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Best Bets: Previewing Kentucky-Kansas, and why it’s time to buy Michigan schools

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Here is everything you need to know when betting the biggest games this weekend.

As always, this is coming out before the Vegas lines for Saturday’s games, so we are using projections from KenPom and Haslametrics to walk through how the game will play out. 

No. 9 KANSAS at No. 8 KENTUCKY, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Kentucky 73, Kansas 69
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Kentucky 72, Kansas 68

The biggest game of the weekend will feature two blue-bloods squaring off once again in the marquee matchup of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge: No. 9 Kansas heading to Rupp Arena to take on No. 8 Kentucky.

These are two teams that are heading in opposite directions. Kentucky has lost once since Dec. 8th — by two points at Alabama and in overtime against Seton Hall in New York City. Since then, they’ve been dominant against UNC on a neutral, blew out Louisville at Louisville and beat Auburn on the road after blowing a 16 point second half lead. The youngsters on this roster, namely Tyler Herro and Ashton Hagans, have really come of age in the last month. Kansas, on the other hand, is still trying to work out how they are going to play without Udoka Azubuike anchoring things inside, and it hasn’t gone great. They are now 7-3 in games in which he hasn’t played, and that includes road losses to Arizona State and West Virginia.

And for my money, that’s the most notable thing in this matchup. In their last four road games, Kansas is 1-3. In those four games, they are averaging 18 turnovers. Devon Dotson, in particular, has struggled, as he’s averaged 4.5 turnovers himself. Seven of them came in the loss at West Virginia. He has just a single turnover combined in the last three home games that the’s played.

On Saturday afternoon, Dotson will get the honor of going up against Hagans, one of the best on-ball defenders in all of college basketball. In the eight games since he took over as the star point guard on this roster, Hagans has averaged 3.8 steals. Tuesday’s 21 point win over Mississippi State was the first time during that stretch that he did not collect three steals in a game — he finished with two after his third was credited as just a “turnover”.

So that’s not ideal.

Neither is the fact that Kansas is a team that really struggles to shoot the ball from the perimeter as they go up against a Kentucky team whose single biggest (only?) weakness defensively is how much they struggle to defend the three-point line.

All of that screams Kentucky, but the matchups give me some pause.

For starters, Kansas is playing four-around-one now. Kentucky is married to playing two bigs, meaning that one of Reid Travis or P.J. Washington (likely Washington, even though he’s probably a better matchup for Lawson than Travis is) will end up guarding one of Kansas’ big wings — Marcus Garrett, Lagerald Vick, Quentin Grimes, Ochai Agbaji. That won’t be ideal, but the silver lining: The best matchup would be Agbaji, and with Grimes’ continued struggles, I expect him to be on the floor for 25-plus minutes.

PICKS: Assuming the line opens around (-4), I really like Kentucky here. They’re at home, they’re trending up and Kansas has not bee good on the road this season.

No. 5 MICHIGAN at INDIANA, Fri. 6:30 p.m. (FS1)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Michigan 66, Indiana 62
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Michigan 66, Indiana 63

I love the Michigan side here. The last time they played — albeit it in Ann Arbor — the Wolverines won by 11 in a game that was never really as close as the final score would suggest. Michigan is as good defensively as anyone in college basketball, and they specifically have elite defenders in spots to guard Juwan Morgan, Romeo Langford and whoever it is that Archie Miller has at the point.

Indiana has lost five straight games, but it’s also worth noting here that Michigan is coming off of a loss of their own. They dropped their first game of the season at Wisconsin on Saturday and had another wakeup call against Minnesota during the week. This has the feel of a bounce back game for the Wolverines against an Indiana team that is in the middle of a crisis.

PICKS: Being that this is a Friday night tip, the Vegas line is out and has already been bet up to Michigan (-4.5). I don’t love much this week, but I think this is probably the best bet you can get.

No. 9 MICHIGAN STATE at PURDUE, Sun. 1:00 p.m. (CBS)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Michigan State 75, Purdue 73
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Michigan State 78, Purdue 74

Michigan State is playing their best basketball of the season, having won 12 straight games since the overtime loss to Louisville in November. Three of their last four and four of their last six have come away from the Breslin Center, and in those four wins, they have beaten Ohio State, Penn State, Nebraska and Iowa by an average of 11.3 points. Cassius Winston has fully emerged and Matt McQuaid has returned to the lineup healthy.

McQuaid is the key here, because he was the guy that was tasked with chasing around Carsen Edwards the last time these two teams faced off. In that game — which came in East Lansing — Edwards was 3-for-16 from the floor with no assists and four turnovers in an 18 point loss. Last season, Edwards was 5-for-15 when Purdue played Michigan State, again at the Breslin Center. He was 6-for-16 in two games against Michigan State as a freshman. In his career, Edwards is 14-for-47 from the floor in four games against the Spartans.

