There are four undefeated teams left in college basketball. Here's why it's a good idea to fade two of them when they play on Wednesday night. 

By Max Meyer
January 02, 2019

After a holiday hiatus, Three Man Weave and I are back with our four favorite bets on Wednesday’s college basketball slate.

Tulsa at Houston

3MW Pick: Tulsa +11

Kelvin Sampson has engineered a renaissance in Houston basketball with the Cougars entering conference play sporting a flawless resume, including wins over BYU, Oregon, Oklahoma State, LSU, Saint Louis and Utah State. None of those victims would qualify as ‘elite’ opponents, but the veteran Cougars have been a model of consistency and avoided any slip-ups or let downs against inferior opponents. They’ll run into another team they are no doubt better than tonight, but Frank Haith’s Golden Hurricane should not be taken for granted.

Tulsa is also an older, experienced squad, led by point guard Sterling Taplin and hyper-versatile wing DaQuan Jeffries. The Golden Hurricane have put together a near flawless resume of their own—they’ve notched impressive victories over Kansas State and Dayton, and two of their three losses came at the hands of offensive juggernaut Nevada (by 10) and Utah (by 5), which was on the road in altitude.

The key tonight will be how much Frank Haith showcases his 2-3 zone, as well as how locked in Houston’s three-point shooters are. Rob Gray caught fire in the only meeting between these two last year, raining in five of the Cougars’ 18 3-pointers en route to a 30-point walloping at home. Tulsa’s zone is naturally vulnerable to being burned by a barrage of triples, which means it’ll have to be on high alert locating the Coogs’ top two marksmen in Corey Davis and Armoni Brooks.

If Haith prioritizes shutting down open looks for Davis and Brooks, the zone could be an effective disruption to Houston’s two primary creators, Galen Robinson and Dejon Jarreau. While Robinson is having himself a breakout senior campaign, Jarreau has recently injected another gear into the Coogs’ offensive attack, particularly in transition where his length and burst off the dribble is a nightmare to corral in the open floor. Both Robinson and Jarreau have repeatedly knifed through opposing defenders in pick-n-roll action this season, which should be mitigated by the packed-in Tulsa zone.

The question is can the Golden Hurricane put enough points on the board themselves to keep the margin under double digits. According to the numbers, Houston’s defense has somehow replicated last year’s unprecedented dominance, as the upperclassmen have mastered Sampson’s ironclad man-to-man principles. Tulsa’s primary avenue of scoring comes via the charity stripe, led by one of the best rim attackers in the AAC in Taplin and his interior counterpart Martins Igbanu in the middle.

The Golden Hurricane put up 71 points last year against the Coogs by racking up 22 points on 30 attempts from the free-throw line, a mark they’ll have to replicate tonight to keep this one competitive. Haith would be wise to emphasize a similar slash-heavy approach offensively, while stressing the importance of slowing down the tempo to limit possessions. Houston does not actively look to run, but are especially deadly when their suffocating defense can generate quick run-outs and transition threes going the other way. Taplin’s a cerebral lead guard who should control the pace of play, which should ensure Tulsa stays connected to Houston for most of the game and ultimately slip inside the number. The early birds hopped in at +13.5, so tread carefully if this number moves below 11.

Northern Iowa at Bradley

3MW Pick: Northern Iowa +7.5

It was supposed to be a breakout year for the Missouri Valley Conference, a league looking to restore its pristine brand name among the mid-major landscape after conference poster child Wichita State bolted for the AAC two years ago. That preseason optimism was extinguished in a hurry, as a handful of supposed-to-be contenders wobbled their way throughout non-conference play, leaving the MVC with little to no chance of sending multiple teams dancing in March. The league’s heavy hitters whiffed repeatedly on resume-boosting opportunities, leaving Bradley with the Valley’s only notable marquee win (a three-point victory over Penn State on a neutral).

With the Valley’s chances of recapturing multi-bid league status fading quickly, the importance of conference play has intensified. No one wants to play in the dreaded Thursday night opening-round doubleheader in the conference tournament, so avoiding the bottom-four spots in the conference standings is critical. Tonight’s MVC showdown features two struggling teams who welcome the start of conference play as a chance to hit the reset button. Bradley has dropped four of six, including a devastating home loss to Eastern Illinois and another close call with Southeastern Louisiana at home before Christmas. UNI has also been stuck in the mud, and is three days removed from a double-digit home loss to Stony Brook (who was missing their best player Akwasi Yeboah).

The beauty of conference play is that every team now gets a do-over. Teams that have smashed preseason expectations are good candidates to level off, while those who limped out of the gate are likely to now pick up the pace. UNI has been plagued by injuries, none of which have hurt as much as Tywhon Pickford, who has battled to regain his confidence after recently returning to the starting lineup. While he’s played just 20 minutes in his last two games combined, sliding Pickford back into the starting lineup sends Wyatt Lohaus back to the bench to resume his familiar role as sixth man, a job he excelled at last season. And with big man Austin Phyfe now seeking a medical redshirt after missing the last five contests, Ben Jacobsen has also retooled the frontline rotations with Luke McDonnell and Shandon Goldman, both of whom have shown flashes of competence.

