It can be harder to follow the huge wave of games across the country this week than it is to keep up with the first two days of the NCAA Tournament. Covers gives you a hand with your handicapping, providing the favorites to win and underdog alerts on each of big six tournaments, along with a trio of noteworthy mid-major tourneys also taking place this week.
America Athletic (March 9-12)
Favorite: Southern Methodist Mustangs (27-4, 17-1) – The Mustangs nearly went unblemished in conference play, with the only setback a 66-64 defeat as a 5-point underdog at No. 2 seed Cincinnati on Jan. 12. SMU hasn’t lost since, peeling off 13 consecutive SU wins while going a stout 11-1-1 ATS in that stretch. In fact, SMU is No. 1 in the nation with a 20-5-1 ATS record. Semi Ojeleye leads the Ponies at 18.5 ppg, though four other players are averaging at or near double figures. But SMU’s defense may be the real story, allowing just 59.4 ppg (third nationally), while the Mustangs’ scoring average is 74.6 ppg.
Underdog: Central Florida Knights (20-10, 11-7) – The fourth-seeded Knights are playing some of their best ball of late, closing the regular season with five straight victories, including a 53-49 home win over No. 2 seed Cincinnati. Central Florida is No. 1 in the nation in field-goal defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 36.1 percent, and the Knights yield 60.5 ppg, just behind SMU at fourth nationally.
Atlantic 10 (March 8-12)
Favorite: Dayton Flyers (24-6, 15-3) – The Flyers made a great late-season run, and needed to in order to overtake Virginia Commonwealth for the top seed. Dayton beat VCU 79-72 as a 4.5-point home favorite last week for its ninth consecutive win and 12th in 13 games (10-3 ATS). That rendered Saturday’s regular-season finale moot, which was fortunate, since Dayton lost at George Washington 87-81 as a 4-point fave.
Underdog: Rhode Island Rams (21-9, 13-5) – No. 3 seed Rhode Island is definitely a live ‘dog after winning five in a row and nine of its last 11 games (7-4 ATS) to cap the regular season. That included a 69-59 win over No. 2 seed VCU as a 3.5-point favorite on Feb. 25, and Saturday’s 73-70 overtime win against Davidson laying 7 points.
Atlantic Coast (March 7-11)
Favorite: North Carolina Tar Heels (26-6, 14-4) – Carolina is definitely at the head of a very competitive ACC class this year, finishing out its regular season with a 90-83 home win over Duke as a 7-point chalk Saturday night. The Tar Heels average 85.0 ppg (11th) with an array of scorers, led by forward Joel Jackson’s 18.4 ppg. But where Roy Williams’ troops really get it done is on the glass, with the No. 1 rebounding margin in the country (40.1 for/27.8 against).
Underdog: Notre Dame Fighting Irish (23-8, 12-6) – Duke is actually seeded fifth for the ACC tourney, but it’s hard to call such a blue blood an underdog. Plus, as Covers Expert Zack Cimini pointed out, Mike Krzyzewski often isn’t looking to grind his way through the whole conference tournament – Duke has only one ACC title game appearance in the last five seasons. So we’re going with third-seeded Notre Dame, which had won six in a row before falling at Louisville on Saturday, 71-64 as a 7.5-point underdog. Potentially key stat: The Irish lead the nation in free-throw shooting, at 80.9 percent.
Big East (March 8-11)
Favorite: Villanova Wildcats (28-3, 15-3) – It’s pretty hard to ignore the defending national champions, who won the regular-season conference title by three games over Butler – despite losing both meetings with the second-seeded Bulldogs. Guard Josh Hart leads the way at 18.7 ppg, followed by guard Jalen Brunson (14.8 ppg), forward Kris Jenkins (13.4 ppg) and guard Mikal Bridges (10.6 ppg). All four were part of last year’s title run, so the ‘Cats have plenty of championship-level experience. Villanova is also 11th nationally in scoring margin, at 14.1 ppg.
Underdog: Providence Friars (20-11, 10-8) – Pretty much everybody in this league is an underdog to Villanova, but the fourth-seeded Friars have the best form of late. Providence has won six in a row (5-1 ATS), playing its way up to the third seed and live ‘dog status in a run that included victories over Butler, Creighton and a surging Seton Hall squad.
Big Ten (March 8-12)
Favorite: Purdue Boilermakers (25-6, 14-4) – There’s no superteam in the Big Ten this year, but Purdue is the best of the bunch and is playing well heading into the conference tournament. The Boilermakers, 8-1 SU in their last nine, are led by double-double machine Caleb Swanigan, a 6-foot-9 forward averaging 18.6 ppg and 12.5 rpg. Four teammates also average double-figure scoring, and Purdue is No. 5 in the nation in 3-point shooting (41.1 percent) – yet another area where Swanigan excels, shooting 45.5 percent.
Underdog: Minnesota Golden Gophers (23-8, 11-7) – A five-game mid-season slide could have doomed the Gophers, but they responded by winning eight in a row (7-1 ATS) before ending the regular season Sunday with a 66-49 loss at No. 21 Wisconsin as an 8-point ‘dog. Guard Nate Mason (15.4 ppg, 5.3 apg) leads Minnesota, which has three more players averaging double-figure scoring, and nearly a fourth – guard Akeem Springs is at 9.9 ppg.
Big 12 (March 8-11)
Favorite: Kansas Jayhawks (28-3, 16-2) – The Jayhawks won the regular-season title for the 13th consecutive year, and with it the favorite’s nod. Kansas was dealt a surprising home loss by Iowa State, 92-89 in overtime on Feb. 4, but hasn’t lost since, going 8-0 SU to wrap up the regular season. Guard Frank Mason, the Big 12 Player of the Year, is averaging 20.5 ppg and 5.1 apg.
Underdog: Oklahoma State Cowboys (20-11, 9-9) – The Cowboys, seeded fifth, have been playing solid ball of late, even in games they lost. Oklahoma State suffered a six-game mid-season swoon, but pulled things together with a 10-1 SU run (9-2 ATS), including an 82-75 road win over No. 2 seed West Virginia as a 10.5-point underdog. The Pokes lost their last two games, but both were close against formidable foes: 86-83 at No. 4 seed Iowa State as a 3.5-point pup, and 90-85 Saturday at home to Kansas catching 1.5 points.
Mountain West (March 8-11)
Favorite: Nevada Wolf Pack (25-6, 14-4) – It’s a down year in the Mountain West, which will likely be a one-bid league for the NCAA Tournament. If Nevada maintains its form, it will be that team. The Wolf Pack won their last six games and nine of their last 11 SU and ATS, edging equally hot Colorado State for the regular-season title by beating the Rams 85-72 as a 7-point home chalk Saturday. Guard Marcus Marshall led the conference at 19.7 ppg, among four Nevada players averaging 14.5 points or more, and 6-7 guard Jordan Caroline chipped in 9.2 rpg to go with his 14.5 ppg.
Underdog: Fresno State Bulldogs (19-11, 11-7) – No. 4 seed Fresno State has won five in a row heading into the conference tourney, including road wins over No. 6 seed San Diego State and No. 3 seed Boise State, along with a home victory over fifth-seeded New Mexico. The Bulldogs get it done on the strength of four guards averaging double figures, paced by Jaron Hopkins’ 13.3 ppg.
Pac-12 (March 8-11)
Favorite: UCLA Bruins (28-3, 15-3) – No, the Bruins aren’t the top seed (Oregon). Nor are they the No. 2 seed (Arizona). Rather, UCLA is seeded third in the Pac-12 tournament right here in Las Vegas, at T-Mobile Arena. But Steve Alford’s squad is on the biggest roll heading into this tourney, riding a nine-game win streak that includes an amazing home comeback to beat top-seeded Oregon 82-79 laying 4 points and a 77-72 win getting 2.5 points at No. 2 seed Arizona. Coach’s son Bryce Alford (16.5 ppg) leads a high-octane offense that ranks No. 1 in the nation at 91.3 ppg, No. 1 in field-goal percentage (52.6) and No. 3 in 3-point percentage (41.5).
Underdog: Southern California Trojans (23-8, 10-8) – The Trojans have struggled the past month, losing four in row SU and ATS before righting the ship last week with a pair of home blowouts to close the season: 87-64 over Washington State giving 14.5 points, and 74-58 over Washington laying 15 points. USC opened the season 14-0, and a five-game win streak in late January/early February included an 84-76 home victory over UCLA as a 7-point pup.
Southeastern (March 8-12)
Favorite: Kentucky Wildcats (26-5, 16-2) – Fabulous freshman Malik Monk has the No. 9 Wildcats in the catbird seat as the SEC’s No. 1 seed. Monk led the conference in regular-season play with 21.2 ppg, and John Calipari’s troops average 86.8 ppg, which rates fifth nationally. Perhaps as important, Kentucky’s scoring margin is 14.7 ppg, tied for seventh-best in the nation.
Underdog: Vanderbilt Commodores (17-14, 10-8) – Based on their late-season play, the seventh-seeded Commodores definitely have live ‘dog potential. Vandy won five of its last six, finishing with a 73-71 victory over No. 2 seed Florida as a 3.5-point home pup. A game earlier, the Commodores had host Kentucky in 19-point first-half and 13-point second-half holes, but couldn’t fend off the talented Wildcats, losing 73-67 as a 10.5-point underdog. In the past month, Vanderbilt also has wins at No. 3 seed Arkansas – 72-59 catching 3 points – and at home over No. 4 seed South Carolina – 71-62 as a 2-point pup.
Patrick Everson is a Las Vegas-based senior writer for Covers. Follow him on Twitter: @Covers_Vegas.