Futures Bets to Consider as March Begins

The oddity of this college basketball season was made clear to me by a couple games last week: Marquette vs. North Carolina and Western Kentucky vs. Houston. Both were non-conference games not only played in the final week of February as regular-season conference titles begin to get decided but added to the schedule within a week of being played.

In the era before 12+ team conferences, it wasn't unheard of for non-conference games to be played so late in the season, but for them to be scheduled just a few days in advance of tip-off is something oddly fitting for this season.

But between all of the postponements, reschedulings, and three-week layoffs for teams in the middle of conference play, there's been an old-school feel to the regular season in that there's a top tier of teams considered elite (Gonzaga, Baylor, and Michigan) and a collection of about 10-15 teams below them who appear to have very real Final Four aspirations.

To me, the most compelling question — and one that could attract many casual fans to the NCAA tournament even as sports TV ratings crater during the pandemic — is the possibility of Gonzaga going undefeated.

But there's a whole lot of basketball to be played between now and the sport's first undefeated champion in 45 years. And that also means there's many, many bets to be made in the next five weeks. In particular, let's look at some compelling futures bets as conference tournaments and the NCAA Tournament beckon.

(All odds courtesy Bovada as of the morning of Feb. 27. Your book may — and probably will — vary a bit.)

Illinois (+1600), Villanova (+1800), or Alabama (+2000) to win NCAA tournament

Let me be clear that I think Gonzaga should be considered the favorite to win the championship, with Michigan and Baylor just behind. I think Illinois, Villanova, and Alabama are, at the moment, the most likely non-Gonzaga, Baylor, or Michigan champions. But these are more of a bet against the lofty odds of the top three teams.

As of Saturday, Gonzaga and Baylor were each +250 and Michigan was +350. Converting those to implied probabilities, that means one of those three teams is a 79.4% shot to win the tournament. In a single elimination tournament that's going to be played unlike any other before it, "the field" being only about 20% chance is worth taking a chance on a team that's going to pay out more than 10/1.

Other teams I'm keeping an eye on for an "outsider" championship include Florida State, Ohio State, Creighton, and Arkansas.

Wichita State to win AAC tournament (+700)

Houston is a massive favorite (-325) to win its conference tournament, and deservedly so. But it's not as if the Cougars have been a sort of "Gulf Coast Gonzaga" where they've been completely teeing off on an overmatched league. Houston has lost three conference games, including two to sub-100 KenPom teams in Tulsa and East Carolina.

That other loss was to the Shockers, who currently project as a bubble team and might need to win the conference tournament to solidify a bid. Wichita is a bit of an odd team that doesn't shoot well but still has a solid offense thanks to low turnovers and lots of free throws, and the advanced metrics don't love them. Yet, the Shockers have only lost four times, all to above average or better teams.

After the rather unique circumstances Wichita State began its season under, an automatic tourney bid would be a fantastic story.

Colorado to win Pac-12 tournament (+225)

USC and possible No. 1 draft pick Evan Mobley had been tracking as the best team in the Pac-12 and a possible No. 2 or 3 seed on Selection Sunday, but the Trojans have dropped some games in the last 10 days and a game at UCLA this week will likely decide the regular season title.

But Colorado and senior point guard McKinley Wright may be just as good as the L.A. teams — and after Thursday, the Buffs own a season sweep over the Trojans.

LSU to win SEC tournament (+1200)

Even with Kentucky's struggles this season, the SEC has been an interesting league with lots of different styles of basketball and a group of top six teams that currently project as top eight seeds for the NCAA tournament. Alabama has been the best team, but Arkansas isn't far behind and any of the top six (also including Tennessee, Florida, Missouri, and LSU) can beat anyone else.

So, I'm going with the longest shot of those six at 12/1 odds here. LSU has the best offense in the conference, and one of the top offenses in the country. Freshman guard Cam Thomas is the star and a future NBA player, but the Tigers also have two 40%+ three-point shooters in Javonte Smart and Darius Days.

About this time last year, I wrote a pre-tournament column that felt dated just three days later with the cancellation of the tournament. This year, despite the hiccups, we know we're getting a full array of conference tournaments and an NCAA tournament. These futures could provide some nice value bets as the regular season moves into the postseason.

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