College basketball hasn’t had an overwhelming preseason favorite win the national championship since the 2008-09 North Carolina Tar Heels were the unanimous preseason No. 1 and rolled to their fifth title, beating every team by double digits in the Big Dance.
The field has been pretty wide open in the following four seasons. Kansas was a preseason No. 1 in 2009-10, but Duke (preseason No. 10) cut down the nets. The next year, Duke was the favorite to repeat, but Connecticut was a surprise champion. In 2011-12, UNC was favored again, but freshman-laden Kentucky won it all. Last year, Indiana was the preseason favorite but lost in the regional semifinal, with Louisville becoming the champion.
This season, with full-bore conference play a few weeks off, it appears there are anywhere from 10 to 15 teams that could be the NCAA champion come April in Dallas.
Kentucky, with arguably the greatest recruiting class in history, opened at No. 1, but lost its third game to preseason No. 2 Michigan State. The Wildcats have had some early growing pains, also losing to Baylor and having to rally at home past Cleveland State. Probably no one will want to face Kentucky in the spring. The Cats, who have a big game Saturday at North Carolina, are now 6-1 to win the national championship.
Michigan State supplanted Kentucky at No. 1, the first time Tom Izzo‘s team had reached the top spot since 2001. The Spartans lasted three weeks there, getting knocked out last week when it lost convincingly at home to North Carolina. The Spartans are 11-2 national title favorites at Bovada but aren’t the highest-ranked team in their conference. No. 3 Ohio State and No. 4 Wisconsin are just ahead of MSU. Oddsmakers aren’t real high on the Buckeyes (14-1) or especially the Badgers (40-1) to finish the year as the best team.
Arizona is the current No. 1 and 13-2 to win its first championship since 1997. However, the Wildcats might not be No. 1 Monday, as they have tough matchup at defending national runner-up Michigan on Saturday. That game will have live betting at Bovada. The Wolverines were a preseason top-10 team but have disappointed, losing against Iowa State, Charlotte and Duke. They appear to miss star Trey Burke in the early going. Michigan has dropped to 33-1 to win the title.
Kansas (13-2) has the nation’s most-heralded freshman in Andrew Wiggins, but the Jayhawks also have been inconsistent so far, losing to Villanova, Colorado and Florida. Three good teams, to be sure, and KU did beat Duke. The Jayhawks could lose again Saturday when they host a very good New Mexico team in Kansas City. That game also will have live betting.
Perhaps the most perplexing team is North Carolina (16-1). The Heels, who continue to play without ineligible PJ Hairston and Leslie McDonald, have lost at home to Belmont and at UAB yet beat Louisville and won at top-ranked Michigan State. Who knows which team shows up Saturday at home against Kentucky.
Defending champion Louisville (15-2) has mostly dominated but was soundly beaten by the Heels. The biggest riser thus far is Oklahoma State (10-1). The Pokes might have the nation’s best player in Marcus Smart.
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