As a tasty appetizer to this year’s NCAA tournament feast, Championship Week in men’s college basketball is underway.
The major conferences will take to the hardwood starting this Wednesday and Thursday, and along with that comes the opportunity for a few sleeper teams to steal the show with an upset. Here are my top sleeper teams from the major conference tournaments.
While most bettors will be looking for one of the top four favorites in this conference (Virginia, Syracuse, Duke or North Carolina) to emerge as the tournament champion, you might want to roll the dice on Maryland as a likely heavy long shot when odds are released for the tournament.
The Terrapins went a very pedestrian 9-9 in the ACC this season, but they ended things on a high note with a stunning 75-69 overtime victory over No. 1 seed Virginia this past Sunday as four-point home underdogs. This will be Maryland’s final ACC Tournament before leaving for the Big Ten next season, so you know it would love to go out with a bang.
Big East: St. John’s
The Big East was basically a two-team race between Villanova and Creighton for the regular-season title. The Wildcats ended up at the top of the standings at 16-2, but St. John’s built up some solid momentum for this week’s tournament with an 8-2 record down the stretch.
The Red Storm were one of the few teams to knock off Creighton with a 70-65 victory on Feb. 8 as three-point home underdogs, and they played Villanova tough in two meetings this season to lose both contests only by a combined 10 points. At the very least, you might want to wager on St. John’s in whatever games it does play this week after posting a 9-3 record against the spread in its last 12 contests.
Big Ten: Nebraska
Michigan won the Big Ten regular season title at 15-3, but just four games separated the top five teams in the standings. Sitting in fourth place at 11-7 were the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Most bettors wrote off the Cornhuskers as legitimate contenders in the Big Ten after a 0-4 start, but everyone knows that it is how you finish that matters the most.
Nebraska closed out play in the conference with a solid 77-68 upset over Wisconsin as a three-point home favorite to complete an 8-1 run down the stretch. One of those victories came against Michigan State as a 13.5-point road underdog, and the Cornhuskers also beat Indiana as six-point underdogs on the road. They head into this week’s tournament with a 5-2 record ATS in their last seven road games.
Big 12: Baylor
The Big 12 was another closely contested race for the regular-season title with just four games separating the top five teams in the standings. Kansas came out on top at 14-4, and it should open as a hefty favorite to add a tournament title to its resume. But I am going all the way down to six-seed Baylor as my sleeper in this conference.
There is no doubt that the Bears will open with some pretty long odds to win this week. Riding a 7-1 record into their opening-round contest against TCU this Wednesday, however, they do have some solid momentum to make a possible run. Baylor closed out the regular season with a 76-74 victory over Kansas State as a three-point road underdog after beating then-No. 16 Iowa State 74-61 as a three-point favorite at home.
The Arizona Wildcats dominated the Pac-12 this season with a 15-3 record in conference play, and there is little doubt that they will open as heavy favorites to win this week’s tournament as well. Looking at the rest of the contenders on the list, I have settled in with Oregon as my sleeper team in this conference to pull off the upset.
It is kind of hard to call the Ducks a sleeper after posting a perfect 13-0 start to the season that had them ranked No. 10 in the nation. Then they quickly became another forgotten team after a dismal 2-8 stretch from early January through early February.
Yet they appear to have regained that earlier form with a seven-game winning streak to close out the season. During this run, Oregon beat both UCLA and Arizona State, but it saved its best for last in this past Saturday’s season finale with a 64-57 upset of Arizona as a 3.5-point home underdog.