This article is part of our College Basketball Picks series.
College hoops conference tournament action heats up on Thursday, as several more teams enter the fray. Steve Peralta breaks down a few more games and offers up his best bets of the day.
San Jose State vs Nevada
These two teams finished next to each other in the conference standings, but make no mistake, they are not close to being on the same level. Nevada demonstrated numerous times that it's capable of defeating the toughest opponents, going 4-5 in Quad 1 games, while San Jose State went 2-7 in the same situations. Additionally, the Wolfpack defeated all three teams at the top of the Mountain West standings at least once, while also sweeping San Jose State and New Mexico along the way. The same cannot be said for the Spartans, who looked overwhelmingly out-matched when playing San Diego State, New Mexico and Nevada, losing by at least 15 points in all five games when facing those opponents.
When looking at how San Jose State and Nevada compare side-by-side, it's clear why this is such a bad matchup for the Spartans. San Jose State only does one thing well on offense -- collect offensive rebounds. The Spartans had the highest offensive rebounding percentage in the Mountain West during conference play, except the only problem is that Nevada had the highest defensive rebounding percentage in the same span, effectively neutralizing San Jose State's best weapon. On the other end of the court, Nevada also has another big advantage, as its offense ranks No. 61 in efficiency, per KenPom, and it's going against a defense that ranks No. 120.
One other matchup note to keep in mind, the Wolfpack are extremely likely to win the turnover margin on Thursday. Nevada doesn't typically make many mistakes on offense, boasting the lowest offensive turnover percentage in the Mountain West, while San Jose State has the second-worst defensive turnover percentage among all D1 teams. We have a similar mismatch on the other end of the court as well, where Nevada's defense forced turnovers at the third-highest rate in the Mountain West during league play, as San Jose State committed the second-worst rate of offensive turnovers in the conference.
All in all, there's not much reason to think we'll see a different outcome than the previous two times these teams clashed. Nevada won 67-40 the first time in San Jose, and then won 66-51 in Reno. The first game even featured a 28-2 run by Nevada in the first half, further underscoring its utter dominance. And if all that's not enough, Nevada has every incentive to keep the intensity at a hundred percent, because a loss would surely jeopardize the Wolfpack's ticket to the Big Dance. Given the matchup notes and resumes of each team, I'm taking Nevada in this spot.
College Basketball Best Bet: Nevada -5
Penn State vs Illinois
Penn State closed out the season on a scorching hot run, winning five of its last six games. Its only loss during that span was a three-point defeat to Rutgers, and that outcome easily could've flipped in the Nittany Lions' favor, as KenPom gave Penn State a 96 percent chance of winning the game at one point in the second half. Despite blowing the game against Rutgers, Penn State is still playing its best basketball of the season.
The Nittany Lions are a particularly dangerous team thanks to their offensive attack, one that's fueled by a relentless barrage of three-pointers. Penn State ranks 17th in KenPom's offensive efficiency chart, but that only tells part of the story. Penn State is among the best shooting teams in the country, making 39 percent of shots from behind the arc while shooting three-pointers at the fifth-highest rate in the country, yielding the highest three-pointer point distribution among all D1 teams. This exceptional skill set has proven to be the Achilles Heel for Illinois, as the Illini got torched in both of the previous meetings against the Nittany Lions earlier in the season. It didn't matter where the game was played, either. Penn State made 12-of-24 from behind the arc in the first game in Champaign, and then made 12-of-28 at University Park.
Illinois has only lost six total games this season by double-digits, and two of them came against Penn State, including its worst conference loss of the season. Despite Illinois possessing a stout defense, this is simply a bad matchup. The Illini had the best interior defense in the Big Ten during league competition, holding opponents to under 47 percent on shots inside the arc, but they were significantly more vulnerable on the perimeter, allowing opponents to make over 35 percent of shots from three-point range, the sixth-worst percentage allowed in the conference.
Considering the Nittany Lions' style of play, it's always possible their long-range shots won't fall, but I'm betting they'll stay sharp against a defense that they already shredded on multiple occasions. I'm backing Penn State in this one.
College Basketball Best Bet: Penn State +3
TCU vs Kansas State
TCU defeated Kansas State in their first encounter Jan. 14 before Kansas State returned the favor in Manhattan nearly a month later. The Wildcats won the rematch fair and square, however, it's important to note that Mike Miles, the Horned Frogs' star guard, missed the game due to injury. TCU was not the same without him. The Horned Frogs were 16-4 (5-3 in the Big 12) before Miles was injured at the start of the Mississippi State game, and TCU lost five of six games without him (including the MSU game). Once Miles returned to the lineup, TCU returned to form, and promptly crushed Oklahoma State by a score of 100-75. Miles' importance to this team cannot be overlooked, as he's the key to an offensive attack that complements one of the best defenses in the country, ranking 25th in KenPom's efficiency standings and third in the Big 12 during conference play.
Like most other teams in the Big 12, Kansas State got its share of noteworthy wins, proving to be a formidable team throughout the season. That being said, the Wildcats are at a disadvantage in a few key areas when facing TCU. First, Kansas State has had severe problems with securing defensive rebounds, recording the lowest defensive rebounding percentage in the Big 12 during conference play. This plays right into the hands of TCU, which ranked No. 59 among all D1 teams in offensive rebounding percentage and fifth-highest in the Big 12. The other issue for Kansas State is its interior defense. The Wildcats allowed Big 12 opponents to make over 51 percent of shots inside the arc, the fourth-worst percentage allowed in the conference, while the Horned Frogs made over 53 percent of their two-point field goal attempts, the highest percentage in the Big 12 during league competition. On the other end of the court, Kansas State's offense is certainly explosive, although it's also reckless. The Wildcats rank No. 280 among all D1 teams in offensive turnover percentage, while the Horned Frogs rank No. 26 in defensive turnover percentage, making it highly likely that TCU will win the turnover margin on Thursday.
Overall, while this matchup might appear even at first glance, TCU appears to have an edge when weighing all of its various advantages. As most college hoops fans know by now, the Big 12 was in a class of its own this season, so it wouldn't be surprising if either of these teams goes on a run to win the conference tournament. With that in mind, I'm betting that TCU will end up on top in Wednesday's game once the dust finally settles.
College Basketball Best Bet: TCU -2
Thursday College Basketball Best Bets:
Here's a recap of my best college basketball bets for Thursday:
- Nevada -5
- Penn State +3
- TCU -2
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