One of the most predictable opening weekends in NCAA Tournament history is in the books and now the Sweet 16 is set. All #1, #2, and #3 seeds are still alive, comprising two-thirds of the remaining field. Add in two #4 seeds, a #5, and the Pac-12 Tournament champ Oregon (a #12), and the Cinderellas are long gone.
When we analyzed the field of 68 last week, it seemed rather chalky but there was value present. All of the teams we discussed then are still playing, and most of the odds have remained about the same or, in some cases, actually got longer.
Let’s look at the complete futures odds headed into the Sweet 16. The raw numbers are below, and our analysis follows.
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The Favorite: Duke
Usually, when odds shift, it is pretty easy to understand why. Last week, Duke was the deserving tournament favorite at 9/4 (+225). They are still the chalk now, but the price has risen to 7/2 (+350). Why?
Sure, the Blue Devils were taken to the wire by UCF, but they survived. Apparently sportsbooks think a major flaw was uncovered? The bottom line is you still have a Hall of Fame coach in Mike Krzyzewski, a transcendent star in Zion Williams, and two other lottery picks in RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish.
Of course Duke can lose, but the value is shockingly pointing up. And don’t forget that UCF’s roster — with arguably the best rim-protector in basketball in the form of 7’6 Tacko Fall — was uniquely suited to shutting down Duke’s dominant post game.
Strong Contenders: Virginia & Gonzaga
After losing in the first round as a #1 seed last year, Virginia needed 15 or so minutes this year to shake off Gardner-Webb and then rolled. The Cavaliers suffocated a normally strong offensive Oklahoma team in round two. Tony Bennett has not reached a Final Four, but this is his best team and they appear over last year’s disaster.
We have heard the argument about Gonzaga over and over again. The WCC is not a Power 6 conference and therefore they are untested. Garbage.
In non-conference play, the Zags beat Duke, Washington, Illinois, and Arizona. They lost a one-possession neutral-site game against Tennessee and fell at North Carolina. Their two NCAA Tournament games, convincing wins against Fairleigh Dickinson and Baylor, gave you nothing but confidence. They are a deserving third-overall choice in the betting.
Longshots: SEC & Big 10
Three #1 seeds came out of the ACC this year. If you think Duke, UVA, and North Carolina are a pinch overrated, perhaps one of three SEC or trifecta of Big Ten teams is more to your liking.
While it is a little hard to bet on LSU, both Kentucky and Tennessee are very viable.
The Tigers are playing without suspended head coach Will Wade; they won a lot of 50/50 games this year (five OT victories); and they barely escaped both Yale and Maryland in the NCAA’s first weekend.
Meanwhile, Kentucky bounced back from their loss to Tennessee in the SEC semifinals with a blowout win over Abilene Christian, then turned back a talented Wofford squad who the analytics community loved in round two. As for the Vols, they weren’t dominant but did the job against Colgate and Iowa.
In the Big Ten, Michigan State beat Michigan three times this season. Purdue tied with MSU for first place during the league’s regular season. While the Boilermakers were upset in the conference tournament, they were ultra impressive burying Old Dominion and Villanova in the Big Dance. Michigan had no trouble with Montana or Florida. The Spartans took care of Bradley and Minnesota. All three are contenders at double-digit odds worth serious consideration.
Photo: Rob Kinnan/USA TODAY Sports