Gonzaga vs. Villanova

Great matchup here of a dominant backcourt/wing corps (Villanova) against a dominant frontcourt (Gonzaga). Slowing down the Jalen Brunson/Mikal Bridges duo in the halfcourt at the point and wing, respectively, has to be priority No. 1 for Mark Few. Gonzaga struggled against Creighton’s slip screens in the first half before a halftime adjustment from Few that saw them abandon switching on every screen and rather hard hedging with the incredibly versatile defense of Killian Tillie. Villanova’s offense is similarly predicated on quick ball movement and constant screens, but the difference is that Brunson is arguably the best halfcourt point guard in the country. If you’re going to beat Gonzaga’s defense, it has to come from the perimeter, and Villanova’s offense is predicated on having four players on the floor at all time who can both move the ball and shoot it when they get the extra pass. The concern for Jay Wright has to be the Gonzaga frontcourt of Johnathan Williams and Tillie. Villanova’s frontcourt hasn’t really been tested this year, as the Battle 4 Atlantis draw quickly devolved for the Wildcats. And while Omari Spellman has been solid defensively, he has been the “weak link” (relatively speaking, as again, he’s been solid if unproven) between a Bridges at the 4 and Eric Paschall or Spellman at the 5 lineup, as Bridges/Paschall has been +.06 points per possession better, per Hooplens.com. Despite the solid numbers (as that net .06 ppp difference is .79 ppp compared to .85 ppp), the relative unproven quality of the post defense is a fairly large concern, as even the few legit post players the Wildcats have seen have posted solid offensive outings (see A.J. Brodeur of Penn, Dwight Coleby of WKU, Grant Williams of Tennessee, and Bennett Koch of UNI – who combined to go 26-37 on 2-point attempts). As for Gonzaga’s backcourt, they showed an inability to handle Texas’ pressure in a wild comeback by the Horns in PK80. Wright will surely employ his 1-2-2 zone press, but the ability of Bridges to switch onto Josh Perkins and/or Silas Melson negates a lot of the Zags’ perimeter action, and Donte DiVincenzo has quietly been very good defensively on the wing as well. If Corey Kispert’s ankle has him out or limited again tonight, Zach Norvell proved to be a capable replacement offensively, and he’s a slightly better defender. A somewhat esoteric point is that Gonzaga hasn’t really played away from home yet, as they had a large contingency in Portland. While this is a “neutral” site game at MSG, there should be a very pro Nova flavor to the crowd (although Gonzaga has of course become a national brand as well). Overall, Villanova’s offense is going to generate looks from the perimeter tonight, and they of course generally make them.

PICK: Villanova -5

Montana State @ Central Michigan

This meeting last year in Bozeman produced a wild 106-103 win for the Chips that saw an absolutely insane 84 points scored in the final 10 minutes, with Marcus Keene going off for 44. This year’s Montana State team is largely the same, with the dynamic backcourt of Harry Frey at the point and uber scorer Tyler Hall off the ball. The Chips, however, are markedly different. Keene and Braylon Rayson are gone, which in turn has made CMU a much better team. Yes, Keene and Rayson were fun to watch, but the isolation-heavy offense and their lack of height and defense made CMU a predictable and often times awful team. Offensively, the Chips already look much more like a typical Keno Davis team, as the ball movement is crisp and they’re currently 53rd nationally in assist rate, as opposed to 349th last year. Defensively, the Chips are often in a 2-3 zone base, and that could quickly prove problematic against Hall and Frey. Defense has generally been the issue for Brian Fish’s club, but he appears to have stumbled on a lineup that works, consisting of Frey, Hall, Devonte Klines, Sam Neumann and Keljin Blevins. It’s not a big lineup, but it’s versatile, which is key against the heavy perimeter action of CMU, and they won’t get exploited on the glass by the Chips, which has been a concern against other teams. Per Hooplens.com, that lineup has been surrendering only .76 points per possession.

