the tournament field as of this writing, and I’m not even really sure how that’s possible. Metrics are still good, but 7 of their 16 wins have come against teams with an RPI 150 or worse. They beat Kansas and Texas Tech this month, but they’ve also lost this year to just about everyone. Still, their recent success might be cause for optimism. Terry Maston emerged the last 2 games to be a surprising offensive focal point before being quieted against West Virginia. Maybe there’s more here than we thought.
This isn’t an endorsement so much as the raised-arms “welp” emoji. Much like with Kentucky and Alabama, we aren’t talking about sure things. Far from them. We are talking about high ceilings and potential, though. This time of year, that’s really where you have to look.