NCAA Conference Tournament Previews

NCAA Conference Tournament Previews

This article is part of our College Basketball Picks series.

In this column, we'll go conference by conference to preview each top league's upcoming tournament, breaking down the favorites and selecting a "Dark Horse" candidate along the way. Conference tournament odds listed here are courtesy of the DraftKings sportsbook.

Atlantic Coast Conference

Written by Chris Bennett.

The Favorite: Duke (-135)

Despite Saturday's loss, the Blue Devils remain the clear cream of the ACC. I personally contend that they can't be locked in to a No. 2 seed in the Big Dance while the rest of this league is considered on the bubble; both cannot be true. But the bracket sets up beyond easily for them to reach Saturday evening's final. They'll face defenseless Syracuse or Florida State first, followed by either Miami or Wake Forest. The Blue Devils aren't deep, but have elite upper-tier talent that isn't likely to be stressed before the finals. Head coach Mike Krzyzweski has largely built his legacy on winning this tournament, and his comments Saturday night after falling to UNC suggest he's gunning for this again.

Dark Horse: Virginia (+1600)

It's all about the draw. Duke seems a lock at the top half, but the bottom feels wide open, with no none willing to trust a No.2 Notre Dame or a No. 3 North Carolina that has struggled against anyone in Quadrant 1. Yes, UNC took down UVA pretty easily earlier this season, but the Heels had dropped six straight against the Cavaliers prior. Kihei Clark is a veteran floor general who has handed out five or more assists in four straight, while Jayden Gardner (15.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg) flourished down the stretch, with three 20-point outings over the final six contests. Their style makes opponents uncomfortable and should have no problem advancing against Louisville or Georgia Tech. Winning four in four days is a tall ask, but the Cavs' dictated tempo could offset the needed extra minutes, and they've already beaten Duke this season.

American Athletic Conference

Written by Jake Letarski.

The Favorite: Houston (-130)

The Cougars have managed to take the top spot in the American conference despite suffering heavy losses in the backcourt this season, as Marcus Sasser (toe) and Tramon Mark (shoulder) each sustained season-ending injuries. A frontcourt led by Josh Carlton and Fabian White have kept Houston winning, helping to create the fourth-best offensive rebounding rate in the nation. Kyler Edwards (13.6 ppg) has picked it up on the offensive end, while the team is generally balanced, sporting a top-15 rate in both offensive and defensive efficiency, per KenPom. They deserve this seeding, but I wouldn't call them a lock.

Dark Horse: Memphis (+400)

The Tigers hardly count as "dark horse" candidates given they were a preseason top-5 team in most polls, in addition to the fact this is a team that has more raw talent than arguably any in college hoops. After a very slow start, however, Memphis finds itself squarely on the bubble, so there's a lot at stake here. Coach Penny Hardaway had a tough time balancing all the talent and personalities early in the season, but he seems to have the right balance of five-star freshman and high-profile transfers. If Emoni Bates (back) returns, it would provide yet another boost for a team in must-win territory in essentially every remaining game.

Atlantic Ten Conference

Written by Chris Bennett.

The Favorite: Davidson (+330)

The Wildcats are the regular season champs and betting favorites in what appears to be a one-bid league, so bubble teams elsewhere will be hoping chalk holds serve. Davidson and Dayton have clear paths to the semifinals, but then all bets are off. The Wildcats don't defend particularly well, checking in 171st in efficiency. But they counter by being incredibly efficient offensively, ranking 10th nationally while also hitting the 3-ball at 38.5 percent, the eighth best rate in the country. Foster Loyer (16.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.0 apg) leads four double-digit scorers while Luka Brajkovic (14.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg) gives them size not many in this conference can match. They've lost only three times in conference, and while it only takes one bad shooting night, Davidson has largely been immune.

Dark Horse: Richmond (+750)

There's a pretty clear dividing line in this conference with the league's top-six capable of winning this, then a huge drop off in betting lines as Richmond sits at (+750) then George Mason jumps all the way to (+1800). If searching for a non top-four seed to win, we're left with the Spiders or the Billikens, both of home would have to beat a team they've lost to twice previously in VCU or St. Bonaventure, respectively.  Neither situation is ideal, and UR closed the season with consecutive losses, so poor form is in play. But it truly is now or never for this group that includes sixth-year senior Grant Golden (14.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg), fifth-year-senior Jacob Gilyard (12.4 ppg, 5.6 apg, 3.0 spg) and potential NBA early-entrant Tyler Burton (16.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg). They simply have better talent that St. Louis, and likely more urgency. 

Big East Conference

Written by Jake Letarski.

The Favorite: Villanova (+150)

Providence may hold the Big East regular season title, but predictive metrics like KenPom and Sagarin much prefer the Wildcats, and that's what's reflected in the betting odds. There's no question Villanova isn't as deep as past seasons, and not having a true center might end up costing them. But this is still a top-10 offense (per KenPom) that features four players averaging double figures, led by fifth-year senior Collin Gillespie (16.5 ppg). I always look for the combination of head coach/backcourt experience in the postseason, and this team fits the bill. The Wildcats can also be counted on to close games, with the top free-throw shooting percentage in the country.

Dark Horse: St. John's (+2200)

The whole hasn't been greater than the sum of its parts this season for St. John's, but there's no shortage of talent here, and the team needs to win the Big East in order to go dancing. Multiple players are capable of carrying a victory on their own, led by NBA prospect Julian Champagnie (19.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg). Posh Alexander (14.6 ppg) finally looks to be healthy from an ankle injury, while Purdue transfer Aaron Wheeler knocks down 40.6 percent of his three-point baskets. The defense has been the main concern, but playing at the second-fastest tempo in the country, per KenPom, can make up ground in a hurry (or lose it, depending on your perspective).

Big 12 Conference

Written by Jake Letarski.

The Favorite: Kansas (+200)

Two teams headline the Big 12 with (+200) odds. Baylor is the metrics darling due to a nation-leading 11 Quad 1 wins, but Kansas isn't that far behind with 10. I also fear Baylor's injuries will eventually take their toll, while Kansas is as deep and talented as ever behind Big 12 Player of the Year Ochai Agbaji (19.8 ppg). The key factor is former starting point guard Remy Martin, who has been greatly limited of late due to injury. A prolific scorer (19.1 ppg) at ASU, Martin's average is down to single digits this season, but if things start to click, forget about the Big 12 – KU could be national title contenders.

Dark Horse: Texas (+550)

Year after year, one of my biggest NCAA Tournament analysis mistakes is that I put too much stock in individual talent and fail to realize the bigger picture in terms of team cohesiveness. I am a fantasy writer, after all. So it should come as no surprise that history is going to repeat itself here. In comes Texas, who absolutely loaded up via the transfer market this season with acquisitions such as Marcus Carr (Minnesota), Timmy Allen (Utah), Christian Bishop (Creighton) and Dylan Disu (Vanderbilt). That doesn't even count Tre Mitchell, who is currently on a personal leave of absence. That talent, mixed with several returning starters, gives coach Chris Beard and company a fighting chance in any postseason format.

Big Ten Conference

Written by Jake Letarski.

The Favorite: Illinois (+370)

With the help of a timely Badger loss, the Illini closed the regular season on a three-game win streak to clinch a share of the B1G regular season title and the No. 1 seed in the tournament. Illinois also defeated Wisconsin in their lone head-to-head matchup this year, with Purdue representing the only team they lost to twice. A trio of senior guards lead the backcourt effort here, but the real driver is 7-0 Kofi Cockburn (21.0 ppg, 10.6 rpg), who is borderline unstoppable down low. The X-factor here is Andre Curbelo, who was at one point thought to take over at PG but has battled injury all season. Though with double figures in two of his last three, he may be rounding back into 2021 form.

Dark Horse: Michigan (+600)

The Wolverines have alternated wins and losses in their last nine games, but are barely on the right side of the bubble entering Thursday's opener. A loss to Indiana could put them in scary territory, but string together multiple wins, and coach Juwan Howard – yes, he's back – will be dancing for the second time in as many seasons. Michigan was able to defeat Ohio State on the road in the regular season finale, and that's without the presence of leading scorer Hunter Dickinson (18.4 ppg, 8.5 rpg) due to illness. There's plenty of time for him to get healthy and contribute for a top-20 ranked offense (per KenPom). Speaking of KP, the metrics extraordinaire has Michigan ranked just one spot below their Big Ten counterpart, regular-season champion Wisconsin Badgers.

Mountain West Conference

Written by Jake Letarski.

