We have two more days to go before college basketball finally returns in earnest. It’s been a lean week devoid of any Top 25 matchups and real games of intrigue, but that all changes Saturday. I’ll make sure to have games posted extra early since there are so many awesome games tipping early (Utah vs. Duke, Villanova vs. Virginia are both noon tip-offs).
Consider this the quiet before the storm. Saturday is a loaded slate and there are still some big time marquee games between now and the New Year/Unofficial start to conference play. Iowa State takes a tricky Dec 22nd trip to Cincinnati that could be a potential stumbling block in their undefeated pre-conference slate. Louisville and Kentucky unleash their Bluegrass Holy War the day after Christmas, and the Big East rings in the New Year with a pair of New Year’s Eve gems; Villanova and Xavier and Providence v. Butler. Other than that, it’s going to take a lot of sifting to find some gold in the pan.
That’s exactly the aim tonight with a delightful, sneaky mid-major matchup between teams with some recent NCAA Tournament pedigree and designs on adding another chapter to the anthology this March.
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Today’s Free Pick:
Belmont Bruins at Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders -2
Belmont is the more familiar brand name having made seven Tournament appearances in the last decade including the heart-stopper against Duke in 2008 (70-71 loss). However, it is Middle Tennessee State who has actually produced some great results the past few seasons. They were a controversial at-large selection two seasons ago (and promptly got embarrassed, but hey, at least they got the nod). This year’s squad is off to a good start as well with a 6-2 record and the only blemishes a tight loss at VCU and a season-opening loss at Murray State. They have also won over Toledo and Auburn.
Belmont enters at 7-4, but having played a typically challenging schedule. All four losses are road games; Arizona State, Evansville, BYU and Valpo – none embarrassing losses, but with an average margin of 6, you’d like to see them start edging a few games out. Their best wins are a season opener against Marquette and then probably Western Kentucky.
Belmont isn’t a bad team, but the fact they can’t seem to seal the deal on the road is a problem. MTSU profiles very similarly to BYU and Evansville – possibly even a little better than both. Add in the fact that this game is at home, and that’s a nice edge for the Blue Raiders. This is an in-state matchup of mid-majors with major aspirations, so despite a relatively low-profile, this games means a lot in the Volunteer State – not just for bragging rights but for assembling a long-shot NCAA profile as well.
Belmont has been a much more efficient offensive team, but MTSU has been a far better defensive team. I generally favor efficiency, but playing true road games against better defensive teams tends to undo some of the efficiency metrics.
This game is a near pick-em, so I’ll pick the home team when all other things are pretty even.