The 2017-18 college basketball tips off on Friday amid a chorus of questions. As always, one team will be left standing come April, but we are hearing more about the FBI probe and paying players than actual hoops right now. But sportsbooks are still offering March Madness futures so let’s look at some contenders. Note: no teams that are involved in the FBI scandal at this point are included below, as it is unclear if their players and/or coaches will be disciplined during the year, not to mention the distraction this causes. No Pac-12 schools are included either since they tempt us every year, but haven’t won a NCAA Title since 1995.
Final Four Favorites
Coach K’s team is the favorite for good reason. Senior Grayson Allen is one of the best non-freshman in the country and a contender for National Player of the Year. Newcomer Marvin Bagley III is among the top freshman in the NCAA, and also a candidate for NCAA Player of the Year, not to mention the no. 1 overall draft pick. Three other freshman, Trevon Duval, Gary Trent Jr., and Wendell Carter may start. The talent level is very high, but it was last year too, when the Blue Devils finished a disappointing 28-9 and exited the Big Dance in the second round. Though betting on the most talented team, with perhaps the best coach of all time, isn’t ridiculous, there is too much parity to take such a short price.
Michigan State: 6/1
Coming off an uncharacteristically mediocre campaign, the Spartans return four starters and add McDonald’s All American Jaren Jackson Jr. Sophomore Miles Bridges — arguably the favorite for Player of the Year — announced he would be back for a second season in East Lansing by telling fans, “I want to win a national championship.” Though the Spartans have a very difficult early-season schedule, they can win it all if their large group of sophomores (which includes not just Bridges, but Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford, and Nick Ward) makes an expected big leap.
Winners of the Big 12 in 13 consecutive seasons, Bill Self’s Jayhawks are coming off a 31-win campaign. Their RPI the last five seasons has been fifth, fourth, fifth, first, and fourth. That is elite consistency. Of course, KU has won just one national title since 1988, and this year’s team loses impact players in Frank Mason, Josh Jackson, and Landen Lucas. That said, Devonte Graham is ready to be the signature player on this team, and Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman should be a big time help from day one; the fact that he’s likely to be behind LaGerald Vick on the depth chart just shows how talented this team is. Bill Self will need someone in the front court to emerge, whether it be freshman Billy Preston or Marcus Garrett, or sophomores Udoka Azubuike or Mitch Lightfoot.
Wichita State: 20/1
While Kansas has dominated the Big 12, they might not be the best team in their state. The Jayhawks refuse to schedule the Shockers in the regular season, and when they matched up in the 2015 NCAA Tournament, Wichita State came out on top. Coach Gregg Marshall, a robust 261-90 in his tenure, including an undefeated regular season (2013-14) and a Final Four appearance (2013), returns all five starters. Landry Shamet, the team’s star point guard, had surgery in July to repair a stress fracture in his right foot, but will be good to go when the important games get underway. Markis McDuffie was the team’s leading scorer, but is arguably more valuable for his defense and grit. Center Shaq Morris is a bulldozer, which is needed in the Shockers new league, the American Athletic Conference. Moving from the Missouri Valley will help Wichita’s strength of schedule, and should enable them to get a strong seed in the Big Dance.
It is easy to forget that Purdue won the Big Ten last year by two games, and then won two NCAA Tournament games before bowing out against Kansas in the Sweet 16. Four starters are back for coach Matt Painter, but the team’s star, Caleb Swanigan, is now in the NBA. If four senior starters (PJ Thompson, Dakota Mathias, Vincent Edwards, and Isaac Haas) get a jump from either Carsen Edwards, Ryan Cline, or a newcomer, Matt Painter could soon be making his fourth run to the Sweet 16. He has the nucleus to go even further this season, though Purdue will have to be a cohesive unit because they lack a star like Swanigan.
The Best Bet
Two non-Power 5 teams, Villanova and UConn, have won titles in recent years, while even smaller programs, Gonzaga and Butler, have reached the title game three times over the past eight seasons. The time is now for a “mid-major” to hoist the trophy. Gregg Marshall is all about firsts. He won an NCAA Tournament game at Winthrop when no Big South team had ever won a Round of 64 game. His accomplishments at Wichita State are almost unthinkable and the next step is a national title. The Shockers’ chances are reasonable and the price is right.