Youngstown State, Morehead State and the Best Mid-Major Tournament Bets

This is March.

Okay, it’s the second-to-last day in February, but you get the drift.

Conference tournament season officially kicks off on Monday with a pair of first-round games in the Atlantic Sun.

The first automatic bids to the NCAA tournament will be handed out on Saturday, and after that, the field will fill up quickly.

The next week will be about the mid-major schools and their pursuits of the lone bids from their respective conferences.

There are clear favorites in certain leagues, like Oral Roberts in the Summit, Colgate in the Patriot League and Charleston in the CAA, but most of the conference tournaments starting this week have some wide-open fields.

Here’s a look at a few plus-money conference tournament winners from the brackets that are set as of Monday morning.

Atlantic Sun

Kennesaw State (+300)

The Atlantic Sun feels like it will have a Liberty-Kennesaw State final.

The major thing to consider with the A-Sun is that the tournament is played at campus sites, which means if Kennesaw advances to the final, it will host the championship game.

The Owls beat Liberty by seven points at home on February 16, so there will be belief within the team that another win can happen.

The tournament format is also worth noting. Kennesaw will play the lowest seed remaining in its first two games, so it will start by playing either the No. 9 or No. 10 seed in the quarterfinals, and then the worst-seeded team left in the semifinals.

Liberty will still be a tough team to beat. The Flames won three A-Sun tournaments in a row from 2019-21 and two of those wins came on the road.

But I’m willing to take the risk with Kennesaw at this price and its path to the final, where it will be an underdog if Liberty opposes it.

Sun Belt

Southern Miss (+450)

The Sun Belt had six teams win at least 11 games in conference play.

That means we should witness an exciting few days in Pensacola, Florida. The top four teams enter in the quarterfinals on Saturday and the final will be played on Monday.

Each of the top four seeds have flaws, but they all have one thing in common. Most of their conference losses occurred on the road.

So what happens when the tournament is played on a neutral court? Does that breed more chaos from the road losses, or do they act like more of a home game for those teams?

We probably won’t know the answer until Saturday, but I feel confident in taking the No. 1 seed as the fourth favorite.

Southern Miss owns double-digit wins over two of the other top-four seeds, and the Golden Eagles have some extra motivation in the quarterfinals if South Alabama advances out of the 8-versus-9 game.

The Golden Eagles had an overall bad night in a 31-point loss to USA on February 16. They can avenge that result and clear out any doubters of their title-winning credentials.

The other motivating factor is to get Southern Miss back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012.

The Golden Eagles are a hungry and motivated bunch, and that is what makes them dangerous in Pensacola.

Horizon League

Youngstown State (+170)

The Horizon League tournament was won by the top seed once in the last seven years.

That trend has not scared me away from Youngstown State.

The Penguins were the best team in the Horizon throughout the regular season, and they have one of the best offenses in the country.

YSU ranks in the top 35 in six key offensive categories on KenPom, and it had some of the best offensive numbers in conference play.

The only speed bump in YSU’s way is Detroit Mercy and Antoine Davis’ pursuit of the all-time men’s scoring record.

The Penguins held Detroit to 63 points at home, which is where the quarterfinal would take place, so that gives me some comfort that they can contain Davis and go on to win the tournament with two more victories.

Big South

Winthrop (+1300)

The Big South tournament historically belongs to Winthrop.

The Eagles have 13 Big South tournament titles, and despite being the No. 6 seed this year, they are hot at the right time.

Winthrop enters Charlotte on a four-game winning streak and a 7-3 record in its last 10 games.

The Eagles have regular-season wins over No. 1 seed UNC Asheville and No. 2 seed Longwood.

In this case, a neutral-site tournament can help a lower seed. Winthrop does not have to win three true road games to get the automatic bid.

The tournament as a whole could be wide open since all teams are listed above +200 to cut down the nets.

I’ll go with the program that has winning experience, and the one that ranked first in offensive efficiency and effective field-goal percentage in conference play, per KenPom.

Ohio Valley

Morehead State (+140)

Morehead State is one of two teams in the Ohio Valley Conference that needs to win just two games to secure the tournament title.

The ladder bracket in the OVC benefits No. 1 seed Morehead and No. 2 seed Tennessee Tech.

Morehead has one loss since January 14. The Eagles won 11 of their last 12 games, and they held opponents under 65 points in 10 of those victories, including a 45-point concession to Tennessee Tech.

Southern Conference

Furman (+120)

Furman’s SoCon resume is impressive.

The Paladins went 3-1 against the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds, Samford and UNC Greensboro, and did not have consecutive losses.

As the No. 1 seed, Furman resides on the easier part of the SoCon bracket and only has to play one of Samford and UNCG.

The luck of the draw should help the Paladins, but the metrics back up their case to be the favorite. They were either first or second in a majority of offensive and defensive metrics in conference play, per KenPom.

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