March madness is upon the basketball season

It sure didn't take long to find out why the month of March in college basketball is described as "madness."

On Wednesday night in the Mid-American Conference tournament, lowly Central Michigan (2-16, 6-22), pulled off an unbelievable upset with its 75-73 victory at Akron (11-7, 17-11), one of the pre-tourney favorites. Also, Toledo (11-7, 18-12) needed double overtime before holding off upstart Northern Illinois (7-11, 13-15).

It's hard to predict where the next big upset is coming from in this crazy time of year, but here are some conference tournament predictions anyway. The tourneys are listed in the order that they begin.

Colonial - This competition will be a battle of survival, as only the tourney champion will advance to the NCAA Tournament. George Mason is my choice here because it has the best player in the league, George Evans, and the Patriots have valuable experience with four starters returning from the team that went to the NCAAs last year. Best bet: Today, bet against the winner of Friday's out-bracket game.

Missouri Valley - Indiana State is the regular season champion and should get to the Big Dance from this highly underrated conference, regardless of the outcomes of this week's games. Southern Illinois also deserves a look, but I'm picking Southwest Missouri State, riding an eight-game winning streak, to win this tournament.

Midwestern Collegiate - Butler has won 11 consecutive conference games and should be invited to the NCAA tournament even if it loses here. But why take any chances? The Bulldogs are head and shoulders above the rest of this league and will automatically qualify by winning three games.

Sun Belt - There is no holding back in this conference, as only the winner of the tourney will advance to the big show. Louisiana-Lafayette, South Alabama and Louisiana Tech finished at the top during the regular season, and either one of them could win it. Prediction: South Alabama.

West Coast - Gonzaga's run to the Elite Eight last year brought instant and overdue recognition to this up-and-coming conference. This year, Gonzaga is a shoo-in to return, but examination of the conference standings finds Pepperdine on top and equally deserving of an NCAA berth. A solid San Diego squad has beaten Gonzaga and Pepperdine and sits quietly in third, while fourth-place Santa Clara is dangerous because it hosts the tournament. Prediction: The big-game experience of guards Richie Frahm and Matt Santangelo should carry Gonzaga to the title.

Big East - Syracuse, St. John's, Miami-Florida, Seton Hall and Connecticut are all locked into the NCAA tournament. Villanova should get in, and Notre Dame needs to make some noise in this tourney to make it. Prediction: I like St. John's, especially on the heels of its great win at Duke last week.

Atlantic 10 - Temple and Dayton are certain to reach the final 64-team field, and one could make a case for St. Bonaventure too. Xavier, George Washington and Massachusetts, I feel, would need nothing short of a win over Temple to have a chance. Prediction: Temple should win easily.

Conference USA - Cincinnati and Louisville are headed to the NCAAs. After that, it's anybody's guess as to what will happen, although I do believe a third team will emerge during this league tourney, if not a fourth. Prediction: Cincinnati is undefeated in conference play, so any loss here would be a big upset.

Notes: I will make predictions on the final seven conferences in next Thursday's paper. For the next three weeks, this column will appear in Thursday's paper in order to preview the week's college basketball action. Championship odds should be available for some conference tournaments.

-- Leroy's sports books are offering one final weekend of chances to wager on the points championships in the NASCAR and Busch Grand National series. Megasports wagering closes 11 a.m. today for the Busch series, and closes 11:35 a.m. Sunday for the NASCAR points race, the same times that this weekend's races in Las Vegas are scheduled to begin.

Joe Ellison is the Nevada Appeal betting columnist.


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