College Basketball Best Bets: Expect Some Bite From Cougars, Huskies

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USATSI_12052003

College basketball experts Three Man Weave and SI Gambling Producer Max Meyer are back with their three best bets for Thursday's slate, and all of them tip off between 8:30 and 9:00 p.m. EST, so we'll have to sweat them all at once. We're using the current odds from William Hill (as of 10:55 a.m. EST) for these plays.

Pepperdine at BYU
3MW Pick: BYU -13

Out in the fine state of Utah, the Fighting Mark Popes are coming off a disappointing road loss at San Francisco. The Cougars held a 14-point lead early in the second half, but a 21-0 run by the host Dons left them shellshocked, and even a game effort to claw back within two with a minute left was ultimately thwarted by the home team’s embrace of “nerdball” (that’s an affectionate term, I swear). BYU had the ball trailing by two with the shock clock off, but rather than let BYU work for a good shot (and potentially a go-ahead three), San Francisco intentionally fouled BYU star forward Yoeli Childs. He promptly missed the front end of a one-and-one, allowing the host Dons to regain possession and ice the game at the free-throw line.

I have never been “nerdballed” myself, but I would imagine that few things in the sport are as frustrating as getting math problem’d to death, so I fully expect an angry BYU squad in this one. That’s helped even more by playing in front of a feverish crowd at the Marriott Center, quietly one of the best home venues in the country, and the rabid fanbase should help spur the Cougars. Another factor in BYU’s favor: it has four WCC wins, all of which are by 14 or more points.

An even bigger aspect is the coaching matchup. Mark Pope has proven to be an outstanding coach during his brief tenure as a head honcho, going 48-21 over his final two seasons at Utah Valley en route to the 2019 WAC Coach of the Year award. Pepperdine, meanwhile, is led by Lorenzo Romar, a deft accumulator of talent but far from an X-and-O wizard. BYU’s Princeton-infused offense that features constant perimeter motion and cutting with four or five shooters on the floor is a nightmare to guard for even the most disciplined of teams, and the Waves are not that (264th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency).

Now, the risks: Pepperdine has some athletic one-on-one scorers in Colbey Ross and Kameron Edwards who can replicate the issues that San Francisco caused, particularly Ross, who is a similar-ish player to USF’s Khalil Shabazz (poured in 32 points on 10-of-10 shooting). BYU’s guards are excellent basketball players, but they’re not exceedingly fleet of foot, so they can be vulnerable to quick driving foes. The other concern is that Pepperdine has shown the ability to “play up” to high-level competition, losing by seven at USC, by two to Arizona on a neutral, and by five at Gonzaga—so this isn’t a team that will simply roll over when faced with a superior foe.

Ultimately, it comes down to whether BYU can get enough stops. The Cougars should have no problem putting up the necessary offensive output to cover this number (85-90 points is very realistic), but BYU will need to show a renewed commitment to the defensive end after getting blitzed in the second half last time they hit the court. Off a close loss and back in the friendly confines of Provo, I think BYU finds that fire and gets it done. 

Cal State Bakersfield at New Mexico State
3MW Pick: Cal State Bakersfield +11

This pick is akin to brazenly stepping out onto a minefield with no regard for the explosive potential beneath one’s feet. Wagering against New Mexico State in WAC games is a terrifying proposition, as the Aggies are so clearly the class of the conference that backing anyone else feels foolish.

What a ringing endorsement! Have I sold you yet?

Okay, let’s actually make the case for this. This version of New Mexico State is not the same Aggies team as usual; both A.J. Harris and Trevelin Queen, projected as the team’s two best players coming into the season, are out with injury. While coach Chris Jans has amassed an impressive stockpile of depth, those two are/were special talents. Harris has missed almost the entire season, but this will only be Queen’s second game out, so NMSU is still adjusting to the absence of its highest-usage player. Queen is a destroyer on both ends of the court, a lanky 6’6" wing who has gotten some fringe NBA looks thanks to his two-way potential, and the Aggies missed him in a narrow win at UT Rio Grande Valley on Saturday. Normally, that performance wouldn’t sound many alarm bells, but the Vaqueros were missing Javon Levi, by far their best player and the nation’s leader in assists per game. If that’s the Aggies’ level without Queen, this line is too high.

Matchup-wise, Bakersfield’s ability to battle on the glass will be crucial. New Mexico State almost always has a major rebounding edge over its WAC opponents, ranking 37th nationally in offensive rebound rate and 18th in defensive rebound rate, but the Roadrunners have several impressive athletes who can match the Aggies’ physicality. The center rotation of Shawn Stith (6’8", 265 pounds) and Ronne Readus (6’9", 240) gives the Roadrunners plenty of beef, and forwards Greg Lee, Justin McCall and De’Monte Buckingham can all hold their own on the glass as well. Bakersfield actually ranks 8th and 28th in those same rebounding categories, lending credence to the fact that the Roadrunners can compete here.

Also in the visiting team’s favor is New Mexico State’s iffy free-throw shooting. Bakersfield’s defensive style under Rod Barnes leads to a ton of fouls, but the Aggies rank just 253th nationally in free-throw percentage—and at 78.8%, Queen being out removes one of their better shooters. If NMSU can’t consistently convert at the charity stripe, that opens the door even wider for the Roadrunners to hang around.

The Roadrunners’ ball security is a concern, especially considering how New Mexico State’s aggressive man-to-man can cause issues (40th in the country in defensive turnover rate). Bakersfield’s backcourt has tightened up its handle in conference play, though, lowering the team’s turnover rate from 21.1% overall (294th in the country) to a very respectable 17.3% in conference. Czar Perry, Cam Allen and mega-athlete Taze Moore will need to take care of the rock.

New Mexico State has won seven of the WAC’s last eight NCAA tournament bids, and that means the Aggies will get an opponent's best shot every time they step on the floor. They’re at their most vulnerable right now with Queen (and Harris) sidelined, so it’s time for Rod Barnes and the Roadrunners to give them a battle, even in a hostile Las Cruces environment. 

Arizona at Washington
Meyer's Pick: Washington +3

Backing a Washington team that has had extreme trouble closing games isn’t the most fun, but this spot screams Huskies.

After losing by 14 to Colorado, Washington fell to 2-6 in Pac-12 play, which is tied for last with Oregon State. Incredibly, though, the Huskies have a +11 scoring differential against Pac-12 foes, which is the sixth-best mark in the conference. The problem is, Washington has had brutal luck in close games, losing by 2, 6, 3, 3, and 1 in its first five Pac-12 losses, and three of those featured blown double-digit leads in the second half.

Between losing point guard Quade Green to ineligibility and being one of the youngest teams in the country (339th in experience per KenPom), these Huskies are very talented, but prone to making mistakes. No one on the team exemplifies that more than five-star freshman Jaden McDaniels, who Mike Hopkins played for just nine minutes last game against Colorado. That was just the third time all season he didn’t play at least 29 minutes, and the first time he was under 14. If that benching doesn’t fire him up for this game, I don’t know what will.

While fellow five-star freshman Isaiah Stewart is one of the most unstoppable players in the country inside, Hopkins has been searching for perimeter help for most of the season, especially with Green out of the picture. Freshman guard RaeQuan Battle replaced McDaniels in the starting lineup in Boulder and shot 12 threes, making four of them. Marcus Tsohonis, who Washington was planning to redshirt, has looked the most promising out of all the solutions thus far for replacing Green, and has knocked down seven of his 13 threes. While more shooting will help, Stewart needs to be fed more down low, as he’s led the Huskies in shots attempted in just eight games.

Arizona has a similar problem not getting the ball to its best player down low, freshman big man Zeke Nnaji. Nnaji doesn’t have the man-child appearance of Stewart, but he’s extremely skilled and has been incredibly efficient. Yet this is a team that has frustrated Sean Miller with its shot selection, evidenced by shooting the 51st-highest rate of two-point jumpers. Arizona, though, is a strong three-point shooting team, which makes the Wildcats more equipped to handle Washington’s 2-3 zone—though Hopkins has been mixing in some man this season. But Washington’s length can definitely frustrate Arizona and it’s strong ball movement (47th in assist rate) headlined by star point guard Nico Mannion.

I do think Nnaji will have trouble defending Stewart since Nnaji has struggled on that end throughout the season and will have a tough time dealing with Stewart’s physicality. The big question is whether the Huskies can be more careful with the rock, as Washington has been dreadful with turnovers all year, and that has ramped up in conference play (23.2% turnover rate). But Arizona hasn’t been great at forcing opponent mistakes (17.2% defensive turnover rate, ninth in Pac-12).

Washington is coming off getting swept on the altitude trip (Utah, Colorado), and buying low on teams coming off that roadie can be advantageous, since that is the toughest trip in the conference. Now the Huskies come back home in a massive games for their already-slim at-large hopes after stumbling early in conference play. Arizona is coming off a 22-point collapse at Arizona State, a microcosm of the Wildcats’ road struggles this season. Arizona ranks dead last in Haslametrics’s Away-From-Home rating, and it hasn’t notched a true road win all season. The highest-ranked KenPom opponent that Arizona has beaten on a neutral is No. 108 Wake Forest by seven points. The Wildcats are simply a different team away from home, and I think they’re going to have trouble running into a frustrated Washington team. 

Overall Record: 33-34-1

3MW Record: 23-20-1

Meyer Record: 10-13

Guest Record: 0-1