Stuckey: 10 Under-The-Radar College Basketball Teams With Early-Season Betting Value
Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: Jarrod West.
As you try to scramble to get ready for the imminent start of the college basketball season, here are 10 under-the-radar teams that could have betting value early on in the season (or in some cases during conference play, depending on schedules). I believe experience and continuity are enormously important headed into this unprecedented season after limited preseason practices and work. That will be a theme throughout for the 10 teams I cover below.
Again, these aren’t supposed to be the best teams. In fact, some may make you cringe. These are just 10 teams I believe could have value relative to the market based on a variety of reasons I’ll cover below. I’ll also list how much each team moved from my final power ratings last year to the initial ones this year. All 10 jumped at least 40 spots, which is also obviously impacted by other teams falling.
Marshall Thundering Herd
Power Ratings Boost: +65 spots
Head coach Dan D’Antoni, who wants to play at a breakneck pace, had a very inexperienced roster in 2019-20 (318th in experience) after losing Jon Elmore and CJ Burks. Well, that’s no longer a concern with all five starters returning in Huntington.
It all starts with the dynamic backcourt duo of upperclassmen Taevion Kinsey and Jarrod West, who combined to average over 30 points and eight assists per game.
Furman transfer guard Andrew Taylor also really helped on the offensive end after becoming eligible in December. Forward Jannson Williams, who started to figure some things out during conference play, had a very down shooting year. I expect some positive regression in that area and a breakout senior season.
This team really started to figure things out on the offensive end late last year. I think it can carry that momentum over into this year with almost everybody back in the mix, plus a few promising recruits, namely David Early and Obinna Anochili-Killen (who has an outside shot to start on Day 1). It should have more depth, which lends itself well to playing the style D’Antoni wants to play (second in Adjusted Tempo last year).
I may pick some spots to back the Herd early on, but I do want to see how a potential lack of conditioning after limited practices impacts these teams that want to play super fast early on in the year. Once those concerns vanish, this is a team I can see myself backing a bunch, especially in conference play.
If the Herd can just improve a bit from beyond the arc and at the charity stripe, don’t be shocked if they make it back to the dance.
Power Ratings Boost: +41 spots
Seven of the top eight scorers return for head coach Keith Dambrot, who has an outside shot of getting the program to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1977.
This team has plenty of experience and knows its identity, which should be immensely helpful in this unique season.
Two uber-talented fifth-year seniors, Marcus Weathers and Michael Hughes, lead the frontcourt. What they lack in size, they make up with in freakish athleticism. Sincere Carry returns to run the show at point guard, while Tavian Dunn-Martin comes off the bench as a streaky flamethrower. He’s capable of going bonkers from deep on any given night. All four players averaged double figures last year.
Plus, after starting as underclassmen last year, Maceo Austin and Lamar Norman return on the wings for excellent overall perimeter defense.
Despite its talent and experience, Duquesne doesn’t appear to be getting enough preseason love. And during this unprecedented season when teams will have to deal with a lack of fans and plenty of uncertainty, I can’t think of a team better prepared to deal with these circumstances. Remember, this Duquesne had no true home court last year with its own under renovation, which forced it to host home games in three different stadiums.
It obviously ultimately depends on the number, but this is a team I’d feel comfortable backing early on. Dambrot has this thing headed in the right direction.
Power Ratings Boost: +57 spots
Despite finishing with an 8-23 record, I think head coach Chris Collins did a tremendous job with Northwestern last year. He had one of the nation’s youngest rosters; over 40% of its points in Big Ten play came from freshmen. He was down to basically just nine players over the final two months and relied on a core of six players for most of the year.
With a completely overmatched and decimated roster, Northwestern never quit on Collins, which I think is a positive sign at the bare minimum.
The experience from last year should help this year. Plus, Northwestern will now have the healthy guards it thought it would all of last season with promising freshman point guard Boo Buie (who missed time and dealt with injuries in the second half of the year) and shooting guard Anthony Gaines, who was lost for the season after 10 games.
The backcourt should also benefit from the additions of highly-touted top 150 recruit Ty Berry and William & Mary transfer Chase Audige. Both should see ample playing time and the latter may even start from Day 1. The perimeter should have much more athleticism, which should translate to increased efficiency on the defensive end, which is where Collins’ teams have to earn their livings.
Elsewhere, there’s plenty of returning size and talent down low, and last year’s leading scorer, Miller Kopp, returns as a starter on the wing.
Murphy’s Law was in effect for Northwestern last year. Injuries never really gave Collins a shot for a team that had four freshmen finish in the top seven in usage — with sophomores taking up two of the other three slots. There were some ugly performances as expected, but there were plenty of games in which the Wildcats blew second-half leads. They also finished just 2-7 in games decided by five points or less.
Northwestern is still a bottom two or three team in the absolutely loaded Big Ten, which arguably has 10 of the top 25 teams in the nation. However, this is simply a list of teams that may have betting value either early in the season or during conference play. I believe Northwestern will get to the window as a sneaky underdog more often than not this year.
East Carolina Pirates
Power Ratings Boost: +63 spots
Head coach Joe Dooley did not have an easy job last season with an extremely inexperienced roster. ECU ranked 340th in experience and 346th in Minutes Continuity, per KenPom. From a usage perspective, its top four players were freshmen or sophomores.
However, experience won’t be a concern this year. ECU returns all five starters and almost 100% of its points, rebounds and minutes.
It all starts with potential Conference Player of the Year Jayden Gardner, who averaged 19.7 points and just under 10 boards last season. Everything will run through the junior forward on the offensive end.
Joining Gardner in the post when Dooley decides to go big will be a number of potential trees. ECU amazingly has four 7-footers on its roster. The two most likely to get playing time are Charles Coleman and Ludgy Debaut. I expect Coleman to improve a bit on the offensive end, as he’s still learning to play on the low block after not doing so in high school. Meanwhile, Debaut got injured four games into the season.
Injuries plagued the Pirates throughout the 2019-20 campaign, costing them over 60 individual games. And staying healthy is critical for a Dooley team that needs depth to play his preferred uptempo style.
Elsewhere, Tristen Newton had flashes of brilliance as a freshman point guard, so it’s not unrealistic to assume we’ll see an efficiency jump in his sophomore swing. The Pirates also have plenty of length on the wings.
The primary culprit of ECU’s struggles last year was outside shooting. The Pirates simply couldn’t make an outside shot, finishing with a putrid 28.1% mark from 3-point range, which ranks 346th in the country.
If they get any bump whatsoever in that department, it could lead to a few more wins and covers for a team that lost eight games by six points or less last year, including both of its overtime tilts.
It’s not like I expect ECU to contend for an AAC title, but its experience alone could make it a much more appetizing underdog this season.
Youngstown State Penguins
Power Ratings Boost: +59 spots
I’m a big Jerrod Calhoun fan, and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t continue this upward trajectory he has the program on since taking over in 2017 after taking Fairmont State to the D2 national title game. After a double-digit win increase from his first to third season, he now clearly his best team with four starters and five primary senior contributors back in the fold.
It all starts with preseason first-team All-Horizon guard Darius Quisenberry, who will eventually play professionally. He tested the NBA waters but decided to return for his junior season.
He and three juniors who have been with Calhoun since the beginning led the Penguins in usage rate for a team that ranked in the top 20 in Minutes Continuity going into last year. All four are now back, including defensive specialist guard Garrett Covington and big men Naz Bohannon and Michael Akuchie, who along with fellow senior Jamir Thomas, will live on the offensive glass.
That’s as experienced a nucleus surrounding a star player as you can hope for in the Horizon League.