That matters more now than ever, as there is just one high-major player (Ethan Happ) with a higher usage rate than Edwards. His usage rate, at 34.9, is higher than Markus Howard’s and just a shade below Ja Morant’s, at 35.6. Slow him down and you slow Purdue down.

PICKS: I want to see where the line opens on this game, because I don’t have a great feel for it. On the one hand, Purdue is unranked and sitting at 13-6 overall on the season. On the other hand, they’ve won seven of their last eight games, they’re coming off of impressive wins over Indiana and at Ohio State and they won at Wisconsin two weeks ago. That’s part of the reason why they are a top ten team on KenPom.

If this line ends up around Michigan State (-5), then I’ll probably pass. But KenPom is projecting the score at Michigan State (-2), and if the line opens around there, then I think Sparty will be a good bet.

No. 24 IOWA STATE at No. 20 OLE MISS, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Iowa State 73, Ole Miss 72
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Iowa State 75, Ole Miss 72

Before we dive fully into this conversation, understand this: I am not a believer in Ole Miss. They are an awesome story. Kermit Davis has done a terrific coaching job getting the Rebels to the point where they aren’t even in the bubble conversation right now. They are also a team that I think is closer to the top 40 than they are the No. 20 team in the country.

On the other hand, I love this Iowa State team. They space the floor, they are hard to guard because of just how skilled their wings are and they haven’t yet hit their ceiling, not with Lindell Wigginton and Cam Lard still trying to find their way. They’ve lost three of their last five games and two of their last three on the road, but those losses came by three points at Baylor and by four points at Kansas.

PICKS: I’m guessing this will open around a pick-em or with the Cyclones giving a point, and I think Iowa State wins outright.

No. 16 AUBURN at No. 22 MISSISSIPPI STATE, Sat. 8:30 p.m. (SECNET)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Mississippi State 75, Auburn 74
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Mississippi State 78, Auburn 75

The Bulldogs have lost three of their last five games, they are coming off of a 21 point loss to Kentucky and they currently have a 2-3 record is SEC play. Auburn has also lost three of their last five games — including their last two — and sits at 2-3 in the SEC. Both teams pounds the offensive glass and shoot the three ball well while neither team clears the defensive glass or runs opponents off of the three-point line all that well.

PICKS: I don’t think either team is all that good and I don’t think either team will actually be able to consistently get stops. I think I like the Auburn side more, assuming the line opens at Auburn (+2) or something close to that, but I think my favorite bet would be the over, especially if you can get it in the high 140s.

SYRACUSE at No. 10 VIRGINIA TECH, Sat. 8:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Virginia Tech 71, Syracuse 64
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Virginia Tech 74, Syracuse 64

This is such a weird matchup.

On the one hand, Virginia Tech is one of the very best three-point shooting teams in the country, making 42.1 percent of their triples while taking 43.9 percent of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc. They have shooters everywhere in their lineups and a pair of dynamic playmaking lead guards to create those open looks. At the same time, Syracuse holds opponents under 30 percent from beyond the arc while forcing more threes to be taken than any other high-major team in college hoops.

This makes sense. Their zone is so limiting to penetration that you have to settle for out of rhythm threes is a long and athletic defender jumping at you.

But here’s the thing: Monmouth in the only team in the country that has allowed a higher percentage of their points allowed to come on threes than Virginia Tech, and Syracuse is the only high major team that forces opponents into a higher percentage of their field goal attempts coming from deep. This would normally be a good thing against Syracuse, but they are coming off of a game where they made 14 threes and Buddy Boeheim is now 11-for-20 from beyond the arc in his last four games.

PICKS: If the line opens at Virginia Tech (-7), I think I’m going to have to take it. The dots connect, but it is worth noting that when these two played last season, Virginia Tech lost by 12 at the Carrier Dome on a night where they shot 10-for-30 from three.

KANSAS STATE at TEXAS A&M, Sat. 2:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Kansas State 65, Texas A&M 60
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Kansas State 66, Texas &M 60

We were all over Kansas State last week and I think we need to be all over the Wildcats again this week.

Texas A&M is a bad basketball team. They are 7-10 on the season, they’ve lost six of their last seven games and one of those six losses came at home against Texas Southern. Kansas State, on the other hand, has now won five straight and is playing with a healthy Dean Wade. They are suffocating defensively and better than what the computers recognize on the offensive end of the floor now that Dean Wade is back in action. Their leading scorer — T.J. Starks — averages more turnovers than assists and is shooting 34.2 percent from the floor and 22 percent from three. He will be early alive by Barry Brown.

PICKS: I really, really hope this opens at Kansas State (-5).

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

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As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

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He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.