This article is part of our College Basketball Picks series.
With another full slate of major conference college hoops on tap, Steve Peralta analyzes some select matchups and shares his best bets for the day.
Xavier at Connecticut
Xavier has been one of the hottest teams in the country over the past couple of months, winning 12 of 13 games since the very end of November. Its only misstep over that span was a one-point loss at DePaul a week ago, not an awful loss by any means. Xavier's record is solid, 16-4, but what's arguably more impressive is the fact that the Musketeers have been competitive in every game this season. Three of their losses were by four points or fewer, and their worst loss was a seven-point defeat against Duke. Xavier has played the 18th-most difficult schedule in the country, per KenPom, so the fact that Xavier has played so well and so consistently throughout the season cannot be overlooked. The Musketeers arguably had their best win of the season on New Year's Eve when they defeated UConn, previously unbeaten, by 10 points. Considering not much has changed for Xavier since then, it appears poised to continue its run of success.
Connecticut, on the other hand, has been in a tailspin ever since it suffered its first loss at Xavier, losing five of seven games. Although what's more concerning is that UConn lost by double-digits in three of the games, something that was unthinkable before the New Year. The Huskies finally had a resurgent performance in their last game when they hosted Butler, although the Bulldogs currently have the second-worst record in the Big East, so it remains to be seen if UConn is truly back on track.
Looking at this matchup, one thing that jumps out is that UConn has had serious trouble with fouling opponents. The Huskies rank among the worst teams in the country at defensive free-throw attempt rate, coming in at No. 344, which spells trouble against a Xavier team that excels at getting to the charity stripe, ranking No. 124 in offensive free-throw attempt rate. This played out exactly as one might expect when these two teams met up on New Year's Eve, as Xavier had 28 free throw attempts compared to just nine for UConn. The matchup on Wednesday will be in Storrs, so one would think this disparity might not be as extreme for the home team, but even still, we can't ignore long-term trends. Xavier has one of the most dynamic offensive attacks in the country and wasn't slowed down much in the previous game against UConn. I'll take the points in this spot.
College Basketball Best Bet: Xavier +7
Wake Forest at Pittsburgh
Wake Forest was riding high with a 6-2 conference record before Virginia brought it back down to earth in its most recent game on Jan. 21. The Demon Deacons have a few quality wins, although they've also padded their win column with a string of games against ACC bottom-dwellers. In their most challenging road games against conference foes, the Demon Deacons haven't played well at all. First, they lost at Clemson by 20 points, then they lost at North Carolina by nine points, and in between those two games, they dropped a non-conference matchup at Rutgers by 24 points. Wake Forest has looked quite formidable against weaker teams, although playing against the tougher competition on the road has proven to be a major challenge.
Pittsburgh is coming off a surprising loss to Florida State, although prior to that, the Panthers were playing well over the past couple of months. The Panthers had won 12 of 15 games from Nov. 20 up until their recent loss on Jan. 21, collecting wins over Northwestern, NC State, North Carolina and Virginia over that span. It's also worth noting two of their losses in that span were by a single point, so Pittsburgh has played good basketball for a significant length of time any way you look at it. The Panthers play well on both ends of the court, recording the fourth-best defensive efficiency rating in the ACC during conference play and the seventh-best rating on the offensive end. The most notable thing about their offense is their ability to score inside. Since the conference season started, Pittsburgh is making 55 percent of its shots inside the arc, the highest percentage in the ACC, which is important because Wake Forest has had trouble stopping conference opponents from scoring, allowing 54 percent on two-point field goal attempts, the fourth-worst percentage allowed among ACC teams.
Overall, Wake Forest is a good team, but it's a severely unbalanced team, with its defense lagging far behind its offensive capabilities. In games against the likes of Louisville and Boston College, this hasn't mattered much, but it has resulted in lop-sided losses multiple times whenever Wake Forest plays a quality opponent on the road. Considering Pittsburgh's strengths and balanced proficiency on both ends of the court, it appears that Wake Forest will likely have trouble on the road once again. Given a short line in this matchup, I'll take the home team.
College Basketball Best Bet: Pittsburgh -3
Texas A&M at Auburn
Texas A&M finally took a loss in conference play, losing at Kentucky in its most recent game. Prior to that loss, Texas A&M had won seven-straight games including five against SEC teams. Since the conference season started, the Aggies have improved in many areas, specifically on defense. Texas A&M has the third-best defensive efficiency rating in the SEC during conference play, and it's also holding opponents to under 42 percent on shot attempts inside the arc, the second-lowest percentage allowed in the conference. The latter is particularly important because Auburn has struggled with outside shooting all season long. The Tigers are making under 30 percent of their three-point attempts, one of the worst percentages among all D1 teams. They are actually shooting worse against conference competition, so there's not much reason to think they will suddenly improve in this area. Texas A&M also holds an advantage on offense, recording the fourth-highest offensive efficiency rating among SEC teams during conference play. It also ranks second in offensive rebounding rate, two-point field goal percentage and free-throw percentage, so the Aggies are playing great basketball in several important categories.
Auburn also enters Wednesday's game with just a single conference loss this season, a 12-point drubbing at Georgia. We never want to overreact to one game, although losing to Georgia by double digits doesn't exactly inspire confidence. Auburn also nearly lost when hosting Florida, surviving by three points, so the Tigers have shown themselves to be vulnerable despite their excellent win-loss record.
Overall, Texas A&M ranks higher than Auburn in both offensive and defensive efficiency during conference play, and it also ranks higher in both offensive and defensive rebounding rates in the same time frame. Auburn is tough at home, like most teams, so there's a chance they might pull away late, but if Texas A&M can maintain its recent level of play, then there's no reason to think this game won't come down to the final minute. I'm taking the points with the Aggies in this matchup.
College Basketball Best Bet: Texas A&M +5
Wednesday College Basketball Best Bets:
Here's a recap of my best college basketball bets for Wednesday:
- Xavier +7
- Pittsburgh -3
- Texas A&M +5
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