Arizona Leads NCAA Championship Hopefuls As Conference Play Begins; Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan State Follow

Trey MasonArizona had 16-1 odds of winning the NCAA championship when the season tipped off, but the Wildcats have since dominated college basketball. They’re now the favorites to win the title as they enter their conference schedule the top-ranked team in the nation, a position they’ve held for four weeks.

Arizona has edged to the top of Bovada’s national championship futures at 11-2. The Cats have one of the nation’s top frontcourts in Brandon Ashley (12.5 points, 7.0 rebounds), Kaleb Tarczewski (10.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and freshman Aaron Gordon (12.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg).

That trio makes Arizona one of the nation’s top rebounding teams with a plus-12.5 average margin. Transfer guard TJ McConnell has also been a big addition, running the show from the point and averaging 6.5 assists. Guard Nick Johnson leads the team in scoring (16.0 points per game). Arizona has many players who can guard several positions, and the Wildcats have limited opponents to 37.2 percent shooting from the field, one of the best marks in the nation.

Arizona might not lose for a while, because the Pac-12 is relatively weak. The Wildcats could be tested come Jan. 9 at UCLA, but the next ranked team on their schedule is No. 20 Colorado on Jan. 23, a home matchup.

Kentucky, the preseason betting favorite at 6-1, is now 13-2. At times these Wildcats have shown their youth, but they also had an impressive 73-66 win over defending national champion Louisville on Dec. 28. Freshman Julius Randle is a Player of the Year candidate, averaging 18.1 points and 10.6 rebounds. Kentucky also has an easy upcoming schedule. The next ranked team will be Missouri on Feb. 1. The SEC looks mediocre overall again this season.

Kansas and Michigan State are with Kentucky at 13-2, and their conferences are both strong. The No. 5 Spartans, who were No. 1 for a few weeks, have two potential losses coming: at Indiana on Saturday and home to No. 3 Ohio State on Jan. 7, which will have live betting at Bovada. The Big Ten has three top-five teams in Michigan State, Ohio State and No. 4 Wisconsin.

The Big 12 looks as strong as it has in years. Three conference teams are ranked ahead of No. 16 Kansas: No. 6 Oklahoma State (8-1), No. 9 Baylor (which beat Kentucky) and No. 13 Iowa State. Kansas has a tough non-conference finale Sunday against No. 21 San Diego State, and the book will offer live betting there.

Louisville has dropped to 9-1. Rick Pitino‘s club team got some bad news this week when Chane Behanan was dismissed from the team. Behanan was one of the Cards’ best players in last season’s NCAA  tournament run and was averaging 7.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game this season. Louisville’s frontcourt has been dominated in losses to North Carolina and Kentucky — and that was with Behanan.

Michigan, which lost to Louisville in last season’s title game, is down to 40-1. The Wolverines have lost their best player, forward Mitch McGary, likely for the rest of the season after back surgery. He was brilliant in the 2013 tournament.

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