NCAA Basketball Conference Tournament Chat: Picks and Sleepers
March Madness is just a week away and NCAA Conference Tournaments are in full swing. The top conferences take center stage this week and bettors can wager on the winners. Will bluebloods Kentucky and Kansas reign supreme? Which betting underdogs are primed for a deep tournament run? Our Thomas Casale and Matt Schmitto analyze the tournaments in the Big 12, Big East, Big 10, Pac-12 and SEC. They break down the odds, while giving their top picks and sleepers for the five conference tournaments.
Odds courtesy of the Westgate LV SuperBook
BIG 12 TOURNAMENT
March 13-16, 2019 – Kansas City, MO
TEXAS TECH 7/5
KANSAS STATE 3/1
IOWA STATE 7/1
OKLAHOMA STATE 100/1
WEST VIRGINIA 200/1
Casale: I don’t have a strong feel for the Big 12 this season. That’s Schmitto’s conference of expertise. I’d have to say I bet way more Patriot League games this year than Big 12. Normally I would just take Kansas at 3/1 but injuries and awful play on the road make the Jayhawks too risky in my book. Texas Tech and Kansas State shared the conference title but the Wildcats could be without one of their top players. Senior forward Dean Wade (12.9 PPG, 6.2 RPG) is listed as questionable for the tournament after experiencing discomfort in his foot. Texas Tech is playing the best basketball of any team entering the tournament. The Red Raiders have won nine straight and 11 of 12 overall. I’ll ride with the favorite here in a conference I don’t think offers much value.
Iowa State has talent but you never know what you’ll get out of the Cyclones on a nightly basis. If Iowa State puts it all together for four days, they are the type of team that can make a run and win the tournament. The Cyclones are worth a look at 7/1.
Schmitto: I’m kind of obligated to pick Texas Tech here but, putting all bias aside, Tech has clearly been the best team in the Big 12 this year. As you mentioned, they’re riding a nine-game win streak, including a 30-point blowout of Kansas. They have the best defense in the conference according to Ken Pom, along with the conference’s coach and player of the year. In fact, Jarrett Culver joins Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Michael Beasley as the only underclassmen to win Big 12 POY. The tournament will be in Kansas City, so you might not expect a homecourt advantage for the Red Raiders but I hear Patrick Mahomes can get pretty loud on the sideline.
They actually opened +200 at FanDuel Sportsbook which I think provides some value. The best number I can find now is +180 at Draftkings Sportsbook, which isn’t bad. Anyways, I can go on and on about this team but you’ll hear enough from me next week when we’re in Atlantic City…If I’m really looking for value then I’m hoping K State’s Dean Wade sits this one out and I’m taking TCU 30-to-1 and Baylor 15-to-1. I think that side of the bracket is already somewhat open, as all of these Big 12 teams are beatable.
Casale: An earful of Texas Tech basketball? My drink quota just went up by six.
Schmitto: Sorry, Casale. I’ve got to make up for lost time. Us Texas Tech fans still aren’t used to good basketball like this.
BIG EAST TOURNAMENT
March 13-16, 2019 – New York, NY
SETON HALL 8/1
ST JOHN’S 12/1
Casale: The Big East is my kind of tournament. Complete chaos. This conference reminds me of the Missouri Valley. Schmitto called Bradley at 8/1 but we both predicted a wild tournament. It delivered with a No. 5 seed facing a No. 6 seed in the finals. I can see a similar outcome here.
While Villanova is the co-favorites with Marquette, this tournament is wide open. Two teams to consider are Creighton (5/1) and Xavier (12/1). Creighton closed the regular season winning five straight games, while Xavier won six of seven. The two teams play each other in the second round on Thursday with the winner likely facing Villanova. Whichever team emerges victorious will be a serious threat to win the tournament. I’ll go with Creighton.
