NCAA Basketball Betting and Handicapping: Scouting the Week Ahead
by Alan Matthews - 3/3/2014
If you haven't been closely following college basketball this season, now it's time: Welcome to March. Really it's the only month that matters in the sport (not counting the spillover of the Final Four into early April). This is the final week of the regular season, and most of the mid-major conference tournaments start this week, so the 68-team NCAA field will start to fill.
As usual, the only conference without a postseason tournament is the Ivy, and that league's automatic bid could be decided Friday night when Harvard visits Yale. The Crimson lead the Bulldogs by two games in the Ivy League with two to play. Yale shocked Harvard 74-67 on Feb. 8 in Cambridge to end Harvard's 20-game home winning streak. Harvard closes its regular season the next night at Brown, which is a solid team and could pull the upset. Yale closes at home against Dartmouth on Saturday, which should be a win. If Yale and Harvard finish tied, there is a one-game playoff for the NCAA berth even though Yale will have swept the season series. Yale hasn't been to the Big Dance since 1962. Harvard has been there the past two years and lost a one-game playoff to Princeton in 2011.
The main drama in the conference tournaments that begin this week is in the Missouri Valley to see if Wichita State can win the conference tournament for the first time since 1987 and take an unbeaten record into the NCAA Tournament -- possibly even the No. 1 overall seed should Florida lose at least once before the Big Dance. I have a feeling that if WSU is upset in the conference tournament that the selection committee will drop it to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Although in 2004 when St. Joseph's was unbeaten and then lost in the Atlantic-10 quarterfinals the Hawks still got a No. 1. That conference was a lot better than the 2013-14 Missouri Valley is.
The MVC Tournament, also known as Arch Madness as it takes place in St. Louis, opens Thursday. Wichita State plays Friday against Thursday's Drake/Evansville winner. WSU has been the No. 1 seed twice previously (2006, 2012) and in both seasons lost in the semifinals. The Shockers are down to +800 on Sportsbook.ag to win the national title, behind only Florida (+550), Kansas (+650) and Arizona (+750).
Two of the most interesting NCAA Tournament bubble teams as things currently stand in my mind are Indiana from the Big Ten and Oklahoma State from the Big 12. I absolutely expected Oklahoma State to make a statement at home against No. 5 Kansas on Saturday, and the Cowboys did, winning 72-65. That was OSU's third win in three games since star Marcus Smart returned from suspension. Sometimes things like that can bring a team closer, and it appears to be the case in Stillwater. Smart was terrible in the first half against KU but scored 20 points in the second half as Oklahoma State overcame a 10-point deficit.
At 19-10 overall and 7-9 in the conference, I don't think the Pokes are quite there yet, especially as they have that ghastly seven-game losing streak on their schedule. Oklahoma State has an RPI of 45 with a strength of schedule ranked 37th. It has two other wins over ranked teams outside of Kansas: Memphis and Colorado. OSU is a nine-point favorite for Monday's home game against Kansas State and closes at Iowa State on Saturday. Win both of those and it should be in.
As for the Hoosiers, it seems like forever ago that they were the team to beat in the nation, but it was only last March. I didn't think Tom Crean's club had any shot at an at-large bid but then had impressive home wins over No. 20 Iowa and No. 22 Ohio State last week. The latter came without freshman Noah Vonleh, a lottery pick in the 2014 draft if he comes out. He sat out with a foot injury and is called day-to-day. IU managed to hold Ohio State without a 3-pointer, the first IU opponent without one in more than 11 years. Indiana still has work to do at 17-12 and 7-9 in the Big Ten. Its RPI is a not-good 76 with a strength of schedule ranked 60th. That said, if Indiana can win at home against Nebraska (another bubble team) on Wednesday and upset Michigan in Ann Arbor on Saturday -- a game U-M might have nothing to play for as it could wrap up the Big Ten title on Tuesday at Illinois -- then I don't see how the committee can keep a .500 team in Big Ten play out.
That should mean Nebraska is in at 9-7 in the conference and 17-11 overall. The Huskers have won six of seven, including a huge resume-building win at Michigan State. While I don't expect Nebraska to win in Indiana, a victory over Wisconsin in Lincoln on Sunday should ensure a bid. NU hasn't been to the Big Dance since 1998 and has never won an NCAA Tournament game.
Other Games To Watch
No. 1 Florida could be in for a trap game Tuesday night at South Carolina. The Gamecocks aren't very good, but it's UF's final true road game, and the Gators might be looking ahead to Saturday's game against Kentucky and the chance to complete an unbeaten season in the SEC. South Carolina lost by 16 in Gainesville earlier this year as a 16.5-point dog. Kentucky hosts Alabama on Tuesday and needs a win for some confidence. The Cats aren't in danger of not making the NCAA Tournament but have lost two straight, neither of which they should have: home to Arkansas and at South Carolina. UK hosts Alabama on Tuesday. Kentucky has risen to +2500 to win the national title.
Another team that needs a jolt of confidence is Saint Louis. The Billikens lost at home to Duquesne last week and at VCU (both of which I hinted would happen in this space). The Atlantic-10 race is still open now with Saint Joseph's a game behind SLU, which hosts Dayton on Wednesday and then visits a good UMass team on Saturday. Two more losses are possible and could allow the Hawks to steal the title.
Saturday has a bunch of big games. Oregon can likely earn itself an at-large bid if the Ducks can upset Arizona. UO has won five straight. North Carolina-Duke is always must-see TV and that rivalry returns Saturday. New Mexico visits San Diego State in what could be for the Mountain West regular-season title.
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Read more articles by Alan Matthews
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