Betting Thursday’s Marquee Mid-Major Games

Betting Thursday’s Marquee Mid-Major Games article feature image

© Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

For those that have followed me over the years, you know mid-major basketball is like my opium den. Today, I will take a look at the following five high-impact mid-major games:

  • MTSU @ Old Dominion -3.5
  • Charleston at Northeastern -3.5
  • Elon at William & Mary -4
  • Montana at Northern Colorado +2
  • Idaho Portland State -4.5

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

MTSU @ Old Dominion -3.5

8:00 PM Eastern

MTSU, ODU and WKU sit in a three-way tie atop the CUSA standings. However, MTSU could put a stranglehold on the top spot with a road win tonight, as they already scored a huge road win over WKU. ODU has an 0-7 record against MTSU since both programs joined CUSA. Two of those seven losses denied ODU a trip to the NCAA Tournament, including a heartbreaker in the 2016 CUSA title game. MTSU then pulled off one of the biggest upsets in tournament history by knocking out 2 seed Sparty.

MTSU head coach Kermit Davis and ODU head coach Jeff Jones both emphasize a defense-first mentality and a focus on crashing the glass recklessly on both ends. Davis runs a morphing 1-3-1 zone defense that has dominated the league this year, as only one team has even sniffed 1 point per possession (WKU, which scored 62 points in a loss). MTSU’s zone is so unique because every single player uses a two hand high close-out, which you don’t see often. They close out on outside shooters as well as any team, as described by Davis in this quote from’s Erik Bacharach:

“I don’t know if there’s any team in college basketball that has two-hand high closeouts like we do,” Davis said. “That’s what it’s there for, to try to discourage shots.”

Jeff Jones has openly admitted that he has tried to replicate the success of Davis’ 1-3-1 by installing his own zone. The fact that Jones, one of the staunchest man-to-man coaches in the country, busted out a 1-3-1 vs FAU two games ago illustrates just how big of an impact MTSU’s defense has had on CUSA basketball. Kudos to Jones for his willingness to adapt and recognize that he has a long, athletic roster that can play in that scheme, with long-armed Randy Haynes wreaking havoc at the top. That said, I would be surprised if he broke it out tonight given MTSU’s familiarity.

ODU still has a stifling man-to-man defense, especially in blitzing ball screens. They allow pick-and-roll ball handlers to score just .528 points per possession, the third best mark in Synergy’s database. That’s problematic for the Blue Raiders, as they initiate a lot of their action with a high ball screen for outstanding shooter Giddy Potts. MTSU has also had shaky point guard play between Potts and Tyrik Dixon. ODU’s ability to wreak havoc in ball screen defense to generate extra possessions against the league’s best defense could be the difference. MTSU turns the ball over at the league’s 13th highest rate, and ODU generates them at the highest rate in CUSA play. They will need those turnovers, as ODU’s half-court offense relies on offensive rebounds, which they can’t do tonight against one of the nation’s best defensive rebounding teams.

Offensively, Jones runs a lot of 2 Play flex motion with Trey Porter and Brandan Stith in the post. That puts MTSU in a bind. Nick King and Brandon Walters are phenomenal offensively down low, but both struggle with post defense. Davis could use Karl Gamble, who limits opponents to .59 points per post possession per Synergy, but then the offense would take a major dip. He can manage this somewhat with subs, but ODU will have opportunities on offense against the league’s best defense. This looks like the year the Monarchs finally score a win over CUSA’s premier team.

The PICK: Lean ODU -3.5, but will wait to see if line falls

Other Notes

Charleston at Northeastern -3.5 (7 pm ET) These two sit in a tie atop the CAA standings with William & Mary. Charleston posted their second best offensive game of the year against Northeastern in the first meeting at home, scoring a robust 1.33 points per possession. They thoroughly dominated the league’s best defensive team because Northeastern simply can’t defend ball screens. They grade out in just the 32nd percentile nationally defending pick-and-roll ball handlers. Charleston sets ball screens for Joe Chealey and Grant Riller at the sixth highest rate in the country. They also score off of them in the 95th percentile nationally, per Synergy. In the first meeting, Bill Coen adjusted by bringing a hard hedge with his bigs, but that just left Jarrell Brantley wide open as the roll man.

Northeastern also runs a prolific and efficient ball screen offense, led by big bodied point guard Vasa Pusica. While Pusica had a decent game in the first meeting, the strength of Charleston’s defense is their ability to shut down pick-and-roll. They allow just .663 points per possession against pick-and-roll ball handlers. Charleston hasn’t played well on the road in league play, but this is simply a plus matchup on both sides of the ball.

The PICK: Charleston +3.5

Elon at William & Mary -4 (7 pm ET) Elon has shown a propensity to melt down late in games, which is troubling for a team that returned the second most minutes played this season. Elon’s first meeting with the Tribe fell into the “meltdown” category. The Phoenix blew an eight-point lead with six to play. However, Elon should come into this game with confidence from their last game, where they avoided blowing a 21-point lead to a Towson team known for their miraculous comebacks.

In the first meeting, William & Mary struggled to defend Elon big Brian Dawkins at the rim, a recurring theme for the Tribe. However, Elon looked oddly clueless against Tony Shaver’s four-out motion offense, which is worrisome since they run the same offense. Resident Tribe sharp shooter Matt Milon has gone ice cold of late, shooting just 8-35 from 3 in his last six games. Although he could get on track against Elon’s poor perimeter defense. Having said that, I’ll take the points in what should be a high-scoring barn burner.

The PICK: Elon +4

Montana at Northern Colorado +2 (9 pm ET) Montana is undefeated in the Big Sky. However, they have played an absurdly easy league schedule, as their opponents’ combined record sits at 24-55. They did already defeat Northern Colorado, but the altitude of Greeley poses its own set of challenges.

Montana presents a very specific challenge for UNC head coach Jeff Linder, an indirect Mark Few disciple. He never doubles the post or digs down with guards. UNC stays at home on shooters to take away the 3. And to wit, they allow the lowest 3-point attempt rate in the country. However, that won’t help against Montana, which features two attacking guards and a legitimate post in Jamar Akoh. Montana shoots the 3 at the 326th lowest rate in the country, preferring one-on-one breakdowns and post feeds. Akoh went nuts against single coverage vs. UNC in the first meeting, scoring a career-high 34 points (with 16 free throws attempts). UNC scored garbage points to make the final score more respectable, but Montana’s offense thoroughly dominated.

Montana thought UNC big man Ibby Sylla should have been tossed after a scuffle under the rim, so I expect them to bring a little extra heat against a team they can dominate at the rim. UNC shot 14-26 from 3 in the first meeting and still got blown out. Montana should have a much easier time adjusting (expect them to “ice” Andre Spight and Jonah Radebaugh on guard-to-guard ball screens) than Northern Colorado will finding rim protection.

The PICK: Montana -2

Idaho at Portland State -4.5 (11 pm ET) Idaho blew a five-point lead with 70 seconds remaining in their first meeting. In that game, Idaho scorer Victor Sanders ate Portland State’s full-court pressure for lunch. Also, PSU’s Deontae North shredded Idaho’s hybrid zone-pack line defense. North, who poured in 30 points on 6-8 shooting from 3, however, might not play. It seems he has either been suspended or taken a leave from the team. PSU’s local coverage isn’t great.

Regardless, Idaho can handle Portland State’s full-court press. PSU will also have a significantly less efficient offense without North. I should also note PSU plays their home games at Lewis & Clark’s gym, as their new complex is under construction. Nobody really ventures out for their “home” games.

The PICK: Idaho +4.5

Thursday Picks

YTD: 358-338-6

2H: 32-19

ODU -3.5 (waiting on line)

Charleston +3.5

Elon +4

Montana -2

Idaho +4.5