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While this college basketball season has been unpredictable on a game-by-game basis, the futures market has been particularly wacky, with traditional powers falling away and long shots dominating the board.
It's been tricky for books and lucrative for bettors, especially if the latter can guess which upstart will win it all. We talked to Jay Rood, Bet.Works' chief risk officer and theScore Bet's head trader, to see how the futures market is shaping up a month before March Madness.
After opening the year as the preseason favorite, unranked Michigan State (+600) is still tied for the shortest odds at theScore Bet, if only to guard against Tom Izzo's usual March surge. Meanwhile, pricing top-ranked Baylor (+600) has been an issue for books, and No. 2 Gonzaga (+600) has owned a top spot nearly all year.
But in a season with so much flux, bettors haven't been targeting those top squads. Instead, they're taking shots up and down the board.
"The future market’s pretty spread, it’s wide open," Rood said. “It’s nice because there has been a bunch of teams attracting a lot of money.”
One of those teams is No. 23 BYU (+15000), which Rood says has drawn a disproportionately high number of tickets. Another is unranked Rhode Island (+50000), the book's biggest liability due to one early bet. But Rood isn't concerned about those two wagers costing him in the tournament.
Of the three, Butler would be the book's biggest loser based on volume, while Penn State has skyrocketed up the polls and the oddsboard following a recent eight-game win streak.
The likeliest killer for the books is Dayton, which opened as high as 1000-1 at some shops but is now among the biggest favorites. Rood says bettors played the Flyers consistently from 60-1 all the way down to 20-1, but the action stopped at the current price of 12-1.
Those are the only three bad spots theScore Bet needs to avoid, Rood adds. But it's still too early to call, with 60-70% of the handle likely coming during the tournament.
"We’ll draw a lot more activity once there’s a gazillion eyeballs on the March Madness product," Rood said. "We can overcome some of this, and we’ll also get deeper on some other teams. There’s still more to come, for sure.”
Speaking of teams threatening to give books a late run, Rood highlighted a few potentially trendy squads that could be trouble, even if they aren't liabilities just yet.
One is No. 13 Auburn, which is currently 20-1 but has seen its odds fluctuate during an inconsistent year. The Tigers opened at 50-1 and were shortened to 30-1 after winning their first 15 games. Then they lost two straight and were adjusted to 40-1, but they're back to 20-1 even after two more defeats in the last seven days.
"We’re doing well to them, but they’re a team that could easily win the SEC," Rood said. "If they did, I'd imagine we’d get a lot of play to them.”
Another team in a similar spot is No. 8 Florida State, which has won 22 of its first 26 games but is still 25-1, tied for the 15th-shortest odds. In a down year for the ACC, the Seminoles' record could be misleading - or they could win their conference tournament and curry favor with bettors.
"We are on the plus side with them," Rood said. "But a few plays to them, it could swing easily against us.”
Two other usual suspects in most seasons - No. 11 Louisville (+1000) and No. 10 Kentucky (+1200) - aren't drawing much activity despite strong rankings and favorable odds compared to recent years. Those teams, like most in that price range, are potential dangers for sportsbooks depending on the final few weeks of the campaign.
“Championship week is sort of going to dictate some of these teams that have been lingering in the 10-1 to 15-1 to 30-1 range," Rood said. "If they go on a six- or seven-game streak and win their tournament, that’s a team that obviously draws a ton of activity.”
Only this year would the field be a legitimate contender to win it all. That's the case at theScore Bet, with the field priced at 18-1 and tied with Butler and fourth-ranked San Diego State for the 11th-shortest odds. In a book with 160 teams on the board, how could the field be such a threat?
It's all because of West Virginia, which missed the oddsboard but is ranked 17th in the AP Poll and seventh in KenPom ratings thanks to the nation's top-ranked defense. The Mountaineers opened at 100-1 this summer in other books and have since settled in the 25-1 to 30-1 range. At theScore Bet, bettors have piled on the field to get a piece of West Virginia's potential title run.
The Mountaineers have lost three of their last four games and five of seven against the spread, so perhaps West Virginia will cool off by tournament time and save the book from an unlikely loser. Still, it's a unique scenario that typically doesn't occur with such a populated board.
“That was an oversight," Rood said. "But generally you don’t lose to the field. I can’t remember the last time we’ve paid the field.”
C Jackson Cowart is a betting writer for theScore. He's an award-winning journalist with stops at The Charlotte Observer, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Times Herald-Record, and BetChicago. He's also a proud graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, and his love of sweet tea is rivaled only by that of a juicy prop bet. Find him on Twitter @CJacksonCowart.