College Basketball Best Bets: X Gon' Give It to Ya

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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, including two small underdogs in marquee matchups. We're using the current odds from William Hill (as of 11:05 a.m. EST) for these plays.

Xavier at Marquette
3MW Pick: Xavier +3.5

Xavier and Marquette come into this in similar spots. Both squads have lost three of their last four contests and sit in four-way tie for sixth in the Big East standings at 1-3. It hasn’t been pretty from an against-the-spread perspective either: Xavier holds the conference’s worst ATS record at 4-12-1 and hasn’t covered a game since Dec. 22nd (four games ago), while Marquette hasn’t covered the spread in three of its last four games, including two straight. Both teams need this win for their NCAA tournament resumes and neither wants to plummet into the Big East basement any further. In situations like these, I lean on my preseason expectations. Xavier was the better team coming into the season in my eyes, and that remains to be the case—I’ll gladly take 3-4 points in a game that should play closer to a pick'em.

The three keys to beating Marquette are 1) containing Markus Howard (as best you can), 2) limiting open outside looks, and 3) stopping transition opportunities. The Eagles rely on their perimeter to put points on the board—they take and make threes at one of the highest rates in the country, and look to run in the open floor when able. Xavier’s perimeter is comprised of several long, athletic bodies who should be able to at least bother the Marquette shooters and limit Howard to a relatively lower impact than usual. Paul Scruggs and Quentin Goodin both stand 6’4” and walking utility belt Naji Marshall is 6’7”, forming one of the bigger backcourts in the country. This size has contributed to Xavier’s impressive 3P defense and spot-up stats—the Musketeers rank 81st in the country in 3PA rate allowed, 26th in 3P% defense and fourth in points per possession allowed from spot-ups (0.694 PPP). Last season, Travis Steele’s group played the best defense in the country down the stretch; it is capable of flipping the switch to “lock-down mode” at a moment’s notice. Howard may put up 20-30 points, but if Xavier can force him into a high-volume, low-efficiency shooting night, the Musketeers have a great chance at pulling the upset on the road.

There’s history for Xavier slowing Howard down. Over the past two seasons, Xavier and Marquette have met four times and split the series. Howard has averaged 25.8 PPG in those meetings but has shot just 16/46 from behind the arc (34.8%).

Stopping the Eagles in transition will be another focal point of Xavier’s defensive playbook. Marquette ranks 26th in the nation in percentage of FGA in transition, but these opportunities almost always come by way of an opponent miss. The Eagles are fifth in the country in percentage of FGA in transition off defensive rebounds versus just 117th off opponent scores and 309th off steals. Xavier is third in the Big East in offensive rebounding rate this season—if the Muskies can create second-chance opportunities it will limit Marquette’s ability to fly in transition. When faced with transition situations though, Xavier does well at preventing easy threes or layups, ranking 33rd nationally in FG% defense in transition this season.

The offensive end of the floor is where Xavier has fallen short this year, but the Muskies should be able to take advantage of one matchup in particular. Tyrique Jones is Xavier’s highest-used player this season and is sure to get plenty of post looks against Marquette tonight. Look for Jones to get Theo John and/or Jayce Johnson in early foul trouble tonight as he barrels into the Eagles’ frontcourt on the block. Jones is drawing 6.7 fouls per 40 minutes this season, the 26th-best mark in the nation, while Theo John is committing 6.3 fouls per 40 minutes and Jayce Johnson is at 7.8 fouls per minutes. Jones will be fed early and often in an effort to deplete the Eagles’ two big men, the only true size they have on the roster.

UTSA at UTEP
3MW Pick: UTEP -6

Remember the scene in Zoolander when Derek (Ben Stiller) struts into his father’s mine with unabashed swagger? That’s an apt representation of me walking away from the betting counter this morning after laying UTEP -6, a fitting GIF for backing the Miners.

Today’s "Texas Two-Step" between UTEP and UTSA is the perfect placemat for Rodney Terry and his Miners to hit the reboot button. UTEP had C-USA favorite Louisiana Tech on the ropes last Saturday but faltered down the stretch, letting a 7-point lead slip away over the final three minutes. Those 40 minutes encapsulate the conundrum that is the 2019-20 UTEP basketball team. The Miners are dripping with experienced talent at every position, but the on-floor chemistry and cohesion is still under construction. This lack of role awareness has shined through during crunch time in two of the Miners’ conference losses (the aforementioned loss to Louisiana Tech, along with a late-game meltdown at Florida Atlantic), and further complicated by Jordan Lathon’s head-scratching indecisivenessLathon initially entered the transfer portal before ultimately rejoining the team two games ago against Southern Miss.

All that above is to say the Miners are far better than the recent results indicate. For a squad that barely knows each other and has had only two months of live reps playing together, it’s only natural to expect some bumps along the way. Tonight marks Lathon’s third game back in the lineup after returning to the team, and with the possibility of falling to 1-4 in the conference, the “must-win” label is applicable here. Thus, from a handicapping vantage point, the spot and situation trump the recent trend of turbulence. And if that assumption holds, the matchup lens heavily favors the Miners.

