College Basketball Best Bets: Hammer Montana at Arizona

Trying to figure out which college basketball games to put your money on? Here are our favorite bets from Wednesday's slate.
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After going 3–1 with our first batch of picks, Three Man Weave and I are back at it again with our four top plays for Wednesday’s college basketball action. 

Montana at Arizona

Meyer Pick: Montana +4.5 first half 

We will be fading the Pac-12 quite often in this space throughout the season. Arizona is coming off a home loss to Baylor in which the Wildcats were outrebounded 51–19. So admittedly, this is not the best spot for Montana. But I think a very experienced Griz team will give Arizona all it can handle in Tucson. 

Besides not possessing the talent they’re accustomed to having, why I am concerned about the Wildcats? Arizona is shooting threes at a higher rate (160th in the country in three-point attempt rate) than in any season since 2013–14. In fact, in the five previous seasons before 2013–14, the Wildcats didn’t finish inside the top 300 in three-point attempt rate. Now they’re taking more shots from the outside, yet they’re not making them at a high clip either. Arizona’s 33.3% from three-point land ranks 203rd, which would mark its first time being outside the top 100 in 3P% since 2007, let alone outside the top 200. 

Additionally, Arizona has assisted on 47.4% of its made field goals, which ranks 276th in the country. That is by far the lowest percentage for the Wildcats in the Sean Miller era. Simply put: This is an offense that doesn’t move the ball well and hasn't been efficient shooting it. 

This bodes well for a Montana defense that is strong along the perimeter, led by the trio of Ahmaad Rorie, Michael Oguine and Sayeed Pridgett. And not only are these three upperclassmen solid defenders who will take away open looks from the outside, they are all averaging over 13 points per game apiece. 

Then there’s big man Jamar Akoh, who returned two games ago after missing six contests. Arizona big man and Duke transfer Chase Jeter may have a couple inches on him, but Akoh is a fantastic interior defender who will give Jeter trouble. Akoh is also the team’s leading scorer thanks to his ability to dominate in the paint. Even without the star big man playing in several games, Montana ranks 16th in two-point field-goal percentage (57.7%) and is 14th in the country in effective FG%. The Griz also shoot 36.8% from the outside (77th), a balanced offense that can hurt the Wildcats in several different areas. 

McKale Center is a tough road atmosphere to play in, but schools such as Houston Baptist, Cal Poly and Utah Valley all were competitive against Arizona over the game’s first 20 minutes. Montana does have three players in its rotation (Rorie, Kendal Manuel and Donaven Dorsey) that transferred from the Pac-12, so this stage is nothing new to them. I like the talented and experienced Griz to land the first punch against an Arizona team that continues to be slightly overrated odds-wise simply because of its name.  

Wofford at Mississippi State

Meyer Pick: Wofford +9.5

Wofford was a trendy mid-major sleeper pick to start the season, and the Terriers are off to a 9–3 start. Their three losses have come at North Carolina, at Oklahoma and at Kansas, their toughest games on the non-conference slate. Traveling to Starkville to take on a red-hot Mississippi State is Wofford’s last chance at picking up a marquee non-con win in this campaign after knocking off North Carolina last season, and I think you’ll see an extremely motivated team looking to achieve just that. 

Mississippi State is coming off an 80–69 win over Cincinnati, a physical bunch that wants to bully teams in the paint on offense. Now the Bulldogs have to play a team with a completely contrasting style, one that loves to shoot the three ball. Wofford is led by Fletcher Magee, who became the program’s all-time leading scorer on Saturday. The senior is actually having his worst season in terms of efficiency, but the guard is still more than capable of taking over a game by himself. Fellow starters Nathan Hoover and Storm Murphy are each shooting at least 41% from beyond the arc, while senior big man Cameron Jackson gives the Terriers a legitimate presence inside. 

On the other side, the Bulldogs have beaten Clemson (though the Tigers were without Marcquise Reed) and Cincinnati each by 11 points each over the last two games. In those contests, Mississippi State shot an otherworldly 31-of-53 (58.5%) on three-point shots. The Bulldogs have shot 37.5% from three this season (55th in the country), but that high level of shooting seems unsustainable. Wofford has done a good job guarding the perimeter in its biggest games, holding North Carolina, Oklahoma and Kansas to a combined 18-of-63 (28.5%) from beyond the arc. Expect Mississippi State to regress back to the mean on its outside shooting this game, and therefore for the Bulldogs to play a closer game. Remember, despite those insane shooting numbers over the past two games, Mississippi State didn’t blow out Clemson or Cincinnati. 

Mississippi State has had a couple challenging games so far on its schedule, but it hasn’t faced a lot of strong offensive teams yet. In fact, Wofford comes into this game ranked 52nd in offensive efficiency per KenPom, which would make it the second-best offense Mississippi State has gone up against thus far. The top one was St. Mary’s (25th), a neutral game where the Bulldogs escaped with a 61-57 win. Like St. Mary’s, Wofford plays at a slower pace (281st in tempo), and in a game with fewer projected possessions, I’ll gladly take a nearly double-digit underdog that can stroke it from outside with plenty of experience against tough competition. 

FUCHS:How Bob Richey Turned Jordan Lyons and Top 25 Furman Into Believers

Boise State at Loyola Marymount

3MW Pick: Boise State +4.5

In the cutthroat world of high finance, stockbrokers and hedge fund managers live by the well-known mantra of “buy low, sell high.” That simple, yet foundational principle is also applicable to the world of sports handicapping and is epitomized by tonight’s west coast nightcap, which features two teams that have trended in opposite directions to start the year.

On one hand, the LMU Lions are riding sky high, currently boasting a 10-1 record and fresh off a successful one game roady up north to Portland, where they blitzed a well-coached and tricky Portland State squad. Much like many of its WCC counterparts, LMU has compiled a nearly flawless resume in the non-conference portion of the season with its only blemish coming at the hands of nearby UCLA.

On the flip side, Boise State head coach Leon Rice has played musical chairs with his primary rotation, as steady combo guard Alex Hobbs, along with two highly touted JUCO newcomers RJ Williams and Pat Dembley, have all been sidelined at one point or another this year. The lack of lineup continuity has manifested in a resume that is littered with head-scratching performances, but none as perplexing as last week’s close call with Alabama State at home, a game in which the Broncos trailed at the half.

However, the Broncos' most recent outing against Oregon in Eugene—particularly the first 20 minutes—is what to hone in on as we evaluate who Boise State is going forward. In Hobbs's third full game back, the team we predicted to finish fifth in the Mountain West before the year began finally played to the caliber we expected preseason. With the early season roster turbulence in Rice’s rear view, this Boise team is primed to right the ship and should be locked in Wednesday night as it is still in need of a notable non-conference resume booster. Remember, we still sit in the lull of finals break, so the perceived home-court value here will be minimal and the travel is relatively light for the Broncos. LMU’s do-everything iron man James Batemon—who played all but two minutes last game with Jeffery McClendon out of the lineup—will have to shoulder a heavy burden tonight, so if grizzled veterans Zach Haney and David Wacker neutralize 7’3" human giant Mattias Markusson inside, the Broncos should come away with a win in La La Land.

UC Irvine at Eastern Michigan

3MW Pick: Eastern Michigan +3

No, it’s not easy to get excited about betting on a team that has already been down 48–13 and 31–4 at halftime of two separate games this year (at Duke and at Rutgers, respectively). The Eagles of Ypsilanti have been something of a disappointment thus far, seeing their KenPom rank fall 67 spots already while only managing 2 Division I wins (why does this team play four non-D-I games? Come on, EMU). On Wednesday night, they welcome a UC Irvine squad that has already amassed impressive road wins at Texas A&M and Saint Mary’s en route to a 10-2 record. So…why exactly are we on Eastern Michigan here?

Well, first of all, the Eagles and their 2-3 zone offer a unique defensive challenge for an Anteaters team that has largely eschewed the three-ball this year, ranking 323rd in three-point attempt rate. The easiest way to beat the monstrous EMU frontline is via ball movement and triples: Their zone defense allows the highest assist rate in the entire country, and opponents have hit a scalding 38% from deep so far this year. Irvine has been solid against zones in limited opportunities, but it has yet to face a team that is so zone-dominant. The Anteaters don’t have an obvious answer to who will sit in the vulnerable free-throw area (Collin Welp? Tommy Rutherford?), the most important role on the floor vs. a 2–3. Irvine’s offense has been far more reliant on the dribble drive this year via guards Eyassu Worku, Robert Cartwright and John Edgar, which poses a problem in this matchup.

As mentioned, the Eagles feature a colossal frontline led by seniors Elijah Minnie (6’9"), James Thompson (6’10"), and Boubacar Toure (6’11"), an imposing paint crew on both ends of the floor. The zone hurts them at times on the defensive glass (just like the teams of Rob Murphy’s mentor, Jim Boeheim), but Thompson and Toure are wrecking balls on the offensive boards. Irvine isn’t bad on the defensive glass, per se, but it is often heavily reliant on one guy—either Elston Jones or Jonathan Galloway—to clean the glass by himself, a tall task against the Thompson/Toure tandem.

Finally, the spot isn’t great for the Anteaters, coming across three time zones from Southern California all the way to wintry Michigan after playing a home game on Saturday. Meanwhile, EMU hasn’t played since Dec. 8, a tune-up against—you guessed it—a Division II team. There’s some slight concern for the old “rest or rust” conundrum, but for a team that had been struggling, the time off likely allowed EMU to reset some things and make necessary adjustments.

Overall Record: 3-1