March Madness Wagering: Smaller Conference Tournaments
I love college basketball conference tournaments. It's just a whole bunch of chaos. So many teams playing too many games in a short time, with incredibly high stakes. And as good as the major conference tournaments are, it's the lesser conferences - the mid-majors - that are often even more exciting. In the big conferences several teams are heading to the NCAA Tournament no matter how they do. In the mid-majors, though, teams typically have to win the tournament to advance or at the very least go deep to keep an at-large bid alive. They are designed to create drama and cause heartbreak, and I love it.
As we sit on the edge of the postseason, here are six mid-major tournaments worth paying attention to:
Mountain West: Utah State is 24-6 and is currently in the lead of the Mountain West at 14-3. But at this point they probably aren't in the NCAA Tournament field. Nevada is secure in a bid at this point, but Utah State could have two more shots at them. The two teams close out against each other at the end of the regular season, and then they are on a collision course to meet in the final of the Mountain West Tournament. And along the way they will have to deal with good teams like Fresno State and San Diego State. This is always a great tournament, and with high stakes on the line it should be particularly good this year.
Ohio Valley: Belmont and Murray State, with identical 25-4 records, and 16-2 in conference, are both really dangerous, talented teams that could be a tough matchup in the tournament. But neither one took advantage of nonconference chances to get an impact win, so the loser of the conference tournament will all but certainly fall short of a bid. Two teams good enough to dance, but only one that will get a chance. Murray State, of course, features likely Top 3 NBA draft pick Ja Morant, so scouts will be all over this game. If the tournament plays out as it should, then the final could be one of the games of March. But before then Jacksonville State, who beat Belmont twice and Murray State once in the regular season, will be looking to wreck things and steal the bid themselves.
Southern: The Southern Conference has four pretty good teams, but the true class of the field is Wofford, who finished off a perfect 18-0 conference season. They also beat South Carolina by 20 in nonconference play. Barring an ugly opening-game loss, they are likely in the tournament no matter what. But if they roll through their conference tournament like they have through the conference so far, then they could be a Top 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and that's a big difference. They will likely have to beat two of UNC Greensboro, Furman and East Tennessee State to win this tournament, and those are two more good wins. This one is going to be fun.
Atlantic Sun: Lipscomb beat a ranked TCU team in nonconference play and played Louisville tight as well as two tough games against Belmont. They started conference play 11-0 and looked like they could be heading to an at-large bid. But they lost twice in their last seven conference games, and the loss to Florida Gulf Coast wasn't great. So now they need to win the tournament to dance, and that could mean a battle with a Liberty team that won 26 games and beat Lipscomb at Lipscomb. The two teams are the clear class of the field and should meet up in the final. And it would be a great battle.
Patriot: This one is interesting because it is so wide open. Bucknell and Colgate are atop the conference. However, with five conference losses, each neither is unbeatable. Lehigh is only a game back of the leaders, though they have lost twice each to both of those teams. And behind that is a very interesting team in American. They were just 9-9 in conference play, but senior guard Sa'eed Nelson is the best player in the conference, and they have a win over Bucknell. Any of those four teams could win the tournament, and an upset from elsewhere is far from impossible, too.
West Coast: There is far less drama here than the other conferences - or at least there should be. Gonzaga is even more dominant heading into this tournament than usual, as they have won 20 straight, including all 16 conference games, and start the tournament ranked No. 1 in the country. They are a very strong team, and the joy will be in watching them dominate these two conference games - they have a bye into the semifinals - and getting ready for their best tournament run yet. And if they don't win the tournament, then it will really be something to witness.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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