Betting the OVC Championship, Plus the Big Ten and MVC Semifinals

Betting the OVC Championship, Plus the Big Ten and MVC Semifinals article feature image

© Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the official beginning of March Madness, as the first ticket to the Dance will be punched tonight in Evansville, Indiana. In addition to the OVC Championship, I will look at the following semifinal matchups in the Big Ten and MVC.

  • Michigan vs Michigan State (-5) – 2 p.m. ET on CBS
  • Penn State vs Purdue (-8) – 4:30 p.m. ET on CBS
  • Bradley vs Loyola (-6) – 3:30 p.m. ET on CBSSN
  • Illinois State vs Southern Illinois (-1) – 6 p.m. ET on CBSSN

Follow me on twitter @jorcubsdan for in-game analysis, injury updates, and second half predictions. I pull all lines from 5Dimes at the time of publication.


Belmont vs Murray State (+1)

8 p.m. ET on ESPN2

The OVC double bye system finally delivered the goods, as we get a second meeting between the Bruins and Racers for the right to punch the first ticket to the dance.

Murray State narrowly avoided an epic collapse against an extremely physical Jacksonville State team, while Belmont did what Belmont does. Its ball screen motion offense posted 1.36 points per possession against a completely overmatched Austin Peay defense. In terms of freshness, Belmont has the edge tonight, as I can’t overstate how physical JSU plays.

In the first meeting, legendary Belmont head coach Rick Byrd ran circles around talented but young Murray State head coach Matt McMahon, who tried to disrupt Belmont’s lethal ball screen motion by hedging hard and high with forward Terrell Miller. However, Byrd adjusted and simply back-doored the Racers with unlikely scorer forward Mack Mercer (6.7 pppg) all night. Murray State forward Jalen Dupree also looked completely lost trying to defend on the perimeter against Belmont forward Dylan Windler. When the Racers finally backed off, Belmont starting raining threes, as it tends to do, finishing 14-30 from deep. It was, in short, an offensive clinic.

That’s not to say Murray State doesn’t have a chance, as the Racers did open as a favorite for a reason. Belmont’s guards aren’t quick laterally, which the outstanding backcourt duo of Jonathan Stark and Ja Morant can feast on. The old adage is guards win big games. Well, Murray State has big game guards.

Ultimately, Murray State is in a bit of a conundrum. The Racers are at their best when they can pressure ball handlers and disrupt offenses in the halfcourt. While Belmont PG Austin Luke can be turnover prone, the Bruins’ halfcourt offense grades out in the 99th percentile nationally, per Synergy. Defending Belmont requires defensive discipline and the ability to stop the ball at the rim first and foremost. The great misconception of Byrd’s offense is that they simply chuck up threes. In actuality, the primary action is a quick shot at the rim and a lightning fast kick out if it’s not there. That does not play into the strengths of the Murray State defense.

THE PICK: Belmont -1


Michigan vs Michigan State (-5)

2 p.m. ET on CBS

The Big Ten tournament is almost always an exercise in why John Beilein is the best x’s and o’s coach in college basketball. Michigan just continues to exploit mismatches with its outstanding ball screen offense.

In the first meeting with Sparty, that ability was on full display. Tom Izzo chose not to switch on Michigan’s on-ball screen, and Sparty paid dearly. Nick Ward in particular was absolutely embarrassed by Moe Wagner all game. If Izzo decides to again have his team fight through screens, I’ll be floored. This is a game where Michigan State’s forward Jaren Jackson has to showcase his defensive versatility and athleticism. If the freshman can successfully read and react to Michigan’s 2 Guard offense, Sparty can run away and hide. However, he is in fact just a freshman, who was routinely frustrated by Wisconsin’s swing offense yesterday. The crux of this matchup lies with Jackson.

Defensively, Michigan has played at an elite level since the Purdue loss over a month ago. Guard Zavier Simpson has morphed into one of the best on ball defenders in the league. Plus, prepping for Izzo’s Hawk action offense isn’t difficult. It’s just a matter of executing and defending at the rim. Michigan big Jon Teske, who should see a lot of run early today, has been severely underrated in that regard.

THE PICK: Michigan +5

Penn State vs Purdue (-8)

4:30 p.m. ET on CBS

I’ve noted several times over the past few days how important forward Mike Watkins is to Penn State’s defense. However, the Nittany Lions have the confidence of knowing they can defend Isaac Haas in the post without him. Watkins got in immediate foul trouble in PSU’s only meeting with Purdue this year (a 3-point loss on the road). Watkins only logged nine minutes, but Haas was still held mostly in check. The Purdue center only scored 12 points in 27 minutes, while battling his own foul problems.

Penn State did surprisingly fail to contain Purdue’s dribble drive penetration in that game. Boilers guard Carsen Edwards routinely beat PSU’s best defender, Josh Reaves, off the dribble. However, the Lions stayed in the game with a chance to win because of Tony Carr’s ability to break down any defender Matt Painter put on him. PSU also had success on the offensive glass, which has been an open wound for the Boilers all year.

Purdue could very well dominate in the paint with Watkins out, but I expect Pat Chambers to really turn the up the pressure on the perimeter. That should disrupt Purdue’s offense before it can set up its outstanding off-ball post motion.

THE PICK: Penn State +8


Bradley vs Loyola Chicago (-6)

3:30 p.m. ET on CBSSN

Bradley is the only team in the Valley to have defeated Loyola with guard Clayton Custer on the floor. Bradley won that game in Peoria by just two points, but it was fairly dominant throughout, as Loyola’s frontcourt had a difficult time matching up with the versatility of freshman forward Eli Childs.

The Ramblers battled through a frustrating quarterfinal matchup with schematically tricky Northern Iowa. Custer particularly had a difficult day, shooting just 1-7 and tweaking his ankle in the process. Loyola head coach Porter Moser (Valley coach of the year) said the Valley’s Player of the Year is good to go today. I expect him to come out with a vengeance after missing countless point blank layups yesterday.

Defensively, I think we likely see Moser go small, relegating freshman center Cam Krutwig to the bench in favor of the more versatile senior forward Aundre Jackson in order to defend Childs. Krutwig really struggles defending in pick and roll, while Jackson is excellent in that regard. Krutwig had to stay on Childs in the first meeting because of early foul trouble with Jackson, who only logged 11 minutes. With a better Custer and a better defensive game plan, I think the Ramblers could roll in the Valley title game.

THE PICK: Loyola -6

 Illinois State vs Southern Illinois (-1)

6 p.m. ET on CBSSN

The second MVC semifinal is another all-Illinois affair. The Redbirds and Salukis basically played to a draw in the regular season, splitting two close games with the contest in Normal going to OT, a game in which ISUred PG Keyshawn Evans didn’t play in. (Speaking of Evans, he aggravated his injured ankle, but played through it late last night). Illinois State probably should have swept SIU, as it managed to blow a 14 point lead with just over seven minutes remaining in Carbondale.

The Redbirds have the talent and athleticism edge, especially with 6’6 matchup nightmare Milik Yarbrough, but ISU is coming off the dreaded late Friday night Valley conference tourney game. That has basically been a death sentence in the Arch Madness semis. The last team to follow up a late Friday quarterfinal win with a semifinal win was Creighton back in the 2012 MVC tournament.

THE PICK: Southern Illinois -1


Photo credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports