Selection Sunday is next weekend, which means we’re on the doorstep of the greatest two weeks of the sports calendar. More people might bet on Super Bowl odds than any other event, but I think most bettors would agree that nothing beats the overwhelming onslaught of NCAA basketball odds.
If March Madness is a four-course meal, these are the hors d’oeuvres you pick at mildly during the cocktail hour. Shrimp cocktail? Yes, please. Sun Belt buzzer-beater? I do believe I will. Atlantic Sun semifinal? Ehh, I think I’ll save room for later.
Do you think the NCAA Tournament is something? The conference tournaments bring highs and lows that even the Big Dance can’t offer.
How about last year when sub-.500, eighth-place Georgetown somehow won the Big East tournament and punched an unlikely ticket to the tournament?
Or there’s the unparalleled drama that unfolds practically every year when a dangerous 20-win team that everyone is salivating over is unceremoniously dumped from its conference tournament.
Maybe they can salvage an NIT bid.
There are the buzzer-beaters that are the prelude to madness. Here, I have to return to the hors d’oeuvres metaphor because it’s kind of too perfect. These early conference tournament thrillers really make your mouth water with anticipation for the games to come.
That feeling is so reliable every year. We’re getting all this basketball goodness, and it’s not even Selection Sunday yet.
My personal favorite memory: Buddy Hield not quite hitting a half-court three to beat my Mountaineers in the Big 12 tournament.
Naturally, conference tournaments are not only valuable for the all-day, every-day dopamine hits throughout the first two weeks of March. There are a ton of exploitable NCAA odds, if you can remember to dial in for tournament spreads a bit early.
As a general rule in tournament play: big or moderate-sized underdogs are valuable.
That’s especially true in earlier rounds, where higher seeds can be both complacent and less desperate.
In the Sun Belt, for example, every dog covered the spread on Thursday. Two won outright, including last-place Arkansas-Little Rock, who entered the opening-round game as a 12.5-point underdog to fifth-seeded South Alabama.
If you didn’t get the chance to watch, don’t worry. That’s what I’m paid for!
It was an upset made for not only March but also the landscape of modern basketball. Neither team played particularly well, but UALR shot 14-for-24 (58%) from behind the arc. South Alabama was… 4-for-13.
Given those numbers, you don’t have to be the second coming of Michael Jordan to know who won the game.
But that’s kind of the point of March, is it not?
During most years, we end up with a worthy champion, but the nature of the tournament process is one that will snuff out some superior teams along the way. And on Thursday, that snuffing took the unlikely form of freshman guard Jordan Jefferson, who went 8-of-9 from deep.
𝗞𝗘𝗘𝗣 𝗜𝗧 𝗥𝗢𝗖𝗞𝗜𝗡𝗚.@GEICO Final Score: No. 12 seed @LittleRockMBB stuns No. 5 seed @WeAreSouth_MBB, 75-71, behind a career-high 24-point showing by freshman guard @JordanJeff2x at the @HerculesTires #SunBeltMBB Championship. ☀️🏀 pic.twitter.com/EFRbchKyua
— Sun Belt (@SunBelt) March 3, 2022
UT-Arlington could have used Jefferson a couple of hours earlier in the Sun Belt tournament opener. The Mavericks needed a 3-pointer to send the game to overtime with 2.3 seconds on the clock.
Here’s what they got:
Then again, the true victims here are… Louisiana -3.5 bettors, who were just absolutely brutalized by Arlington’s comeback.
HORRENDOUS bad beat for Louisiana -3.5 bettors.
THIS IS MARCH.
They led by as much as 17 and held UT Arlington to 30.3% from the field.
Cajuns will face Texas State on Saturday afternoon.pic.twitter.com/9YIsRpLPiz
— Mid-Major Madness (@mid_madness) March 3, 2022
So enjoy the next few days for what it is: a brilliant, flawed, ever-expanding spectacle that builds toward the peak of our annual sports calendar. And don’t forget to warm up those online sports betting muscles along the way.
It’s awfully good practice for the caps to come.