The NCAA Tournament begins in less than a month. There is no super team this year, and that means the odds are legit for any team you want to take a shot with. Duke started the season under 5/1, and while they seem to have ironed out a lot of the issues that plagued them for over two months, you can still buy in now at 9/1. The only unbeaten team in the NCAA, Gonzaga, is a welcoming 8/1, in large part because they have never reached a Final Four, and don’t play the cream of the crop in the West Coast Conference.
Neither the Zags nor the Blue Devils are my favorite play right now, though. Here’s where I see the most value at this point.
The defending National Champs have experience and tremendous shooters throughout their lineup. They rank ninth in the country in field-goal percentage, hitting just under 50-percent of their shots, and knock home nearly nine triples per game. They are second in the nation in free throws at better than 80-percent and get to the line a lot. Importantly, they also have a go-to scorer in national Player of the Year frontrunner Josh Hart; he’s exactly the type of experienced guard you need in the clutch. Despite not blocking a lot of shots, and mediocre on the glass (struggling with offensive rebounds, in particular), their overall defensive numbers are solid, limiting opponents to under 63 points a game, among the 20 best in the NCAA. They will be a very tough out.
The ACC is the deepest conference in the country this year, and North Carolina is leading the league at 9-3. Despite the depth, it’s unclear whether anyone besides UNC and Duke are legitimate contenders to cut down the nets. Everyone else has massive flaws. The Tar Heels are sixth in the nation scoring 87.4 points a game, and absolutely crush their competition with an NCAA-best +13 rebound margin. They also share the rock in a Warriors-esque fashion, sitting third in the nation 18.3 assists a game. Forward Justin Jackson does a little of everything, and Joel Berry II is an experienced (if inconsistent) point guard. The Heels reached the Championship Game last season, and have the roster to make it back this year if they can stay healthy. Keep a close watch on the status of forward Theo Pinson. They’ve only lost one game with him in the lineup this year.
Though the ACC might have the best collective group in the nation, no league has a better top three than the Pac-12. UCLA, Arizona, and Oregon all have what it takes to reach the Final Four which, conveniently for the Wildcats, is in Phoenix this year. What makes Sean Miller’s team so tough is that they do almost everything well. They are among the top 25 in in scoring defense, three-point defense, free three shooting, and rebound margin. From seven-foot freshman Lauri Markkanen, a sure fire lottery pick reminiscent of Dirk Nowitzki, to steady senior guard Kadeem Allen, to the recently reinstated Allonzo Trier, the Cats have the pieces to make a deep run.
The Ducks have been my team for months, and I am more bullish on them now than at any point previously. They reached the Elite Eight last year, getting within one game of the Final Four. Dana Altman has won everywhere he has coached; in Eugene, he’s won more than 70-percent of his games, overall, and has won at least two tournament games each of the last four years.
The Ducks are balanced between offense (79 PPG) and defense (64.4 PPG allowed), and have the 12th-best scoring margin in the country. They shoot a shade under 48-percent from the floor, and hold opponents to less than 40. They also shoot the three well, and defend it even better. And they block more shots than any other team in the nation. Like Nova, they have a veteran star in Dillon Brooks, which is always great in the big dance. The junior is a killer, who puts his team on his back during the biggest moments.
While Oregon blew a 19-point lead last week to UCLA on the road, for bettors, that is a good thing. Had they won, they would be under 10/1. Now is the time to bet the Ducks.
Photo credit: public domain.
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