Monday College Basketball Best Bets: Ride the Jays & Terps to Victory

The new college basketball season enters its third week of play, and we are starting to gradually ease into the conference portion of the schedule. Tonight features a relatively light slate of action headlined by the Big Ten Conference opener between Rutgers and Maryland, followed by the Big East Conference opener between Marquette and Creighton.

Who has the edge in each matchup and who should you look to take tonight? Let’s dive into tonight’s doubleheader action.

#19 Rutgers at Maryland

Spread: Maryland -2
Total: O/U 137.5
Time/TV: 6:05 PM ET, Big Ten Network

The best conference in all of college basketball is back with the headline game of the evening when Maryland plays host to #19 Rutgers in the Big Ten conference opener for each school.

The two teams contrast each other in a manner that makes this matchup quite intriguing.  Maryland enters tonight’s game with a 4-1 record but is coming off a disappointing 67-51 loss to Clemson in their one true test of the season thus far.  The 51 points scored in their defeat at the hands of the Tigers was their sixth-lowest offensive output since Mark Turgeon took over as Maryland coach back in 2011.

Even with their clunker of a performance against Clemson, Maryland still features one of the more efficient offensive units in all of college basketball.  In the most recent rankings from college hoops analytics guru Ken Pomeroy, the Terps feature the 9th most efficient offense in the country highlighted by their blistering 60.2% shooting percentage from inside the perimeter (14th overall in the country), and near 41 percent shooting percentage from three-point range.  The numbers, however, could be slightly boosted by their weaker non-conference schedule that saw Maryland earn victories over Old Dominion, Navy, Mount St. Mary’s, and Saint Peter’s – all of whom rank outside the KenPom top 100.  

Rutgers, on the other hand, has continued their strong play from a season ago with a 4-0 start to their season headlined by a 79-69 win over Syracuse last Tuesday night.  Where Maryland is an offensively driven team, Rutgers is the direct opposite, looking to bully teams, clean up the glass and defend opponents up and down the floor on the way to easy buckets.  

While the Terps are decent enough on defense to give teams issues from time to time, Rutgers is one of the best defensive teams in all of college basketball.  A season ago they ranked 6th in defensive efficiency, this season they check-in as the 13th best defensive unit putting them at roughly the same pace as they were a season ago.

Rutgers Players to Watch

The Scarlet Knights returned several key contributors from last season’s team that was poised to end a 30-year NCAA Tournament drought, but none are more important than Rutgers’ trio of talented guards Ron Harper Jr. (22.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg), Montez Mathis (16.3 ppg), and Jacob Young (16.0 ppg). 

The straw that stirs Rutgers’ drink is that of Ron Harper Jr., who you might have guessed from the name is the son of former NBA Champion Ron Harper.  The 6-6 tweener is the lifeblood of Rutgers’ entire roster and the team usually goes how he goes.  Through the first four games of the season, Harper has already shown improvement on his outside shot as he has tallied 11 three-point shots on the season already when he only made 68 threes the previous two seasons combined. 

Harper’s outside shooting gives Rutgers a much-needed threat from outside, as a season ago Rutgers was amongst the worst shooting teams in all of college basketball as they ranked 295th in the nation in three-point shooting.  This season that number has improved substantially up to 175th, but outside of Harper they are still not a good shooting team from the perimeter as only three other players have connected from distance this season.  

The Scarlet Knights are also downright abysmal from the free-throw line, which is a gambler’s worst nightmare in a close game with an even tighter point spread.  As a team, Rutgers shoots under 60% from the stripe, good for the 290th overall ranking in college basketball.  Gross. Gross. Gross.

Maryland Players to Watch

No one in the Big Ten lost more from the sudden cancelation of the 2019/20 college basketball season than the Maryland Terrapins.  Not only was Maryland on the verge of potentially making a run at a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but they also lost two of the program’s biggest contributors since Turgeon took over some ten years ago when Anthony Cowan graduated from the school and star big man Jalen Smith departed for the NBA.

As a result of those two big departures, last season’s role players had to step into the new shoes of being a leader on this team.  Through the first five games of the season, juniors Eric Ayala (13.4 ppg, 40% 3PM) and Aaron Wiggins (9.8 ppg) have done just that.  The veteran leadership on the roster has allowed for younger talent like Hakim Hart (12.2 ppg) and Donta Scott (11.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg) to step up and immediately contribute.

