My 2023 NCAA tournament bracket is finished. The challenge now shifts to holding myself back from self-sabotage, as last-minute tinkering always ends up being the driving force that busts brackets early. My betting portfolio is a different animal. That work is never done and is always evolving until a new national champion cuts down the nets.
There are enough different markets to keep me focused until the first-round matchups are locked, and one of my favorites is the progressive "March Matchup" future at BetMGM. Instead of having to hit the national champion, it allows you to bet on how far a team will go in a tournament. Do you think a team is underrated, but doesn’t have the consistency to win six straight games? Bet them to make the Sweet 16. Cinderellas are fun, but we all know the clock strikes 12 before they ever see the Final Four. I attacked that market a few different ways and hit multiple stages. Here are my three best bets.
Sweet 16: Providence (+350)
Does Ed Cooley’s team have another Sweet 16 run in it? Those who watched the Friars drop four of their last five games would emphatically say no, but recent form isn’t always a great predictor of how teams perform in the tournament. Plus, the advantage of having a coach like Cooley will be even more impactful against their two potential opponents.
I like the first-round draw with Kentucky, which has struggled against offenses that can force Oscar Tshiebwe to abandon the paint. The Friars rank 16th in adjusted offensive efficiency and can use Bryce Hopkins and Ed Croswell in tandem to frustrate Kentucky’s big man. If they can get past Kentucky, they catch one of the most vulnerable No. 3 seeds in Kansas State, assuming the Wildcats don’t fall to Montana State, which would be even more beneficial for the Friars. Teams have figured out the formula for stopping Kansas State, which is 1-7 in its last eight away from home and ranks 348th in turnover percentage since Feb. 1. Providence’s path persuaded me to take a flyer on the Friars at +350.
Elite Eight: Texas (+175)
I owe Rodney Terry an apology. I crossed this Texas team off my list early in the season after Chris Beard's dismissal. My knee-jerk reaction may have been foolish, but at least I pivoted quickly instead of white-knuckling a horrendous take. The Longhorns are sixth overall in KenPom and rank inside the Top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
Since Feb. 1, the Longhorns have been the fourth-highest-rated team in the county (Barttorvik.com) with the third-best defense. Texas checks all the boxes on both ends of the floor. It has a potent combination of strong guard play with Marcus Carr, Tyrese Hunter and Sir'Jabari Rice and a tenacious defense that can respond when the matchup dictates physical play.
Texas ran through the Big 12 tournament after becoming the only team to beat Kansas by 15-plus points on consecutive weekends since the Jayhawks joined the Big 12. With Xavier, Iowa State and Texas A&M as the top seeds in the Longhorns' half of the bracket, I will bet Texas is playing for a shot at the Final Four in a little over a week.
Final Four: UCLA (+300)
I can’t let go of the Bruins. I am not trying to devalue the importance of Jaylen Clark, but in a year in which no team has been able to pull away, UCLA is still valuable. The Bruins are as consistent of a team as you will find in the field. They aren’t home-court dependent and have strung together winning streaks of 14 and 12 games this season. Much like Houston, I think coming off a loss in the conference tournament final will safeguard them from a potential early upset.
The path looks tough on paper, but I’m not sold on Gonzaga’s defense. Getting through the possible gauntlet of Gonzaga and Kansas (or UConn) won’t be easy, but if a team has the toughness and experience to do it, it’s UCLA. This is the final run together for Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell and David Singleton. Amari Bailey’s 19 points against Arizona proved to me that he is ready for the bigger role that awaits. I didn’t go as far as playing the Bruins to become national champions, but I think this a solid price to bet they will be headed to Houston.
Stats provided by KenPom and Barttorvik.com.