There are also some other intriguing new pieces. Division II transfer Greyson Kelley should get a lot of run since he should be able to give Youngstown some much-needed outside shooting. The Penguins shot just 31.2% from deep last year (281st). Shemar Rathan-Mayes and Myles Hunter are two incoming freshmen who could contribute right off the bat.
It looks as if Youngstown will have only one non-conference game when Calhoun goes up against his former boss Bob Huggins and West Virginia. It will then play a 20-game conference schedule with a unique structure. Horizon teams will exclusively play back-to-back games against the same opponent: five sets on the road and five at home. That will make coaching adjustments and strategy on a quick turnaround very important. Calhoun can take advantage.
If things fall into place (defense gets a little better and Kelley provides shooting), Youngstown could punch its first ticket to the NCAA Tournament in school history.
Eastern Michigan Eagles
Power Ratings Boost: +56 spots
EMU brings almost everybody back from a rebuilding year, which should pay off on the defensive end for Rob Murphy’s 2-3 zone. His scheme is always going to be more effective with experience and length — two things the Eagles have in spades. There are a few different potential starting lineups, but Murphy could potentially start five seniors — with the smallest one at 6’5.
The Eagles did lose 7-footer Boubacar Toure in the middle of that zone, but they brought in 6’11 Kansas State transfer James Love to fill that role. They also brought in 7-footer Axel Okongo, who transferred in from Missouri. He’s still very raw, but my point is that length in the zone won’t be an issue for a defense that finished 70th in efficiency, 16th in turnover percentage and fourth in steal percentage last year.
The problems came on the offensive end, where EMU was dreadful. Simply put, the Eagles couldn’t shoot, ranking in the bottom 10 nationally in both free throw and 3-point shooting. The former is made even worse by the fact they get to the line at a high frequency. They also turned it over at almost as high of a clip as they forced them.
After losing almost all of their primary contributors from the season prior, it’s pretty amazing what EMU accomplished on the defensive end. Unfortunately for Murphy, the same can’t be said for the offense. I expect some improvements on that end with almost everyone back and the addition of Holy Cross transfer Drew Lowder, who I assume will be eligible all season.
It’s hard to rely on transfers from smaller schools, but Lowder has the goods, which is why he garnered so much attention from Power Five programs. Most importantly, he can shoot. Last year, he averaged over 14 points per game and shot over 42% from 3, which EMU desperately could use after shooting a laughable 26% from beyond the arc.
Even with just some natural shooting regression, this offense should improve, and that alone could flip the close losses into close wins (1-5 in one-possession games last year). Plus, the zone defense should be stellar once again with more experience. And if Lowder and/or JUCO transfer Bryce McBride can give the Eagles the outside shooting threats they anticipate, everything else will get easier on the offensive end.
EMU isn’t a legit contender in the MAC, but it’s a team that could get you to the window early in the season and during conference play.
The Eagles will start their season off with a date against Michigan State. If you want to pull the trigger on +20, just know Sparty shredded their zone last year en route to a 101-49 victory. Now, Izzo’s bunch did lose Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman, but it’s still a noteworthy recent result against a unique defensive scheme.
UNC Asheville Bulldogs
Power Ratings Boost: +75 spots
Five returning junior starters who all averaged over 10 points per games is a good place to start for head coach Mike Morrell.
For those not familiar with Asheville, it plays with four guards and wants to press as much as possible. However, when Morrell took over as head coach in 2018, he inherited a mess. He had the youngest roster in the nation and simply couldn’t implement his style of play. Therefore, he played at a snail’s pace (350th in Adjusted Tempo) and sat back in zones on defense.
That changed last year when Morrell unleashed the press with his inexperienced group of five starting sophomores. As a result, the Bulldogs finished 25th nationally in turnover percentage on defense and jumped all the way up to No. 51 in Adjusted Tempo.
Now, if they didn’t force a turnover, it was usually a free bucket for the opposition. And while I don’t expect their defense at the rim to be any good, I do believe we see an overall efficiency jump on that end of the floor with five returning junior starters.
