Betting the Bubble: Penn State-Nebraska, FSU-NC State, and More

Betting the Bubble: Penn State-Nebraska, FSU-NC State, and More article feature image

© Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Today, I’ll take a close look at the following bubble games in the Big Ten and ACC, and a pair of games in the SoCon and MAAC with regular-season title implications.

  • Penn State at Nebraska -1 (5:15 p.m. ET)
  • Florida State at NC State -3 (6 p.m. ET)
  • Furman at ETSU -3.5 (2 p.m. ET)
  • Iona at Rider -4 (2 p.m. ET)

Follow me on twitter @jorcubsdan for in-game analysis, injury updates, and second-half predictions.

Penn State at Nebraska (-1)

5:15 p.m. ET on BTN

A matchup of two teams with at-large chances on life support. Penn State won the first meeting in OT, thanks to 26 points from sophomore forward Lamar Stevens and 20 and 15 from forward Mike Watkins, who will miss this game (and probably more) with a knee injury. However, PSU will have guard Josh Reaves this time around. His ability to match up against Nebraska’s 6-foot-6 guard James Palmer is key, as Reaves is arguably the best overall defender in the Big Ten.

Watkins, however, is irreplaceable. In Big Ten play alone, PSU has held opponents to .98 points per possession (ppp) when he’s on the floor, but that number skyrockets to 1.14 when he’s off, per Additionally, PSU’s rebounding rates dip without Watkins. He will be missed against a poor Husker rebounding team.

To make matters worse, Watkins also would have had another field day offensively. Nebraska coach Tim Miles would have most likely been forced to play a bigger lineup to defend Watkins, which would have hindered the Husker offense. In short, Watkins is a game changer on both ends.

Offensively, Miles has been running a little more 2-1-2 and HORNS motion this year, but the Huskers are still a base pick-and-roll offense through guards Glynn Watson and Palmer. The bad news for the Huskers is that Penn State limits pick-and-roll ballhandlers to just .64 ppp, per Synergy (95th percentile nationally). Long-armed defenders like Tony Carr, Reaves, Nazeer Bostick, and even Lamar Stevens have wreaked havoc in passing lanes all year. Consequently, the Huskers scored just .97 ppp in the first meeting.

Nebraska’s best path to success offensively is likely through 6-foot-8 sophomore Isaiah Roby (pictured above) as the roller. Since PSU hedges hard with its bigs, Roby’s mobility is key, especially if he can knock down perimeter shots in pick-and-pop situations. He can potentially exploit 6-foot-10 sophomore Julian Moore (Watkins’ replacement) in that scenario.

Offensively, Penn State doesn’t have a lot of finesse in the half court. It really relies on buckets in transition and breaking down defenses one vs. one in isolation. Per Synergy, PSU grades out in the 89th percentile in transition offense efficiency and in the 93rd percentile in isolation. Essentially, if Carr isn’t winning one-on-one battles (and there’s a rumor flying around that he has a hand injury), PSU struggles to score. The Lions remind me a lot of Florida State in that regard, whom I’ll talk about in a bit.

Carr was extremely inefficient in the first game, as he was flustered by Nebraska defensive whiz Evan Taylor. PSU was bailed out by Watkins and Stevens dominating at the rim. Without Watkins, life gets a whole lot easier for the Huskers.

PICK: Nebraska -1

Florida State at NC State (-3)

6 p.m ET on ESPNU

Schematically, this matchup is interesting for a few reasons.

  1. Both teams extend a lot of pressure defensively, and do so effectively. Somewhat surprisingly, NCSU has been the more efficient press offense this year.
  2. Not coincidentally, both teams prefer to dictate pace in transition. These are the two fastest teams in ACC play in terms of tempo.
  3. Despite playing fast and pressing (typically hallmarks of smaller teams), both have legit 7-foot post players, but NCSU is more inclined to actually run offense through the post with Omer Yurstseven. Leonard Hamilton doesn’t filter much action through massive 7-4 Christ Koumadje, who actually barely saw any run in FSU’s past two games against Clemson and Pitt.

My biggest concern for NCSU is the ability of Markel Johnson and Patrick Beverly to handle the pressure from FSU’s massive guards, MJ Walker, PJ Savoy, Terance Mann, and Trent Forrest. The Noles’ long and deep backcourt could smother Johnson and Beverly, who are just 6-1 and 6-0, respectively. Both teams should ultimately have a plethora of opportunities to score in transition.

PICK: Over 164.5

Furman at ETSU (-3.5)

2 p.m. ET

What has happened to ETSU?! The Bucs were cruising in the SoCon, winning their first 13 games. Then they got smacked at UNCG, which wasn’t necessarily unexpected. However, they followed that up with two straight home losses to The Citadel and Wofford. As a result, they lost control of their destiny in the SoCon. They need Samford to beat UNCG to win the league, which won’t happen. And that’s assuming the Bucs recover to beat a solid Furman team playing the best basketball in the league at the moment.

UNCG wins the tiebreaker if both teams win, which prompted ETSU coach Steve Forbes to say this in the Johnson City Press:

“Our league chooses to take the losses from the top,” Forbes said. “Most leagues I’ve been in, it’s the worst. They (UNCG) lost to Chattanooga, which has the worst record in our league, and they’re not being penalized.

“We have no complaints. All we had to do is win our games and we haven’t done that.”

(It kind of sounds like he’s complaining.)

So what has gone wrong for ETSU? The Bucs have simply looked tired, which took a toll on the defense, which is where Forbes’ teams hang their hat. Desonta Bradford is also playing on a bad ankle. As a result, he has allowed a lot of dribble penetration, which has exposed ETSU’s lack of mobility at the rim.

Furman, meanwhile, looks like the polar opposite of the Bucs. The senior-laden Paladins look rejuvenated, and Dev Sibley is starting to warm to his sixth-man role. Furman has won five straight, all convincingly. It helps that Andy Brown hasn’t missed a shot in that stretch. That’s a slight exaggeration, but he’s 20-37 from 3 in the last six games since coming back from injury.

The first meeting was a defensive barnburner, with the Bucs hitting just a couple more 3s to offset the Furman free-throw advantage. The good news for the Bucs is that Furman doesn’t rely heavily on dribble penetration or a big post player like Wofford’s Cam Jackson, who just ate up the Bucs inside. The Paladins run a lot of ball screen motion and prefer to use big man Matt Rafferty in the high post, where he’s an exceptional passer.

The problem for Furman is the Bucs are typically a very good ball screen defense. Plus, David Burrell matches up with a finesse big like Rafferty better than he does against a bruiser like Cam Jackson. This is an emotional game for the Bucs, who are sending out a highly decorated senior class. That energy should go a long way in helping a team that has looked tired of late.


Iona at Rider (-4)

2 p.m. ET

The MAAC tiebreakers between Canisius and Rider are complex, but if Canisius beats Marist (a reasonable assumption) and Rider beats Iona, Rider would own the tiebreaker by virtue of its record against No. 3 seed Niagara. If Canisius and Rider lose, Canisius would own the tiebreaker by virtue of its record against No. 3 seed Iona. Regardless, Iona visiting the Broncs Zoo is the far more intriguing matchup.

The Gaels ran wild over the Broncs in the second half of their first meeting en route to a 91-64 victory. Rider did keep it close until it lost point guard Stevie Jordan late in the first half. Jordan is absolutely essential to Rider’s penetration- and transition-heavy attack.

Even with a healthy Jordan for the rematch, there are glaring issues for Rider. Its reliance on lane penetration and offensive rebounding leaves its defense extremely vulnerable in transition. That spells trouble against Iona, as Tim Cluess runs one of the best transition offenses in the country. Additionally, Rider’s general defensive philosophy is to go under screens to induce jump shots, grab the hopeful miss, and run. That’s a dangerous game to play against Iona, which runs out four lethal shooters at all times. Lastly, Rider’s zone and press offense have been average to subpar. Iona’s matchup zone press was highly effective in the first meeting (although Jordan wasn’t on the floor for a large chunk). Rider turned the ball over at a 27% rate, while shooting just 4-15 from deep.

Cluess’ squad hit a rough patch before righting the ship against rival Manhattan. That losing streak was kicked off with Deyshonee Much trying to attack Cluess after the Monmouth loss. Things have apparently been ironed out, and this is almost exactly how Iona ended its regular season last year before making yet another title run in the MAAC tournament. One of the most insane stats in midmajor basketball is that Cluess has coached in the MAAC title game in all seven of his seasons at Iona and won four. This is Iona’s time of the year.

PICK: Iona +4, Over 165

Photo via Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports