The college basketball schedule has been littered with captivating matchups out of the gate to begin the season. While we have lost many games due to the ongoing pandemic, Tuesday night’s slate should be the best college basketball slate of the young season and that’s because the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge officially tips off with a delicious menu of non-conference college basketball goodness.
As we knock on wood to ensure as many of these games as possible can still proceed (we already lost Louisville-Wisconsin and Michigan-NC State), let’s hone in on the Best Bets of the evening in three of the biggest matchups of the week.
#16 North Carolina at #3 Iowa
Spread: Iowa -3
Total: O/U 155.5
Time/TV: 7:30 PM ET, ESPN
The Iowa Hawkeyes couldn’t have asked for a better start to the season.
Iowa is ranked 3rd in the country, their highest ranking since 2016, and a perfect 3-0 to start the season winning by an average of 33 points per game. Wooden Award favorite Luka Garza has been utterly ridiculous out of the gates as he is averaging 34 points and 10 rebounds per game while shooting 76% from the floor and 62.5% (!!) from three-point range. Have we mentioned the man is nearly 7-feet tall?!
Garza is not a one-man army for Fran McCaffrey’s Hawkeyes either. Iowa’s trio of Joe Wieskamp, Patrick McCaffery, and Jack Nunge has given the Hawks additional firepower and senior Jordan Bohannon gives Iowa a steady hand at point guard to run the show.
The Hawkeyes, however, have certainly been feeding off the minnows in college basketball’s ocean of teams. The likes of NC Central, Southern, and Western Illinois aren’t exactly Final Four sleepers in the making. Tonight’s contest will be their first true test of the season when the much-improved North Carolina Tar Heels make the rare road trip to Iowa City.
The Heels are off to a 3-1 start to the season, their most recent outing being their lone loss of the season in the Maui Invitational Final to #13 Texas. The fate of tonight could rest on the ankle of senior center Garrison Brooks, as no one else on the Carolina roster is equipped to handle Garza. The preseason ACC player of the year has not been cleared to play as of Monday evening, and will likely be a game-time decision for Roy Williams’ bunch.
North Carolina would certainly prefer to have their senior leader on the floor, but if they do not improve upon their grisly shooting numbers of 45.2% from the floor (220th overall by KenPom) and 27.1% from three-point range (237th overall by KenPom), Brooks presence may not mean a whole lot when matching up against the 3rd most efficient offense in the country.
Fortunately for the Heels, Iowa isn’t exactly known for their defensive prowess. While they have glowing statistics in every defensive category to start the 2020 season, they will almost surely regress to the mean when they are playing better competition. A season ago, the Hawkeyes checked in as the 171st most efficient defense in the country and allowed their opponents to shoot nearly 50% from the floor. North Carolina should have their opportunities to improve their shooting tonight.
Ultimately this will be one of the more entertaining non-conference games of the season. If Garrison Brooks were 100-percent healthy I would feel a little more comfortable backing the Heels on the road, but Garza is going to be too much to handle. I like the Hawkeyes to cover the 3-point spread if Brooks plays, and I like it even more if he doesn’t.
Prediction: Iowa 80, North Carolina 72
Best Bet: Iowa -3
#6 Illinois at #10 Duke
Spread: Duke -4
Total: O/U 147.5
Time/TV: 9:30 PM ET, ESPN
The last time these two schools met came back in 2007 when Duke would beat Illinois by the score of 79-66. To say a few things have changed in the 13 years since would be a slight understatement.
The one constant in those 13 years would be Duke’s basketball program continually being one of the best in the country, but there are quite a few questions about this season’s Blue Devils, the largest being how they will fare in an empty Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The results thus far have been mixed. Duke does enter tonight’s game with a 2-1 record but did lose in their lone test of the early 2020 campaign when they fell 75-69 to now #4 Michigan State. In their most recent action, the Blue Devils never trailed in a 76-54 victory over Atlantic Sun member Bellarmine as Matthew Hurt chipped in 24 points and went 6-for-8 from distance.
The competition will see a dramatic boost this evening when 6th ranked Illinois comes to town. The Illini were last in action six days ago when they would fall to #2 Baylor 82-69 in the Jimmy V Classic. The Bears’ combination of outside shooting and smothering defense was too much to overcome for Brad Underwood’s team in the second half after the Illini went into the halftime break trailing by just a point.
