There's value to be had in the ACC and Sun Belt on Thursday night, and we reveal our top plays in a loaded Pac-12 slate.
Three Man Weave and I are back with our five favorite bets from Thursday's college basketball slate.
Texas State at Georgia State
3MW's Pick: Georgia State -3.5
If you haven’t tuned into a Sun Belt game this season, Thursday is a great time to start. The conference as a whole has been rock solid this year, with six or seven teams having legitimate shots at capturing the auto-bid in March, and tonight features a matchup between the top two teams in the league. We expected to see the Panthers in this position, picking Ron Hunter’s squad to finish first in the league in the preseason, but Texas State’s run to the top and 16-3 overall record is a bit of a shock despite returning three starters from last year.
Danny Kaspar’s teams have historically been good defensively, but this season his Bobcats have taken it to a different level. TXST ranks 48th in the country in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings, the best out of any Sun Belt squad by a significant margin. The Bobcats force turnovers, limit the three ball, take care of business on the defensive glass and take away transition opportunities. Really TXST’s only weaknesses on this end are occasionally allowing too much ball penetration, sending opponents to the free-throw line far too often and post defense, where the smaller Cats allow 0.949 PPP (11th percentile in the country per Synergy). GSU won’t be able to exploit the post-up issue, but the Panthers will absolutely be able to find holes in the D with the drive.
Offensively, Georgia State’s entire system revolves around one man: D’Marcus Simonds, far and away the best player in the Sun Belt. Simonds led the league in usage last season (and does so far this year) and is the primary ball-handler and playmaker for the Panthers. GSU possessions often involve ball screens for Simonds, allowing him to create with his skill and strength and find open shooters on the wing or finish near the cup. In the Jan. 5 meeting between these two schools, a game in which Georgia State won, Texas State clearly had a mission to not get beat by the 6’3” junior guard. Simonds managed only 7 points on 1/9 shooting, but his impact on the glass (12 rebounds) and on defense (3 blocks, 1 steal), helped propel GSU to victory. TXST’s intense focus on Simonds also allowed the Panthers to find open looks from the outside, something the Bobcats normally do a good job taking away. Countless times, Simonds and fellow guard Kane Williams were able to find the Panthers’ two best shooters and set them up for easy looks. Malik Benlevi, a 41% 3P shooter on the year, knocked down 5/8 from deep and Devin Mitchell, a 48.7% 3P shooter on the year, went 4/6. So even when Simonds isn’t beating you with scoring, he’s still helping his team win.
On the other side of the ball it all comes down to how well Texas State can handle Georgia State’s infamous 1-2-2 zone that extends nearly to half court and is designed to force turnovers and keep opponents away from the hoop. GSU is playing zone on 91.6% of its possessions this season and has allowed just 0.832 PPP (76th percentile). Texas State and its below-average offense managed just 0.97 PPP in its first outing against the Panthers, but did grab 17 offensive rebounds, an area that’s key to TXST putting points on the board and beating GSU. Kaspar slows things down on the offensive end and likes to use a lot of motion off the ball to find open shots. Ultimately, the glass is where the Bobcats score most of their points. GSU will likely get beat on the glass in this one again, but it should force enough turnovers and poor shot selection to mitigate this weakness. Texas State handled the ball well enough in its first outing against Georgia State, but I seriously doubt the Cats will find the same success on the road.
NC State at Louisville
3MW's Pick: NC State +4.5
We at 3MW have been some of NC State’s biggest fanboys throughout the preseason and early this year, and the Wolfpack’s non-conference performances did nothing to squash that enthusiasm, albeit largely against overmatched competition. A deep and balanced roster augmented the talent gap when playing minnows like UNC Asheville and Maryland-Eastern Shore (and Maine and USC Upstate and Mount St. Mary’s…), but the Wolfpack also showed strongly in more marquee tests (led late @ Wisconsin, beat Auburn).
