LAS VEGAS — It’s one-and-done time for Kentucky and coach John Calipari. One loss in this week’s Southeastern Conference tournament will mean the Wildcats’ season is done.
It’s tough to top the drama of college basketball’s tournament setting in March, when upsets and inspirational runs by underdogs highlight the surprise party. Long-shot teams still have hope when a conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament is up for grabs.
Kentucky is rarely in the ’dog role, but the Wildcats (9-15) stumble into the SEC tournament in Nashville, Tenn., as the No. 8 seed. As the losses piled up on Calipari, his media cheerleaders started looking for excuses.
Arkansas coach Eric Musselman needs no excuses. The Razorbacks (21-5) are riding an 11-game win streak in SEC play and enter the tournament as the No. 2 seed.
“It’s definitely no secret now, but Arkansas is dangerous,” William Hill sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich said. “I think Musselman is as good as any coach in the country.”
Musselman lost four starters and 84 percent of the team’s scoring production from last season. Two months ago, the Razorbacks were 2-4 in the league and reeling from a 31-point loss at Alabama. The emergence of freshman guard Moses Moody has energized an Arkansas team set up for a No. 3 seed in the NCAA field. Moody scored 24 points when the Hogs turned the tables on the Crimson Tide with an 81-66 win on Feb. 24.
Kentucky would have to go through top-seeded Alabama. Arkansas is in the other half of the bracket with third-seeded LSU. Pass on the Wildcats at the 16/1 odds offered at BetMGM.
Look to bet on hot teams and the best coaches in March. Musselman, a former NBA head coach with Golden State and Sacramento, is one of the best. He’s also extremely emotional and has been known to rip off his shirt for a bare-chested postgame celebration, which he could get the chance to do again this weekend.
Best bet: Arkansas (7/2).
Here’s are some best bets in the other tournaments in the top conferences:
ACC: Mike Krzyzewski started looking for excuses in early December, when the Duke coach lobbied to pause the season. The agony of a season-ending defeat is coming soon for a team that’s 11-11 and seeded 10th in the conference tournament. BetMGM has posted Duke at 20/1 odds to win five games in five days (DraftKings is offering 80/1), but forget that because the Blue Devils are going down.
“I would keep an eye on Georgia Tech, which is a senior-laden team,” The Gold Sheet handicapper Bruce Marshall said.
Top-seeded Virginia is the 5/2 favorite, but the Cavaliers are vulnerable and in the same half of the bracket with fourth-seeded Georgia Tech and No. 5 Clemson, a couple of live long shots. The price is right on the Yellow Jackets, led by seniors Moses Wright and Jose Alvarado.
Best bet: Georgia Tech (10/1).
Big East: A season-ending knee injury to senior guard Collin Gillespie has essentially erased Villanova from the NCAA title picture and opened up the Big East bracket. BetMGM lists Creighton as the 2/1 favorite with the Wildcats at 3/1.
Fourth-seeded St. John’s (20/1) is a long shot to watch in Villanova’s half of the bracket. On the other side, third-seeded Connecticut is a hot team — 6-1 in its past seven games — buoyed by the return of star guard James Bouknight (20.2 ppg).
“I think UConn should be favored to win the Big East right now, especially with Gillespie out for Villanova,” Marshall said. “The Big East is sort of collapsing around UConn. Now that Bouknight is back, they can do some business in the Big Dance, too.”
Best bet: Connecticut (3/1)
Big Ten: Michigan State’s late resurgence likely means the conference will get nine teams in the NCAA field. The Spartans, who upset Michigan on Sunday, could face the top-seeded Wolverines for the third time in nine days if the teams meet in Friday’s quarterfinals.
Michigan might go to Indianapolis without senior guard Eli Brooks because of an ankle injury, and that would make the Wolverines fragile favorites at +175. Ohio State (10/1) is a hungry ’dog on a four-game losing skid, and Iowa (4/1) is capable with senior star Luka Garza. Illinois finished 16-4 in league play, so go with the hottest team that’s 11-1 in the last 12 games and is led by NBA prospects Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn.
Best bet: Illinois (3/1).
Big 12: Baylor, the odds-on favorite at -145, overcame a three-week COVID-19 layoff to finish 21-1. The Bears’ half of the bracket includes Oklahoma State and West Virginia. The other half features Kansas, Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma.
It’s no disrespect to Baylor to say six other teams could win this tournament in Kansas City, so play this based on odds value. Red Raiders coach Chris Beard tends to thrive in tournament settings.
Best bet: Texas Tech (10/1).
Pac-12: Oregon, which won the regular-season title, has the best coach in Dana Altman and the smoothest path to the title game with Colorado (5/2) and USC (+225) in the other half of the bracket. No long shots look live in this tournament in Las Vegas, so play the near-favorite.
Best bet: Oregon 5/2.