Gonzaga, Baylor don't hold value in NCAA men's tournament futures
By Sam Panayotovich
FOX Sports Betting Analyst
There has been an excessively popular narrative permeating the men's college basketball landscape all season.
"It’s Gonzaga and Baylor, then everybody else."
While there’s a lot of truth to the strength of those two teams, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is one of the hardest mountains to climb in American sports. A national champion has to bring its A-game for six straight single-elimination games on a neutral court.
One bad shooting performance, and it’s all over. One critical defensive lapse, and the walls come crumbling down. A couple of missed free throws here and there, and it’s on to the offseason.
FOX Bet is playing into the aforementioned narrative by taking bets on the undefeated Zags (20-0) and Bears (17-0) against the field.
The Bulldogs and Bears are -118 to win the tournament, while the 66-team field is also priced at -118.
There’s almost too much love being thrown around for the two unbeatens at this point. The fact that I can get 66 teams to win the tournament at -118 is insanity.
Granted, 45 of them have little shot of winning the national title. But I get Villanova, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio State, Alabama, Virginia, Oklahoma, Florida State, Tennessee, Iowa, USC, West Virginia, Texas, Texas Tech, Kansas, Creighton, Loyola Chicago, Houston, San Diego State and a partridge in a pear tree? At -118?! That’s absurd.
I tracked down a Las Vegas bookmaker who doesn’t think Gonzaga and Baylor are as invincible as most people believe.
"They aren’t that amazing," Golden Nugget sportsbook director Aaron Kessler told FOX Sports. "They’re very good teams. I don’t think they’re generational or even [best of the] decade teams. They’re not on the same level as the great teams. Gonzaga has an extremely efficient offense, and Baylor plays lockdown defense. They’re both very good teams. But they’re not better than that ‘18 Virginia team that lost to UMBC. Not in my eyes."
Kessler was too ready to discuss this further. He came prepared with a list of the most dominant teams he has seen at the collegiate level.
"The ’15 Kentucky team that came in undefeated might be the best I’ve ever seen," Kessler opined. "They were an absolute powerhouse. Devin Booker was the sixth man. The ’12 Kentucky team with Anthony Davis is not far behind. Then you go ’09 [North] Carolina and ’05 [North] Carolina. Then ’18 Virginia, which I’m still mad about. The ’08 Kansas squad that beat Derrick Rose and Memphis in the final was loaded. And the ’99 Duke team that lost to Rip Hamilton was just stacked. They had Elton Brand, Shane Battier, Trajan Langdon, William Avery and Corey Maggette. And they lost."
Kessler brought seven superteams to the conversation. Only four of them cut down the nets and celebrated during "One Shining Moment." That’s the beauty of March Madness. Often, the best team on paper doesn’t win.
The cream would likely rise in a best-of-three or best-of-five format, but anything goes in a single-elimination gauntlet.
Corey Kispert and Gonzaga haven't lost since Feb. 22, 2020, when they dropped a game at BYU.
"It’s super hard to run the table," Kessler said. "There are no gimmies, and everything has to break right for you. One bad night, and it’s all over. You have to be near perfect in all aspects of your game once you hit the second weekend."
Since 2010, only 13 of 40 Final Four teams have been No. 1 seeds. But it’s clear that one of the top teams in the country usually wins. In fact, a top-three seed has won 21 of the past 22 tournaments. The lone exception came in 2014, when seventh-seeded UConn beat 8-seed Kentucky behind 22 points from Huskies guard Shabazz Napier.
There’s always the bar debate about whether coaches or NBA talent is more important in the NCAA Tournament. Some people rush to back coaches such as Tom Izzo and Jay Wright in March, while others roll with teams that project to have multiple NBA players.
"We all love NBA talent, but look at the last tournament that got finished," Kessler pointed out. "The final was Virginia against Texas Tech, and there weren’t many NBA players on the floor. We’re talking about De’Andre Hunter and Jarrett Culver, and that’s pretty much it.
"Coaching was the difference, with two really good ones in Tony Bennett and Chris Beard. You look for really good college players and a coach who can set a good system who can get them there."
My March betting strategy usually revolves around underdogs. I’m prone to betting on 'dogs in the first two rounds, especially ones that have a chance to win outright. I absolutely loved Loyola Chicago three years ago when they made an incredible run to San Antonio. That was a hell of a ride.
The Ramblers did the unthinkable and beat Miami, Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State en route to the Final Four. Kessler remembers that run for all the wrong reasons.
"Sister Jean absolutely destroyed me," he deadpanned. "I had six futures in that bracket, and three of them lost to Loyola. I had a 90% chance of getting through the region, according to KenPom, and I did not."
I often wonder how the betting public approaches the trendy lower-seeded team that goes on a run in the tournament. Do they jump on the trendy train and take the points, or do they go out of their way to bet the favorite to crush Cinderella’s hopes and dreams?
"You would think that we would start to get money on a 'dog like that," Kessler said. "But that’s not the way it works. We usually have trouble writing 'dog money in that situation. Whoever makes the run, we need them.
"Generally, the house usually needs the 'dogs. It’s got to be the right 'dog, though. Every year there are a couple 'dogs that make a run late. It seems like every year we’ve got big liability on a 4-seed. I can’t remember the last tournament we didn’t have a 4 with massive liability. It always seems to break that way."
Jared Butler, left, and Baylor are holding opponents to just 62.8 points per game as they've cruised to a 17-0 record.
So which team does the guy behind the counter like to make a deep run?
"This year is really weird because there’s not a lot of separation," Kessler said. "You’ve got Gonzaga and Baylor at the top and then a lot of teams that are fairly equal. I might be a little bit of a homer here, but I think Illinois might be every bit as good as the big two."
The more I hear how it’s Gonzaga and Baylor, then everybody else, the more I like everybody else. Contrarianism could certainly be my fatal flaw if one of them wins the national championship. But that’s totally fine with me.
Sometimes you’ve gotta zig when everybody else Zags.
Sam Panayotovich is a sports betting analyst for FOX Sports and NESN. He previously worked for WGN Radio, NBC Sports and VSiN. He'll probably pick against your favorite team. Follow him on Twitter @spshoot.