College basketball is almost back. Hopefully, this season is more normal than the last.
College hoops had the unfortunate distinction of being tied to the pandemic. In 2020, the world shut down right as college hoops was having its conference tournaments lead into the NCAA tournament. Every other sport has returned with fans, but our last glimpse of college basketball was during a tournament held entirely in Indiana with the Final Four in front of a few thousand fans in a football stadium.
Next Tuesday, college basketball returns to normal, or as close as there is in this world. At the annual Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York, Kansas plays Michigan Sate and Duke faces Kentucky.
It'll be a while before conference play starts, but BetMGM is offering odds for 24 conference championships as the season is about to start. Here's our look at the seven top conferences in the sport with a best bet for each:
American Athletic: Memphis should be fun
Penny Hardaway can recruit. Memphis had the top incoming class in Rivals' rankings, thanks to five-star recruits Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren. Both were top-five prospects in the 2022 class but reclassified. Recruiting hasn't been the problem for Memphis, but results have not followed. Meanwhile, there's 2021 Final Four team Houston, which did lose three of its top four scorers but has AAC player of the year candidate Marcus Sasser and a history of success under Kelvin Sampson. Memphis is the flashy favorite at +175, but I prefer Houston's track record. It's hard to find a good long shot because this looks like a two-team race.
Pick: Houston +225
ACC: Can Duke win it?
You're going to hear this a lot: This is Mike Krzyzewski's final season at Duke. Oddsmakers like that narrative and the Duke roster, because they're +250 favorites to win the ACC. It's a weird stat, but Duke hasn't won the ACC regular-season title since 2010. Given that Duke doesn't place a high premium on that accomplishment — it's had the talent to win the ACC more than a few times over the past 11 seasons — let's look elsewhere for value. I was surprised to see Notre Dame in the top 30 of KenPom and Bart Torvik's rankings, considering the Irish have had a few down years and don't have a lot returning. But they're +2000 if you buy the lofty computer rankings. For the odds, I like Virginia Tech +1000. The Hokies were 9-4 in the ACC last season, have a lot of experience and Keve Aluma, who could be an all-ACC player and maybe make a run at ACC player of the year. It's hard to buy into Virginia Tech winning the ACC, but the odds are good.
Pick: Virginia Tech +1000
Big East: Villanova a big favorite
Villanova is one of the rare teams that has minus-odds to win its conference. It's a -110 favorite. The main reason: Collin Gillespie is back from injury. It'll need to figure out the frontcourt, but Jay Wright always has answers. It's hard to take any team to win a conference at -110, so who can compete? UConn is the second favorite at +350, but its offense is a question with James Bouknight off to the NBA. Xavier has an all-conference inside-outside combo in Zach Freemantle and Paul Scruggs and a ton of returnees, and its +600 odds are probably the best value. Freemantle's foot injury (he had surgery but is supposedly slated to be back before Big East play) is a concern, but there's enough depth to give Villanova a scare. Still, it seems like this is Villanova's league to win. Even though it's rough to take a team at minus-odds to win a conference championship, that's probably the ticket that will cash.
Pick: Villanova -110
Big Ten: Michigan, Purdue favored
The Big Ten is one of the deepest conferences in the country, with four teams in KenPom's top eight to start the season. The best odds of the top four is Illinois at +550 (the others: Michigan +250, Purdue +300, Ohio State +450). Illinois lost Ayo Dosunmu, who is now with the Chicago Bulls, but got back dominant big man Kofi Cockburn. There's nothing wrong with a bet on the Illini. But I prefer Purdue, which has its own great big man in Trevion Williams and a group of four sophomores who all impressed last season. Michigan has Hunter Dickinson and a great recruiting class, but I like Purdue's returnees just a bit more.
Pick: Purdue +300
Big 12: Kansas looks to get back on top
Winning the Big 12 used to be automatic for Kansas. But the Jayhawks haven't won the conference two of the last three seasons. They're favored to win it this season at +150 and it's justified. They have four returning starters and add Arizona State transfer Remy Martin, who was named preseason Big 12 player of the year. Still, they're no lock. For a long shot, Oklahoma State brings a lot back even without Cade Cunningham and their +1600 odds are enticing. The Cowboys' postseason ban isn't great but it could cause them to focus on winning the Big 12 regular-season title. My best bet for the Big 12 is the second favorite, Texas. The Longhorns have elite coach Chris Beard after hiring him from Texas Tech and an endless amount of talent after grabbing a few top players from the transfer portal. The Kansas-Texas games will be phenomenal.
Pick: Texas +225
Pac-12: Can UCLA keep rising?
UCLA was the darling of the offseason after a great tournament run. The question, however, is did the Bruins just get hot at the right time and are they overrated now? Or was that a true breakout? Put another way, if UCLA didn't beat Michigan State in overtime of a First Four game, are we talking about them as a championship contender? Probably not.
It is no surprise UCLA is the Pac-12 favorite at +125. Nearly everyone is back from a Final Four team. If you want to bet on UCLA being a little overrated due to a winning streak during March Madness, Oregon is the play. They have a great coach in Dana Altman, good returning talent and add a lot of transfers who should have an immediate impact. And it's worth noting the Ducks, not UCLA, won the Pac-12 last season.
Pick: Oregon +350
SEC: Four teams have a case
The SEC might have the best conference race of all the multi-bid power leagues. There are four legitimate contenders (maybe more if you really like Auburn or Florida). Here are the BetMGM odds for the top four:
There's a good argument for a bet on any of them. Kentucky will bounce back now that it has point guards, better shooters and some experience. Alabama loses some talent but it plays great defense, shoots a ton of threes, has some good players returning and a fine recruiting class coming in. Arkansas is coming off a good season and has a lot of transfers, most notably guard Chris Lykes from Miami. I still lean to Tennessee at the odds. They were supposed to compete for an SEC title last season but fell apart after a good start. Five-star freshman point guard Kennedy Chandler could give the Vols an offensive boost and there's a lot back this season. For what it's worth, Tennessee is KenPom's top SEC team this preseason, at No. 13.
Pick: Tennessee +600