College Basketball Best Bets: SMU Won't Horse Around vs. Cincy

See why our three favorite bets from Wednesday's college basketball slate include an American and Big Ten underdog along with a MVC favorite.
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Three Man Weave and I are back with our three favorite bets from Wednesday's college basketball slate.

Southern Illinois at Evansville

3MW's Pick: SIU -2.5

In the sports world, the word "parity" takes on a life of its own. A typically harmless word in other contexts, when applied to the competitive balance of a specific league or conference in sports, it has the power to generate extreme outrage. So, when I say the 2019 Missouri Valley Conference is the epitome of parity, please do not throw stones at me.

Here are the facts: In the 111-year history of the MVC, the regular season conference champion has NEVER lost more than five times—that streak has been snapped as Loyola, Drake and Missouri State are all tied atop the leaderboard at 10–6. Only four games separate those three frontrunners from the ninth-place Indiana State Sycamores, who find themselves in second-to-last with a 6–10 league record.

Most prognosticators (ourselves included) believed the Valley would be a fiercely competitive league top-to-bottom, but no one could’ve guessed the margin of separation would be this thin.

However, over the last couple of weeks, what was once a jumbled mess of indistinguishable teams is now slowly morphing into the clearer picture most projected in the preseason. On the surface, the clustered conference records may not support that notion but looking closer at both Southern Illinois and Evansville’s recent performance trends tells the true story.

After an encouraging non-conference showing and strong start in MVC play, Evansville has come crashing back down to Earth, losers of six in a row and 10 of the last 11. While it could just be that the Aces were playing above their heads to start the year, the demise of sharpshooter Shea Feehan over the last month has clearly had a material impact. The former D-III standout seems to have hit a wall in the latter half of conference play:

“Early on, he carried a lot of the load for us offensively playing off screens and finding shots in transition,” McCarty said. “Right now, he’s pressing a little bit because teams have him on their scouting report and they’re not making it easy for him.”

For Southern Illinois, the script is reversed. A few minor injuries and an extended suspension of leading scorer Armon Fletcher disrupted the lineup continuity throughout the early portion of the MVC schedule. But now, with all hands on deck, the on-court chemistry is steadily resurrecting and the Salukis are showing flashes of the potential so many experts saw in them preseason.

This presents a prime "buy low, sell high" spot tonight for Southern Illinois, especially when you factor in what’s at stake for Barry Hinson and company this evening. Hinson has coached in the Valley for nearly two decades so he knows as well as anyone how important it is to avoid the bottom four spots in the standings.

The punishment?

Having to play four games in four days to win the MVC Championship in St. Louis, a feat that has yet to be accomplished since the league expanded in 1997. Currently, SIU sits in a three-way tie for fifth place at 8–8, which means a loss would drop the Salukis into dangerous territory with just one game remaining.

If SIU comes out aggressive from the opening tip tonight, the Salukis’ deep stable of guards should be able to penetrate the Aces' first line of defense with ease. In addition to Fletcher, Sean Lloyd and Eric McGill give Hinson three potent slashers who should be able to exploit Evansville’s extended perimeter defense. And with the twin tower duo of Kavion Pippen and Thik Bol up front, the Salukis can neutralize the Aces’ interior force, Dainius Chatkevicius, in the paint. With so much on the line for Southern Illinois tonight, it’s hard to see a path for how Evansville wins this game outright, which makes the Salukis laying a field goal or less an enticing wager.

Illinois at Purdue

3MW's Pick: Illinois +13.5

The Weave has been generally higher on Illinois all season than most of the public, and for a while that looked to be utter foolishness. Since February has rolled around, though, the Illini have been showing signs of life, playing up to preseason expectations and going 4–2 ATS. In order to cover against the Purdue juggernaut tonight, though, Illinois might have to adjust its preferred style of play. I’m a major fan of Brad Underwood’s and the way he approaches the game, but if there’s one piece of advice I can give him for this contest it’d be this: please do not press the Boilermakers.

Illinois likes to ramp up the pressure on defense in an effort to force turnovers and often extends this pressure past the timeline. Purdue, led by arguably the best player in the country in Carsen Edwards, will not be fazed by this fullcourt pressure—especially at Mackey Arena. The Boilers have been pressed on 4.9% of their possessions this season and have scored a blistering 1.033 PPP, one of the best rates in the country. Meanwhile the Illini, while they do rank 12th in the nation in TO rate, have allowed 0.985 PPP in pressing situations, one of the worst rates in the country. Edwards is as sure a ball handler as any in the nation and Purdue as a squad is 27th nationally in TO rate.

While the Illini pressure won’t be effective in the fullcourt tonight, it could cause issues for Purdue in the halfcourt. Purdue’s offense is constructed around the playmaking of Edwards, who will look to drive and kick to shooters or take his man off the bounce. Edwards is going to get his 20 points regardless of how Illinois defends him—that is out of their control—but, the Illini can take away Edwards’s passing outlets, primarily three-point spot-up shooters like Ryan Cline. Purdue ranks 25th in the country in percentage of total points scored from beyond the arc, and Cline is a major reason why, knocking down 42.4% of his 198 attempts this year. The Illini are a top-40 team in 2018-19 at taking away three-point looks thanks to quick, long guards like Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier and Aaron Jordan roaming the perimeter. If Illinois limits open looks from behind the arc, it can hang around with Purdue.

