Everything matters more in March.
The conference championship tournaments are the perfect bridge from trying to pick motivational spots in the regular season to the intensity and drama that awaits in the NCAA tournament. Teams are facing familiar foes with a ticket to the Big Dance on the line, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that chalk prevails. We will start to get a taste for the improbable upsets, second-half comebacks and buzzer-beaters — everything that makes March exhilarating for sports bettors.
When it comes to the major conference tournaments, it’s usually some of the mid-to-lower seeds that are playing with the most at stake, as several of the top seeds have already earned their spot in March Madness. That dynamic coupled with the unpredictability of tournament play can create value on some of the teams with longer odds. Here are three of my favorite long-shot value plays for conference championship week.
Let’s start with the biggest long shot of them all — the Arkansas Razorbacks. Betting a team that wrapped up the season with three consecutive losses might not be first on your to-do list, but there are some positives in Arkansas’ recent form.
Nick Smith Jr. dropped 25 points against Kentucky and continues to look better with each game since returning from injury. Every year, we see guards take over in March, and Smith Jr. is that guy for Arkansas.
Another positive was that the Razorbacks only turned the ball over six times versus Kentucky. Limiting turnovers on offense will make them a tough out, considering they have the 17th-ranked defense to lean on to earn extra possessions.
Put in perspective that Arkansas’ three-game losing skid was against the SEC’s elite (Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky) and you can see how it could provide motivation and confidence heading into the tournament. While everybody bites on the Wildcats, March Musselman is worth a wager at this number.
Big East: Villanova +900
Villanova dug itself a pretty big hole during the season and now faces the uphill climb of having to win four straight in four days as a result. However, if you will be playing in the first round, drawing Georgetown is as good as it gets.
The Wildcats’ favorable path is a big factor in playing them at this number. I like that they catch Creighton, a team they beat 79-67 in late February, in the Bluejays' first game. The Wildcats also avoid UConn, Marquette and Providence as they're all on the other side of the bracket. Before getting handled by the Huskies on their home floor, Nova was playing their best basketball of the season, winning six of their last seven.
Justin Moore’s leadership has made an enormous difference. Also, recent big wins at Xavier and Seton Hall have proven they can match up with both defensive-minded and teams that want to beat you on the perimeter.
Jay Wright might not be there, but Villanova is a still program with a track record of success in this tournament. At +850, I will take a small shot on what could be a great story.
Big 12: Kansas State +700
Conventional wisdom tells us this is Kansas' or Texas’ tournament to lose, but what does conventional wisdom have to do with college basketball? Plus, this is March, and we are hunting for long shots.
TCU seems to be a popular pick once you pry yourself away from the Big 12’s top two teams, but I think there is betting value in backing their first-round opponent, Kansas State. The Wildcats' two-headed monster of Markquis Nowell and Keyontae Johnson has been carrying the Cats all season. Both players average 17 points per game, and while Johnson brings the muscle on the boards (7 rebounds per game), Nowell gets everyone involved (7 assists per game). Oh, and they are the best team in the Big 12 at defending the perimeter. That won’t help them against TCU, but it will be a pivotal factor if they get a chance to upset Texas.
Jerome Tang’s club scored 16 points off 19 turnovers the last time it faced TCU, and I think the Horned Frogs' offensive limitations could haunt them here. Tang has done an incredible job in a season with little expectations, and I am willing to bet they aren’t done overachieving yet. Kansas State is top three in the conference in effective field goal, 3-point, and free-throw percentage. As long Johnson can avoid foul trouble, the Wildcats will be a problem in the Big 12 tournament.
Stats provided by KenPom.