College Basketball Final Four Dark Horse Contenders: Alabama, Michigan State & Mid-Major Darling Hold Value?
Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images. Pictured: Nate Oats (Alabama)
We’re less than five weeks from Selection Sunday, and the Final Four betting market is certainly sharpening.
We — and oddsmakers — have an increasingly clearer picture of who the best teams are, who will land the best seeds in March, etc. That makes the market tougher to beat, but it’s not perfect! We will continue to seek the inefficiencies in that market, even as they become more difficult to unearth.
A primary staple of our search is to identify teams that hit specific statistical measures. As a reminder from prior columns, the key markers are, via KenPom, an adjusted offensive efficiency of 114.0 and an adjusted defensive efficiency of 96.2.
Using those barometers, we see the traditional expected group of 11 teams: Gonzaga, Arizona, Kentucky, Houston, Baylor, Auburn, Kansas, Duke, Villanova, UCLA and Illinois.
Of that group, Houston has the longest odds, ranging from +700 to +800 across several books. That likely has something to do with losing key players to injury (Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark).
The Cougars also lack top-end wins, limiting their seed ceiling at this point. But there still may be some value, considering how strong the Cougars stack up from a perspective sense.
Purdue continues to miss out due to its poor defense — and it’s not actually that close. Recent darling Texas Tech and hated rival Texas are excluded by their concerning offenses. Surprisingly, the Longhorns are actually slightly closer to the threshold.
Let’s also look at a few teams that — like those Texas rivals — lurk on the cusp of these benchmarks.
Alabama is a difficult team to trust. The ceiling is unquestionably high — the Tide have wins over two of the 11 “Final Four contenders.”
On the other hand, though, any team that holds losses to Missouri and Georgia could get sent home in the first round.
The Tide are a high-variance gamble. Their outcomes are highly reliant on their own 3-point shooting. That’s what happens when you take almost 47% of your shots from beyond the arc (18th-highest rate in the country).
In their wins over Gonzaga and Houston, the Tide shot a combined 20-for-52 from deep (38.5%). But in the losses to Georgia and Missouri, they hit just 18-of-58 (31.0%).
And just this past weekend, Alabama blew a chance to knock off Kentucky due to a horrific 3-for-30 (10.0%) performance from downtown. That’s life playing Nate Oats’ style.
At 96.7, the defense is surprisingly close to our statistical threshold. And despite ranking 316th nationally in 3P%, the offense clears the bar.
If you can handle the roller coaster ride that is backing the Tide, they could be a decent value bet. Getting hot for four games is rare, but it’s entirely possible.
Michigan State is a hard team to figure out. In just their last three games, the Spartans have blown out Michigan at home, barely squeaked out a win at Maryland and got demolished at Rutgers.
Still, they are lurking on the thresholds of “Final Four contender” by our measures. The defense (95.2) is already there, and the offense (112.7) is extremely close.
This Spartans team lacks true “star power” and top-end talent. Only Max Christie looks like a future NBA player, and he’s far from realizing that potential at this stage.
But the thing is, Tom Izzo has made a Final Four run with worse teams. The 2015 squad was led by Travis Trice and somehow made a deep run (though Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes carved out professional roles).
In 2010, sophomore Draymond Green and a collection of good-but-not-great guards and wings grinded out a Final Four appearance.
So, it’s not without precedent!
The key is figuring out the pecking order. An increasingly large contingent of the Spartan faithful feel that Malik Hall is the team’s best player, though he is not yet the offensive alpha. Tyson Walker and AJ Hoggard are still figuring out a minutes split at point guard.
Michigan State has a bevy of shooters, but they still lack scorers (I promise there’s a difference).
For Izzo, these can be solvable problems. I probably will not take this bet, but if you buy into his March mystique, the Spartans could be intriguing.
The Racers? From the OVC?! That’s right!
Murray State actually passes the defensive stipulation, and the Racers’ offense (111.7) is not that far off from making them a viable Final Four candidate. And yet, the mid-major darlings are mega long shots to win four games in March.
The Racers have won at Memphis, showing that pure athleticism will not overwhelm them. They won at Belmont, a tournament-caliber team full of veterans. They nearly covered the spread at Auburn (lost by 0.5), something only one team has done all season.
The roster has shooting via sniper Tevin Brown and Davidson transfer Carter Collins. It has a monster 6-foot-10 big man in KJ Williams, who tallied 12 points and eight rebounds against Auburn’s frontcourt — arguably the best in the country.
And perhaps most importantly, it has a star point guard in Justice Hill, who can create scoring chances for himself and others.
There may not be a better dart throw than the Racers at 200/1 to get to New Orleans (via WynnBET). They currently have an average seed of 9.52 at Bracket Matrix, and if they continue to rack up wins, they could rise as high as a 7-seed.
Compared to other teams near them in overall KenPom rank, 200/1 is a steal. For instance, the teams directly above and below them are Xavier and Arkansas. Those two are 15/1 and 20/1.
If you want to back a true Cinderella at the Big Dance, I suggest putting on your Murray State slippers.