See why our four favorite bets from Thursday's college basketball slate include games from the Big 12, Big Ten, Mountain West and MAC tournaments.
Three Man Weave and I are back with our four favorite bets from Thursday's college basketball conference tournament slate, including a guest pick from SI college basketball producer and Big Ten fanatic Molly Geary.
UNLV vs. San Diego State
3MW Pick: San Diego State -1
Typically, I would be cautious to wade into the dangerous territory of betting on a team that’s won both regular season meetings—you know, that whole “it’s hard to beat a team three times in a row” narrative—but that concern is trumped by the fact that San Diego State has the DNA of a prime conference tournament breakout candidate.
The Aztecs were projected to be in contention for an at-large berth when the season began, a fair prediction considering all the athletic ammunition at head coach Brian Dutcher’s disposal. The turbulence began in the non-conference when the Aztecs suffered a pair of embarrassing losses to Cal and Brown, which summoned the wrath of a diehard fan base who began to point the finger at Dutcher. The Aztecs were an absolute mess entering conference play, and eventually bottomed out on Jan. 12 when they got walloped by Air Force in Colorado Springs.
Since then, San Diego State has looked like the team most of us expected to see this year, rallying to win 11 league games to move into fourth place in the final MWC standings. Over the final two months of the season, the Aztecs knocked off the league’s top-two squads in Utah State and Nevada while sprinkling some other strong efforts that lead me to believe those two gargantuan wins weren’t flukes. The Aztecs lost to Fresno twice by a combined six points, and actually held a double-digit lead in Fresno in that first meeting between the two back in late January.
Tonight, the Aztecs' quest for redemption begins against UNLV, who will once again get the unfair advantage of hosting the Mountain West Championship on their home floor at the Thomas & Mack Center. From a handicapping lens, this is precisely where there might be a slight edge for San Diego State bettors. The oddsmakers are likely applying the standard 3–4 point home court value into the current line of SDSU -1, an assumption that seems a bit short-sighted. First of all, the Aztecs have had plenty of travel time to get to Vegas, given they’ve not played since Saturday—it’s also worth mentioning they had a whole week off before that, implying Brian Dutcher’s bunch should be fully rested heading into Thursday. The other reason this home court edge feels somewhat inflated is the fact that the Runnin’ Rebs simply haven’t done much of anything in the MWC championship since the tournament returned to Thomas & Mack back in 2007. After winning back-to-back titles in Lon Kruger’s final two seasons, the Rebels have yet to cut down the nets in their own building, advancing to the title game just twice in the last decade.
UNLV stole the five-seed this year by feasting on the bottom-half of the MWC but whenever they stood toe-to-toe against an equally long and athletic opponent, that talent advantage was offset. The Rebels' only consistent source of offense this year has been second-chance points on the offensive glass, which will be hard to come by against the Aztecs' formidable front line. Since Dutcher has inserted Nathan Mensah into the starting five, the Aztecs' most common lineup features the 6’10 Mensah at the 5, alongside Jalen McDaniels and Matt Mitchell at the four and three, respectively. This trio has been stout on the glass, holding opponents to a respectable 25% offensive rebounding rate when all three on the floor together. Expect Dutcher to lean heavily on this bigger lineup tonight to keep the Rebels from invading the offensive glass.
If the Aztecs can prevent UNLV from playing volleyball on the backboard, they should cruise to an opening round victory.
Northern Illinois vs. Toledo
3MW Pick: Northern Illinois +6.5
MACtion heats up with a quarterfinal matchup between the Northern Illinois Huskies and the Toledo Rockets. Both squads come into this game firing on all cylinders: NIU has won four of its last five and Toledo has won five straight. The last time these two squads matched up, Toledo narrowly squeaked by the Huskies at home after trailing by 11 in the second half. After an easy win against Ohio on their home floor, the Huskies will look to avoid a three-game sweep to the Rockets and pull the 7 vs. 2 upset.
NIU has a major advantage on the offensive end with Eugene German handling the ball. Mark Montgomery’s offense revolves around German via pick-and-roll and isolation sets, and the Rockets have nobody on the perimeter that can stop him consistently. German is averaging 18.5 points and 7 rebounds in two contests against Toledo this season, and the Rockets rank in just the 29th percentile at stopping ball handlers in the pick-and-roll (per Synergy). German should be able to slice and dice his way to another 20-point performance, but he’ll need the Robin to his Batman, Levi Bradley, to show up in this game if NIU is to win. Bradley has been stymied in two games versus Toledo, averaging just 3.5 ppg and 4.5 rpg compared to season averages of 14.4 ppg and 5.3 rpg. Toledo big man Luke Knapke stands 6’11” and is one of the best shot blockers in the MAC, and fellow big men Nate Navigato and AJ Edu have held their own in the post this year. Bradley will need to be assertive on the block and hit outside shots in order to stretch the Toledo bigs to the perimeter.
On defense, NIU has done a fantastic job stopping Jaelan Sanford, Toledo’s primary playmaker, in two game this year. Sanford has averaged just 7.5 points against NIU this season compared to his 15.4 ppg season average. German and Dante Thorpe are very good perimeter stoppers and thrive against ball screens. Toledo doesn’t play through the post a whole lot, as Knapke likes to float on the outside, which is a good thing for NIU. Big man Lacey James has been torn apart by good post players, so avoiding one-on-one matchups on the block will be key.
NIU will have to do better taking away Toledo three-point looks. In two games this season, the Rockets are shooting 21 for 52 from downtown against the Huskies, which has proven to be the difference. NIU allows the 17th most 3PA in the country, bad news against a Toledo team that shoots a lot of treys and makes them at the 29th best clip in the nation. If the Huskies can hold Toledo to an average outside shooting night, they should be able to cover this game. Outside of the shooting advantage, these are two evenly matched teams—neither has a distinct leg-up from a rebounding or turnover perspective and neither relies heavily on transition buckets. The guard battle between German and Sanford should be a good one—I’ll take 6.5 points any day for a team that is much closer to its opponent than the line suggests.
Kansas vs. Texas
Meyer’s Pick: Texas +3
Life was not fun for Texas after suspending its leading scoring Kerwin Roach. The Longhorns dropped four of their last five games, and now find themselves in a must-win situation on Thursday to keep their NCAA tournament dreams alive.
Roach, who averages 15.0 ppg, is back against Kansas, a huge boost for this group. Texas getting a senior leader back in this spot is huge, especially going up against a young team like the Jayhawks. But the biggest advantage for the Longhorns will be inside.
In both games between these two teams this season (an 80–78 win by Kansas and a 73–63 Texas victory), Longhorn big men Jaxson Hayes and Dylan Osetkowski were able to live inside. They shot a combined 60.7% on their two-point attempts in those contests, taking full advantage of Kansas often rolling with four-guard lineups. Besides Dedric Lawson, the Jayhawks will need either David McCormack (who will likely start in this one) or Mitch Lightfoot to step up in the interior to prevent Texas from doing this again.
Texas was also able to dominate on the offensive glass, recording 35.9 and 34.5 offensive rebound percentages in the two games. Considering the Longhorns have a 29.3 OREB% on the season (137th in CBB), this is another area where their length will come in handy.
The big question, however, will be whether Texas can knock down its outside shots. The Longhorns love shooting threes (42.7 three-point attempt rate is tops in Big 12 play), even though they aren’t great at knocking them down (35.2% is eighth in the Big 12). This is where I think Roach’s presence will be key, because without him on the floor, it opened up fewer looks from the perimeter. In Texas’s last two games, both double-digit losses, the Longhorns shot 4 of 19 and 4 of 18 from beyond the arc. Not only are those poor percentages, but the team’s three-point attempt rate was also really low in those games.
Another interesting thing to note is that Lagerald Vick played for Kansas in both of these matchups, scoring a combined 31 points in the season split. With Vick not returning for the season after taking a leave of absence, the Jayhawks lost their best perimeter shooter. The Longhorns already have the lowest defensive three-point attempt rate (34.7%) in Big 12 play, and not having to worry about Vick this time around can only help defending the perimeter. Texas does an excellent job limiting shots at the rim as well (28.8% of opponents’ shot have come from in close, which is the 28th-best mark in CBB, per hoops-math), so don’t expect a lot of easy looks for.a Kansas team that has had major struggles on the offensive end at times this season.
A loss here would drop Texas to .500, and as I mentioned before, would significantly damper its NCAA tournament hopes. With Roach back, I think you’ll see a more complete offense this time around for the Longhorns compared to their recent offensive struggles. Even though Kansas will have the crowd edge in Kansas City, Texas has played the Jayhawks very well this season, and I’m expecting another tight one here.
Maryland vs. Nebraska
Geary’s Pick: Maryland -6
This game clearly favors Maryland on paper, and asking the Terps to cover a 6-point spread should not be overly difficult. The biggest point in favor of Nebraska is that it is a team in desperation mode. After playing itself out of the NCAA tournament with a brutal January and February skid (thanks in part due to the season-ending injury to Isaac Copeland), it’s win-the-Big-Ten-tournament-or-bust for the Cornhuskers, a team led by seniors James Palmer Jr. and Glynn Watson Jr. and junior Isaiah Roby. But Nebraska has been in desperation mode for some time now, having had plenty of opportunities to try to salvage its season and largely coming up empty. A seven-point win over Rutgers on Wednesday night after pulling away late doesn’t exactly move the needle or change any narratives, and the worrying part for Nebraska is that it had just six scholarship players available, and its three best players sat for a total of one minute against the Scarlet Knights.
Now, the Huskers have a quick turnaround—going from a Wednesday night game to an expected 3 p.m. ET Thursday tip vs. Maryland, and are going up against a team that beat them by 15 in Lincoln a month ago. Nebraska has had trouble trying to contain Maryland’s imposing frontcourt of Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith this year, a task that will not get easier with such limited depth. The Terps have dominated the offensive glass in two games with the Cornhuskers, not a surprise considering Maryland is one of the Big Ten’s best offensive rebounding teams and Nebraska one of the worst defensive ones. The Huskers rarely beat opponents from the outside—though they did make 13 threes in a comeback win against Iowa over the weekend—and Maryland ranks 17th nationally in two-point defense. The last time these two teams met, Nebraska shot a putrid 8 for 40 inside the arc.
That kind of performance is unlikely to be repeated, but Maryland doesn’t need that poor a shooting night by Nebraska to cover this spread. The two concerns here for the Terps are 1) their turnover problems, as the quickest way for the Huskers to score on MD’s 22nd-ranked defense is going to be through easy baskets and 2) stopping Palmer Jr., who dropped 34 against Rutgers. As a young team that has five freshmen playing in their first postseason game, there could be some jitters, and Maryland could very well get off to one of its typical slow starts. But expect the Terps, with Fernando, Smith and Anthony Cowan leading the way, to wear down Nebraska as the game goes, using their edge in talent and freshness to win with enough comfort to not sweat out the final minutes.
OVERALL RECORD: 62-58-2