2023 NCAA tournament betting, odds: Is there value to be found on Final Four long shots?
The field of 64 has been slashed to 16 after a wild, four-day frenzy that has quickly become the most anticipated week of the year for sports bettors. Now that the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament have been completed, we get a much-needed break to collect ourselves, process the results and prepare for another round of tournament action that will inevitably leave us with our jaws on the floor.
With each region is down to four teams, it's a great time to dip back into the futures market now that the paths to the Final Four have become much clearer. If you plan on the chalk waltzing its way through the region, think again. Last year, higher seeds went 4-4 straight up in Sweet 16 play, as two No. 1 seeds (Gonzaga and Arizona) were sent packing early. Over the last 10 tournaments, the higher seeds have had more success, winning at a 68.8% clip, but this has also been one of the most wide-open fields in recent memory.
The best value on the board is either UCLA or UConn at +200 to reach the Final Four. The Huskies have looked dominant in two victories over Iona and St. Mary's. Danny Hurley is sure to make UConn backers uneasy as the competition strengthens, but the Huskies have been playing like the best team in the nation over the past month. UCLA is the most complete team in the field and has shown the ability to shape-shift into similarly dominant versions of itself regardless of injury. With both teams likely to face each other in the West region final, whichever team you like to come out ahead makes sense at 2 to 1. It's UCLA for me, but it's hard to argue with the value that UConn holds at this number.
Let's get to what makes the NCAA tournament so compelling: the long shots. Princeton is currently this year's Cinderella after the No. 15 seed shocked Arizona and Missouri. I love a good underdog story as much as the next guy, but I don't like lighting my money on fire, either. At 30-1, with Creighton on deck and the No. 1 overall seed still alive in its region, a Princeton Final Four appearance seems too unrealistic for me to get involved. Taking the Tigers out of the equation, let's look at the next five teams on the board with the widest odds to make the Final Four.
Florida Atlantic +450
The Owls aren't my favorite of the group, but they're still a solid bet at +450. They will face Tennessee as +200 underdogs on Thursday night, followed by the winner of Michigan State-Kansas State if they survive the Vols' physical play. Tennessee bullied the Blue Devils, but FAU won't back down, and it has a decent shot at speeding up the tempo and putting pressure on Tennessee's offense with their shooters off the bench. If FAU can pull off the upset Thursday night, +450 will look like a steal with one of the weaker draws in the Elite Eight.
San Diego State +550
When the tournament started, wagering on a team from the Mountain West to make the Final Four seemed crazy at best. However, getting the Aztecs at +550 has real long-shot value. This is all dependent on knocking off the No. 1 seed in the field, but San Diego State is built to give Alabama problems. It will be stingy with access to the rim, and it has the length and athleticism to contest the Crimson Tide's shooters. In a game that comes down to the wire, San Diego State's experience, with four senior starters, could be a determining factor. Alabama's last two losses — to Texas A&M and Tennessee — came at the hands of good defensive teams that force you to play slow. If the Aztecs pull off the upset as +270 underdogs, it's hard to see the Creighton-Princeton winner stopping them from cashing this bet.
The price doesn't reflect how brutal the path is for the Razorbacks. To reach the Final Four, Arkansas will need to have strung together consecutive wins against Kansas, UConn and UCLA or Gonzaga. Eric Musselman is a great coach, but the Razorbacks don't have the perimeter shooting to get through their next two opponents. This is a hard pass.
Incredibly difficult paths will be a recurring theme as we round out the final few teams. Part of the challenge with long shots is that they almost always punch up at this point in the tournament. After getting by Pitt and Kennesaw State, Texas and then likely Houston stand in Xavier's way of the Final Four. I am going to need much more than +650 to invest in Xavier getting by two of the nation's best defensive teams. Jerome Hunter has been phenomenal in shouldering more since Zach Freemantle went down, but it has come at the cost of a now-depleted bench. Against a team like Texas, which can slow down its offense, it's hard to see Xavier stopping the Longhorns from pulling away.
Jim Larranaga's Hurricanes are one of my favorite teams to watch, and that will be the extent of how I will play Miami from here on out. After cashing on the Canes in the first two rounds, the writing is on the wall as they are now forced to face a difficult defense. Miami gets Houston on Friday night, right after Auburn woke up Kelvin Sampson's sleeping giant. The four-day break helps Houston heal up, and the Cougars' defense should have Miami's guards looking like they are trying to run in quicksand. I'd rather play Miami at +900 than Xavier at +650, but there are surely much better bets to make with our money.