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Upcoming NCAA men’s basketball tournament is a wide open affair

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike during a win over Oklahoma on Saturday.
Kansas center Udoka Azubuike grabs a rebound during a win over Oklahoma on Saturday.
(Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

A year ago, Zion Williamson was a freshman and the face of college basketball. When the calendar turned to March, Duke represented the closest thing to a dominant team. Williamson jumped to the NBA, and things have changed.

This is not the season of the superstar in college basketball, and the road to the NCAA championship seems as wide open as ever.

“There’s no superteam out there,” said Nick Bogdanovich, William Hill sportsbook director.

Kansas is the favorite at 7-1 odds, followed by Gonzaga (8-1) and Duke (9-1). When asked to make a list of teams he considered national title threats, Bogdanovich did not make a short list.

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“I would say 20 teams, and that’s about twice as many teams as normal,” he said. “Sometimes there are seven or eight or maybe 10 teams. But I could be wrong on 20. Maybe it’s more.”

His list includes San Diego State, the nation’s last undefeated team at 26-0. The Aztecs are led by point guard Malachi Flynn, who’s far from a Zion-like superstar, and they are rolling through what is considered a weak conference in the Mountain West.

UCLA’s recent success in Pac-12 play has created optimism about the team’s NCAA tournament chances, but the Bruins still have a long way to go.

This might be the season of the long shot in college basketball. Three teams ranked in this week’s top 10 were not even a blip on the radar last summer. William Hill opened San Diego State at 1,000-1, and the Aztecs’ current odds are 18-1. The Westgate SuperBook opened Dayton at 1,000-1 and Baylor at 100-1.

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“San Diego State would be our biggest loser by far,” Bogdanovich said. “I love the story. I hope the Aztecs get to the Final Four. Obviously I don’t love our position, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.”

A year ago, Mike Krzyzewski failed to coach Duke to the Final Four, even with three of the top 10 picks in the NBA draft on his roster. Duke remains a serious contender. The Blue Devils and Aztecs are the only teams in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom.com.

Where can value still be found on the futures board? Here are a handful of candidates (William Hill odds):

Penn State (30-1): The Nittany Lions (20-5) are second in the Big Ten, one game behind Maryland, and are led by senior forward Lamar Stevens. Teams that win on the road in conference play are more likely to win in the NCAA tournament, and Penn State recently had significant wins at Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue.

Villanova (40-1): Always look for coaches who have a history of winning in March and teams with veteran point guards. The Wildcats (19-6) fit the profile with coach Jay Wright and point guard Collin Gillespie.

Oregon (50-1): It’s another down year for the Pac-12, but the Ducks (20-6) made a run last March and could do so again behind Payton Pritchard, arguably the nation’s top point guard.

Texas Tech (50-1): Chris Beard coached the Red Raiders to last year’s NCAA title game and has had to rebuild around freshman guard Jahmi’us Ramsey, a top NBA prospect. Texas Tech (16-9) is battle tested in the Big 12, where Baylor and Kansas each rank in the nation’s top five.

“We know Beard can coach, and the Red Raiders have been on the upswing as some of their new parts are now part of a well-oiled machine,” said Bruce Marshall, editor of the Gold Sheet. “Ramsey emerging as a force.”

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Michigan (60-1): The Wolverines reached No. 1 in the AP poll in early December after an 18-point victory over Gonzaga in the Bahamas. The team slumped while leading scorer Isaiah Livers was out with an injury, but he’s back, and Michigan (16-9) is 5-1 in its last six games.

USC’s defense keeps Washington State’s offense in check and Daniel Utomi scores a season-high 23 points in the Trojans’ 70-51 win.

“For the first month of the season, this looked like a top five team,” Marshall said. “The Wolverines are probably looking at a six or seven seed, which is a good spot to at least get to the second weekend, and from there it becomes a free-for-all.”

Marquette (85-1): With a shooting star like Markus Howard, the Golden Eagles (17-7) have a shot. Howard is the nation’s leading scorer at 27.3 points per game. Marquette is fourth in the Big East, which appears to be a tougher league at the top than the Big Ten.

“Marquette has got the best player in the country, so why not? Howard could get hot,” Bogdanovich said. “There are all sorts of fringe teams that are capable of getting hot and running the table.”

A few other “fringe teams” worth looking at are Houston (75-1), Wichita State (75-1) and Colorado (80-1). As for longer shots, defending champ Virginia (150-1), Florida (150-1) and Syracuse (300-1) have the potential to surprise.

“It’s a wide-open season,” Marshall said, “and some of those teams could still emerge and make a deep March run.”

Matt Youmans is a senior editor for VSiN.com


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