NIT betting, odds: An all-Conference USA final could be in the cards
The NCAA tournament may be winding down, but we don't have to wait on Saturday to bet on college basketball. NIT semifinal action tips off Tuesday night at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. While the Florida Atlantic Owls have brought national attention to Conference USA with their Final Four run, the conference is well represented in the NIT as well. North Texas faces Wisconsin, a Big Ten opponent, as a 1.5-point favorite. In the nightcap, the UAB Blazers are laying three points against Utah Valley. Should we wager on both favorites and go all-in on the idea of an all-Conference USA final? That's where my money is at.
North Texas (-1.5) vs. Wisconsin (O/U 115.5)
Never judge a book by its cover. On the surface, seeing a Big Ten team as a dog against a Conference USA opponent will have those who don't know better running to the window for all the wrong reasons. Don't make the mistake of underestimating the Mean Green, who are certainly worth at least a watch if you aren't looking to wager. They are 18-4 since January and just knocked off Oklahoma State in the quarterfinals, adding a Big 12 win to their resume. They won their first two games of the tournament by 16 and 20 points, proving they can put inferior teams away late.
Wisconsin's coming off its own upset over Oregon. The game was decided at the free-throw line, where Wisconsin ironically shined. Both teams shot 69% from the charity stripe on the season, but the Badgers sank 12 of 13 free throws, with Oregon only hitting 4 of 12 (33%). North Texas' aggressive defense will have no problem ramping up the physicality and daring Wisconsin to beat it from the foul line. It's hard to imagine the Badgers catching lightning in a bottle in two straight games.
North Texas has the stingiest defense in the nation, allowing the least amount of points per game in all of college basketball (55.7), and it isn't letting up. The Mean Green held opponents to an average of 49.3 points per game in their six wins this month. Per Barttorvik.com, they also rank 19th in adjusted defensive efficiency and eighth in effective field-percentage allowed since February. Wisconsin ranked 309th in EFG% over the same period, so it's hard to see them putting up many points in this one. That leaves us to decide if North Texas can score enough to pull away and cover this small spread. Another key factor is North Texas' advantage on the offensive glass, where the Mean Green are 36th best, according to KenPom. I expect plenty of additional possessions and second-chance points for the Mean Green to help build a sustainable lead and cover this number. This isn't an ideal matchup for a team built like the Badgers, so I bet the favorite to advance to the finals pretty comfortably. The bet: North Texas (-1.5)
UAB (-3) vs. Utah Valley (O/U 151.5)
After hopefully watching North Texas slowly squeeze the life out of Wisconsin's NIT run, this will be a fun change of pace. UAB likes to get up and down the floor, playing an exciting brand of basketball by attacking the rim. The Blazers, led by Jordan "Jelly" Walker, were a very popular candidate as a bid-stealer before the tournament. They finished the regular season by winning 10 of 11 games, only to see their chances of securing a spot in the Big Dance come up short with a loss to Florida Atlantic in the conference final. After three straight victories, including an eight-point win over Vanderbilt, they are ready to punch their ticket to the NIT final.
Having a guy like Walker, who finished fourth in the nation in scoring with 22.5 points per game, is a big advantage in a game of this magnitude. I expect him to bounce back after a poor shooting performance, but more importantly, his scoring will help the Blazers push the tempo. The pace will allow them to attack the ball on the defensive end of the floor, forcing turnovers and fueling the Blazers' transition offense. Utah Valley is 262nd in turnover percentage on the season and has become more loose with the ball (322nd) over the past two months. The Wolverines don't possess the kind of offensive firepower to give away multiple possessions to UAB. Walker will have them off and running, and the potency of the Blazers' scoring will prevail. The bet: UAB -3
Stats provided by barttorvik.com and kenpom.com.