We're banking on a bounce-back road effort from an SEC contender, while also rolling with a trio of underdogs, including two young teams in nice spots at home.
Three Man Weave and I are back with our four favorite bets from Tuesday's college basketball slate.
Boston College at Louisville
3MW's Pick: Boston College +11
On the surface, Louisville’s stellar start to the season, which features a pair of dazzling wins over Michigan State and North Carolina, appears to be business as usual. The Cardinals have been a fixture in the national conversation for decades now, so why would this season be any different?
Ask any UL fan and they’ll tell you: this year is night and day different. The 2018–19 Cardinals, under the direction of first-year head coach Chris Mack, is a far cry from the teams they grew accustomed to watching under Rick Pitino. Long gone is the patented full-court press and suffocating defense that so routinely terrorized opposing ball handlers. Similarly, those prototypical ball-hawking guards (Russ Smith, Peyton Siva, etc.) and tree trunk-armed forwards (Chinanu Onuaku, Gorgiu Dieng, etc.) are nowhere to be found either—yet, here is Louisville sitting pretty at 2–1 in the ACC once again, thanks to the clipboard ingenuity of Chris Mack.
As impressive as the Mack-led Cardinals have been this season, it’s their opponent who holds superior value in the betting markets tonight. Boston College travels to the KFC Yum! Center desperate to snap a four-game skid, as the Eagles’ unforgiving schedule ran them up against Virginia and Virginia Tech in back-to-back games last week. BC has been somewhat inconsistent throughout the course of the year but have shown the propensity to play at a high-level against the right opponent, in the right spot. Tonight’s tilt with Louisville checks both of those boxes.
Part of the Mack revolution in Louisville is the ongoing implementation of the patented Pack-Line defense, a drastic shift from the havoc-induced defenses seen under Pitino. Getting a roster full of players who were groomed under a pressure-focused defensive scheme to break those steal-happy habits and play a more solid, conservative style is no easy task. Those growing pains are still being felt, even as recently as last week when Mack described the Cardinals defense as "deplorable" in a three-point overtime loss at Pitt. So, while the foundation of the Mack era is slowly being laid, it is far from unbreakable just 16 games into his first season at the helm.
Tonight, if UL’s defense isn’t buttoned up for a full 40 minutes, the sharpshooting Eagles will make the pack-line pay. Granted, BC has not shot the ball well so far this season, but offensive catalyst Ky Bowman and his running mates Jordan Chatman and Chris Herren are far better shooters than their current season percentages indicate. Look for Bowman to be aggressive in the half-court and relentlessly attack the rim off the dribble, which should draw off-ball help and lead to subsequent kick-outs for threes. Head coach Jim Christian will also receive another dose of ammo tonight with 6’8" forward Steffon Mitchell expected to return to the lineup, which should partially offset the absence of prolific freshman Wynston Tabbs (who is expected to miss tonight with a knee injury).
From a handicapping lens, it’s no surprise that line plummeted to +11 overnight after opening at +12.5. The oddsmakers face an unenviable challenge of appraising Louisville’s value after the Cardinals boat raced the North Carolina by 21 on Saturday. Even the computer models are having a tough time making sense of the lopsided outcome. For example, Louisville jumped from 39th to 23rd overall in kenpom.com’s national rankings, a DRASTIC leap for just one game. Despite the early loss of value, the Eagles are still worth taking at the current number, but do be cautious if the line falls below 10.
Auburn at Texas A&M
3MW's Pick: Auburn -6.5
For being the 14th-ranked team in the country, Auburn doesn’t have a sparkling tourney resume, primarily from a quality wins perspective. Sure, the Tigers are 6-0 against Q2 and rank 18th in the NET, but an ugly 0-3 mark against Q1 competition has many bracketologists hesitant to vault them any higher than a 4 or 5 seed. When we peek deeper into Auburn’s games against top-tier competition, we see a bi-polar squad, one that competes with Duke on a neutral for 40 minutes and manhandles “good” Pac-12 schools, and one that needs overtime to defeat a down Xavier squad, squeaks by Murray State at home and UAB on a neutral, and gets laughed out of the gym at Ole Miss.
Luckily for Auburn in this game, Texas A&M is not a top-tier squad, and the Tigers tend to smash inferior competition, particularly those squads that cannot handle the ball. My 3MW colleagues and I were very low on the Aggies in the preseason, and that same sentiment holds true through today. If you French Fry when you should have Pizza’d, you’re gonna have a bad time. If your point guard and primary offensive catalyst is TJ Starks, you’re gonna have a bad time. Starks has been objectively awful as the Aggies’ lead guard this season, posting a brutal 86.6 O-rating and shooting 44.3% from two and 25.6% from three. Despite his inefficiencies, Billy Kennedy doesn’t seem to mind Starks holding his offense hostage every night, as the 6’2” PG leads the SEC in usage and ranks third in percentage of his team’s shots attempted. Is he just having a bad year? Nope! Starks posted that same 86.6 O-rating in 2017-18 and shot similar percentages from the floor.
This Auburn defense is going to tear Starks and his Aggie brethren apart. The Tigers lead the country in turnover rate and the Aggies are anything but sure-handed with the basketball. Bruce Pearl is going to send his stable of athletes to pressure the hell out of the Aggie ball handlers. Per Synergy, Auburn has pressed on 14.3% of its defensive possessions, is allowing just 0.574 PPP (95th percentile), and is forcing turnovers on 33.1% of these possessions. Texas A&M has scored just 0.732 PPP against the press this season, ranking in the 19th percentile in the country.
Aside from the pressure concerns, A&M is going to have a tough time scoring in the half-court. The Aggies have to get to the basket to score the ball and rank seventh in the country in FGA% near the rim—they don’t attempt many threes, and when they do they convert long-ball tries at just 28.6%, the 330th “best” rate in the nation. Good luck trying to score the ball inside against the Tigers. Auburn ranks first in the country in block percentage and its paint is anchored by a three-headed frontcourt dragon in Austin Wiley, Chuma Okeke and Anfernee McLemore.
Offensively, Auburn is going to run in transition, let it fly from deep, and let its bouncy frontcourt clean up any misses. A&M has been admittedly better in its last three contests, all against athletic SEC opponents, but this Auburn squad is a different animal. Look for the Tigers to prove they belong in the conversation of the national elite and avenge their loss to the Aggies from a year ago.
Minnesota at Illinois
Meyer's Pick: Illinois +.5 1H
It’s not often that we see such a small spread in a major-conference battle between a 4–12 team and a 13–3 one. Illinois is much more talented than its poor record indicates, and has actually led or been tied at halftime in three of its five Big Ten games (and a fourth being trailing Michigan by just five). The Illini’s youth, propensity to foul (and inability to draw fouls) and lack of height and depth have burned this team, though, which is why they’ve been unable to play a solid full 40 minutes very often. They've also faced the fourth-toughest schedule so far, per KenPom.
But before steering you completely away from Illinois, let’s go into this team’s strengths. The Illini have a young, dynamic backcourt in sophomore Trent Frazier and five-star freshman Ayo Dosunmu. Frazier leads the squad with 14.7 ppg and is shooting over 40% from three. Dosunmu is second at 13.6 ppg, but has had the hot hand of late, averaging 20.5 points over his last four games. Minnesota is not a strong shooting team at all (201st in 2P%, 231st in 3P% and 279th in FT%), so if those two get rolling, the Gophers may not have the firepower to keep up. Additionally, just like any Brad Underwood-coached team, Illinois is very strong at generating turnovers, forcing turnovers on 23.9% of possessions (12th).
The key will be fending Minnesota off the glass, as the Gophers are 20th in offensive rebounding percentage. They’re led by double-double machine Jordan Murphy, who despite his 6’7” stature grabs a Big Ten-leading 12.1 boards per game. As was mentioned before, the Gophers aren't a great shooting team, but if you give them second and third chances, that's when they really can get an upper hand.
For me, this is a buy low, sell high spot. Minnesota has played just three true road games this season, and it has lost two of them—one was a 12-point loss to a very disappointing Boston College team that is ranked No. 116 on KenPom and the other was a 20-point loss to a solid Ohio State team that has a losing record in Big Ten play, including a defeat at Rutgers. Meanwhile, this is just Illinois’s second true home game in conference play (it played Ohio State at the United Center in Chicago rather than on its home court in Champaign), and it was certainly competitive in a 79–69 home loss to one of the top teams in the country in Michigan. It also helps that the students are back on campus with classes at Illinois resuming this week, so expect a frenzied atmosphere at the State Farm Center.
Don’t be fooled by the records and fall victim to the trap of the puzzlingly small line here, as I think an underachieving Illinois has a good shot at landing its first Big Ten win here. The Illini, however, have been a much stronger first-half team (+3.9 scoring differential in the 1H, 74th in the country) than at finishing games (-5.4, 324th), so I'll bank on a good start here with Underwood having nearly a week to prepare for this contest.
UCF at Wichita State
Meyer's Pick: Wichita State +1.5 1H
Once again, I'm going with young team that has played much better to start games and will be hungry for its first conference win.
Wichita was a team that I thought was overvalued by oddsmakers to start the season, and now the Shockers are currently slightly undervalued. Charles Koch Arena is one of the better home-court atmospheres in the country, and is always a tricky environment for visitors. Wichita State is currently off to an 0-3 start in AAC play, though two of those losses came on the road (an 11-point loss at Memphis and a nine-point loss at Houston in which Wichita led by five at the half). The one home AAC loss Wichita actually should have won, an 85-81 overtime loss to Temple in which the Shockers blew an 11-point lead with about three minutes remaining.
On the other side, UCF is undefeated in conference play, but has played just two road games this entire season—an overtime loss to Missouri and an easy win over UConn. Yet, the Knights have played a much easier schedule than the Shockers (241st to 34th), and I think this young Wichita State team is improving because of how battle-tested it is.
Wichita is led by two seniors in Markis McDuffie and Samajae Haynes-Jones who are averaging a combined 38.7 PPG in conference play. UCF is very strong defensively, and with 7’6” behemoth Tacko Fall anchoring the paint, it’s going to be tough to get good looks near the rim. McDuffie and Haynes-Jones have combined for 16 three-pointers attempted per game in conference play, and they will need their outside shots to fall early and often to keep the Knights on their toes on defense. Freshman guard Dexter Dennis has emerged as a capable third scorer against AAC foes, averaging double figures over the past three games.
Now, the Shockers have not been victorious in nearly a month (they’ve gone 0-4 since a 21-point win over Oral Roberts on Dec. 19), and they are certainly yearning to get back into the win column. In fact, this is Wichita’s longest losing streak in a decade, which you can bet is grinding Gregg Marshall’s gears. I expect the team to be fired up to start in front of its home crowd and for Marshall’s game-planning mastery to be an advantage early over Johnny Dawkins and UCF. In fact, Wichita’s first-half scoring differential (+4.1, tied for 67th) is much stronger than it’s been in the 2H (-5.1, tied for 315th). It’s always tough to get road wins in college basketball, even for good teams like UCF, and I think this is a spot where we see Wichita land the first punch.
Overall Record: 18-16-1