On Tuesday night in Las Vegas, a short walk from a sportsbook, Chet Holmgren lifted No. 1 Gonzaga to the West Coast Conference tournament title at Orleans Arena. Many of the spectators bet on the game, but no longer are there debates about the integrity of the games being threatened.
Second-ranked Arizona will be playing a few blocks away in the Pac-12 tournament at T-Mobile Arena this weekend.
What seemed improbable 10 years ago is the new normal. Point spreads and gambling have become accepted as a major part of March Madness, with the mainstream media jumping on board. Five conference tournaments are being staged in Vegas this week, and the NCAA West Regional will be here in 2023.
The madness in Vegas reaches a peak next Thursday and Friday, the first full days of the NCAA Tournament, but this week is underrated and nearly as good. Wake up early and stay up late — or don’t sleep at all — because conference tournament action is about to get crazy.
“We had a monster wagering handle on the other tournaments and the last weekend of the regular season,” DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said. “With the major tournaments coming up, I expect this is going to be a big week.”
There will be buzzer-beating 3-pointers, big upsets, deep tournament runs by underdogs and, unfortunately, some bad beats along the way.
We recently witnessed a sample of what’s to come on Saturday, when Duke was blown out by double-digit dog North Carolina in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game, and on Monday, when David Jean-Baptiste drilled a 40-footer at the buzzer to carry Chattanooga to a 64-63 overtime victory over Furman in the Southern Conference championship in Asheville, N.C.
It’s time for a scouting report on the best bets and long shots to watch in several of this week’s conference tournaments.
Regular-season champ Providence is not the favorite. The Friars’ luck in close games has been off the charts, so they are being faded by sharp bettors. Villanova and UConn, the top choices on the odds board, are in the same half of the bracket. The Wildcats are 7-1 in their last eight games, including a 71-69 road loss to the Huskies on Feb. 22.
Best Bet: Villanova + 150. The Wildcats have a senior point guard, Collin Gillespie, and a coach, Jay Wright, who can lead the way deep into March.
Illinois and Wisconsin shared the regular-season title, with the Fighting Illini getting the top seed. The Johnny Davis-led Badgers are in the other half of the bracket with third-seeded Purdue, which is priced as the + 170 tournament favorite at Circa Sports. If the favorites advance, the Boilermakers would be in a double-revenge spot against the Badgers in a semifinal.
Best Bet: Iowa + 370. Circa listed the Hawkeyes at 9-1 odds on Feb. 21, so most of the value is gone. It would be more profitable to bet Iowa on the moneyline in its first game and roll over everything in subsequent games. The Hawkeyes are hot, winning nine of their last 11, and Keegan Murray (23.3 ppg) fuels the league’s most explosive offense. Iowa would likely need to beat Rutgers and Illinois to reach the title game.
Expectations for coach Chris Beard’s first year at Texas were too high. The fourth-seeded Longhorns finished 10-8 in league play, losing twice to Kansas in games that went to the wire, and could get their third shot at the top-seeded Jayhawks in this tournament. Baylor and Texas Tech are in the bottom half of the bracket. “If you’re looking for a dark horse, that probably would be Texas,” said Paul Stone, a professional handicapper and VSiN contributor. “The thing that concerns me about the Longhorns is they have to win three games against quality opponents this week.”
Best Bet: Texas + 650. The Jayhawks have been shaky down the stretch and were lucky to beat the Longhorns in overtime on Saturday. There’s not much value in playing the favorites in Kansas City, so take better odds on Beard, who’s a proven winner in the postseason.
Six teams are listed at single-digit odds, so it’s tough to separate the contenders. San Diego State ranks No. 2 in the nation in scoring defense (58.3 ppg), and senior guard Matt Bradley averaged 26.7 points in the last three games.
Best Bet: San Diego State + 330. The Aztecs, who have had more success than any other team in this tournament in Las Vegas, are 10-2 in their last 12 games with one-point road losses to Boise State and Colorado State.
Long shot: Nevada 75-1. Wolf Pack coach Steve Alford has a team that’s finally healthy, led by three good guards. Reno took two losses to San Diego State by a total of three points.
Expect a title game pitting Arizona against UCLA on Saturday night, but there have been several surprises in this tournament in recent years, including Oregon State’s Cinderella run last year.
Best Bet: Arizona -130. The Wildcats have no weaknesses, which is why they went 18-2 in conference play and finished three games ahead of the second-place Bruins.
Long shot: Oregon 22-1. No power-conference team has been more disappointing than the Ducks, who wobble in on a three-game losing streak. Still, Dana Altman is always a dangerous coach at this time of year and his team fared well by going 3-2 against Arizona, UCLA and USC.
Auburn and Arkansas are in the top half of the bracket, with Kentucky, Alabama and Tennessee in the other half. It’s tempting to make a case for the Razorbacks at 8-1 odds, but go with the favorite and roll with coach John Calipari.
Best Bet: Kentucky + 190. When their guards are healthy, the Wildcats can look unstoppable. The guards appear healthy, and junior forward Oscar Tshiebwe (17.3 ppg, 15.3 rpg) has been the most dominant player in the nation this season.