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UNC Basketball: Sportsbooks have North Carolina as NCAA Tournament favorites

March is almost here and the Tar Heels are title favorites.

Louisville v North Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The regular season is almost over, and UNC has about as good of a resume as anyone in the country. The sportsbooks in Las Vegas certainly seem to think so. After an exciting week that saw UCLA defeat Arizona in Tucson, and Gonzaga finally lose in its last regular-season game, Carolina became the favorite to win the NCAA title.

UNC is closely followed by an explosive UCLA squad, the reigning champs Villanova (ugh), somehow Duke, and Big 12 winners Kansas. While no one wants to take too much stock into what the betting odds have to say, and it rarely will ever affect a team’s judgment of itself, it’s nice to see the Tar Heels atop the list after another terrific season.

So why has UNC shot up to the top of the sportsbooks? Well, Carolina should have the ACC Player of the Year on its roster in Justin Jackson. The Heels have also already clinched at least a share of the ACC regular-season title and have a good chance of repeating as ACC tournament champions next week in Brooklyn. If they beat Duke on Saturday, they will also have gone undefeated within the confines of the Dean Dome. And all of this has been accomplished in the ACC, inarguably the strongest and deepest conference in the country this season.

Still, it’s peculiar that Carolina has found itself at the top in a season with a myriad of viable, deadly contenders. Most likely, running through the ACC gauntlet has been the decider here, and few teams—if any—have more experience than UNC right now. The rest of the top teams could make a strong argument for being the favorite, but all have their weaknesses, like UNC’s (lack of depth and shooting).

UCLA, arguably the scariest team on offense in all of college basketball, sits at No. 2. Yes, the Bruins don’t have much of a defense, but they do have six guys in double-figure scoring, four of whom shoot over 40 percent from deep. If this team gets enough players hot from the outside, it’s not hard to imagine them wreaking havoc on the rest of the tournament. If the team can’t consistently light it up, UCLA could nonetheless be doomed by a more balanced squad.

Behind UCLA are the defending champion Villanova Wildcats. For a team that won the national championship in history-making fashion last season, and is 27-3 this year, the Wildcats have been somewhat outside of the national radar. Ah, to be in the Big East. Nova again presents a challenge to UNC, partly thanks to a tremendous season by Josh Hart. Much like last year, not many talked about Villanova until the very end. Could it be a repeat?

The next two teams both have 9:1 title odds, but one of them definitely seems a little out of place. The one that makes sense is Kansas, who just doesn’t lose the Big 12 anymore. The Jayhawk slogan might as well be “Death, taxes, and Big 12 titles” under Bill Self, but KU has had difficulties in playing up to its seed before. The Jayhawks have often been upset early on and, despite their magnificent regular-season success, it’s been a while since Mario Chalmers’ shot.

The other team sitting at 9:1 odds is Duke. Yes, the Duke team that just put up 50 against Miami. For most of the season, even while the Blue Devils looked out of sync, and even miserable, many still said “just wait until they put it all together.” It looked like that could have been finally happening when they defeated UNC a few weeks ago, but with back-to-back road losses, the hype for this Duke squad has again died down. Luke Kennard is a stud and Jayson Tatum has been improving, but Vegas seems to be the biggest believer in Coach K realizing all of that preseason expectation.

And just behind these two, sitting at 10:1 odds, is Gonzaga, who just can’t get any respect. It took forever for them to reach the AP No. 1 despite a 29-0 start to the year. Now, after a loss to BYU at home, the Bulldogs aren’t even in the top five favorites to win the title. Depending on how conference tournaments shake out, they could even lose out on a No. 1 seed. As dominant as Gonzaga has been all year, some people—and Vegas—just aren’t going to trust them for being in the West Coast Conference.

Of course, these odds could drastically change once the conference tournaments begin and end, and once the tournament seeds are set. Just a few days ago, Joe Lunardi had UCLA as a No. 4 seed in the same bracket as No. 1 seeded Carolina. That was before the Bruins took down Arizona on the road, and now they’re the second favorite to win the whole thing. Regardless, Carolina has earned being the title favorite, at least for the time being.