You can’t beat the first three weeks of college basketball season in terms of volume of quality games and intriguing matchups. Some may argue the early season lacks some cache as the games “don’t really matter” but many a team has solidified their NCAA Tournament resume with some solid non-conference, RPI-bolstering early season wins.
A few teams have caught my eye in the early season that are flying a bit under the collective national radar. The first is the Pitt Panthers. It seems as if everyone forgot about the fact that for a decade no coach in the country won more regular season games than Jamie Dixon. Yes, the Panthers have had some tournament struggles, but there haven’t been many better programs than Pitt. They are unranked, but don’t expect that to be the case for long. We get a nice glimpse of just how good they can be when they meet #5 Michigan next week. I think they pull off the upset win. They have hammered every team in their path so far, and I don’t expect them to blink before their matchup with Cincinnati in a little over a month. They will be 12-0 heading in to that game if they can get past Michigan. This is a Top 15 team in my rankings.
I am also intrigued by Xavier. It is widely accepted that the Muskies are going to really struggle this season, but after watching them hang 70 in the first half against Fairleigh Dickinson and then blast Butler on national television, I am not ready to say this is a tourney team, but I am thinking they may not fall quite as far in the revamped A-10 as many think. With both Purdue and Vanderbilt being a little down, they have a chance to be 7-0 with five quality Top 100 wins heading into the Christmas Break rivalry game with Cincinnati.
The third team that has me intrigued is the subject of tonight’s free pick, the Murray State Racers.
St. John’s Red Storm vs. Murray State Racers -3.5
Murray State captured the college basketball world’s attention by remaining the last unbeaten team, lasting all the way into February unblemished. They return a legit All-American candidate in Isaiah Canaan. He has the Racers poised for another NCAA Tournament run, and they have a chance to pick up one of the type of wins they will need to raise above the #6-#7 seed range. If they want to be a Top 4 seed, they need to knock off a few higher profile foes.
The Racers absolutely laid the lumber to Auburn two nights ago. The score closed at 79-59, but it was never even remotely that close. Murray State jumped out to a 43-11 lead, led by Canaan’s 26 points and 6 assists, nearly all of which came in the first half. I expect him to give St. John’s similar difficulties tonight.
The Red Storm are off to a 2-0 start, but they haven’t looked great in either win. The gutted out a 77-74 win over a good, but certainly not great, Detroit team, and then lethargically slugged through a 64-55 win over Charleston. Tonight they face another mid-major foe, but the difference is this MSU team has major NBA talent in Canaan, and a ton of experience. I think they prove to be a little more than the young Red Storm are prepared for and get a relatively easy win tonight.
Free Pick: Murray State Racers -3.5