There’s always potential value in the NCAA tournament futures market, whether it’s taking one of the favorites or finding a potential sleeper. Here are six bets worth making. 

By Max Meyer
March 19, 2019

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There’s always potential value in the NCAA tournament futures market, whether it’s betting on one of the favorites or finding a potential sleeper. Remember, a title future doesn’t have to win in order for you to profit, if a longshot future wins a couple of games, you can always hedge in the later matchups. With that being said, here are some of the most intriguing futures bets to me on the board (odds via William Hill).

Virginia +140 to win South Region

If you don’t have this prop available, I don’t mind taking a stab at Virginia +550 or higher to win the title either. It’s remarkable to see this team become such a contrarian pick now, thanks to its historic upset loss last year to UMBC and since the public isn’t as excited by a slow pace.

But the Hoos still rank No. 1 in KenPom for a reason. Besides their excellent-as-usual defense, the offense has reached new heights this season. Virginia has had a top-20 adjusted offense twice over the past six seasons, No. 8 in 2016 and No. 2 this season. And 2016 was the furthest March Madness run under Tony Bennett, which ended in heartbreaking fashion in the Elite Eight to Syracuse.

This offense, however, has very few holes. Virginia is fourth in the country in three-point shooting (40.9%). It is 14th in offensive turnover rate, though admittedly that has been an issue in some games in ACC play. The Hoos are 48th in FT percentage (74.6%) and have the 56th-highest assist rate in the country. They have very strong guard play in Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy along with an NBA lottery talent in forward De’Andre Hunter.

People are still afraid to take Virginia to go far because of its past tournament failures, but I think because of that reputation, there’s value in betting the Hoos to go far here. I’m not that afraid of the No. 2 (Tennessee) or No. 3 (Purdue) seeds in their region, and I expect this to be the year of a Final Four breakthrough.

Kentucky 13/1

In its region, Kentucky has KenPom’s lowest-ranked No. 1 seed (North Carolina at No. 6), third-lowest No. 3 seed (Houston) and third-lowest No. 4 seed (Kansas). Now it does have the highest-ranked No. 6 seed (Iowa State) and No. 7 seed (Wofford), which is especially relevant because they’re both in the bottom half of the bracket along with the Wildcats.

I do think the key to stopping Kentucky is being able to shut it down in the paint. Per hoop-math.com, the Wildcats rank 11th in the country on FG% on shots taken at the rim (67.9%). That makes sense given Kentucky’s size, with 6’8” PJ Washington, 6’8” Reid Travis, 6’10” EJ Montgomery and 6’11” Nick Richards all in the fold. The Wildcats have one of the lowest three-point attempt rates in the country (340th), and they can certainly get into trouble if you force them to take more jumpers than usual.

Diving deeper into the bottom half of the region, just two other teams besides Kentucky rank in the top 100 in defensive FG% at the rim: Seton Hall (28th) and Houston (42nd). While Houston will have a tough time handling Kentucky’s size (the Cougars are 271st in average height, per KenPom), Kentucky will be awfully familiar with Seton Hall since it lost to the Pirates 84–83 in overtime on Dec. 8. With the Wildcats being such a young team, they are more prone to slip-ups in the early part of the season. This team now is a much different beast than the one that lost to Seton Hall, simply because it has had more time to gel and get familiar with playing with one another.

I trust Kentucky to make it to at least the Elite Eight, and at that point you have a live 13/1 shot to either roll with to win the title or start hedging. Kentucky is only ranked one spot behind No. 1 seed UNC (UNC is six, Kentucky is seven) on KenPom and beat the Tar Heels 80–72 this season thanks to forcing them into a turnover on 21.7% of possessions (Ashton Hagans had eight steals that game). While the Wildcats have the lowest odds of any No. 2 seed to win the title, I do think they have a very doable path to win this region and it's worth making a play here. I simply don't get why Kentucky is at 13/1 versus UNC at +600. 

Auburn 50/1 AND Auburn +900 to win Midwest Region

I also think there’s a shot that we don’t even see UNC reach the Elite Eight to potentially face Kentucky. That’s because of how dangerous Auburn is. Now, this is also a team that can very well get upset in the first round against New Mexico State, but the high-risk, high-reward style of play that Auburn has is worth taking a future on.

