UL Monroe @ Jacksonville State
A rare southeast snow storm moved this game from last night to this afternoon, the extra day of rest for banged up Chris Cunningham will benefit Jacksonville State. Cunningham could have played against Samford, but Ray Harper chose to rest him, so I suspect he’ll be available today. With or without Cunningham, the Gamecocks have a massive advantage in the frontcourt over ULM, who has shifted to a 4 out alignment under head coach Keith Richard. JSU has a lot of balance for a midmajor, with an athletic shot blocking frontcourt that avoids foul trouble in Harper’s stout 3-2 matchup zone. That frontcourt is anchored by 7 foot floor stretcher Norbertas Giga, a matchup nightmare for ULM. It’s incredibly difficult to score routinely at the rim against JSU, as they allow just 51% shooting deep in the paint, the 37th best rate in the country, per hoop-math.com. The good news in a way for ULM is they aren’t really looking to score at the rim that often this year.
The Gamecocks also have a sharp-shooting veteran point guard in Malcolm Drumwright, who has been aided by the addition of defensive stoppers Jamall Gregory and Marlon Hunter. Gregory has quickly emerged as one of the best pound for pound defenders in midmajordom (he own’s a 7% block rate as 6’3 off guard), and will likely be one of the best two-way players in the OVC this year. Hunter, meanwhile, is the best perimeter defender in Harper’s matchup zone, and knows the scheme well after following Harper to Alabama from Western Kentucky.
ULM has seen a distinct shift to a perimeter oriented 4 out offense that has abandoned Richard’s motion offense in favor of pick and roll and dribble hand offs on the perimeter. With a 40.4% three point attempt rate, the Warhawks are shooting the three at the highest rate of Richard’s tenure. ULM is banged up with some bench pieces missing, and Richard hasn’t seen freshman PG Mike Ertel develop on the ball quickly, which necessitated a shift to Jordon Harris as the lead guard. Ertel has been knocking down the 3 at a high clip since the change. Travis Munnings and Sam McDaniel are 6’6 wing shooters who could give JSU some issues with their length, as Harper typically features the undersized Gregory at the 3. One of those two will have to go off for ULM to stay in this game. ULM did post their second most efficient offensive performance of the season (D1 competition only) with 1.14 points per possession against the 3-2 zone of Jackson State, but they don’t have the same height and athleticism on the back end of the zone as the Gamecocks.
Defensively, Richard is known for his seamless switching of defensive schemes and myriad zone looks to keep opposing offenses off balance. However, JSU is tough to zone because they face it everyday in practice, can shoot from multiple positions, and have a lethal weapon in the floor-stretching 7 footer Giga. JSU lost in OT at Fant-Ewing to a very down ULM last year, so there is a revenge factor here as well. ULM was somewhat impressive last time out against SFA, but the mobility of TJ Holyfield ate them up on the defensive end, which I think Giga will do today.
PICK: Jacksonville State -9.5
Murray State @ Illinois State
Murray State erased a late Redbird lead to win a barnburner at home last year, but this is an entirely different ISU team for Dan Muller so you wonder how much “revenge” factors in.
Muller is having a difficult time getting this squad to gel on the defensive end, which is typically where his best teams excel. He’s vacillated between extended full court pressure and a 2-3 zone, but most of the defensive holes can be traced to Milik Yarbrough. ISU is considerably better defensively when he’s off the floor, as they allow teams to score at 1.06 points per possession with him vs. 0.98 without, but he’s essential on offense. In fact, Muller’s best offensive lineup of Yarbrough, Keyshawn Evans, Madison Williams, Phi Fayne, and William Tinsley has been by far his worst defensive lineup. Taylor Bruninga might force Muller’s hand in terms of playing time, as the defense has been markedly better when he’s on the floor. Muller’s second most frequently used lineup with Bruninga at the 4 has been holding opposing offenses to .91 points per possession, although the sample size is limited.
Pressing Racer frosh PG Ja Morant might be the way to go, as he hasn’t seen a lot of ball pressure in a fairly light schedule to date, but zoning this Racer squad is probably a bad idea with quick triggered Jonathan Stark in the backcourt, and 6’8 matchup problem Terrell Miller capable of finding holes. The Racers have had a week off to prep for this one, but their biggest issue remains in the frontcourt defensively, where they’ll have to make a decision about doubling Phil Fayne or not. That would run counter to Matt McMahon’s general defensive philosophy, as the Racers have been highly disruptive in the backcourt, extending past the three point line on shooters, which you want to do against ISU three point reliant ISU.
Ultimately, both teams face some tough decisions schematically on defense, but I think the Racers have an edge against whatever defensive alignment Muller chooses. It’s also unknown if ISU will have point guard Elijah Clarance (questionable) or rim protector David N’Diaye (doubtful) available.
