2021 NCAA Tournament odds: Finding the flaws for the top 10 national championship contenders


No college basketball team is perfect. Most of them have at least one flaw — many of them more than one. But it takes just six consecutive wins to reach the pinnacle of college basketball in March Madness. It’s all about minimizing blemishes, maximizing strengths, banding together for a run and, yes, stumbling into some luck along the way.

Easier said than done for some. 

Warts cannot simply be ignored, and they mustn’t be, either. If you’re looking to wager some hard-earned cheddar, you want to wager it properly. You need all the information you can get. So, using updated futures odds at William Hill Sportsbook, I’ve sorted through the top 10 favorites to win the 2021 NCAA championship and identified each of the 10 teams’ flaws, some minor and some major. In doing so, you, the bettor, can make informed decisions on which team to fade and which to hop on board with as tourney time fast approaches.

Title odds: 3-1 | Shortcoming: Worst 3-point shooting team of Few era

OK, so you know how I mentioned most teams have at least one flaw? About that: Gonzaga might be the exception. This team (15-0) has the No. 2 offense and No. 13 defense in adjusted efficiency. It has a perfect blend of young NBA talent (Jalen Suggs) and veteran NBA talent (Corey Kispert). It also has experienced upperclassmen (Andrew Nembhard and Joel Ayayi) to boot. Any weakness identified would be nitpicking the nitpick. But true to my word, I promised flaws, so I offer this minor quibble: this team’s 3-point shooting percentage on the season of 35.3% is statistically tied for the worst of the Mark Few era. They make up for it in other ways — for example, they lead college basketball in 2-point shooting percentage (and 35.3% from 3 is a totally respectable clip), but it’s at least something to keep an eye on. No one outside of Kispert and Suggs is hitting above 35% from deep. 

Title odds: 7-1 | Shortcoming: Rebounding

Is being too good a flaw? (Asking for Gonzaga and Baylor!) The Bears (14-0) continue to wreak havoc on every team they face, with only two of its wins — at Texas Tech and against Kansas — coming by a single-digit margin (and both were by eight points). It is the only team in college hoops with a top-three offense and top-three defense. If there’s one thing that sticks out here as a flaw it is its rebounding; it has been outrebounded in three of its last four games, and has a defensive rebounding rate that ranks among the worst in the Big 12. That’s in no small part because of its guard-heavy lineup that most frequently features 6-foot-5 Mark Vital at the 4 and 6-foot-8 Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua at the 5.

Title odds: 10-1 | Shortcoming: Frontcourt size

With a wildly-talented backcourt that is committing the fewest turnovers per game in college basketball, Villanova’s frontcourt combination is plenty talented — but plenty small, too. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise — size matters. Regular starter at power forward, Cole Swider, is listed at 6-foot-9 — the same height as regular starter at center, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. No one playing significant minutes is taller. It hasn’t necessarily been a problem — Nova is 10-1 and the class of the Big East — but its block rate of just 5.3% rates worst among all major seven conferences in the sport. The fact that teams don’t face any threat of getting shots blocked is a minor one for Villanova, considering everything else it does so exceedingly well. But when it faces big frontcourts or teams that have capable centers who can maneuver around the paint, it could present some real problems. 

Title odds: 12-1 | Shortcoming: Defensive pressure

Juwan Howard has crafted an upperclassmen-heavy roster that has everything: A top-10 defense, a top-10 offense, a killer freshman in Hunter Dickinson and a legit NBA wing in Isaiah Livers. So, like others on this list, I’m grasping at straws to find a true flaw. There’s a good chance it wins the Big Ten by multiple games. But a chink in UM’s armor, notably, is that for as good as it is on defense, it’s not a havoc-wreaking unit; it ranks in the bottom 50 nationally in steal rate and in turnover rate. To make up for it, the Wolverines boast the No. 1 defense in shooting percentage off 2-point attempts and are constantly able to affect shots at the rim with Franz Wagner and Hunter Dickinson. (Read between the lines here and you can see why, at these odds, I’m jumping on all the Michigan futures I can get my hands on.)

Title odds: 13-1 | Shortcoming: Defense

So here’s the thing: Iowa’s offense is gunning for all-time great. It ranks first nationally in adjusted efficiency at KenPom and second nationally in total points per game, all behind an unstoppable force in National Player of the Year frontrunner Luka Garza. That’s all well and good, and reason why the Hawkeyes should be considered a title threat. But unfortunately, the biggest threat to their title chances might be their own defense. They have the second-worst defense in adjusted efficiency at KenPom among all Big Ten teams, and rank just inside the top-100 (at No. 99!) nationally. No NCAA champion in at least the last two decades has ever won it all with a defense that rated outside the top 15, much less one teetering close to outside the top-100. 

Title odds: 18-1 | Shortcoming: Lack of havoc created defensively

Texas is very, very good, and its home loss while shorthanded and without coach Shaka Smart seems like a write-off. So I turned to trusty KenPom.com for help here, and what KenPom told me is that its non-steal turnovers occurrence is not particularly flattering. It ranks 278th nationally on offense in that category — worst among all Big 12 teams — and 297th nationally on defense — second-worst among all Big 12 teams. In short, it commits a lot of unusual, nontraditional turnovers per game while not forcing very many. Yet it has a top-10 defense overall, a veteran backcourt and an 11-3 record to show for it. This is Smart’s best Texas team to date, but ironically for a coach who burnished his brand with a defense centered around havoc, this team creates very little of it.

Title odds: 18-1 | Shortcoming: Offense

Rick Barnes is doing Rick Barnes things in Knoxville, with his best-ever Vols defense and a slew of talents both young and old. But to say UT’s offense is challenged would be putting it mildly. This team struggles to score points. It barely escaped Mississippi State on Tuesday, winning 56-53, but had taken two consecutive losses prior to that with offensive outputs of 49 to Florida and 64 to Missouri. The offense isn’t quite modernized, either, with only 24.5% of its points being accounted for by 3s, ranking in the bottom 50 of all teams in the sport. Success shooting the 3 isn’t great to exacerbate that weakness, either, with a 32.5% hit rate that ranks 293rd. So how, you might wonder, is Tennessee 11-3? It has the No. 2 defense in college basketball and ranks No. 6 in adjusted shot quality, per date from ShotQuality.com. So the shots it is taking are especially effective even if the offense, on the whole, isn’t.

Title odds: 20-1 | Shortcoming: Inconsistency

If you want to wager futures on a team that could absolutely, positively destroy every team in its NCAA Tournament path, Illinois might be just the team for you. But that should also come with a warning label in bold: it very well could play four consecutive great games before laying a big, stinky egg in a big spot. That’s been the problem with the Illini. They’ve notched some truly impressive wins — over Duke by 15, Minnesota by 27, Northwestern by 25 — but they have also lost some head-scratchers. And it’s not just that losses to Rutgers or Maryland is clouding the view of this team. It’s that, for as talented and impactful as Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn are, sometimes this team just doesn’t have the goods. If Illinois can be consistent and sustain its highest highs, it’ll be a worthy, warranted title pick. If not, it’ll be a highly volatile futures bet I’m going to do everything in my power to fade. Right now, it’s the latter.

Title odds: 25-1 | Shortcoming: Closing big games

Struggles in close games have sapped Creighton’s ability to groom its resume from really good to really great. It lost by a point to Kansas and by five points to Marquette, both in December. It also lost in OT to Butler by four points earlier this month in a game it should’ve won and by four points to Providence the game thereafter. It hasn’t been a total disaster — the Bluejays won close games against UConn, Xavier and Providence — but it hasn’t been able to close in several big-game situations in the way you’d ideally likely to see and expect from a true title threat. 

Title odds: 25-1 | Shortcoming: Shot-making

Losing All-AAC guard and preseason AAC Player of the Year Caleb Mills would, in theory, dock Houston’s chances of cutting down the nets in Indy. Nope. Houston’s won six straight since he last played a game behind a dominant stretch with double-digit wins over Tulsa, Temple, UCF, Tulane and SMU. This team has some serious juice, built around a former five-star prospect in Quentin Grimes and a rising superstar sophomore in Marcus Sasser. But the shot-making isn’t especially overwhelming, even if its offense is top-20 good. It is making 46.7% on 2-point shots and 33.9% from 3, both well outside the top 100. The team’s top dogs are getting theirs, but the team’s shot-making skills on the whole hasn’t been all that effective. By extension, that puts even more pressure on Grimes and Sasser to continue producing. At some point, teams are going to focus in on locking up their top two weapons or dare them to do it all by taking away the ancillary pieces. May not happen in AAC play, but it does seem like Houston may be overvalued just a tad based on those circumstances.





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