We're rolling with two ranked underdogs, including one playing at home, along with a red-hot squad from the MVC.
Three Man Weave and I are back with our three favorite bets from Tuesday's college basketball slate.
Virginia at NC State
3MW Pick: NC State +7
I had the privilege of seeing this Virginia juggernaut up close and personal over the weekend, when the Cavaliers took a trip to the Midwest tundra to take on Notre Dame. Even though the Irish have been frequent flyers to the training table this season—Rex Pflueger and Robby Carmody are done for the year, while Juwan Durham continues to nurse an ankle injury—I was cautiously optimistic that Notre Dame would keep it competitive, especially with the support of a packed Joyce Center behind them.
Boy, was I naïve…
I finally got a firsthand appreciation for how quickly Virginia’s slow-roasting style can deflate a home crowd. The Cavs' long and methodical offensive possessions create a false sense of hope for defenses who will often guard successfully for 20–25 seconds, only to give up a soul-crushing bucket moments before the shot clock expires. That frustration is then compounded on the other end of the floor, as the gradual wear and tear of not getting a clean look at the basket weighs on opposing offenses.
The point is simple. If the Wolfpack have any hopes of pulling the upset tonight, they must come out throwing haymakers early. Since ACC play started, NC State has been burned by a few slow starts, most notably the inexcusable road loss to Wake Forest on Jan. 15. The Demon Deacons jumped out to an early lead and entered the half up by 15, which provided the confidence fuel needed to sustain that cushion throughout the second half. And just this Saturday at home against Clemson, NC State failed to pounce on the visiting Tigers early, which helped Clemson settle in on the road and keep the game tight the whole way through.
So, why should tonight be different? Well, Markell Johnson is set to play his second straight game after missing the prior three with a back injury. Head coach Kevin Keatts started him on the bench on Saturday, but Johnson provided instant spark when he eventually checked in and finished with 16 points in just 23 minutes of action. Regardless of whether or not Keatts decides to reinsert Johnson into the starting lineup tonight, expect to see the Wolfpack’s primary playmaker out there early and often. Keatts has an army of guards at his disposal, but, as reported by the Richmond Times Dispatch earlier this morning, it’s clear Johnson is a special breed amongst his perimeter peers…
“I think if you take anybody’s point guard, or quarterback off the football team, I think that’s where a lot of the inconsistencies come from,” Keatts said Monday. “When he wasn’t with us, everybody else had to play a different position. I thought it was an adjustment for some guys and we didn’t play our best basketball. That’s why you saw us play a little inconsistent during that stretch.”
Johnson is not only the Wolfpack’s primary facilitator, but he’s their best three-point shooter (on a percentage basis), which will come in handy against Virginia’s Pack-Line defense that will wall off most scoring windows inside the arc.
As backwards as it may sound, it’s not the offensive side of the ball that gives me pause about betting the Pack +7 against this Virginia freight train. It’s how Keatts plans to check De’Andre Hunter on the other end, who has been nearly unguardable in in isolation settings this year. While NC State has quick, athletic guards in spades, freshman Jericole Hellems is the only player in the primary rotation who would be undoubtedly characterized as a “wing.” Torin Dorn, Devon Daniels and CJ Bryce all have decent length at 6'5", but will still be surrendering a couple of inches and a few pounds to the longer and bigger Hunter. Look for Keatts to throw multiple defenders on Hunter throughout the game in order to keep fresh waves of bodies coming at him for a full 40 minutes.
Finally, don’t be turned off by the idea of NC State being forced into playing at a snail’s pace. Keep in mind that the Wolfpack faced a similar challenge earlier this year when they traveled to Madison and had Wisconsin on the ropes for nearly the entire game. Keatts’s teams over the past two seasons have shown they can maintain composure and execute with precision in a half-court game, which will be necessary tonight against Virginia who is nearly impossible to speed up.
Mississippi State at Alabama
3MW Pick: Mississippi State +2
Skeptics have been in full force this season when it comes to Mississippi State and whether the Bulldogs are a legit SEC contender. Despite a 3–1 record vs. the NET Group 1 and a 5–3 record against Group 2, the 'Dogs have been tagged with the “fraudulent” or “overrated" tag all year. An 0–2 start to SEC play didn’t help disprove this theory, but since their Jan. 12 loss to in-state foe Ole Miss, the Bulldogs have gone 3–1 in conference play with notable wins over Florida and Auburn in Starksville. Ben Howland’s squad faces a tough road test tonight against an Alabama team desperate to stay in the bubble conversation. The Tide are coming off a Saturday loss to an upstart Baylor in Waco and currently sit tied with Mississippi State at 3–3 in conference play. Alabama is one of those Jekyll & Hyde teams that can put Tennessee on the ropes one night and lose to the likes of Northeastern and Georgia State the next. Betting against unpredictable teams is a tall task, but there’s reason to like the Bulldogs in Tuscaloosa tonight.
To stop Alabama, you need to limit transition opportunities and ball penetration. This starts with pesky perimeter defenders, something MSU has plenty of stocked in its coffers. It takes away transition opportunities at the 43rd-best clip in the country (Hoop Lens) and ranks 38th in steal rate (kenpom), led by swiping extraordinaires Lamar Peters, Tyson Carter and the Brothers Weatherspoon. Howland doesn’t full-court press, but his guards will be in freshman Kira Lewis’s jock all evening, pressuring the young point guard into making poor decisions with the basketball. Limiting Lewis's ball penetration will help prevent John Petty, just about Bama’s only true three-point threat outside of Lewis, from finding dangerous open looks behind the arc.
The second area Mississippi State needs to limit is the offensive glass. Alabama big man Donta Hall has been an animal this year, ranking in the top 10 in the SEC in offensive rebounding rate for the third straight season. Alabama isn’t a great shooting team, so it needs Hall creating second-chance opportunities and drawing fouls on the block to put points on the board. Howland has good answers for Hall in a trio of bigs: senior Aric Holman, freshman Reggie Perry and sophomore Abdul Ado. Holman and Ado are two of the best shot-blockers in the entire country and young Perry leads the conference in defensive rebounding rate—three key facts that should build confidence for MSU bettors. Those three big men also do an excellent job of staying out of foul trouble and avoiding sending opposing bigs to the line with cheap hacks.
Similar to Bama, Mississippi State gets a lot of scoring help from the offensive glass, but the Bulldogs are a much more backcourt-reliant offense. Peters orchestrates Howland’s offense and Quinndary Weatherspoon plays the primary playmaking role. Weatherspoon likely draws defensive specialist Herbert Jones, so Peters will be especially key in this one, as will shooters like Holman, Nick Weatherspoon and Carter. Alabama’s athleticism won’t intimidate a Mississippi State team featuring plenty of athletes of its own, and the Bulldogs' ability to score from the outside or off the dribble will allow them to take what the defense gives them and score effectively.
Overall, this is going to be a physical game between two highly athletic squads trying to get to over .500 in conference play. I trust Mississippi State’s ability to score against the Tide defense far more than the other way around.
Missouri State at Valparaiso
Meyer's Picks: Missouri State –3.5, UNDER 60.5 points first half
Admittedly, I bet this one at Missouri State -1 last night, so I don’t blame you if you’re a bit uneasy laying 3.5 points on a road favorite that is currently below .500. But anytime Vegas has a road team with a losing record favored over a team with a winning record, alarm bells should be ringing in your head. Especially when said favorite with a losing record lost by 16 points at home earlier in the month to that same team it is now playing on the road.
This is a much different Valparaiso team than the first time around. The Crusaders are extremely banged up, missing two of their top scorers, Ryan Fazekas and Markus Golder (23.2 ppg between them). Fazekas is by far the team’s best outside shooter (44% from three, while Golder is second at 36.4% and next is Bakari Evelyn at 30.9%), and this is a matchup where he would be needed badly. In fact, in Valpo’s first meeting with Missouri State, Fazekas drilled six of his 11 three-point attempts for a team-high 18 points in an 82–66 win.
The two biggest keys to Dana Ford’s defensive philosophy are disrupting passing lanes and keeping opponents out of the paint, and it seems like Missouri State is finally starting to click on that end under its first-year head coach, who spent the past four seasons at Tennessee State. The Bears have surrendered just 72 points total in their last two games, allowing 0.67 PPP to Loyola Chicago and 0.65 PPP to Bradley.
Missouri State allows the lowest percentage of shots at the rim in the country (20% per hoop math, next lowest is Southern Miss at 22.5%). Additionally, the Bears force turnovers on 22.9% of defensive possessions (24th nationally per kenpom), and that number has jumped up to 26% in Missouri Valley Conference play. Their steal percentage is 13.3 in conference games, a mark that would rank third in the country (behind Duke and LSU) if it applied to the entire season.
What has burned the Bears has been opponents’ outside shooting, as open shots from three are often the best looks vs. Ford's defense. Their foes are taking threes at a high rate (44.2% of shots overall, 41.6% in MVC), and knocking down a lot of them (41.1% overall, 42.1% in MVC). That’s where the absences of Fazekas and Golder are so critical for Valpo. Crusaders coach Matt Lottich anticipated that 7’1” big man Derrik Smits will return for this contest after he missed last game with a back injury, but with the absences of Fazekas and Golder, playing through Smits when he is not 100% healthy and Missouri State’s defense is keying on him doesn’t sound like a winning game plan on the offensive end.
In the first game between these two squads, JUCO transfer Keandre Cook and USF transfer Tulio Da Silva played just a combined 32 minutes and put up 14 points. Expect both to play a much bigger role now, with Cook just recently being named MVC Player of the Week and Da Silva averaging 16.2 ppg and 9.3 rpg in his last six games. Add in senior guard Jarred Dixon’s 13.5 ppg, and Missouri State has a formidable trio on the offensive end. A big adjustment Ford has made recently is slowing down the offense and burning more of the shot clock, creating a lower-possession game which only helps this stingy Bears defense. Give me Missouri State to get revenge on the road.
Overall record: 29-26-1