Rutgers – Maryland Prediction

While the Terrapins 4-1 start to a season that expected to be a soft rebuild of sorts for Turgeon is certainly promising, there were a lot of concerns that surfaced when Maryland finally played against some competition with a pulse.  Clemson harassed the Maryland backcourt all game and smothered a Terrapin offense into just 40 percent shooting and 15 turnovers.  That may not bode well considering Rutgers plays a very similar style that Clemson does.

Conversely, a season ago, Rutgers was an entirely different team when they left the friendly confines of the RAC.  At home, Rutgers finished the season with a perfect 18-0 record.  When they left Piscataway though, especially in conference play, they went a meager 2-8.

There will not be any fans in attendance for this evening’s game, so perhaps that mitigates some of the road struggles that Rutgers faced a season ago, but until Rutgers proves they can win on the road in the Big Ten, I will side with the slight home fav and look for them to bounce back following their worst performance of the young season.

Prediction: Maryland 74, Rutgers 70
Best Bet:
Maryland -2

Marquette at #9 Creighton

Spread: Creighton -7.5
Total: O/U 151
Time/TV: 9:05 PM ET, FS1

Marquette and Creighton will kick off the start of their respective Big East Conference schedules when the two sides tangle from Omaha tonight.

The Bluejays enter tonight’s contest with a 4-1 record on the season and a Top 10 ranking in the recent polls.  Their lone loss of the season came in heartbreaking fashion a week ago when Creighton’s Marcus Zegarowski missed the game-tying free throw in the waning moments of a 73-72 loss to 5th ranked Kansas last Tuesday.

Marquette meanwhile is 4-2 to start their young season with an impressive 67-65 win over #4 Wisconsin nestled in between losses to Oklahoma State and UCLA being the highlights of their young season thus far. 

Marquette Players to Watch

Steve Wojciechowski entered the new season with the daunting task of replacing Markus Howard, the best scorer in school history and one of the best scorers in the history of college basketball, but Howard’s departure has allowed Wojo to return to his roots and create a more balanced team going forward.

The Golden Eagles are led by the inside-outside attack from senior guard Koby McEwen (15.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and freshman big man Dawson Garcia (12.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg).  Garcia is a slender 6-11, 230 pounds with outside range and could present a host of challenges for a Creighton side that likes to play small and rolls out a guard-heavy lineup.

Another name to keep an eye on this evening is that of Ohio State transfer D.J. Carton (10.3 ppg) who struggled out of the gates initially but just had his best performance of his young Marquette career with an 18-point night in their loss to UCLA.

Creighton Players to Watch

If you’ve never watched Creighton play basketball, do yourself a favor and tune-in tonight.  In all of college basketball, there may not be a team that plays a more entertaining brand of basketball than Greg McDermott’s Bluejays.

Creighton has a bevy of three-point snipers, including four starters shooting better than 38% from distance this season with star guard Marcus Zegarowski (15.0 ppg, 40.5% 3PM), Denzel Mahoney (15.0 ppg, 40% 3PM), Christian Bishop (13.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 50% 3PM), and Damien Jefferson (10.8 ppg, 38.5%) lighting up the scoreboard with great regularity from downtown.

All of this mentions the fact that last season’s best shooter, senior Mitch Ballock, is actually in a shooting slump to start the season and is only shooting 30% from distance in comparison to the scorching hot 43.5% three-point shooting percentage he posted a season ago.

Marquette – Creighton Prediction

If Creighton has a night where all of their shooters are on, they can beat anyone in the country and beat them quite decisively. 

For Marquette to have any realistic chance of pulling the road upset in their conference opener, they will need to continue their feisty defensive play and hope that Creighton is simply off the mark tonight.

Considering this is the second consecutive road trip for a Marquette team still trying to transition back to a team that isn’t so dependent on one guard’s scoring, I’m not sure this is the best time for Marquette to be running into Creighton.

I think Creighton is one of the most underrated teams in all of college basketball and they will remind us all of that tonight with a big home victory.

Prediction: Creighton 83, Marquette 73
Best Bet:
Creighton -7.5 (Like it as high as -9)

Big East College Basketball 2020/21 Preview

Prior to the sudden end of the 2019/20 college basketball season, the Big East Conference provided some of the best basketball in the country and featured a three-way tie for the regular-season crown between Creighton, Villanova, and Seton Hall, each of whom was ranked in the Top 15 heading into the Big East Conference Tournament.

One year later, the conference is going through a transition period.

The biggest story of the offseason is that of the return to the Big East from original conference member UConn.  UConn comes back to the Big East after seven seasons playing as a member of the American Athletic Conference, but the move never really felt right so seeing UConn back in the conference they belong is already a major win for the conference.

The Big East saw a lot of talent leave the conference between March and today, as NCAA leading scorer Markus Howard graduated from Marquette and the face of Seton Hall, Myles Powell, also departed the program after graduating.  Georgetown lost sharpshooting Mac McClung (transferred to Texas Tech), Creighton lost Ty-Shon Alexander (NBA Draft), and Butler lost practically their entire senior-laden team.

The landscape of the conference has changed, but one thing remains the same:  Villanova is going to be really good this season.

Here’s how the rest of the Big East shakes out.

The Contenders

#3 Villanova (-109 to Win Big East)

A mark of how talented this Villanova team is this season is looking at their odds to win the Big East. 

Outside of Gonzaga, no other school in the country is favored to win their conference with you risking more money than you’d win.  There’s a reason for these odds, as no other team in the Big East boasts the depth, experience, and shooting that Jay Wright’s Villanova Wildcats will during the 2020/21 season.

Villanova only loses one player from last season’s team in leading scorer Saddiq Bey (2020 NBA Draft) and is projected to start four players who averaged double-digits in scoring a season ago. 

The ‘Cats will be led by senior point guard Collin Gillespie (15.1 ppg, 4.5 apg) who made enormous strides last season as a player and is a legitimate candidate to bring home the Big East Conference Player of the Year Award.  Gillespie will be playing alongside sophomore three-point shooting specialist Justin Moore in the backcourt.  Moore is a former Top 50 recruit for Jay Wright and connected on 40% of his shots from distance a season ago. 

The weapons in Jay Wright’s arsenal are plenty, as Villanova will also have the services of Tulane transfer Caleb Daniels this season.  Daniels averaged nearly 17 points per game for the Green Wave before transferring to Villanova and figures to be the ‘Cats sixth man this season.

All of this and we haven’t even mentioned the reigning Big East Freshman of the Year in forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (10.5 ppg, 9.4 rpg).

Simply put, Villanova is stacked.  The Big East is down this season, but Villanova is not.  They may very well waltz to another league crown.  Don’t be afraid to bet on this team throughout the season and in whatever version of an NCAA Tournament that we get this year.

#11 Creighton (+350 to Win Big East)

If anyone can relate to the Baylor’s, Dayton’s, and San Diego State’s of the world, it would probably be the boys from Omaha, Nebraska.

The Creighton Blue Jays were fresh off securing a share of their first-ever Big East Conference championship and ranked as the 7th overall team in the country entering championship week.  A Big East conference tournament championship likely would have brought the Blue Jays their highest seeding in the NCAA Tournament ever, and they were a very real threat to make a deep run in March.

Then COVID-19 happened and the season was history. 

Now Greg McDermott is left to try again, this time without his best player Ty-Shon Alexander, but the Blue Jays are once again in a great position to finish high in the Big East standings and potentially make a March run.

Replacing Alexander will not be easy, but McDermott is not inheriting a bare cupboard this season either.  Junior guard Marcus Zegarowski (16.1 ppg, 5.0 apg) will be the team’s new leader and the Blue Jays should be in great hands as a result.  The talented point guard was an assassin from three-point range a season ago, shooting a blistering 45% from beyond the arc while chipping in five assists a night.  McDermott’s quick-tempo system that spreads the floor is tailor-made for Zegarowski’s skillset and he should fill some of the gaps from Alexander’s absence.

Joining Zegarowski in the Creighton backcourt is senior guard Mitchell Ballock, who like Zegarowski is also a demon from three-point range as he connected on nearly 44% of his 211 three-point attempts a season ago. 

While Creighton is loaded with guards that can shoot the lights out, they’re dangerously thin in the frontcourt with 6-11 Jacob Epperson being the team’s best option down low.  Epperson hasn’t played since the 2018-19 season, however, as he missed all of last season with an injury.  He’s also a very slender 6-11, so whether or not he can handle a skilled big remains to be seen.

Outside of Villanova, however, there is not another team in the conference that can light up the scoreboard in the manner Creighton can.  Expect McDermott’s team to push for another regular-season crown and look out for them when you’re filling out your bracket in March.

The Dangerous Dark Horses

UConn (+500 to Win Big East)

“FINALLY!  UCONN HAS COME BAAAAAAAAAAACK……. TO THE BIG EAST!”
 – Dwayne Johnson, probably.

