When the COVID-19 era began in earnest in the U.S., the sports world was on the cusp of what for many recreational bettors is their favorite event of the year: the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Eight months later, college basketball returns this week, but without packed arenas or the normal schedule of games in advance of conference play.
Presumably, the on-court competition will look like normal though coronavirus concerns clearly loom, as some games that had been planned this week have already been canceled.
And the one most normal thing about it is Villanova is again expected to be very strong — even one of the favorites for national champion in what hopefully will be a return of March Madness.
From the rest of the state’s college programs, very little is expected — even within their own conferences, let alone on the level of national impact.
Here’s a rundown as they all prepare to open play.
No one’s a bigger favorite than ‘Nova
Villanova finished last year in a three-way tie for Big East champion, with hopes of a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament before everything came to a halt.
Now the Wildcats return everyone but high scorer Saddiq Bey and are expected to be even better, ranked No. 3 in the AP preseason poll. Sportsbooks are making them either the singular favorite or co-favorite to win their third national title since 2016.
Sites using Kambi odds (DraftKings, BetRivers, PlaySugarHouse, Unibet, Barstool, Parx) have Villanova +700 to be champion, just ahead of Baylor, Gonzaga, and Iowa.
If you’re on the ‘Nova bandwagon, FanDuel has the best national championship price at +950, which is tied with Baylor and Gonzaga. FOX Bet has Villanova tied with Baylor at +800 and Caesars has it tied with Gonzaga at +900.
They open the season in a prominent way Wednesday night, on a prime-time ESPN telecast vs. Boston College as one of the games being played in what is known as “Bubbleville” at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. FOX Bet is the first to post a line for the game, making Jay Wright’s team a 14-point favorite.
But it didn’t take long for the coronavirus to raise its ugly head to interfere with the season’s start. A COVID-positive test by Baylor coach Scott Drew has prompted cancellation of that school’s game against Arizona State, which was to follow Wednesday’s ‘Nova-BC tilt. Villanova had been slated on Thanksgiving to play one of those schools, and its plans for Thursday have been thrown up in the air.
Everyone else in PA is a big underdog
Look around the rest of Pennsylvania and you won’t find a team predicted to finish anywhere near the top of its conference. The best of the lot in that sense is Duquesne, carrying odds that deem it sixth most likely to win the Atlantic 10.
Pitt, Penn State, Temple, La Salle, and St. Joseph’s are all among expected bottom-feeders.
That’s especially sad for Penn State, after it reached long-unseen heights in 2019-20, once as high as No. 9 in the AP poll and anticipating an NCAA bid last March. Aside from losing two of its top scorers, the program was thrown into disarray Oct. 21 by the forced resignation of coach Pat Chambers following an investigation of his treatment of players.
Now here’s where the Nittany Lions and others stand, with odds on their opening games yet to be posted as of Monday morning:
Duquesne: Opens against Little Rock Nov. 30. Is 13/1 from FanDuel, 15/1 from Kambi to win the Atlantic 10. (St. Louis is favored at +220 from FanDuel, Richmond is favored at +250 from Kambi.)
La Salle: Plays St. John’s Thursday. The Explorers are 90/1 from FanDuel and 100/1 from Kambi in the Atlantic 10.