PICK: Montana St +1.5

Texas @ VCU

Call me crazy, but I feel like Shaka Smart should have tested his young Horns in a true road game before heading back to VCU for the first time. Shaka’s return to the Stu will be the main story line, of course, but the question surrounding whether he’ll utilize the infamous havoc diamond press is a great secondary storyline. Havoc was of course the reason why Texas forced OT against Gonzaga in PK80 after trailing by 21 in the second half, and Smart used it some against Florida A&M in an uninspiring effort from the Horns. Pressing JonJon Williams isn’t really the best idea, but VCU will likely be short-handed again without Issac Vann and Malik Crowfield on the wing due to ankle sprains. Both were defending at a high level and were key offensively as well. They’ll be missed against Texas wings Kerwin Roach and Andrew Jones. Matt Coleman has completely changed the Texas offense, as his steady presence at the point has allowed Roach and Jones to move off the ball, but while the turnover plague from last year has been curbed with Coleman’s addition, the inability to hit perimeter shots at even a slightly sub par rate has carried over. The addition of shot swatter Mo Bamba has been key to the defense, but he has at times looked timid and capable of being pushed off his spot. It will be interesting to see what Justin Tillman can do tonight in the paint, as he represents the only interior threat for the Rams, but he and Khris Lane can both force Bamba to guard in pick-and-roll outside of the lane. Overall, the Texas defense is elite, while VCU simply isn’t on that end, especially without Vann and Crowfield. The Horns are more than capable of slowing down the bevy of VCU wings and attacking a less than stellar rim protection defense on the other end.

PICK: VCU +7

Nevada @ Texas Tech

Extremely high level of athleticism on the court between these two teams, as they’re both comprised of long “positionless” wings. The first question is whether Nevada can break down Chris Beard’s pack line defense, and the answer is a resounding yes. Between the Martin twins, Jordan Caroline and Lindsey Drew, the Pack have the big ball handlers necessary to split up and pass over the constant penetration denial defense and either shoot the 3 from long shooters like Kendall Stephens and Josh Hall or attack the baseline with the Martins. Offensively the Red Raiders run a Bob Knight style motion offense that revolves around point guard Keenan Evans, but frosh wing Jarrett Culver has proven to be the only shooting outlet for Beard early in the season. Texas Tech is solid on the offensive glass, and Nevada has had some issue in that regard this year, so poor shooting could be mitigated by some TTU second chance points. The Pack looked tired and even a little bored against UC Irvine, as Eric Musselman’s squad hasn’t had much rest early in the year, but coming out with that same lack of energy will get them behind early, and perhaps permanently, against a team like Texas Tech.

PICK: Nevada +5.5

St. John’s @ Grand Canyon

Marcus LoVett didn’t travel with the team to Arizona, so that’s a major loss for the Johnnies in their first true road game, and GCU of course has one of the best home-court advantages in the country thanks to the Havocs. LoVett and backcourt mate Shamorie Ponds are the heart and soul of St. John’s. Without LoVett, you can force the ball more easily out of Ponds’ hands, especially considering the intense man-to-man ball pressure that Dan Majerle employs. If Grand Canyon can force the St. John’s frontcourt to take the majority of the shots tonight, they’re going to win this game, as the Lopes are fairly stout in rim protection thanks to undersized but athletic shot blocker Keonta Vernon. On the other end, the question for GCU is whether Casey Benson and Josh Braun can effectively handle Chris Mullin’s press, which is significantly less effective without LoVett. (It should be noted that St. John’s has actually been better offensively and significantly better defensively when LoVett has been off the court, but that’s in a less than 200 possession sample size, per Hooplens.com). The Lopes are a veteran team welcoming a major conference opponent into Phoenix with one of the rowdiest fan bases in the country (the Havocs will travel to Thunder Dan’s old home), and they’ve done well in the past in these situations, taking Louisville to the wire last year and beating San Diego State. GCU is also coming off a horrific 4-36 from 3 against a packed in UC Riverside defense, a game they still won by 12. The pressing Johnnies should be more conducive to efficient offense for the Lopes tonight, assuming Benson and Braun don’t get flustered by the LoVett-less press.

