NCAA Thursday Four Pack: Why Kentucky Should Fear a Davidson Upset
© Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports
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We can all almost collectively stop staring at the clock, as the Madness is now only hours away. For Thursday’s betting analysis, I will take a more in-depth look at the following four tourney matchups:
- Davidson vs. Kentucky -5 (7:10 p.m. ET | CBS)
- Loyola Chicago vs. Miami +1.5 (3:10 p.m. ET | TruTV)
- San Diego State vs. Houston -4 (7:20 p.m. ET | TBS)
- St. Bonaventure vs. Florida -5.5 (9:57 p.m. ET | TruTV)
Follow me on Twitter at @jorcubsdan for in-game commentary, injury updates, and second-half recommendations.
#5 Kentucky vs. #12 Davidson -5 | O/U: 143
Boise, ID | 7:10 pm ET on CBS
This is a totally different Kentucky team than the one that lost at Auburn a month ago. John Calipari’s young Cats are starting to jell, especially on the offensive end, where they collectively struggled for much of the year. Since that Auburn loss, UK is scoring 1.21 points per possession (ppp). Most importantly, it has hit 3-pointers at a 45% clip, which has always been a knock against UK.
So what has changed? First, PJ Washington has developed into a consistent post threat. Second, forward Wenyen Gabriel (pictured above) and Kevin Knox are hitting jump shots, which is burning defenses that continue to over-help on the dribble drive.
Defensively, Cal has used a lot of 3-2 zone with all the perimeter length he has at his disposal. As a result of that length, Kentucky grades out as one of the best pick-and-roll defenses in the country, limiting teams to .648 ppp at the point of attack, per Synergy. However, these Cats don’t dominate defensively on the interior like UK teams of the past, as Washington and Nick Richards have struggled guarding the post. UK is also not a very good defensive rebounding team out of the zone (although it still dominates on the offensive glass).
Bob McKillop runs the best motion offense in the country, which will help negate UK’s inherent athleticism advantage. I mentioned that UK is dominant defensively against ball screens, but McKillop’s offense rarely uses on-ball action. Davidson thrives off screens and efficient scissor cuts. Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hamidou Diallo have all looked lost at times defending against motion (see UCLA, see Tennessee). And if you lose track of Davidson forward Peyton Aldrige, he will absolutely torch you.
Defensively, McKillop switched to a 2-3 zone this season after being a strict man-to-man coach for basically over 90% of his tenure at Davidson. Since that switch to zone, Davidson has gone 11-2. One of those losses came at Rhode Island and the other in triple OT at St. Bonaventure. Davidson avenged both losses at the end of the season (including a pair of March victories over URI). Ultimately, the switch to zone has helped mask Davidson’s lack of rim protection.
Davidson’s offense will thrive if it can handle Kentucky’s length, as its offense is equally efficient against man or zone defense. Also, Davidson simply doesn’t run ball screens in its offense, which is the overwhelming strength of UK’s defense. However, the only team that Davidson has played with similar perimeter length to UK is Nevada, but I’m not willing to extrapolate too much from that .99 points per possession loss back on Nov. 21 (in Reno).
McKillop’s motion offense creates a lot of open looks from the perimeter, as Davidson shoots the 3 at the sixth-highest rate in the country. And it capitalizes by hitting them at nearly 40%. UK, however, has held opponents to sub-30% shooting from 3. While I’m not a big believer in “3-point defense” (it’s mostly luck driven), there is certainly something behind that number given UK’s length 1-5. UK does allow a lot of 3-point attempts, though, which is obviously a byproduct of Cal using more zone. That’s atypical of Cal defenses, which typically run shooters off the line at one of the best rates in the country.
Davidson is an outstanding defensive rebounding team, which is somewhat surprising given its lack of overall prowess in the frontcourt and its own zone defense. Limiting UK to one shot on the offensive end is the most important factor in slowing down this revitalized UK offense. Davidson is a well-coached offensive machine, and if McKillop’s motion offense can create space between the 3-point line and UK’s perimeter length, Davidson can steal this game.
ATS: Davidson +5
O/U: Over 143
#11 Loyola Chicago vs. #6 Miami -1.5 | O/U: 133
Houston, TX | 3:10 pm ET on TruTV
It’s all about pick-and-roll for Miami on both ends of the floor. Offensively, the Canes are one of the most ball screen reliant offenses in the country. They run it through different spots on the court between guards Lonnie Walker, Ja’Quan Newton and Chris Lykes, with an efficient “roll man” in forward Dewan Huell. As a result, the Canes are extremely susceptible to teams that can clog the paint and/or zone them into oblivion.
Defensively, Jim Larranaga’s teams are always built on versatility, as they can switch everything 1-5. However, the 5-foot-7 Lykes has been a big downgrade from injured guard Bruce Brown in defending at the point of attack. Consequently, that notorious defensive versatility has taken a hit this season.
Loyola Chicago Fingerprint
The Ramblers are extremely well coached by Porter Moser, who is from the Rick Majerus tree. They are also extremely well balanced and only lost two games all year when healthy, as conference player of the year point guard Clayton Custer missed time with an injury. The Ramblers suffered three of their losses with him out of the lineup.
Offensively, the Ramblers work from inside out through efficient post Cam Krutwig and Swiss army knife forward Aundre Jackson. When teams eventually collapse (and they always do), the Ramblers are one of the best shooting teams in the entire country. Loyola Chicago hits 40% from deep, thanks to Custer and his backcourt mates Marques Townes, Donte Ingram and Ben Richardson.
Defensively, Loyola is exceptional at the point of attack defending ball screens, particularly Richardson. Per Synergy, the Ramblers allow just .63 points per possession to pick-and-roll ball handlers. Although I will say that Cam Krutwig has had issues defending rollers this year.
I actually make Loyola the favorite here based on my rankings. The only issue the Ramblers should have defensively is guarding Huell in pick-and-roll. I’m certain Moser will utilize Jackson’s versatility to defend Huell, which will leave the task of guarding Lonnie Walker to Lucas Williamson and Ingram. Both are capable enough defenders to stick with the Miami guard. Custer will be the best player on the floor, while Krutwig can expose Huell’s softness at the rim. The Ramblers are a popular upset pick for good reason.
BRACKET: Loyola Chicago
ATS: Loyola Chicago +1.5
O/U: Under 133.5
#11 San Diego State vs. #6 Houston -4 | O/U: 142.5
Wichita, KS | 7:20 pm ET on TBS
The Cougars are extremely small, but Kelvin Sampson’s squad is athletic, versatile and physical. Houston’s offense is extremely ball screen reliant in Sampson’s ubiquitous 1-4 high ball screen motion. Guard Rob Gray, the leader of that offense, is outstanding at the point of attack in terms of penetration and finishing through contact. He’s also a capable shooter and a smart passer. He will find Corey Davis on the perimeter when defenses trap him off screens.
Defensively, Houston is extremely undersized in the frontcourt, but Devin Davis, Fabian White and Breaon Brady are all bangers. Each can also defend in pick-and-roll action outside of the paint. Sampson likes to extend pressure on the ball and gamble for steals up top to initiate transition while walling off the paint to limit penetration. Despite its size limitations, Houston is also an excellent rebounding team on both ends.
San Diego State Fingerprint
Guard Trey Kell’s return to health has completely changed SDSU’s season, which led them back to the NCAA Tournament after a two-year hiatus. Kell’s return to form takes the pressure off guard Dev Watson. Head coach Brian Dutcher has been able to run out a dual ball handler offense with two dominant interior forces in Jalen McDaniels and Malik Pope. Both can play with their back to the basket or when facing the rim.
Defensively, Kell has been equally phenomenal. He and Jeremy Hemsley have been shutting down pick-and-roll at the point of attack, while Pope, McDaniels and even Kam Rooks have dominated defending the post.
It’s all about Trey Kell. Gray has struggled offensively against bigger guards, and Kell is a physical 6-foot-4. SDSU’s ability to shut down Gray in pick-and-roll will lead to a lot of contested jump shots from Corey Davis and Armoni Brooks, similar to what happened against Cincinnati in the AAC championship.
ATS: SDSU +4
O/U: Under 142.5
#11 St. Bonaventure vs. #6 Florida -5.5 | O/U: 143
Houston, TX | 9:57 pm ET on TruTV
Florida can make the 3s rain from the heavens, which it must do given its lack of frontcourt size. The Gators start and stop with point guard Chris Chiozza and 6-foot-6 wing Jalen Hudson running head coach Mike White’s hybrid dribble drive/ball screen motion offense. Florida rarely turns the ball over, and the offense really hums when Chiozza can get into the paint and kick it out to Hudson, guard Egor Koulechov, guard KeVaughn Allen and forward Keith Stone.
Defensively, Chiozza and Allen both excel against pick-and-roll, but the rest of the Gators struggle. With Florida’s lack of size, it should come as no surprise that it really struggles on the glass.
St. Bonaventure Fingerprint
We all know about the Bonnies’ two flamethrowers in the backcourt in Jay Adams and Matt Mobley, but a healthy Courtney Stockard clearly made the difference in the play-in game against UCLA. Like the Gators, the Bonnies run very small. Head coach Mark Schmidt’s best lineup is comprised of Stockard at the 4 and LaDarien Griffin at the 5; both are only 6-foot-6. The Bonnies are aggressive hedgers on the perimeter in pick-and-roll. Schmidt will also periodically turn to a 1-3-1 zone, which has effectively helped keep his short bench fresh this year.
Outstanding perimeter vs. outstanding perimeter. Both teams defend well against ball screens, but St. Bonaventure’s propensity to leave the perimeter open is alarming against the Gators. However, they were extremely effective keeping UCLA out of the paint. That’s a good sign for keeping Chiozza on the perimeter, which is step one to beating Florida. The Gators’ lack of bigs to feed in pick-and-roll makes hedging on Florida’s ball screens more enticing. This should be a great battle of small ball lineups, but Florida’s ability to keep the Bonnies off the free throw line will see them through in a tight one.
ATS: St. Bonaventure +5.5
O/U: Over 143
Editor’s note: The opinion on these games is from the individual writer and is based on his research, analysis and perspective. It is independent of, and may not always match with, the algorithm-driven Best Bets from Sports Insights.
Kentucky forward Wenyen Gabriel pictured above; photo credit: Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports