College Basketball Best Bets: Pirates Primed for Takeover in Annapolis

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Three Man Weave got off to a strong start on Thursday night, as Washington State cruised to an 85-54 win over Seattle. They're back with two more best bets for Friday's action, as well as a best bet from SI Gambling producer Max Meyer and a guest pick from SI college basketball producer Molly Geary

Loyola-Chicago at Furman

3MW's Pick: Furman -5

Let’s wind the clock back almost exactly one year to Nov. 9, 2018. The Loyola-Chicago hoops program was riding high, fresh off a Final Four berth and boasting key returners in Clayton Custer, the Missouri Valley Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year, and Cameron Krutwig, the league’s Freshman of the Year. Some outlets had shockingly (read: bafflingly) even named them a top-five team entering the season, further inflating the Ramblers’ hype balloon. But then, a foe from the SoCon came to Rogers Park and popped that bubble, scoring the first blow against Loyola’s doomed “return to the NCAA” campaign—and did so in emphatic fashion.

I am not going out on much of a limb by guessing that Krutwig, Lucas Williamson and Coach Porter Moser have not forgotten about that one (and the ensuing celebration in Gentile Arena).

So why would I once again be siding with the Paladins, given that the Ramblers will be bloodthirsty for revenge?

To put it simply, this Furman team could be (is?) excellent. Four starters return from the unit that thrashed Villanova in Philadelphia last year, and although the one starter that departed was offensive fulcrum/possible wizard Matt Rafferty, the Paladins have plenty of offensive firepower remaining in the lineup. In a hard-fought season-opening victory at NCAA Tournament participant Gardner-Webb, forwards Noah Gurley and Clay Mounce shined, and the veteran backcourt of Jordan Lyons and Alex Hunter can both catch fire in an instant.

Of course, Loyola’s defense is no slouch, as Moser employs a disciplined man-to-man that dominates the defensive glass and absolutely will not foul. Issue is, that’s just fine with Furman, who needs neither second chances nor trips to the charity stripe to score efficiently. Armed with lethal jumpers and precise perimeter passing, the Paladins’ deep arsenal of long-range assassins will be plenty content to do their damage from the outside.

The biggest worry will be guarding Krutwig, a nimble leviathan in the paint who can also unravel opponents with his smart ball movement out of double teams (11 assists in the Ramblers’ beatdown of UC Davis). Furman coach Bob Richey will need to find ways to keep the ball out of his hands and make Loyola’s role players beat Furman off the bounce.

To help matters for Furman, Loyola is still missing two key pieces of its rotation: junior college transfer point guard Keith Clemons—a likely starter if healthy—is still recovering from a knee operation, and rotation big man Franklin Agunanne is out with a thumb injury. Both of those absences sap the Ramblers’ depth, another incremental edge for the home team.

And lastly, if you want more of a “gambling/situational” angle, rather than a matchup-based one, how about this: In three seasons under Richey, Furman is a staggering 32-13-1 against the spread as a favorite, per teamrankings.com. That’s 71.1%, folks, and if you win 71.1% of your bets, you’ll retire before Hollywood makes another Fast & Furious movie (okay, maybe not…Fast 9 is due out in May 2020).

This one opened at Furman -4, so be careful if it keeps inching up, but I’m betting on Furman to give Loyola another dose of misery, this time down in Greenville. 

ECU at Navy

3MW's Pick: ECU -1

I’ll start by addressing the (extremely patriotic) elephant in the room: yes, it feels somewhat wrong to bet against Navy in a nationally televised event titled “The Veterans Classic” three days before Veterans Day. This is an annual early-season series in Annapolis that always features the Midshipmen in one of the two games, and this year’s version will be the nightcap following an Auburn/Davidson headliner. Still, despite the pageantry involved, I’m going with the road team.

A couple caveats to know: ECU has 11 new scholarship players on the roster after second-year coach Joe Dooley essentially cleared the deck this offseason, snagging a bevy of junior college transfers and intriguing freshmen as part of bringing in “his guys.” Additionally, highly touted guards Tremont Robinson-White (JUCO) and Tyrie “Pig” Jackson (JUCO, started his career at Virginia Tech) may both still be out after missing the season-opening win against VMI, cutting into the backcourt depth.

Even with both of those factors, the Pirates are a solid bet tonight. Dooley’s roster restructuring raised the talent level significantly, with four top-100 JUCO transfers (per jucorecruiting.com) and multiple 3-star freshmen adding a jolt of athleticism. Several of those newcomers impressed in the season opener, especially freshman guard Tristen Newton, who posted an impressive line of 20 points, four assists and three rebounds (plus zero turnovers) in his collegiate debut. With the influx of new blood, the defensive ceiling raises considerably, as well: every player who earned more than five minutes in the Pirates’ win over VMI on Tuesday stands at 6’5” or taller. That kind of length in the backcourt and on the wing will give the smaller, less athletic Midshipmen fits, and having two 7’0” erasers roaming the paint in Ludgy Debaut and Charles Coleman doesn’t hurt, either.

The biggest reason to side with Dooley’s dudes, though, will be one of the team’s two veterans. Jayden Gardner, a powerful sophomore forward, is simply a nightmare matchup for the Midshipmen, as his combination of size, strength and quickness will allow him to score around or through his Patriot League adversaries. He posted 28 points and 11 rebounds in the opener against VMI, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see a similarly monstrous stat line tonight.

I don’t expect this one to be pretty: Navy coach Ed DeChellis will throw plenty of zone at ECU, hoping to tease them into launching threes, and both teams may have a scoring drought or two. In the end, though, I believe in the Pirates’ new talent level following Dooley’s roster reset, giving them enough of an edge against the disciplined Midshipmen. 

No. 16 Baylor vs. Washington (in Anchorage)

Meyer's Pick: Baylor -5

We have a Pac-12 non-conference game in China between two Pac-12 teams and another Pac-12 team making its season debut in Anchorage! Larry Scott’s global reach knows no bounds. But let’s venture to the matchup taking place in Alaska.

Washington got a major break when the NCAA approved Kentucky transfer Quade Green’s waiver request, which made him eligible to play immediately versus in the middle of the season. But I’m still pessimistic on the Huskies compared to where they’re being ranked nationally because of how much they lost and how long it could take to integrate into Mike Hopkins’s system.

Hopkins is a Jim Boeheim disciple, and brought Syracuse’s patented 2-3 zone to the Pacific Northwest. Washington finished 73rd in defensive adjusted efficiency (per KenPom) in Hopkins’s first season, and thanks to several starters returning last season, that number jumped to 18th. A big key behind that improvement was that Washington forced a turnover on 24.2% of possessions (fourth in CBB), thanks to having the best defender in the country last season in Matisse Thybulle.

Losing Pac-12 Player of the Year Jaylen Nowell and dominant big man Noah Dickerson will hurt, but Thybulle was the heart and soul of that team. Thybulle led the country in steal percentage (6.7%) and was 53rd in block percentage (8.4%), but even those incredible numbers don’t do him justice. He impacted every single play on that side of the floor. Replacing him is going to be borderline impossible, and I think you’ll see a pretty big drop-off in Washington’s defense as a result.

Hopkins has said that Washington will be playing some man defense this season, but I’m a little skeptical about how often it’ll be used given that he’s had a 2-3 zone background for over 25 years. I think you could see the occasional man as a change-up to catch opponents off guard, but that it’ll still be heavy 2-3 zone usage. And if that’s the case, you’re going to have several new pieces playing a 2-3 zone for the first time against a team that has shredded zone defenses in recent seasons.

I looked at how Baylor has fared against man defense and zone defense over the past three seasons on Synergy, and the splits were noticeable. Last season, the Bears averaged 0.851 points per possession (31st percentile) and turned it over on 16.7% of possessions against man defense. Against zone, they averaged .994 PPP (74th percentile) and turned it over on 14.9% of possessions. In 2017-18 against man, they registered 0.888 PPP (47th percentile) and 15.6 TO% compared to 1.064 PPP (91st percentile) and 13.2 TO% against zone. They were far better against zone in 2016-17 as well, as they averaged 1.024 PPP (89th percentile) and 14 TO% versus 0.897 PPP (65th percentile) and 17.1 TO% against man.

Baylor runs a 1-1-3 zone of its own, so it makes sense that it has more success against zone defenses. Baylor has also been a top-10 offensive rebounding team in the country in each of the past six seasons, and could exploit in that department once again vs. Washington’s zone. The Huskies ranked 327th and 349th in Hopkins’s first two seasons in opponent offensive rebounding percentage. With Baylor not turning over the ball as much against zone defenses and having a huge edge on the offensive glass, the Bears will get plenty of shots up here.

I also love Baylor’s roster versatility. Nine guys played at least 10 minutes in the Bears’ season opener, and there is plenty of size and shooters across the team. Sophomore guard Jared Butler looks primed to make a major leap this season, and he scored 30 points in Baylor’s first game this season against Central Arkansas. Washington has high-profile new talent in five-star big men Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels along with landing Green in the transfer market, but Baylor has the much stronger roster.

Expect to see some growing pains early in the season for Washington, and it couldn’t have asked for a tougher first game. Baylor should roll if the Bears can knock down the outside shots Washington’s 2-3 zone will allow it to take. 

North Texas at VCU

Geary's Pick: VCU -16.5

The Mean Green should be an improved team in the C-USA this season, but this is a potentially daunting matchup for them. Turnovers were a habitual bug for North Texas last year, and in its season opener vs. Division II Oklahoma Christian, it committed 20, on 29.9% of its possessions. On Friday night, it goes against a VCU Havoc defense that pressed on 29.5% of possessions in 2018-19 (per Synergy Sports), but is equally disruptive in the halfcourt. The Rams ranked second nationally (behind only Texas Tech) for points per possession given up in the halfcourt and 10th when it came to the percentage of time (20.4%) a turnover was forced.

North Texas is still adjusting to life without point guard Ryan Woolridge, who transferred to Gonzaga. Woolridge led the team in both steal and assist rate, and turnovers decreased by 4% when he was on the floor, per Hoop Lens. In his stead is junior Javion Hamlet, who arrived after being highly regarded in JUCO, but will be making his first start against a D-I opponent. Sophomore guard Umoja Gibson is full of potential and led the Mean Green in scoring last season (12.6 PPG), and 6’10” big man Zachary Simmons is a sturdy presence down low.

One of the main questions for North Texas in this one is whether Roosevelt Smart plays. Smart’s efficiency regressed last season after returning from injury, and he could be in line for a bounce-back year. But his status is in question after missing the opener for an indefinite suspension, and if he doesn’t play against the Rams, it will put even more pressure on others to step up against an elite defense. VCU, which returned the bulk of its rotation, had the No. 7 efficient D in 2018-19, using a high-pressure and swarming mentality to hold opponents to the nation’s second-worst three-point shooting (28.5%) and ninth-worst two-point shooting (43.8%). As a team, the Mean Green took a fairly high number of threes last season, but only ranked in the 31st percentile on PPP on guarded catch-and-shoot shots.

One thing in North Texas’s favor is that its man-to-man defense generates turnovers as well, and that’s an area the Rams struggled with last season. VCU’s defense remains its strength, and as a poor perimeter shooting team, it’s unlikely to shoot anyone out of the gym. The Mean Green had the most efficient defense in C-USA play in 2018-19, but were susceptible to putting opponents on the free throw line, something I anticipate the Rams—specifically guard Marcus Evans and forward Marcus Santos-Silva (who scored 21 with 13 rebounds against St. Francis PA in the opener)—will take advantage of. In the end, this comes down to trusting the continuity of VCU and the strength of its defense more against a North Texas team that is likely still some time out from reaching its full 2019-20 potential.

Season Record: 1-0