The bottom line is that the Panthers seem primed to right the ship in conference play, as an offensive identity begins to take form under their rapidly improving offensive floor general AJ Green. The former top-100 recruit was invisible in the UNI’s tilt with in-state rival Iowa, but has played much better over the last three games, posting a 5:1 assist-to-turnover ratio over the last 40 minutes of action. As the cliché saying goes, the Panthers will go as their young floor general goes and recent evidences indicates the light bulb may be starting to flicker on for Green.

In a matchup that most would have pegged as a coin flip before the year began, Northern Iowa has some enticing value tonight getting 7-8 points in what should be a fairly slow-paced defensive rock fight. Last year, when these two teams squared off in Peoria, the line closed at Bradley -3.5. With essentially the same roster in tact, the 2019 Braves look like a mirror image of last season—thus, this implies the oddsmakers value the Panthers at roughly four points lower than a year ago, which feels like somewhat of an overreaction to how they’ve played so far this season. There’s no doubt Ben Jacobsen’s bunch has been a shell of itself so far, but I’d expect the Panthers to compete right down to the wire in the conference opener this evening.

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Utah State at Nevada

Meyer Pick: Utah State +6 first half

With all the talk of their chances of going undefeated, the Wolf Pack will have a giant target on their backs in Mountain West play. Nevada opens up its conference slate with a surprising Utah State team at home.

Under first-year coach Craig Smith, the Aggies have been the biggest riser on this season, starting the season at No. 168 and climbing all the way to No. 49. Junior guard Sam Merrill is one of the best players in the country that you likely haven’t heard of, as he’s averaging 19.7 points per game and is part of the 50-40-90 shooting club. Merrill is the top dog, but Utah State has nice depth with 10 different players scoring in double figures in a game this season.

The Aggies are very strong on the defensive end, particularly inside the arc. They’ve allowed opponents to shoot a mere 38.9% on two-point shots, the third-best mark in the country. They also rank 61st in block percentage.

Utah State is one of only 10 teams in the country with a double-digit rebound margin, as it is tied for sixth with Maryland by outrebounding opponents by an average margin of 11.7 per game. Nevada’s overall shooting numbers are slightly lower this season, due to a down start to the year shooting threes, so it’s imperative for an upset-minded team to not give the Wolf Pack second and third chances to score. Utah State has limited opponents to offensive rebounds on 20.5% of shots, the second-best mark in all of Division I. Nevada’s starting lineup doesn’t have a player shorter than 6’7”, but Utah State’s size and rebounding prowess can certainly throw the Wolf Pack for a loop.

Nevada has also gotten off to slower starts of late. The Wolf Pack tend to fall behind early (making them a great team to live bet on), and haven’t outscored an opponent by more than three points at the break since November. They’ve failed to cover the first-half spread in each of their past six games. Utah State is on the opposite end of the spectrum, tied for 10th in scoring margin in the first half at +10.5. And the Aggies won’t be rattled either taking on Nevada in Reno, as they traveled to Houston and BYU during non-conference play, two tough road environments.

Northwestern at Michigan State

Meyer Pick: Northwestern +12.5

Northwestern lost its first two Big Ten games by two points apiece, falling at home to Michigan and on the road against Indiana. The Wildcats have a tall task ahead of them in East Lansing if they want to avoid dropping to 0–3 in conference play.

Northwestern is led by two seniors, forward Vic Law and big man Dererk Pardon. They have not beaten Michigan State in their career, with the last defeat squarely on their minds. Northwestern blew a 27-point lead at home to the Spartans, losing 65–60. This is the only time Michigan State appears on Northwestern’s schedule this season. So between a big revenge spot, trying to get their first win over the Spartans as seniors and aiming to avoid an 0–3 start in conference play, I think you’ll see a very motivated Law, Pardon and Wildcat team.

The Spartans have two star upperclassmen of their own in point guard Cassius Winston and forward Nick Ward; Winston especially has performed like a National Player of the Year candidate. Those two make up one of the best inside-outside duos in the nation. Northwestern is ranked 32nd in defensive efficiency and has been especially strong defending the perimeter, limiting opponents to 28.3% shooting beyond the arc (19th in Division I). Winston is remarkably efficient shooting threes, but fellow scorer Joshua Langford’s health is a question mark hanging over the offense. Langford, who is averaging 15.0 points per game and is shooting 40.3% on threes, suffered an ankle injury that caused him to sit out the second half of the team’s last game against Northern Illinois. Tom Izzo said Langford “tweaked” his ankle that week in practice, and it wasn’t feeling good in the first half. Langford missed seven of his eight shots against the Huskies, and the coaching staff will be watching closely to see how his ankle is holding up if he does play against Northwestern.

Since Northwestern is a team that defends well and plays at a slower pace (287th in adjusted tempo), the Wildcats are a tough group to blow out. And they have risen up against tough competition, playing tight against their three toughest opponents faced thus far (a 68–66 loss to Indiana, a 62–60 loss to Michigan and a 76–69 overtime loss to Oklahoma). I expect the Wildcats to keep this game tighter than this double-digit spread suggests.

Overall Record: 8-4

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