2020 has brought us a whole myriad of awful crap to endure, but it did right at least one wrong by returning UConn to its rightful home – the Big East Conference.

Yes, UConn is back as a member of the conference and Dan Hurley has his best team at UConn yet.

The Huskies return emerging star sophomore James Bouknight (13.0 ppg) and added two high-volume scorers through the transfer portal in former Howard leading scorer RJ Cole (21.4 ppg) and former Rhode Island product Tyrese Martin (12.8 ppg, 7 rpg).

Each player should immediately contribute to a young Huskies team that has only three seniors on it, two of which start in the UConn frontcourt with bigs Tyler Polley (9.5 ppg) and Josh Carlton (7.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg).  

If RJ Cole can come in and give Dan Hurley a much needed three-point threat, UConn has a great chance to emerge from a crowded middle of the conference and get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016 – which given their storied history, is hard to believe they’ve been away from the dance for this long.

Providence (+900 to Win Big East)

For the Providence Friars, the 2019/20 season could have easily doubled as a Jekyll & Hyde type performance.

The Friars began the season with high-expectations about being a live dog in the Big East and a team capable of contending for the regular-season crown, instead, they stumbled to a 7-6 start in the non-conference part of their schedule, losing games to the likes of Northwestern, Penn, Long Beach State, and Charleston. 

Then right around Valentine’s Day, the Friars sat at 13-12 overall and 6-6 in the conference. 

They wouldn’t lose again for the rest of the season.  They would rattle off six-straight conference wins including wins over Seton Hall, Marquette, and Villanova, and were going to safely be in the field of 68 before COVID-19 crushed all of our March Madness happiness.

Now Ed Cooley’s Providence Friars enter the new season looking to replace the team’s top scorer and captain in Alpha Diallo, and the team’s third-leading scorer in Luwane Pipkins.  It will be a challenging feat but the Friars appear to have the talent necessary to survive losing five players to graduation.

For Providence to return to the NCAA Tournament this season, they will need junior scoring threat David Duke (12.0 ppg) to fill the shoes of Alpha Diallo and make that next leap into stardom. 

Helping Duke get to that point will be former St. Joe’s point guard Jared Bynum (11.3 ppg, 4.5 apg in 2018/19) and junior guard A.J. Reeves (7.4 ppg).  Cooley will also have the services of former North Florida star Noah Horchler (16.0 ppg, 9.3 rpg) to bolster the Friars’ frontcourt, as he sat out last season while waiting to be eligible.

All in all, this is a team that may mimic a lot of what last season’s Friars team did, right down to the slow start and strong finish.  If Duke can grow into the talent Cooley thinks he is, Providence could be a very pesky foe in the Big East and beyond.

Seton Hall (+1000 to Win Big East)

Like Creighton, Seton Hall also had their best season in quite some time cut short by COVID-19.  The Pirates were off to their best season since the early ’90s and were in line to land a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Instead, the Pirates got a share of the regular-season Big East crown and then got to watch the blood and soul of their team depart via graduation when Myles Powell’s career came to a close.

Now coach Kevin Willard is in the precarious position of not only replacing the loss of Powell, but also the team’s second-leading scorer in guard Quincy McKnight (11.9), and the team’s best rim protector center Romaro Gill (7.8 ppg, 3.2 bpg). 

To offset these losses, Willard was able to bring in one of the most coveted grad-transfers in the transfer portal in Harvard’s Bryce Aiken.  Aiken was a former Top 100 recruit for, ironically enough, former Seton Hall and current Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker.

Powell’s departure may be easier to handle if Aiken can continue the strong play he showed at Harvard.  Seven times in his career, the 5-11 guard has topped 30 points in a game while shooting a very respectable 35% from distance and 85% at the line.  Aiken’s biggest issue has been durability, as he has yet to play a season without missing time due to injury.  Aiken’s health could ultimately make or break the Pirates’ season.

Outside of Aiken, the most impactful player on the Seton Hall roster is that of forward Sandro Mamukelashvili (try to say that one five times fast).  Mamu averaged 12 points per game and six rebounds a season ago and will be tasked to bolster the Pirates’ frontcourt and to try to fill the void left by the departed Gill.

Willard should have a veteran rotation at his disposal, but the Pirates will likely only go about three deep on their bench.  Their depth could become a concern should injuries occur.

This Seton Hall team doesn’t seem to be as well rounded a unit as last year’s team was, but the Pirates can still make a great deal of noise and be right in the thick of another at-large berth in the tournament.  

