The start of a new calendar year means it is time to begin paying attention to potential brackets and conference showdowns in college basketball. Welcome to the third annual quest to find sports betting value on a sleeper Final Four play and/or potential NCAA Tournament champion.
Unlike the past two seasons, when the primary task was finding teams not named Gonzaga or Baylor as the pair were head-and-shoulders above the field, the path to Houston for this year’s Final Four looks to be wide open. Kansas, Purdue, and Houston have shown themselves to be plenty good through the first two months of the season, but there are no undefeated teams in Division I, and there is a sense the right team can rise up against anyone on the right night.
Of the six teams profiled last season, five either played to or exceeded their seeding, with both No. 4 seed Arkansas and No. 5 seed Houston reaching the regional final. All six teams were seeded third or worse, with only fifth-seeded UConn spitting the bit in a first-round loss to New Mexico State.
While Houston made itself a beloved presence in this space with a Final Four appearance in 2021 and regional final showing last year, the Cougars are off the list in 2023. The current No. 1 team in the country cannot be considered a sleeper, plan and simple. The good news is the lack of a clear-cut favorite means there are more teams where value can be had, be it for a Final Four selection, potential NCAA Tournament champion, or just an outright conference title.
To get things rolling for the next few weeks, the first team up is 11th-ranked Kansas State (15-1). The Wildcats represent the biggest surprise in the meat grinder known as the Big 12 — and perhaps in the country, relative to expectations.
Tang engineering a spectacular first-year turnaround
Key from the key#KStateMBB x @FurnitureMallKS pic.twitter.com/9lQ82kxhHt
— K-State Men’s Basketball (@KStateMBB) January 11, 2023
The end of the Bruce Weber era in the Little Apple was tough. Three straight losing seasons on the heels of three NCAA Tournament appearances — highlighted by a run to the Elite Eight as a No. 9 seed in 2018 — meant change was needed after finishing 14-17 last season. Kansas State did not look far for a replacement, staying within the Big 12 and tabbing Baylor associate head coach Jerome Tang.
Tang was instrumental in helping Scott Drew rebuild the Baylor program following setbacks that included the murder of player Patrick Dennehy and multiple NCAA violations under previous coach Dave Bliss when they arrived in 2003. By the time Tang left for Manhattan, the Bears had made seven consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances bracketing the canceled 2020 edition (due to the pandemic), had cut down the nets in 2021 as champions, and were a No. 1 seed for the second straight year in 2022.
The cupboard wasn’t bare at Kansas State, but it wasn’t exactly stocked as coaches pegged the Wildcats to finish last in the Big 12 preseason poll. Tang had 5-foot-8 guard Markquis Nowell and Ismael Massoud as his top returnees, but the rest of his roster was built largely through the transfer portal. Tang’s biggest get was swingman Keyontae Johnson, who averaged 14 points in 2019-20 at Florida but collapsed during a game the following season and made only one appearance in 2021-22.
The 6-foot-6 senior has been electric for the Wildcats, averaging team highs of 18.4 points and 7.0 rebounds while shooting 57.4%. Johnson has also shown range from the perimeter, knocking down 40% of his attempts (20-for-50) from deep.
Kansas State also has gotten an unexpectedly large contribution from junior college transfer Nae’Qwan Tomlin, a 6-10 forward averaging 11.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks. Nowell has thrived, meanwhile, in his expanded role running the offense, averaging 17.2 points and 8.8 assists while shooting 38.9% from 3-point range.
What’s to like and dislike about the Wildcats
Markquis Nowell has gone from undersized and underrecruited to one of the nation’s best players.
Meet @MrNewYorkCityy, the PG rewriting the record books for players his size and leading Kansas State to victories in the process:
— Kevin Sweeney (@CBB_Central) January 11, 2023
Kansas State is at its best when the ball moves and Nowell makes good decisions. The Wildcats rank fifth in the country with assists on 67.6% of their baskets, and Nowell’s 3.2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks second in the Big 12 and 14th among Division I players. Johnson has also gotten off to a fast start in conference play, averaging 20.5 points and shooting 56.1% through four games.
Tang’s team is efficient offensively, ranking in the top 30 in KenPom’s metric for that category at 112.2 points per 100 possessions. Kansas State put itself on the national radar with a 116-103 victory at then-No. 6 Texas on Jan. 3, averaging 1.41 points per possession while shooting a torrid 60% from the floor.
The Wildcats have also shown an ability to grind out wins when the offense falters. They stayed unbeaten in Big 12 play with a 65-57 win over Oklahoma State Tuesday night despite shooting a season-low 35.6%, and they are 3-0 when held under 40%. Kansas State is a disruptive unit defensively, ranking 17th in KenPom in causing non-steal turnovers on 12% of opponents’ possessions.
Though Kansas State keeps showing itself more and more the real deal with each conference victory, its non-conference schedule was soft. In his defense, Tang crated a schedule befitting a first-year coach who had a bevy of transfers.
The Wildcats’ signature victory outside Big 12 play came against LSU in the Cayman Islands Classic final, and the Tigers aren’t exactly world beaters with a soft 12-4 record. Kansas State’s lone loss came on the road to a middling Butler team from the Big East, and its last chance to bolster its non-conference resume is a Jan. 28 home game versus Florida that will obviously mean a lot to Johnson.
Scouting the sportsbooks’ offerings
Taking a flyer now on Kansas State to make the Final Four could prove to be a great ground-floor opportunity, especially for those in the Sunflower State with a chance for the first time to legally bet on the NCAA Tournament’s games and outcome. The Wildcats can still be had for a Final Four appearance at +2500 at PointsBet, which is a huge outlier versus other sites.
The most common offering is +1500 at BetRivers, Barstool Sportsbook, and WynnBET, which is good value for a team currently hovering outside the AP Top 10 and with two road victories over top conference foes in its pocket. DraftKings is offering Kansas State in the Final Four at +1800, while Hard Rock checks in at +1600. FanDuel has the shortest odds, though even +1200 at this point feels like a good play.
Odds on the Wildcats cutting down the nets in Houston are far longer, ranging from +6000 at FanDuel and PointsBet to +8000 at Caesars Sportsbook, though it still feels too early to make a play for a national title. Kansas State does have a showdown at home versus Kansas next Tuesday, and if you are confident in the Wildcats, picking up a ticket on an outright Big 12 title could be worth your while.
Betfred is offering Kansas State at +900 to be the conference champion, the best value in that market ahead of the +700 found at Hard Rock and FanDuel and the +650 to be had at BetRivers and Barstool.
Photo: Chris Jones/USA TODAY