They’ve been shakier in ACC play, though, as coach Kevin Keatts’s frenetic defense has failed to hold any of the Pack’s opponents below the magical 1 point per possession benchmark. The pressure can be vulnerable against strong ball-handling teams, and a dearth of steals can have a domino effect on the team’s overall performance. Like Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors (FEED ME), the Pack’s prolific offense can become frustrated when not fed a steady stream of easy transition buckets—see the “three points in eight minutes” drought in the second half against UNC. Louisville has largely taken care of the ball this year, but I have some concerns about their primary ball-handlers facing this caliber of athletic defenders.
The Cardinals will rely heavily on Samford grad transfer Christian Cunningham and Darius Perry to break the press, two solid but unspectacular players. The closest thing Louisville has seen to NC State in terms of turnover-heavy defense is Robert Morris or Pitt, two games in which the Cardinals combined for 34 turnovers (of note: Cunningham did not play against Robert Morris). While neither is quite the same full-court style as NC State’s, both Pitt and Robert Morris found success: the Panthers won in OT, and the Colonials actually led at halftime before fading late.
We’d be remiss to not mention the injury situation for NC State: primary floor general Markell Johnson has missed the last two contests after a scary fall against Pitt. He’s an important piece, one of the better passers in the country and a harassing defender to rotate onto the Perry/Cunningham duo. His absence has been felt (particularly in the baffling loss to Wake Forest), but the Pack seemed to steady themselves slightly in a road win at Notre Dame where they didn’t trail for the final 35 minutes. His status is up the air (although it’s looking more like “doubtful” than 50/50), so NC State will need to compensate via Braxton Beverly and Blake Harris.
Ultimately, the biggest reason for this wager is that we simply do not agree with the line. Louisville’s two recent mega-blowouts (at a UNC team that seemed to be on Xanax and managed a paltry 3/22 from deep, and at a Georgia Tech team missing its best player and two other rotation-caliber guys) have inflated the Cardinals’ rating in many analytics, but we stubbornly think UL isn’t quite in that stratosphere. The Cardinals have proven to be a quality, NCAA Tournament-bound squad under Chris Mack, but given some of the talent limitations that his first team possesses, we think this line is too reactionary to those two games.
Washington at Oregon
Meyer's Pick: Oregon -2.5
Happy Pac-12 Thursday. All 12 teams in the conference are playing on Thursday night, another bizarre quirk of the Pac-12’s suboptimal scheduling. Nonetheless, I’ll have multiple screens ready to go for this bonanza. One interesting trend to note: Pac-12 home teams are 19–13 ATS (19–11 if you take out the dumpster fire that is Cal basketball) in conference play thus far. The Pac-12 has several mediocre teams, so it’s not a surprise that when they play on the road, they wilt instead of rise up to the occasion. Additionally, the bizarre scheduling and not flying charter (seriously!) could play a role with not being fresh for road games, especially on the back end of trips.
First, let’s explore the Pac-12 contest of the night: Washington at Oregon. The Huskies likely have the best chance to make the NCAA tournament out of everyone in the conference, whether it’s an at-large or winning the Pac-12 tournament. But, they’ve faced the easiest conference schedule so far, going 5–0 against the five worst Pac-12 teams (Cal, Washington State, Stanford, Utah, Colorado), with three of them coming at home. Playing in Boulder was the toughest of the bunch, and Washington got a seven-point win, and that was with Colorado’s star point guard McKinley Wright missing a majority of the game due to an injury.
Meanwhile, Oregon has faced a challenging Pac-12 schedule (or I guess as challenging as it can get for Pac-12 standards), and was an all-time collapse vs. UCLA away from ending up with a winning record in that stretch. Dana Altman has done a masterful job adjusting on the fly after Bol Bol’s season-ending injury, as the Ducks now opt for full-court pressure more frequently on defense and generate a good amount of turnovers because of it (23.4% of defensive possessions in Pac-12 play, which ranks first in the conference). Paul White has been a revelation of late, and getting Kenny Wooten back (even with a face mask) is major, especially with Washington big man Noah Dickerson coming to town.
