Roy Williams and North Carolina have their work cut out for them if the Tar Heels are going to defend their 2008-09 NCAA Championsip.

Arrests, suspensions and scandals. And we’re just warming up.

Roy WilliamsIt’s just about time for another year of college basketball. We like to say around the water cooler that being a handicapper means wearing many hats: sports analyst, doctor, sociologist, media critic. But college hoops is a special place. It should have its own Law and Order series.

The biggest story of the offseason is the disintegration of the Memphis Tigers program following the departure of coach John Calipari. The Tigers went to the Sweet 16 in each of the past four seasons and nearly won the national title two years ago. Perhaps it’s just as well that Mario Chalmers hit that famous 3-pointer for the Kansas Jayhawks, because the NCAA has put Memphis on three years’ probation and wiped out all its victories from 2007-08. The central accusation is that Derrick Rose (now with the Chicago Bulls) had someone else take his SAT exam. Rose denies this.

The did-he-or-didn’t-he of this case has little direct bearing on the betting odds for 2009-10, but Calipari’s defection to the Kentucky Wildcats has major implications for both programs. The Tigers have plummeted all the way to 300-1 on the March Madness futures market. Players are leaving the team like the proverbial rats off a sinking ship: DeMarcus Cousins and Darnell Dodson to Kentucky, Latavious Williams to China (yes, China). But not everyone has abandoned the Tigers and new head coach Josh Pastner. Elliot Williams even transferred over from Duke to be closer to an ailing member of his family. A fifth straight Conference USA title is certainly within reach.

Over in Lexington, the Wildcats have been walking through the wilderness ever since making the Final Four in 2005. First coach Tubby Smith (now with the Minnesota Golden Gophers) tendered his resignation, and then Billy Gillispie was let go after two disappointing seasons. Now Calipari is in charge and the Wildcats are 8-1 to win the national championship. His track record (scandals aside) and recruiting prowess are well known. Getting Cousins and Dodson to change their intended destinations from Memphis to UK will help Calipari hit the ground running in his first year on the job. And the SEC is the weakest of the six major conferences, according to Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency stats. Instant success is virtually assured.

Value bettors know what that implies: bet on Memphis and fade Kentucky. But value bettors also know that the lower conferences offer the best bargains. The markets are smaller, and the programs are more prone to volatility. Last year’s top ATS teams included the Big Sky’s Weber State Wildcats (19-7 ATS), the MAC’s Bowling Green Falcons (20-10 ATS) and the Southern’s Citadel Bulldogs (18-7-1 ATS).

Among the mid-major teams I have on my radar screen for 2009-10 are the San Diego State Aztecs (18-13-1 ATS) of the Mountain West, thanks to the transfers of Tyrone Shelley and Malcolm Thomas from Pepperdine and Brian Carlwell from Illinois. Transfers usually have to redshirt a season or play JUCO ball – Williams was granted an exception to play with the Tigers this year because of his family situation – so a year out of the college spotlight tends to make them undervalued properties.

Anonymity won’t be the case with Kansas this year. Bill Self’s Jayhawks beat the Tigers for the championship two years ago, lost a number of players to the NBA Draft, and then pounded the pay window at 20-8-1 ATS. Those numbers should fall back down to earth somewhat now that Kansas is the March Madness favorite at 4-1.

Following that logic, the defending champion North Carolina Tar Heels (10-1) have a good shot at exceeding expectations without Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green. Coach Roy Williams is another one of the nation’s recruiting gods. The last time the Heels won the championship and cleaned house in 2005, they went 18-10-1 ATS the following season. That’ll pay for a lot of student keggers – or bail money.