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Many of you know that I have long specialized in the "small conferences" of NCAA Division 1 Men's Basketball, and more specifically the Horizon League, Summit League and Big Sky Conference. These three conferences I bet on consistently during the season, and these three tourney teams I've watched more than any of the other 68 by far. So let's take a moment to dive in to each of these three automatic bid schools and see if there's any chance for these small school conference champs to keep their March winning streaks alive, starting with the Vikings of Cleveland State University out of the Horizon League:
Cleveland State (19-7) – Horizon League
Despite placing second in the Horizon League standings during the regular season, I still believe they are the best Horizon League team. Wright State had the much superior stats throughout the year, and I thought Northern Kentucky the last few weeks really rounded into from well, but Cleveland State punched the Big Dance ticket nonetheless. The Vikings are #63 most experience team in the country and are having themselves a dream season. When you dive into their schedule - they had the #201 toughest schedule overall in the nation - this team beat up on the bad Horizon League teams. They did beat Wright State on the road for an impressive victory but in the teams' rematch they were smoked by 36 by Wright State..
They beat Oakland three times, IPFW 4 times, and twice beat IUPUI, Youngstown, and Green Bay. They also beat Milwaukee twice, which would've been three times if not for an epic collapse in the final two minutes. All these teams are ranked #206 or worse, and they combine for 11 of the Vikings 18 wins on the year! During the last month of conference play Cleveland State lost to IPFW once - nearly twice after it took them three OT's to beat them in the quarter finals of the Horizon League tournament. This team's defense has good stats, but remember, those stats came against bad competition. I believe that Cleveland State will simply be happy to be in the tournament, and that Houston will name their score on them.
Where to watch: Friday, 7:15 p.m. EST on truTV (@ Assembly Hall)
The Odds: Cleveland St +20.5 (+1600 ML), 135 O/U
Eastern Washington (16-7) – Big Sky
Eastern Washington is a good team overall but wasn't that impressive during the Big Sky conference tournament as the Eagles didn’t have to play the conference's other top teams in Southern Utah or Weber State. Eastern Washington has an elite offense - ranking #73 in 3PT%, #37 in effective FG% and #6 in FT% - and they don’t turn the ball over on offense. The Eagles' defense is average at best, but they are impressively #60 in effective FG% allowed, #83 in defensive rebounds, and #64 in 3PT% allowed.
The Eagles also don’t force turnovers much though, which is their biggest weakness on defense. On a positive note, however, Eastern Washington played four road games in its non-conference schedule and looked great in the process. They lost by just three points to Washington State, three to Arizona, 17 to Oregon, and five to Saint Mary’s. These teams aren’t top tier, sure, but they are top 75 territory. When teams like the Eagles are competing against solid D1 competition, it shows to me that they simply aren’t afraid of these guys, especially in a neutral court type of situation like the NCAA Tournament presents.
As I write this I haven’t bet Eastern Washington (yet), but with Kansas and their COVID-19 issues, the question remains - do the Jayhawks want to just win, or do they want to win with margin? The Eagles have the offense to backdoor Kansas here, and they've shown us the ability to to at the very least compete with good D1 competition. I doubt Eastern Washington wins outright (the Eagles are currently +450 on the ML at DraftKings Sportsbook), but I wouldn’t be shocked if they did, or at least covered the +10.5 here.
Where to watch: Saturday, 1:15 p.m. EST on TBS (@ Indiana Farmers Coliseum)
The Odds: Eastern Washington +10.5 (+450 ML), 146 O/U
Oral Roberts (16-10) – Summit League
Oral Roberts is the team I've lost the most money on in the Summit League, and it's not even close. This team is allergic to defense and will have to drop 100 points to beat Ohio State on Friday. The problem is that the Golden Eagles will be giving up almost 100 points themselves. This team has good offensive stats, and they actually played well against decent D1 competition, losing by five to Wichita State, 14 to Oklahoma, and 11 to Arkansas. The main issue for Oral Roberts is giving up points to a lot of bottom-tier Summit League teams in conference play. The Golden Eagles gave up 75+ twice to Omaha, 82+ to Denver, and UMKC also dropped 81 on them. Oral Roberts is lucky to be here, simply because they were just the fourth best Summit League team all year behind South Dakota, North Dakota St and South Dakota St.
If you look at the box score when Oral Roberts played North Dakota State in the Summit League championship game it looks like it was a close game, but North Dakota State actually had their worst shooting performance of the year in the first half when they only put up 20 points. This game was tied at 72 with about 30 seconds left, something the box score also doesn’t tell you. Oral Roberts nearly gave up a 25-point lead in this contest, and North Dakota State not scoring had nothing to do with Oral Roberts' putrid defense. So that means we auto-fire on Ohio State in round one ATS, right? Well, not so fast.
Ohio State -15.5 represents not just a massive spread, but a massive backdoor opportunity. Do the Buckeyes want to win, or win AND cover? ORU will get some garbage time buckets at the end of this one, and that could cost you a cover in the waning minutes. As much as I dislike Oral Roberts, there's no way I can back Ohio State unless a key ORU player is ruled out. Don’t be surprised if Ohio State scores 90+ here.
Where to watch: Friday, 3:00 p.m. EST on CBS (@ Mackey Arena)
The Odds: Oral Roberts +15.5 (+950 ML), 157 O/U