This feels like one of the more unpredictable NCAA tournaments in recent memory.
There's no overwhelming favorite. Alabama got the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament but the Crimson Tide isn't the betting favorite to win it all. That's Houston. But Houston isn't the biggest liability for BetMGM in the championship future betting market. That would be Kansas.
There's a lot to sort out. Yahoo Sports' Frank Schwab and Scott Pianowski break down their thoughts on the tournament:
How do we feel about the No. 1 seeds?
Frank Schwab: I think they got the right four teams, but I don't think this will be a chalky tournament. All of the No. 1 seeds are beatable. Houston needs Marcus Sasser to be healthy and I'm not sure the Cougars have a championship ceiling anyway. Purdue's cast around Zach Edey doesn't impress me. Kansas has a ridiculously tough road and I don't think KU is as good as last season — Texas ran the Jayhawks off the floor in the Big 12 final. Alabama is very good but reliant on 3-point shooting, which means they have to avoid an off shooting night five games in a row to win it all (they'll win their first-round game even with an off night). If you gave me plus odds on under 1.5 No. 1 seeds making the Final Four, I'd punch that ticket.
Scott Pianowski: We agree. It feels a wide-open year, where a random Final Four seeded something like 2-5-7-11 wouldn't surprise me. Other than Houston, every team in the current Top 25 has at least five losses. There can't be a "where were you when?" upset this year; there is no Buster Douglas drops Mike Tyson in this bracket.
Is a wide-open tournament a feature or a bug? Massive favorites, heavy overdogs can be good for sports. But it's also fun to start filling out a bracket and not haunted by the idea that everyone's picking the same teams.
Purdue feels easy to pick against — it didn't play great late in the year, even while winning the Big Ten tournament, and fading this conference in mid-March has been an ATM in recent years. Alabama also concerns me; too much reliance on the perimeter shot and a shockingly-high turnover rate for a team seeded first overall. I haven't settled on my champion yet, but it's not gonna be the Crimson Tide.
In a wide-open tournament, which long shot could make the Final Four?
FS: Memphis really strikes me as a good play at +2000. I'll concede that the Tigers could lose in the first round against a good Florida Atlantic team. That's the problem with any team outside of the top five seed lines. If Memphis wins in the first round, the Tigers can beat Purdue too. They've beat Houston this season and played Alabama close. I also can see Arkansas, another No. 8 seed at 20-to-1, making a run. But with Arkansas, it's a matter of hoping a disappointing team plays to its talent level. Memphis is already hot after winning the AAC tournament.
SP: I'm definitely interested in Memphis. They came within one bucket of beating Houston twice in eight days. They will fear no one. KenPom has them as a Top 20 team; Memphis was absurdly underseeded in the NCAA field.
I normally would be pitching Duke at +800 to make the Final Four. The dots all connect — talented but young team, rookie head coach, a slow-developing Polaroid — and they've been an ATM of late. But Oral Roberts was a wicked joke played on the Blue Devils in Round 1, a tournament-experienced mid-major with the onions to compete. ORU will not cover at the sight of any jersey. I was prepared to pick both of these schools to win multiple rounds, now it's an impossibility.
Which high seeds might get upset early?
FS: I don't really get Kansas State as a No. 3 seed. The Wildcats have talent but I'd happily take lower seeds like UConn or Duke over them if they played. Moving down a seed line, I don't really have a lot of faith in Virginia, which has been really mediocre for more than a month, or Indiana either because it's from the Big Ten. I'll probably be against all three teams with moneyline bets on their first-round opponents (Montana State, Furman, Kent State). And while I don't think Tennessee gets upset straight up in the first round, I'll take the points with Louisiana in the first round and will take either Duke or Oral Roberts over them in the second round.
SP: Everyone needs a set of rules, a code if you will, to live by. Never say no to soup or garlic bread. Always bet against Greg Norman. I'm always going to play against Rick Barnes and Tennessee — especially with point guard Zakai Zeigler out of the mix — and I want to fade the Big Ten. So I'm with you fading Indiana.
I also struggle to trust Virginia, a team that never wants to run or crash the offensive board (it's almost a bit at this point), but also struggles to run crisp halfcourt offense against better opposition (the ACC final was hard to watch). Virginia is also a mediocre free-throw shooting team. The Cavaliers are always well coached, but that might not be enough. They feel overseeded as a 4.
Just throwing this out there, Vermont has a puncher's chance against Marquette. The Catamounts are senior-driven and cohesive, and brimming with confidence after a 15-game win streak. The hiccups in November do not matter; the problems were fixed. And this is another mid-major that's been to the tournament before, the bright lights will not distract them. Hard to believe Marquette's never been seeded this high before, but I suspect it could be a short-lived story.
Which first-round bets do you like best?
FS: I hate to be against you on anything but I like Marquette, even laying double digits. I think the Golden Eagles will overwhelm Vermont a bit. I've given away plenty of my best bets in the section above, with Montana State, Furman and Kent State with the points and on the moneyline, but I'll add Michigan State (USC has a brutal spot traveling to Ohio and then playing at 9:15 a.m. Pacific time), Arkansas (Illinois is part of our shared "fade the Big Ten" plan), Creighton and Drake as another double-digit seed winner.
And as a bonus, I'm looking forward to betting Memphis vs. Purdue if the Tigers can get past a really good Florida Atlantic team in the first round.
SP: Working in chronological order, this is what I’m locked into:
I realize Furman is America’s upside, but that Furman/Virginia game screams under to me. The Cavaliers will get their pace. They might not win, though. Under 132.5, please.
No one turns steak into hamburger helper quite like Rick Barnes. I can’t claim deep scouting on Louisiana, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll bet against Tennessee until they’re eliminated. This is yearly vacation-fund money. Grab the 11.5.
We’ll know quickly which of us is on the right side of Vermont-Marquette. But Vermont has two key things in its corner as a double-digit underdog; seniors on the court, and a deliberate pace. I don’t expect this game to get out of hand early, and the early minutes are critical for a heavy underdog. I wish I had punched the Catamounts early, but it’s down to 10.5. I can’t see it going lower; I’ll punch my Vermont ticket in a day or two, see if it rises.
Connecticut is a Jekyll-Hyde team, a juggernaut on the right day, a mess on the wrong day. But they’re up against an Iona team that has Rick Pitino with one foot likely out the door. St. John’s? Georgetown? He’ll miss playing Winged Foot, we know that. UConn finished 10-4 and all of the losses were one-possession games, three to excellent teams. The Huskies can easily make the -9.5.
I have to pick Memphis -2.5 over Florida Atlantic, to justify my Memphis Round 2 upset over Purdue. Another one for Team America. And save me some room for Kent State (+4.5), both with the points and on the money line against Indiana.
What's your Final Four?
FS: Like Scott said before, the seeds in this Final Four could look like a Powerball ticket. It's just hard to pick a specific team outside the first few lines to go that far. I'll take Alabama (their top gear is special), Texas (hard to ignore those two blowout wins late in the season over Kansas), UConn (metrics darling) and Duke (a young team that figured it out and has been rolling for more than a month).
SP: I wish I had the guts to pick something really crazy, but I have to lean towards what's likely over what's possible. The East is going to be a blast, so many teams can win, but I like the Duke angles you played. Arizona in the South. I'm torn between Gonzaga (angelic offense, no defense) and UCLA (no Jaylen Clark, dinged-up Adem Bona); the winner likely is favored over anyone else in that region. Call it UCLA. And Houston will win the Midwest and get their Final Four home game. Merry Christmas, Jim Nantz.
Who's your championship pick (and best bet)?
FS: I'll pick Alabama to win it all, and don't think +800 is that bad for odds. For a best bet I'd like some better odds. I'm surprised Duke is +3000. It's perfectly reasonable to think Duke needed some time to figure things out early in the season, with a rookie head coach leading a young team. But the talent was never in doubt, and it has been on full display for a few weeks. It's not fun to root for Duke, but 30-to-1 is worth grabbing.
SP: I'm right behind you punching Duke at 30-1. It's plausible. It's never been a matter of talent. Kyle Filipowski has get-on-my-back potential. Tyrese Proctor's growth has enabled Jeremy Roach to play more of an off-guard role. Form matters. They're also the tallest team in the field.
If I had to pick one champion and the odds were irrelevant, I'd do the prudent thing with Houston. But what's fun about that? Give me UCLA and Gonzaga tickets. I can't wait to see that game, hopefully, next week.