To some bettors, college basketball isn't just a sport for March.
March Madness draws in all sports bettors, casual and serious. The NCAA tournament is a phenomenal event. Going to Las Vegas for the first weekend of the Big Dance has become a pilgrimage to many. Plenty of bettors don't wait until March. Starting Tuesday, which is opening day for college basketball, there are countless games on the board just about every day, from the annual Champions Classic to games like Grambling State at Grand Canyon.
With that in mind, let's look at some possible betting trends for the season (we went over our best conference bets last week):
Is UCLA a bit overrated?
UCLA was a solid, above-average team before the NCAA tournament last season. The Bruins barely got in and were relegated to the First Four. They were 17-9 and ranked 45th at KenPom before the tournament began. They trailed Michigan State by three points in the final minute of their First Four game, the Spartans missed a shot at the end of regulation and the Bruins won in overtime. Had UCLA's season ended there, would the Bruins be tied for the second-betting favorite to win it all at BetMGM? Likely not.
We can't totally dismiss the Bruins' run, going to the Final Four before losing an absolute overtime classic against Gonzaga. But it might be worth fading them early to see if that five-game winning streak has overrated them a bit. It happens most years that a team gets too big of a bump due to a tournament run, and it's worth checking if UCLA is that team this season.
Don't dismiss the blue bloods
Last season was rough on many programs, especially the traditional powers. Duke, Kentucky and Louisville missed the NCAA tournament. Kansas was a lukewarm No. 3 seed and got beat in the Sweet 16 by USC. Michigan State was an 11 seed and got bounced in the First Four by UCLA.
There are good reasons those programs were down. There was no home-court advantage. The highly touted freshmen those programs annually rely on didn't have an offseason. They should bounce back. Kansas is loaded this season. Duke and Kentucky enrolled top-10 recruiting classes. Michigan State is not high in the polls, but it is never down long. If you find any early season value on the blue bloods, take it.
Duke and Kentucky in particular could be underrated
Let's take a closer look at two power teams that could be Final Four contenders. Duke and Kentucky were No. 9 and No. 10 in the preseason AP poll so they haven't fallen too far off the radar. Still, it wouldn't be a surprise to see either be a top-three team by January.
Duke was 13-11 last season but also lost a ton of close games, which is unlucky. The Blue Devils return some quality talent, including center Mark Williams. They bring in three top-20 recruits, including potential overall No. 1 NBA draft pick Paolo Banchero. I don't know if Mike Krzyzewski's farewell tour helps or hurts Duke, but the Bruins will be good again. The talent is legit.
Kentucky fixed a lot of last season's roster issues through recruiting and the transfer portal. Georgia transfer Sahvir Wheeler should calm down the point guard spot. Davidson transfer Kellan Grady gives the Wildcats a proven shooter. TyTy Washington and Daimion Collins provide future first-round NBA talent. You won't often find many chances to bet on Kentucky or Duke at a good value, but maybe there will be chances early this season (it'll be a treat to watch Duke and Kentucky face off in the Champions Classic).
Texas will be good, maybe just not right away
This is a year for transfers. Many teams in college basketball have an influx of transfer talent, and Texas leads that list. The Longhorns added six key transfers, highlighted by former Minnesota guard Marcus Carr. The Longhorns bring back key talent too, and that's where we have to wonder about Texas early this season. Chris Beard, in from Texas Tech, is a fantastic coach, but it'll be a challenge to mesh the new talent with the holdovers. That could take time. Texas should be a Final Four contender by March. But that doesn't mean the Longhorns will be covering spreads in November. It's worth being wary of any team relying heavily on transfers early this season. Mississippi State and Maryland are two other talented teams that might need a few weeks to blend in their transfer talent.
Some potential March Cinderellas to keep an eye on
It's fun to find a mid-major to ride for some winning bets in March, but those teams can be profitable all season. Gonzaga doesn't count anymore; it is a known commodity and hasn't felt like a mid-major in years. Here are some mid-majors worth watching, and betting on, long before March:
Vermont: The Catamounts have a ton of experience back. Four of five starters return, including America East player of the year Ryan Davis. They could give some teams problems.
Liberty: The Flames made the NCAA tournament, have conference player of the year Darius McGhee back and will be great again on defense.
Southern Utah: The Thunderbirds went 12-2 in conference and return just about everyone, including three members of the Big Sky preseason all-conference team.
Belmont: The Bruins could go undefeated in the Ohio Valley and will be everyone's favorite upset pick in the first round of March Madness.
New Mexico State: The Aggies had an off year but usually are the best team in the WAC.
Memphis is a real gamble
Memphis star freshmen Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates could be future NBA lottery picks. They both reclassified to the class of 2021 to play for Penny Hardaway in college. Memphis has had talent but will it finally translate? If you feel strongly about Memphis being underwhelming again, with two younger-than-usual freshmen as its best players, or take a stand on them being a great team with two potential NBA stars, you can win some bets on this boom-or-bust team (I lean toward Memphis being overvalued in the betting market, especially early on).
Don't overrate returning starters
Teams that have everyone coming back can be overrated simply because they have everyone back. What does it really mean to have everyone back from a mediocre team?
Notre Dame is a good example. The Irish were 11-15 last season and 85th in KenPom. They return just about everyone and moved up to 27th in KenPom's preseason rankings. They should improve but that's a big jump. Washington State is another team to beware of overrating just because a lot returns. Sometimes teams with a lot back do take a big step, but talent matters too.
Don't give up on Oklahoma State
The Cowboys lost top NBA pick Cade Cunningham and were dealt a lame postseason ban by the NCAA. Still, they'll play games that have point spreads attached and have a good team. Cunningham was great, but Oklahoma State wasn't a one-man team. Avery Anderson is a fine star to build around. Oklahoma State might have been a bit over-seeded in the NCAA tournament last season, but if the betting market discounts it it might lead to profit.
Beware of Big Ten bigs
NCAA.com's ranking of the top returning college basketball players this season has four Big Ten big men in its top seven: Illinois' Kofi Cockburn, Michigan's Hunter Dickinson, Indiana's Tracye Jackson-Davis and Ohio State's E.J. Liddell. Purdue's Trevion Williams comes in at No. 17 (CBS' rankings have Williams at No. 6 in the nation) and 7-4 teammate Zach Edey has massive breakout potential.
While big men aren't the building blocks they once were at any level, the Big Ten embraces inside play. That doesn't matter much for league play when the elite bigs battle each other, but before you bet against a Big Ten team in non-conference games, make sure its opponent has some capable size, especially when teams like Illinois or Purdue are facing a mid-major.
Gonzaga is as good as ever
The last time we had college basketball in our lives, Baylor was shocking undefeated Gonzaga in a blowout win to take the championship. Oddsmakers understand to not judge Gonzaga too harshly based on that one bad game.
Gonzaga comes right back as the preseason favorite. They're +600 to win it all at BetMGM. No other team has less than +1200 odds. Jalen Suggs left for the NBA lottery, but the Zags bring in another great recruiting class headlined by top overall 2021 recruit Chet Holmgren. They have Drew Timme, a national player of the year favorite, returning too. It's hard to find betting value on Gonzaga game-to-game, but if you want to grab them at 6-to-1 odds to win it all, do it now because their odds will likely get lower before March.