Betting Preview for Alabama-Kentucky, Plus Three Saturday Afternoon Matchups

Betting Preview for Alabama-Kentucky, Plus Three Saturday Afternoon Matchups article feature image
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Jan 27, 2018; Morgantown, WV, USA; Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari talks with Kentucky Wildcats guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (22) during the first half against the West Virginia Mountaineers at WVU Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

I am going to take an in-depth look at the following four afternoon matchups:

  • Alabama at Kentucky -4.5
  • Texas A&M at Arkansas -2.5
  • UNCG at Mercer +1.5
  • UNLV at San Diego State -4.5

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

Alabama @ Kentucky (-4.5)

2 p.m. ET

Kentucky’s downward spiral could very well continue at Rupp today, as Alabama presents several matchup problems.

First, Alabama is an excellent defensive team. The Tide currently own the sixth-best defensive efficiency rating in the country. They have been just as dominant in SEC play, holding opponents to .94 points per possession (ppp). Kentucky’s offense, especially in the half court, has been abysmal. Cal simply can’t find a way to run consistent offense. UK hasn’t mustered more than 1 ppp in the month of February. The last time Kentucky eclipsed 1 ppp was in a wild second-half comeback at home vs. a poor Vandy team on Jan. 30.

UK essentially only scores off of two actions. Either a high ball screen for Shai Gilgeous Alexander (pictured above) or curl action for Kevin Knox. The Knox curl action was effective to start the second half at Auburn, but the Tigers quickly adjusted and took over the game from there. While Avery Johnson might not have his team prepped in time for the Knox curl action, his defense absolutely dominated a similar flex stagger curl from Tennessee last Saturday. Coach Cal’s offensive wrinkle will likely be ineffective against the extremely long and versatile Tide.

Second, while Alabama hasn’t been a particularly efficient offense, UK’s young defenders continually blow assignments against pick and roll. Collin Sexton will exploit that deficiency all day long. Gilgeous-Alexander and Hamidou Diallo have actually excelled in ball screen defense, but the rest of the Cats get lost on any switch or hedge, particularly Knox and Quade Green. Given Green’s defensive performance against Auburn, I would be surprised if he sees more than 20 minutes today.

Third, Donta Hall is an emerging monster in the post for the Tide. He’s 16-of-20 in his past two games, with one of those efforts coming against the very active interior defense of Tennessee. Cal hasn’t been able to find consistent post defense all year from PJ Washington or Nick Richards. He has since turned to Wenyen Gabriel, who logged 30 minutes against Auburn. Hall should continue his streak of impressive play against a UK defense that grades out in just the 28th percentile nationally in post defense.

PICK: Alabama +4.5, Under 139.5

Texas A&M @ Arkansas (-2.5)

4 p.m ET

TJ Starks running the point in place of the injured Duane Wilson gives A&M more offensive potential. He’s also a more athletic defender. Per hooplens, the Aggies score 1.05 ppp with Starks on the floor in SEC play, as opposed to .99 ppp with him off. Starks has benefited from a fully loaded Aggie frontcourt, and Wilson was playing through injury, so take those numbers with a grain of salt.

That said, I’ve been more impressed when watching Starks’ defense. And the advanced metrics back that up. A&M is limiting SEC opponents to .94 ppp with Starks on the floor, as opposed to 1.09 ppp when he’s not in. Starks did, however, have some issues handling the Arkansas pressure in the first meeting. That will only be magnified at Bud Walton Arena.

That first meeting (a 14-point TAMU victory) in College Station saw the Aggies exploit Arkansas’ poor defensive rebounding. The Aggies are the best rebounding team in the SEC on both ends in terms of rebounding rate. That showed in that first meeting. TAMU grabbed 42% of its misses, with Tyler Davis doing most of the damage with 11 boards.

Billy Kennedy’s dual post offense of Davis and Robert Williams also forced Daniel Gafford and Trey Thompson into early foul trouble. And Mike Anderson’s small lineup couldn’t exploit the mismatches in turn. That has to change in the rematch or the result will be the same. Arkansas must find a way to force Kennedy out of lineups that can bully the Hogs’ defense at the rim.

