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Early season stunners in college basketball

Jeff Fogle
VSiN City newsletter

December 6, 2017 12:01 AM

It felt like March Madness in December! We review a busy Tuesday of marquee matchups and surprising stunners in college basketball. You can’t pick winners moving forward unless you know which strengths and weaknesses are being uncovered in these early season challenges. Let’s get to work…

College Basketball Blockbusters: Villanova and West Virginia beat ranked opponents
These early December college basketball schedules can blow hot and cold. Some nights, not much worth reporting on. Other nights, blockbusters and upsets! 

We’ll start in this section with a pair of Tuesday night showdowns matching ranked teams. It’s a bit early to be thinking about the Big Dance. But, either of these games would fit right into the Sweet 16. By the time March arrives, they could even be Elite 8 type games. 

#4 Villanova (-5) 88, #12 Gonzaga 72
Two-Point Pct: Villanova 54% Gonzaga 68%
Three Pointers: Villanova 10/21, Gonzaga 6/20
Free Throws: Villanova 18/27, Gonzaga 16/21
Rebounds: Villanova 28, Gonzaga 28
Turnovers: Villanova 12, Gonzaga 18

This was played at Madison Square Garden in New York as part of “Jimmy V. Week” on ESPN. Great performance from Villanova outside of two-point defense. And, even that was partly a function of the big lead they built early. The Wildcats led 43-30 at the half. If Gonzaga happened to get the ball close, not much harm in Villanova allowing a few cheapies rather than tempting foul trouble. You can see that Villanova was plus 12 points from behind the arc thanks to earning and draining open looks. Turnovers were a difference-maker too. Gonzaga can have some trouble trying to force the ball inside through traffic against quality opponents. 

Villanova is on the short list of potential #1 seeds come March. It looks like the market is currently giving more pricing respect to teams like Duke, Michigan State, and Kansas. Possibly even Wichita State, though the selection committee has always lagged the market on the Shockers. Gonzaga usually gets market respect. So, laying 5 points to the Zags on a neutral floor is high praise indeed. Villanova didn’t even have to sweat the spread. 

#18 West Virginia (-4.5) 68, #15 Virginia 61
Two-Point Pct: Virginia 43% West Virginia 44%
Three Pointers: Virginia 9/23, West Virginia 10/25
Free Throws: Virginia 14/19, West Virginia 16/18
Rebounds: Virginia 27, West Virginia 32
Turnovers: Virginia 14, West Virginia 10

As often helps home favorites in this price range, West Virginia pulled away to get a cover thanks to a late free throw parade. The score was only 61-59 with 1:11 to go. West Virginia made 7 of 8 free throws in the final 71 seconds while holding Virginia to a bucket. The Cavs aren’t very good at “scoring fast” with their offensive approach. You can see that WV really didn’t do a very good job of earning free throws until that late run in this clash of styles. Meaningful edges in rebounding and turnovers for the host. 

West Virginia is prone to showing dramatic home/road splits in performance. The Mountaineers are just 1-3 ATS in four neutral site games this season, including a blowout loss to Texas A&M over in Germany that you may have watched opening weekend. Don’t let this home cover trick you into backing them away from home. Make the Mountaineers earn that. 

College Basketball Upsets: #9 Notre Dame nailed by Ball State, #14 Minnesota mauled at Nebraska
The last time we discussed Notre Dame, they were getting bullied by Michigan State to close out the Big 10-ACC Challenge. That Irish loss was one of the few low spots for the ACC in that event. This was much lower!

Ball State (plus 18) 80, #9 Notre Dame 77
Two-Point Pct: Ball State 54% Notre Dame 54%
Three Pointers: Ball State 8/24, Notre Dame 6/17
Free Throws: Ball State 14/16, Notre Dame 19/26
Rebounds: Ball State 40, Notre Dame 26
Turnovers: Ball State 14, Notre Dame 10

Being the National Champions of Maui isn’t going to mean much if Notre Dame doesn’t start playing better than this. If you were only scoreboard watching, and caught the highlight of Ball State’s three-point game winner at the buzzer, you missed the main themes. Notre Dame was KILLED on the boards by a big dog from a lesser conference, and only broke even percentage-wise inside the arc. How are you going to deal with Duke or North Carolina if somebody like Ball State can own the paint like that? 

