Betting Four Thursday March Mid-Major Matchups
© Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports
March has arrived. It’s officially the most wonderful time of the year. I will kick off this glorious month by focusing on the following four mid-major matchups, highlighted by a massive Conference USA showdown.
- Western Kentucky at Middle Tennessee -4
- Charleston Southern at UNC Asheville -8
- Jacksonville at Lipscomb -12.5
- Weber State at Montana -8.5
Follow me on twitter @jorcubsdan for in-game analysis, injury updates, and second half predictions.
Western Kentucky @ Middle Tennessee (-4)
8 p.m. ET on CBSS
The game of the night in college hoops. Not only is the CUSA regular season title on the line, but both teams are in contention for at-large berths. Add in the bitter rivalry factor plus national television, and we may have a classic between the league’s best offense (WKU) and the league’s best defense (MTSU).
WKU didn’t play at full strength in the first meeting, a 66-62 home loss. PG Lamonte Bearden was battling back spasms and Darius Thompson was suffering from the flu. That showed in their stat lines, as the typically potent backcourt combined for just 11 points. Speaking of health, MTSU PG Tyrik Dixon will return to the lineup tonight after clearing concussion protocol.
In that first matchup, WKU big man Justin Johnson struggled to cover the savvy interior moves of Nick King, who finished with 28 points and 9 rebounds. WKU’s 1-3-1 zone did nothing to slow him down in the half-court. However, the Hilltoppers’ zone did effectively limit MTSU to just 4-17 shooting from 3.
MTSU’s vicious, morphing 1-3-1 was also effective on the perimeter, as it held the Toppers to just 1-9 shooting from deep. However, WKU did have some success drawing contact with penetration, even without a healthy Thompson and Bearden. That is where WKU can make its hay, as MTSU ranks 320nd in foul rate nationally, while WKU owns CUSA’s highest free throw rate in league play. If the Toppers can get some calls on the road and get at least a modicum of jumpers to fall this time around, the Toppers will have a great chance at pulling off a huge road win.
THE PICK: WKU +4
Charleston Southern @ UNC Asheville (-8)
7 p.m. ET on ESPN3
Charleston Southern enters the Big South quarterfinals as the hottest team in the field. The Bucs gave top seed UNCA all it could handle in both regular season meetings. CSU faded down the stretch in Asheville in the first game, and lost a heartbreaker at the Buc Dome in the rematch.
As I mentioned in my Big South preview, the Bucs are dangerous in a tournament setting because they wreak havoc defensively by extending full-court pressure with a bevy of long armed athletes. Having said that, UNCA essentially runs out four point guards with Kevin Vannatta, Raekwon Miller, MaCio Teague, and Ahmad Thomas. And to wit, the Bulldogs handled the CSU press with aplomb, averaging 1.22 points per possession (ppp) in the two regulars season wins. They also shot an obscene 25-41 from deep.
However, UNCA’s defense didn’t perform much better. The Bucs were able to routinely pass over the top of UNCA’s trapping 1-3-1 half court defense. CSU’s Christian Keeling was also a lethal weapon in the middle of the floor, which forced UNCA’s lone big man Jonathan Baehre away from the rim.
It sounds like this should be another high scoring barnburner, right? I’m not so sure. UNCA’s three point shooting is due to regress. But more importantly, Charleston Southern switched from its man pressure scheme to a zone press in the first round in order to slow down Presbyterian. That change effectively forced the Blue Hose to chew up 15 seconds of clock before they even got into their offense. As a result, that game crawled to a 59 possession affair. I think we see something similar tonight in what should be tight throughout.
THE PICKS: CSU +7, UNDER 142
Jacksonville at Lipscomb (-12.5)
8 p.m. ET on ESPN3
JU is playing its best basketball of the season. The Dolphins have a phenomenal senior PG in Devin Harris, who just missed a second straight triple double in the opening round blowout win over Kennesaw State. Jace Hogan is also playing like a man possessed in the paint.
The Dolphins completely surprised Lipscomb in the first meeting in Jacksonville with full court pressure. It worked to perfection, as sophomore point guard Kenny Cooper wasn’t quite settled into his role of replacing Nate Moran as Lipscomb’s primary ball handler. Consequently, Lipscomb turned the ball over at a 22% rate and never got into the flow of its potent motion offense, shooting a dreadful 4-26 from 3. Jacksonville won by a final score of 87-69.
However, the second meeting in Nashville played out completely different, as Cooper had morphed into a steady presence on the ball. Lipscomb rolled 82-59, which kicked off its current six game winning streak. The Bisons have averaged just under 85 points per game over those six.
Lipscomb head coach Casey Alexander models his offense exactly after his mentor Rick Byrd’s offense at Belmont. That means the 4 out motion revolves around Rob Marberry in the post, with very action borne from paint touches. JU’s poor interior defense should struggle to contain Marberry all night.
Lipscomb has been a shockingly poor three point shooting team in ASUN play. In fact, it posted the worst percentage in the league. However, the Bisons looked like the Bisons of last year in the first round, hitting 14-32 from deep. I expect that hot shooting to continue, especially since JU will be without its best perimeter defender in JD Notae. He will be sorely missed against the constantly screening Bisons.
THE PICK: OVER 152
Weber State @ Montana (-8.5)
9 p.m. ET
Montana would love nothing more than to clinch the outright Big Sky title at home against its bitter rival. Weber State was just surprisingly swept at home by EWU and Idaho, but the Wildcats are still playing for a top four seed to get bye in the Big Sky Tournament.
Head coach Randy Rahe completely changed Weber State’s offense this year from a two big flex motion to a 4-out spread pick and roll. For the most part, point guard Jerrick Harding has been phenomenal running the new offense. In fact, Harding grades out in the 98th percentile nationally among pick and roll ball handlers, per Synergy. The issue for Weber is that Montana head coach Travis DeCuire changed his defense from a pack line to an extremely hard hedging man to man defense, which has been hell on pick and roll offenses. Per Synergy, Montana allows just .588 ppp to pick and roll ball handlers (99th percentile nationally).
Rahe has utilized Brekkott Chapman in a stretch 4 role, but Montana big man Jamar Akoh, while foul prone, excels in ball screen defense. Akoh’s ability to trap on the perimeter in ball screens is a huge factor against a Weber State team that leads the nation in three point shooting percentage.
Defensively, Weber State’s scheme is problematic against Montana’s rim attacking offense. Between guard Mike Oguine’s penetration and Akoh’s prolific post offense, Montana attempts shots at the rim at the 36th highest rate in the country, per hoop-math.com. Weber doesn’t help on penetration or double the post, as it focuses on staying at home on shooters. Weber annually limits teams to one of the lowest three point rates in the country. In fact, it has allowed the lowest three point attempt rate in three of the past five seasons. That scheme is essentially useless against the hyper-aggressive Grizzlies. A Weber defense that allows the 63rd highest field goal attempt rate at the rim would have to dramatically alter its structure in order to even compete tonight.
THE PICK: MONTANA -8.5
Pictured above: Western Kentucky forward Dwight Colby; credit: Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports