2023 NCAA bracket: Lessons from conference tournaments to guide your bets
For some, conference tournament week is the cram session before betting on the NCAA men's tournament.
[Free bracket contests for both tourneys | Printable Men's | Women's]
Every team that is in the NCAA tournament field played on television in the past week and a half. There were opportunities to check in on the brand name power conference teams that were already locks, and the teams from one-bid leagues who might pay off on the moneyline odds at BetMGM in the first round.
If you weren't able to watch all 32 conference tournaments, here are five takeaways to remember when making your bets:
Duke is hot, but beware
If you caught onto the Blue Devils early enough, you have built up your bankroll for the tournament.
Duke was dismissed as a disappointment early in the season, but then a young team with rookie head coach Jon Scheyer got hot. They won the ACC tournament. They covered in six of their last eight games, according to Covers.com. They covered easily in all three ACC tournament games. Duke has won nine in a row straight up.
But here's the problem: The Blue Devils' cover was blown. If Duke hadn't won the ACC tournament and got everyone to notice their hot streak, there would probably be more betting value on the Blue Devils in the NCAA tournament. The Blue Devils get a tough No. 12 seed in Oral Roberts and still are favored by 6.5 points. That's the largest spread for any No. 5 vs. No. 12 game. It's OK to buy into Duke after their hot streak, but most of the value might be gone.
Gonzaga is good again
Gonzaga set the bar so high that this season, with a 28-5 record going into the NCAA tournament, the Zags didn't get a lot of attention. Then the Bulldogs absolutely blasted a good St. Mary's team by 26 points in the WCC tournament final.
The Bulldogs' offense has been great lately. According to Bart Torvik's T-Rankings, Gonzaga has had the best offense in college basketball by a wide margin since Jan. 21, when they started a 12-1 run. Gonzaga isn't great defensively (heed those over bets) and that might prevent the Bulldogs from winning it all, but they can outscore a lot of teams.
Like Duke, Gonzaga isn't a secret anymore. The Bulldogs are hefty 15.5-point favorites in the first round over Grand Canyon, the largest spread for any No. 3 vs. No. 14 game. Still, it's a team to keep an eye on after how well they played in the WCC tournament.
Let's start with UCLA. Jaylen Clark, an elite defender and the Bruins' second-leading scorer, tore an Achilles in the regular-season finale. Forward Adem Bona, UCLA's lone player over 6-8 in the regular rotation, hurt his shoulder in the Pac-12 tournament and didn't play in the championship. UCLA says Bona is expected to return this week, but it's not like the Bruins will be fined for lying on the injury report either. Keep an eye on it. UCLA fought hard despite the injuries in the Pac-12 title game but lost in the final minute to Arizona. Margins are thin in the NCAA tournament and being without key players isn't ideal.
Also keep an eye on Houston's Marcus Sasser, the AAC's player of the year who injured his groin in the conference tourney semifinals. Houston lost by 10 points to Memphis in the AAC tournament final, showing how much Sasser means to their success. Sasser should be back but it's also worth monitoring. Tennessee will be without point guard Zakai Zeigler, who tore his ACL late in the season. The Volunteers missed him in their quarterfinal loss to Missouri. Down the seed line, Texas A&M Corpus Christi senior guard Terrion Murdix, the Southland Conference defensive player of the year and a 13.4 PPG scorer, suffered what appeared to be a serious knee injury in the title game. The Islanders are favored by 3.5 points against Southeast Missouri State in a First Four game on Tuesday.
Big Ten might struggle again
Who do you trust in the Big Ten? The Big Ten tournament showed again that the conference might not be ready to shake its March Madness slump. Purdue did its job and won the conference tournament — despite nearly blowing it in the final minute to Penn State — but still comes in as the top seed that seems to the most vulnerable to an early loss. Penn State getting to the Big Ten championship game is a great story but it's not a team you'll be rushing to bet.
Teams like Maryland, Indiana, Michigan State, Iowa and Northwestern continued to show flaws and low ceilings. The Big Ten got nine teams in the tournament last season and only two got to the Sweet 16. Both lost in the Sweet 16, including Purdue's upset loss to St. Peter's. It's hard to trust the Big Ten to do much better this season unless you're a believer in Purdue.
Iona, other strong mid-majors don't slip up
It's always disappointing to track a mid-major all season and then be robbed of a chance to bet on them in the first round of the NCAA tournament after it slips up in its conference tournament.
It was a pretty clean year for top mid-majors this season. The highlight could be Iona, which was upset in the MAAC tournament last season but got through this year. Rick Pitino's team has a lot to like, though it got a tough matchup against UConn. Oral Roberts looked great in winning the Summit League and could pull a first-round upset (again), though Duke is a tough first-round draw. Charleston, which was strong all season, looked pretty good in winning the Colonial. Drake rolled in the Missouri Valley Conference title game and is another mid-major to consider.