Mid-Major Betting Report: Breaking Down Charleston, Western Kentucky & Loyola Chicago
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images. Pictured: Charleston Cougars logo
My favorite part of college basketball has always been — and will always be — the mid-major level. Big-name, blue-chip programs are great — don't get me wrong — but the teams most casual fans have never heard of that go on magical runs in March is what the sport is all about.
Keeping up with those teams throughout the year is difficult; there isn't as much coverage on them. It's hard to find info on them from time to time, and don't even get me started on trying to watch all their games.
But being aware of those teams and their potential to pull off an upset in March might be one of the biggest advantages you can have when tournament time comes around.
It's equally as important to keep up with low-level teams who have been great in recent years, and pick out those that could be in trouble when their conference tournament rolls around.
In the first edition of this year's "Mid-Major Report," I wanted to look at three teams who are all at different levels as they head into conference play.
One is red hot and has some serious potential, another is treading water and has some issues to work on, and the final one is a familiar program that could be in some serious trouble the rest of the way.
The Charleston Cougars are one of my favorite mid-major teams right now. I expected them to be hot out of the gate when I previewed the Colonial in the preseason, and they've exceeded my expectations.
The Cougars are 11-1 on the season, with their one loss coming against former No. 1-ranked North Carolina. Even in that game, the Cougars kept it close until the final five minutes.
Charleston is also 8-3 against the spread on the year.
In my preview, I expected the Cougars to be one of the fastest-paced teams in the county. They've played a slower pace than I expected, but that has really helped improve their defense since the start of the season.
Charleston is averaging 78.5 points per game and is holding opponents to 71.5 points per contest. The Cougars can score both around the rim and from beyond the arc, hitting 47.3% inside the paint and 35.3% on 3s above the break.
And while there isn't one standout star player on the roster, the Cougars have four players who average better than 10 points per game.
Outside of those four, they also have some serious depth on their bench (35.4 points per game). Charleston rarely misses a beat when the subs come in.
At the free-throw line, nearly everyone has been dependable, hitting 75.7% of their attempts as a team.
Charleston is also one of the best when it comes to offensive rebounding. The Cougars rank in the 95th percentile, averaging 13.5 offensive rebounds per game.
One slight issue for Charleston has been fouling. The Cougars are racking up 18.1 fouls per game and sending opposing teams to the line 16.5 times per game on average. The good news is they've been able to find their way to the line even more, averaging 19.8 free-throw attempts per game.
There's some serious competition at the top of the Colonial that the Cougars will have to get past. Towson, UNC Wilmington and Hofstra all present serious threats to Charleston.
The Cougars also haven't been tested much on the road, playing just two true away games against teams ranked worse than 275th, per KenPom.
Before the new year, Charleston will have tough away games against Coastal Carolina and Towson. If the Cougars can pick up wins in those two tests on the road, watch out because the Cougars will be the team to beat in the conference.
The Hilltoppers may be 8-2 on the season, but with one game left before they head into conference play, there are definitely some concerns for Rick Stansbury's team.
First and foremost, the Tops have faced considerably inferior competition in most of their games so far. Seven of Western's eight wins have come against teams ranked outside the top 200, per KenPom. Just three teams they'll face in C-USA play currently rank outside the top 200.
Secondly, Western Kentucky has relied heavily on the 3-pointer. The Hilltoppers have been one of the better teams in the nation from beyond the arc, hitting 38.8% of their attempts. But if shots aren't falling from deep, things can get out of hand quickly for the Hilltoppers.
Finally, and what I expect to be the downfall of this team if it can't figure it out quickly, Western Kentucky cannot stop a nosebleed on defense. The Tops have allowed teams to hit 34.6% from 3-point range and 50.2% on 2-point shots.
Their defensive issues were highlighted specifically against Louisville in their last game.
Western hit 47.1% from the floor and 34.6% from the perimeter, racking up 83 points. It was an impressive performance offensively, but it won't matter how well it can score if it continues to allow teams to hit better than 50% from both the floor and 3-point range like it did vs. Louisville.
The Conference USA has some of the most dynamic scoring teams and players in the country — UAB, FAU and Rice are all averaging more than 80 points per game. If Western can't step up on defense, it could be a long and grueling stretch in league play for the Hilltoppers.
Most casual basketball fans know the Loyola Chicago Ramblers by now. They've had great runs in March in years past and Sister Jean is a well-known American sweetheart.
But in the offseason, Loyola Chicago left the Missouri Valley Conference and joined the Atlantic 10. And while the Ramblers have yet to play their first conference game in the A-10, things are not looking promising.
The Ramblers are 6-5 on the season so far, having dropped games to Harvard, Tulsa and DePaul. Five of their six wins have come against teams ranked outside the 200 (per KenPom), as they've had issues at both ends of the floor.
Loyola plays at a slow tempo, which is part of the reason it's only averaging 68.1 points per game. And while the Ramblers' overall stats may look decent, their slow pace and lack of strong competition leaves me with a significant amount of doubt for them.
The biggest issue — which is even more concerning given the competition they've faced — is their turnovers.
Loyola Chicago is one of the bottom-10 worst teams in the nation when it comes to turnovers, averaging 17.5 giveaways per game. Opposing teams have averaged nine steals per game and 20 points a night off of turnovers against the Ramblers.
Moving from the Missouri Valley to the Atlantic 10 was always going to be a step up in competition and a challenge for the Ramblers. But this year could be one of the worst we've seen in some time for Loyola Chicago if it can't fix its turnover issues and step up on the defensive end.