How to Bet Thursday’s Marquee Mid-Major Matchups
© Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports
Duke-Carolina (check out our betting guide if you haven’t yet) will get the headlines today, but I know college basketball bettors see many more games on the slate. As a result, I wanted to spend some time looking at a few critical mid-major games on tonight’s card. I will specifically focus on the following pivotal matchups in the Sun Belt, America East, Colonial, and Big West.
- Louisiana @ Georgia State (+1.5)
- William & Mary at Charleston (-7.5)
- Vermont at Albany (+2.5)
- UCSB at UC Davis (-1.5)
You can find a summary of my seven predictions at the bottom of the article. Also, follow me on Twitter @jorcubsdan for in-game notes, injury updates, and second-half predictions.
Louisiana @ Georgia State (+2)
7:15 PM Eastern
The undefeated Ragin’ Cajuns will look to extend their two game lead in the Sun Belt as they head to Atlanta to take on Georgia State. The ULL/GSU rivalry hasn’t been a long one, but it’s burned with white hot intensity the past few seasons. ULL head coach Bob Marlin, known for his demonstrative sideline antics and ability to draw technicals, has been a favorite target of Panther fans. Meanwhile, GSU head coach Ron Hunter refuses to even acknowledge ULL by name. The rivalry really went into overdrive in the 2014 SBC tournament, when ULL knocked off a GSU team that dominated the regular season in an extremely chippy game that went to overtime.
This ULL squad is different from previous seasons, as they really dominate on the defensive end. As a result, they have officially become my “pet team” in mid major hoops. Typically, Marlin’s ULL teams have relied entirely on transition offense. They still have the best offense in the conference, as the Cajuns score 1.14 points per possession (ppp) in league play. But their defense is why they sit at 10-0 in the Belt, having won every contest by double digits. ULL is one of seven teams in the country to have a conference only defensive efficiency under .90 ppp (FGCU, NMSU, Grand Canyon, MTSU, Cincy, and Virginia).
ULL hangs their hat defensively on the ability to snuff out and “ice” ball screens with their mobile bigs. That is especially key against a Georgia State offense that relies entirely on D’Marcus Simonds’ ability to read and react as a pick and roll ball handler. Thanks to multiple long, athletic perimeter defenders with high major talent like Marcus Stroman (South Carolina transfer), Frank Bartley (BYU transfer), and Malik Marquetti (USC transfer), ULL allows just .667 ppp to PnR ball handlers, per Synergy. Additionally, when guards pass out of ball screens, the Cajuns only allows .731 ppp.
ULL also excels at denying shooters when they blitz the PnR ball handler because of their mobile and athletic frontcourt of Jakeenan Gant (Missouri transfer) and Bryce Washington. They also overload the strong side with a long wing to deny three point attempts. Opposing SBC offenses attempt the second fewest 3s per game against ULL in league play and shoot just 27.8% when they do shoot. GSU actually has their best shooting team since that 2014 team that ULL upset in the SBC tournament, but you will simply not beat ULL from deep.
GSU’s offense is entirely reliant on Simonds’ ability to break down defenses off ball screens, which simply won’t happen against this ULL defense. Simonds currently ranks 4th nationally in usage rate and 15th in shot rate. With multiple defenders capable of staying in front of him, it could be a long night for the GSU offense.
In regards to the GSU defense, Hunter is synonymous with an aggressive, morphing 1-3-1 match up zone that always denies transition. What’s the point of a unique halfcourt defense if you don’t get back in transition to set it up? While ULL doesn’t allow anything from beyond the arc, the Panthers want to turn teams into jump shooters. Only 19 teams in the country have allowed a higher 3PT attempt rate than GSU.
Hunter’s match-up zone is also hell on pick and roll heavy offenses. They basically don’t even let teams run PnR, but that won’t bother ULL. The Cajuns use a ‘3 out 2 in pass and cut motion’ offense that relies on the decision making of Washington in the high post. Fortunately for Marlin, he’s an excellent decision maker. As a result, ULL scores 1.03 ppp in their zone offense. However, GSU did see a similar motion offense earlier this season in Montana, who also relies heavily on cutters and big to big passing. The Panthers held the Grizzlies to just .94 ppp in that game. Having said that, the Cajuns move the ball much better than the Grizzlies. In fact, ULL has the 3rd highest assist rate in the country.
I mentioned earlier that ULL is typically a transition heavy offense, but they have slowed down this year. They rank 58th nationally in transition attempt rate, per hoop-math.com. In comparison, they finished 22nd last year. Given GSU’s dominance in transition defense, the Cajuns’ ability to run is a moot point. But their lack of reliance on transition buckets will help them tonight.
With both defenses uniquely designed to limit the strength of the opposing offenses, I expect a rock fight. One final aspect that can give ULL an edge on the road? The Cajuns dominate the offensive glass, and GSU’s ubiquitous zone limits their effectiveness on the defensive glass. In a game where points won’t be easy, those extra possessions could decide the outcome. Marlin has insisted this year that he wants to win with their defense instead of their offense, which I think happens tonight.
The PICK: ULL -2, Under 143.5
Other Mid-Major Notes
William & Mary at Charleston -7.5 (7:00 pm ET) Charleston holds a one game lead in the CAA over William & Mary and Northeastern. W&M has the the league’s best offense, but they’re poor in almost every area defensively.
William and Mary particularly struggles in ball screen defense, which spells trouble against Charleston, who features one of the most prolific and efficient ball screen offenses in the country. In fact, Charleston ranks 18th nationally in ball screen offensive efficiency and run it at the 8th highest rate nationally. The Tribe grade out in just the 2nd percentile nationally in ball screen defense, which shockingly only puts them as the third worst ball screen defense in the CAA, as UNCW and Delaware are even more porous. Charleston scored 1.19 ppp in three games vs UNCW and Delaware this year. I expect them to reach or exceed that level of efficiency tonight.
On the other end, Charleston will have their own issues dealing with the Tribe’s Nate Knight in the post. With head coach Tony Shaver’s 4 out 1 in motion offense surrounds Knight with shooters, making it impossible for opponents to gamble by doubling Knight. On top of that, Cougars’ Nick Harris has struggled in post defense and Knight is equally lethal facing the rim. The good news for Charleston’s defense is that they should handle Shaver’s ball screen motion, as they allow just .657 ppp to PnR ball handlers, per Synergy. Charleston also excels at defending in transition (95th percentile nationally), which will come in handy tonight against a W&M team that loves to create quick offense. The PICK: Charleston -7.5, Over 151
Vermont at Albany +2.5 (7:00 pm ET) Vermont has won 28 straight America East games. Their rival Albany could be the last real hurdle to a second straight undefeated conference season. The Catamounts have continued to dominate the AmEast despite the loss of star forward Anthony Lamb.
With the league’s best offense and defense, UVM has a +13.43 efficiency margin, per KenPom. Albany is the only other AmEast team in the black at +2.73. The Danes have failed to sniff 1 ppp against UVM in their last four meetings (all losses) mainly because UVM excels at denying ball handlers (Joe Cremo and David Nichols) in Albany’s motion offense. UVM’s Trae Bell-Haynes and Ernie Duncan can effectively switch on ball screens and Drew Urquhart is arguably the best hard hedger in the conference.
Albany did find a modicum of success in the post in the first meeting with Charles and Greig Stire. Post defense is the one chink in UVM’s defensive armor, but Albany essentially traded occasional post buckets with UVM 3s. Additionally, the Danes don’t have the lateral quickness on the perimeter to defend Bell-Haynes. He lived in the paint in the first meeting. Will Brown used to employ a 2-3 against UVM, but he hasn’t used it much this year. Given UVM’s highly efficient zone offense, Brown might be out of options since his backcourt can’t stay in front of Bell-Haynes. The PICK: Vermont -2.5
UCSB at UC Davis -1.5 (10:00 pm ET) Each team might be without their dominant big man, as Chima Moneke (UCD) and Jalen Canty (UCSB) are currently ‘suspended indefinitely’. Canty has a better possibility of playing, as Moneke’s situation appears more dire. UCD’s undersized Aussie center is being investigated for a recent incident at a team hotel. Given Moneke’s role, his absence will not impact the offense much, outside of less efficiency from 2. But the Aggies are more prolific from 3 with him off the floor, as stretch 5 AJ John gets Moneke’s minutes. However, John is an enormous downgrade defensively.
Canty meanwhile has been an offensive powerhouse in the paint, but the Gaucho pack line improves without him.
This sets up an interesting dynamic. The UCSB defense wants you to shoot the three, which UCD is actually more inclined to do without Moneke. The other issue for the UCSB pack line defense is that their guards can’t contain dribble penetration, an essential aspect of that scheme. However, they are more equipped in rim protection with Ami Lakoju pilfering Canty’s minutes. That’s essential against 5’9 UCD waterbug TJ Shorts, who finishes strong at the rim despite his diminutive stature. Ultimately, UCD without Moneke actually matches up well with the UCSB pack line defense and should come out on top in an ugly one. The PICK: UC Davis -1.5, Under 141.5
Thursday Top Picks
ULL/GSU Under 143.5
Charleston/W&M Over 151
UCD/UCSB Under 141.5