College Basketball Futures: Which Favorites Can Win March Madness?
Published on February 06, 2018
Now that the Super Bowl is behind us, the college basketball season is officially underway.
That’s how the joke jokes, anyway. In reality, more than 300 teams have been battling it out on the NCAA hardcourt since November in pursuit of the ultimate goal, cutting down the nets a couple of months from now in San Antonio as March Madness champions.
In case you’re playing catch-up with the 2018 NCAA basketball season, or even if you feel in need of a bit of a refresher, let’s look at the top favorites to win March Madness this season.
It’s the usual cast of basketball blue-bloods at the top of BetOnline’s NCAA championship futures. Saint Mary’s, Wichita State and Gonzaga are the only non-power conference squads paying +4000 or less to win it all as we move into February, and Villanova, Michigan State and Duke are once again among the top favorites.
Here’s a look at every team currently paying +4000 or less at BetOnline.
Anything’s possible in the one-and-done March Madness tournament. There are always a few huge upsets in the opening round and a few Cinderella stories that linger well into the second weekend.
But let’s be honest. The clock always strikes midnight on those Cinderella squads, and it’s usually one of a select few programs that claim the NCAA championship. North Carolina, Villanova, Duke, Connecticut, Louisville, Kentucky, Kansas and Florida have combined to win the last 14 titles, while Gonzaga (last year), Butler (2010 and 2011) and Memphis (2008) are the only mid-majors to even reach the championship game since Memphis State in 1973.
Knowing that, here are 5 teams that aren’t just the top favorites to win March Madness this year, they’re also capable of doing it.
An 8-point loss at Butler over the Christmas holidays is the only blemish on the resume of #1 Villanova, which carried a 22-1 record and nearly 20-point average margin of victory going into Tuesday’s home game against St. John’s.
The Wildcats defense won’t overwhelm anyone, ranked in the middle of the pack in points allowed per game and field goal percentage against. But even if the Villanova defense is simply average, the Wildcats’ lethal offense can take care of business against anyone. They’re averaging nearly 90 points a game and shooting better than 50% from the field (including 41.8% from 3), and they’ve been held under 80 points in a game just once since December 10.
The thing I like most about the Wildcats is how incredibly balanced they are in the backcourt, making them less vulnerable to injuries or foul trouble. Guards Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Phil Booth are all averaging more than 28 minutes and 11-plus points per game, and each had recorded 50 assists through 23 games.
They’ve also got championship experience, with Brunson, DiVincenzo, Booth, Bridges, Eric Paschall and Tim Delaney remaining from the 2016 national title-winning squad. Their reputation, combined with their likelihood of winning the Big East, should give them a high seed in March Madness and a relatively easy road to the final.
as often in March Madness as a tremendous offense does. Of the past 12 national champions, 8 of them have ranked higher in offensive efficiency than defensive efficiency. The 2008 Kansas Jayhawks and 2013 Louisville Cardinals were the only champions during that span who were a top-5 team in the nation in defensive efficiency, and their offenses ranked 2nd and 4th, respectively, in their championship seasons.
That may make you not think much of Virginia’s national title chances this season, even though the Cavaliers boast the best defense in the nation, smothering opponents to the tune of 52.3 points allowed per game through their first 23 contests. After all, a lack of scoring has been Virginia’s Achilles heel in recent years that the Cavs also boasted a tremendous defense. Last season, Virginia was held under 50 points in 5 of its last 10 games, including an embarrassing 65-39 loss to Florida in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
However, Virginia’s managed to improve at the offensive end this year while not sacrificing anything on defense. They’ve been held under 50 points just once all season, and that came in a 49-37 win over Wisconsin. At the methodical pace they play at, they’ll never wow you with points-per-game scoring averages, but they’re a credible 45th in offensive efficiency through 23 games. Needing 60 points to win a basketball game is a low floor to reach, and this year’s Cavaliers look better equipped to do it with regularity than ever.
I don’t want to trivialize the recent uncovering of all the despicable acts committed by former Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar over the years. But at the same time, if we’re handicapping the chances of the Spartans cutting down the nets this season, we can’t ignore the potential impact that the intense national media spotlight being on the MSU athletic department may have.
Normally unflappable coach Tom Izzo already hasn’t handled it well, in my opinion, of any potential wrongdoing on his part. Until Izzo does make a public statement clearly detailing what he knew and what he didn’t know during Nassar’s time in Lansing, this is a cloud that will hang over his team.
That might be the biggest challenge for a Spartans team that is otherwise loaded with potential. Michigan State has been ruthlessly efficient on both ends of the floor this season, ranked first in the nation in field goal percentage allowed and second in field goal percentage for. What’s even scarier is that the Spartans don’t usually round into form until tournament season, advancing to the Elite Eight or further 5 times since 2003 when seeded fifth or lower. This year’s group is well ahead of its normal schedule, and there’s really no telling how high their ceiling actually is.
in the national coaches poll Monday after a shocking 81-77 loss at St. John’s Saturday when Duke was a 10.5-point road favorite.
But while public stock in the Devils may be dropping, it hasn’t affected their status among oddsmakers. BetOnline and other betting sites still rank Duke among the top favorites to win the 2018 national title, and you only need to look at the season-long numbers to understand why.
Especially the offensive numbers, because that’s where Duke might be the best in the country. The Blue Devils lead the nation in scoring average per game (89.6), and Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter . Despite missing less than half their shots, the Blue Devils are the best offensive-rebounding team in the nation. And if opponents focus their defense on shutting down Bagley and Carter, all it does is open the floor for Duke’s always-lethal perimeter game, led by Grayson Allen, Gary Trent Jr. and Alex O’Connell.
That loss to St. John’s can be excused because the Blue Devils may have simply been looking ahead to a meeting with their fiercest rivals, North Carolina, a few days later. Embarrassing losses are often a pretty effective wake-up call, and playing a tough ACC schedule gives the Devils no choice but to get better quickly. Love them or hate them, expect Duke to get right back on track and be a serious player in the tournament once again.
Of the top favorites to win March Madness in 2018, . The Boilermakers haven’t lost this year on American soil (their 2 losses came at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas), carrying a 19-game win streak and perfect 12-0 record in Big Ten play into Tuesday’s home game versus Ohio State.
Purdue’s not perfect. The Boilermakers may rely a bit too heavily on the three-point shot (third in the country at 42.8%) and they’re well outside of the top 100 in both offensive and defensive rebounding. Oddsmakers also have caught up with them, as Purdue has won but failed to cover in 4 straight games and 6 of its last 9.
5 of Purdue’s 12 conference wins have come by 5 points or less, including a 1-point victory at Michigan in early January. But the fact that the Boilermakers are winning so many close games is actually a pretty good sign in my opinion. So many games in March Madness come down to the wire, and having the confidence from winning a lot of tight games during the season can be a difference-maker when other teams might tighten under the pressure of a one-and-done tournament.
So much can still happen in the 2018 college basketball season. Virginia looked really good at this time last year before stumbling down the stretch and going out early in the tournament, and how many times have we seen teams come out of nowhere in the final month (Louisville and Connecticut come to mind) to suddenly storm into contention?
But if I need to call it now, I’d make Virginia my bet to win the NCAA championship in 2018. I’d prefer to get a bit better than the +550 odds currently being offered, but that’s the price for backing a team with such an excellent defense and one that has shown great improvement in the area it needed improvement the most – scoring the ball.
The Cavaliers’ past failures in the NCAA tournament are a concern, but I also think they’re a rallying point for head coach Tony Bennett and his squad. If the Cavs get through the opening weekend of the tournament unscathed (they obviously should, but there may be some nervous moments) and can gain some confidence, there won’t be a hungrier team to cut down the nets in 2018.