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Best Bets: Previewing Friday’s conference tournament action

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OHIO STATE vs. No. 6 MICHIGAN STATE, 12:30 p.m. BTN

  • LINE: Michigan State (-11)
  • TOTAL: 135
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Michigan State 73, Ohio State 62
  • KENPOM: Michigan State 74, Ohio State 63

Michigan State swept Ohio State in two games this season, winning by an average of 13.5 points, including an 86-77 win in Columbus. This game comes at a time when Michigan State is getting healthier — Kyle Aherns is still playing, Nick Ward is expected back on a limited basis — and when Ohio State lost six of their last eight regular season games. I’m not exactly sure what to make of the fact that the Buckeyes beat Indiana in the second round of the Big Ten tournament, but I’m not convinced that this means OSU is back to being the team that started the season 12-1 and climbed into the top 20 of the polls.

PICKS: I don’t have a great feel on this game and will probably stay away personally, but if I’m going to bet it’s going to be on Michigan State’s side. I just think this is a tough matchup for the Buckeyes given that Sparty has a pair of big guys that they can throw at Kaleb Wesson, and we all saw what happens to OSU when Wesson isn’t there. And don’t forget, Ohio State played yesterday at noon. Michigan State has not played since Saturday.

FLORIDA vs. No. 9 LSU, 1:00 p.m. ESPN

  • LINE: LSU (-2.5)
  • TOTAL: 135.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: LSU 69, Florida State 66.5
  • KENPOM: LSU 70, Florida 67

The big issue with this game is that the status of some key people will be up in the air. Will Wade will likely not be coaching the team due to the reports that have come out regarding his ties to the FBI investigation into college basketball. Naz Reid seems like he is going to be good to go after missing the Vanderbilt game. Javonte Smart is the question mark. There’s a chance that LSU does decide to hold him out. There’s a chance they decide to let him play. If he does play, this is the same guy that put 29 points, five boards and five assists on Tennessee. He can play.

Regardless of his status, however, I like Florida (+2.5) here, and the reasoning is pretty simple: These two teams played twice during the regular season, splitting after Florida took the SEC regular season champs to overtime in both games. I also think that it is important to note that the Tigers will be playing without their coach in a fairly meaningless tournament having just come off the celebration of their league title. Florida, on the other hand, is playing for a bid to the tournament.

PICKS: I think you have to be on the Florida side here.

MEMPHIS vs. UCF, 2:00 p.m. ESPN2

  • LINE: UCF (-2.5)
  • TOTAL: 147.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: UCF 75, Memphis 72.5
  • KENPOM: UCF 74, Memphis 73

It’s difficult, once we reach the point in the season where it becomes tournament time, to find spot plays. This, however, feels like a spot play. UCF is going to be in the NCAA tournament when the committee releases the bracket on Selection Sunday. They’re playing for seeding, and while I don’t know if it’s actually better to be a No. 8 seed than a No. 10 seed, that’s about the range that we are looking at for the Knights barring a massive run in Memphis.

The Tigers, however, are playing for their tournament lives. If they don’t win the automatic bid, they will not be dancing, which brings me to the next point — this tournament is in Memphis. The Tigers are 15-2 at home this season. One of those 15 home wins came against UCF, and it wasn’t close — the final score was 77-57. The Tigers also played the Knights tough in Orlando.

Should I mention that Memphis has won seven of their last night games?

PICKS: I will be on the Memphis moneyline here, especially if the odds keep creeping up. The line opened at UCF (-2) and moved to UCF (-2.5).

NEBRASKA vs. No. 19 WISCONSIN, 2:55 p.m. BTN

  • LINE: Wisconsin (-7.5)
  • TOTAL: 127
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Wisconsin 67.25, Nebraska 59.75
  • KENPOM: Wisconsin 66, Nebraska 60

All the signs here point to betting Wisconsin, right? Nebraska fell off a cliff at the end of the season, losing four of their last five, 11 of their last 14 and, during 10 week stretch, 13 out of 17. They have played two games in the last two days and advance to take on a Wisconsin team that beat they by 11 points in Lincoln earlier this year. The Badgers enter the Big Ten tournament having won three in a row, five of their last six and 11 of their last 14 games.

These two teams could not have been heading in more opposite directions heading to Chicago.

And then Nebraska turned into the team of destiny.

They beat Rutgers. They beat Maryland. They are a No. 13 seed in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament, and if they happen to find a way to get a win over Wisconsin of Friday, they will not be that far out of the bubble picture. They have everything to play for and they’re doing it for a coach that could end up getting fired by the time the season is said and done.

PICKS: I think I’d probably take Nebraska here simply because I don’t have a lot of faith in Wisconsin’s ability to run someone off the floor. They are methodical, they are defensive-minded and their best player can’t make free throws.

And, when you think about it, if the Huskers are going to win the Big Ten tournament, they probably will have to cover to do it. Back on that Tim Miles bandwagon!

XAVIER vs. No. 25 VILLANOVA, 6:30 p.m. FS1

  • LINE: Villanova (-6.5)
  • TOTAL: 137.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Villanova 72, Xavier 65.5
  • KENPOM: Villanova 71, Xavier 65

Villanova won the Big East regular season title in the least memorable fashion. They lost five of their last eight games — all on the road — and took home the title because A) One of their three wins came against Marquette at home, and B) that Marquette win was the second in a four-game losing streak for the Golden Eagles.

Villanova is not the Villanova of the last five years. They are much younger, they are not as talented as they have been and they have not shot the ball well enough from three to justify just how many they have been taking. They were also beaten pretty soundly by Xavier on Feb. 24th, losing by 12 in a game where they couldn’t find a way to make anything down the stretch.

PICKS: I think I like the Xavier side here. The Musketeers have won seven of their last eight games. They have the versatility and the athleticism to be able to matchup with Villanova when they spread the floor. I know that it is blasphemy to pick Xavier when they play Villanova, but given how well Xavier has been playing and the fact that Villanova and Xavier both rank outside the top 300 in tempo, I have a feeling this one will be close.

No. 12 FLORIDA STATE vs. No. 2 VIRGINIA, 7:00 p.m. ESPN

  • LINE: Virginia (-9)
  • TOTAL: 125.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Virginia 67.25, Florida State 58.25
  • KENPOM: Virginia 68, Florida State 59

This is one of my favorite games of the slate on Thursday.

For starters, I love Virginia (-9). The Cavaliers play Pack-Line, a defense built entirely around the idea that you take away access to the paint. No dribble penetration. No post touches. Nothing on the offensive glass. Virginia is going to make you beat them with jumpers over the top of their defense or by running offense that gets their defense moving. Florida State is not a great three-point shooting team, instead relying on getting offense from dribble penetration, post touches and the offensive glass. They don’t run complicated offense.

Simply put, this is a terrible matchup for the Seminoles. The first time they played, UVA led 65-36 with 2:30 left on the clock and the walk-ons checking into the game.

I’m also tempted by the over here. Virginia’s ruthless and unforgiving efficiency on the offensive end of the floor cannot be overstated. They’ve playing just as slow as they usually do, yet in the last five games, they’ve scored at least 73 points in all five while notching more than 60 possessions in just one.

The reason why I’m somewhat hesitant on the over is that I think Florida State — a top 15 defense in their own right — has the roster makeup to be able to matchup with Virginia’s versatility. I don’t think they’re going to stop Virginia, but I can see them holding the Wahoos to the low-to-mid 60s. If that’s the case, there’s no way they can cover the nine points and hit the over.

PICKS: Bet Virginia (-9). If you really need the action, bet the over, too, but I haven’t decided whether or not I will be betting it.

ALABAMA vs. No. 4 KENTUCKY, 7:00 p.m. SECN

  • LINE: Kentucky (-11.5)
  • TOTAL: 136.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Kentucky 74, Alabama 62.5
  • KENPOM: Kentucky 74, Alabama 64

The line keeps climbing here. It opened at Kentucky (-10) and is already up to (-12) in some places, and I don’t love that. I think that the Crimson Tide actually match up fairly well with Kentucky, and there is more talent on that Alabama roster than you may realize.

That said, when Alabama beat Kentucky earlier this year, it came when the Wildcats still weren’t playing their best and on a night where Tevin Mack made six first half threes and P.J. Washington and Tyler Herro combined for 8-for-22 shooting. Plus, Kentucky will be getting Reid Travis back on Friday.

PICKS: I’m probably going to stay away from this game myself, but I do think that letting the spread continue to climb and then grabbing Alabama (+12.5) or so right at the tip is the play.

IOWA STATE vs. No. 15 KANSAS STATE, 7:00 p.m. ESPN2

  • LINE: Iowa State (-1.5)
  • TOTAL: 131
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Iowa State 66.25, Kansas State 64.75
  • KENPOM: Iowa State 66, Kansas State 65

Just how much do you trust Iowa State?

Because when it comes down to it, the Cyclones are the most talented team in the Big 12, but they lost three in a row, five of their last six and six of their last eight in the regular season because all of that talent struggled to figure out how they have to play in order to play together. There were some fights, there were some shoving matches during games, and then there was an 83-66 win over a good Baylor team in the quarterfinals.

Kansas State won a share of the Big 12 regular season title, but they are not the same team without Dean Wade, who is resting his bad foot for the NCAA tournament. They are still really good defensively, and the return of Cartier Diarra certainly does help mitigate some of the loss of Wade offensively.

PICKS: So do you trust Iowa State? If you do, I think this is a great spot for them against a team that they beat by 14 points on the road less than a month ago. Personally, if I take Kansas State, I’ll be taking the moneyline, but I think the side you want to be on here is Iowa State’s

No. 5 DUKE vs. No. 3 NORTH CAROLINA, 9:30 p.m. ESPN

  • LINE: Duke (-3)
  • TOTAL: 164
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Duke 83.5, North Carolina 80.5
  • KENPOM: Duke 83, UNC 81

Remember all of the anticipation and buildup that there was for Duke-North Carolina in Cameron Indoor Stadium a month ago?

Remember how excited we all were to see that game happen?

Zion Williamson eventually blew out his shoe and the Tar Heels ended up smacking around Duke in Cameron. Well, tonight, we finally get the matchup we have been waiting all season to see: A full strength Duke going up against a full strength North Carolina.

For my money, the easiest bet to make today is the over in this game — it’s still available at 162 in some spots. The process is pretty simple:

  • North Carolina plays at the fourth-fastest pace nationally. Their average length of possession is fifth-lowest in the country. They’re the No. 7 offense in America, according to KenPom.
  • Duke plays at the 15th-fastest pace nationally. Their average length of possession is 12th-lowest. They are the No. 6 offensive in America, according to KenPom, and all of those numbers took a dip in the six games that Zion Williamson was absent.
  • The first time they played, there were 87 possessions in a game where Duke’s game-plan included Williamson. The second time they played, there were 77 possessions in a game where UNC pulled away at the end and Duke did not have their best player.

I know the last two games both went under, and I’m actually happy about that. I think it kept the total lower.

PICKS: Other than the over, if you’re making me pick a side, I’d lean Duke. I’ve said all along that I think the Blue Devils are the best team in the country when they are at full strength, and I’m not about to back off that now.

MISSISSIPPI STATE vs. No. 8 TENNESSEE, 9:30 p.m. SECN

  • LINE: Tennessee (-5.5)
  • TOTAL: 146.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Tennessee 76, Mississippi State 70.5
  • KENPOM: Tennessee 78, Mississippi State 73

This is another really simple read for me: Tennessee (-5.5). I just do not have all that much trust in Mississippi State as a basketball team, and despite the loss at Auburn last Saturday, I still think the Vols are one of the very best teams in the country. It’s worth noting here that the one time these two teams did play this season, Mississippi State lost 71-54 in Knoxville.

PICKS: Go Vols.

WEST VIRGINIA vs. No. 17 KANSAS, 9:30 p.m. ESPN2

  • LINE: Kansas (-10.5)
  • TOTAL: 147
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Kansas 78.75, West Virginia 68.25
  • KENPOM: Kansas 80, West Virginia 69

If we’re betting on Nebraska because they are the team of destiny, then we have to bet on West Virginia, too.

The Mountaineers have won two straight games to open Big 12 tournament play, becoming the first No. 10 seed to get to the semifinals in the history of the event. Bob Huggins has this group playing like Press Virginia again, and should I mention that they already own a win over the Jayhawks this season?

PICKS: The Team Of Destiny bet may not end up paying off, but when it comes down to it, I’m willing to wager on a pressing team playing against a backcourt of nothing but freshmen.

New-look Virginia back to work after winning NCAA title

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Tony Bennett’s first offseason as a national champion coach has come with benefits on the recruiting trail. His first season at Virginia after winning the title, however, will bring challenges.

Five players who helped Virginia beat Texas Tech to capture the first basketball title in school history are gone, and that’s four more than expected. Center Jack Salt graduated, and guards De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy declared for the NBA draft. Seldom-used Marco Anthony transferred.

Recruiting was already well underway before the Cavaliers won it all, but Bennett said Wednesday the result “certainly can’t hurt and I think it has helped. It validates a lot of good stuff that’s happened in the past.”

Virginia hopes the spoils of those improvements are evident quickly in incoming freshmen guard Casey Morsell, big men Justin McKoy and Kadin Shedrick and junior college shooting guard Tomas Woldetensae.

Virginia opened its summer practice period on Tuesday, and Bennett said he’s not sure just yet who will be ready to contribute.

“Everyone will have ample opportunity, the newcomers, so to speak,” he said. “To say who, you just don’t know. … There are some opportunities out there. So it’s the returners and we can go down the list of the guys we brought in, but I think they’re excited about the opportunity.

“There’s always a learning curve any time you go from whether it’s high school to college or junior college to college or coming from a redshirt to being eligible. … Going up a level and playing in the ACC, for any of these guys, there’s the challenge of the physicality and the level of talent and the speed.”

Woldetensae, a left-handed shooter, averaged 17.3 points per game and shot 47.6 percent from 3-point range last season at Indian Hills Community College.

“We thought we needed to add some experience and a quality player on the perimeter and when he was mentioned and we did our homework and watched film and all those kinds of things,” he said. “His personality came out as a young man of character and we always start there. He seemed wanting to challenge himself at a very high level.”

The Cavaliers were delighted that Mamadi Diakite decided to come back for his senior year after testing the professional waters. And they added senior transfer Sam Hauser, who averaged 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds last season at Marquette. Hauser will be eligible to practice with the team, but won’t be able to play until 2020-21.

Bennett’s offseason included numerous speaking engagements, recruiting, talking to NBA scouts about his players and some time to decompress.

He also checked an item off his bucket list when, with his father, longtime college coach Dick Bennett, he played Augusta National Golf Club, home of The Masters. That, he said, “was amazing.”

Now, it’s back to work.

“I’m grateful for the busy-ness of it,” he said of the offseason. “It means something good happened.”

Four-star forward commits to West Virginia

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West Virginia landed a top-75 recruit Thursday night.

Isaiah Cottrell, a 6-foot-9 forward from Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, committed to West Virginia’s 2020 recruiting class.

Cottrell picked the Mountaineers overs offers from the likes of Kansas, Washington and Arizona, among others. His father, Brian Lewin, played for West Virginia in the 1990s. The four-star prospect continues a promising recruiting trend for Bob Huggins, who landed a top-40 commit in center Oscar Tshiebwe in the 2019 class.

The Mountaineers missed the NCAA tournament last season for the first time in four years as they slid to 15-21 overall and last in the Big 12 with a 4-14 mark.