Interestingly, both teams’ seasons have turned around of late. The Aggies used that win over Arkansas to start a four-game winning streak before losing at Missouri when the offense didn’t show up. Arkansas meanwhile has seen a vast improvement in its defense during a three-game winning streak, albeit against the bottom half of the SEC.

If you’re A&M point guard Starks, this quote from Mike Anderson in an “Arkansas Online” story by Scottie Bordelon has to be a little terrifying:

“Our defense has been much better, and guys are paying much more attention to detail. Our guys are kind of on point with helping each other and we’ve done a better job defending the perimeter…we’ve got to make the game as chaotic as we possibly can.”

Starks has been the catalyst to A&M’s recent strong stretch, but Arkansas’ guards at home will likely shut down the freshman.

PICK: Under 147

UNCG @ Mercer (+1.5)

4 p.m. ET

Rumor has it Mercer’s leading scorer Ria’n Holland could return from his broken wrist today. That would provide a major boost for a Mercer team that has seemingly — and finally — turned the corner on a what had been an overall disappointing season. With Holland potentially back, Bob Hoffman will start five seniors. Mercer wasn’t playing like one of the most experienced teams in the country until a recent four-game winning streak. That streak has been buoyed by an easy schedule (a home win over Wofford the lone exception) and 43% shooting from 3.

The Bears have also rode the back of Ross Cummings, who has played phenomenally in Holland’s stead. The sophomore has posted an ORtg of 125 in SoCon play, seemingly out of nowhere.

Mercer’s first meeting with UNCG was also its first game without Holland. Even so, the Bears still nearly pulled off the upset in Greensboro before falling in OT in an ugly slugfest. Hoffman seemingly didn’t know what he had in Cummings yet, as he only logged nine minutes. He’s somewhat of a secret weapon heading into the rematch.

Schematically, there are a few things to watch today from both defenses. Mercer didn’t handle the UNCG 1-2-2 zone press well in the first meeting. UNCG extends full court pressure as much as any team in the country, but Mercer point guard Jordan Strawberry has been phenomenal of late. He has the look of a senior who wants to finish his career on a high note.

Surprisingly, UNCG has been a poor zone offense despite having sharp shooter Franc Alonso. Mercer alternates between a shell man-to-man and a 3-2 zone, which UNCG failed to capitalize on in the first meeting, shooting just 8-28 from deep.

With Holland potentially back in addition to the rise of Cummings, Mercer’s offense should be more prepared to attack UNCG’s zone press. I expect the Bears to continue their strong play of late.

PICK: Mercer +1.5

UNLV @ San Diego State (-4.5)

4 p.m. ET

To zone or not to zone? That is the question for the Aztecs. SDSU couldn’t come close to defending UNLV’s dual-post offense of Brandon McCoy and Shak Juiston in man-to-man in an 88-78 loss in the first meeting. But the Aztecs’ zone defense hasn’t been impressive either.

That game featured one of the most dominating post performances I’ve seen all year. McCoy and Juiston combined for 42 points on 19-of-25 shooting. Now, Trey Kell did turn an ankle just three minutes in, and he’ll be back in the lineup today. He’s SDSU’s best pound-for-pound defender and will allow SDSU to extend pressure to slow down UNLV’s secondary break post offense. UNLV hasn’t been pressed often, but it grades out in just the 19th percentile nationally in press offense, per Synergy.

Expect to see more Malik Pope on McCoy, and frequent guard digs from Kell in the halfcourt. And maybe even some zone in addition to underscreening the Rebels. All in the name of turning UNLV into jump shooters, as the Rebels shoot just 31% from 3 in MWC play. This is a rare afternoon game for both teams, but the Aztecs will have the advantage of a rocking Viejas crown behind them.

PICK: SDSU -4.5

YTD: 452-418-9

2H: 53-39-1

Photo via Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports