Betting Xavier-Butler, Plus Analysis of Tennessee-Kentucky and SDSU-Fresno

Betting Xavier-Butler, Plus Analysis of Tennessee-Kentucky and SDSU-Fresno article feature image

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Today, I’ll take an in-depth look at the following three pivotal matchups in the Big East, SEC and Mountain West.

  • Xavier at Butler (-3.5)
  • Tennessee at Kentucky (-2)
  • San Diego State at Fresno State (-2.5)

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

Xavier @ Butler (-3.5)

6:30 pm Eastern

Both teams arrive at historical Hinkle Fieldhouse on a roll, with the Muskies and Bulldogs having won six and four straight, respectively. After this past weekend, Xavier has actually moved up to the No. 1 seed line in many bracket projections. That said, these two teams have recently feasted on the bottom half of the league. X hasn’t looked particularly impressive in the process, as they needed Trevon Bluiett heroics just to get past Georgetown on Saturday.

Xavier won the first meeting between these two teams in Cincy at the free throw line, where they owned a ridiculous 37-8 advantage. The Muskies did play more aggressively after yet another beatdown from Villanova in the game prior. But they will simply not benefit from as many calls in Hinkle. In that first game, the Xavier pack line and 1-3-1 effectively turned Butler into 3-point jump shooters, where they hit just 7-27.

In that first game, Xavier also exploited Butler’s athleticism issues at the 2 and 3 when Kamar Baldwin ran the point. With Baldwin likely on Bluiett, that leaves Paul Jorgensen, Sean McDermott and Henry Baddley to slow down J.P. Macura and Quentin Goodin. Those are matchups Xavier must win tonight to pull off the season sweep, especially since Bluiett tends to press offensively in his hometown. Baddley has the best shot at defending the maddeningly inconsistent Macura, but Butler’s offense would suffer with him over Jorgensen and/or McDermott.

Additionally, Aaron Thompson poses the same problem for Butler. He’s a plus defender (he and Baldwin held Shamorie Ponds, Andrew Rowsey and Eli Cain to four total points in Butler’s last three wins) that could help contain Bluiett and Goodin, but he is a major liability on offense. Xavier also has a sizable advantage when Chris Mack runs offense through Sean O’Mara and Kerem Kanter in the post. Per Synergy, Butler grades out in just the 19th percentile in post defense. Tyler Wideman has been a sieve defending at the rim all year.

While Xavier has matchup advantages on offense, they have their own issues defensively. Between Baldwin and Kelan Martin, the Bulldogs create a lot of mismatches in their pick-and-roll offense that also has a highly efficient “roller” in Wideman. Martin, in particular, is a matchup nightmare for Xavier. Jordan loves to use his burly (but effectively mobile) 4 man in ball screens to create mismatches. That spells trouble for Xavier, which grades out in just the seventh percentile nationally in ball screen defense.

It may be due to lack of focus or just overconfidence in knowing they can outscore teams, but Xavier’s worst defensive efforts have come against the bottom half of the Big East. Chris Mack is a master defensive schemer, especially on quick turnarounds, but with matchup advantages for both offenses and Xavier’s willingness to get into transition battles, I expect a shootout.

The PICK: Over 155

Tennessee @ Kentucky (-2)

7:00 PM Eastern

Tennessee dominated UK in the second half of their first meeting in Knoxville, The Vols have precisely the type of offense that gives Kentucky issues. Yes, they are small, but also quick and positionless with outstanding ball movement and spacing. I compare them to a slightly less efficient Villanova that relies more on post touches than the 3. In fact, only eight teams in the country attempt more shots out of the post than Tennessee, which is fascinating since their primary post option is 6-foot-7 Grant Williams.

Williams, perhaps the most underrated high-major player in the country, has battled hip and back injuries that have basically prevented him from practicing. That said, UK has issues defending the post. The Cats defense grades out in just the 24th percentile nationally against block scorers. Williams and 6-foot-11 Kyle Alexander shot a combined 10-16 in the first meeting with UK. But it was Tennessee’s ability to make UK’s long, athletic defenders move with quick ball reversals and excellent spacing that really made the difference. The Vols finished with 23 assists on 25 made field goals.

The Vols generally have four players on the floor who can shoot, pass and dribble. That had UK out of position all night defensively in their earlier meeting. Despite a four-inch height advantage, Kevin Knox was embarrassed by Admiral Schofield at the 4. When UK has been exploited in man, Cal has effectively switched to a massive 3-2 zone that makes penetration against the long-armed UK defenders virtually impossible. However, the Vols quickly forced Cal out of that zone in the first meeting. Expect the same tonight against a Tennessee team that grades out in the 94th percentile nationally in zone offense.

While Tennessee has some of the best ball movement in the country, UK has absolutely none. The ball sticks basically at every position except Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. That’s not how you beat a Tennessee defense with absolute bulldogs at every position. Tennessee plays elite pick-and-roll defense and will extend pressure full court as well. The Vols do struggle on the defensive glass, which is always a concern against UK. However, that’s mitigated some by the fact that UK has also struggled on the defensive glass this year.

I previously hyped the Vols as a legitimate Final Four contender in my power rankings article. I think they show it tonight in Lexington against a UK team that is simply too slow to rotate against Tennessee’s phenomenal ball movement.

The PICK: Tennessee +2

San Diego State @ Fresno State (-2.5)

11:00 pm Eastern

Rodney Terry always places a huge emphasis on games with San Diego State. He openly admits to modeling the Fresno program after what Steve Fisher did to turn SDSU into a MWC powerhouse. He recruits long, athletic wings that can switch on everything defensively with their versatility.

Under head coach Brian Dutcher, SDSU has interestingly moved away from their aggressive man-to-man defense that Terry brought to Fresno. In their last game, the Aztecs mostly sat in a 2-3 zone. While that was likely matchup specific (against the ubiquitous back door action of Air Force’s Princeton motion), they could sit in it again tonight to limit the constantly rim attacking Bulldogs. SDSU has been abnormally poor in rim defense, clocking in at just 285th nationally per However, Dutcher tried to zone the Bulldogs in the first meeting but quickly abandoned that plan after Fresno scored on four straight possessions. That wasn’t a fluke. Fresno scores in zone offense in the 89th percentile nationally.

Also, SDSU will likely be without Trey Kell, who always gives Fresno fits (as do most big-bodied guards). SDSU’s offense scores at an impressive 1.12 points per possession with him on the floor, per Hooplens.

I should note that the first matchup held some oddities. First, SDSU choked away a 10-point second-half lead, something that just doesn’t happen at Viejas. Second, Fresno made their run after Malik Pope left the game with an injury. Third, reserve center Nate Grimes poured in 15 points on 7-7 shooting from the field for Fresno. Although Grimes did just have his best career performance with 18 at Wyoming. While a perfect storm of events gave Fresno a huge road in the first meeting, SDSU ultimately can’t guard the Bulldogs in man or zone. And on offense, the potential unavailability of Kell looms large.

The PICK: Fresno State -2.5

Tuesday Top Picks 

YTD: 391-369-7
2H: 39-27-1

  • Xavier/Butler Over 155
  • Tennessee +2
  • Fresno State -2.5