This article is part of our College Basketball Picks series.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 once again have the spotlight on the Thursday night college hoops slate. Steve Peralta previews a few riveting games and presents his best bets of the evening.
Northwestern at Ohio State
According to KenPom, Ohio State has been the unluckiest team among all 363 D1 programs. Northwestern, on the other hand, ranks No. 61 in luck, clearly benefiting from how the ball has bounced thus far in the season. We don't want to rely on something as intangible as 'luck' when making decisions, although this does help explain why Ohio State, which has won just two games since New Year's Day, is favored over Northwestern.
The Wildcats have managed to go 7-5 in the Big Ten up to this point, but the underlying metrics suggest this winning percentage isn't sustainable. KenPom is projecting Northwestern will likely lose six of its next eight games, starting with its road game in Columbus. The Wildcats lost two of their three recent games by 16-plus points, which is not a great sign of things to come.
Ohio State has a couple of noteworthy advantages over Northwestern. First, it has higher rebounding rates on both ends of the court, particularly on offense. The Buckeyes have the 39th highest offensive rebounding rate in the country, per KenPom, while Northwestern has posted the worst defensive rebounding rate in the Big Ten during conference play. Similarly, Ohio State is a sharp-shooting team, making 38 percent of its shots from behind the arc, both before and during conference season, as Northwestern has struggled to guard the perimeter, allowing conference opponents to make 39 percent of three-point attempts, the second-highest percentage allowed in the Big Ten.
At first glance, it might be tough to back Ohio State after it has lost so many games, but at the same time, this team is extremely desperate and has played extremely well on multiple occasions. The Buckeyes already defeated both Rutgers and Iowa, and nearly beat Purdue before losing on a last-second basket, so they clearly have potential, even if they don't have the wins to show for it... yet. These two teams already played back on New Year's Day, and Ohio State dominated the game in Evanston, winning 73-57. This is Ohio State's "easiest" game left on the schedule, so it's seemingly now or never for the Buckeyes. I'm betting they'll get the job done at home.
College Basketball Best Bet: Ohio State -5
Arizona State at Stanford
These two teams are trending in opposite directions.
In the middle of January, Arizona State was 15-3 and 6-1 in the Pac-12, but it's now in a free fall, losing five of its last six games. These real-life losses are bad enough, but then on top of that, Arizona State is also on a seven-game losing streak against the spread. The Sun Devils have relied on their defense for most of the season, although it's not quite as stout lately, ranked fifth in the Pac-12 in efficiency during league competition. Arizona State's offense is a much bigger problem, ranking No. 117 in overall efficiency and eighth in the conference, with one glaring weakness in particular -- lack of long-range shooting. During conference play, the Sun Devils are making under 30 percent of shots from behind the arc, the worst percentage in the Pac-12.
As fate would have it, Stanford finally found its rhythm at the same time Arizona State lost its way. The Cardinal started 0-7 in the Pac-12, but has since won five of its last six games. Additionally, Stanford is 5-2 against the spread in its last seven games, again a stark contrast to its opponent in Thursday's game. The Cardinal haven't been great on defense, but the team is playing at a higher level on offense over the past few weeks. Prior to its recent road loss at Colorado (the second-best defense in the Pac-12), Stanford had scored over 70 points in four straight games, including a 78-point effort at Utah, which currently has the third-best defense in the Pac-12 (according to KenPom). With its recent scoring outputs, Stanford's offensive efficiency rating is now the fifth-highest in the Pac-12, in addition to posting the second-highest effective field goal percentage against conference foes.
One more important note to consider is that Stanford is among the top-rebounding teams in the Pac-12, ranking top-four in rebounding rates on both ends of the court since the conference season tipped off. This is notable because Arizona State is in the opposite category, ranking in the bottom four of the Pac-12 with its rebounding rates on both offense and defense.
Overall, one team's stock is plummeting, while the other is soaring. The latter is playing at home with a very short line. Considering Stanford's massive rebounding advantage and its recent performances over the past few weeks, I'm taking the home team in this one.
College Basketball Best Bet: Stanford -2.5
USC at Oregon
USC is on a roll, now riding a four-game win streak and winning six of seven overall. Not only that, but the Trojans won by at least six points in each victory. USC has played a balanced brand of basketball for most of the season, ranking top-50 in adjusted efficiency on both ends of the court, and with its offense significantly improving over the past month. Since the conference season started, the Trojans have the highest offensive efficiency rating in the Pac-12 while also leading the Pac in offensive turnover percentage and free-throw percentage. With wins over teams like Auburn, Utah and UCLA, the Trojans have consistently proven they're capable of beating good teams.
Oregon, in contrast, has won five of its last seven games but has been plagued by inconsistent play for most of the year. Its longest win streak of the season was a three-game span in mid-December, which came against teams such as UC Riverside and Portland. The Ducks have yet to win more than two games in a row against Pac-12 competition, which is something USC has already accomplished multiple times this season.
Digging into the numbers against the Trojans, the Ducks are at a disadvantage in a couple of key areas. First, while it's true that Oregon has been great at scoring in recent weeks, this is a bad matchup for its offense. The Ducks have struggled with outside shooting, making 31 percent of their three-point attempts both before and during the conference season.
This is important because USC has the best interior defense in the entire country, holding opponents to 42 percent on shots inside the arc, the lowest percentage allowed in D1 basketball. The Trojans are actually holding conference opponents to 40 percent on two-point attempts, improving as the season has progressed. Oregon has done well with inside scoring, but against a team like USC, this strength is rendered moot. If the Ducks can't hit their long-range shots, then USC has a good chance of pulling away.
USC's other advantage is on the other end of the court, where Oregon hasn't been quite as sharp. Oregon ranks eighth in defensive efficiency among Pac-12 teams during league competition, so USC's top-ranked offense should likely see a good amount of quality shots, or at least more so compared to what we'll see at the other end of the court.
These teams are pretty even when looking at overall efficiency numbers, although a closer analysis suggests one team has an edge based on both season-long and recent trends. In a close matchup, I'll take the points.
College Basketball Best Bet: USC +4.5
Thursday College Basketball Best Bets:
Here's a recap of my best college basketball bets for Thursday:
- Ohio State -5
- Stanford -2.5
- USC +4.5
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