College Basketball Conference Tournament Futures: Stuckey’s Top Early Tourney Bets for the Northeast, Horizon League & More
Will Newton/Getty Images. Pictured: Hall Elisias.
Welcome to March — the most wonderful time of the year. We will kick things off on the first day of this glorious month with the start of a number of conference tournaments, and the action will only build from there.
Below, you will find my thoughts on the first nine conference tournaments that start over the next three days. I will update this piece later in the week for any bets I place on the handful of tournaments that start this weekend. I’ll also have a second article early next week covering all of the tourneys that start next week.
Enjoy the madness!
Qualifiers: 9 of 10 teams (Merrimack not eligible)
Location: Higher seeds host games
Defending Champ: Mount St. Mary’s
Favorite: Bryant +120
Who Should Win?
I actually think there’s value in the favorite here. Bryant comes in red hot, having won 13 of its last 14 to close out the season after an overtime loss at Wagner. It also has the most talented roster in the league.
Most analytical sites will have Wagner rated higher, but the Seahawks just aren’t the same team since losing Elijah Ford to injury. Wagner closed out the regular season 3-3 without Ford, suffering two bad losses to Merrimack and Fairleigh Dickinson. The on-off splits with and without Ford highlight just how invaluable he is on both ends of the floor.
Wagner also lost at Bryant in the regular-season finale for the regular-season title in a game that opened Bryant -2 and closed Bryant -5, which should give you a decent idea of what the market currently thinks of these two teams.
Other potential contenders are also dealing with key injuries.
St. Francis PA did not have the services of two starters to end the season in point guard Ramiir Dixon-Conover and forward Myles Thompson.
Meanwhile, Mount also had to make do with a hobbled Malik Jefferson during a stumble to the finish line of the regular season. It has the size inside to cause some issues for other teams, but the potential loss of Jefferson and the offseason departure of Damian Chong Qui will likely be too much to overcome for the defending champs. Chong Qui just made so many clutch plays with the ball in his hands late during last year’s tourney.
Meanwhile, Bryant recently saw the return of big man Hall Elisias. He gives the Bulldogs a threat inside and excellent interior defense. Throw in the perimeter scoring prowess of Charles Pride and the nation’s leading scorer in Peter Kiss, and not many teams in this conference can keep up with the Bulldogs.
Bryant also has a fairly manageable path to the final. The Bulldogs just need to win two home games against CCSU followed by the winner of Mount-St. Francis Brooklyn to reach the championship game.
It went 6-0 against those three clubs — although I’m sure Bryant would prefer not to see Mount, which upset the Bulldogs on their home court in the final last year and played them close in both meetings this season.
If Not Bryant, Then Who?
If forced to make any other wager, I’d probably go with Long Island.
The Sharks closed out the regular season with six straight wins and have a pair of forwards in Ty Flowers and Eral Penn who can fill it up.
Like Bryant, LIU ranks in the top-10 nationally in adjusted tempo, so we could easily see a high-variance shootout if the Sharks reach the final to face Bryant in a matchup of two clubs that split the regular-season series.
LIU will first have to get by a Sacred Heart team that it went 1-1 against this season before likely traveling to Wagner on Saturday for the semifinals.
Wagner won both regular-season meetings, but one went to overtime and it’s just not the same Wagner team sans Ford.
Qualifiers: All 12 teams
Location: Higher seeds host R1 and QF, then Indianapolis
Defending Champ: Cleveland State
Favorite: Cleveland State +200
Who Should Win?
I can confidently say IUPUI will not win this tournament.
The Jaguars are the worst team in the country and are now down to just six players. I can also say with a high degree of confidence that UIC, Robert Morris and Green Bay will also not be cutting down the nets in Indianapolis. The same can be said for Milwaukee, especially if Patrick Baldwin Jr. is indeed done for the season.
The only other thing I’m fairly sure of is there will be chaos and most likely a few overtime thrillers. Expect the unexpected in the Horizon League Tournament, which has seen a No. 10 and No. 8 seed reach the final in recent years.
It really is a wide-open league and will likely come down to which team gets hot and has variance break its way. I could build a convincing case for half of the league.
Where’s the Value?
While defending champion Cleveland State comes into this tourney as the odds-on favorite, I don’t see any value on the Vikings. I would personally target IPFW or Oakland in the +550 range or Detroit if you are looking for a flier.
Oakland is a young team that lacks depth and didn’t finish strong, but there’s no denying the talent or coaching. IPFW closed the year by winning 11 straight games, so it comes in riding high. If the shots are falling from the outside, look out.
I threw a small dart on Detroit (15-1), which I think is undervalued at 15-1 or better for two primary reasons:
- Its extremely slow start is weighing down some of the advanced metrics
- Lineup issues throughout the season
The Titans haven’t really been healthy all year but showed signs of life in the second half of league play. If Madut Akec can suit up for this tournament, he and Noah Waterman can provide necessary support for the most dynamic scorer in the league in Antoine Davis, who is capable of going off on any given night.
Detroit has left a lot to be desired away from home. However, it would just need to win one true road game against Wright State en route to an improbable title.
Qualifiers: All 12 teams*
Location: Higher seeds host games on campus
Defending Champ: Liberty
Favorite: Liberty +115
*Bellarmine and North Alabama are ineligible for the NCAA Tournament
Who Should Win?
You have to give the nod to Liberty because of head coach Ritchie McKay and star guard Darius McGhee, who’s seeking his fourth straight conference championship in Lynchburg. If you haven’t seen McGhee play, he’s worth the price of admission — capable of going for 40-plus on any given night.
However, this Liberty team has holes, especially on the defensive end. McKay’s normally vaunted pack-line has shown some uncharacteristic leaks that I think can be attributed to a younger roster.
For the season, the Flames rank 178th in adjusted defensive efficiency, which is the lowest rank since McKay’s first year at Liberty when the Flames finished 13-19 and lost in the first round of the ASUN tourney.
To further illustrate its vulnerability, Liberty — which lost three of its final six to close out the regular season — lost two games at home in league play. That only happened once in the previous three seasons combined.
Liberty is the deserved favorite, especially on its home court. And even on an off night, McGhee can bail the Flames out with his heroics, but the flame isn’t as strong as it has been over the past three years in Lynchburg.
You could possibly make a case for Florida Gulf Coast, especially since Duquesne transfer Tavian Dunn-Martin is capable of going off on a nightly basis. However, the Eagles are a bit too erratic for my liking.
If anybody is going to cut down the nets besides Liberty, I think it will come down to a likely semifinals matchup between Jacksonville State (from Alabama) and Jacksonville (from Florida).
Jacksonville State (+165) arguably has the most raw talent in the league, but Jacksonville (+900) has more betting value to me, especially if you can find 10-1 or better.
The Dolphins came on strong at the end of the year, finishing with an 8-2 record with their only two losses coming in close fashion on the road against Jacksonville State and FGCU. They seem to be peaking at the right time and can hang with anybody in the league with their slow pace and outstanding defense.
Qualifiers: All 12 teams
Location: Charlotte, NC
Defending Champ: Winthrop
Favorite: Longwood +145
Longwood is the deserved favorite after shocking everyone with a 15-1 league record during the regular season. The Lancers lost only one game since the calendar turned, which came on the road to NC A&T.
However, I’m still not fully sold on the Lancers, who thrived in close games all season. They do benefit from what I think is the easier half of the bracket, especially since UNC Asheville could be without Drew Pember.
However, I wouldn’t be shocked if they lost their first game against the winner of pesky Radford (which lost two tight games to Longwood) and the aforementioned NC A&T.
Where’s The Value?
With a vulnerable top seed that I think is overvalued in the market, I wouldn’t fault anybody for throwing a dart here on a longshot such as Campbell (20-1) in the bottom half of the bracket.
Unlike in some recent years where Winthrop and/or Radford were head-and-shoulders above the field, there is much more parity in the Big South this year.
I personally threw a wager on the Runnin’ Bulldogs of Gardner Webb (+550) at a price I think has some value. If they can avoid an upset in their first game, they’d likely face Winthrop (+220), which is priced much more favorably even though I have barely any difference between those two clubs from a power rating perspective.
For reference, Garnder Webb closed as a 2.5-point favorite at home against Winthrop a few weeks ago, which also indicates these two teams are about even.
Plus, Gardner Webb has the best defense in the conference by a wide margin. In fact, it actually ranks 21st nationally in effective FG%, per KenPom. That should play in a tournament setting on a neutral court.
Qualifiers: Top 8 Teams
Location: Evansville, IN
Defending Champ: Morehead State
Favorite: Murray State -175
Who Should Win?
The OVC really rewards regular-season performance, as the top two seeds get double-byes into the semifinals, whereas teams seeded 5-8 have to win four games in four days to cut down the nets.
Murray State is the unquestionable favorite after sweeping the league during conference play, having won every game since a road loss at Auburn toward the end of December. The Racers are a wagon.
If Not Murray State, Then Who?
Maybe Southeast Missouri State gets red hot from 3 and pulls off a stunner against Murray State. The Redhawks are a high-variance team with capable shooters that only lost by two at home to Murray State to close out the year, but that seems like a reach.
Therefore, you can pretty much pencil Murray State in the final where it would likely face either Morehead State (+900) or Belmont (+240). While Belmont would clearly be favored in that game, it’s just an awful matchup for a Bruins team that just isn’t as good as some of its recent teams.
This Belmont club can really be overwhelmed by athleticism, which both Murray State and Morehead State have in abundance.
Murray State won both meetings against Belmont by a combined 55 points, while Morehead should’ve also swept the Bruins if not for a late collapse on the road in a game it led by double-digits in the second half before falling by one.
I just can’t see this Belmont team beating Morehead and Murray State in back-to-back games. I think the Bruins are overvalued in general due to blowing out inferior competition and maybe in part due to name recognition.
As a result, I do see a bit of value in Morehead State, which I think has a much better shot of pulling off an upset against Murray State.
The Eagles will slow the game down and have an elite man-to-man half-court defense that can allow them to hand around. They can smother the perimeter and force teams into the paint where they run into Johni Broome, who ranks sixth in the country in block rate.
Morehead State did get swept by Murray State in the regular season, but it actually led by nine with five minutes to go at home before eventually falling by four points after some negative last-minute variance. It also lost by 11 on the road but in a game that was tied with 10 minutes remaining.
So, while Morehead had an underwhelming 2-4 finish to the regular season, it probably has the best shot at taking out the Murray State juggernaut from a matchup perspective.
Qualifiers: All 12 teams
Location: Higher seeds host games on campus
Defending Champ: Colgate
Favorite: Colgate -200
Who Should Win?
After a bad loss to Lehigh to open up conference play, Colgate got on a roll and started to resemble the NCAA Tournament team we saw from last season.
Jordan Burns is no longer around, but this is still a very veteran group (10th in minutes continuity) that can still shoot the lights out (5th nationally in 3P%).
The Raiders are undoubtedly the favorite to make it back to the dance, especially since they will get to play on their home court until they either secure their bid or get upset.
They also have a very favorable path to the final, needing to just beat the winner of Lafayette-Bucknell followed by the winner of Army-Lehigh. You could make a case that all four of those teams rank outside the top 300 in the country.
If Not Colgate, Then Who?
Colgate won 16-of-17 to close out the regular season en route to its third-straight regular-season title.
However, that one loss did come against Boston (+500), which I think has the highest ceiling of any team in the bottom half of the bracket. The Terriers start five seniors and have a ton of size inside that can give other Patriot League teams fits.
The problem is they are maddeningly inconsistent and did not inspire much confidence down the stretch, so relying on them to win three straight games seems like a chore, especially since two will likely come on the road.
I also just hate this number since they will likely have to travel to Navy (+500), which is priced similarly despite likely being a favorite in that game. For what it’s worth, the Mids swept the Terriers in the regular season.
Yes, they get to play their first game at home against Loyola Maryland, but BU has one of the worst home-court advantages in college basketball. In fact, they already lost to Loyola MD at home this year and even had a horrid home loss against lowly Holy Cross.
So, while I think Boston has the highest ceiling and did already beat Colgate this season, the price just isn’t enticing enough for me to get involved, and I ultimately don’t trust anybody else in the league.
I think a rollover moneyline parlay is the better option, which is always something to consider when looking at conference tourney futures.
Navy would be my only other consideration, but I’m not confident the Mids are fully healthy.
Later This Week…
- The Missouri Valley Conference Tournament should be fantastic with a number of teams fully capable of cutting down the nets at Arch Madness. Loyola Chicago is the favorite, but the Ramblers are much more vulnerable than last year’s squad. They really miss Cam Krutwig, especially on the offensive end of the floor. I’d love to see AJ Green carry Northern Iowa to the dance, but I’m taking a simple approach and siding with the most talented starting five in the league in Missouri State (+500).
- The Sun Belt Conference Tournament is as wide open as I can remember. The top half of the bracket is filled with land mines, so I’d target a team from the bottom half from a futures perspective. It’s hard for me to look at anybody other than Georgia State (+300). The Panthers won seven straight to close out the season, which parallels their run from last year leading up to a loss in the conference championship. However, the price is just a bit short, so I’ll likely just be playing this tournament on a game-by-game basis.
- As usual, Gonzaga (-390) is a massive favorite in the WCC. The Bulldogs need to win just two games to secure their ninth conference title in the past 10 years. I actually threw a few pesos on San Francisco (30-1), which will likely need to beat BYU, Gonzaga and St. Mary’s over the course of four days. That’s a gauntlet, but I loved the game plan San Francisco had against Gonzaga’s vaunted transition attack in their most recent meeting. It just has to hope the Zags miss outside shots in the half-court this time around and it gets some lucky bounces. It’s unlikely but worth a fun dart, in my opinion.