Feb 9th NCAAB March Maniac’s Free Picks
I generally refer to every Saturday as a “big day of college hoops” both because I am a hoops nerd and, more defensibly, because the schedule is loaded intentionally to make Saturday a glamorous affair. But this Saturday, I mean THIS SATURDAY, is truly a big one if for no other reason that we get the single best game of the college basketball season tonight at 6pm EST on ESPN.
Duke beat Virginia by a deuce in the first matchup, but they were without Tre Jones and they were at home. Tonight they are at full strength but on the road. It is entirely fair, with due respect to Tennessee, to call the winner of tonight’s contest the best team in the nation and the one with the inside track to the overall #1 seed in March.
But today is far from just Duke at UVA. Kentucky heads to Mississippi State, Michigan State tries to stop their three-game skid against Minnesota, Auburn is at LSU, Louisville is at Florida State, Gonzaga gets perhaps their last test of the year (albeit less of one than in normal years) hosting St. Mary’s and Villanova can basically wrap up the Big East title if they can go into Marquette and get a huge W. For all the “Villanova is rebuilding” talk, they are currently one of only three major conference teams unbeaten in league play (Tennessee and Washington – being generous to the abysmal Pac 12…)
Let’s get to business!
TODAY’S FREE PICKS:
Might as well start at the top. This game is obviously enormous, and obviously pits two of the best, if not THE TWO best, teams in the country. I got a fortunate cover in the first matchup with Virginia closing the margin to a deceptive two points. Duke won that game with breathing room, even without Tre.
If you follow here regularly, you have read my lengthy spouting of Virginia stats and metrics. They are 16-5 ATS this season, and sadly, I am just 1-1 on that trend, but it is still an 82% ATS mark, which is staggering. They are 7-2 ATS in conference play and own a league best +15.7 MOV and are +5.9 ATS – which is ridiculously huge. Duke’s been solid as well at 14-8 ATS but just 5-4 ATS in league play. They are second in the ACC in MOV but their ATS margin leads only Boston College and Notre Dame. Some of that is the heavy weight of expectations inflating the line – but it is still a stat worth noting.
Duke certainly SEEMS better when you just LOOK at the players. They probably have the four best players on the floor, so how could they lose, right??? And, if all things click and Duke defends at their peak – especially perhaps the best on-ball point guard defender in the nation in Tre Jones, wreaks havoc, there is no reason the Blue Devils can’t win on the road.
But I’ll stick to my guns and the advanced metrics. Virginia is still the best defensive team in the nation. They rank second in defensive efficiency. Somewhat under the radar, Duke ranks fourth. That’s a virtual push, believe it or not. Duke plays at a different tempo, so they don’t get the flashy games where they hold a team to 44 points, but they can certainly defend. Another stat that will surprise many; Virginia is the fifth most efficient OFFENSIVE team in the country. Duke is also excellent ranking ninth.
Both teams are actually EXCELLENT in an area that is a casually perceived weakness. But this game is in Charlottesville, and the Cavs are only laying a point. I think we will get a great contest, but I’ll take the home team to prevail. I’ve seen Duke display some shot selection weakness against top defenses and an over-reliance on Barrett iso’s or settling for “four-out, swing it around the arc until someone launches.” Virginia is unlikely to yield a ton of offensive rebounds, so if the game does resort to that style, unless Duke cans 42%+ from distance, I think UVA clips them.
I’ll take the Hoos at home.
MY PICK: VIRGINIA CAVALIERS -1.5
Scott Drew has done one heck of a job in Waco this year (every year, really), keeping the Bears in the NCAA Tournament hunt in the most balanced deep league in America despite not having high expectations entering the season. However, I am a little surprised they are favored by three, even despite their 7-2 ATS conference mark and league-best +9.9 ATS margin in Big Twelve play (another strong indicator at just how much the Bears have overachieved).
However, they are hosting one of the hottest under-the-radar teams in the nation today in the Kansas State Wildcats. The Wildcats are in first place in the league and sit two games ahead of Kansas in the loss column after their big win in Manhattan this week. The biggest reason I lean K-State is that most of their losses came BEFORE their best player, Dean Wade, returned to the lineup. Now that they are intact, the Wildcats have been tearing up the league. They own wins over Kansas, Texas Tech, and @Iowa State since his return, and have just the lone weird loss at Texas A&M (yep, I know, that one bit me).
Baylor has been excellent this season. They enter at 6-3 in Big 12 play and have been very good at home. There really isn’t any reason to pick AGAINST Baylor, but there is a good reason to pick FOR Kansas State, which is what I am doing here.
MY PICK: KANSAS WILDCATS +3
Kentucky Wildcats -4 at Mississippi State Bulldogs – Kentucky has won nine in a row and is ripping through the SEC, finally living up to their massive potential. Mississippi State is just 4-5 in SEC play and has been reeling. Look for the Wildcats to pass a major road test tonight in Starkville.
Minnesota Golden Gophers +14 at Michigan State Spartans – Michigan State has lost three straight and has looked lost without Langford. I think they snap the skid tonight, but I’m not laying more than a dozen against anyone right now…
Auburn Tigers at LSU Tigers -3 – I’ll take the home Tigers in this battle. Auburn has been a mess on the road and the team that looked the peer to Tennessee in November, now looks like an SEC-also ran. Give me LSU at home.