The college basketball season tipped off on Friday, but conference play around the country won’t begin until the end of December or early in the New Year. Realistically, winning your conference is nice but doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things to the top teams unless it earns you a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It can mean everything for NCAA bubble teams to get that automatic bid.
The top four No. 1 seeds in last year’s Big Dance were Kentucky, Syracuse, North Carolina and Michigan State. All four of those either won or shared their respective regular-season conference titles. The Wildcats, Orange and Heels were really assured top seeds in the NCAA Tournament regardless of what they did in their respective tournaments, and in fact none of the three won theirs. The fourth top seed was a bit up in the air and was down to Michigan State and Ohio State (also shared Big Ten regular-season title), and the Spartans beat the Buckeyes in the Big Ten tourney final to get the final No. 1.
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With that said, let’s take a look at the odds to win the BCS conferences this season with odds courtesy of WagerWeb.
Since 1997, only two teams other than Duke or North Carolina have won the ACC Tournament: Maryland in 2004 and Florida State last year as the Noles upset UNC in the tourney final. So one would think that either the Blue Devils or Tar Heels would be the favorites this year, right? No, it’s North Carolina State at +200, just ahead of Duke (+250) and Carolina (+300). The Wolfpack bring in the best recruiting class in the conference – three McDonald’s All-Americans -- and have the likely best player as well in C.J. Leslie, who is one of four starters returning. NC State hasn’t won the ACC Tournament since 1987, when the tourney MVP was current Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro. Duke lost its best player in Austin Rivers and one of the Plumlees (I can’t keep track of which is which), while UNC lost four first-round NBA draft picks. But I like Duke here as it has three senior studs in Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee.
Kansas has won an amazing eight straight regular-season titles, but the Jayhawks have been thwarted in two of the past four Big 12 Tournaments. Last year, Missouri beat Baylor in the final. KU and Texas are the +175 co-favorites this season. The Jayhawks lost their best two players in Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor, but Bill Self simply reloads in Lawrence and has arguably the nation’s most disruptive defensive player in center Jeff Withey. Texas is loaded with young talent but is a perennial disappointment and has never won the Big 12 Tournament. I am frankly shocked the Horns are co-favorites. Baylor (+800) lost enigmatic Perry Jones but has probably the league’s top overall player in Pierre Jackson and a terrific recruiting class. The Bears also have never won the conference tournament. They are the best value on the board and, thus, the choice. Of course, Missouri can’t repeat as it is now in the SEC.
This likely will be the final year you can call the Big East the nation’s best hoops conference as Syracuse and Pittsburgh depart after the season (and perhaps Notre Dame, too). Frankly, predicting the Big East Tournament winner has been a crapshoot in recent years because it’s such a rugged league. Syracuse dominated the regular season last year but was knocked off by Cincinnati in the semifinals. Louisville won the tournament and used it as a springboard to reach the Final Four. The Cards are the highest-ranked team in the preseason poll at No. 2 and also the +200 favorite to win the Big East. The Orange lost four key players off last year’s team and are +475 second-favorites. I actually like Pittsburgh at +350. The Panthers bring in seven-footer Steven Adams from New Zealand, the program’s top recruit ever, and welcome very talented transfer Trey Ziegler from Central Michigan to go with three returning starters. Last year Pitt was one of the big disappointments in the country – 5-13 in Big East and missed NCAA Tournament -- but should bounce back big-time.
Hard to argue against Indiana, which is the preseason No. 1 and the +175 Big Ten favorite. The Hoosiers bring back all five starters from last year’s 27-win team, led by National Player of the Year favorite Cody Zeller. Yet the key could be freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell, a McDonald's All-American. If he’s as good as hyped, the Hoosiers could be near unstoppable. Michigan State is the +300 second-favorite even though it’s lower in the polls than both Ohio State (+500) and Michigan (+500). The Spartans lost Big Ten Player of the Year Draymond Green, while OSU lost all-American Jared Sullinger. I think undersized Michigan is a bit overrated, although the Wolverines do welcome a great recruiting class led by 6-10 Mitch McGary. He is about all U-M has in the post, however. Take the Hoosiers.
This will be a two-team race between Arizona (+175) and UCLA (+200). Forget the rest. The Bruins have the top-ranked recruiting class in the country, but the eligibility of the centerpiece, Shabazz Muhammad, is still in question as an NCAA investigation into his recruitment continues. Fellow stud freshman Kyle Anderson was cleared in a similar investigation. I’m a big believer in the Wildcats, who bring in three terrific freshmen to go with forward Solomon Hill and point guard Mark Lyons, a transfer from Xavier. The Cats win the league.
Kentucky ran the table in the SEC’s regular season before being upset by Vanderbilt in the conference tournament last year. That didn’t obviously stop the Wildcats from winning the National Championship. Pretty much everyone is gone off that team, but never doubt John Calipari’s ability to meld a stellar group of freshmen together. UK is the +150 favorite. Still, freshmen are more likely to make mistakes, and the SEC Tournament is one-and-done. Plus, last year’s Cats had least had a few guys back to teach the freshmen (Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, Darius Miller). Thus, I would take the veteran Florida Gators (+275) to win the league. Bulky center Patric Young can dominate if he stays out of foul trouble, and guard Kenny Boynton is an SEC Player of the Year candidate. If you are wondering, new member Missouri is +800 to win the SEC in its first year, but the Tigers lost a ton off last year’s club. They do welcome back Laurence Bowers after he missed all of last season and also add UConn transfer big man Alex Oriakhi to go with star Phil Pressey.