It’s starting to feel like March. A nice crisp breeze hit the afternoon sunshine, and tournament action was on the TV from the early afternoon until way past midnight. I fired off on some long-shot winners in some of the major conferences, so let's circle back with a more measured approach to balance out our futures portfolio. Conference USA and Mountain West both kick off their tournaments Wednesday, and I bet the favorite, or co-favorite, in each conference. Let’s find out why these two teams are solid enough to persuade me to sacrifice better value plays on the board.
Mountain West: San Diego State +150
The Aztecs have their flaws. They never win pretty, they let teams hang around and rely way too much on a defense that ranks just outside the top 10 in the nation. Their inconsistent offense can make them one of the more frustrating teams to bet (14-14-1 ATS), but don’t let that distract you from what’s required to cash this bet. They don’t have to cover one game in the tournament, as long as they keep advancing. The Aztecs are 15-3 in conference play and 15th overall at KemPom.
I like that two of the three teams they suffered losses to during the year (Boise St. and New Mexico) are tucked away on the other side of the bracket. The Aztecs falling to the Broncos a little over a week ago provided the perfect opportunity for the best team in the Mountain West to refocus. Against conference opponents, the Aztecs are No.1 in adjusted defensive efficiency and also best in the conference in block percentage and defending outside the arc. That’s a pretty good recipe for success. Also, they can rely on their bench without a massive drop-off, which will be a significant factor when playing on consecutive nights. I won’t allow myself to overthink this one. I will roll with the Aztecs on the short number.
Conference USA: UAB +175
If you aren’t familiar with the game of Jordan “Jelly” Walker, you’re going to find out fast. Walker, third in the nation in scoring at 23 points per game, capped off the regular season with a career high 41-points against Charlotte in double OT. This was just 10 days after putting 32 on Rice in a 28-point UAB blowout win. Walker, who missed five games with injury in January, is now fully recovered and has carried the Blazers to 10 wins in their final 11 games. UAB’s odds have recently been bet down to co-favorites with FAU at +175. North Texas, UAB’s potential semifinal matchup, handed UAB their only loss since Walker’s return. The Mean Green rely heavily on defense and forcing turnovers, but they’re lack of consistent scoring makes it hard to imagine them slowing down the Blazers a second time.
This is another conference where I see chalk prevailing as the two co-favorites face off in the finals. It’s certainly going to be a game I have on my TV screen. FAU can keep throwing bodies at you with a ton of versatile scorers off the bench. They are definitely a team I will be looking to play early in the NCAA tournament, but UAB’s a solid bet to continue their upward trajectory by winning the conference tournament with an auto-bid on the line. All eyes will be on Walker, and I am betting he delivers for bettors in a big way.