College Hoops: Never too early for bettors

Sure, football is on everyone's mind right now, and the only basketball making noise these days is the US men's team at the Beijing Olympics. But now is also a good time for bettors to be looking ahead to the upcoming NCAA basketball season and specifically at some of the important tournaments in November. The North Carolina Tar Heels will tip their season off very likely at No. 1 in the polls.

There’s no such thing as a summer vacation for the nation’s top college basketball coaches. There’s just too much work to do. It’s the same for handicappers; before you know it, the November tournaments will be upon us. Getting that homework done now will put you in the best position to jump all over the betting odds before the public and the books adjust.

The Maui Invitational is back for another year. The No. 1 seed will be the North Carolina Tar Heels, who are also the preseason favorites at 5-2 on the March Madness futures market. These “exhibition” games are actually very important – teams will be seeded at the Tournament (or miss it altogether) based in part on their results here. You may recall how last year’s Kentucky Wildcats fell apart after losing to Gardner-Webb in the second game of the season.

Maui has its usual solid field: Texas, Indiana, Notre Dame and Oregon are among the eight participants. As the top seed, North Carolina will open against the host team from Chaminade. The Tar Heels are almost certain to be named the No. 1 preseason team as well, with Tyler Hansbrough and several key teammates deciding to pull out of the 2008 NBA Draft. Last year’s Heels won the Las Vegas Invitational preseason event, finished the year 36-3 (24-12 against the spread) and made the Final Four.

There won’t be a Great Alaska Shootout this year, so the next-most important preseason tournament on the list is the Old Spice Classic in Orlando. Georgetown, Michigan State, Tennessee and Gonzaga will all be there. It won’t be quite as busy at the Anaheim Classic; Saint Mary’s and Baylor are the marquee teams scheduled to be there.

The ups and downs of the Hoosiers have dominated the headlines this summer. Tom Crean, the former Marquette coach who took the Golden Eagles to the Final Four in 2003, is being asked to pick up the pieces from Kelvin Sampson’s scandal-ridden program. Only two players are coming back from last year: forward Kyle Taber and guard Brett Finkelmeier. Guard Jordan Crawford was the latest Hoosier to leave, accepting a scholarship with the Xavier Musketeers to join fellow escapee Terrell Holloway. Indiana is a 300-1 long shot to win the Tournament; Xavier is 60-1.

The usual off-court problems haven’t been limited to Indiana. The Illinois Fighting Illini decided to dismiss guard Jamar Smith when a prosecutor asked for his probation from an earlier case to be revoked. Smith was expected to play a big part in the Illini offense after missing last year following a DUI conviction. Illinois went 16-19 (14-20-1 ATS) and 5-13 in Big Ten action without him. The good news: the 2009 recruiting class looks like one of the strongest in the country.

The worst of the offseason news right now has to be the nine violations (two of them basketball-related) the NCAA has accused Texas A&M-Corpus Christi of committing. Like the Hoosiers, the Islanders have been linked to improper telephone calls for recruiting purposes. TAMU-CC was last in the Southland at 9-20 (2-2 ATS) last year, and may stay there for a while. Keep an eye on the schedules when they’re released to see what non-con matchups the Islanders have in store this fall.