College Basketball Best Bets: Orange a Juicy Favorite vs. Louisville

Our seven favorite bets from Wednesday's college basketball slate include a pick from Duke-UNC, two Big Ten underdogs and two home favorites.
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Three Man Weave and I are back with our seven (SEVEN!) favorite bets from Wednesday's college basketball slate.

Northwestern at Ohio State

3MW Picks: Northwestern +7

Whatever your typical Wednesday night TV routine is, do NOT deviate on this game’s behalf.  


Chicago Fire.

Real Housewives of New Jersey.

All of these are better options than tonight’s Big Ten borefest between Ohio State and Northwestern, so tread lightly before flipping the channel over to Big Ten Network.

I hope the rims are securely fastened and the backboard foundations are firmly cemented at Value City Arena because both baskets are about to take a beating. Tonight’s brawl in Columbus will feature the Big Ten’s 11th and 14th ranked offenses. Ohio State and Northwestern’s offensive shortcomings are rooted in different reasons, but the results are often the same—empty possession after empty possession. The Wildcats have been especially putrid at throwing it in the ocean, sporting an offensive efficiency during league play of 90.7 points per 100 possessions, a whopping three points lower than the next worst team (Indiana).

So, why should you be willing to lay some hard earned coin on the visiting Wildcats, who currently reside just a half-game out of last place in the Big Ten standings? Dererk Pardon is an imposing interior presence with the DNA to neutralize Kaleb Wesson, the Bucks’ meal ticket inside. Pardon’s recent advancement of his low-post scoring repertoire has been a welcome surprise, but what he means as the defensive anchor on the other end of the floor can not be understated.

That value will be amplified tonight when he goes toe-to-toe with Wesson, a force himself at 6’9" 270 pounds. Wesson’s enviable combination of size, skill and patience on the low-block is why head coach Chris Holtmann has opted to use Wesson as the fulcrum of the Buckeyes’ offense. Currently, Wesson’s usage rate of 27% in Big Ten play is seventh-highest in the league, a clear indicator of how often the ball runs through him offensively. Wesson operates on the post with exceptional poise and is comfortable scoring over either shoulder once he makes his move. He’s also added to his offensive arsenal with improved vision as a passer and increased precision as a spot-up shooter.

However, the lone knock on Wesson coming into the season was his durability, which is starting to come to fruition as we now enter the latter half of Big Ten play. Since dropping 27 points against Rutgers back on Feb. 2, Wesson has been a shell of himself. Over the last four games he’s averaging just nine points a contest, a noticeable dip from his season average of 15 points a game. Over the summer, it was widely reported that Wesson had made major strides in his conditioning, but a deeper analysis by indicates fatigue may still be taking a toll on the big man, particularly in the second half.

Don’t believe me? Fine, you can take it up with Holtmann, who had this to say about Wesson after Ohio State’s late game meltdown at Michigan State over the weekend:

"He did get fatigued today, more so than I remember him getting fatigued in a game. That's why we had to take him out on several occasions."

It’s alarming that the Buckeyes’ best player and most reliable scoring option can’t consistently stay on the floor, be it fatigue or foul trouble, another contributor to Wesson’s reduced minute count this season. And tonight, matched up with the burly, grizzled veteran in Pardon inside, Wesson may struggle to get into any sort of rhythm, which will put a ton of strain on an already limited Ohio State offense.

Compounding those issues are the health concerns of floor general C.J. Jackson and dirty work doer Kyle Young. While Young has played in the last four games, his minutes have been restricted due to lingering pain from a stress fracture. Jackson was limited against Michigan State after tweaking his ankle on a hard drive early in the second half, which puts his availability for tonight in serious jeopardy.

With the Bucks so banged up, Holtmann has had no choice but to shift a larger burden onto the shoulders of his highly regarded freshmen class, headlined by Duane Washington, Luther Muhammad and Jaedon LeDee. After strong starts in the non-conference portion of the schedule, all three have hit a wall in conference play, a byproduct of both the wear-and-tear of the long season and the larger workload demanded by the aforementioned injuries. As desperate as the Buckeyes are for a win this evening, being asked to cover seven points in an ugly, slow-paced game feels unrealistic, even against the struggling Wildcats.

Rutgers at Michigan State

3MW Picks: Rutgers +16, Under 136.5

Here’s a list of Big Ten teams that are currently looking up at Rutgers in the conference standings:

1.    Nebraska (okay fine, they’re tied)

2.    Indiana

3.    Northwestern

4.    Penn State

In the preseason, I was optimistic about the job Steve Pikiell was doing in Piscataway, but I can honestly say I would have thought you were crazy if you had told me that Indiana would trail Rutgers 15 games into the league campaign. And yet here we are!

That’s a long way of telling you that this isn’t the ordinary Rutgers doormat of seasons’ past. Led by Pikiell’s ingenuity and big man Eugene Omoruyi’s intensity, the Scarlet Knights will battle tooth and nail with anyone. Easily their three worst efforts of the Big Ten season came while Omoruyi sat with a dislocated kneecap—and yes, he only missed three games with a dislocated kneecap. He’s a warrior/lunatic. When full strength, they’re going to ugly up the game (they still can’t shoot at all), compete on the glass, and defend the paint.

Plus, this will be Michigan State’s first game without Nick Ward, who fractured his hand against Ohio State, and they’re still missing Josh Langford, who is out for the season. Without those two, an enormous burden falls on the brilliant Cassius Winston, with the offense essentially becoming The Winston Show. Ward’s rim running in transition and one-on-one skills in the post offered another outlet for the Spartan offense (which I detailed on our site in early January), a secondary engine that allowed Winston to rest on occasion. To put it in a statistical sense, following the Ward and Langford injuries, Michigan State no longer has a single player outside of Winston using more than 19.5% of possessions. That means Winston is the only creator, the only player truly capable of generating shots for himself and others, and Pikiell has a bevy of 6’4–6’6 guards he can use to bother the shorter Winston (Geo Baker, Montez Mathis, Ron Harper, Peter Kiss).

Michigan State will likely lean even harder into its reputation as an elite rebounding, physical machine, but that’s not going to be easy against Omoruyi, Myles Johnson, Shaq Doorson and Shaq Carter, a monstrous frontcourt in its own right. Any time you have two Shaqs, you’re likely going to be tough on the interior. Michigan State gets a lot of open threes via offensive rebounds, but without Ward and against this Rutgers frontline, those should be less frequent.

The biggest risk is in transition, where Sparty may push even more given the current roster construction. Winston is a wizard in the open floor, and Michigan State could catch Rutgers over-pursuing on the offensive glass at times. Pikiell will hopefully have a plan for this, but if this game somehow gets out of hand, it will likely be because Rutgers isn’t committed to getting behind the ball. Additionally, Rutgers did just suffer a heartbreaking loss at home to Iowa on this ludicrous banked corner three, but I’m hopeful there won’t be a hangover for a well-coached team.

This should ultimately be a pretty ugly game, so if you like watching your bets, prepare to be disgusted. This one should be a slugfest, and I believe in the Scarlet Knights’ ability to hang tough in the paint.

Louisville at Syracuse

Meyer's Picks: Syracuse -1.5, Under 62.5 Points 1H

The reasoning for this play is straightforward: Louisville has struggled mightily against the zone this season. While the Cardinals rank in the 91st percentile in terms of points per possession going up against man defenses, they are 11th percentile vs. zone, per Synergy. As you are probably aware, Jim Boeheim’s 2–3 zone has been a staple at Syracuse for the past few decades.

Louisville actually is a good team from the outside (87th in Division I from three-point range at 36.3%, including a 37.3% clip in ACC play), and that is the ideal way to attack a zone. But the Cardinals are especially strong inside, converting on 69.1% of their near-proximity (layups, dunks, tip-ins) shots, which is the 15th-best mark in the country per Haslametrics. Good luck getting those types of looks vs. Syracuse, which allows the 20th-fewest near-proximity shots per 100 trips and the 23rd-lowest shooting percentage on those attempts (52.0%), per Haslametrics. It makes sense: Syracuse’s zone is designed to limit paint touches and shots near the rim, and the Orange’s length (first in average height, per kenpom) often disrupts opponents’ possessions and shots.

Another issue for Louisville is being careful with the basketball. The Cardinals have a turnover percentage of 19.3 vs. conference foes (10th out of 15 in the conference), while Syracuse is fantastic at generating turnovers (23.0 defensive turnover percentage, which is the highest rate in ACC play). Unless guys like Jordan Nwora and Ryan McMahon absolutely light it up from the outside, this is the type of matchup that could cause Louisville to be frustrated offensively.

The big question with Syracuse is whether it can carry its weight on the offensive end, and I think the Orange will rise to the occasion in a major game for the team’s tournament hopes. Syracuse currently ranks 48th in the NET ratings and has just three top-50 wins (Duke, Ohio State and Clemson). The Orange have home games left against Louisville, Duke and Virginia and still have to travel to face North Carolina and Clemson. That is a brutal schedule Syracuse needs to pick up one or two Quadrant 1 wins from, and Louisville is its best chance to notch one at home.

