LAS VEGAS — As a college basketball star in the early 1990s, Juwan Howard helped Michigan reach two NCAA championship games. The Wolverines lost both times, a trend that has haunted the Big Ten for the past two decades.
In his second year as Michigan’s coach, Howard has a shot to reverse the March curse for the Wolverines and the conference.
“Michigan is good enough to beat Gonzaga and Baylor,” said Vinny Magliulo, VSiN oddsmaker and veteran Las Vegas bookmaker.
From the first AP poll in November through the final weekend of February, the Zags were ranked No. 1 with the Bears No. 2. But the popular notion of a two-horse race for the title is fading as the season reaches the fourth turn. The Wolverines (18-1, 13-1 Big Ten) are making a run.
Magliulo and South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews decided to think outside of the Gonzaga-Baylor box when recently posting a prop bet pitting the Big Ten teams (+175) against the rest of the NCAA Tournament field (-200).
The Big Ten is expected to have at least seven teams — Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin and Maryland — in the field of 68. Rutgers is a good bet to make it eight. Indiana and Michigan State could stretch the number to nine or 10.
In Ken Pomeroy’s ratings (Kenpom.com), which are used by bettors and oddsmakers on a daily basis, six Big Ten teams are ranked in the nation’s top 14. The Wolverines just jumped over Baylor into the No. 2 spot.
“In the Big Ten, Michigan doesn’t really have a night off,” Andrews said. “That league is going to be very prepared for the tournament.”
Sharp money showed on the field after Andrews opened the line at -160, and recent history is not on the Big Ten’s side. Since Tom Izzo coached Michigan State to the NCAA title in 2000, the conference is 0-7 in championship games. John Beilein coached Michigan to two of those losses, in 2013 and 2018.
Howard, a key player on the Wolverines’ Fab Five teams that fell short in championship games against Duke in 1992 and North Carolina in 1993, is coaching a Michigan team guided by senior guards Isaiah Livers, Mike Smith and Eli Brooks. Hunter Dickinson, a 7-foot-1 freshman, is the leading scorer and rebounder, and 6-9 sophomore forward Franz Wagner scored a team-high 21 points in each of the past two games.
In Pomeroy’s ratings, Michigan is fourth in defensive efficiency and fifth in offensive efficiency. Gonzaga ranks first in offensive efficiency, but the Zags have been breezing through a weak West Coast Conference, winning their 15 league games by an average of 24.1 points.
“Gonzaga is a 25- or 30-point favorite every night,” Andrews said. “I think Michigan is as good as Baylor, but maybe not quite as good as Gonzaga.”
Bulldogs coach Mark Few did test his team with a tough non-conference schedule. Gonzaga defeated Kansas, West Virginia, Virginia and Iowa. The Zags outraced the Hawkeyes 99-88 on Dec. 19 in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Luka Garza, Iowa’s 6-11 senior, is the nation’s No. 2 scorer at 24.3 points per game and is shooting 45.5 percent from 3-point range. The knocks against the Hawkeyes are their low defensive efficiency ranking (59th) and lack of overall athletic ability.
Most NBA scouts are lukewarm on Garza and hot on Illinois stars Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn. The Illini lost to Baylor 82-69 on Dec. 2 in Indianapolis.
The entire NCAA Tournament will be played in Indiana, the heart of Big Ten country, but Magliulo said that could be only a “slight advantage” to the league’s teams due to arena familiarity. The Big Ten’s biggest advantage against the field will be its extreme number of teams and the probability that its strongest teams will be separated in the bracket regions.
“I think Iowa has a puncher’s chance with Garza because if you have a kid like that, you can win some games,” Andrews said. “There are a lot of possibilities there with the Big Ten. You have some other teams like Purdue, Rutgers and Wisconsin that are pretty good.”
Andrews’ lofty opinion of the Big Ten is not shared by The Gold Sheet handicapper Bruce Marshall, who said he considers the Big 12’s Baylor, Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia, Kansas, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech as Final Four threats.
“I think the Big 12 is the best league and has got more teams than can win the tournament,” Marshall said. “The Big Ten would get eight or nine teams in, but I really don’t see anyone other than Michigan that could win it from the Big Ten.”
Andrews and Magliulo also posted a prop on Gonzaga, Baylor and Villanova versus the field, with the three teams listed as the -140 favorite. The Wildcats have lost two of their past four Big East games.
“Current form means a lot, and Villanova has been very inconsistent the past few weeks,” Magliulo said. “Villanova is trending the wrong way.
“I think the Big Ten is closing the gap on the Big 12. I would say Michigan and Ohio State could certainly go deep in the tournament, and Michigan can win it.”