PICK: Murray State +3
Alabama @ Arizona
Both teams come into this matchup relatively healthy, as the Tide now have both Collin Sexton and Braxton Key available, while the Wildcats will see the much needed return of Rawle Alkins – a big boost to floundering perimeter defense in Sean Miller’s pack line. That said, both Key and Alkins should see restricted minutes in their first game back, but Alkins will need to help Parker Jackson-Cartwright guard Sexton, who could singlehandedly break down the pack line with his dribble penetration, an area of struggle so far for the Wildcats. Alkins can use his combination of speed and physicality with his bigger frame on the perimeter to keep Sexton from moving strictly north/south. It’s the only way to slow down his penetration, although he will still draw a ton of whistles.
DeAndre Ayton tends to get lost defensively against mobile 4s in ball screens, understandable for a 7 foot frosh. That’s where the potential return of Key comes in handy, as the Tide can benefit from a stretch shooter than won’t keep Ayton and Dusan Ristic tethered to the rim against Donta Hall, walling off Sexton’s penetration.
Defensively, Avery Johnson has been mixing in a lot more 2-3 zone in the halfcourt (and 2-2-1 pressure) because his young players are getting burnt in the constantly switching man defense he prefers. Although, that might not be a terrible idea against Zona, who has looked lost vs zones (see SMU) that force them into becoming a perimeter heavy offense instead of a paint touch based offense with Ayton and Allonzo Trier penetration.
PICK: Arizona -9
Illinois @ UNLV
UNLV has a massive advantage in athleticism and skill level in the frontcourt with Shak Juiston (NBA ready game) and Brandon McCoy (potential lottery pick). Illinois’ deny heavy defensive scheme will test Jordan Johnson on the ball, but the Illini frontcourt was just routinely beaten by Austin Peay’s Averyl Ugba, a 6’7 Grambling transfer.
Marvin Menzies has never doubled the post in his career, which hurt the Rebels against Northern Iowa and Arizona, but it will be a major advantage for the Rebs tonight. UNLV can stay home on every Illinois perimeter shooter, and extend pressure to disrupt Underwood’s spread motion offense.
I’m not reading too much into Illinois’ struggles against Austin Peay, as it came against a coach in Matt Figger who knows Underwood well from their days as top assistants for Frank Martin at Kansas State. However, I am concerned that APSU looked just as athletic, if not more so, than the Illini. If your athleticism doesn’t pop against a bottom tier OVC team, you don’t want to face a UNLV team with NBA talent.
PICK: UNLV -4.5
- High potential for Ethan Happ to go off against the Marquette frontcourt, but Wisconsin’s inability to stay in front of Andrew Rowsey and Markus Howard is problematic.
- William & Mary’s lethal 4 out motion offense could pose some issues for Ohio State’s compact defense. The Buckeyes are also in a tough spot after the massive comeback against Michigan with the finals dead period coming up, but Jae’Sean Tate and Keita Bates-Diop have a massive size/athleticism advantage. You might see a sluggish OSU to start, but their athleticism and physicality should eventually take over.
- UCLA’s frontcourt can’t guard Michigan’s two guard offense, but Beilein’s unsettled point guard situation and defense is a big concern. Michigan went with a 2-3 for long stretches against Ohio State, which might not be a bad idea against a far more attack-heavy UCLA team than last year’s ball moving offense full of shooters.
- Jerrod Calhoun is switching between his WVU inspired press at Youngstown State and a 2-3 zone when he knows teams can handle the pressure, which Butler certainly can. Weird spot schedule wise for Butler, but they can name the score if inspired.
- I’ve mentioned it several times already this year, but Central Michigan is infinitely better without Marcus Keene and Braylon Rayson. Keno Davis’ outstanding ball movement is back, and the 2-3 zone has limited looks at the rim, where the Chips have traditionally struggled. Tennessee Tech, however, runs a 4 out offense capable of shredding a zone.
- Montana is a guard oriented team with Ahmaad Rorie and Mike Oguine, who could handle Georgia State’s hyper morphing 1-3-1 zone. The Grizz also have had extra prep after their game against UCLA was cancelled. However, Montana has struggled to contain dribble penetration, which could be catastrophic against D’Marcus Simonds, who I might argue is the second best dribble drive guard in the country behind Collin Sexton.
- Points might be at a premium in Indiana/Louisville. The Hoosiers are slowly getting around to Archie Miller’s pack line, and Louisville’s height at the rim will pose a significant issue for De’Ron Davis and Juwan Morgan. Neither team can shoot consistently from the perimeter, but the Hoosier turnover issues could rear their ugly head today.
