Last weekend saw an unprecedented number of top-ten teams lose, many on their own floor, including the then-no.3 Kansas Jayhawks, who had their 54-game home winning streak snapped by an unassuming Iowa State squad.
In a year that was supposed to be dominated by freshman from Duke and Kentucky, the major takeaway from the first few months of action is that parity continues to grow. The gap between the supposed top-tier teams and the middle of the pack is not as big as it used to be. The theme of the power conferences this season is that anyone can win on any night in any stadium. That’s overstating it a bit, but Kentucky, Baylor, UCLA, and West Virginia have all lost at least once on their own court. The only truly consistent team is current no. 1 Gonzaga, a mid-major that’s never reached a Final Four.
The result is that no one’s March Madness odds are all that short. It seems like any team can lay an egg on any night and get got. There are also a bunch of teams that have looked like world-beaters at varying points, and any of them could heat up at the right time and make a Final Four run.
Based on what we’ve seen to-date, who’s most likely to do so? Kentucky remain the favorites in Vegas, and there’s reason to think the young, sputtering Wildcats (losers of three of their last four) will figure it out. John Calipari has arguably the best backcourt in the country with freshman De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. The current losing streak has coincided with Fox being at less than 100-percent, and this isn’t the first time a freshmen-led Kentucky team has struggled circa mid-season. Remember the 2014 tourney when Julius Randle and the Harrison twins entered as a no. 8 seed only to make a run to the Final Four? Sometimes we forget how young freshmen really are. It takes time to adjust to a new level and a new team. That said, UK doesn’t have the dominant big-man they have in past years. Bam Adebayo just isn’t that guy (so far). They aren’t worthy of that favorite status, in our view, as you’ll see below.
In reality, the most balanced team in the country is Gonzaga. They have an experienced, Wooden-nominated point guard (Nigel Williams-Goss), a dominant veteran big-man (Przemek Karnowski), athleticism at the three and the four (Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Williams), plus a potential future lottery pick (seven-foot freshman Zach Collins). Dominating the West Coast Conference isn’t enough to establish a team as a national championship favorite. But the Zags also scheduled aggressively in non-conference play and own wins over Arizona (albeit before Allonzo Trier returned), Florida, Iowa State, and Tennessee, along with a completely dominating conference win over then-no. 21 Saint Mary’s. Their mettle has been tested.
The Zags still aren’t our favorite though. That honor goes to the defending champs from Villanova. While the other Wildcats have a couple road losses on the year (at Butler and Marquette), they also have true road wins over Purdue and Creighton (before Mo Watson was injured), a neutral-site win over Notre Dame, and a huge comeback W over Virginia. Josh Hart is balling out and leads most Player of the Year rankings. Jalen Brunson continues to fill the basket. Mikal Bridges is starting to reach his potential. And Kris Jenkins is still the cold-blooded assassin who hit the title-winner last year.
To top it off, Nova has played basically the entire season without Phil Booth. If and when he comes back from injury, Nova will get even better. How far ahead of the pack are they in the 2017 March Madness odds? See below.
Respect the champs. They have the talent to hang with the freshman phenoms that riddle the other teams on this list, plus they have way more big-game experience.
The Bulldogs are barrelling towards a one-seed and are regularly beating their WCC opponents by 30 or 40 points. If they can stay healthy, their roster is built for the trials of March.
Ho-hum. Last year’s runners-up are leading the ACC and are undefeated at home. A shocking loss to Georgia Tech is looking less and less ugly as the Yellow Jackets make a run for a tourney berth. UNC is deep, experienced, and a legit title contender.
Frank Mason and Devonte Graham are the main challengers to Fox and Monk for title of “best backcourt.” The problems come in the frontcourt. Can Carlton Bragg be the solution in time?
If the youthful Wildcats piece it all together at the right time, it could be 2014 all over again.
They don’t have stars and they struggle to score. They do have a dominant defense and Rick Pitino on the bench. They’re fighting for first in the stacked ACC and own non-conference wins over Purdue, Indiana, and Kentucky.
They looked unstoppable once Trier came back, even beating UCLA at home. Then this happened.
What made the Ducks’ demolition of Arizona all the more surprising? The fact that Oregon lost to Colorado the week before, handing the Buffs just their third Pac-12 win.
No team with a defense this bad has ever won the title. Sorry Lonzo.
There’s tumult in Durham and Coach K doesn’t have a point guard. There’s still more skill on this roster than any in the nation. No one-seed will want to see Duke in its region.
Photo credit: Justinknabb (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/].
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