It is sometimes too early to panic after an unexpected non-conference home loss, but it is never too early to ponder college basketball futures.
The 2023-24 season kicked off Monday night, and the biggest surprise across the country was No. 4 Michigan State losing 79-76 at home in overtime to James Madison. It was the first November loss at home for coach Tom Izzo, and the Spartans became the first AP Top 5 team to lose its opener against an unranked opponent since they lost to Hawaii in 2005.
Truth be told, James Madison did not exactly enter East Lansing as a pushover — it came as the preseason favorite to win the Sun Belt. And Michigan State did not exactly help itself with 14 missed free throws and a woeful 1-for-20 effort from 3-point range.
Remember, it’s just one game, and Izzo-coached teams are almost always far better come March than they are in November. Many sportsbooks are predicting just that, as Michigan State is expected to see the bulk of wagering action compared to archrival Michigan in the Wolverine State.
Walker leads what could be elite Spartans backcourt
Everyone knows guard play wins NCAA Tournament games, and Michigan State has one of the nation’s best backcourt players in Tyson Walker. His 35 points Monday night were a career best with the Spartans and one off his collegiate career high set at Northeastern.
Walker is primed for a big season after successfully shouldering more of the offensive load in 2022-23. His scoring average jumped from 8.2 points to 14.8 per game, and the senior also maintained an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 2-to-1 for the second straight year. Despite going 0-for-5 from 3-point range against the Dukes, Walker shot 41% or better from beyond the arc the last two seasons.
Jaden Akins is the other key perimeter threat for the Spartans, having connected at a 42.2% clip from deep last season. Michigan State ranked third in the nation last year at 39.3% shooting from 3-point range, though it may take some time to find that level of consistency based on Monday night’s performance.
The Spartans do have to replace the 14.4 points and 7.0 rebounds per game provided by Joey Hauser, who also did well to stretch opposing defenses by hitting 46.1% of his 3-point attempts. Malik Hall gets first crack at filling the void after averaging 8.9 points and 4.3 rebounds in 2022-23, but he is more a streaky perimeter shooter.
Michigan State has the potential to go nine deep, and freshmen Coen Carr and Jeremy Fears Jr. could wind up being the difference between Izzo’s team being merely good or his coaching in the Final Four for the ninth time in his storied career. Carr sizzled in his collegiate debut with 14 points and six rebounds off the bench, while Fears notched one point in 12 minutes.
Izzo has put together his customary non-conference gauntlet in terms of scheduling, which includes facing No. 2 Duke in the Champions Classic in Chicago next Tuesday. There are also neutral site matchups versus 12th-ranked Arizona in Palm Springs, California and No. 20 Baylor in Detroit.
Scouting the Spartans at the sportsbooks
It never hurts to do a little line-shopping, and in the case of the Spartans, there are plenty of offerings to cut down the nets in Phoenix or get there for the Final Four. For the more patient bettors who don’t make Final Four futures until they see the 68-team bracket, most sportsbooks are offering Big Ten title futures.
The best value for Michigan State to win the national title is at FanDuel, where the listing is +1800. BetMGM ranks second at +1600, while DraftKings, SI Sportsbook, and Firekeepers are close behind at +1500. The most typical offering at Michigan sportsbooks is +1400, with BetRivers, betParx, Soaring Eagle, and Four Winds in that group.
PointsBet and Barstool Sportsbook are the most bullish on Izzo winning his second NCAA Tournament title, as both books list the Spartans at +1200 despite their season-opening stumble.
For Michigan State to make its first Final Four appearance since 2019, BetRivers, BetPARX, and DraftKings are offering +500 and FanDuel is near that at +470. Caesars has the best play for the Spartans to win the Big Ten outright at +375, followed by Firekeepers at +350 and FanDuel at +340.
FanDuel is also offering an over/under for conference wins, providing a -128/-106 at 13.5 Big Ten victories.
Wolverines start with plenty of unknowns
To the southeast in Ann Arbor, Michigan begins this season with plenty of question marks. The Wolverines lost standout big man Hunter Dickinson to Kansas via the transfer portal, while the team’s other top two scorers — Kobe Bufkin and Jett Howard — are now in the NBA. That’s nearly 47 points of offense to replace, and to compound the problem further, coach Juwan Howard remains sidelined indefinitely after undergoing heart surgery in September.
Phil Martelli will serve as interim coach in Howard’s absence, and the former Saint Joseph’s head coach has been with Howard long enough that there should be a smooth transition in terms of X’s and O’s. Dug McDaniel and Terrance Williams will likely be the focal points on offense, though incoming Tennessee transfer Olivier Nkamhoua should also be an option after averaging 10.8 points and 5.0 rebounds on a Vols team that reached the Sweet 16.
Martelli will have to deal with the absences of Jaelin Llewellyn and Jace Howard, which will thin the backcourt depth in the early part of the season. Those absences also provide an opportunity for highly touted freshman George Washington III to make an impact, and incoming Seton Hall transfer Tray Jackson is expected to provide help on the perimeter.
The Wolverines have a challenging non-conference schedule that includes a trip to face Rick Pitino and St. John’s in the Gavitt Tip-Off games and a road game versus Oregon. Michigan will also play Memphis in the opening round of the eight-team Battle 4 Atlantis tournament that could potentially add Arkansas and either North Carolina or Villanova to the schedule.
Scouting the Wolverines at the sportsbooks
Compared to Michigan State, Michigan is facing longer odds in terms of March success. NCAA title futures can be had at +12500 at Caesars, +12000 at FanDuel, and +11000 at DraftKings. FanDuel’s listing at +5000 for Michigan to make the Final Four is well beyond the most common +2000 listing found at multiple books. FanDuel is also expecting the Wolverines to finish with a sub-.500 record in Big Ten play, offering a -102/-130 split at 8.5 wins.
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