College Basketball Handicapping: Mid-Major Conference Tournaments
by Robert Ferringo - 3/1/2010
The NCAA Tournament is the apex of college basketball. The quality of play is at its pinnacle and the stakes couldn’t be higher. But an argument can definitely be made that nothing can match the emotional pitch of the mid-major conference tournaments.
These small, regional teams aren’t playing for banners as much as they are playing for pride and bragging rights. Sure, everyone wants a trip to the Big Dance. But as you wander through the smaller conferences you’re going to find that the intensity level in these tournament games is maxed out. I mean, no one out of the Sun Belt is going to be playing for the national title. But for four days in Arkansas those 13 teams are going to toe the line and go all-out in order to earn their own regional championship.
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For bettors, these conference tournaments offer mile-a-minute, rapidly changing circumstances in which instinct and guile are their best weapons. With teams playing two, three or even four nights in a row and turnaround times below 24 hours there isn’t much time for books or bettors to fully predict how the emotion of the events is going to play into the results at the window. It’s one of the most difficult times to handicap, but that also makes it a gold mine for soft lines and ripe situations to pounce on.
And if you want a chance at making a buck in the NCAA Tournament – by predicting and avoiding major upsets from the “small schools” – it’s absolutely imperative that you familiarize yourself with the players in the mid-major conferences.
With that in mind, here is a look at seven key mid-major conference tournaments:
Colonial Athletic Association Tournament – March 5-8 in Richmond
This is one of the most intriguing conference tournaments of the month. And that includes all of the BCS tourneys. As many as five teams have a very realistic shot at earning the conference’s automatic bid and no less than four teams will earn a postseason bid in some tournament. This league is very top heavy – four teams won at least 12 of 18 conference games and four teams lost 13 or more conference games – but it’s still very deep.
Old Dominion won the regular season title but No. 2 seed Northeastern has been the hottest team in the league over the last month-plus. William & Mary is a dark horse and anyone who follows the sport closely knows all about what George Mason and VCU have done in this league over the last decade. The semifinals of this tournament will be must-see TV and should feature a very high level of ball. I’ll go with one of the top two seeds cutting down the nets.
Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament – March 5-8 in Albany
The main subplot in this tournament is whether or not Siena can once again earn the Metro bid into the Big Dance. The Saints are going for three straight titles, have gone 17-1 in conference play this year, and once again get to play the tournament on their home floor. They are 15-0 at home this season and clearly have the most talent in the league. But they are going to have their work cut out for them as this conference is as deep as it has been in years.
Fairfield (13-5), Iona (12-6) and St. Peter’s (11-7) are the next three teams in the standings and they have each tossed a scare into the champs. They are each upperclassmen-dominated but still can’t match the experience or skill of the Saints. And then there is Niagara. The Eagles are Siena’s main rival and the lone team to beat the Saints. These two are lined up to meet in the semis in the game that could determine who reps this league in the NCAA Tournament.
Southern Conference Tournament – March 5-8 Chattanooga
Steph Curry’s departure created a power vacuum in this previously obscure conference. However, this is another top-heavy conference (five teams won 11 or more league games and five lost 12 or more) but I could easily see any of four teams cutting down the nets.
Wofford has earned the top seed with a 15-3 league mark, just one game ahead of Charleston in the West. Each of those teams has beaten a BCS foe this year (South Carolina for Wofford and North Carolina for Charleston) and Wofford is on a smoking hot 16-1 rush. Next comes SoCon East winner Appalachian State, which beat Wofford and swept the No. 4 seed, Western Carolina. But even past these top four teams (Davidson is No. 5) there are a bunch of quirky, three-point chucking, Princeton-offense-running, upset-minded clubs that could wreak havoc for the top seeds. The level of basketball may not be high but this is going to be a fun tourney for fans and a potentially devastating one for bettors.
West Coast Conference Tournament – March 5-8 in Las Vegas
Gonzaga has dominated this league for more than a decade and will be looking for its 10th tournament title in the last 12 years. The Bulldogs are a Top 25 staple and they are already gearing up for what they hope will be a long run through the NCAA Tournament and their first Final Four.
But not so fast. The Bulldogs won yet another league title, but they also dropped two games to middling teams Loyola Marymount and San Francisco. And those aren’t even the league’s top contenders. St. Mary’s and its three-point bombers would love a chance to avenge embarrassing losses earlier this year. And Portland’s five senior starters are willing to go for broke in their last chance to topple the Zags.
Horizon League Tournament – March 3, 5-6, 9 at Campus Sites
This conference has rigged just about everything to ensure that its regular season winner glides into the NCAA Tournament. Butler, which went 18-0 to capture yet another regular season crown, gets a double-bye into the semifinals and would host the title game in Hinkle Fieldhouse. Essentially they only have to win two games in a watered-down league in order to dance.
As for potential Cinderellas, the only team I think that could realistically go into Hinkle and beat the Bulldogs would be Wright State, the No. 2 seed. They two enjoy a double-bye and a home game and Wright State shoots well enough, defends well enough and has enough experience to potentially knock off the favorites. There should be some decent early round games. But this one is likely a formality.
Sun Belt Conference Tournament – March 3, 6-9 at Hot Springs, AR
This conference has been a free-for-all season long and is completely wide-open heading into its tournament. Three teams finished tied for the overall No. 1 seed at 13-5 and just three games separated the No. 1 slot from the No. 8 seed in this league. And with 13 teams in the league this is one of the largest tournaments in the nation.
The top three teams – Troy, MTSU and North Texas – all earned critical byes into the quarterfinals. I have felt that North Texas has the best overall squad and will be able to wear people down with their size. But none of the top five or six teams are particularly deep and there should be plenty of upsets in the early rounds. Troy and it’s excellent guards are in the driver’s seat and have the easiest path to the title game. But this one promises to be a nerve-wracking bracket for bettors the nation over.
Mid-American Conference Tournament – March 9-13 at Cleveland
Kent State travels to Akron on Friday, March 5 to play a game that will determine the regular season conference championship and the top seed in the MAC Tournament. Regardless of how that game shakes out these two teams are the class of the MAC and appear headed on a collision course for a rematch in Cleveland, with the league’s automatic bid on the line.
There are potential landmines. Teams like Buffalo and Ohio have streaky offenses that can get hot for a weekend and carry them on a run. Exceptional players like Carlos Medlock (Eastern Michigan) and David Kool (Western Michigan) are good enough to almost single-handedly upset one of the top seeds. And quirky Miami, OH is a team no one likes to play in a one-and-done setting. I’d stay away from the teams in the MAC West (that division was a disaster) and the title winner will come from the East.
Robert Ferringo is a professional handicapper and he has gained nearly +400 Units over the past three college basketball seasons. You can purchase his college basketball picks here.
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