PICK: Grand Canyon +5

Bullets:

  • Arizona still can’t stop dribble penetration, which is just unheard of for a Sean Miller defense, but perhaps the UNLV comeback serves as a turning point for the Wildcats. That said, Texas A&M has stout interior defense thanks to Bob Williams, and they can throw out a funky zone with tons of length to frustrate Allonzo Trier and DeAndre Ayton.
  • I love John Becker and Vermont, but I have some concerns about their ability to slow down both Andrew Rowsey and Markus Howard for Marquette. Anthony Lamb can carry Vermont offensively, but Trae Bell-Haynes hasn’t looked like the same defender on the perimeter without Dre Wills next to him, and UVM’s defense has actually limited teams to .85 points per possession in nearly 200 possessions with him off the floor, as opposed to 1.01 with him on (per Hooplens.com).
  • Marshall might have a tougher time getting in transition against Chattanooga than expected, as Lamont Paris is basically copying Wisconsin’s model on both ends. Not sure that the Mocs can exploit the weaknesses in the Herd defense to make it matter, though.
  • Bowling Green is getting to full strength with Justin Turner’s knee 100 percent and Twon Lillard supposedly back tonight. Evansville, meanwhile, is without its leading scorer in Ryan Taylor, and Marty Simmons’ heavy screening motion offense relies heavily on a primary scorer. They had a tuneup game against Oakland City to work on some post-Taylor issues.
  • Paul Lusk has essentially tried to make a carbon copy of Gregg Marshall’s defense at Wichita State, and that same defensive scheme at Missouri State jammed up Mike Daum of South Dakota State on every single screen, giving him zero room to breathe. Wichita State of course does it even better with an outstanding frontcourt. Looks like a second straight tough game for the Dauminator, especially after he posted 20 against the Shockers last year.
  • North Dakota and Creighton should score some points, and UND could catch the Bluejays in a tough spot in between Gonzaga and rival Nebraska. UND can’t clog up the lane, a necessity against Creighton, but former Bluejay Marlon Hunter should be able to penetrate at will with defensive ace Khyri Thomas likely checking Geno Crandall. Should be an 80 possession ball game.
  • Troy is likely still without Jordon Varnado, so one of Chris Cokley or HaHa Lee can go off for UAB tonight. Troy’s issues haven’t stemmed from poor interior defense (as Alex Hicks is much improved) , but rather Kevin Baker and Wes Person’s inability to stay in front of quicker guards. That won’t be an issue against UAB, but the Trojans also haven’t really faced a frontcourt like UAB’s (outside of Kentucky, of course).
  • Butler isn’t as poor of a shooting team as they’ve shown, and Utah’s matchup zone isn’t going to continue to limit teams to 23 percent from deep. Regression is due on both sides, and Utes could get run out of Hinkle.
  • This is actually a pretty good matchup for SMU, as they have big guards who can shoot over the top of TCU’s compact defense, and SMU clogs the paint on the other end as well as any team in the country; Jamie Dixon loves to filter offense through Kenrich Williams and Vlad Brodziansky. Biggest concern is that the Ponies fall flat again like they did in their first true road game last year.
  • Interested to see how UNLV responds after back-to-back heartbreakers. ORU improving with RJ Fuqua back at PG, but might be without big man Javan White tonight.
  • Could be a struggle for Arkansas State tonight. They torched UT Martin’s 3-2 matchup zone in Martin last year, but 10 3s came from Devin Carter, who is no longer on the team. This year’s ASU squad has two shooters in Connor Kern and Ty Cockfield, both of whom are liabilities defensively. ASU is a little too transition reliant under a new regime, and UTM doesn’t allow much in that regard.
  • Road weary Omaha heads to UCSB from Seattle on a quick turnaround. The Gauchos have been solid in transition defense, but haven’t played a team that pushes like the Mavs. You can blow by UCSB’s guards, but the Omaha interior defense in the halfcourt is a nightmare.
  • Neither Pepperdine nor UC Riverside can shoot a lick, and both defenses are going to zone. I would recommend not watching this game. The Waves have actually been a top-40 defense at denying transition attempts per Hoop-math.com, and that’s about the only way for Riverside to score consistently.

Tuesday’s Top Picks (YTD: 101-95):

BGSU -3.5

UCR/Pepperdine under 146

UT Martin +5.5

UTM/Arkansas St under 143.5

UConn/Cuse under 132

Omaha +10.5

Grand Canyon +5

Nebraska +9

*all lines via 5Dimes at time of publication

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