College Basketball Best Bets: Can Vandy Land First SEC Win?

See why our three favorite bets from Wednesday's college basketball slate include an SEC and Horizon League underdog along with an NEC favorite.
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Three Man Weave and I are back with our three favorite bets from Wednesday's college basketball slate.

Bryant at St. Francis (PA)

3MW Pick: St. Francis (PA) -8.5

Another day, another small conference tournament kicking off, as the NEC postseason commences on campus sites throughout the league. The bottom two teams, CCSU and Mount St. Mary’s, did not qualify for the eight-team bracket, which leaves No. 8 seed Bryant headed to No. 1 seed St. Francis for the quarterfinals. The host Red Flash rode a midseason surge to earn a share of the league title, winning eight straight after starting 3–4 in the league, while Bryant lost seven of its final nine NEC games after a promising 5–4 start (it’s worth mentioning that six of those final nine were on the road).

These two split the regular season series, with Bryant taking advantage of the Red Flash’s early swoon to take the victory at home, while SFU exacted revenge in Pennsylvania in early February. That means Bryant will have some confidence despite being the No. 8 seed, making it all the more important for St. Francis to get out to a strong start and quell some of those upset-minded notions. The flipside of that, also, is that SFU should not be looking past this game the way a No. 1 seed might sometimes disregard an No. 8 seed.

To that end, St. Francis should find a ton of success on the offensive end. In conference play, SFU had the league’s most efficient offense, while Bryant rolled out the league’s worst defensive unit, meaning the Red Flash may be able to score at will. Here’s a screenshot from Ken Pomeroy’s matchup page that demonstrates that severe mismatch:

st-francis-pa-kenpom.jpg

Rob Krimmel’s squad found an identity as a possession bully this year, taking care of the ball on offense via senior point guard Jamaal King and gobbling up offensive rebounds through the emergence of Mark Flagg and Luidgy Laporal in the paint. Those extra shots will add up, especially considering the talent gap that exists between these two squads.

Of course, St. Francis will have to stop Bryant as well. The Red Flash’s weakness is certainly their interior defense, particularly when the ultra-lanky Flagg is on the bench. Flagg was paramount to SFU’s home win, racking up five blocks in 30 minutes after only managing 12 minutes in the first matchup. SFU’s surge generally coincided with Flagg’s role expanding, so his presence should be felt on the defensive end in this one, as well.

Home court isn’t a giant weapon in postseason tournaments, as most teams have already played at their prospective foe’s gym, and that is indeed the case here. But St. Francis is a 7.5-hour bus ride from Bryant’s campus, a long, grueling trek for the underdog, a small factor that helps me lean toward the favored Flash. This number has been up and down at multiple books (between -7 and -8.5), so try to get the best number if you are able to line shop, because that extra half-point or point could be crucial.

Youngstown State at Oakland

3MW Pick: Youngstown State +8.5

Whatever happened over the last three months, forget about it. Throw it all out. Wipe the slate clean. Welcome to conference championship season folks, the annual opportunity for rebirth and resurrection.

Undefeated or winless, it doesn’t matter anymore—all teams are now recreated at equals, reset back to the starting line and given one last shot to crash the 68-person NCAA tournament dance party.

That journey commences tonight for both Youngstown State and Oakland, two teams that exceeded preseason expectations set by most prognosticators. A victory earns the winner a trip to the Motor City, just a half hour away from tonight’s showdown at Oakland’s on-campus arena in the suburbs of Detroit, and a spot in the Horizon League championship semifinals. A loss slams the door shut on the 2019 season and initiates the long and anxious waiting period until the 2019–20 campaign. The stakes simply couldn’t be higher, which leaves little doubt about the level of focus and urgency both teams will bring to the hardwood this evening.

While three games separated the No. 3 seed Grizzlies from the No. 6 seed Penguins in the final Horizon standings, the parallels between both squads are plentiful. Both teams will let it fly from just about anywhere without hesitation, each equipped with a cavalry of sharpshooters—Youngstown’s three-point attack utilizes a ‘by-committee’ approach with multiple long-range threats scattered around the perimeter, while Oakland primarily leans on dead-eye marksman Jaevin Cumberland, who canned a whopping 94 triples this year at a 39% clip.

Additionally, both sides feature athletic and versatile frontlines, blessed with the agility to fly around the court on both sides of the ball. Xavier Hill-Mais is a mismatch problem for most Horizon forwards, equally as comfortable posting up on the block or as he is pulling his defender out to the perimeter. Yet, if there’s one team in the Horizon that has the personnel needed to check Hill-Mais, it’s these Penguins. The front court tandem of Naz Bohannon and Noe Anabir gives head coach Jerrod Calhoun two hyperactive rim protectors, both with the size, length and leaping ability to challenge Hill-Mais and the larger Brad Bretching inside.

Finally, the Penguins and Grizzlies are both directed by budding stars at the point guard position—Braden Norris for Oakland and Darius Quisenberry for Youngstown. These two freshmen have improved demonstrably as the season has matured, which has coincided with the rapid improvement of their respective teams as a whole. For Norris, his primary responsibility tonight will be maneuvering the Penguins’ multitude of defensive looks, most notably the extended full-court pressure. A longtime assistant of Bob Huggins at "Press Virginia," Calhoun employs a similar havoc-based defensive system as his former mentor, which lets Youngstown’s position-less athletes roam the floor with free reign.

In the first meeting between the two, the defensive chaos caught the Grizzlies off guard, resulting in 18 Oakland giveaways as eight different players charted at least one turnover. The second time around, Oakland was ready for the pressure and only coughed it up nine times. Though, even with the improved ball security and the advantage of playing in front of their home crowd, Oakland still struggled to pull away from the resilient Penguins and escaped with a narrow one-point victory.

Given how similar both teams are on paper, it’s no surprise that each regular season matchup was decided by one possession. In that context, tonight’s opening line of -8 (which has already been bet up to 8.5) certainly feels high at first glance. When these two met just over a month ago on Jan. 31 in Oakland—the same location as tonight’s conference tournament rubber match—the spread closed Oakland -7.5, implying the odds makers and wiseguys collectively feel the Grizzlies have widened the gap by roughly a point over the past month.

From a handicapping perspective, this raises a skeptic eye—based on a side-by-side comparison of Youngstown and Oakland’s performances over the last few weeks, I’m not entirely convinced Oakland has improved by that aforementioned net one-point margin, relative to Youngstown. Sure, the Penguins have dropped three in a row but one of those losses was on the road against league co-champion Northern Kentucky—a game the Penguins actually led with just under five minutes remaining—and in their most recent home loss to Cleveland State in overtime, defensive stalwart Garrett Covington was sidelined with the flu.

So, if you believe that the two regular season matchups serve as reasonable proxies for what will transpire tonight—remember both games essentially played to a stalemate—then taking 8.5 points with the Penguins feels like a no-brainer. And from a handicapping lens, you’re also getting a bonus sweetener in the form of a courtesy point from the oddsmakers. Assuming Covington is fully healthy and near 100%, I’d expect Youngstown to make Greg Kampe and the Grizzlies sweat for a full 40 minutes tonight and potentially pull off the upset.

Arkansas at Vanderbilt

Meyer's Pick: Vanderbilt +1.5

With the season winding down, finding solid motivational spots are key to battling the early March betting waters. Whether it’s teams on the bubble or others looking to clinch regular season titles, it’s important to notice what each team has at stake. While neither Arkansas nor Vanderbilt has any NCAA tournament hopes left barring a miraculous SEC tournament title, one of these teams desperately wants to avoid being on the wrong side of history.

Georgia Tech in the 1953–54 season was the last time an SEC team went 0-fer in conference play after a miserable 0–15 record. Vanderbilt currently sits at 0–16, with just two games left: home against Arkansas and on the road vs. an LSU team that will be vying for an SEC regular season title. This is the Commodores’ best chance to get a victory in league play, and I think you’ll see plenty of pride with this team on Senior Night.

With how Arkansas has played of late, this is an ideal opponent for Vanderbilt to break its 17-game losing streak. The Hogs have gone 3–6 since the calendar flipped to February, and the three wins have all been by one possession (90–89 at LSU, 69–66 vs. Vandy and 74–73 vs. Ole Miss).

The reason behind Arkansas’s struggles has been its defense. Since Feb 1. per T-Rank, the Hogs are 338th in defensive eFG% (57.1%), 344th in opponent FT rate and 350th defensive rebounding percentage. So not only do they guard poorly, they can’t guard without fouling and can’t stop opponents from taking advantage of the offensive glass to get additional chances when they do miss a shot. The one thing Arkansas does do well is generate turnovers (19th in CBB in defensive turnover percentage), which will be the biggest advantage it has against a Vandy team that does struggle with being careful with the basketball.

But despite the Commodores turning it over 14 times the first time they played the Hogs, they were able to keep the game close because of a nice performance on the offensive end. Vandy was able to notch 1.05 PPP, the only time it has been able to reach the 1.00 PPP plateau since February. Against Arkansas, it was able to get good looks from the outside (9 for 21 from three, 42.9%) and used its superior length to grab offensive rebounds on 34.4% of misses.

Vanderbilt’s biggest strength on the offensive end is drawing fouls, as it ranks 17th in the country in FT rate. Given Arkansas’s aforementioned propensity to foul, it will be imperative for point guard Saben Lee and five-star freshman big man Simi Shittu to continue to get whistles and make trips to the stripe.

Arkansas is not a good three-point shooting team (32.4% from outside in SEC play, which ranks 10th in the conference), despite having the sixth-highest three-point attempt rate against SEC foes. Vanderbilt is proficient at limiting shots at the rim (opponents take just 32.3% of their shots there vs. Vandy, the 77th-lowest mark in CBB). If Shittu can limit the damage inside from Arkansas star center Daniel Gafford and the Hogs are forced to do most of their damage from the outside, Vandy will have a good shot to win this one.

I believe you’ll get Vanderbilt’s best effort here, as clearly this Commodores group doesn’t want to go down in the history books for the wrong reason. Give me the bonus point and a half on a home underdog that I think wins outright. 

OVERALL RECORD: 60-51-2