Middle of the Pack

Marquette (+1500 to Win Big East)

The temperature under the seat of Marquette HC Steve Wojciechowski is starting to feel a little toasty, and now Wojo is faced with the heavy challenge of replacing the all-time leading scorer in school history with Markus Howard’s graduation.

However, if you’re looking to save your job, Wojo’s approach to the offseason is not a bad blueprint to try and replicate.

Marquette pulled in the best recruiting class (ranked 18th overall by 247Sports) in the Big East, and won the DJ Carton (Ohio State) transfer sweepstakes, getting the added bonus of having the NCAA grant Carton (10.4 ppg) a waiver that makes him immediately eligible to play this season.

Losing Howard’s offense will be a big hurdle to overcome for the Golden Eagles, but the team may ultimately be better off in the long run, as all too often Marquette seemed to fall in love with Howard playing ISO ball and shooting the ball 20+ times a night.  Now Wojo hopes for more ball movement, fewer turnovers, and better defense with Howard no longer on the floor.   

If the Golden Eagles can replace Howard’s offensive production they could very well overachieve this season with the new-look roster.  Considering Wojo has fielded a Top 15 offensive team in three of the last four seasons, that could very well be the case this year.

However, if Marquette remains maddeningly inconsistent, that seat under Wojo’s cheeks is only going to get warmer and warmer…

Xavier (+3000 to Win Big East)

Like Marquette before them, Xavier is another team that has been aggravatingly inconsistent. 

A season ago, the Musketeers were projected to finish 3rd in the Big East, instead, they limped their way to a sub .500 8-10 record in conference play, and had COVID-19 not canceled the season, Xavier was likely going to be NIT bound.

If Xavier is to overachieve this season, they will need to navigate through the departures of Naji Marshall (NBA Draft) and Tyrique Jones.

However, coach Travis Steele may have already done just that as the Musketeers added on three highly-coveted transfers in Nate Johnson (Gardner-Webb), Adam Kunkel (Belmont), and Ben Stanley (Hampton).  

Johnson is a graduate transfer by way of Gardner-Webb and averaged 13.5 points per contest a season ago.  The 6-6 Stanley averaged 22 points per game with Hampton, while the 6-4 Kunkel chipped in nearly 17 a night at Belmont.  They will team up with returning starting point guard Paul Scruggs to formulate a quartet of dangerous offensive weapons.

If the new talent can gel with the returning players Steele has this season, Xavier can be a very difficult opponent come conference play and beyond.  If the talent doesn’t come together and Xavier underachieves yet again, Travis Steele could be the latest head coach in danger of losing his job.

The Long Shots

St. John’s (+5000 to Win Big East)
Butler (+10000 to Win Big East)
Georgetown (+10000 to Win Big East)
DePaul (+15000 to Win Big East)

Let’s face it, each of these teams has a lot of issues to address this season.

St. John’s hopes to improve on their 8th place finish from a season ago in Mike Anderson’s second season with the school, but there are not a lot of pieces currently on the roster that look like they can run Anderson’s relentless offense to its full potential.  Keep an eye out for the Johnnies in 2021/22, but for now, they will just be the team that occasionally sends a contender a scare.

Butler is going through a full-blown rebuild this season after losing six players including star Kamar Baldwin and second-leading scorer Sean McDermott.  If anyone can overachieve with an entirely new group it’s probably Butler, but they will endure quite a bit of growing pains this season and take their lumps towards the bottom of the conference.

Georgetown losing top scoring threat Mac McClung to Texas Tech is a massive blow to the hopes of their season.  Patrick Ewing’s Hoyas were the worst defensive team in the conference last season and likely will not improve much on that this season.  Adding grad transfers Jalen Harris (Arkansas) and Chudier Bile (Northwestern State) will help replace some losses, but this team simply does not have the overall talent to hang with the big dogs of the conference.  Would the Hoyas consider firing beloved Patrick Ewing if G’Town disappoints again?  It’s a possibility.

DePaul is showing signs of finally breaking out of their long period of losing but still found themselves at the bottom of the Big East a season ago.  The Demons will compete, they just won’t win very often in the conference.

Big East Projected Order of Finish

  1. Villanova
  2. Creighton
  3. UConn
  4. Providence
  5. Seton Hall
  6. Xavier
  7. Marquette
  8. Butler
  9. St. John’s
  10. Georgetown
  11. DePaul