- I mentioned my concerns about Valpo being overvalued before the Purdue game, as some serious defensive issues were being masked by a weak schedule. That said, they do matchup more favorably against 4 out Ball State, who is coming off the huge buzzer beating win at Notre Dame. You never know what you’ll get defensively from Ball State, but I’m not sure Valpo can take advantage of those holes. I still think the Cardinals are still undervalued, and look like the class of the MAC.
- Lipscomb and Tennessee are both quick teams that can shoot the lights out, so expect some points here. The Bisons are coming off a sweep of rival Belmont, but it’s hard to see them not getting up for big brother today. Starting Lipscomb PG Nate Moran remains questionable.
- Kent State’s leading scorer Jaylin Walker remains questionable, and I’m not sure KSU can contain Loudon Love in the post for Wright State. The Raiders have been a different team since Scott Nagy benched Justin Mitchell, which effectively served as a wake up call.
- I’d be surprised if Tyler Hall gave it a go for Montana State, as he reinjured his ankle against CMU, and the Bobcats suffered through and embarrassing performance on the road. They’re now back home against a rejuvenated UCSB team under Joe Pasternack, but MSU is clearly lost when Hall isn’t on the floor. You can score at will against MSU’s frontcourt, so Jalen Canty should be fed early and often. Leland King is a matchup nightmare for Brian Fish.
- Gregg Marshall was furious with Wichita State’s defensive effort against South Dakota State, and he has revenge in mind after last season’s game against Oklahoma State. The Shockers have the backcourt to handle the aggressive Poke defense. OSU’s rebounding numbers have been buoyed against poor competition. Expect the Shockers to dominate the glass tonight.
- Auburn has struggled against versatile length (see Temple), and while De’Sean Murray is a bulldog at 6’3, he’s going to have some issues guarding HaHa Lee. Mustapha Heron is a gametime decision with back spasms, but UAB has the size and athleticism to match up with the Tigers.
- Florida’s interior defensive issues without Egbunu were masked thanks to hot shooting and incredible offensive performances in PK80, but the Gators have since crashed back to reality in an apocalyptic way with a brutal week, They’ll at least have a chance against Cincy’s pack line scheme, but I’m not sure how they will defend Cincy at the rim.
- Tyrik Dixon’s status is key for MTSU, as Ole Miss will run out 4 high scoring guards. Major frontcourt advantage for the Blue Raiders between Nick King and Brandon Walters, which has been a concern for Ole Miss all year. Conversely, the Ole Miss backcourt can give MTSU’s shifting zone defense some issues.
- Arkansas has struggled with athletic frontcourts, especially powerhouse 4s, which describes Jordan Murphy to a tee. Key for the Gophers is Reggie Lynch staying out of foul trouble against the constantly attacking Arkansas defense. Minnesota tries to fight through every ball screen, which will be an issue against this quick Hog backcourt.
- Stevie Jordan’s status for Rider is key, as the Broncs desperately need him on both ends on the ball against a very good Hofstra backcourt.
- North Dakota State doesn’t have the foot speed in the backcourt to stay in front of Geno Crandall and Marlon Stewart. Crandall could go off today after arguably the worst game of his career against Creighton defensive whiz Khyri Thomas. NDSU’s frontcourt isn’t capable of taking advantage of the overwhelming weakness of the North Dakota defense. UND has lost two straight to their rivals in Grand Forks – I doubt it becomes three.
- Tulsa can athletically stay with Kansas State’s outstanding and physical backcourt, but I’m concerned about their ability to guard Dean Wade away from the rim, as Bruce Weber’s motion offense is typically outstanding at spacing bigs.
- It appears Sam Logwood has left New Mexico, and New Mexico State’s familiarity with the press should pay even more dividends in the rematch. NMSU hasn’t swept the Rio Grande Rivalry in 15 years, but there’s a good chance that happens tonight, as the press was absolutely no issue for the Aggie guards.
- Look for plenty of points in UTEP/Washington State. Ernie Kent of course wants to run and spread the floor in transition with a million drag screens, while Phil Johnson has seemingly loosened the reigns on the guards since taking over for Tim Floyd. That’s a welcome change for the Cougars, who were stifled by an aggressive 2-3 zone at UC Davis and a pack line at Idaho. UTEP has had a week off to get used to Johnson’s new style, but Matt Willms is not expected back in the post for the Miners tonight.
Saturday’s Top Picks (YTD: 115-107-1):
Wichita State -5
Murray State +3
New Mexico State -2
North Dakota PK
Jacksonville State -9.5
Wazzu/UTEP over 148
Tennessee Tech/Central Michigan under 145.5
Ball State -2
I’m doing some traveling today, but feel free to shoot me some questions on twitter @jorcubsdan, and I might have some additional “top picks” added from those tweets. Thanks for reading!