Syracuse hasn't played since last Wednesday’s 73–58 loss at NC State, which should have given Boeheim plenty of time to prepare for a game the Orange need to approach with some urgency. I expect to see Louisville struggle against the zone and Syracuse to come out of the Carrier Dome victorious in a low-scoring affair.

North Carolina at Duke

Meyer's Pick: North Carolina +5 1H

The optimal way to defend Duke is if you force the Blue Devils to operate in the half court and let them launch from three. Despite playing at an extremely fast pace, North Carolina is tied for the 87th-lowest percentage nationally in percentage of total shots allowed in transition—sixth in the ACC behind Virginia Tech Clemson, Pitt, Virginia and Florida State.

Additionally, this is a UNC team that is 15th in CBB (and best in the ACC) in limiting shots close to the basket, allowing opponents to average 25.08 near-proximity shot attempts (layups, dunks and tip ins) per 100 possessions, per Haslemetrics. Basically, Duke is going to have a tougher time racking up the easy baskets it's so often accustomed to getting, and the offense could have some hiccups if forced to settle for jumpers early and often. 

I think the matchup that will be key for UNC early on is Luke Maye at the five against Marques Bolden. Maye’s offensive versatility will be tough for the traditional big man Bolden to defend, and I think Maye will get some good outside looks early on. But if he struggles like he did against Virginia (2 of 10 from the field, including 0 of 3 from three), North Carolina will have trouble keeping up.

With Duke’s price already inflated, and given the fact that UNC has huge advantages when it comes to three-point and free-throw shooting, it’s hard for me to justify laying the points with the Blue Devils. It’s not difficult to see Duke struggling at first to contain Maye, and ultimately having to switch to a small-ball lineup with Zion Williamson at the five. That being said, I think UNC gets off to a hot start and I’ll take my chances with Tar Heels +5 in the first half.

St. John's at Providence

Meyer's Pick: Providence -1.5

The first time St. John’s played Providence this season, it was coming off an enormous one-point road win at Marquette. Playing without Mustapha Heron, the Johnnies were outclassed at home in a 70–56 Friars win. Once again, Providence is in another ideal spot against St. John’s after the Red Storm roared back from a 19-point deficit to upset Villanova at Madison Square Garden—their first win over the Wildcats at the Garden since 2002.

Providence, meanwhile, is coming off a 14-point home loss to Xavier on Saturday, which came after the Friars lost to Villanova by 18 last Wednesday. They are currently tied for last in the Big East standings.

Even with the revenge factor, it’ll be tough for St. John’s to get up for playing the last-place Big East team on the road right after it beat the first-place one in the world's most famous arena just a couple days before.

The Friars are a pain to play against because of their stingy defense. They do an excellent job manning the perimeter (Big East opponents have a conference-low 34.6% three-point rate vs. Providence, which is the lowest mark in the conference). They are great at forcing mistakes (Friars are first with a 22.4 defensive turnover percentage in Big East play). So if a team isn’t fully mentally into it going into the game, Providence can be an absolute nightmare to play.

Friars coach Ed Cooley does a nice job switching up his man and 2–3 zone looks, and the length of his guards has been a consistent problem for perimeter players. St. John’s only made two of its 12 attempted threes in the first meeting and had trouble converting its looks from inside the arc, too, shooting 40.9% on twos. St. John’s has been far less effective playing against zone (59th percentile in Division I, per Synergy) compared to man (90th percentile), so I expect Cooley to throw out a good amount of zone again here.

The reason behind Providence’s current standing in the Big East basement has been the offense. Freshman standout A.J. Reeves simply hasn’t been the same since returning from injury, and his outside prowess added another dimension to this attack. Still, this is a St. John’s defense that allows the highest three-point rate in Big East play (44.3) thanks to its shoddy perimeter defense, and this could serve as a get-right game for Reeves.

The Friars will be leaning on their two top scorers, junior forward Alpha Diallo and sophomore big man Nate Watson. Watson will be the tallest player on the court when he’s playing, and Diallo is one of the best all-around players in the conference. But whether it’s Reeves, fellow freshman guard David Duke or senior guard Isaiah Jackson, Providence will need at least one other player to really step up on the offensive end besides Diallo and Watson. Duke and Jackson scored a combined 23 points in the first St. John’s game, to go along with Watson’s 18 (Diallo only had 10 on a rough 3-of-12 effort from the field).

But despite the recent skid, I think Providence will be confident heading into this one, having beaten St. John’s by double digits less than two weeks ago and with a chance to try it again in front of its home crowd. The Johnnies are an enigmatic team, and I don’t think they’ll be completely up for this one given all the energy they spent on their comeback win over Villanova.