College Basketball Odds & Picks: NJIT at Liberty (February 15, 2020)
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images. Pictured: Scottie James
Now is the time of year in which casual fans can get a sneak preview of the Cinderellas who will be busting brackets next month.
The Liberty Flames are projected as a 12-seed in most mock brackets and have dominated the A-Sun since joining the conference last year. Under Ritchie McKay, LU is 23-4 straight up in conference play over the past season and a half, but is covering just 43% of those games.
Will the Flames continue to struggle against the spread or can they deliver a knockout punch against NJIT?
College Basketball Odds & Picks
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NJIT at Liberty
- Spread: Liberty-17
- Over/Under: 120
- Time: 7 p.m. ET
- TV: ESPN+
Mid-majors that capture the nation’s imagination usually do it with a single superstar, a high-scoring offense or a disruptive full court press.
But Liberty’s best player looks more like a middle linebacker than a prototypical stretch-four. The 6-foot-8, 235-pound Scottie James is averaging 10.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game for the Flames.
If those stats don’t blow your hair back, well, it’s almost by design. Liberty isn’t interested in eye-popping offensive stats. The Flames play at the second slowest pace in all of college basketball.
For their style of play to work, they need to run an exceedingly efficient halfcourt offense. The Flames EFG% checks in at 21st nationally and when you examine their accuracy inside the arc, they’re even better, connecting on 55.8% of their two-point shots.
Their efficiency alone would probably make them the class of the A-Sun, but it’s the Flames’ defense that makes them an elite team against any opponent. Liberty is ranked in the top-20 in the following defensive metrics:
- Opp Effective FG%
- Opp Three Point%
- Opp FGM/Game
- Def Rebound%
They also check in 40th in turnover margin (+2.5). They accomplish this differential by virtually eliminating unforced errors. Liberty turns the ball over fewer than 10 times per game, tops in the country.
Liberty’s efficiency, defense and aversion to turnovers told the story the last time these two teams hooked up back in early January. The Flames dominated the Highlanders 65-38, easily covering a 10-point spread in Newark. Liberty held NJIT to 23.5% shooting from the field during the 27-point beatdown.
I’m not expecting much better from NJIT in the rematch, considering it’s in the midst of a four-game skid in which its shooting just 38.5% from the field.
Barring a monster game from Zach Cooks (19.4 ppg), the Highlanders will struggle to crack 50 against the best mid-major defense college basketball has seen since Wichita State in 2016.
Pick: Liberty -17