Part of the “madness” of March is that an awful lot of gamblers (and sports fans) don’t start looking closely at college basketball teams prior to March. That’s madness.
We routinely give ourselves months ahead of time to analyze NFL and FBS teams, always look hard at the NBA and the NHL in the offseason, and handicap the UEFA Champions League before the Group Stage begins. Yet somehow, NCAA basketball buzz is always saved-for-later during the sport’s regular season, even though March Madness is a gambling holiday on par with the Super Bowl and Kentucky Derby.
It’s not only a detriment to one’s ability to rank schools, but it shortens the odds on just about every worthy contender. Picking a program once the March Madness bracket is set is a time-honored tradition and a whale of fun, like bar revelers making lubricated trifecta bets at Churchill Downs. But the bettor who’s making money on the Run for the Roses is more likely to be found perusing the futures odds on 50/1 and 100/1 Thoroughbreds in winter, just as the savvy NCAAM ‘capper is always on task early in a season.
Don’t worry – there’ll be plenty of March Madness touting on these pages closer to the Spring Solstice. For those who’d like to wager units sooner for the promise of richer payoffs, here’s a look at just 5 of the most-popular 2021 futures bets in NCAA Men’s Basketball, and a tip on a tasty January “sleeper” from WagerBop scout and hoops-specialist Jake Peter.
Odds on the 2021 national championship are courtesy of FanDuel Sportsbook.
Gonzaga Bulldogs (+320)
College basketball futures couldn’t further removed from FBS football speculation. Year after year, pigskin programs with trophies, tradition, and title-tinged track records – like Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State – draw an overwhelming plurality of futures bets on a College Football Playoff winner. High-rollers wouldn’t think of going all-in on a Group-of-5 team or even an independent such as Notre Dame, following yet another postseason flop from the Fighting Irish.
Meanwhile, NCAA basketball’s trendy national championship pick is Gonzaga, a school which has A) only played in 1 national title game (a loss to North Carolina in 2017) and B) has only reached 1 other Final Four in team history. Gonzaga plays in the humble West Coast Conference, not the ACC or the Big East, and has not beaten a March Madness seed superior to #3 since a 1999 victory over #2 seeded Stanford at the big dance.
So why is Gonzaga a 1-to-3 favorite at this early date? It helps that the Bulldogs look the part. Returning blue-chips Corey Kispert and Drew Timme would probably have made the 20-21 Zags relevant as a duo, but the additions of Florida transfer Andrew Nembhard and freshman Jalen Suggs might have spawned a juggernaut. Forward Joel Ayayi serves as the Bulldogs’ Swiss army knife, and backup center Oumar Ballo bullies opposing big men when Timme goes to the bench.
The Bulldogs are 13-0 on the season, and they’ve beaten all but 1 opponent by double digits. Non-conference wins over ranked teams like Iowa, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kansas have bolstered the resume even more, and quieted critics who always say that Gonzaga’s schedule is too soft.
Another reason Gonzaga is playing the role of “exclusive” favorite has nothing to do with the Bulldogs themselves. Each of the 2021 contenders listed below could turn out to be great NCAA title or Final Four wagers, but none have managed to get all the way to mid-January without any sign of weakness. Unless you want to count Gonzaga’s sluggish 1st half against Virginia, the same can’t be said about the unbeaten Zags.
Baylor Bears (+700)
Could 2021 mark a turning point in college basketball? Kentucky’s poor start shows that rosters full of 1-and-done NBA cagers-in-waiting are no shortcut to success. FanDuel’s NCAA Championship futures betting board is filled with teams led by veterans in addition to prodigal teens.
The Baylor Bears are in position to compete for a title due to the talent brought back from last year. Upperclassmen Mark Vital, MaCio Teague, Jared Butler, and Davion Mitchell form one of the most dangerous cores in college basketball today.
Defense is Baylor’s calling card, and the Bears have leaned on their terrific defending to post an 11-0 start. An 82-69 victory over #5 Illinois is the team’s marquee win so far, a statement victory over one of the best squads in the Big Ten.
In fact, you can argue that Baylor is the sole program apart from Gonzaga which has yet to show any cracks in the armor in 2020-21. But the Bears were out-scored by Oklahoma in the 2nd half last Wednesday, and might have been well out-rebounded by Iowa State were it not for 6’8″ sophomore Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua’s 10 boards in the 11-point victory.
Baylor’s schedule is about to get more difficult, with Big 12 stalwarts West Virginia, Texas Tech, Kansas, and Texas on the upcoming slate.
Villanova Wildcats (+900)
Villanova is yet another team full of returning talent benefiting from experience in 2021. Celebrated head coach Jay Wright has developed stellar big men like Jeremiah Robinson-Earle, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, and Jermaine Samuels, as well as senior floor-general Collin Gillespie. The veteran presence has paid off with a front-runners’ position in the Big East.
‘Nova recently dropped a close game to Virginia Tech, but the Wildcats have quality wins over Arizona State, Texas, and Marquette. Upcoming match-ups vs likely NCAA Tournament seeds Seton Hall and Creighton will help determine whether Wright has another bona-fide contender on his hands.
Iowa Hawkeyes (+1300)
Superstar center Luka Garza is having another career year for the Hawkeyes. Garza, now a senior, is averaging an incredible 27.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per contest while shooting 62.4% from the field. He’s flanked by experienced, efficient cagers Jordan Bohannon, Joe Wieskamp, and Connor McCaffery.
Iowa’s experience and depth has resulted in a 10-2 record so far, including convincing wins over UNC, Purdue, Northwestern, and Maryland. It seems as though almost the entire Big Ten is poised to reach the dance this year, but Iowa has fought its way into position to qualify in March with a decent seed.
Wisconsin Badgers (+1500)
Veteran leadership is recurring theme in college basketball this season. The Wisconsin Badgers currently hold a 10-2 record thanks to an experienced core of talent.
Returning upperclassmen like D’Mitrik Trice, Micah Potter, Nate Reuvers, Aleem Ford, and Brad Davison have the Badgers in the hunt to win a ridiculously competitive Big Ten this season. Wisconsin hasn’t been perfect, dropping a home game to Maryland and losing on the road at Marquette, but those are forgivable losses against teams that will likely be in the NCAA Tournament come March. Furthermore, the Badgers have caught fire lately, obliterating #23 Louisville 85-48, tripping #12 MSU on the road, and beating #21 Minnesota at home.
Finally, welcome WagerBop’s new basketball scout Jake Peter, chiming-in with a bargain “sleeper” pick from the SEC, and a profile of what’s probably the best team with an NCAA championship market at longer than 50-to-1 payout odds.
Remember, a school’s Final Four futures odds are usually about 1/4th as long as its odds to win the NCAA championship, making Jake’s SEC sleeper an excellent pick to reach the 2021 NCAA Tournament Final Four at about 16-to-1.
Missouri Tigers (+6500)
It seems as though the Missouri Tigers have flown under the radar so far this season, but they’ve quietly proven themselves to be one of the toughest and most talented teams in college basketball right now. Veteran guards Xavier Pinson, Mark Smith, and Dru Smith headline an electric backcourt, with the three of them combining to average 38.9 points per game.
Down low, senior big man Jeremiah Tilmon holds down the paint to the tune of 10.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per contest. The Tigers haven’t typically been a contender in recent years, nor have they even been a mainstay in March Madness, but they’re shaping up to make a deep run in 2021. The team is 7-2 so far, with their only losses coming to #7 Tennessee and Mississippi State on the road. Impressive victories over #21 Oregon and #6 Illinois and a road win over Arkansas have finally put the Tigers on the map.
There’s a long way to go until the tournament begins, but keep an eye out for Mizzou.
Keep an eye out for more on the 2020-21 college basketball season at WagerBop!
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.