These Tigers are known for two things: Gunning threes and forcing turnovers. Auburn has the eighth-highest three-point attempt rate in the country (49.6%), and makes them at the 27th-highest clip (38.1%). On defense, the Tigers have the highest defensive turnover rate (25.4%) in the country. You saw their ceiling in full force in the SEC tournament championship against Tennessee, as Auburn made 15 threes and forced a Volunteers turnover on 24.6% of their possession en route to a 20-point win.

The upperclassmen backcourt of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown lead the way, but the Tigers also have a solid stable of big men in Chuma Okeke, Horace Spencer, Anfernee McLemore and Austin Wiley. It’s a big reason why Auburn is also very strong at blocking shots (fifth in CBB with a 16.1 block%) and offensive rebounding (48th in CBB with a 32.7 OREB%).

This team is certainly vulnerable defending the perimeter, with opponents frequently getting open looks from beyond the arc because of how the Tigers gamble for steals. And Auburn can always have a rough shooting day from outside, which could lead to an early exit. But with its incredibly high ceiling and talent level, Auburn is a rare team that isn't a top-four seed that can compete with anyone, including a potential battle against UNC in the Sweet 16. The Tigers are certainly worth a play to both win the region and the tournament at their current odds.

Virginia Tech 60/1

Taking a future on someone else besides Duke in Duke’s region? GASP!

Again, this is another team that takes (37th in three-point attempt rate) and makes (eighth at 39.4%) a lot of threes. And while the Hokies rank 11th in adjusted offensive efficiency, they are also 25th in adjusted defensive efficiency. And like Auburn, VT forces a good amount of turnovers (27th in defensive TO%). If you are maximizing your chances to score more points by taking more threes and minimizing your opponents’ chances to score more points by limiting their number of shots by forcing turnovers, that is a strong formula to go far in the tournament.

The Hokies also recently got some great news: Justin Robinson, their star point guard, is back. He missed all of February and March after suffering a foot injury (12 games). While VT was still strong on the offensive end without him (20th in adjusted offensive efficiency since Feb. 1), the Hokies are elite on that end with him playing (sixth in adjusted offensive efficiency from the start of the season to Jan. 31). There’s certainly a rust factor there, but I trust Buzz Williams to ease his floor general in. But VT still has other elite weapons in guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker and big man Kerry Blackshear.

And if you’re scared about fading Duke, Virginia Tech beat the Blue Devils in Blacksburg 77–72 in March. Now, that game was without Zion Williamson and Robinson, but I think having played Duke once can only help with this team’s preparation if it goes that far. Regardless, at 60/1, the Hokies are worth a gamble here.

UC Irvine 750/1

I think UC Irvine has one of the best shots of all the double-digit seeds to make it to the second weekend. That 4/5/12/13 pod of Wisconsin, Kansas State, Oregon and UC Irvine features the lowest spread of any 5–12 game (Wisconsin -1.5) and of any 4/13 game (Kansas State -5). Yet, Oregon’s title odds are 150/1, while the Anteaters sit at 750/1.

All four of those teams play elite defense and play at a very slow pace. Games that feature a lower amount of possessions favor the underdog, since it gives the favorite fewer opportunities to separate itself during the game. And if UC Irvine can win its first two tourney games, you have a great opportunity to profit by hedging the rest of the way thanks to holding a 750/1 ticket (starting with a Sweet 16 matchup against Virginia).

There are a lot of reasons to like this UC Irvine team. The Anteaters won 30 games, have a lot of depth (seventh in CBB in bench minutes), plenty of experience (out of Irvine's 10 players who receive the most minutes, only one isn’t an upperclassman in freshman big man Collin Welp) and, as was mentioned before, have an incredible defense.

UC Irvine has the No. 1 two-point defense (40.6%) and rim defense (46.5%) in the country. The Anteaters also do an excellent job limiting shots from beyond the arc, as their defensive three-point attempt rate ranks 15th. Wisconsin isn’t a top-50 team based on adjusted offensive efficiency, while Kansas State and Oregon don’t even rank in the top 100. If those teams are forced to settle for two-point jumpers against Irvine, that can really cause major problems.

The Anteaters aren’t going to win the title. But they’re damn good and have a legitimate chance at making a run. Winning two games (and especially upsetting Kansas State) is a plausible feat for this bunch, and at 750/1, the potential profit on a later hedge play is very intriguing to me.

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