Predictions for All 14 Saturday Conference Championship Games

Predictions for All 14 Saturday Conference Championship Games article feature image
Credit:

© Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

What a day we have ahead with a Conference Championship in FOURTEEN different leagues. Madness. Let’s take a quick look from a betting perspective at each and every one of the following 14 conference championships:

  • AMERICA EAST: UMBC at Vermont -10 (11 a.m. ET | ESPN2)
  • MEAC: NC Central vs Hampton -3 (1 p.m. ET | ESPNU)
  • SWAC: Texas Southern -5.5 vs Arkansas Pine-Bluff  (5 p.m. ET | ESPN2)
  • BIG 12: West Virginia -1.5 vs Kansas  (6 p.m. ET | ESPN)
  • MOUNTAIN WEST: New Mexico vs San Diego State  -4.5 (6 p.m. ET | CBS)
  • BIG EAST: Providence vs Villanova -13.5 (6:30 p.m. ET | FOX)
  • MAC: Toledo vs Buffalo -6.5 (7 p.m. ET | ESPN2)
  • BIG SKY: Eastern Washington vs Montana -4.5 (8 p.m. ET | ESPN2)
  • ACC: North Carolina vs Virginia -3.5 (8:30 p.m. ET | ESPN)
  • CUSA: Marshall vs Western Kentucky -6 (8:30 p.m. ET | CBSSN)
  • SOUTHLAND: SE Louisiana vs Stephen F Austin -5.5 (9 p.m. ET | ESPN2)
  • PAC-12: USC vs Arizona -3.5 (10 p.m. ET | FS1)
  • WAC: Grand Canyon vs New Mexico State -4 (10 p.m. ET | ESPNU)
  • BIG WEST: UC Irvine vs CSU Fullerton -2 (11:59 p.m. ET | ESPN2)

The first ticket-punching championship starts at 11 a.m. ET in Burlington, Vermont and the last at 11:59 p.m ET. in Anaheim, California. We will have approximately 14 hours of conference tournament action today. Does it get any better? Make sure your evening schedule is clear, as 11 of the 13 tip at 5 p.m. ET or later. We have a lot to get into, so let’s get down to business, starting with the America East final.

(We will continue to update this piece throughout the day as lines become available.)

America East

UMBC at Vermont (-10)

Time: 11 a.m. ET
Channel: ESPN2
Location: Burlington, VT
Season Series: Vermont 2-0

Vermont couldn’t have asked for a better matchup in its quest for back-to-back AmEast titles. UVM has won 23 straight over UMBC since the 2009 AmEast semis. The Catamounts also dominated the regular-season series, winning by margins of 15 and 28, the latter of which came at UMBC on a night when the program opened its brand new gym in front of a packed house.

UMBC thrives offensively by spreading the floor in transition off of its pressure defense. (Terriers led the league in defensive turnover rate.) UMBC plays at its best when lethal scoring guard Jairus Lyles can go to work on the break. However, UVM has the league’s Player of the Year at point guard in senior Trae Bell-Haynes to matchup with Lyles. It also only turned the ball over on 19% of possessions in the two blowout wins vs UMBC this season. Both games were played at just 62 possessions, which was the slowest pace UMBC played all year.

Vermont will play in front of its home crowd and has all of the big-game experience in this matchup. UVM should dictate pace, dominate the paint, and contain Lyles. That was the exact recipe it used in both blowout wins in the regular season. No reason why this will play out any different this time around.

THE PICK: Vermont -10

MEAC

NC Central vs Hampton (-3)

Time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: ESPN2
Location: Norfolk, VA
Season Series: Hampton 1-0

Hampton is taking no prisoners in its final run in the MEAC Tournament. (The Pirates are leaving for the Big South next year, and the split with the MEAC has been acrimonious, to say the least.) Hampton dominated NCCU’s guards in the first meeting with its hyper-aggressive pressure defense. The Pirates are deep in the backcourt with Jermaine Marrow, Malique Trent-Street and Kalin Fisher. NCCU relies on post production from bigs Raasean Davis and Zac Douglas, but Hampton’s bigs Trevond Barnes and Charles Wilson-Fisher allow just .76 points per post possession (ppp), per Synergy.

THE PICK: Hampton -3

SWAC

Texas Southern (-5.5) vs Arkansas Pine-Bluff

Time: 5 p.m. ET
Channel: ESPN2
Location: Houston, TX
Season Series: UAPB 2-0

Since Texas Southern’s second loss to UAPB on Feb. 16, head coach Mike Davis’ squad has been on absolute fire, scoring 1.24 ppp during a six-game winning streak. (The Tigers only had seven players available due to injuries and suspensions in that second meeting, but still only lost by a single point on the road.) When TSU has its full complement of players, which it does now with guard Trae Jefferson (23.7 ppg) and 7-foot-2 center Trayvon Reed (8.7 rpg) back, it’s unquestionably the best team in the conference. Jefferson missed the first meeting, while Reed missed the second game with the Golden Lions. UAPB does have the advantage of running out the league’s best player at the point in Martaveous McKnight, but the Tigers should win their fourth title in the past five years.

THE PICK: Texas Southern -5.5

Big 12

West Virginia (-1.5) vs Kansas

Time: 6 p.m. ET
Channel: ESPN
Location: Kansas City, MO
Season Series: Kansas 2-0

We’ll see if WVU can finally complete a 40-minute game against the Jayhawks after two meltdowns in the regular season. The absence of Kansas big man Udoka Azubuike will obviously help those chances. Azubuike totaled 31 points against WVU this year, while missing only one shot from the field. More importantly, KU’s ability to limit the Mountaineers on the offensive glass takes a substantial hit without Azubuike’s rebounding prowess.

Bill Self will need to play the extremely talented (but extremely raw) big Silvio De Sousa, even though his frustration with the freshman was palpable during the Friday’s Kansas State game. De Sousa routinely blew his role in Self’s outstanding set pieces on the offensive end. KU got away with it against a KSU team missing its two best players, but it can’t afford to do so against the Mountaineers.

That said, Kansas has played slightly faster and far more aggressively without Azubuike. Malik Newman is also playing his best basketball of the season. I expect KU keep the ball rolling today in Kansas City against a team it just seems to own mentally.

THE PICK: Kansas +1.5

Mountain West

New Mexico vs San Diego State (-4.5)

Time: 6 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Location: Las Vegas, NV
Season Series: New Mexico 1-0

This is the SDSU team I envisioned over the summer when word spread about new head coach Brian Dutcher’s willingness to open up the offense. Those preseason expectations only grew when the Aztecs reportedly slaughtered USC in a scrimmage. SDSU is healthy now and playing some of the best basketball in the country. Trey Kell and Dev Watson have been outstanding in the backcourt, while Jalen McDaniels has developed into a low-post monster alongside Malik Pope in the frontcourt.

We should get a great MWC final, as New Mexico is the only team in the conference playing as well as SDSU. The Lobos are playing with a major chip on their shoulder; head coach Paul Weir has used the “preseason disrespect” card as motivation all week. The Aztecs lost their only regular-season meeting at New Mexico by four points in a game they led late. SDSU played well against the UNM full-court press in that game, only turning it over at an 18% rate. SDSU actually dominated the glass and the paint in that game, but couldn’t overcome UNM senior guard Antino Jackson’s 6-of-10 shooting from deep. Unless Antino somehow repeats that performance, the Aztecs should return to the dance after a two-year absence.

THE PICK: San Diego State -4.5

Big East

Providence vs Villanova (-13.5)

Time: 6:30 p.m. ET
Channel: FOX
Location: New York, NY
Season Series: Split

Villanova’s current level is frightening, as the Wildcats have scored a scary-good 1.35 ppp in the Big East Tournament so far. More importantly, Nova held two of the league’s best offenses to a combined 1.02 ppp. That defense has been the issue all year, but keeping Marquette and Butler in check is an extremely positive sign.

I’ve written extensively in the past about how Providence’s length and athleticism can give Villanova problems. The Friars are one of the few Big East teams that can effectively put bigger defenders on the perimeter to limit the Wildcats from deep. Ed Cooley is a brilliant basketball coach, especially when it comes to making halftime adjustments. He showed this on Friday against Xavier with his willingness to ride 6-foot-10 center Nate Watson in the post and by playing guard Makai Ashton-Langford to keep Xavier off star guard Kyron Cartwright last night. Those substitutions flipped the game. We just might get a classic at MSG if Providence has anything left in the tank.

THE PICK: Villanova -13.5

MAC

Toledo vs Buffalo (-6.5)

Time: 7 p.m. ET
Channel: ESPN2
Location: Cleveland, OH
Season Series: Buffalo 1-0

When Buffalo is motivated, which it is during this MAC Tournament, the Bulls are a clear class above the rest of the league. Having said that, the biggest question ahead of this game is the status of Toledo wing Tre’Shaun Fletcher. The 6-foot-7 MAC Player of the Year tried to play through a knee injury on Friday night, but barely made it through one minute before being carried off the floor. It didn’t look good for Fletcher, who is absolutely vital for the Rockets’ chances.