The ACC is DEEP this season, with several teams in much better current form than the Irish. Florida State just beat Florida two nights ago. Notre Dame has been over-ranked in the polls since the admittedly impressive tourney run in Hawaii. Are they even #9 in the ACC right now? Might be a close call, believe it or not. Will be interesting to see how the market prices the logjam once the league starts playing head-to-head. 

Nebraska (plus 9) 78, #14 Minnesota 68
Two-Point Pct: Minnesota 31% Nebraska 59%
Three Pointers: Minnesota 6/16, Nebraska 6/21
Free Throws: Minnesota 18/24, Nebraska 22/28
Rebounds: Minnesota 38, Nebraska 42
Turnovers: Minnesota 13, Nebraska 17

Dramatic difference in two-point performance. Minnesota was a horrible 16 of 52 from inside the arc, while Nebraska was a much sharper 19 of 32. Minnesota flunked a test badly vs. Miami at home in the Big 10-ACC Challenge. Tonight’s result isn’t exactly a strike against the league because Nebraska’s also in the Big 10. The top contenders other than Michigan State look like they’ve been overrated by the media and the betting markets. Sparty may have a much easier time than anticipated if the other projected threats keep floundering. 

More College Basketball: Texas A&M tripped up at Walking Stick, Texas plays Smart at VCU
A special attraction in a later tip that was kind of an upset…and kind of a blockbuster…with Arizona surviving a nailbiter vs. #7 Texas A&M.

Arizona (plus 1) 67, #7 Texas A&M 64
Two-Point Pct: Texas A&M 49% Arizona 52%
Three Pointers: Texas A&M 5/14, Arizona 7/22
Free Throws: Texas A&M 7/10, Arizona 20/24
Rebounds: Texas A&M 30, Arizona 29
Turnovers: Texas A&M 11, Arizona 11

This was played at the Walking Stick Resort, rather than on Arizona’s home court in Tucson. That’s part of why the Aggies were favored. Not a true home court for the Wildcats (though the free throw counts suggest some home cooking). The rankings might also strike you casual followers as weird. How is a traditional power like Arizona unranked, while Texas A&M is all the way up at #7? The Wildcats had that disastrous “Atlantis Mylanta” experience where they lost three games in the Bahamas. Arizona had been #2 in the nation before that tournament. A&M is loaded with talent, possibly enough to take down Kentucky in the SEC this season. 

An evenly matched game outside of free throw count. And, the tally in attempts was 22-7 for Arizona until an ill-advised foul on a three-point shot in the final moments gave the Aggies a chance to tie from three down. They could only make 2 of 3, then had to foul Arizona who made it’s last two. 

Hard to judge at this point whether that’s a battle of Sweet 16 type teams…or a battle of eventual disappointments. A&M didn’t play to its ranking here considering how poorly Arizona played in the Bahamas (and much of the game in a 3-point OT win at UNLV this past Saturday night). If Arizona needs to be plus 13 in made FT’s to beat decent teams…that’s going to be an issue in the postseason when officiating is less likely to skew their way. 

We wanted to throw in UT/VCU from Tuesday as well…

Texas (-6.5) 71, Virginia Commonwealth 67
Two-Point Pct: Texas 54% VCU 49%
Three Pointers: Texas 7/16, VCU 7/25
Free Throws: Texas 12/22, VCU 12/18
Rebounds: Texas 33, VCU 38
Turnovers: Texas 12, VCU 12

Texas is definitely a team to watch this season, though the cat may already be out of the bag in terms of the market. It surely didn’t go unnoticed that Texas played 40-minute regulation ties in the Portland tournament against #1 Duke and #12 Gonzaga. They also beat Butler by 13 in a methodical grinder up there. That’s Sweet 16 caliber stuff! Here they were priced with a lot of respect, and couldn’t cover the number after blowing all of a 17-point second half lead. 

As much as there is to like about how Texas moves the ball on offense, and defends the rim when Mo Bamba is on the floor, they still have to learn how to protect leads (a big blown advantage vs. Duke as well). The good sign tonight was that they stopped launching three-point attempts except when they came in the natural flow of the offense. Head coach Shaka Smart is teaching a high-IQ lineup to be even smarter. The bad news? Missing 10 free throws sure didn’t help lock in their advantage. 

NBA: Oklahoma City wins fourth quarter 32-14 to rally past Utah
There was a lot of attention being paid to this game in sports betting circles because Utah had been on a fantastic run, while Oklahoma City had been burning money of late. OKC is still burning money. But, they did stage a fantastic fourth quarter rally to win 100-94 as 8-point favorites. 

Before running the game numbers, here’s a quick look at those recent runs.

Utah has covered 7 in a row (6-1 straight up)
Utah (-8.5) beat Chicago 110-80 (covered by 21.5)
Utah (plus 1) beat Milwaukee 121-108 (covered by 14)
Utah (plus 1) beat Denver 106-77 (covered by 30)
Utah (plus 1) won at the LA Clippers 126-107 (covered by 20)
Utah (plus 3.5) beat New Orleans 114-108 (covered by 2.5)
Utah (-4) beat Washington 116-69 (covered by 43!!!)
Utah (plus 8) lost at Oklahoma City 100-94 (covered by 2)

Through three quarters Tuesday, it looked like another huge cover was at hand. The Jazz were up 80-68, beating the market by 20 points (with five of their prior six cashers beating the market by double digits!). Even with the late collapse, the combined cover margin in this seven-game streak is still an astounding 133 points (19 per game on average). 

Oklahoma City has 6 straight non-covers
Oklahoma City (-8.5) lost to Detroit 99-98 (missed by 9.5)
Oklahoma City (-6) lost at Dallas 97-81 (missed by 22)
Oklahoma City (-6) lost at Orlando 121-108 (missed by 19)
Oklahoma City (-5.5) only beat Minnesota 111-107 (missed by 1.5)
Oklahoma City (-8) only beat San Antonio 90-87 (missed by 5)
Oklahoma City (-8) only beat Utah 100-94 (missed by 20

As Pauly Howard mentioned on “Follow the Money” the earlier this week, Oklahoma City has been favored to win all but one game this season. Through 23 outings…22 times as a favorite, just once as a dog (a game they won vs. Golden State). Yet, the Thunder are only 11-12 straight up for the season. Let that sink in. Below .500 for the season straight up when they were favored in 22 of 23 games

Oklahoma City (-8) 100, Utah 94
Two-Point Pct: Utah 50% Oklahoma City 56%
Three Pointers: Utah 11/33, Oklahoma City 4/18
Free Throws: Utah 15/21, Oklahoma City 18/26
Rebounds: Utah 35, Oklahoma City 46
Turnovers: Utah 18, Oklahoma City 19

A few weaknesses jump out in terms of OKC’s playoff hopes. They can’t be trusted to make three-pointers (fifth worst percentage in the league). That matters more and more as the game evolves. They’re also turnover-prone against good defenses because Russell Westbrook runs himself into trouble so often (7 giveaways tonight). Not obvious above, but clear from the player breakdowns…this isn’t a team that likes to pass the ball around to create open looks. Carmelo Anthony had 19 shots and 1 assist. Paul George had 13 shots and 1 assist. In fact, the whole team outside of Westbrook took 56 shots but only had 4 assists.

A quick note on Utah. They certainly have the look of a team that could match Miami’s long successful run last season. If you’re going all out on a nightly basis (which Utah must do now to make up for time loss during Rudy Gobert’s injury), and you’re running into a lot of opponents who are coasting or otherwise not hitting on all cylinders…you can post great straight up and ATS marks for WEEKS. Miami had a 23-4-1 ATS run through 28 game games beginning early in January. That listing above of recent Utah results suggest they were often playing with much more intensity than their opponents.

That’s it for Wednesday. Back with you Thursday to preview a huge New Orleans/Atlanta prime-time game in the NFL. We’ll also get caught up in the NBA, and have a new version of our estimated “market” Power Ratings in that sport.

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