Consider the list of NCAA basketball champions in the past 20 years: Arizona, Kentucky, Connecticut, Michigan State, Duke, Maryland, Syracuse, North Carolina, Florida, Kansas, Villanova, and Louisville. There are 351 Division 1 schools with dreams of winning the 2018 championship but handicappers can safely dismiss 339 of those pretenders and look instead for a future winner among the dozen recent champions.
Duke, the 2015 champion, begins play as the consensus pre-season number one pick. As usual, Mike Krzyzewski’s bunch includes a half-dozen future NBA first-rounders, a handful of potential first overall picks, and several of the country’s top freshmen. Junior guard Grayson Allen is a top contender for Player of the Year. All of that talent does not always form a coherent unit in Durham (see 2016-2017 when much the same was predicted for Duke and the team bowed out prematurely in the March tournament) but for now online bookmaker bet365 has the Blue Devils as a solid 5/1 favorite to win the 2018 title.
Michigan State (15/2) is everyone’s pick to win the Big Ten title as it returns four sophomores from one of coach Tom Izzo’s best recruiting classes. That quartet helped the Spartans commit more turnovers than all but 37 teams in the country last year, ultimately dooming Michigan State’s run in the NCAA Tournament. One more year should enhance ball safety. The top returnee, Miles Bridges, was expected to wind up in the NBA lottery this summer but is surprisingly back in East Lansing. Michigan State is likely to go as far as Bridges before he takes the pro dollars.
When thinking of NBA players in waiting, Kentucky has its normal platoon of young stars for John Calipari. Redshirt freshman Hamidou Diallo starred in the NBA draft combine earlier this year where he recorded the second highest vertical leap ever but he decided to play for Kentucky instead. Calipari’s lineup will likely be heavy on athletic wing players and lacking the standout point guard he favors. As usual Kentucky has the deepest roster in the country so Calipari will likely be using the regular SEC season to find his optimum rotation. If he figures it out come tournament time Kentucky will return 9/1 for backers as champion.
The class of the Pac-12, the University of Arizona, is also posted at 9/1 odds. The Wildcats figure to put one of the nation’s most potent offenses on the floor with freshman standout DeAndre Ayton joining leading scorer Allonzo Trier and wingman Rawle Alkins. All three will likely be in NBA line-ups not long after the 2017-2018 season wraps up.
Kansas lost a trio of stars after bowing out in the Elite Eight last March but few observers expect the Jayhawks to lose the stranglehold on the Big 12 they have maintained since 2005. Come tournament time Bill Self’s squad will be able to bank on leadership from senior guard Devonte’ Graham. In addition to a line-up of highly touted freshmen and transfers, Kansas will be relying on seven-footer Udoka Azubuike who will be bringing his 240 pounds of bulk back to the court after missing his freshman year with a wrist injury. Kansas is offered at 14/1.
Defending champion North Carolina brought its sixth championship banner back to Chapel Hill last year but also bid farewell to four of its five top scorers. Coach Roy Williams brought in five freshmen to fill the court behind All-ACC senior guard Joel Berry. A repeat seems unlikely and the Tar Heels are offered at 15/1.
Villanova, Florida, and Louisville are all listed at 28/1 with bookie bet365. Villanova, the 2016 champion, earned a number one seed in last year’s tournament and returns with four seasoned junior starters. They will be joined by five-star recruit freshman Omari Spellman who was with the Wildcats last year but was ineligible to play. Jay Wright and Villanova should have no trouble advancing through the Big East Conference.
Mike White returned the Florida Gators to the NCAA Tournament last year in his second season as head coach and with his third recruiting class he has built a roster deep enough to get production deep into his bench. Egor Koulechov, a graduate transfer from Rice, is expected to provide most of the scoring from his shooting guard position.
Louisville enters the season on the heels of an FBI investigation that led to the ouster of Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino. The talented players all remain eligible and if untested assistant David Padgett keeps the Louisville juggernaut on an even keel the Cardinals will be a force come tournament time.
Bettors looking beyond the usual suspects for a new roundball champion can cast their eyes to the Midwest at Missouri and Wichita State. Missouri has not won more than ten games in three years but new coach Cuonzo Martin has made an immediate impact in Columbia. Top-five recruit Michael Porter leads an impressive freshman class. Most Missouri fans would just take a trip to the NCAA tournament but if the Tigers can surprise with a title the payout will be 18/1.
The Wichita State Shockers are a popular sleeper pick heading into the season at 25/1. Coach Gregg Marshall returns nearly everyone from last year’s 31-win team, including his top eight scorers. Wichita State takes its seasoned squad from the Missouri Valley Conference to the American Athletic Conference. If anything, the upgrade in competition will season the Shockers for a deep tournament run come March.
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