College Basketball Best Bets: The Boise Back in Town

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College basketball experts Three Man Weave and SI Gambling Producer Max Meyer are back with their three best bets for Wednesday's slate. We're using the current odds from William Hill (as of 11:14 a.m. EST) for these plays.

UNLV at Boise State
3MW Pick: Boise State -6

During the first half of the last decade, this game was known (to me) as the “Rice Bowl” (not to be confused with the school in Texas)—Dave Rice was in charge at UNLV, Leon Rice his counterpart at Boise State. While it wasn’t the most scintillating of names from a marketing sense, it was a fun Mountain West rivalry between all of the talented players Dave brought into Vegas and the more well-coached squad under Leon. In the five years since Dave was forced to resign, though, the Runnin’ Rebels have cycled through three coaches (four if you count Chris Beard’s exceedingly brief tenure), with T.J. Otzelberger now helming the storied program in the desert.

About seven months into his tenure, Otzelberger has done a yeoman’s job thus far, reeling in some talented transfer pieces and working to build a defensive identity with the roster he has. That identity has really started to crystallize recently, holding three consecutive foes below 60 points, including a prolific Utah State offense on New Year’s Day. In fact, since Dec. 21, the Rebels’ Adjusted Defensive Efficiency ranking has risen from 235 to 171, an astounding 64-spot leap in just two-and-a-half weeks.

That brings up my first reasoning for this pick: the ol’ “buy low, sell high” angle. UNLV has played four consecutive terrific games at home, covering the spread in all four, while Boise State just got embarrassed in Reno by a solid Nevada team. That’s deflated this line down to its current level, and while I believe in Otzelberger’s long-term prognosis in Vegas, I don’t fully buy this particular team’s renaissance. Boise, on the other hand, is a Mountain West contender that could not make shots (5-for-26 from deep at Nevada); the Broncos will be highly motivated to right the ship in this one.

There’s also plenty to like from a matchup perspective. UNLV has made its living on the offensive end by gobbling rebounds like Hungry, Hungry Hippos (13th in the country in offensive rebound rate). That will be difficult against Boise’s outstanding defensive glasswork, where the Broncos rank 13th themselves in defensive rebound rate. Cheikh Mbacke Diong does most of the damage for the Rebels, but the Broncos can throw the 6'11" Robin Jorch or ferocious rebounder R.J. Williams on Diong and be content with a stalemate. Additionally, Boise is terrific at avoiding fouling (and it’ll have home officiating), and keeping UNLV off the charity stripe is another key way to prevent it from scoring.

On the other end, UNLV’s defense is designed to allow perimeter jumpers, and while Boise isn’t elite, it does have several good shooters in Justinian Jessup, Derrick Alston, and Marcus Dickinson. The Broncos should be more comfortable shooting in their home gym, as well.

The arrival of Otzelberger in Las Vegas has removed the enormous coaching advantage from the Boise side of the old “Rice Bowl,” but there are still enough reasons to think that the Broncos can pull away and win this one at home by more than a touchdown. 

Omaha at North Dakota
3MW Pick: Omaha +3.5 

Let me start this write-up by acknowledging the fact that Omaha has not been great on the road this year. While the Mavericks have been colossal at home (8-0), the road has been a twisted journey of doom. Omaha is just 1-8 away from Baxter Arena this season and 2-7 ATS, a scary thought when traveling to face a North Dakota squad that has been impressive in three of its last four contests. I’m banking on Omaha finding its road groove in the friendly confines of Summit play, a league of teams far more forgiving than the likes of Arizona, Wichita State, Dayton, and others that dotted Omaha’s non-conference schedule.

Both teams enter this game 2-0 in conference play, but the Mavericks have by far the more impressive wins. Omaha took down conference title contenders South Dakota State and Oral Roberts at home while North Dakota beat up on league cellar-dweller Denver and the rebuilding Purdue Fort Wayne. The main matchup advantage in this game, and the one coach Derrin Hansen will look to exploit early and often, is in the frontcourt. Junior forward Matt Pile destroyed the Fighting Hawks last season in Grand Forks to the tune of 20 points and 10 rebounds, and his cohort, Mitch Hahn, added 17 points and 11 boards of his own. UND looks to take away the three-ball at all costs which leaves the middle of the floor open to cutters and post-ups, two key offensive avenues the Mavericks use to score. While Filip Rebraca has been more resistant on the block defensively this year, Pile should still have a clear advantage working against him in the paint. If the Hawks look to double Pile, Omaha can work out of the pick-n-roll where guards JT Gibson and KJ Robinson have been excellent this season. North Dakota ranks in the 26th percentile nationally at stopping the ball handler in the pick-n-roll (per Synergy), so if Pile is taken away, look for Gibson and Robinson to wreak havoc through the open driving lanes.

On the other end of the floor, look for Omaha to pressure UND in the halfcourt and force turnovers. The Hawks are dead last in the Summit through two games at protecting the ball and the Mavericks rank No. 1 in the conference in forcing turnovers. Marlon Stewart, North Dakota’s alpha guard and lead ball handler, is brilliant, but he’s had 12 turnovers through two Summit games and his teammates haven’t fared much better. In conference play, North Dakota has shot more threes than any team in the Summit (a ridiculous 46.9 3PA rate, which would rank 6th nationally) and have earned trips to the foul line more than any other Summit team as well. Omaha has been elite at playing defense without fouling every year under Hansen, so UND shouldn’t be waltzing to the free-throw line every second. However, the Mavs have tended to allow a higher 3PA rate than most teams, so a hot night by the Hawks would spell trouble for Omaha’s cover hopes. North Dakota does not have an elite shooter on the roster, so percentages would suggest Omaha can survive a high 3PA rate tonight and still pull out a victory.

Throughout the country we are going to start seeing presumed conference title contenders who fared poorly in the non-conference begin to hit their stride. Omaha is a top-three team in this league and should start to show why many picked it to compete for an auto-bid in 2020. North Dakota on the other hand is a solid mid-major but nowhere near a Summit contender. I’ll wager on the side of the better team hitting its groove tonight against one that has overachieved thus far. 

St. John's at Georgetown
Meyer's Pick: St. John's +4

These teams have started off 0-2 in Big East play, so this is a critical game for both. And in what I view as essentially a coin flip, I’ll gladly take the points here.

The big coaching upgrade from Chris Mullin to Mike Anderson isn’t being talked about enough nationally. St. John’s has been playing with an impressive amount of defensive intensity this season, and that has led to a high level of disruption. The Johnnies have forced turnovers on 24.4% of defensive possessions this season, which ranks 17th in the country, per KenPom. In Big East play, it’s ramped up, as they’ve caused Butler and Xavier to turn the ball over a whopping 30% of the time.

And they haven’t just been excelling at generating steals (third in CBB in steal rate), but the Johnnies also are rejecting shots at a very high rate, ranking 19th in block rate. So why have they been struggling in conference action? It’s largely due to their horrendous shooting.

St. John’s made just five of its 38 threes attempted (13.2%) against Butler and Xavier, and that poor display from outside cost the Johnnies dearly in two single-digit losses. However, the Johnnies have been good at protecting the ball on offense (24th in turnover rate) and are also strong at grabbing their misses (34th in offensive rebound rate).

This is a team that is maximizing its scoring opportunities while limiting its opponents’ chances, which bodes really well for its prospects this season. The Johnnies haven’t been great shooting the ball all season, but you’d have to assume that 13.2 3P% will rise. Leading scorers Mustapha Heron (40.3% from three last season) and LJ Figueroa (38.3% from three last season) certainly are capable of hitting from beyond the arc.

Then there’s Georgetown, who originally seemed like a prime Ewing Theory candidate after the James Akinjo and Josh LeBlanc departures, as well as Galen Alexander and Myron Gardner also deciding to transfer out. However, the Hoyas’ six-game winning streak heading into conference play, including triumphs over Oklahoma State, SMU and Syracuse, screeched to a halt with blowout losses to Providence and Seton Hall.

Those past two games are Georgetown crashing back down to earth after that initial surge with its shortened rotation due to all those departures. The Hoyas have really struggled converting inside the arc, scoring on just 39.6% of their two-point attempts. Shot selection has played a part, as per hoop-math, Georgetown takes the seventh-highest amount of two-point jumpers in CBB (40.2% of shots) and has the 43rd-lowest mark at percentage of shots at the rim (30.9%).

St. John’s defense should have a big upper hand in this one, and if the Johnnies can improve their shooting stroke, they are certainly a live underdog against a scuffling Georgetown. Regardless, I’ll take the points with who I think is the better overall team. 

Overall Record: 21-20-1

3MW Record: 17-12-1

Meyer Record: 4-7

Guest Record: 0-1