NCAA March Madness betting: 5 takeaways from conference tournaments before betting the big dance

·6 min read

Many sports fans start to figure out their NCAA tournament bracket picks and bets on Monday morning after the field has been set.

Others spend the week leading up to Selection Sunday doing some pre-bracket homework.

Conference tournaments can foretell some of the storylines of the NCAA tournament. It's also a good way to scout the lesser-known teams that can pull off a first-round upset, or the big brand-name programs that might be overrated heading into the tournament.

With the bracket set and an unprecedented amount of bets about to be made on March Madness, here are five observations from the conference tournament to help guide your bets:

Baylor, maybe Gonzaga, are beatable

Gonzaga and Baylor are the favorites at BetMGM to win the championship and rightfully so. They both are remarkable teams. But they are beatable.

Baylor was upset in the Big 12 tournament semifinals by Oklahoma State. The Bears might not face a player in the NCAA tournament like Oklahoma State freshman Cade Cunningham, the likely No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA draft who scored 25 on Baylor, but they are good but not great on defense, don't have a ton of size and could be vulnerable in the wrong matchup.

Gonzaga hasn't lost this season, but BYU came close in the West Coast Conference title game. BYU put up 53 points in the first half and led by as many as 14. The Bulldogs trailed by nine points with nine minutes to play. Gonzaga rallied to win by 10 and that might be a great argument for how dominant they are, but they did get a scare from a BYU team that is good but not a title contender. A better team might be able to close out the win if they're in that same situation. Getting that lead against a fantastic Gonzaga team is the challenge.

Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs holds his tournament most outstanding player award after Gonzaga defeated BYU in the WCC title game. (AP Photo/David Becker)
Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs holds his tournament most outstanding player award after Gonzaga defeated BYU in the WCC title game. (AP Photo/David Becker)

SEC could have multiple teams make a deep run

If you watched the SEC tournament, you saw a lot of talent on display.

The Alabama-LSU title game featured two teams that look like they can make a deep run. Both teams have players who can make a big difference the next few weeks. LSU's Trendon Watford in particular looked like a player who could carry the Tigers to a surprising run. Arkansas was hot the last month of the season but lost to a talented LSU team in the semis. Tennessee gave Alabama a tough game in the semis and was a team with a lot of promise in the preseason. The Big Ten gets a lot of attention as the best conference in college basketball this season — Illinois looked very good in the Big Ten tournament and Ohio State revived its NCAA tournament hopes with a great run too — but the SEC could end up being the conference with multiple teams in the Elite Eight.

Villanova is in trouble without Collin Gillespie

We saw right away how valuable Gillespie, a senior do-everything guard, was to Villanova.

A knee injury ended Gillespie's season. The Wildcats lost their next game, the regular-season finale to Providence. Then Villanova dropped its Big East tournament opener to Georgetown. Georgetown had a great week in New York and the Wildcats lost by only 1 point. That's not the worst loss. But the Wildcats have a Final Four expectation every year, including this one, and it's hard to see them making that kind of run without Gillespie. They might not be a team to back as long as they're in the NCAA tournament, and it doesn't seem wise to advance them far in your bracket either. Winthrop, Villanova's first-round opponent, might be a very popular bet.

... and Michigan might be in trouble without Isaiah Livers

Michigan is another team that should be thinking national title, but Livers' foot injury could change that trajectory.

Livers, Michigan's second-leading scorer, missed the Wolverines' semifinal loss to Ohio State with a stress fracture in his foot. Livers said he instantly thought about the possibility that his career at Michigan is over. He didn't sound overly optimistic that he'd return for the NCAA tournament.

"Very emotional evening [Friday] for me and my family and my teammates, my brothers," Livers said, according to MLive.com. "You could just kind of tell, and I can tell by just walking on it right now — that thought did cross my mind.

“But you never know. This world is full of possibilities. You never know, I could be back out there. I don’t want people to write me off yet. I’m still going to rehab and work my butt off to get back with this team, because I know we’re going to make a run and I want to be there for it.”

Livers averages 13.1 points per game and many mock drafts have him as a second-round pick in this year's NBA draft. He's a tough matchup because he's 6-foot-8 and a good 3-point shooter. The Wolverines are still very good, but Livers' absence makes them more vulnerable to an exit before the Final Four. Keep an eye on how many points LSU gets if No. 1 seed Michigan and No. 8 seed LSU meet up in the second round.

Which possible Cinderellas passed the eye test?

The beauty of the conference tournaments is that leagues that typically don't get much attention in the regular season find themselves on television. Just watching every conference championship game means you've seen at least 40 minutes of each potential Cinderella from a one-bid league.

The eye test can come in helpful when looking for a nice moneyline bet in the first round on a lesser seed. Loyola Chicago might not even be eligible as a sleeper anymore. The Ramblers have been great all season and did look fantastic carving up the Missouri Valley Conference in its tournament. They'll be a popular play for any bettor who has done a bit of homework. Loyola Chicago, a No. 8 seed, gets Georgia Tech in the first round.

Other teams off the radar looked strong in getting an auto bid. Iona, coached by Rick Pitino, played some great defense in winning the MAAC title and have the potential to give No. 2 seed Alabama a scare in the first round. Ohio was very good in the MAC tournament, comfortably beating top-70 KenPom teams Toledo and Buffalo to get in the field. In the first round Ohio gets a Virginia team that had its ACC tournament end with a positive COVID-19 test. St. Bonaventure is balanced and their dominance of the Atlantic 10 tournament was eye-opening, though they get a tough matchup against LSU in the first round. UC Santa Barbara's win over UC Irvine in the Big West title game was impressive and the Gauchos look like a team to trust in the first round against Creighton.

There will be a few surprising upsets in the first round of the NCAA tournament. They will just be a little less surprising to those who were studying the smaller conferences during those tournaments.

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