Choosing the betting favorite at the start of the college basketball used to be easy, with one team typically shock full of experienced returners.
But in the era of one-and-dones and the transfer portal, those programs are harder to find.
“You almost always saw on the cover of Sports Illustrated if it was UNLV or Duke, (North) Carolina, Oklahoma or Arizona, and they were just a juggernaut,” Red Rock Resort sportsbook director Chuck Esposito said. “That just isn’t the case.”
The college basketball season tips off Monday across the country. Gonzaga, Kentucky and North Carolina are the 10-1 favorites at the Westgate SuperBook to win the national championship.
Arkansas and Houston join North Carolina as the 9-1 favorites at Station Casinos.
“It’s another year where the favorite is double-digits to one, which is for the most rare part for college basketball,” Westgate SuperBook vice president of risk Ed Salmons said. “Usually there’s a team or two that will kind of look like the preseason favorite. It’s just so wide open this year. You could point to 30 teams that could possibly win it. You could probably go even deeper than that if you tried.”
North Carolina topped the first Associated Press Top 25 poll and welcomes back four starters from a team that made a surprising run to the national title game. The Tar Heels have attracted the most futures tickets at Station, Esposito said.
Gonzaga entered last season as the clear favorite to win the national championship but lost to Arkansas in the Sweet 16. The Bulldogs return player of the year candidate Drew Timme and former Liberty High standout Julian Strawther to go with talented transfer Malachi Smith (19.9 points, 6.7 rebounds at Chattanooga).
However, Gonzaga was pounded 99-80 by Tennessee in an exhibition game Oct. 28, and the Volunteers have seen their odds drop in response after opening in the 25-1 range.
Tennessee is 10-1 at Station Casinos with Gonzaga and Kentucky. The SuperBook has the Volunteers at 12-1 alongside Baylor and Houston.
“You look at their schedule and their returning players, it looks like they may only be underdogs a handful of times,” Esposito said of Tennessee.
UCLA is 15-1 at Station and 16-1 at the SuperBook. The Bruins have attracted the second-most tickets and represent the largest liability for Station, Esposito said. Texas (25-1) and Virginia (60-1) also are liabilities for the sportsbook.
Salmons cited Virginia as one of the long shots he likes.
“You can get decent odds on Virginia,” Salmons said. “If you take a long shot, I would maybe point at Virginia. I’ve heard a lot of good things about them so far.”
Arkansas and Duke are 18-1 at the SuperBook, and defending champion Kansas is 25-1. UNLV is 500-1.
Esposito and Salmons expect new teams to emerge after the Thanksgiving tournaments and others to fall short of preseason expectations.
Salmons noted Arizona was unranked at the start of last season before it proved to be one of the nation’s top teams.
“If you’re looking for value, it’s definitely the sport you’ll find it this year,” Salmons said. “What we see early will dictate the odds, and we’ll go from there. The one thing I definitely think we agree is it’s wide open.”
Contact David Schoen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-5203. Follow @DavidSchoenLVRJ on Twitter.