Table of Contents
PUNCHING TICKETS – WEEKEND ONE
The early bird gets the spot on the bracket, as they say. After months of upsets, buzzer-beating moments, bracket-busting, and a wee bit of controversy in the SEC from that football school…we’ve made it to March Madness. If you’re just tuning in to college hoops, know that this season has featured a heavy amount of new names at the top of the rankings, and it’s going to a wide-open bracket where a team’s draw and path to the Final Four is key. Before we get to the official start of the madness and a shiny bracket chock full of 68 programs with hope and prayer, we have to set the tourney field.
This year’s tournament field is set by the winners of each of the 32 NCAA Division 1 conference champions, and the other 36 teams are selected by the tournament committee as at-large bids. I’ve been a college hoops fan long enough to know that it’s very beneficial to show one last good resume to the committee in your conference championship weekend. You don’t want to be counting on the at-large bid if you’re on the bubble, and seeding is everything for your school’s path to Houston and the Final Four. As for the teams getting their conference champion decided THIS week – they’re very likely one-bid conferences, so it’s win your conference tourney or go home. Let’s get to the first weekend of conference championships to see who will be punching the first tickets to the dance:
ATLANTIC SUN: LIBERTY OR DEATH
“Give me Liberty, or Give me Death!” to steal an old quote from colonial times. The A-Sun storyline is whether or not the deserved Liberty Flames can right the wrong of last year, losing in a stunning upset to Bellarmine (who at the time wasn’t even eligible to dance in the NCAA). The semis loss was a shocker for a program that has been a fixture on recent brackets and pulled off a memorable tourney run of its own. They currently sit as heavy favorites to take care of business and get back to the dance, and I’m not doubting them this time around at home. Notably, this conference’s tournament games are done on the higher seed’s floor, not at a neutral site.
Alex’s Play: Liberty -220
BIG SOUTH: WIDE OPEN SPACES
UNC-Asheville (what a charming college town) has already solidified the regular season title and the one seed in the Big South tourney, held at a neutral site court in Charlotte, North Carolina. Still, oddsmakers will have you looking back at the 2022 champs from Longwood University as their prices to win the conference tournament are about the same, especially at a neutral site. They are defending their spot on the bracket despite turnover from last year’s team, sitting respectably 2nd in the regular season standings. Sounds like this matchup is due for a Sunday finale to see who gets admission to the dance.
Alex’s Play: UNC-Asheville +260
MISSOURI VALLEY: DRAKE’S TIME or SISTER JEAN REPEAT?
What a matchup of powerhouses here in the Arch Madness that is the MVC tournament. In last year’s MVC final Sister Jean and Loyola-Chicago found their way back to Cinderella story territory by defeating Drake, then were quickly extinguished on the bracket in round one. If you’re seeking the revenge angle you have to like Drake’s chances this time around, they possess the best odds to advance to the finals and win it outside of Bradley (-190) Only time will tell to see if Drake the rapper jumps on the Drake bandwagon this March.
Alex’s Play: Drake +130
OHIO VALLEY: Clear path
I’m sure Morehead State is really happy Murray State is in the MVC and not the OVC right about now. The Racers have been a thorn in their side in recent years and defeated Morehead State in last year’s OVC final. Now the path is clear for a dominant Morehead State squad that is definitively the regular season champion throughout this year. Yet another conference where the revenge theme should play out, I like the Eagles to find their way on the bracket – these all are neutral site matchups in Evansville, IN.
Alex’s Play: Morehead State +140
SOUTHERN: Three Horse Race
Another doozy of a neutral site tournament is in the Southern Conference, where three dominant teams stake their claim at a spot on the bracket. Samford, UNC-Greensboro, and Furman are all head and shoulders above the rest of the conference, so it’s a toss-up who eats who first and last here. Samford is currently the slight favorite heading into the tournament, and they would project out as a #14 seed if they make it to the big dance.
Alex’s Play: UNC-Greensboro +250
SUN BELT: The Fun Belt
This conference wastes NO TIME getting things going, and opening-round matchups have already solidified the quarterfinal bracket. Everyone gets into this conference tournament so there are roughly 78 games being played in Pensacola to find a Sun Belt Champion. Regardless, my money is looking at a random team here – last year’s champ Georgia State is now horrible, and the 8 seed almost won this conference as well. This is truly March Madness, and anyone has a chance to dance in the Fun Belt.
Alex’s Play: James Madison +380