UTEP’s roster is comprised of long, physical and aggressive athletes, all of whom do the crux of their damage at the rim. Former Fresno State transfer Bryson Williams, who followed Terry to UTEP, is a microcosm of this team's DNA, a ruthless rim attacker at 6’8" who is a load to keep away from the restricted area. Williams added a silky-smooth outside jumper to his repertoire this offseason, but he’s especially lethal in the mid to low post. If UTEP’s guards can protect the ball and prioritize feeding Williams inside, he could have a career day against UTSA’s shaky interior defense.

The Roadrunners are true to their mascot in how they play—run, run, repeat. Head coach Steve Henson has added some size to the lineup this season, but not at the expense of spacing and speed. There will be significant stretches of tonight’s game where UTSA won’t have a player taller than 6’7" on the floor. Luke Barisic at 6’9" is UTSA’s primary rim protector, but he’s cut from the prototypical European big man cloth and won’t be able to stand up to Williams 1-on-1 without help. Quite simply, Williams should feast regardless of the lineup Henson prioritizes. However, he won’t be eating alone—given how foul prone UTSA’s perimeter defense is, the Miner guards could make a living at the charity stripe this evening, where UTEP has been automatic this year (per KenPom, UTEP’s 78% team free-throw percentage ranks 11th nationally).

On the other side of the ball, the Miners have two jobs to do. Guard Jhivvan Jackson and guard Keaton Wallace. Perhaps the country’s most dynamic duo, Jackson and Wallace are capable for going for 40 on any given night. While both are versatile scorers who can finish at the tin, the long ball is where they make their pay. This is where UTEP’s extended defensive pressure, which picks up well beyond the 3-point line, should force Jackson and Wallace to put it on the deck. Jackson and Wallace will shoot it from anywhere, but if the Miners can route them toward less efficient shots, it will be hard for the Roadrunners to keep pace. In what should be a high-possession game, the Miners will enjoy an abundance of high-percentage looks, while simultaneously forcing the Roadrunners to make tough, contested shots for 40 minutes.

No. 4 Auburn at Alabama
Meyer's Pick: Alabama +2.5

This spot is an auto-play for me. A home underdog playing some of its best basketball of the season facing its most bitter rival who comes into the game undefeated.

Alabama has covered in nine straight games, and after a slow start under Nate Oats, it appears the Tide have become acclimated to the first-year coach’s system. Since Dec. 1, according to T-Rank, Alabama ranks 17th in adjusted offensive efficiency and has played at the third-fastest adjusted tempo. As a result, the points have been coming in bunches, and this is a very difficult group to defend.

“What they are doing, I’ve never seen anything just like it,” John Calipari said after Kentucky beat Alabama 76-67 (the Tide shot 4/21 from three that game) this past Saturday. “They push it in transition but they are looking to shoot 3’s. What we teach on defense—what everybody teaches—is run back to the rim and protect against the drive. They can drive, especially with Kira Lewis, but even then, he will penetrate and they’ve got shooters around him. It was really hard to prepare for with just two days of practice.”

Attacking Auburn in transition will be key, because that’s one of the Tigers’ biggest weaknesses on defense. Per Synergy, Auburn allows 0.797 points per possession in the half court (72nd percentile in all of CBB), but in transition, that number jumps to 0.971 (50th percentile). And considering this will be the first time the Tigers will go up against an Oats-coached team, they could look out of sorts to start.

Additionally, this is an Auburn team that is fortunate to be undefeated. Out of its 15 games, just two have come in a true road environment (South Alabama, Mississippi State) and just two have come against KenPom top-50 teams (NC State, Mississippi State). Against South Alabama, Isaac Okoro got the game-winning basket with 1.3 seconds left following an offensive rebound to escape with a 70-69 win. NC State was a close call too, as the Tigers won 79-73 at home with much of the second half being a one-possession game.

This game is enormous for Alabama if it wants to start building a tournament resume. While the Tide are 8-7 on the season, they have faced the 17th-toughest schedule so far, per KenPom. Like Auburn, their best win has been against Mississippi State, which was a 21-point beatdown at home last week. This would be the type of win that would be critical for a bubble team come Selection Sunday.

I’m a little nervous about Alabama’s interior defense going up against Austin Wiley and Co. (Auburn is fourth in 2P% on offense in CBB), but I think the Tide can win this game on the perimeter. This is not the same Auburn team that shot the lights out last season, as the Tigers have been shooting threes at a lower frequency (eighth in three-point attempt rate last season, 76th this season) and making them at a much lower rate (21st in 3P% last season, 217th this season). Led by John Petty, who has made 53 of his 107 three-point attempts this season (49.5%, 17th in CBB), the Tide could pose a dangerous threat for Auburn beyond the arc.

Give me the Tide not only to cover, but to knock off their rival from the ranks of the unbeaten.

Overall Record: 26-22-1

3MW Record: 21-12-1

Meyer Record: 5-9

Guest Record: 0-1