There are a million bracket strategies for the NCAA tournament. One of the simplest is to just look for brand names. You'd rarely regret advancing Duke and Kentucky far in your pool.
That might pay off again this season, but it took a while for those blue blood programs to show signs of life.
Perhaps the story of the early college basketball season was that all the blue bloods were down in the same year. Kentucky got it the worst, sitting at 5-13 at one point this season. It made sense; those programs often rely on highly touted freshmen and those young players had the weirdest offseason ever due to COVID-19. Some of the best programs in the sport were either way down or a little bit off their normal level.
That might be turning around, and at the right time.
Which top programs are coming around?
Near the end of February, plenty of the blue bloods were showing signs of life, and becoming good value for bettors.
Kansas: It's not like Kansas was ever way down this season, but the Jayhawks were 12-7 and watching Baylor take over a Big 12 they've owned under Bill Self. A nice win over Oklahoma State the night after the Super Bowl started a turnaround.
Kansas has gone 6-1 over their last seven games. The only loss came in overtime at Texas, and there's nothing wrong with that. Included in the streak was a strong win over Texas Tech and a blowout of Baylor, which came to Kansas with an 18-0 record and left with a 13-point loss.
“I don’t think one game validates the season,” Self said after the Baylor win, according to KUSports.com. “But we finished 12-6 in a ridiculously hard league and we sucked for three weeks. So, if you take those three weeks out of it we've performed pretty consistently."
Kansas has a strong defense, has played a very hard schedule and might not be a bad bet as a probable No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Michigan State: The Spartans are all the way down at No. 63 in KenPom and is on the bubble for the tournament. They're 13-10. They have 30-point losses to Rutgers and Iowa. It's a down year.
But everyone's favorite March bet is coming alive a bit. They had a three-game stretch with wins over Indiana, Illinois and Ohio State. Illinois and OSU are top-seven KenPom teams. A bad loss at Maryland poured cold water on that momentum, but perhaps a run at the Big Ten tournament isn't out of the question. The Spartans are +3500 at BetMGM to win the Big Ten tournament, and it seems like there are worse bets you can make than taking Tom Izzo in March.
Duke: The Blue Devils were 7-8 after a loss to Notre Dame on Feb. 9. They're a very young team that has been bad on defense most of the season.
But things started to turn around a bit. A four-game winning streak, highlighted by a win over Virginia, got Duke back on the fringe of bubble talk. Duke has lost a lot of close games lately (the Devils' last four losses came by 2, 4, 4 and then in overtime to Louisville) and got some decent wins. They were a great team for bettors to go against (7-13 against the spread this season) but don't be so fast to fade them in March. They're +1400 at BetMGM to win the ACC tournament. You won't have many years in which you can find a number like that on Duke.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels were never that bad this season, but they haven't been good either. They did win seven of 10 before dropping a game at Syracuse on Monday night, with an impressive win over Florida State last Saturday and a 45-point win over Louisville on Feb. 20. It's hard to make a decent argument that the Tar Heels are coming alive in March, but they are projected as a 9 or 10 seed in the NCAA tournament and that won't be the easiest out for their first- (and second-?) round opponent.
Kentucky: It's weird to see the Wildcats this far down. They are far from the NCAA tournament. But the past four games have provided some hope that perhaps they could make some noise in the SEC tournament.
After a 5-13 start, the Wildcats won three of four. A win over Tennessee on Feb. 20 is probably their best win of the season. It's a bad offensive team without one standout option, but there are some talented players on the roster. Isaiah Jackson, Brandon Boston Jr. and Terrence Clarke could all be picked in the NBA draft, and not many teams have three draftable players. Kentucky making a run for the SEC's auto bid in the conference tournament next week would be a wild story, and it's not that outrageous. The Wildcats are +1600 to win the SEC tournament at BetMGM.
There will be some teams we're not used to seeing in the Final Four crash the party this season. The top of the rankings look a lot different than we've ever seen before. But don't count out the blue bloods yet. Some of them are finally trending up at the right time of year.