Here in the Tuley’s Takes home office, we can’t stop thinking about a year ago at this time. Our biggest concern was how to handicap NCAA tournament games with no fans in the stands, but then we not only lost the Big Dance, we also lost the major-conference tournaments.
We’ve had a lot of success in Championship Week in recent years, so it was disappointing not to be able to continue that. Now, of course, we have this great week of wall-to-wall basketball and will see how it plays out with no or limited fans, but at least we have games and conference futures to handicap.
VSiN colleague Gill Alexander had Jeff Parles on “A Numbers Game” on Monday, and Parles was admitting he originally thought the top seeds would dominate in the conference tourneys as they have all season. But we’ve seen No. 1 seeds such as Navy, Belmont, James Madison, Georgia State and South Dakota State not only fail to cover but get eliminated and miss out on their smaller conferences’ automatic bids. Those were teams that had to continue winning to earn the NCAA berth in their one-bid leagues, so we’re encouraged because most of our success has been in fading teams from bigger conferences that are already assured of at-large bids no matter how they do in the conference tourneys. Sure, the coaches and players say they’re motivated to win the conference title, but we all know their main focus is on staying healthy for the Big Dance. These are great play-against teams because even if they continue to win in the early rounds, they often don’t cover the inflated spreads.
So let’s go through this week’s brackets to look for some live underdogs and maybe even some future bets. Though for the most part during Championship Week, I go game by game looking for teams to cover games so we don’t necessarily have to count on them winning outright to cash conference futures.
Tuley’s Take on the ACC
This conference is way down from recent years, but that could lead to some live underdogs. Some No. 1 seeds seem vulnerable, and Virginia fits the mold. On Wednesday, Syracuse is playing NC State in a game that could burst the loser’s bubble, but I’m looking to take the survivor plus the points Thursday against Virginia. Duke is in the rare situation of being on the outside looking in, but I’ll take the Blue Devils plus any points if they advance as far as the quarterfinals Thursday against Florida State and then the semifinals Friday against Virginia Tech or North Carolina. Duke, which was 11-11 entering the tourney, pretty much has to run the table or at least make the title game to earn a bid, but we’ll be backing them anytime as a dog.
Tuley’s Take on the AAC
This is one of my conference futures plays with SMU at 6-1 to win the American Athletic Conference. SMU’s season has probably been disrupted more by COVID-19 than any other top program, so the Mustangs really need to win this tourney or get to the title game to earn an NCAA bid. They’ll need to get past CIncinnati on Friday, and then I would take them plus any points in Saturday’s semifinals against Wichita State and Sunday’s title game against Houston. Memphis is another team on the bubble, and I’ll probably be on the Tigers plus the points against Houston in Saturday’s other semifinal. Memphis took Houston to the wire as a 10-point underdog Sunday before losing on a half-court 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Tuley’s Take on the Big 12
The top seven teams in the conference have separated themselves and look like locks for the Big Dance — even Oklahoma State, assuming the NCAA doesn’t rule against the Cowboys’ appeal of their postseason ban. That means there are no bubble teams to follow or dark-horse bid-stealers, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be jumping in on some live dogs, especially the Oklahoma State-West Virginia survivor against Baylor in the semifinals Saturday. In fact, I’ll probably be fading No. 1 seed Baylor as long as it lasts.
Tuley’s Take on the Big East
Marquette might be worth a flier at 25-1 to win the Big East, but if that’s too much to ask, the Golden Eagles could cause havoc in the top half of the bracket. They need to get past Georgetown as 2.5-point favorites Wednesday, but then I see them as live dogs against No. 1 Villanova on Thursday and then against the Seton Hall-St. John’s winner Friday. On the other side of the bracket, Xavier needs at least a few wins to make the NCAA field, and I’ll take the Musketeers plus the points if they face Creighton in the quarterfinals Thursday and again vs. UConn if they meet in Friday’s semifinals.
Tuley’s Take on the Mountain West
This isn’t regarded as one of the major conferences, but it has an interesting dynamic this year. San Diego State is seen as a lock for the field of 68, with Utah State, Colorado State and Boise State probably needing to win the tournament to make it. So I’ll be on Boise State plus the points against San Diego State if they meet in Friday’s semifinals and the Colorado State-Utah State survivor in Saturday’s final.
Tuley’s Take on the Pac-12
The “Conference of Champions” has been an enigma wrapped in a Bill Walton psychedelic trip, and it could get stranger with a wide-open conference tournament that is without Arizona as it serves a self-imposed postseason ban. UCLA is on the NCAA bubble and needs to beat Oregon State in Thursday’s quarterfinals before I would take the Bruins plus the points in Saturday’s semifinals vs. No. 1 Oregon. On the other side of the bracket, Stanford would be a play against Colorado in Thursday’s quarters if the Cardinal gets by Cal first.
Tuley’s Take on the SEC
Few surprises seem likely in the SEC tourney, with six teams solidly in the NCAA field and Mississippi on the bubble, but the Rebels would be worth a play against LSU in the quarterfinals Friday assuming they take care of business Thursday against South Carolina. And as much as I try talking myself out of it, I can’t help but think John Calipari can get one last gasp out of his Kentucky bluebloods vs. No. 1 Alabama on Friday as long as they can get past Mississippi State the day before.
Tuley’s Take on the Big Ten
Two weeks ago, I gave out Illinois as my value pick at 16-1 to win the NCAA tournament — and I feel even better about that call since the Illini upset Michigan without star Ayo Dosunmu and then beat Ohio State when the masked man returned. But that doesn’t mean I’ll be betting Illinois in its wide-open conference tourney. Instead, there’s been a lot of talk on VSiN the last week about whether the old “Bet Izzo in March” mantra is still in effect. Michigan State’s win over rival Michigan certainly makes us want to back Sparty as an underdog if it faces Michigan again in Friday’s quarterfinals. If Maryland knocks off Michigan State on Thursday, I’d probably do the same thing with Maryland vs. Michigan.