College Basketball Futures: Betting Value on Virginia Tech & Wisconsin for Conference Tournaments
Photo by Brian Bishop/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: Justyn Mutts (Virginia Tech)
Mike Calabrese: If the AP Top-10 is any indication, high-major conference tournaments are going to be unpredictable in the coming weeks. Half of the teams currently sitting in the top-10 either lost or snuck by in a one-possession game last week.
Interestingly, despite the vulnerability being displayed by conference leaders, sportsbooks are offering tantalizingly long odds on teams to win their respective conference tournaments.
The ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big East all have teams currently ranked third or higher in their conference at odds in excess of 7:1. What this means for conference tournament early birds is that there is sizable value to be mined here in February.
Scroll below for a closer look at the teams Kody and I have circled.
Early Conference Tournament Picture
Kody Malstrom: Will the real Virginia Tech Hokies please stand up?
After touting the Hokies earlier this season in our bi-weekly futures piece (+5000 and +10000), they are finally rounding into form as we near March.
This was a team highly-rated by KenPom and various other models, but would suffer silly losses by never being able to put together a complete game on both ends of the court.
Virginia Tech went on a recent tear, though, winning six games in a row. None of those victories came against the ACC elites, but momentum is key as we near Championship Week.
The streak included wins against Florida State, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh (twice), Syracuse and Virginia before the Hokies lost vs. North Carolina.
While the competition wasn’t the best to win me over, it’s the style of play that is drawing my interest.
The ACC this year has been dominated by Duke, with every other squad just trying to fight for the No. 2 spot in the standings. The level of play in the league is at an all-time low, with, at most, five teams earning a spot in the Big Dance.
So, Duke should run away with the ACC Tournament in Coach K's last season, right?
While Duke has been the clear-cut No. 1 team and the ACC’s knight in shining armor, it's far from perfect. The Blue Devils struggle to defend the perimeter, allow cuts and dishes to open shooters and are one of the worst half-court offenses in the country.
If Duke can’t get in a rhythm, it collapses to lesser competition.
Now, here's where Virginia Tech comes into play. Yes, it lost to Duke earlier this season, 76-65, but it took a late run for the Blue Devils to comfortably pull ahead.
Virginia Tech’s style of play gave Duke fits all game, as the Hokies operated at a snail’s pace and forced the Blue Devils to set up their half-court offense.
Virginia Tech had a real chance to win the game, but it shot 5-of-19 from 3 (26.3%). That is uncharacteristic for the Hokies, as they lead the ACC in 3-point percentage (40%) this season.
The Hokies possess the style of play to beat Duke and are one of the most balanced teams in the conference (23rd in AdjO and 73rd in AdjD), so I will grab them at this price, with intentions of letting it ride until the end.
Kody Malstrom: I'm never a fan of taking a small number in a tournament format, but that’s how much I believe in the Fighting Illini.
It also speaks to how much I believe Purdue will be an early out in both the Big Ten Tournament and March Madness. With Purdue’s suspect defense, the door is open for the rest of the league to make a run at the title.
Illinois is one of the most balanced teams in the Big Ten, ranking 20th in AdjO and 24th in AdjD. The Illini have been top-tier elite in their conference despite a slow start due to the suspension of potential Wooden Award winner, Kofi Cockburn.
As soon as Cockburn came back — and was eventually joined by Andre Curbelo later — Illinois started to remind everyone why it's one of the best in the conference.
This is a unit that is near top of the Big Ten in scoring and No. 1 in rebounding. The Illini own an efficient, dangerous offense that crashes the boards for more opportunities.
They're led in scoring by Cockburn, who averages 21.7 points and 11.2 rebounds per night on 60.8% shooting. A man amongst boys, Cockburn is a matchup nightmare for anyone, including Purdue and its giants down low.
Better yet, Cockburn doesn’t do it alone, as Illinois has three others scoring in double figures, including Alfonso Plummer, Trent Frazier and Jacob Grandison.
Purdue may be the only team that's currently better than Illinois, but I will take a stab at the Illini's small price with the hope of the Boilermakers getting bounced early. If these two meet in the finals, I can potentially buy the other side and secure a very small profit either way.
Mike Calabrese: Cashing long shots comes down to what I call “the path and the potential.” Avoiding a path that forces you to win four games in four days is a major bonus.
As of today, Oregon is sitting in the fourth slot in the Pac-12 pecking order, which would afford it a first-round bye. Securing the No. 4 seed would also put the Ducks on a collision course with Arizona in the conference semis, a team they just took down to the wire on the road.
As for the other two teams ahead of them (UCLA, USC), the Ducks have road wins over both the Bruins and Trojans this season.
The path is borderline favorable if they can hold off Colorado (.5 game lead) and secure the four-seed and first-round bye.
None of the conference heavyweights appear to be demonstrably better than the Ducks this season. And, just for good measure, you have Dana Altman’s track record in the Pac-12 Tournament to rely upon.
The three-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year (2013, 2015, 2016) has a sterling 20-7 (74%) straight-up record in this tournament, including five title game appearances and three instances in which he and his Ducks cut down the nets.
Recent history aside, this year’s team has rebounded from a wretched 6-6 start, and reestablished itself on offense as a dangerous threat. Since that lousy start, the Ducks are 11-4 SU and have scored four more points per game.
Transfers Jacob Young and De’Vion Harmon have been difference makers for the Ducks the past two months. When the pair have combined for 19+ points, the Ducks are 11-1 SU.
Similarly, N’Faly Dante has rebounded from a slow start and is providing solid contributions on both ends of the floor in the past month (8.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG, two “stocks” per game).
This newfound balance has allowed Will Richardson (15.2 PPG) to be the first and not the lone option for Oregon.
If Oregon can string together three high-end offensive performances — as it did in road wins over UCLA and USC, and in a losing effort against Arizona — I have faith in Altman to flummox teams with his adaptive defense, especially with short prep windows between games.
At nearly 15:1, I’m certainly willing to roll the dice.
Mike Calabrese: Can Purdue and Illinois stumble? That’s really the question I’m asking here.
As far as the Boilermakers are concerned, they absolutely could cough up a game that should otherwise be a cakewalk. Matt Painter is 10-15 in the Big Ten Tournament, including three first-game exits as either a one or a two seed.
And this year’s Purdue team has lost to middling Big Ten teams like Indiana and Michigan on the road, and was lucky to escape Maryland (62-61) at home.
Illinois has also proven to be vulnerable, particularly on the road. The Fighting Illini have three double-digit losses away from Champaign (Cincy, Maryland, Rutgers) and a pair of narrow road victories to Northwestern and Michigan State.
Should they be co-favorites with Purdue? Absolutely. Are they a sure thing to cruise to the Big Ten title game? Not a chance.
Wisconsin essentially controls its own destiny in the Big Ten regular-season title race and is locked into a top-three seed, given its remaining schedule. That double-bye and potential road, as of today, of Michigan State and Illinois (if higher seeds prevailed) is worth a play at north of 7:1.
Keep in mind, the Badgers have five wins over KenPom top-25 teams, a legitimate National Player of the Year Candidate in Johnny Davis (21 PPG, eight RPG) and the inside track to snagging the No. 1 seed, thereby missing either Purdue or Illinois on the road to the title game.
That’s a lot of upside for a team being priced in the same way that books are pricing the fourth- and fifth-best options to win other major conference tournaments.