College Basketball Best Bets: 8 Top Picks for Friday Evening’s Conference Tournament Games
Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images. Pictured: Johnny Davis (Wisconsin)
On Saturday, 15 conference tournament title games will take place. And on Sunday, we’ll finally have our 68-team field.
But before we get to two massive days in college basketball, let’s not forget about Friday evening. There is plenty of cash to be made and value to be had before we transition to championship Saturday and the best Sunday of the year.
So, with that in mind, our staff has eight best bets for the Friday evening slate, including picks in the SEC, Big Ten and Big East, amongst other leagues.
Friday Evening’s Conference Tournament Best Bets
The team logos in the table below represent each of the matchups that our college basketball staff is targeting from today’s slate of games. Click the team logos for one the matchups below to navigate to a specific bet discussed in this article.
|Specific bet recommendations come from the sportsbook offering preferred odds as of writing. Always shop for the best price using our NCAAB Odds page, which automatically surfaces the best lines for every game.|
Akron vs. Toledo (MAC Semifinal)
By Ky McKeon
Toledo survived a scare yesterday when it nearly lost to 8-seeded Central Michigan. Head coach Tod Kowalczyk talked afterwards about how his team hasn’t played many close games this season. Perhaps that was a wakeup call for a squad that has dominated the MAC all season.
Kowalczyk deserves an NCAA Tournament berth. He has built the Toledo program into a perennial MAC contender over 12 seasons, but has yet to make the Big Dance. The program itself hasn’t gone dancing since 1980. I think this is its year, though.
Toledo beat Akron by eight in the only matchup between the two this season. The Rockets led by as many as 19 in that game, as Akron could not stop ball penetration from Toledo’s savvy backcourt. Kowalczyk’s half-court offense is very pick-n-roll focused, an action in which Akron grades out as “below average” at defending, per Synergy.
Transition will also be a key for Toledo tonight. Led by First-Team All-MAC guard Ryan Rollins, the Rockets are dangerous in the open floor and boast a massive advantage over Akron’s backcourt corps.
The Zips have only been so-so at stopping teams in transition this season — they will have trouble keeping Toledo in the half-court.
Akron has the interior advantage and should win the glass battle. But, despite their size, the Rockets have been excellent defending the paint this season. No team in the MAC has allowed a lower 2-point field goal percentage than Toledo.
One of Akron’s primary methods of scoring is drawing fouls and converting from the charity stripe. Toledo leads the MAC in free throw rate allowed this season. The Rockets are well-coached and disciplined on this end of the floor.
Lay the points in a Buckeye state battle.
Pick: Toledo -5.5 (Play to -6)
Mississippi State vs. Tennessee (SEC Quarterfinal)
On opening day of the SEC Tournament, I went with Missouri and the points as my best bet against Ole Miss. The Tigers advanced outright.
Last night, it was Vanderbilt and the points, and the Commodores took out Alabama to keep their SEC title hopes alive.
We’re staying on the underdog trail again today and going with Mississippi State as a 7.5-point underdog against Tennessee.
The Bulldogs looked really impressive last night against South Carolina, and Ben Howland’s team knows it needs to keep winning to keep any tournament hopes alive.
Mississippi State has been far better than its record throughout the season, but an inability to finish games has held it back.
When these two teams squared off earlier in the year in Starkville, Tennessee pulled away late in what was a back-and-forth affair throughout.
I also always enjoy backing a team fresh off of a victory going up against an opponent that will be making its debut in the tournament, like Tennessee in this case.
Give me the Bulldogs to hang inside the number and cover the 7.5 in this quarterfinal showdown.
Pick: Mississippi State +7.5 (Play to +7)
Morgan State vs. Norfolk State (MEAC Semifinal)
No. 1 Norfolk State and No. 4 Morgan State tip off in the semifinals of the MEAC Tournament.
Norfolk State withstood a tough test from No. 8 seed Delaware State in the first round, but ultimately got the win, 74-66.
Senior guard Jalen Hawkins led the way for Norfolk State with 17 points. It was a quiet game for MEAC Player of the Year, Joe Bryant Jr., who was 2-for-9 from the field and just 1-for-5 from beyond the arc.
I expect Bryant to have a bounce back game, especially after a scare from one the worst teams in the country.
Morgan State doesn’t have the chops on offense to hang with Norfolk State.
Morgan State ranks 331st in the nation in AdjO, with only 94.5 points per 100 possessions. This compares to a Norfolk State team that is 185th in the nation and first in the MEAC in AdjO (103.2 points).
The Spartans underperformed in the opening round — especially against the 16-point spread — but look for a bounce-back performance this evening against Morgan State.
I am projecting Norfolk State as 7.5-point favorites. I recommend laying the points, as Bryant will lead Norfolk State to their second-straight MEAC Championship game.
Pick: Norfolk State -5.5 (Play to -6)
Creighton vs. Providence (Big East Semifinal)
The entire college basketball community has been chasing an answer on Providence like Rocky Balboa chasing that chicken around the yard. The Friars are either very lucky, very good, or a crazy mix of both.
While all of that has been happening, I have personally been going through the same exercise, silently and alone, with Creighton.
Entering the season, I was fully on board with the Bluejays and saw them as a big value. In November, I said they might be the second best team in the Big East. Spoiler alert: they were not.
I then bet on Creighton like a person who viewed the Bluejays as a Big East contender. I bet on Creighton in seven of the Bluejays’ first 18 games. The last of those seven was a blowout loss to a bad Butler team, forcing me to swear off the Bluejays for good.
I did so, until this week at the Big East Tournament. The turnover issues that plagued this team all year long were certain to buck their heads under the bright lights, especially with point guard Ryan Nembhard out for the season with an injury.
It did just that, with Marquette forcing 17 Bluejays turnovers. However, hot shooting and dominant rebounding offset that issue, and Creighton advanced.
Now, the team I can’t figure out faces the team no one can seem to figure out. Providence doesn’t force a ton of turnovers, but takes advantage when it does. The Friars are 10-1 when their opponent posts more than 10 turnovers in a game.
The experienced Providence backcourt should have a major leg up on the young Creighton guards. I’ll take the Friars, laying a few points, to move onto the title game.
Pick: Providence -3
Michigan State vs. Wisconsin (Big Ten Quarterfinal)
I am embarrassed for the Michigan State Spartan program. The late-game execution against Maryland was flabbergasting for a Tom Izzo-led team. Sparty looked like an AAU team that hadn’t learned how to beat the press.
The Spartans finished dead last in the Big Ten this season in offensive turnover rate, and that unit produced 16 turnovers against the Terps that led to 22 Maryland points.
Moreover, we could probably target Michigan State for some game-to-game regression here. ShotQuality projects that the win over Maryland should’ve been a 10-point loss, based on the quality of shots taken and allowed.
‼ SQ UPSET ‼
🔺 Actual Score: Maryland 72-76 Michigan St.
🔺 ShotQuality Score: Maryland 68-58 Michigan St.
Based on the quality of shots taken:
🔺 Maryland wins 83% of the time
🔺 Michigan St. wins 17% of the time pic.twitter.com/E1cR7VH1p3
— ShotQuality (@Shot_Quality) March 11, 2022
Now, Sparty will get a pissed-off Badger team that lost the Big Ten regular-season title on the final day in a one-point loss to Nebraska. ShotQuality projected that game as a four-point Wisconsin win.
Speaking of turnovers — Wisconsin doesn’t do that. The Badgers finished second in the Big Ten in offensive turnover rate, and it finished second nationally in total turnovers per game (8.6).
The Badgers always get a shot up, while the Spartans don’t.
There was some worry about Johnny Davis’ ankle sprain, but he claimed he feels fine and is 100% today. Behind him and Brad Davison, I expect Wisco to dice up the Sparty backcourt.
I love this spot for Wisconsin, and I would play it up to -3.5.
Pick: Wisconsin -3 (Play to -3.5)
Weber State vs. Montana State (Big Sky Semifinal)
By Matt Cox
Danny Sprinkle is on a mission. His Bobcats are two wins away from clinching the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1996.
Standing in their way is perennial Big Sky powerhouse Weber State. Under Randy Rahe, the Wildcats have been a fixture at the top of the Big Sky totem pole. This year, they were a rocket ship early on, laying waste to any team in its path.
Lately, the Wildcats look wounded.
Montana State saw both sides of the coin this year. In the first meeting, Weber caught fire from long distance (12-for-20 from behind the arc) and secured a 10-point victory in Bozeman.
Then, a month later, Montana State exacted revenge and then some. MSU ran away with a 20-point shellacking at Weber, a notoriously tough place to win.
Since then, Weber’s shown no signs of returning to that earlier peak form. The Wildcats pulled away with conviction from Montana yesterday, but that was largely a function of the Grizzlies, too, a highly volatile team in their own regard.
These Bobcats, however, are steady and stable. A staunch commitment to defense and a bruising interior frontline underpin the Bobcats’ consistency, which hasn’t wavered all year long.
Tonight, they’ll look to punch the softer Wildcats in the mouth. Specifically, expect Sprinkle to feed Jubrile Belo and Great Osobor a steady diet of low post touches to attack Weber’s fickle frontline tandem of Dontay Bassett and Alex Tew.
Belo ate in both regular season meetings against the Wildcats. He’ll have no issue asserting his dominance in this one, along with his newly-found deputy destroyer Osobar.
Pick: Montana State +1.5 (Play to -2)
Quinnipiac vs. Saint Peter’s (MAAC Semifinal)
With its 77-71 victory over 3-seeded Siena, Quinnipiac continued its unprecedented run in the MAAC Tournament.
The Bobcats entered the tournament losing nine of its final 10 games, including six in a row. But Baker Dunleavy’s squad has caught fire from outside, hitting 27-of-56 (48%) attempts from behind the arc in its first two postseason matchups.
Saint Peter’s is poised to put out the fire that Quinnipiac has been cooking on in this matchup, though. The Peacocks have been elite on the defensive end of the floor, owning the 42nd defensive efficiency ranking in the country.
Shaheen Holloway’s group has held opponents to 30% from 3-point range (25th) and 45% on 2-point attempts (18th).
During Saint Peter’s five-game win streak, the defense has allowed just 51 points per game. The group has forced turnovers at the highest rate in the conference, and Quinnipiac has been prone to cough the ball up, averaging 13 giveaways a game.
But Saint Peter’s offense can be hard to watch at times. The group plays at a slow pace and ranks 315th in 2-point field goal percentage, despite 70% of its shots coming from that range.
Quinnipiac’s weakness defensively is guarding the perimeter, but Saint Peter’s rarely settles for the outside shot.
This matchup is slated to be a defensive showdown, with both defenses owning a huge advantage over the opposing offense.
Pick: Under 136.5 (Play to 135)
New Orleans vs. SE Louisiana (Southland Semifinal)
By Jim Root
Yesterday, I took New Orleans because of its free-throw shooting and downhill style. That failed by a point, but the process was correct: the Privateers shot 76% on 33 attempts. Meanwhile, McNeese shot 64% on 36 attempts.
Today, I’m fading New Orleans for a similar reason.
The Privateers desperately need to get to the stripe to score. They rank first nationally in free-throw rate and dead last in 3P attempt rate. It’s tough to have a more telling split than that.
That is an issue against SELA, a defense that fouls at the lowest rate in the Southland. If New Orleans cannot get to the stripe, the Privateers will struggle mightily to score.
I also continue to prefer the more rested team over the one playing the back-to-back. SELA has had time off, and that should give the Lions an edge in the second half.
Finally, SELA won the “in-season” tournament that the Southland held in this same building back in early January. That should inject the Lions with a bevy of confidence.
If they can shoot even remotely similar to how they did during that three-game stretch (40-of-79, 50.6% from 3), they can roll here.