They have 3-point shooters all over the court, so maybe their abysmal free-throw shooting will also get a touch better. There are many reasons to be optimistic about hoops in Asheville this season and moving forward.
UNC Asheville will open its season with UNC Wilmington on Friday. That’s a very interesting matchup between what should be two heavy-pressing teams with new Wilmington head coach Takayo Siddle. Asheville should be ahead of the curve when it comes to execution in that department.
Cal State Bakersfield Roadrunners
Power Ratings Boost: +64 spots
This will be one of the most experienced teams in the nation, as most of the primary production returns from a team that had nothing but junior contributors a season ago. Seven of the Roadrunner’s top nine scorers come back this year with all seven being seniors.
It all starts with Taze Moore in the backcourt, but there are some other talented returning pieces and newcomers for head coach Rod Barnes to work with in his 10th year at Bakersfield. Familiarity with his complex defensive system should pay dividends.
Bakersfield switched conferences from the WAC to the Big West, which will provide relief from a travel perspective during conference play. Its pre-existing team chemistry may also give it a leg up on other California teams in the Big West that were very limited in what they could do in the offseason.
Power Ratings Boost: +78 spots
In his first year as head coach, Donnie Jones led Stetson to a 16-17 overall record. Now, that might not sound or look great, especially when you look at the strength of schedule. However, it’s a much more impressive feat when you consider his two best players by far were freshman in guard Rob Perry and big man Mahamadou Diawara. In fact, four of the five highest-use players last season were freshmen.
That’s a great foundation to build around heading into Jones’ second year. It’s natural to expect some improvement from this extremely young team that ranked in the bottom 20 nationally in experience last year. Cleaning up the turnover issues is a reasonable place to start.
Joining Perry in the backcourt is senior guard Christiaan Jones to give Stetson one of the most promising backcourts in the conference. Down low, Diawara and fellow returning sophomore starter Joel Kabimba give the Hatters plenty of length on the back end of the defense. Jones loves to switch up his defenses and can really excel with zones with all of the length at his disposal.
Stetson ran out of gas toward the end of last season but flashed so much potential for long stretches (and even picked up a win at South Carolina) — all with a new coach and a roster completely dependent on freshmen. That’s a promising sign heading into this year in a wide-open Atlantic Sun Conference where many teams are dealing with significant turnover.
The Citadel Bulldogs
Power Ratings Boost: +43 spots
Let’s finish this up by going dumpster diving with a team that lost 18 straight games to close out last season.
It was basically a completely lost year for head coach Duggar Baucom, whose teams will always play super fast, press and chuck 3-pointers. Since arriving in Charleston in 2016, Baucom’s teams have finished in the top 10 each year in both Adjusted Tempo and 3-point attempt percentage.
The injury bad luck was about as extreme as you’ll ever see. The Bulldogs’ best player, Hayden Brown, was lost for the season after just six games. And the injuries kept piling up on a seemingly weekly basis from that point on. Even Brady Spence and Tyson Batiste played almost the entire season hobbled.
As a result, not only did Baucom have to rely on too many young and inexperienced players, but all of the injuries hurt the Bulldogs’ depth, which adversely affects his run-and-gun style. You could visibly see the legs start to go in second halves, which hurt their defense and 3-point shooting. There were games in which The Citadel had only eight available players.
The Citadel should benefit this season from a much healthier roster (Brown will be back as will shooting guards Kaiden Rice and Fletcher Abee) and from the experience a number of freshmen received last year. The Bulldogs had 14 healthy players at preseason practice the other day, which is an immediate improvement in itself.
Lastly, keep your eye on graduate transfer Tyler Moffe, who started his career at Buffalo before going the JUCO route. He could help fill the void at point guard, which would provide a tremendous boost to the offense. There will be no defense, but that’s to be expected at The Citadel.