NCAA Basketball Betting and Handicapping: Scouting the Week Ahead
by Alan Matthews - 2/3/2014
We had three college basketball teams enter February still without a loss for the first time since 1976, but we are guaranteed that no more than two will get to March that way, and I tend to believe that number will be zero.
Top-ranked Arizona got a double-whammy of bad news on Saturday night. The Wildcats were beaten at unranked California 60-58 when the Bears' Justin Cobbs hit a sweet step-back jumper with 0.9 seconds left. Frankly, that loss wasn't all that surprising to me as it was Cal's season and could end up being the victory that gets the Bears an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.
I'm also sure that Arizona coach Sean Miller really cares less about the one loss. Most coaches will tell you they wouldn't want the pressure of bringing an unbeaten team into postseason play -- get that loss out of the way and move on. However, there were two pretty concerning things from that defeat. The first was that leading scorer Nick Johnson was terrible, a ghastly 1-for-14 from the floor for four points. Arizona isn't a great perimeter team as it is, and if Johnson is off, not even all the Cats' size and athleticism in the frontcourt can make up for that against the very best teams.
But second and by far most important was the loss of Arizona's third-leading scorer, forward Brandon Ashley, for the rest of the season to a broken foot. He was hurt after playing only two minutes. He landed awkwardly on his foot after rebounding his own miss. The former McDonald's All-American averaged 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds this season. Ashley will be replaced in the lineup by freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and he's a good one, but now the bench is weak. Another guy likely picking up minutes is big man Matt Korcheck, who has totaled four minutes of court time in the past five games.
Big injuries to national title favorites have happened before, and usually good things don't follow. Perhaps the most well-known case was to Cincinnati's Kenyon Martin in the 1999-2000 season. The Bearcats looked nearly unbeatable with Martin as arguably the nation's best player, but when he broke his leg in the opener of the Conference USA Tournament the Bearcats were toast. They lost in the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.
Two years ago North Carolina was stacked with future NBA players and the top seed in the NCAA Tournament's Midwest Region. Point guard Kendall Marshall hurt his wrist against Creighton. The Heels won that game, barely escaped Ohio in the Sweet 16 and lost to Kansas in the Elite Eight without Marshall. I think that team wins it all if he doesn't go down. Arizona remains the favorite on Bovada at 6/1 to win the national title, but I don't think the Cats should be any longer. Look for Kansas (13/2) and Syracuse (7/1) to pass UA soon. KU is the +450 favorite on Sportsbook.ag.
No. 2 Arizona should be OK this week with home games against Oregon and Oregon State. New No. 1 Syracuse should stay atop the polls at least through this week as it was a 14-point favorite on Monday against visiting Notre Dame and hosts a so-so Clemson team on Sunday. Still, I say the Orange's reign at the top ends Feb. 12 at Pittsburgh. If that Feb. 22 game at Duke is anywhere near as good as Saturday's Blue Devils-Orange one was, then we are in for a treat.
Horns Set Up To Fail?
Probably my favorite trap game of the week is Tuesday night when No. 15 Texas visits TCU, which is getting 6.5 points. The Horns are surging. They upset Kansas 81-69 in Austin on Saturday for UT's sixth straight win and fourth straight over a ranked team. Texas is a game behind Kansas for the Big 12 lead and suddenly looks like the only legitimate challenger with teams like Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Baylor falling way off.
The Horns are due for a major letdown playing at TCU, the only winless team in the Big 12. In addition, Texas point guard Javan Felix will miss the game after he suffered a concussion late in the win over the Jayhawks. He averages 12.0 points and 3.0 assists in 25.0 minutes per game. This is probably the Frogs' biggest home game left as TCU wants nothing more than to beat Big Brother Texas. TCU pulled a shocking home upset of Kansas last season in an otherwise dreadful season, and I could see more of the same Tuesday.
Other Games To Watch
Last week in this space I mentioned that hints were being dropped that highly-touted Florida freshman Chris Walker could be cleared by the NCAA soon, and lo and behold he was. The 6-foot-10 Walker is projected as a possible lottery pick even though he hasn't played a second yet. Walker is set to debut Tuesday night at home against Missouri and could make the No. 3 Gators scary good if he can give even 15 minutes a night. There's also the chance Walker could disrupt team chemistry, but I trust Billy Donovan, and it's a largely veteran bunch. Florida enters Tuesday's game on a 13-game winning streak. It is 9/1 at Bovada to cut down the nets in April and a 12-point favorite vs. the Tigers.
Another game I'm interested to see Tuesday is Wisconsin at Illinois. The Badgers, who are 4-point WagerWeb favorites, were once ranked in the Top 5 but have lost five of six and are out of the polls. The Illini were ranked too at one point but have stunningly lost seven in a row (1-6 ATS). I wouldn't be surprised if Illini coach John Groce's job is some jeopardy after this season even though he has a contract through the 2017-18 season. He also hasn't been able to land the top Chicago-area recruits.
Wednesday, I am calling No. 4 Wichita State's first loss of the season as the Shockers visit the second-best team in the Missouri Valley Conference, Indiana State. Yes, Wichita routed visiting ISU 68-48 on Jan. 18, but the Sycamores are unbeaten at home. They have no chance at an at-large NCAA bid without this victory. Wichita State then follows with another challenge on Saturday at Northern Iowa. If it makes it through this week without a loss, then I'm a believer.
There are actually two ranked teams in action this Friday, a rarity. One is No. 12 Creighton, and I don't want to hear any more about how good all these freshmen are across the land.. If the Bluejays' Doug McDermott isn't the Player of the Year then something is wrong. The guy is a stud, averaging 25.0 points and 7.1 rebounds. He had 39 in his last game against St. John's. Creighton hosts DePaul on Friday and McDermott had 19 in a 19-point win over the Blue Demons in Rosemont earlier this season.
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