College Basketball Best Bets: Carolina in My Mind

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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 rolling with a couple SEC teams. We're using the current odds from William Hill (as of 11:05 a.m. EST) for these plays.

South Carolina at No. 16 Auburn
3MW Pick: South Carolina +11

Dear Degenerate,

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to bet on a team who lost to Stetson, a middling Atlantic Sun basketball program, by seven points on its home floor less than a month ago.

Only in the 2020 twisted and senseless landscape of college basketball do I feel confident about backing a horse with such a hideous stain on its resume. Yet from a handicapping lens, it’s precisely that debacle that’s created value for South Carolina over the last month.

Frank Martin is quietly whipping his troops into gear, fresh off two impressive victories over Kentucky and Texas A&M, thrusting the Gamecocks right back into the thick of a crowded SEC title race. It’s not always pretty, but the General's teams aren’t renowned for scoring high in "style points"—rather, they just score more points than their opponent through any means necessary, no matter how aesthetically painful it is to the naked eye. Despite boasting the SEC’s worst 2-point field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage since the onset of conference play, SC is 2-2 outright and 3-1 ATS over that span. The Stetson apocalypse knocked South Carolina below the top-100 threshold in KenPom’s overall rankings, which is now serving a “buy-low” springboard for the remainder of the SEC schedule.

However, herein lies the rub: One of the driving catalysts behind the Gamecocks’ recent surge is Keyshawn Bryant, who is officially out tonight after suffering a head injury just three minutes into the game against Texas A&M on Saturday. South Carolina spent the entire month of November lost in the wilderness without Bryant. Since he rejoined the fold in early December, USC is 6-3 against the spread, a stretch that includes convincing road victories over Virginia (by 11) and Clemson (by 13), along with last Wednesday’s 3-point victory over Kentucky.

However, the Gamecocks’ contingency plan for a Bryant no-show is firm. Sophomore point guard TJ Moss is set to return after missing the Texas A&M victory, the same game Bryant clocked just three minutes of action, while combo guard Jair Bolden enters tonight’s tilt still steaming from a 19-point explosion against those same Aggies. With Moss active and Bolden oozing with confidence, standout point forward AJ Lawson will be flanked by two potent playmakers capable of handling Auburn’s perimeter pressure and initiating offense in the half-court—in other words, picking up Bryant’s slack. The Gamecock backcourt can play the Tigers’ guards to a stalemate, while Malik Kotsar’s size and savviness qualify him as a serviceable counterpunch for Auburn’s Austin Wiley inside.

Yes, I concede that this spot is appetizing from Auburn’s perspective. The Tigers return home itching for a victory after getting smacked around by Alabama and Florida last week. "Home Auburn" carries an anecdotal perception that it’s an unstoppable force, but Bruce Pearl and the boys are actually just 4-5 ATS at home this year. In fact, in four home matchups against near-equal athletes—Furman, Vanderbilt, Georgia and NC State—only Georgia succumbed to the once-intimidating and daunting Auburn Arena home havoc. Vandy, NC State and Furman were each a possession or two away from clipping War Eagle in its own building. Those relevant precedents overrule the "no Bryant" and "highly motivated" Auburn angles in my handicapping pros and cons list.

Manhattan at Marist
3MW Pick: Manhattan -4.5

The MAAC has been an ugly league this year and one marked by parity. Four teams sit tied for first place at 4-2, two more sit at 3-3, and three sit at 3-4. Manhattan is among the jumble at the top of the league, scoring early key wins against conference title contenders Canisius, Siena, and Quinnipiac. The Jaspers enter this tilt with Marist looking to bounce back from a home loss to Monmouth. Marist currently lies in the basement of the MAAC at 2-5, driven by the nation’s sixth-worst offense. John Dunne’s team hasn’t been hopeless of late, though, covering three of its last four contests and coming off a win against a worthless Iona squad. The Red Foxes swept the Jaspers last season and split the series the two years prior to that—surely a little fuel for Manhattan’s fire as it looks to prove it’s the class of the conference in 2020.

Manhattan has a clear edge tonight from a matchup perspective for a couple reasons. Number one is Marist’s suspect ball security. The Foxes rank 258th in the country (ninth in the MAAC) in turnover rate, which is bad news when going up against a Jaspers squad that turns teams over at the 33rd-highest rate in the nation. Scrappy perimeter players like Samir Stewart, Elijah Buchanan and Christian Hinckson should be able to disrupt Marist’s ball screen action (usually by way of star PG Michael Cubbage) and bother outside shooters. Marist turned the ball over 19 times against Iona and 21 times against Saint Peter’s earlier this season, numbers I’d expect to see when the clock hits 0:00 in this one.