Washington’s signature under Mike Hopkins is of course the 2–3 zone defense, which makes sense given Hopkins was Jim Boeheim’s assistant at Syracuse for over two decades. It can certainly be overwhelming the first time you face it. Luckily for the Ducks, they already have. Not only did Oregon sweep Washington last season in Hopkins’s first season at the helm, but the Ducks handily beat Syracuse earlier this season at MSG. Granted, that game was with a healthy Bol, but Oregon still put up a strong 1.14 PPP against it. Meanwhile, with essentially the same roster last year, Washington put up 0.62 PPP (at Oregon) and 0.96 PPP (at home) against Altman’s matchup zone. I think Washington will struggle majorly on offense again, which will give Oregon the edge here.
Arizona State at UCLA
Meyer's Picks: UCLA -1, UCLA -.5 first half
UCLA is coming off back-to-back road blowouts at the hands of Oregon State and USC, but with the Bruins back at Pauley, I think this is a nice buy-low point for them. Arizona State is on the opposite end of the spectrum, sweeping the Oregon schools in Tempe this past week. But ASU has been a disaster on the road in Pac-12 play under Bobby Hurley, compiling a 8-21 record in his three-plus seasons in charge. The Sun Devils have also never completed a road trip sweep during his tenure. ASU’s only road trip so far in this campaign was the Pac-12’s easiest one: the Bay Area. It beat Cal by 14 after trailing the Golden Bears by double digits in the first half, and then lost to Stanford by 14.
Arizona State plays a lot of three-guard lineups with 6’8” Zylan Cheatham resembling a point forward at the four. ASU has really struggled against teams that have size and length at 2 through 4. Stanford ranks in the top 10 in all of college basketball in SG (ninth), SF (second) and PF (sixth) height. Arizona State lost earlier in the season at Vanderbilt (which is 0–6 in SEC play) by 16, and the Commodores rank 14th in SG height, sixth in SF height and 25th in PF height. UCLA’s average height is second in the country (highlighted by being top 10 in PG, SF and PF height), which spells trouble for a Sun Devils team that loves to get to the rim and isn’t an efficient shooting group.
UCLA is going to need big games from its focal points on offense: scoring point guard Jaylen Hands, wing Kris Wilkes and freshman star big man Moses Brown. Brown will have a few inches on his ASU counterparts, and the Bruins have already been dominating on the offensive glass in Pac-12 play (34.7 offensive rebounding percentage, which is tops). Coming back to Pauley will certainly be a plus, as UCLA is averaging 1.08 PPP at home compared to 0.925 PPP on the road. Considering the ramped-up style of play the Bruins have shifted to under interim coach Murry Bartow, that is a major discrepancy.
What scares me in a game that is projected to be so close is UCLA’s free throw shooting. The Bruins are 61.1% from the charity stripe, which ranks 344th in the country. In Pac-12 play, that number has dropped to 59.1%. Luckily, ASU isn’t great in that department either at 66.1% (301st) and 59.8% in Pac-12 play. But in the end, I see ASU’s struggles on the road continuing in a spot that screams UCLA bounce-back game. One other note: ASU has played four true road games this season (using kenpom rankings: at No. 115 Georgia, at No. 98 Vanderbilt, at No. 130 Stanford and at No. 260 Cal), and has trailed at the half in all four. With UCLA likely playing with more of an urgency to start coming off the back-to-back blowout road losses, I’ll be taking the Bruins first half and full game.
A couple other notes involving two of the other Pac-12 games: Keep an eye on the injury situations in Arizona and Colorado. If Chase Jeter and McKinley Wright don't end up playing (the Arizona big man is questionable with back spasms, while the Buffaloes expect their star point guard to play after suffering a dislocated shoulder), I'll likely be on USC +1 and (hold your nose here) Cal +3.5 first half.
UPDATE: Added USC PK after it was announced pregame that Arizona's Chase Jeter isn't playing and that Kevin Porter Jr. is for USC.
Overall Record: 27-22-1