Now is the time to start examining college basketball and begin preparing for March Madness. Here are updates on the Power 5 Conferences and contenders' futures odds to win a national title.
Duke was the preseason No. 2 team in the nation and the -125 favorite at sportsbooks to win its first ACC regular-season title since sharing it in 2010 with Maryland. If I had written this story a week ago, then I'd still consider Duke the team to beat as the Blue Devils are led by the National Player of the Year betting favorite and likely No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft: freshman big man Jahlil Okafor.
However, the Blue Devils have shockingly lost two straight games. You can somewhat understand losing 87-75 Sunday at Tobacco Road rival NC State as it was the biggest home game of the season for the Wolfpack. What was a stunner was Tuesday's 90-74 home loss to a good-but-not-great Miami team. That ended Duke's 41-game home winning streak. It also marked the first time that Duke lost consecutive games by double-digit margins since March 1996. It's the first time that Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski has lost consecutive conference games by a dozen points or more each since the 1982-83 season. Coach K remains three wins from No. 1,000 career. Things aren't going to be much easier for Duke as this is the team's upcoming schedule: at No. 6 Louisville (Saturday), vs. Pittsburgh (Jan. 19), at St. John's (Jan. 25), at No. 12 Notre Dame (Jan. 28), at No. 2 Virginia (Jan. 31).
The Blue Devils are +1000 on Bovada's NCAA basketball odds to win the national title with unbeaten Virginia, and the Cavaliers now look like the team to beat in the ACC. Virginia is up to No. 2 in the nation and is also second nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 50.6 points per game. Virginia's schedule eases up before it hosts Duke on Jan. 31 and the Cavaliers have an 86 percent chance to enter the Duke game 19-0.
NCAA Basketball Free Pick: Louisville wins the ACC by beating visiting Virginia in the regular-season finale on March 7. The Cards are +1600 at sportsbooks to win the NCAA title.
Wisconsin was a Final Four team last year and opened this season as the +175 favorite for the Big Ten regular-season crown. At No. 7, the Badgers remain the highest-ranked team in the conference -- No. 14 Maryland is only other ranked club. However, Wisconsin got some bad news last weekend when starting point guard Traveon Jackson was lost for 3-6 weeks with a broken foot. He had surgery this week. If that timetable is closer to six weeks, then Jackson may not be back until the end of the regular season. The senior averages 9.4 points and 2.9 assists. Jackson is often the guy taking the shots as the shot clock is winding down, not All-American center Frank Kaminsky. Sophomore Bronson Koenig replaces Jackson and Koenig actually has been shooting better than Jackson this season.
Ohio State and Michigan State were the co-+200 second-favorites to win the Big Ten and both have been inconsistent to fall out of the Top 25. The Spartans have won three straight games since a home double-overtime loss to Maryland and those two play again Saturday in College Park. The winner there figures to be Wisconsin's top challenger.
NCAA Basketball Free Pick: Because the Big Ten is weak, the Badgers still win it even sans Jackson. UW is +1200 at sportsbooks to win the national title but isn't good enough for that.
Kansas has won or shared the Big 12 regular-season title 10 straight years and the Jayhawks were heavy -250 favorites to make it 11 straight. There's no doubt KU has the most talent of any Big 12 club but a lot it is young, which can lead to inconsistent nights such as the Jayhawks' puzzling 25-point loss at Temple on Dec. 22. They haven't lost since, including beating two Big 12 ranked teams. Kansas has a big one at No. 11 Iowa State on Saturday, and the Cyclones are probably KU's main Big 12 challenger. Looking for a surprise here? Consider No. 16 West Virginia. The Mountaineers, who were +2000 long shots to win the Big 12, had quality non-conference wins over UConn and NC State and blew out No. 18 Oklahoma on Tuesday night.
NCAA Basketball Free Pick: Kansas wins the very deep Big 12 again. KU is +2500 to win the national title from Bodog and that's pretty good value considering the talent.
Arizona was the -250 favorite entering the season, and I still say this is the second-most talented overall team in the nation behind Kentucky. The No. 10 Wildcats' only two losses were close at UNLV and at Oregon State. They have beaten ranked San Diego State and an excellent Gonzaga team. Arizona's likely only Pac-12 challenger will be No. 8 Utah, which hosts the Cats in a big one Saturday. The Utes opened Pac-12 play with three blowouts and also won against Wichita State in non-conference play. Utah nearly upset Kansas in early December as well.
NCAA Basketball Free Pick: Arizona. I still like the Cats as a Final Four team and they are +1400 to win it all.
This is the easiest conference to handicap by far because No. 1 Kentucky is going to win the SEC. The Cats were massive -300 SEC favorites at sportsbooks back in November, and they remain even-money favorites to cut down the nets in April in Indianapolis. Could UK run the table? One sportsbook lists yes at +300 and no at -400. I examined this last week and recommended no, and I feel stronger about that now. Coach John Calipari's team could have easily lost its first two SEC games, beating Ole Miss in overtime and Texas A&M in double overtime. UK looked back to normal with an 86-37 rout of Missouri on Tuesday. Kentucky might be on upset alert Saturday at Alabama.
NCAA Basketball Free Pick: Kentucky wins the SEC, but I'm not sure it is a smart bet at such short odds to win the national championship.