See why our three favorite bets from Thursday's college basketball slate include favorites in the MVC and A-Sun along with a Pac-12 underdog.
Three Man Weave and I are back with our three favorite bets from Thursday's college basketball slate.
Evansville vs. Illinois State
3MW Pick: Illinois State -5.5
Who’s hyped for Arch Madness?!
Since 1991, St. Louis has been the headquarters of the Missouri Valley Championship, and for one long weekend each year, the "Gateway to the West" becomes the "Gateway to the Dance." Tonight, the journey begins for the Valley’s bottom-four seeds—Illinois State, Indiana State, Valparaiso and Evansville—who are faced with the Everest-sized challenge of winning four games in just as many days to claim the MVC’s automatic bid. The problem with that comparison is that people have actually made it to the top of Everest—no team has ever won four in a row to claim the MVC championship.
The quest to make history commences this evening at the Enterprise Center, which will serve as the stage for one of our favorite bets of the day. Specifically, we focus our attention on the second matchup of tonight’s doubleheader between seventh-seeded Illinois State and 10th-seeded Evansville. At first glance, the line looks awfully large for a neutral site game between two teams that were relegated to the de-facto "play-in" round in a league overrun by parity all season. So, why should you trust a fairly large favorite in a conference that’s been a crapshoot all year? Because, Illinois State and Evansville are both exceptions to the homogenous MVC makeup.
For starters, the only reason the Redbirds are playing tonight is because they drew the short end of the stick in a three-way tiebreaker for fifth place, sliding them into the eight seed by process of elimination. That’s not meant to be an excuse—after all, a 9-9 Valley record warrants a "Below Expectations" grade in my book, especially when you consider the lofty standards bestowed upon them by most prognosticators heading into the year. Minor injuries and perplexing inconsistency ultimately doomed Illinois State, culminating in the punishment of having to play in the undesirable Thursday night slot just to make it to the quarterfinals.
Putting all that aside, there’s no denying the Redbirds' plethora of talent. Between Malik Yarbrough and Phil Fayne, one could argue ISU owns the most talented 1-2 punch in the conference, which is complemented by a cerebral combo guard in Keyshawn Evans and an athletic crop of wings and forwards, including Zach Copeland, William Tinsley and Matt Chastain. And just last game, the Redbirds' top three-point shooter, Josh Jefferson, rejoined that already robust supporting cast after missing the last 11 contests with a broken collarbone. Even with Lucas Williamson back for Loyola-Chicago, there’s an argument to be made that ISU’s top seven (including Jefferson) is the best in the Valley.
So, with all that talent and potential, why should you trust a team that finished .500 in the league? As hard it might be to ignore the five-game losing streak last month, just isolate the last three games of the season and let those serve as proof for how high the Redbirds’ ceiling is. ISU bounced back from a 23-point beatdown at the hands of Indiana State to knock off Valley co-champion Drake 67-60 just a few days later. The Redbirds followed that performance up with another impressive showing against Missouri State and then nearly stole one at Southern Illinois on Saturday. Against three of the Valley’s four best teams, the Redbirds proved that when fully locked in and engaged, they are as good if not better than the conference’s top contenders.
Tonight, they run into a wounded warrior in Evansville that’s hanging by the thinnest of threads. The Purple Aces fooled us earlier in the year with three gutsy performances against Drake, Loyola Chicago and Missouri State in the first two weeks of the conference season, propelling Evansville to a 3-2 start in league play. Since then, reality has set in and what we knew to be an extremely barren roster coming into the season has finally started to catch up to first-year head coach Walter McCarty. After that hot start, the Aces found the winner’s circle just twice, both of which came against a battered and beaten Valpo team that has been hamstrung by multiple key injuries all season.
To compound Evansville’s issues, streaky sharpshooter Shea Feehan was recently dismissed from the team, gutting the Aces of their top three-point threat outside of Marty Hill. This could be especially problematic tonight against Dan Muller, who won’t hesitate to alternate back and forth between man and zone defenses. With no Feehan, that’s one less "zone buster" the Redbirds need to worry about, which puts a significant burden on Hill, Noah Frederking and John Hall to make outside shots a high clip.
If the Redbirds stayed locked in on the remaining Evansville shooters, ISU’s superior talent will shine through on the other side of the ball. ISU dispatched Evansville both times this season with ease, even with William Tinsley missing the first meeting and Josh Jefferson being sidelined for the rematch in Normal. Yarbrough and Fayne did significant damage against the Aces in the regular season, exposing the fact that they simply have no one who can stand up to them 1-on-1 defensively. The line opened at 3.5 and is rising quickly but there’s still value at the current price of 5.5. While we’d still advocate laying 6, hop in now in case some late steam pushes this spread any higher before tip-off.
North Florida at Liberty
3MW Pick: Liberty -11
The A-Sun tournament is heating up and the Flames of Liberty look poised to make a run to the championship game in their inaugural conference season. Today they get North Florida, a squad that has won its last seven games and split the season series with the Flames. What makes UNF’s recent win against Liberty astounding is the fact it did it without all-conference forward Noah Horchler, who was recently kicked off the team. Horchler averaged nearly a double double this season and was one of the Ospreys’ go-to guys on offense. UNF is 3-0 without Horchler’s services, but that record is a tad deceiving. Liberty blew a 13-point lead with eight minutes to play in the Feb. 23 matchup, the lowly Stetson Hatters competed for 40 minutes in UNF arena and lost by 10, and North Alabama hung tough the whole way in the Ospreys’ opening postseason matchup. Horchler’s absence will be felt in this game.
We can’t talk Liberty hoops without mentioning the pack-line defense. Ritchie McKay is a former Virginia assistant and he brought over Tony Bennett’s defensive principles when he came to Lynchburg. The Flames use lengthy perimeter pieces like Caleb Homesley and Elijah Cuffee to bother would-be shooters and shut down opportunities in the paint behind the efforts of big man Scottie James. To beat Liberty on offense, you have to execute with precision and take care of the basketball; the Flames led the conference in turnover rate this season and ranked in the top 60 in the country. UNF is anything but sure-handed with the basketball, ranking 322nd in the country in turnover rate, 8th in the A-Sun. Without one of its anchor pieces on offense, guard play and ballhandling will become all the more crucial in this matchup.
The pace battle will be the key thing to watch in this game. North Florida is going to try to ratchet up the tempo and look to score on the run, while Liberty plays a slow, half-court style of offense. Liberty is fairly good at stopping transition chances and has won the pace battle in the first two contests with UNF, holding the games to just 69 possessions. When not running, UNF is looking to bomb it from deep, opening shooters on the perimeter with in-and-out action and the pick-n-roll. Horchler was far and away UNF’s best post-up threat—without him, the Ospreys will be heavily reliant on Wajid Aminu, a fine player but nowhere near as effective at drawing the defense. UNF shot 11/24 from downtown in its most recent matchup with Liberty, which is ultimately the key factor against a pack-line. The Flames have allowed opponents to shoot just 32% from deep this season, so I’m willing to wager that performance was an anomaly.
On the other end, Liberty will need to be efficient on offense to cover a double-digit spread in what should be a lower-possession game (that is unless UNF somehow owns the tempo). The Flames scored just 1.01 PPP in both games this season against UNF, driven by a combined 9/39 shooting mark from outside the arc. North Florida mixes in man and zone, and has actually been quite stout defensively this season. UNF allows the third-fewest amount of three-point attempts in the country, but the Ospreys rank 345th in defensive rebounding rate. This is where Liberty is going to expose UNF. Horchler was the team’s best rebounder and second-best shot blocker—without him, Scottie James, the nation’s eighth-best offensive rebounder by rate, is going to have a field day. James will be targeted early and often by Liberty’s precise offense, and should be able to repeat his 16-point, 14-rebound performance from Feb. 23. And just like on the defensive end, expect Liberty’s three-point shooting against the Ospreys to skew back to the mean. The Flames are shooting 36.7% from deep this year, led by Lovell Cabbil’s 42.7%, a far cry from the 23% they’ve shot in two games against UNF.
UCLA at Colorado
Meyer's Pick: UCLA +5.5
It’s crazy to think that this is my final best bet of the regular season, this campaign has absolutely flown by. So let’s try to end on a high note, shall we?
Colorado won 84-73 at UCLA on Feb. 6, but the baby Bruins have grown up of late. UCLA has won its last three games, beating Oregon State, Oregon and USC. The Bruins’ offense has looked very sharp over that stretch (small sample size, but their offensive efficiency is fifth in CBB over the past 2.5 weeks, per T-Rank), and a key reason why is they’ve been cutting down turnovers. UCLA’s 19.9% turnover rate is 10th in the Pac-12, but the past three games it’s at 14.1%.
What’s changed then? Starting guard Prince Ali has missed the past three games as he recovers from plantar fasciitis in his left foot, and is unlikely to play again on Thursday. The junior has a 19.0% turnover rate. True freshman David Singleton, he of a 10.0% turnover rate (61st in the country), has started in his place and has taken on a bigger role alongside Jaylen Hands in the backcourt. Not only does Singleton take care of the ball, but he also is the team’s top shooter: He’s made 30 of his 62 three-point attempts (his 48.4% 3P shooting ranks 12th in the country).
More Singleton has definitely been better for the Bruins’ offense, which will be a stark difference from the first time UCLA played Colorado this season, when Singleton played just 12 minutes and attempted one shot from the field.
Speaking of the first matchup, Colorado, who ranks last in Pac-12 play in three-point shooting at 31.3%, made 13 of its 24 attempts from beyond the arc (54.2%). That included a career-best game from Shane Gatling, who scored 28 and made seven of his nine attempts from three (Gatling is averaging 10.1 PPG and is shooting 33.8% from three on the season). Add in UCLA’s 28.6% mark from three, where the Bruins have shot 36.6% in Pac-12 play (sixth), and it’s clear that this game was dictated by fluky performances from the outside, especially by Colorado.
Colorado is one of the few Pac-12 teams that runs pretty much only man-to-man (93.5% of defensive possessions). The Bruins have been better against man (55th percentile in terms of PPP) compared to zone (35th percentile). UCLA, meanwhile, runs a 2-3 zone defense, and the Buffaloes, given their poor shooting, have been much worse against zones. This season, they rank in the 76th percentile vs. man and just 33rd percentile vs. zone.
The Bruins have a big size advantage on the Buffs. UCLA’s average height ranks second in the country, and it was able to accumulate a 36.1 offensive rebounding percentage against Colorado back in February. Colorado actually is first in the Pac-12 in opposing offensive rebounding percentage (25.8%), but simply could not handle UCLA’s length. Additionally, Colorado doesn’t generate a bunch of turnovers (16.8 turnover percentage is eighth in Pac-12 play).
To explain why the above paragraph is so important, this means that with hauling in offensive rebounding and limiting turnovers, UCLA figures to have the upper hand in number of shots taken. The logic here is more shots is simply more chances to score. The Bruins actually took 15 more shot attempts in the first meeting, which is why they “only” lost by 11 despite the massive three-point discrepancy between the two teams—and that was also with Colorado making 15 of its 16 FT attempts, a 93.8% that will be tough to replicate this time around.
Both teams have plenty on the line, as they are both still in contention to receive a bye in the Pac-12 tournament, an advantage these teams could both use to grab the conference’s automatic bid to sneak into the NCAA tournament. So I’m expecting a hard-fought tight game throughout. Admittedly, I am a little nervous about how a young uptempo team like UCLA will fare in the altitude, but I just think this line is too high.
OVERALL RECORD: 61-53-2