Secondly, Manhattan is first and foremost a jump-shooting team (for better or worse). The Jaspers rank 86th nationally in 3PA rate, preferring to beat their opponents from behind the arc versus via penetration, transition or post play. Marist on the other hand allows the 10th-highest 3PA rate in the country; John Dunne throws in some weird-looking defenses that generally focus on packing the paint and daring the opposition to beat them from deep. This means Manhattan will get exactly what it wants on offense—the question will be if the seventh-best MAAC three-point shooting team can actually knock down shots. Tyler Reynolds, Hinckson and Stewart have all shown the ability to get hot from deep, unfortunately all three have had their share of cold streaks.

Other reasons to like Manhattan tonight include the play of Pauly Paulicap, Manhattan’s wonderfully named postman who should have success against the smaller Fox frontline both in the post and on the glass. Defensively, Paulicap and his national top-60 block rate should shut down any action going into the paint, forcing Marist to pray it can knock down shots. Marist has shown the ability to hit outside shots in MAAC play thus far, but it’s still the worst offense in the conference. I like Steve Masiello’s always-physical and defensive-focused squad holding the Foxes to 50 points, enough to cover the 4.5-point spread.

Arkansas at Mississippi State
Meyer's Pick: Mississippi State -4

At 14-3, Arkansas has been a pleasant surprise in Eric Musselman’s first season at Fayetteville. One of the biggest keys to the Hogs’ success has been their perimeter defense. Arkansas is 20th in opponent three-point attempt rate, and best in the country in three-point percentage allowed at 23.4%.

If that seems extraordinary low, that’s because it is. Only two teams since 2002 (as far as KenPom goes back) have completed a season with a 3P% defense below 27%—VCU in 2008 at 26.9% and Norfolk State in 2005 at 25.3%. And Arkansas is nearly 2% below Norfolk! The point is, as good as the perimeter defense has been, the Hogs’ 14-3 record is a little misleading given the unsustainable 3P% defense.

However, this Mississippi State matchup isn’t ideal for Arkansas because the Bulldogs don’t rely on the three at all. Their three-point attempt rate is 321st in all of CBB, and that’s because they have great size and want to punish teams down low. Per hoop-math, Mississippi State is 15th in the country at FG% at the rim at 68.1%. And even the missed shots aren’t all that bad, considering the Bulldogs are tops in the country in offensive rebounding rate at 41.4%. Their two big men, 6’10” Reggie Perry and 6’11” Abdul Ado, rank 38th and 18th in OREB% among all players nationally.

Arkansas, meanwhile, ranks 341st in offensive rebounding rate and 229th in defensive rebounding rate. None of Arkansas’s six leading minutes-getters are taller than 6’6”, and 6’8” Reggie Chaney averages just 14.1 minutes per game. Musselman’s positionless basketball definitely has its pros, but could get annihilated on the glass in this one.

Besides an elite 3P% defense, the other department that Arkansas has thrived in has been turnovers. The Hogs are the best among all SEC teams in league play in offensive turnover rate (12.6%) and defensive turnover rate (22.3%). Mississippi State, meanwhile, has been a disaster with ball security this season, as it ranks 310th nationally in turnover rate (21.8%).

That mark has dropped to 20.0% in conference play, though, and could go down even more as Nick Weatherspoon adjusts to his transition to full-time point guard. The junior was stationed mostly at the two in his first two years, and was suspended for the first 10 games of this season. The Bulldogs had to rely on true freshman Iverson Molinar at point to start the season, and unsurprisingly, turnovers plagued the team.

In Weatherspoon’s first four games after being thrown into the fire with a new position in the middle of the season, he recorded eight assists vs. 14 turnovers. The last three games, though, he’s had 17 assists against nine turnovers. The turnovers are still on the higher end, but at least there’s been improvement as he becomes more comfortable in his new role.

Arkansas is also coming off a deflating loss in a rocking home environment to Kentucky, and so you could see the Hogs come out a bit flat to begin the game. Regardless, I just think Mississippi State’s size will prove to be too much for an Arkansas team that could come slightly back to Earth after such a hot start. 

Overall Record: 32-26-1

3MW Record: 23-14-1

Meyer Record: 9-11

Guest Record: 0-1