Seton Hall (8/1) and Georgetown (15/1) are worth a look too. They also play each other on Thursday. The Pirates and Hoyas are in the lower part of the bracket with an easier path to the finals and a potential matchup against Xavier, Creighton or Villanova. Both Seton Hall and Georgetown are talented enough to make a run. I’ll go with a Creighton/Seton Hall final with the Bluejays earning the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Schmitto: I’m glad you say the tournament is wide open because I’m actually going to suggest another long shot here if you can find the right number. The tournament favorites, Marquette and Villanova, have both had major slumps this year, even as recently as the last couple of weeks of conference play.
We’ve got a great number for St. Johns at +1900 via FanDuel Sportsbook. Unfortunately, they enter the tournament on a three-game losing streak and have been pretty terrible against the spread this year (13-17 ATS), but KenPom gives the Red Storm a 5.8% chance of winning the tournament. If you convert that to odds, it comes out to +1625. Digging a little deeper, the play is even more intriguing. St. Johns swept Marquette and Creighton during the season and split with Villanova. I also can’t help but root for head coach Chris Mullin. Hopefully between Baylor, TCU and St. Johns I can outdo that Bradley pick from last week.
Casale: I can see St. Johns being the team that makes a run but I’m 0-4 the last four times I bet on the Red Storm, so I can’t back them here. That’s probably a good thing for St. Johns bettors.
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT
March 13-17, 2019 – Chicago, IL
MICHIGAN STATE 3/2
PENN STATE 25/1
OHIO STATE 75/1
Casale: I have the Big 10 is the most overrated conference in America and I’m on record saying Michigan will disappoint many people who pick them to reach the Final Four this year. Michigan State is the top seed and favorite once again. Tom Izzo has done one of his better coaching jobs this season leading the Spartans to a 16-4 conference record, despite losing Joshua Langford for the season and Nick Ward being sidelined with a fractured hand. Michigan State swept Michigan and split with Purdue this year. After suffering a three-game losing streak in late-January, the Spartans won seven of eight to close the regular season. Ward is expected to return for the Big Ten Tournament, so I’m going with the Spartans to win and grab a two-seed on Selection Sunday.
Always dangerous Wisconsin improved throughout the season, winning five of its final six games. The Badgers went 1-3 versus Michigan State, Purdue and Michigan but offer some value at 8/1. I don’t like any of the longer shots in the field, so I’ll take the Badgers as my sleeper. It won’t surprise me if they win this tournament. I just don’t see much depth in the Big Ten this year.
Schmitto: It really has been amazing to watch what Izzo and the Spartans have done this year considering all of the injuries they’ve endured. They just beat Michigan with only two of their original starters from the first game of the season! On top of Ward returning, I read Izzo is optimistic that Cassius Winston (knees), Kyle Ahrens (back) and Kenny Goins (knees) will all be ready for the conference tournament as well. They are certainly a tough team to bet against, but I just don’t like taking +150 in a conference with teams like Purdue, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Like you, I think I have to ride with Ethan Happ and Wisconsin as my sleeper. Watching Happ navigate the low post is one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in college hoops this year. He’s just about unstoppable until he gets to the free throw line. Happ/Wisconsin is +800 is my play. We can root for this one together, and maybe I won’t feel bad about raising your drink quota next week.
Casale: I’ll throw another unit on the Badgers then to hopefully help pay for those drinks.
PAC 12 TOURNAMENT
March 13-16, 2019 – Las Vegas, NV
ARIZONA STATE 4/1
OREGON STATE 5/1
WASHINGTON STATE 100/1
Casale: If the Big East Tournament is chaos, the Pac-12 is complete anarchy. Only Washington is guaranteed a berth in the field of 68. The conference is so wacky that Cal started 0-15 before winning its final three games. The Golden Bears are actually worth a few bucks at 500/1 in the unpredictable Pac-12.
Surprisingly, I do have a strong lean in this tournament. I really like Utah at 12/1. The Utes started off slowly this year but finished 10-5 in their final 15 games. Utah’s offense really improved late in the year, averaging 82.5 points in its last four games and topping 90 twice. In a wide-open conference tournament, I’ll take an improving Utah squad at 12/1 to win the Pac-12.
If you want an even bigger sleeper, look at UCLA at 20/1. It’s been a tough season for the Bruins. UCLA finished 16-15 and Steve Alford was fired in December. The Bruins are still one of the most talented overall teams in the Pac-12 and average over 78 points a game. The problem is UCLA can’t stop anyone on defense, allowing close to 78 points a game themselves. They are dangerous enough though to rattle off four wins in four days. In a wide-open tournament, I look for teams with talent that underachieved during the regular season. UCLA fits the bill. I’d rather roll with the Bruins at 20/1 than teams with shorter odds like Oregon (4/1) and Oregon State (5/1).
Schmitto: I like Oregon here even if they are just the No. 6 seed. They’ve got a great coach in Dana Altman and it looks like they found their stride these last couple of weeks of the regular season. They enter the tournament winning (and covering) four straight. Two of those were comfortable wins against their biggest competitors, Washington and Arizona State. They actually beat Arizona state by 28 points, so they can do more than just hold their own. I’d feel better about it if oddsmakers were giving them something closer to 6/1 but I’m not going to let 4/1 scare me away. If Oregon beats Washington State, they’ll take on Utah in the quarterfinals. That could be fun to watch. You might have talked me into a couple of sleepers as well.
Casale: This is the first time in like 10 tournaments that we strongly disagree. I think Oregon has been overvalued all season. Watching that team, there’s just something missing. Maybe they put it all together and win the tournament. If they do, I guess the drinks are on me.
March 13-17, 2019 – Nashville, TN
MISSISSIPPI STATE 12/1
SOUTH CAROLINA 50/1
Casale: I’ve been on LSU all year. I took the Tigers at 75/1 to win the NCAA Tournament. LSU still has a shot to win the SEC Championship but with head coach Will Wade and star player Javonte Smart suspended, it’s tough to back them at 9/2. I also have Kentucky at 15/1 to win the NCAA Tournament and I’ll go with the Wildcats here as well. Kentucky is one of the most talented teams in the country and when they give maximum effort on the defensive end, the Wildcats are tough to beat.
For a sleeper, I’m going down the board with South Carolina. Frank Martin overachieved with a young South Carolina squad this year. The Gamecocks went 11-7 in the SEC and while South Carolina is still a year away from seriously challenging for a conference title, sometimes next year comes early. With Martin and low-post presence Chris Silva, the Gamecocks could cause havoc in the SEC Tournament.
Schmitto: I’m really glad Rick Barnes no longer coaches in the Big 12. They might just be the No. 3 seed in the SEC but Barnes deserves a ton of credit this year. They’ve been one of the nation’s best teams and they don’t have a single Top 100 recruit on their roster. Tennessee and Kentucky are obviously the favorites as the odds suggest, but from a value perspective, I’d much rather take LSU, Auburn or even a flyer like Florida.
As you point out, there’s a lot of distractions in Baton Rouge right now. Tennessee is my pick to win, but Auburn is my bet. Auburn was respectable in conference play, most recently beating Tennessee. Their 53-80 loss at Kentucky scares me a bit, but they at least played Kentucky to a two-point game earlier in the season. They shouldn’t have too difficult of a time beating the winner of Missouri-Georgia. Following that will be an interesting matchup with South Carolina who you like as a dark horse. I can follow your logic on South Carolina, especially at 50/1, but I still think Auburn will be too much for them. My expectation is that we’ll get an Auburn-LSU match in the semifinals. From there on I’ll just have to cross my fingers.
Casale: I like the Auburn bet but like St. Johns, they have burned me too much to trust them. Can’t argue taking them at 9/2 though, and FanDuel currently has Auburn at +600.