Men's college basketball betting odds, picks, tips: Championship, Final Four and conference futures

ByDalen Cuff ESPN logo
Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Odds courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook, except where noted.

Well, it's that time again, where some guy like me tells you that the college basketball season starts in a matter of weeks (Nov. 6, to be exact). Why does college hoops still begin in the thick of the college football and NFL season? And in this particular year up against "Monday Night Football"? Only the very wise people at the NCAA can tell you. But I'll save the need for a scheduling change rant for another day. For now, the season will begin in earnest and the wagering will commence, so in the immortal words of Bill Shakespeare from "Henry V," "Once more unto the breach, dear friends."

All right, we aren't following King Henry into battle, but futures betting in college hoops is difficult. The one-and-done nature of the NCAA tournament makes betting a national champion a tough proposition. But also, with the advent of the transfer portal, the roster turnover makes it even more challenging, as many coaches I talk to don't even know what they have on their teams in mid-October. Just look at the teams that made the Final Four last year:

Miami was 125-1, UConn and San Diego State were 60-1, and Florida Atlantic wasn't even listed at most books, but the ones that did had them at 400-1.

That was a wild Final Four, but it does illustrate how tough it is to bet on April's winner in October. I think picking a national champ is the most futile approach to the futures market, But I'll offer some tips below:

Look for experience: Teams filled with young, talented players (see Kentucky this year) have not fared well in recent years. Since Duke's title-winning team in 2015 -- 235th in experience per KenPom -- every national champion has been 128th or lower in that metric. The future NBA talent is alluring, but recently it hasn't resulted in national titles at the collegiate level.

The NBA dictates how basketball is played, and it trickles down: College hoops still employs big, physical plodding centers, but I don't think those teams are winning six games in a row in March and April against unfamiliar opponents. There are many recent examples of this, but most glaring is Purdue in the 2023 tourney or the general futility of the Big Ten as a conference, which has had only four teams reach the Sweet 16 the past three years.

Taking these two tips into account, I'm out on three of the five teams with the shortest odds: Kansas (+1000), Kentucky (+1200) and Purdue (+1600). I'm looking at taking a flyer on Marquette (+2500). The Golden Eagles return four of five starters from a team that won the Big East regular-season and tournament titles. Tyler Kolek is arguably the best point guard in the country, they have skilled, versatile guys and have taken on the persona of their coach, Shaka Smart. And they'll be battle-tested playing in the Big East, which could be the best league in the country this season.

Final Four and conference winners

This is where the market gets interesting. There's some value here and a more realistic chance of cashing, too.

It's also important to note there's a difference between picks to reach the Final Four versus picking conference winners. Some teams are better built to win in league play than they are against opponents they are less familiar with, especially those that possess varied styles. For example, Purdue (+220 to win the Big Ten) -- a less athletic, slower-paced team -- fares better with similar opponents and styles in the Big Ten, making it a better bet to win its conference than to make it to April.

Also, as mentioned above, veterans are quite valuable and many teams have gone about "getting older" by tapping into the transfer portal, aided by players using their extra year of eligibility due to COVID.

Here is a chart that shows the number of players by class who have played in at least 75% of team games and averaged at least 10 minutes per game for Final Four teams since the 2011-12 season. Over the past four Final Fours, you'll notice a significant dropoff in contributions from freshmen.

With all that in mind, here are my favorite values:

Final Four

Creighton (+800 on DraftKings)

Midseason last year this was my favorite play to get to the Final Four (at a similar price), as the Bluejays got healthy. They were a few possessions away from cashing and surviving a horrible grinder against San Diego State, but alas they did not. This year, first-team all-Mountain West point guard Steven Ashworth steps in after transferring from Utah State to lead a veteran group that returns with Elite Eight experience. Ryan Kalkbrenner is an anchor as a rim-protecting, versatile center and is flanked by wings that can score and make plays. I love Creighton to build on last season's success.

Michigan State (+550 on DraftKings)

Tom Izzo's Spartans were the last Big Ten team to make a Final Four appearance in 2019 and the Hall of Famer has the horses to do it again. Tyson Walker and A.J. Hoggard are veteran guards, Malik Hall, when healthy, is an outstanding wing, and they have a highly rated freshman class to raise the overall talent level.

Duke (+380 on DraftKings)

The Blue Devils have four of five starters returning, which hasn't happened in Durham in more than a decade. They have experience with senior Jeremy Roach and pros in Tyrese Proctor and Kyle Filipowski, who could be lottery picks. They also have a highly rated freshman class coming in, highlighted by Jared McCain, who I saw at practice recently and was extremely impressed. He will be in contention for ACC Rookie of the Year.

Illinois (+1500 on DraftKings)

I'm enamored with the Illini's talent. They return a lot of high-level dudes in Coleman Hawkins, Terrence Shannon Jr.and Ty Rodgers, who could all be pros. They've added a lot of talent and experience in the transfer portal as well. If Illinois can make more 3s and value the ball better this season, it may not be built to win the Big Ten, but can make a run to Phoenix.

Colorado (+2500 on DraftKings)

The Buffaloes are a long shot, but I love this team's makeup. KJ Simpson is an elite lead guard, Tristan da Silva could be a first-team All-American, Cody Williams (little brother of recent lottery pick Jalen) is a top-10 recruit and Tad Boyle is one of the most underrated coaches in the country. I think they will grow throughout the season, making Colorado a good long shot Final Four pick, and I also like them to win the Pac-12 (+700), a conference I don't think has an obvious elite team.

Conference winner

While I often enjoy waiting to make my wagers until right before conference play begins, when more visual and numerical data is available, here are my favorite futures in the preseason (in addition to Colorado):

Miami (Fla.)to win ACC (+500)

Miami went to the Final Four last season, the Elite Eight the year before that and -- most importantly to those of us who bet them to win the conference in '22-23 -- are reigning ACC champs. They did lose Isaiah Wong and some other pieces, but I really like their returning players, especially Norchad Omier, who is a load and the heartbeat of this team. It's really hard to repeat -- last season was a shock to some and everyone will be picking Duke (+130) this season -- but the value here is good.

Alabama to win SEC (+1000)

The SEC will be a really good league once again. There are more-talented teams with shorter odds to take the title, but the roster construction of Nate Oats' team fascinates me. It features one key returning starter in point guard Mark Sears, multiple former mid-major stars in Aaron Estrada from Hofstra (two-time CAA Player of the Year); Grant Nelson, a 6-foot-10 uber-skilled big from North Dakota State (first-team all-Summit League); Latrell Whitesell Jr., a high-level scorer from Cal State Fullerton (first-team all-Big West), a mix of quality returners and high-level freshmen. At this price, I like the Tide to overcome a slight lack of experience in SEC environments to win league.