This article is part of our College Basketball Picks series.
The Friday college hoops slate brings us a special set of matchups, as we have three games between league-leading teams. Each winner will move into sole first place within its conference. Steve Peralta is here to preview the action and offer up his best bets of the evening.
Cornell at Princeton
These two teams enter Friday's game tied for the best record in the Ivy League -- both solid squads, although closer analysis suggests one team has a clear advantage over the other.
Cornell undoubtedly has the best offensive attack in the Ivy League, ranking first in many prominent categories, which explains its overall success for most of the season. That being said, its defense is a gigantic liability, the second-worst in the conference. During league play, Cornell ranks second-worst in defensive efficiency and is allowing opponents to make 61 percent of shots taken inside the arc, by far the worst percentage allowed. Cornell has managed to outscore teams and overcome this glaring weakness more often than not, but this is the kind of problem that will bite them against a team like Princeton. The Tigers' offense ranks third in offensive efficiency among Ivy League teams, and, perhaps more importantly, is making 55 percent of two-point shot attempts, the second-highest percentage in the conference. Furthermore, Princeton has played well defensively since conference season started, posting the second-best defensive efficiency rating and the lowest two-point field goal percentage allowed, holding league opponents to under 47 percent on shots taken inside the arc.
Another important note for this game, Cornell sophomore guard Nazir Williams missed the previous game with an undisclosed injury and there's still no status update as of Thursday evening. Williams was Cornell's second-leading scorer and ranked ninth in the Ivy League in points per game. Under normal circumstances, KenPom is projecting a two-point win for Princeton, so his status could be a key difference.
Either way, Princeton already defeated Cornell earlier in the season, 75-68, handing Big Red its only home loss of the season. Given a short line and home-court advantage, I'm taking Princeton in this matchup.
College Basketball Best Bet: Princeton -3
VCU at Saint Louis
Over in St. Louis, Missouri, we have a battle for first place in the Atlantic 10. And with the way VCU and Saint Louis are playing lately, this matchup could be the deciding factor in winning the regular season conference championship.
VCU is once again winning with a familiar formula -- elite defense but not much offense. Over the past five years, VCU has finished each season ranked top-50 in KenPom's defensive efficiency standings while also ranked below No. 120 on the offensive end. The defense is so great that the Rams still get plenty of wins throughout the year, but this becomes a major issue when they're on the road and can't score and the defense isn't in top form. This has happened multiple times throughout this season, as four of VCU's six losses have occurred away from home. Each of these losses was by at least four points and three of them were by nine-plus points.
In contrast, Saint Louis has a potent offense and has relied on it throughout most of the season, ranking No. 53 in adj. efficiency. This strength has continued through conference play, as the Billikens have the second-highest offensive efficiency rating in the Atlantic 10 and the second-highest effective field goal percentage as well. For good measure, the Billikens are also making 56 percent of shots taken inside the arc, the highest percentage in the conference. It's easy to rattle off great stats and rankings, although I also want to highlight superstar point guard Yuri Collins, the current assist leader in all of D1 basketball. Collins is averaging over 10 assists per game and also has the highest assist rate in the country, so he's the real deal. As long as he's on the court, Saint Louis has a good chance of scoring points on any given possession. One more side note for the Billikens, their defense was lacking a bit against non-conference opponents but has improved quite a bit since the conference season started, now ranked sixth in the Atlantic 10 (out of 15 teams).
Friday's game might be close at halftime, but ultimately I'm trusting the home team with the better offense will pull away by the end of it. Saint Louis hosted VCU at the end of the regular season last year, and the Billikens successfully defended home court with a four-point victory. I'm betting we'll see a similar outcome in Friday's matchup.
College Basketball Best Bet: Saint Louis -3
Boise State at San Diego State
Here we have the top two defensive teams in the Mountain West going head to head. Boise State ranks No. 9 in KenPom's defensive efficiency standings while San Diego State ranks No. 36, which is actually a tad low for the Aztecs' standards, but still a respectable rating nonetheless. Both teams are also playing relatively well on offense since the conference season started, but ultimately these two teams' identities revolve around defense.
Strengths and weaknesses aside, it seems Boise State will be significantly shorthanded in Friday's matchup, as starters Naje Smith and Marcus Shaver Jr. left the most recent game with injuries. Smith left the game with 6:34 remaining in the first half and never returned, while Shaver limped to the bench with 2:41 left in the game. In a postgame interview, Boise State coach Leon Rice did not have an injury update, but the current spread seems to indicate they're highly doubtful, questionable at best. Assuming both teams were healthy, KenPom is projecting a three-point victory for San Diego State, a stark contrast with the betting line as of Thursday evening. Boise State ranks almost dead last in the country in bench minutes, No. 350, per KenPom, so this is a significant game note if neither player suits up. Boise State should be able to continue its defensive intensity, but scoring will be much more difficult if its star point guard is compromised or unavailable.
One final note for this matchup, these two teams played three times last season, and each game was extremely low scoring. Boise State actually swept San Diego State, first winning on the road, 42-37, then at home, 58-57, and then finally in Las Vegas for the conference championship, 53-52. Many prominent players that were involved in last year's battles will once again be on the court on Friday, so one would expect another defensive grinder is on the way. I'm taking the under.
College Basketball Best Bet: Under 133.5
Friday College Basketball Best Bets:
Here's a recap of my best college basketball bets for Friday:
- Princeton -3
- Saint Louis -3
- Boise St. at San Diego St. - Under 133.5
For up-to-date information on the latest college basketball odds and props from multiple sportsbooks, check out the College Basketball odds page on RotoWire.
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