NCAA Basketball Preview
November 10, 2017
By Tony Mejia
Kentucky opened 10-to-1 when the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook put it out its initial figures last April just before North Carolina denied Gonzaga the championship for all mid-majors.
John Calipari deserves that kind of juice, but hasn't won since 2012 and will need to do his best coaching job ever to add to his legend in '18. The Wildcats are probably more raw than they've been at any point since missing the NCAA tournament with that post-championship group led by freshmen Willie Cauley-Stein, Nerlens Noel and Archie Goodwin.
While the 'Cats won't miss the NCAAs, you don't want to get in on them at the 8-to-1 spot where they currently reside. You'll be able to get better bang for your buck down the road since the belief here is that Kentucky will lose a handful of times before getting it together since they play Kansas, Virginia Tech, UCLA and Louisville before the SEC season arrives.
With the starting backcourt of De'Arron Fox and Malik Monk off to the NBA, freshmen Quade Green, Hamidou Diallo, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jemarl Baker will man the guard spots. Another freshman, Kevin Knox should be the best player unless fellow frosh forward P.J. Washington makes the most improvement. The 'Cats will be as athletic as ever, but there will be growing pains that make backing them as a favored group rather foolish at the current odds.
Defending champion North Carolina returns point guard Joel Berry and wing Theo Pinson, but lost bigs Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley in addition to key wing Justin Jackson. Berry will miss the first few games with a broken hand suffered after he punched a wall in frustration after losing a video game. After opening at 12/1, the defending champs are now 30-to-1, offering tremendous value to back what would be the first successful repeat bid since 1973. I don't see that happening either.
Who should you get down on? Glad you asked.
Final Four projections
Arizona, Duke, Kansas and Michigan State are my choices to reach the 2018 Final Four in San Antonio's Alamodome, which would make for a fantastic field but looms as unlikely since there are no Cinderellas in that group. We've grown accustomed to seeing teams like Gonzaga, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Wichita State and Butler make runs to end up among the last four standing, and there's certainly enough parity for a team we don't currently see coming to add their name to that list.
Eric Musselman's Nevada Wolf Pack are at 200-to-1, the same odds that heavyweights like Syracuse and Indiana carry into the season.
Cincinnati is loaded and a great option at 100-to-1 since many believe that Mick Cronin will have his best, deepest team at his disposal despite the loss of point guard Troy Caupain.
Arizona (6/1) features one of the nation's top freshmen in DeAndre Ayton, a 7-foot-1 athletic specimen originally from the Bahamas. He'll do most of his damage in the paint but has range out to the perimeter and should make life easy for standout veteran guards Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Allonzo Trier.
Duke (4/1) returns everyone's favorite temperamental guard, Grayson Allen, who will share the stage with a pair of elite recruits in freshman forwards Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter in addition to wing Gary Trent, Jr and point guard Trevon Duval. This class is the best in the country, superior to Kentucky's, as Mike Krzyzewski continues to thrive by signing one-and-dones.
Kansas (12/1) lost point guard Frank Mason III and star wing Josh Jackson, but remain formidable due to terrific depth. It should help the cause that the Jayhawks will work against a scout team led by Memphis transfers Dedric Lawson and K.J. Lawson in addition to Cal import Charlie Moore. All played major minutes at their old schools before defecting to Lawrence.
Michigan State (4/1) got a major boost when forward Miles Bridges opted to return for his sophomore season after dropping jaws when he was healthy enough to play last season. If he can stay out on the floor, Tom Izzo will get the best out of him and a sophomore-laded group featuring Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and Nick Ward, all of whom put in work last season. Veterans Tum-Tum Nairn, Gavin Schilling and Kenny Goins add depth as glue guys, making this one of Izzo's deeper squads.
Young Names to Know
It seems like every year we go in knowing very few of the names who end up dominating the college landscape since the current trend is that the elite freshmen rarely need an adjustment period. Of the first 11 picks in the 2017 NBA Draft, 10 were freshmen. The outlier was French point guard Frank Ntilikina, also a teenager.
This season, Missouri's Michael Porter, Jr., Duke's Bagley, Arizona's Ayton and Alabama's Collin Sexton are the four freshmen most likely to have an immense impact in becoming the next crop of one-and-dones. Louisville's Brian Bowen, at the heart of the latest scandal that cost Rick Pitino his job, deserves mention in this group if he can get qualified.
If you're into more veteran-laden teams, take a look at West Virginia, Xavier, Villanova, Florida, Miami (FL), Gonzaga, Notre Dame, Northwestern and aforementioned Cincinnati. Wichita State will challenge the WCC's Zags and Saint Mary's Gaels for the honor of being the country's top-ranked mid-major but note that the Shockers are now in the American Athletic Conference.
Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA
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