Unfortunately, a focus on taking away threes is going to open up Illinois to being gashed on the defensive glass, something the team has struggled with all season. The Illini are the second-worst defensive rebounding team in the Big Ten, while Purdue is the second-best offensive rebounding team in conference play. Trevion Williams and (to a lesser extent) Matt Haarms could have a field day on the glass. Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Adonis De La Rosa have done an overall poor job this season at keeping opponents off the boards. If there’s one thing Illinois backers should worry about in this matchup, it’s the glass battle.

Offensively, Illinois is going to look to push the pace in transition, an area where the Boilers could be susceptible to allowing easy buckets. Purdue is not a poor transition defensive team, but the Boilers’ focus on the offensive glass could lead to leak-outs for the lightning quick Illini guards.

I’ll close with some “intangibles” heading into tonight. It was reported by Derek Piper on Twitter (@DPiper247) that Trent Frazier said “We haven’t had a lot of energy in practice lately” and Underwood said the second unit “kicked the the dog out of the first team.” Underwood is one of those coaches, like Bob Huggins at WVU, that knows how to light a fire under his team. You can bet that practice following the Penn State loss was hell for the players, and hopefully they come into tonight with a little ferocity and something to prove to their coach. Secondly, Illinois fan forums have been chattering about rumors of suspensions coming this evening to two Illini role players. These are nothing more than rumors at this point, but it’s worth monitoring the line for this news. I still like the Illini in this one at the current spread, it’s just too high for a squad that finally looks like it’s clicking.

Cincinnati at SMU

Meyer's Pick: SMU +3.5

This past weekend, SMU suffered a 47-point (yes, 47) loss at the hands of UCF, which marked the most lopsided defeat in program history. What was remarkable to me about that is SMU only turned the ball over four times the entire game. Normally you’d assume that a team that was this poor offensively (0.68 PPP) was a trainwreck taking care of the ball, but instead, the Mustangs just couldn’t put the ball in the hoop (17-of-69 from the field, 24.6%). UCF also shot 53.5% from two and 42.3% from three, leading to a gaudy 1.34 PPP.

I like backing teams coming off incredible blowout losses if the situation calls for it, and I anticipate some pride from SMU here against Cincinnati after such an embarrassment.

The 47-point loss to UCF dropped the Mustangs’ AAC road record to 1–6 (the one victory was a 74–65 win at Tulane on Jan. 4). But at least they get to come back home, where they sport a 4–3 record against conference foes. Meanwhile, Cincinnati is 5–2 on the road and 7–0 at home in AAC play, and just one of those five road wins have been by more than five points (a 66–55 win over Wichita State on Jan. 19).

Going up against Cincy’s defense is a tough task, but I actually don’t mind the matchup here for SMU. Bearcats coach Mick Cronin does an excellent job mixing up man-to-man, match-up zones and even full-court presses. Per Synergy, the Bearcats play man on 45.3% of defensive possessions, zone on 54.7% of them and press 19.9% of the time. This is a defense that does not surrender close looks often (Cincinnati allows just 31.3% of opponents’ shots to come at the rim per hoop-math) and is excellent at generating turnovers with its pressure (21.6 turnover percentage, 37th in CBB).

Interestingly enough, SMU has notched a 0.975 PPP against zone defenses (which Synergy grades out as “Very Good) and a 0.868 PPP along with a 14.7 turnover percentage against press (“Good”). Where you can beat Cincinnati is from the perimeter, where the Bearcats allow the second-highest three-point attempt rate in the AAC (43.9%) and the second-worst three-point defense (37.0%).

SMU’s three-point success has dropped off in conference play (34.0% on the season overall, compared with just 32.1% in the AAC), but the Mustangs still shoot a good amount of them, with the second-highest three-point rate in AAC at 42.1%. SMU also does an excellent job taking care of the basketball, turning it over on just 16.4% of possessions (37th in Division I).

Cincinnati beat SMU by just five points at home on Feb. 2, as the Mustangs notched 1.06 PPP, shot 10-of-28 from three (35.7%) and turned the ball over only nine times (14.1% of possessions). The Bearcats were able to escape thanks to a 1.14 PPP performance themselves, a number I’d be surprised to see them repeat in Dallas. Cincinnati is 34th in D-I with its 1.13 PPP at home, but that drops all the way to 1.02 on the road this season. Additionally, after SMU just allowed 1.34 PPP to UCF, I’m expecting increased effort on the defensive end here.

Whether it’s senior point guard Jahmal McMurray or big men Isiaha Mike and Ethan Chargois, SMU has a few offensive weapons that will stretch Cincy’s defense with their proficient outside shooting. McMurray and Mike combined for 38 points in the first contest against the Bearcats, going 8-of-19 from three. And SMU does an excellent job at giving itself multiple opportunities on possessions, thanks to a 35.9 offensive rebounding percentage (15th in Division I).

Between SMU coming off a historic loss, the Mustangs being a tough overall matchup for Cincy’s defense and this being Cincy’s second road affair in four days (and third game in a week), this is a very solid buy-low spot for SMU here. Cincy’s previous two games (a 60–55 win over UCF and a 64–60 win at UConn) were both grinders that were full 40-minute battles. Do the Bearcats have another such effort in the tank in such a short timeframe with all that recent travel? I’ll take my chances with the Mustangs here.