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March Madness: Despite recent history and a major flaw, bettors still love Kentucky

Can Kentucky head coach John Calipari break a streak and make a long tournament run? (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
Can Kentucky head coach John Calipari break a streak and make a long tournament run? (AP Photo/Wade Payne) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Kentucky isn't having a bad season. You just might not know it by listening to the noise around the Wildcats.

Kentucky fans are running out of patience with coach John Calipari. The last time the Wildcats were in the Final Four was 2015, which is remembered for a 38-0 team losing to Wisconsin in the national semifinal. There have been plenty of disappointments since then, including a first-round loss to No. 15 seed St. Peter's in 2022. This season has been frustrating at times too, with Kentucky's defensive issues contributing to eight losses, including one to UNC Wilmington.

And bettors are ignoring all the negatives when it comes to Kentucky.

The team with the most bets at BetMGM to win the NCAA tournament this year is Kentucky, which is currently projected as a No. 4 seed by bracketologists.

The biggest liability BetMGM has to win the tournament is that No. 4 seed that many of its fans are complaining about.

[Free bracket contests for men's & women's tourneys for shot at $25K]

Kentucky getting most bets to win it all

Kentucky has 11.7% of the bets to win the national championship. There's a fairly large gap between Kentucky and the second most popular team, which is UConn at 9.3%.

The one good piece of news for Kentucky backers is they probably got decent odds. Kentucky opened at +1400 to win it all and during an uneven season the odds have moved to +2200.

The reasons Kentucky has been popular among bettors is easy to figure out. They're one of the biggest brands in the sport. Even though Kentucky hasn't been to the Final Four in nine years, it's usually good and always a big part of the conversation in the sport. The Wildcats have talent this year too. Kentucky had the No. 1 recruiting class in the sport, even though it wasn't considered an exceptionally strong class. Freshmen like Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard have played well enough that they could both be NBA Draft lottery picks.

This Kentucky team can shoot and score. It has the best 3-point shooting percentage in the country, which is a good place to start in the modern game. The Wildcats have scored 100 points seven times this season.

That's why bettors still like Kentucky at 22-to-1 to win it all. There's pedigree, star power and an explosive offense. There's also a big problem that will preclude Kentucky from winning it all, if history is a guide.

Kentucky's defense is a problem

The Wildcats don't particularly love playing defense. UK is 93rd in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. That's not even close to a championship-level defense.

The worst defensive efficiency ranking for any NCAA champion since 2002 is Baylor in 2022. The Bears were 22nd in defensive efficiency. Kentucky would have to pitch a couple shutouts in the SEC tournament to get close to 22nd.

Kentucky profiles as the type of team that can beat anyone because it can hang 100 points in any game. It can also lose to any team because it doesn't play defense. That makes it hard to buy them as a team that can win six straight games and win a title. There's a reason teams outside of the top 25 in defensive efficiency simply don't win national championships.

Bettors are undeterred.