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College Basketball Free Picks – Dec 26th

Covid-cancellations aside, it’s been a pretty interesting start to the college basketball season.  The uncertainty extends far beyond who can play on any given day.  Traditional bluebloods have been uninspiring (Duke, North Carolina) to downright awful (Kentucky) and at least three major conferences look like outright chaos will abide (anyone want to pick a winner in the Big Ten??!?)

Yet, through it all, one thing has been abundantly clear in the early season.  Gonzaga is the best team in the country and it isn’t even close.  Of course, this fact will be obscured throughout the rest of the season, as the Zags will be want for another test and the lazy “non-major conference” label will diminish what they’ve proven in the early season.  They are 6-0 with wins over Kansas, West Virginia and Iowa (as well as a 23-point thrashing of Auburn).  The first three wins are over Top 10 teams with an average win margin of 9.3 points.

A case can be made for Baylor, and it would have been GREAT to see them actually play (and we still might), but there is absolutely no assailing Gonzaga’s resume bonafides.  They are an absolute LOCK for a #1 seed in March.

Yesterday was a glimpse into the chaos that is this year’s Big Ten.  No fewer than 11 teams have dreams of March sugarplums dancing in their heads (well, 13 if Penn State and Northwestern dream deeply), and if you think you know for sure who the best team in the league is, you’re wrong.  Iowa?  Humbled by Gonzaga and lost to Minnesota yesterday.  Michigan State got clipped by Wisconsin, who already owns a loss to Marquette.  How about Illinois or Rutgers, bottom-fodder no longer?  It’s going to be a really fun season in the deepest and most-balanced league in America.

We have a packed slate today with some great matchups, highlighted by Gonzaga and Virginia and Illinois and Indiana, great rivalries with a slightly-down Louisville facing off against severely wounded and desperate Kentucky (this one should be intense!) and a really interesting game with #6 Houston – the highest ranked non-Gonzaga, non Power-Six school visiting a UCF team fresh off an impressive upset of Florida State and a massive blowout loss at Michigan – today will be very interesting to see if the AAC has some depth to challenge the Cougars.

Today’s FREE PICKS:

Kentucky Wildcats at Louisville Cardinals -4

But they’re young!  Coach Cal will be fine!  Um… not so sure this season.  Kentucky isn’t just 1-5.  They are a hot mess.  The losses have been by wide margins to Richmond and Georgia Tech.  They’ve been comfy losses to Kansas and Carolina, neither who is as good as the front of the jersey implies, and they needed a furious rally to make the Notre Dame game competitive.  It’s a great schedule, especially on paper, but there is NOTHING to indicate they are ready to win a big time game against good competition.

Enter Louisville and their SMH 85-46 loss to Wisconsin exactly one week ago.  Yes, they were missing their best player and leading scorer, Carlik Jones, but as Chris Mack aptly stated, that’s not enough to justify the effort (or insane margin). However, in this insane season and schedule, I’m willing to chalk that one up as a young team no-showing under odd circumstances.  The bounce-back win over Pitt, though not world-beaters themselves, was a nice stabilizing effort, and earlier performances against Western Kentucky and Evansville were dominant and the Seton Hall win is solid.  Overall, the Cards have been pretty good and I THINK the Wisconsin game was a aberration.

Chris Mack’s team can defend with some athleticism and make Kentucky work for shots, which is trouble as the Wildcats have shown little ability to make shots, especially in a half-court setting.  I think they’ll find quality offense in short supply today at the YUM Center – empty though it may be – and as shots start clanking panicky shot selection will likely set in.

There is some desperation at play here, but in the past, I’ve not noted desperation to be a good panacea for Cal’s younger teams.  Does this rivalry mean the same thing to the young kids?  Is this bizarre season of empty arenas and sporadic games enough to dampen the emotion this game usually engenders?

Everyone will be keyed up and play hard, but I don’t buy the “want to” being so excessive as to top the scales in the Cats’ favor.  Give me Louisville at home to continue UK’s misery and notch the win and the cover.

FREE PICK:  LOUISVILLE -4

 

Gonzaga Bulldogs -8 vs. Virginia Cavaliers

My feelings for Gonzaga are documented in the column open.  They are the best team in the country.  Experienced, smart, infused with All-American NBA Draft caliber freshman talent, guided by and expert coach, and physically HUGE.  They LOOK like a pro team, and sadly for Virginia today, they also PLAY like one.  Virginia’s defense is vaunted and celebrated for good reason, but Tony Bennett’s squad is overmatched today.

The Bulldogs are really balanced as well, which will make keying on any one person or one aspect of their offense difficult.  Corey Kispert (20.8 points per game) and Drew Timme (20.3) and freshman guard Jalen Suggs (16.3) are sharing the scoring load for a team that is averaging over 87 points, despite the toughest schedule in the nation.  They’ve taken on all comers, in all locales, so don’t expect the neutral setting of Fort Worth to provide any consternation.

Virginia isn’t as bad as the loss to San Francisco might portend, but this is by no means a vintage Tony Bennet squad.  Their early schedule has been dreadful (not their fault – lots of cancellations) but in addition to the bad loss to USF, they also needed overtime to knock off Kent State.  On a non-analytics note, I know it is cliché to worry about Keihi Clark being undersized – obviously it didn’t stop them from winning a National Title, of which Clark (and the pass to send the Purdue game to OT, breathtaking…) but as I mentioned earlier, Gonzaga is HUGE.  Their backcourt is all 6’5’’ and strong.  It’s a matchup nightmare with no ‘normal-sized’ guard to matchup with.

I love Gonzaga.  I don’t love the number.  Eight is a lot, especially if UVA can bleed tempo and compress the score.  But Gonzaga is averaging over 87 a game, and UVA is really having trouble scoring, even against teams like Kent State and William and Mary.  The Zags ability to defend gets lost in some of the high scoring up-tempo contests, but they can lock it down when needed.

I’ll eat the eight, with a slight pause, and take Gonzaga to cover.

I’ll also combo them in a money-line parlay with Houston and Ohio State (@ Northwestern) to get to a nice +146 payout on BetMGM.

FREE PICK:  GONZAGA -8

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