John Calipari’s new deal at Kentucky worth $86 million over 10 years

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John Calipari and Kentucky agreed in April to what was described as a “lifetime contract.” Thursday, the exact terms of that deal were disclosed.

The Wildcats coach’s new contract worth $86 million over 10 years.

“I’ve said from day one that this would be the gold standard and it has been for student-athletes and coaches,” Calipari said in a statement released by the school. “As I enter my 11th year, I’m reminded it took me 20 years to get an opportunity to like this. There is no other place I want to be. As I look forward, my mindset is what’s next and how can we be first at it for the young people that we coach.”

Calipari, 60, will likely continue to be a source of speculation for other jobs presuming he keeps things rolling in Lexington as he has for the last 10 years, but what Kentucky is paying him will almost certainly be more than any other program – and potentially NBA franchises – are going to be willing to. Calipari’s success, NBA history and ability to always be central to the broader college basketball conversation means he’ll always be in demand, but it’s hard to picture a situation that could intrigue Calipari enough to leave one of – if not the – best jobs in basketball.

“(Calipari) has added a special chapter to the greatest tradition in college basketball and it’s a chapter we want him to continue writing until the end of his coaching career,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “We are pleased to announce a new contract that will enable him to do exactly that.”

Calipari 305-71 with one national championship, four Final Fours and 26 first-round draft picks in 10 years with the Wildcats. He and Kentucky will likely open the 2019-20 season as one of the frontrunners for the national championship.

Michigan State reports violation for Tom Izzo hosting visit for former high school

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Michigan State self-reported an NCAA rules violation for Tom Izzo hosting Iron Mountain High School for a tour while the team was in town to compete for its first ever state title that weekend.

Izzo unknowingly committed the violation — which only occurred because Iron Mountain was competing in the Breslin Center that weekend — and the Spartans immediately gave notice once they became aware of it. Proud of his alma mater for advancing to Michigan’s final weekend, Izzo was merely taking interest in players and a team connected to his youth. The Iron Mountain program toured the Breslin Center with Izzo and toured Michigan State’s locked room while also watching the Spartans practice before their state semifinal game.

Since it was a special privilege for Iron Mountain, playing in an event there, the Spartans were technically at fault for a violation. The fact that Izzo and Michigan State have to report a violation for this sort of thing is kind of ridiculous since Izzo has a natural connection to the team in question. Although Michigan State likely isn’t going to get hit with any NCAA issues from this, it’s the kind of thing that critics come to question about the NCAA’s rulebook.

Former lacrosse star Pat Spencer commits to Northwestern for basketball

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Northwestern landed a unique graduate transfer on Thursday as Loyola lacrosse star Pat Spencer will spend his final year of college eligibility hooping for the Wildcats, according to Stadium’s Jeff Goodman.

A former high school basketball standout at Boys’ Latin (MD), Spencer was one of the best lacrosse players in the country for the Greyhounds the past four years in college. He was selected in two drafts during the Spring. Spencer was taken first overall in the inaugural PLL College Draft while getting taken seventh overall in the MLL’s Collegiate Draft. Loyola remains in the NCAA tournament as Spencer is playing out his senior season of college.

Spencer is passing up multiple professional lacrosse opportunities to play Big Ten basketball for Northwestern. For a stud athlete in a sport to pass up money to pursue another athletic dream is one of the college basketball’s best things to follow next season.

As if Spencer’s background wasn’t unique enough, he’ll be at a Northwestern team starving for an identity since making the NCAA tournament a few seasons ago. By playing in the Big Ten, Spencer will be thrown against Final Four contenders and potential draft picks, which makes this transition particularly intriguing. It’s a cool story to follow this season as college hoops doesn’t often get athletes from other sports playing in such prominent conferences.

Greg Paulus famously went from Duke point guard to Syracuse quarterback as a graduate transfer, but he was leaving the sport to pursue an opportunity to play football. Spencer choosing basketball over a sure pro shot in lacrosse is an interesting opportunity for him this season. It’ll be interesting to see if he can still contribute anything on the hardwood.

(Ht: Jeff Goodman, Stadium)