Buffalo readily exposed Toledo’s poor transition defense by tallying 104 points in 73 possessions in the first and only regular season meeting. The Bulls simply scored at will at the rim. Toledo has struggled all year with transition defense and containing dribble penetration, two areas where the Bulls excel. The Rockets stayed somewhat competitive in the regular-season meeting, but   Fletcher had 27 points on 10-of-14 shooting. If he can’t go, Buffalo should roll en route to its third title in the last four seasons.

THE PICK: Buffalo -6.5

Big Sky

Eastern Washington vs Montana (-4.5)

Time: 8 p.m. ET
Channel: ESPNU
Location: Reno, NV
Season Series: EWU 1-0

Montana escaped a controversial ending to beat Northern Colorado in a wild OT game last night. The Grizzlies will face an EWU team that’s playing its best basketball of the season. The Eagles handed Montana its first Big Sky loss of the year on Feb. 15 and haven’t lost since.

The Big Sky’s all-time leading scorer Bogdan Bliznyuk has been an absolute machine of late for EWU. The 6-foot-6 do-everything scoring guard has totaled 67 points in two tournament games, while only missing seven total shots. (Bliznyuk came into the tournament having hit a record 77 straight free throws in the regular season, but has shockingly missed four in the tournament. I guess he is human.) Montana has the league’s top defensive player in guard Mike Oguine, but he’s giving up four inches in the matchup with Bliznyuk.

Montana’s offense is at its best when attacking the rim via penetration from Oguine and through post feeds to junior forward Jamar Akoh. EWU effectively kept Oguine out of the paint and also kept the Grizzlies off of the free throw line in their lone meeting this season. If EWU can turn Montana into jump shooters again, the Eagles will dance.

THE PICK: Eastern Washington +4.5

ACC

North Carolina vs Virginia (-3.5)

Time: 8:30 p.m. ET
Channel: ESPN
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Season Series: UVA 1-0

Defense was the concern for the Heels heading into the ACC Tournament, but after limiting Syracuse, Miami, and most impressively Duke to a total of .91 points per possession, those worries seem like a distant memory.

Defense, of course, is never the concern for Virginia, and the Heels have not performed well against head coach Tony Bennett’s pack line recently. In fact, UNC has managed just a meager .80 ppp in its past two games against Virginia. However, the structure of UNC’s offense has undergone a fundamental shift since these two teams last played (61-49 loss in Charlottesville). Roy Williams made a lineup change in the very next game, inserting senior guard Cam Johnson into the starting rotation to go with a smaller lineup. Johnson has started ever since.

Williams has also started to filter the offense through Theo Pinson, who is precisely the type of guard who can collapse Virginia’s perimeter defense into the “pack” and then quickly find an open player. With Luke Maye likely held in check again by the outstanding defense of forward Isaiah Wilkins, the onus is totally on Pinson.

THE PICK: North Carolina +3.5

CUSA

Marshall vs Western Kentucky (-5.5)

Time: 8:30 p.m. ET
Channel: CBSSN
Location: Frisco, TX
Season Series: WKU 2-0

Western Kentucky played at Marshall’s pace and beat the Thundering Herd at their own transition heavy game … twice. WKU put up 112 points in 80 possessions in a thumping at Marshall, and 85 points in 78 possessions in a win at Bowling Green a few weeks later. But the first game comes with a huge caveat, as Marshall’s do-everything big man Ajdin Penava left with an injury after just four minutes. Things quickly devolved from there for the Herd. The second meeting saw Dwight Coleby attack him straight from the tip, and Penava fouled out with no real impact on the game. Ultimately, the Herd are just a really great matchup for the Tops. WKU’s dual point guards of Lamonte Bearden and Darius Thompson are big and aggressive, and can easily handle Marshall’s pressure. WKU’s offense also thrives in an open-court game, rather than the ugly grinder they saw yesterday against ODU. I think the Tops could roll here.

THE PICK: Western Kentucky -5.5

Southland

SE Louisiana vs Stephen F. Austin (-5.5)

Time: 9 p.m. ET
Channel: ESPN2
Location: Katy, TX
Season Series: SELA 1-0

Embattled top seed SELA got good news ahead of its matchup with Sam Houston State last night, as leading scorer Jordan Capps was cleared to return from a strained abductor muscle. Capps only logged 16 minutes in the win, but his presence alone opens up the floor for the Lions.

SELA’s slow pace, which runs counter to the fun-and-gun Southland conference, has been the kryptonite for its league foes. SFA was no exception in the regular season as it lost the only meeting between these two teams. The fastest player in the league, SFA guard Shannon Bogues, only logged six minutes in that game. His transition-reliant game simply had no use against SELA’s halfcourt style. SFA’s full-court press and denial-heavy defense did force SELA into a 30% turnover rate, but Lions point guard Marlain Veal carved up SFA in the halfcourt on non-turnover possessions.

SELA forward James Currington, who suffered a minor gun shot wound on campus a week ago, will be sorely missed in this title game. Currington is SELA’s most versatile defender. Forwards TJ Holyfield and Leon Gilmore should take full advantage, as both are effective outside of the lane in SFA’s spread motion offense. The Lions have matchup problems on the defensive end without Currington.

THE PICK: Southeastern Louisiana +5.5

Pac-12

USC vs Arizona (-3.5)

Time: 10 p.m. ET
Channel: FS1
Location: Las Vegas, NV
Season Series: Arizona 1-0

USC played well with Arizona for 30 minutes in the first meeting, but the Wildcats pulled away in the final 10 minutes in the only regular season meeting. The game likely turned for the Trojans when 6’10 forward Bennie Boatwright went down in the second half with a season ending knee injury. USC missed his floor spacing and shooting ability against Arizona’s modified pack line defense. He will be sorely missed again tonight.

Speaking of defense, Parker Jackson-Cartwright has been playing out of his mind on that end. He limited UCLA guard Aaron Holiday and Colorado guard McKinley Wright (who did leave early with an injury) extremely effectively so far in this tournament. Arizona has struggled to contain dribble penetration all year, but if PJC’s defense on guard Jordan McLaughlin matches what we’ve seen this tourney, the Trojans will struggle to score. The Trojans go as McLaughlin goes. The Trojans are 3-5 in games where McLaughlin has an offensive rating under 100. Star big man Deandre Ayton was a monster last night against UCLA, but his poor defense essentially negated his impact against big Chimezie Metu in the first meeting.

THE PICK: Arizona -3.5

WAC

Grand Canyon vs New Mexico State (-4)

Time: 10 p.m. ET
Channel: ESPNU
Location: Las Vegas, NV
Season Series: NMSU 2-0

Neither the Lopes nor the Aggies scored more than 1.0 ppp against each other in the regular season, but NMSU’s elite defense on a national level was a little better than GCU’s, which carried head coach Chris Jans’ team to a series sweep.

Offensively, the turning point in each game was NMSU’s ability to get 6-foot-10 matchup nightmare Alessandro Lever in early foul trouble. Lever only logged 34 total minutes in the two games. He’s absolutely essential to what can be a wonky GCU offense at times given its struggles to consistently hit jumpers. NMSU is elite defending pick-and-roll bigs, thanks to 6-foot-10 forward Johnathon Wilkins and the vastly underrated 6-foot-7 forward Johnny McCants. The Aggies also won’t be surprised by GCU’s cut-and-fill motion after seeing it twice already this year.

Thanks to Mr. 20-Rebound Jemerrio Jones, NMSU is also one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the country, and the Lopes have been thriving on the offensive glass this tournament. GCU’s aggressive, gamble-heavy defense could back fire tonight against guards Zach Lofton and AJ Harris, both of whom simply don’t turn it over under pressure.

THE PICK: Grand Canyon +4

Big West

CS Fullerton vs UC Irvine (-2)

Time: 11:59 p.m. ET
Channel: ESPN2
Location: Anaheim, CA
Season Series: Split

CSUF’s attacking guards had issues finishing at the rim against UCI’s massive frontcourt, which allows the lowest FG% at the rim in the country, per hoop-math.com. UCI head coach Russell Turner also effectively mixed in a 3-2 zone that gave the Titans fits. That said, the Eaters foul at an excessively high rate no matter what base defense they play, and CSUF gets to the free throw line at the highest rate in the entire country. CSUF’s interior defense is actually fairly solid, and with UCI’s offensive struggles in the backcourt, I’ll take the team with the better guards in what’s likely to be a half-court rockfight.

THE PICK: CS Fullerton +2

Editor’s note: The opinion on these games is from the individual writer and is based on his research, analysis and perspective. It is independent of, and may not always match with, the algorithm-driven Best Bets from Sports Insights

UNC guard Joel Berry pictured above; credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports