College Basketball National & Conference Futures: Betting Value on Two Big Ten Teams (Jan. 19)
Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: Kofi Cockburn (Illinois)
Kody Malstrom: Another two weeks have come and gone, and some changes have been made at the top of the board.
This begs the question: who is the clear-cut No. 1 team this year? No one, and that’s what makes this sport awesome. The more disparity, the better for our viewership as this is shaping up to be a tournament filled with upsets.
Speaking of upsets, that’s one sure-fire way to peak my interest when it comes to futures — especially when a few installments of this biweekly article featured long-shot numbers on Colorado State and Xavier.
The timing of this article comes at a great time. My focus will be on a team that took Purdue to double overtime in a thriller Monday afternoon that had me distracted and nearly got me fired from my day job.
Mike, on the other hand, also has his eyes on the Big Ten.
While I don’t have a dating analogy that my colleague Mike used in our last installment, I will leave you with this: you miss 100% of the futures you don’t bet.
National Championship Picture
Kody Malstrom: Illinois came into this season with dampened expectations after embarrassingly losing to Loyola Chicago early in the tournament last year, and losing some top-tier talent.
The Illini were still regarded as one of the better Big Ten teams coming into this year, but everyone thought it would be a battle between Michigan and Purdue at the top of the league.
I’m not the only one that likes Illinois for a run at the national title, as Kyle Remillard also recently wrote a column about the Illini in his Final Four dark horse contenders.
Since his return to the lineup, Kofi Cockburn has averaged 22 points and 12 rebounds per game, and is reminding everyone why Illinois is poised for a deep run — a redemption run.
He’s not the only one to make his return either.
Enter Andre Curbelo. The point guard made a splash in his return on Monday against Purdue. He scored 20 points, added six rebounds and dished out three assists, as well as making the game-tying layup to go to overtime.
With Curbelo back, Illinois adds another lethal scorer. The Illini also have three others scoring in double figures in Alfonso Plummer (16.4 PPG), Trent Frazier (13.4 PPG) and Jacob Grandison (11.4 PPG).
Sitting at 13-3, Illinois is back to being a legitimate contender for the Big Ten title. Michigan has taken a drastic step back, Purdue’s defense is consistently giving up open looks and getting burned on the perimeter and Ohio State is top heavy with a shaky defense, as well.
Illinois is one of the more balanced teams, per KenPom, a metric I look for in any squad in a tournament-style format. As of writing, Illinois is 11th in AdjO and 20th in AdjD. The offense has been lethal with premium shooters surrounding the perimeter while Cockburn works his monstrous magic down low.
The Illini shoot 38% from 3, which ranks 16th in the nation.
If Cockburn can stay out of foul trouble and remains healthy, then Illinois will be primed and ready for a deep run in March. I will grab +2500 now before the number starts to plummet with Curbelo back.
At +2500, you are looking for Illinois to make at least the Eight Eight before a buy back opportunity. If it reaches the Final Four, it gives you serious hedging opportunities. Reminder, this is all about securing profits and lining our pockets.
Mike Calabrese: Halfway through January and we already have a clear separation between the teams with legitimate conference title hopes and those simply looking to play spoiler.
That is particularly true in the Big Ten, with the top-five programs (Wisconsin, Illinois, Sparty, Ohio State, Purdue) all sitting within one and a half games of one another.
The Badgers are tied with the Fighting Illini at the top of the Big Ten standings and are currently on a seven-game winning streak.
Johnny Davis has been nothing short of sensational, but the general public still views the Badgers as a pretender. Statistically, UW doesn’t pop off the page. In fact, a quick review of the Badgers’ resume could lead a casual observer to assume they were a middling bubble team.
On the floor, however, they have been a well-oiled machine that simply doesn’t beat themselves. Wisconsin is only turning the ball over 8.2 times per game (2nd) and its rarely sending teams to the line (9.2 FTM, 23rd).
Teams need to shoot really well to beat UW because its refusing to give up easy buckets or opportunities from the line. That has translated to the Badgers’ best start since 2015.
Having already split a pair of road games to Ohio State and Purdue, the rest of the conference slate is more than manageable for the Badgers.
Trips to East Lansing, Champaign and Piscataway will shape their stretch run. All three of those opponents have shown vulnerability at home, particularly Michigan State, which just lost to Northwestern outright at the Breslin Center.
Rutgers balanced out an upset of Purdue with a home loss to Lafayette, while Illinois has dropped half of its games this season on its home floor.
The road is manageable at this price, so I’m more than happy to hitch my wagon to a team that doesn’t have much sex appeal. What they do have is a National Player of the Year candidate and a brand of basketball that makes them a tough out in every contest the rest of the way.
What to Watch For
Mike Calabrese: As Stuckey pointed out this week on the Big Bets on Campus podcast, the SEC can make a legitimate claim that it’s the best conference in college basketball. According to Bracket Matrix, the SEC currently has eight teams in the field of 68 with two (Arkansas, Ole Miss) on the bubble.
Digging deeper, the conference has five teams on the six-line or better, with Auburn and LSU sitting as ones and twos, respectively. Then you have the suddenly resurgent Kentucky Wildcats.
Winners of seven of its last eight games, UK has a pair of monster opportunities just around the bend. On Jan. 22nd, Big Blue Nation travels to the Plains to take on Auburn, and then, they head to Lawrence, Kansas at the end of the month for a non-conference heavyweight fight with the Jayhawks.
A mere split would position them to land on the two- or three-line come March, while a sweep would suddenly give them the inside track to a No. 1 seed.
Given the success of the coaches involved with these teams, including Final Four appearances by Bruce Pearl, Coach Cal, Rick Barnes and Ben Howland, I feel confident that at least one will punch a ticket to the Final Four this spring.
That would provide a nice hedge opportunity and turn this future into cash.