The Illini are paced by their dynamic duo of Ayo Dosunmu (23.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 6.3 apg) and Kofi Cockburn (13.0 ppg, 9.8 rpg) and feature the 11th best three-point shooting team in the country. The Illini are not only snipers from outside, they are also a terror on the glass and boast the 2nd best offensive rebounding percentage according to KenPom’s analytic ratings. That could ultimately be the difference in tonight’s game.
In Duke’s loss to Michigan State, the Blue Devils struggled against the Spartans’ physicality. Duke was outrebounded and shot a paltry 32% from the floor. Without the screaming student body to propel them, the team had a hard time ending the Spartans surge in the second half and the teams’ inexperience began to appear. While Duke has played another game since the same issues that haunted them in their loss to Michigan State may haunt them once more tonight.
It’s hard to envision Duke being 0-2 on their home floor against a pair of Top 10 opponents, but the 2020 season will be full of surprises with this being the most chaotic season in history. The young Blue Devils will gel soon enough, but tonight the experienced Illini will use the same blueprint their conference foes used against them last week to land a big road victory.
Prediction: Illinois 79, Duke 74
Best Bet: Illinois +4 (Would also sprinkle some on Illinois ML)
Syracuse at #21 Rutgers
Spread: Rutgers -3.5
Total: O/U 140.5
Time/TV: 9:30 PM ET, ESPN2
While this matchup doesn’t feature a blue blood program like North Carolina or Duke, this could be one of the better games of the entire ACC/Big Ten Challenge when it’s all said and done.
Syracuse enters tonight’s contest with a perfect 3-0 record on the season, their latest victory being a 35-point drubbing of MAAC member Rider. Jim Boeheim’s Orange entered the season with expectations that they would be a three-point chucking machine, and they’ve been every bit as advertised. In their 87-52 win over Rider, ‘Cuse shot 15-of-30 from distance, by far their best showing to date in the young season.
The Orange have been led in large part by the frontcourt tandem of Alan Griffin (16.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg), and Quincy Guerrier (16.3 ppg, 11.0 rpg). The team did get back shooting specialist, and coach’s son, Buddy Boeheim for their victory over Rider, but he will be missing in action this evening as he is quarantining after being deemed that he was close in contact with a walk-on player that tested positive for COVID-19. Freshman Kadary Richmond will fill in as Boeheim sits, and while he’s not the shooter that Boeheim is, he has shown to be a very capable defender and feels like a natural fit in Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone defense.
Meanwhile, Rutgers was on the verge of their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1991 when last season abruptly ended, and several questions swirled over the team entering this season in regards to whether or not they’d be able to replicate last season’s success all over again.
So far, so good for the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers was one of the stronger home teams in the country a season ago and they’re a perfect 3-0 at the RAC to kick off the new campaign. The Scarlet Knights have been led by their trio of guards with Ron Harper Jr. (21.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg), Jacob Young (15.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg), and Montez Mathis (15.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg) all picking up where they left off last season.
Where there could be some concern, however, comes with the fact Rutgers has not played in 10 days. Additionally, while their guard play is among the strongest in the Big Ten, they’re not an outside shooting team whatsoever. A season ago, Rutgers had the 295th ranked three-point shooting team in the country, this season that’s up to 202nd, but the Scarlet Knight’s first three opponents have been softer than a new roll of Charmin. They still can’t shoot from outside.
Rutgers is also a woeful team at the free-throw line, shooting it 55% from the charity stripe to begin the season after fielding the 333rd rated free-throw shooting team a season ago.
Where Rutgers earns their milk money comes on the defensive end of the floor and by attacking the paint. Rutgers boasted the 6th most efficient defense in college basketball a season ago per KenPom and currently sits at 12th overall after the first few weeks of action. They will force the Orange into a lot of contested shots and they will attack the Cuse zone on the glass.
This game just screams like a hard-fought defensive battle with a lot of shots clanging off the rim. I don’t have a strong feel for a side in this matchup but I love the under and look for a game in which each opponent struggles to hit 70 points.
Prediction: Rutgers 68, Syracuse 65
Best Bet: UNDER 140.5