MOUNTAIN WEST (Wednesday)
Sharp bettors are typically trying to beat the favorite in most conference tournaments. With an odds-on favorite such as San Diego State, a couple of contenders could have value. For those who want to bet the favorite in the Mountain West, Circa Sports is offering the cheapest price on the Aztecs at -170. San Diego State (28-1) will open Thursday against the Air Force-Fresno State winner. Assuming the Aztecs advance, they will face the Boise State-UNLV winner in a semifinal Friday. The Rebels are dangerous, entering the postseason on a five-game win-and-cover streak that includes a 66-63 victory Feb. 22 at San Diego State. UNLV has home-court advantage at the Thomas & Mack Center and could be attractive at 10/1 odds (Circa), but monitor the injury status of senior guard Elijah Mitrou-Long, who hurt his knee Saturday. Reading between the lines, he seems doubtful, and that’s a major issue. Mitrou-Long averaged 17.6 points and shot 50.7% during this winning streak. Without him, the Rebels would not pull another upset of the Aztecs, who are motivated to play for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. San Diego State will reach Saturday’s championship game, where its opponent figures to be second-seeded Utah State, which must contend with Nevada or Colorado State in its half of the bracket.
Player to Watch: Malachi Flynn, a San Diego State junior, is one of the nation’s top five point guards. He’s not the top scorer in the conference, but he is the best player. Flynn averages 17.6 points and 5.1 assists while shooting 37.2% from 3-point range. Flynn scored 36 points Saturday in a comeback win at Nevada. He hits big-time shots and makes the Aztecs tough to bet against.
Best Bet: Utah State probably needs to win the tournament to get into the NCAA field. The Aggies would be in a double-revenge spot against San Diego State. In the teams’ second meeting, Utah State had an eight-point halftime lead on the road before folding down the stretch in an 80-68 loss. The Aggies feature two outstanding shooters — Sam Merrill and Justin Bean — and talented 7-footer Neemias Queta, so they match up well with the Aztecs. The Golden Nugget sportsbook is offering the most odds value on Utah State at 6/1, compared to 3/1 at the Westgate SuperBook. The + 600 price is worth a play.
MISSOURI VALLEY (Thursday)
Northern Iowa (25-5) might earn an at-large NCAA bid if it fails to win the “Arch Madness” tournament in St. Louis, but that’s never a safe assumption for a small-conference team. The Panthers, who own victories over Colorado and South Carolina, are even-money favorites at the Westgate and + 105 at Circa. It’s usually tricky to play the favorite in this conference tournament, which always seems closely contested.
Player to Watch: AJ Green, a Northern Iowa sophomore guard, averages 19.7 points and shoots 91.7% on free throws and 39.5% from 3.
Best Bet: Loyola Chicago split with Northern Iowa in the regular season, with both games going to overtime. With some help from Sister Jean, coach Porter Moser is a proven winner in March. The Ramblers, who finished one game back in the league race, are getting almost 4/1 odds (+ 390) at Circa Sports.
WEST COAST (Thursday)
The top two seeds get double byes in the tournament at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, so Gonzaga and Brigham Young will not begin play until the semifinals Monday. The Zags are likely to face San Francisco or Pacific. The Cougars are likely to face Saint Mary’s or Pepperdine. The championship game is Tuesday night, and the most anticipated matchup is obviously a tiebreaking third game between Gonzaga (29-2) and BYU (24-7). The Bulldogs are priced as -270 favorites at Circa Sports and -400 at the Westgate. The Cougars are getting 3/1 odds. Gonzaga ranks No. 1 nationally in offensive efficiency (Kenpom.com) and has six players averaging double figures in scoring, led by forward Filip Petrusev at 17.8 per game. Veteran forwards Corey Kispert and Killian Tillie each shoot better than 40% from 3-point range. BYU ranks No. 4 in offensive efficiency and No. 1 in 3-point shooting percentage (42.0). The Zags won the first meeting 92-69, and the Cougars won the February rematch 91-78.
Player to Watch: Yoeli Childs, a 6-foot-8 senior forward, was a man in the paint in BYU’s win two weeks ago when he totaled 28 points and 10 rebounds in an upset of the Zags.
Best Bet: Gonzaga is playing for the No. 1 seed in the West Region. After losing the title game to Saint Mary’s last year, the Zags are not a team to fade this time. Mark Few’s team is not a fragile favorite, so lay the -270 or pass.
East Tennessee State (27-4) is in a situation similar to Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley tournament — the Buccaneers could earn an at-large NCAA bid even if they fall short this week. East Tennessee was competitive in a loss at Kansas and beat Louisiana State before posting a 16-2 league record. The Buccaneers are riding a nine-game winning streak since losing to Mercer in late January. Furman (+ 290) and UNC Greensboro (+ 450) are the top threats to knock off the Buccaneers.
Player to Watch: Jordan Lyons, a Furman senior guard, wears No. 23 and has dynamic scoring ability. Lyons scored 33 points in a loss at Alabama. The Paladins enter the tournament having won 10 of their last 11 games.
Best Bet: East Tennessee State is a decent play at + 105 (Circa) because Steve Forbes is an excellent coach and his team should coast to the title game while Furman and Greensboro tangle in the other half of the bracket.