The Favorite: Boise State (+280)

This is one of the tightest tournaments in all of college basketball, but the Broncos get the slight edge in the betting markets over San Diego State (+330) and Colorado State (+360). For that reason, I probably prefer taking a shot at one of the higher numbers, as the favorites could easily cannibalize themselves. If there's a case to be made for Boise State, however, it would be built on the fact that they've won five of their last six games. Colorado State has seemingly been the kryptonite, though, as the Rams have dealt them two of their three losses in MWC play. Still, Boise State has a top-20 defense (per KenPom), as well as the depth down low to give them a top-5 defensive rebounding rate in the country. The only major red flag is free-throw shooting, which could be problematic in one-and-done formats.

Dark Horse: Wyoming (+600)

I mentally put Wyoming in the same tier as the top-3 teams, but a shaky finish to MWC play gets you a huge pricing discount. It seems the Cowboys are finally healthy, however, and having a stellar duo like Hunter Maldonado (18.7 ppg, 6.4 apg, 5.8 rpg) and Graham Ike (19.9 ppg, 9.6 rpg) arguably gives them the best one-two punch in the conference. The pressure is also on the Cowboys to win, as they are currently considered a Last Four In team and could have their hopes upended by a bid-stealer if they are unable to take care of business here.

Pac-12 Conference

Written by Jake Letarski.

The Favorite: Arizona (-120)

With just three losses all season and a top-15 ranking in both offensive and defensive efficiency rating (per KenPom), Arizona is deserving as one of the few teams you won't get plus-money on with respect to the conference tournament. Bennedict Mathurin (17.3 ppg) gets a lot of headlines, but the team can go two-deep at any position. Kerr Krissa knocks down 2.5 treys per game, while Christian Koloko protects the rim as one of the most improved players in the country. This is a complete team, though the Wildcats can be tested by teams like UCLA and USC if their Pac-12 counterparts manage to get healthy quick.

Dark Horse: Arizona State (+5000)

Oregon State came out of nowhere to steal a tournament bid and and make the Elite Eight last season, so why not get a little crazy with our prediction here? Behind coach Bobby Hurley, the Sun Devils have won seven of their last eight regular season games, and should be favored Wednesday against Stanford. While it doesn't seem like ASU will be able to count on Marcus Bagley (knee), players like Marreon Jackson (10.3 ppg) and Jalen Graham (10.1 ppg) are capable of heating up at any time. The offensive numbers are otherwise dreadful, but ASU does enter the week with KenPom's 21st-ranked defense, and if the old adage holds true, there's potentially some money to be made here.

SEC Conference

Written by Chris Bennett.

The Favorite: Tennessee (+330)

Wait, what? I absolutely love Kentucky as an NCAA Tournament winner, and Auburn too. But this is all about the draw. I find Tennessee to be a lock to win their opening round game against South Carolina or Mississippi State, and I can't say the same for Kentucky, likely facing Alabama. Tennessee has won nine of their last 10 conference games, including wins over Kentucky and Auburn. They simply have the clearest path to the finals, needing only one win over a quality opponent to get there. Freshman guard Kennedy Chandler (13.7 ppg, 4.6 apg, 3.7 rpg, 2.2 spg) leads the way, but the Volunteers are deep, comfortably playing eight double-digit minutes, getting production from a variety of options while not being reliant on any one player night in, night out.

Dark Horse: Louisiana State (+1000)

For as much as I like Arkansas and Auburn in the main tournament, this weekend just sees like a bad draw for two teams with high ceilings and combustable floors. LSU shouldn't have a problem with the Ole Miss/Missouri winner, which then gives them a crack at a Razorback team that they fell to twice by a combined eight points.  Tari Eason (16.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 2.0 spg) leads four double-digit scorers and Darius Days (6-foot-9, 245 lbs) is a load to handle down low. The Tigers rank fifth nationally in adjusted defense, and fourth in 3-point percentage allowed. Getting stops consistently, paired with getting reliable easy buckets down low prevents runs, and gives the Tigers a chance to win four games in four days.

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Chris Bennett
Bennett covers baseball, college football and college basketball for RotoWire. Before turning to fantasy writing, he worked in scouting/player development for the Atlanta Braves and Montreal Expos. He's also a fan of the ACC.
Jake Letarski
RotoWire Editor for College Basketball and MMA. Frequent podcaster, plus radio and video guest. Follow Jake on Twitter at @RotoJake.
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