Identifying the Best Value Bets to Win the 2020 National Title
Nearly one year ago, we asked members of SI's college basketball staff to provide their top value pick to cut down the nets. Despite picking zero teams with odds lower than 20/1 to win the title, we nailed the title winner along with choosing two other Final Four teams. So we sure have lofty expectations to meet this time around! Once again, using current title odds from sportsbook PointsBet, SI's college basketball staff has its favorite value selections for this upcoming campaign.
Let’s look at what Florida did well and not well in 2018–19. The Gators’ strength was clearly their defense, which finished 16th in kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency ranking thanks to a drag-you-out, turnover-inducing system that sought to take away transition opportunities from opponents. Mike White’s team played at the slowest tempo in the SEC and made up for poor defensive rebounding and shaky defense in the paint by trying to limit how many shots opponents took. It generally worked; in 19 of its 36 games, Florida held its opponent below 1.0 points per possession (PPP), and it never had a truly horrific night on that end.
Defensive numbers like this would normally portend a record better than 20–16, but the Gators’ offense never caught up to its counterpart. Finishing with kenpom’s No. 61 offensive efficiency, Florida, to put it bluntly, was a bad shooting team. Despite shooting threes at a high rate, it made just a third of them, finishing 224th nationally, and only 49.9% of its twos, ranking 205th. Its effective field goal percentage in the halfcourt checked in at No. 251, per Hoop-Math. Part of the problem was shot selection: Per Dribble Handoff’s measure of offensive shot quality, the Gators ranked 230th nationally. The now-departed Jalen Hudson followed up his brilliant junior season with a massive dip in shooting efficiency, and then-freshman point guard Andrew Nembhard, despite posting the second-best assist rate in SEC play, struggled with turnovers and with consistently finding his own offense.
Nembhard came back to school, likely a wise decision for the former five-star prospect who could be in line for a sizeable jump as a sophomore. He’ll have plenty of help in the backcourt thanks to the arrival of a top-10 recruiting class spearheaded by two big-time recruits, combo guard Tre Mann and wing Scottie Lewis, and Mann in particular will be key to turning around the Gators’ offense. A natural scorer with plenty of range and vision who is used to handling the ball, Mann should be able to give Nembhard (who last year led the Gators at 32.9 minutes per game) some relief at the point while providing much-needed shooting. Florida did have one sharpshooter in 2018–19, Noah Locke, who canned 81 of his 214 (37.9%) three-point attempts as a freshman and will also be back as a big weapon in the backcourt.
The Gators’ other notable freshmen additions, Lewis and top-50 big man Omar Payne, could strengthen a defense that was already one of the SEC’s best. The 6’5” Lewis will offer White plenty of lineup versatility, and the high-level athlete could be a major impact player on the defensive end and on the boards. If his shot continues to develop, he’ll bring plenty to the offensive end as well.
If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably noticed we’ve yet to mention the biggest fish White and Florida reeled in over the offseason: star grad transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr., who was second-team All-ACC last year (the only 2019 first- or second-team All-ACC player to remain in college basketball) after averaging 14.9 points and 7.4 rebounds while shooting 50.8% from the floor. Blackshear will bring a dimension to the Gators’ offense that they didn’t have in 2018–19, and he’s the kind of big man they’ve been missing during some recent lean years up front. Blackshear seemed to get stronger as last season went on, including dropping 23 points and 13 rebounds on Virginia and 22 points and 10 rebounds on Duke in a three-game February span. He’s an efficient big man who will make a difference on the boards as well. He even has the ability to step out to the three-point line, making 33% of his 64 attempts as a junior, and is coming from a similarly perimeter-oriented offense at Tech. And—crucially—the 22-year-old grad student will provide the kind of veteran leadership needed for a roster that has no other seniors.
Given all of the above, why not take a flyer on the Gators at 20/1? The defensive core is once again there, and even with some roster turnover, White’s system always makes his team good on that end. Blackshear, Mann and Lewis teaming with the sophomore tandem of Nembhard and Locke (and keep in mind, players’ biggest jumps typically come between freshman and sophomore year) seems certain to upgrade the offense, and likely considerably. If that happens, this team won’t just be primed to take on Kentucky in the SEC—it will be ready to challenge anyone nationally. —Molly Geary
TEXAS TECH: 25/1
I was also considering Oregon 33/1, but couldn't break my rule of "never bet on a Pac-12 team to do well in a revenue sport." Here another good rule to follow: Don’t ever doubt Chris Beard. One year after losing five seniors and a first-round pick from an Elite Eight team, he came a win short of capturing a national title. And it’s not like this occurred at a recruiting powerhouse like Duke or Kentucky. He did this at Texas Tech! One more time for emphasis: Texas Tech!
Now Jarrett Culver, Matt Mooney and Tarik Owens are gone, but at 25/1 to win the title, there’s still plenty to like here.
Junior point guard Davide Moretti was a third-team All-Big 12 Conference selection as a sophomore, and is one of the top shooters in the country. He shot 49.8% from the field, 45.9% from three and 92.4% from the FT line. The floor general had Ken Pomeroy’s highest offensive rating in Big 12 conference play last season, and could be even more dangerous with another year of experience under his belt.
The Red Raiders reloaded the roster by landing two impact grad transfers in Chris Clarke and T.J. Holyfield along with a top-20 recruiting class highlighted by guard Jahmius Ramsey. Clarke in particular stands out as a viable Culver replacement given his 6’6” frame, strong all-around game and defensive versatility. Ramsey is the highest-ranked commit in Texas Tech history, and as an athletic combo guard who can really score, he’ll pair nicely with Moretti in the backcourt.
Kyler Edwards returns as well after showing promise in limited action in his first season with the team. This is definitely a group that can compete for a second consecutive Big 12 title.
But the biggest reason why I think Texas Tech is a strong value at this price is Beard’s ability to develop talent. After Tony Battle went fifth in the 1997 NBA draft, Texas Tech didn’t produce a single first-round pick until 2018. Zhaire Smith was taken 16th then, and this was a player who was the 194th-rated recruit in 247Sports’s 2017 composite rankings. Culver was even lower, as he was listed as 2018’s 312th-best recruit in 247Sports’s composite rankings. The Timberwolves selected him with the sixth pick this past NBA draft.
You also know what you’re going to get with a Beard team: A bunch of players who are intelligent, tough, physical and treat every defensive possession like an all-out war. In Beard’s first season with the program, Texas Tech ranked 56th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. After jumping up to fourth in 2018, the Red Raiders not only led the country in defensive efficiency last season, it was the best defensive efficiency recorded since KenPom introduced the metric in 2002. And that was despite working with a retooled roster, just like this one.
So sure, there are certainly other teams with more highly-regarded talent, but there aren’t as many who are better at progressing it like Beard does down in Lubbock.
Texas Tech certainly isn’t a brand name in basketball like some of the other schools priced similarly in the futures market. But take advantage while you can of getting a Beard-coached team at 25/1 before he makes everyone look silly by underestimating him again. —Max Meyer
The 2020 Final Four will mark 18 years since Juan Dixon, Steve Blake and Maryland stormed through the NCAA tournament to defeat Indiana for the national title. The 2019-19 Terrapins are unlikely to sniff the No. 1 seed earned by Dixon and Co. nearly two decades ago, but this Maryland squad could be as good as any in recent memory. Mark Turgeon's ninth year in College Park should be his best yet.
Maryland returns seven contributors from its 2018-19 squad after losing to LSU in the second round of the 2019 tournament, led by point guard Anthony Cowan. The senior point guard averaged a team-high 15.6 points per game last season, pairing with sophomore forward Jalen Smith for one of the Big Ten's top duos. Veteran guards are often a key to March success; look no further than the duo of Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome last season. Cowan has plenty of experience under his belt, as Penn State guard Lamar Stevens is the only Big Ten player with more minutes over the last three seasons. He’s a talented isolation scorer and cool under pressure. His skill set bodes well for a March moment.
Freshman Makhi Mitchell could swing the Terrapins’ season. Double-double machine Bruno Fernando left Maryland for the NBA after his sophomore season, leaving a hole in the middle of Maryland's defense. The Terrapins need Mitchell to approximate half of Fernando's production to play through March. Ricky Lindo, a 6’8” sophomore, should see an increase in his minutes share, helping cobble together respectable production to replace Fernando. Smith is a skillful center with increasing range and a former five-star recruit. But he’ll still need a formidable defensive partner for Maryland to reach the Final Four.
The Terrapins were a nice surprise last season despite their lack of experience, and Fernando was a revelation. But even without their 2018-19 star, Maryland enters this season deeper than ever before in the Turgeon era, with a pair of potential All-Big Ten talents in Smith and Cowan. Perhaps last year's loss to LSU will springboard the Terrapins to Atlanta in April 2020. —Michael Shapiro