Saturday steers the Southeastern Conference front and center under the college basketball spotlight thanks to the annual SEC-Big 12 Challenge and bonus action featuring ranked teams.
While the ACC (Duke, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina all in the AP’s top 11) and the Big 10 (Michigan, Michigan State, Maryland in the top 13) still get the majority of national media hype because of TV contracts (and Dick Vitale’s preferences), both the SEC and Big 12 are positioned to make a lot of noise in March. The SEC in particular could have one of its best postseasons ever.
Both Mississippi schools are very much in the mix, each comfortably positioned for Dance invitations at the moment. Both also have very big tests Saturday.
▪ No. 20 Ole Miss hosts No. 24 Iowa State (ESPN, 11 a.m.) in one of the tip-off games for the conference challenge. Both are currently projected to be seeded in the #6 to #7 range according to “bracketologists” like Joe Lunardi of ESPN. Let’s see what the market thinks about that. If you allot three points for home court advantage, you’ll be able to determine how the composite some of informed betting influences rate these two teams after the point spread settles.
The Rebels (+1) were blown out at Alabama 74-53 Tuesday. The Crimson Tide jumped to a 42-26 halftime lead and never looked back. Turnovers were a problem for Ole Miss, losing the category 16-9. A rebounding loss of 44-32 also loomed very large. Mississippi won’t matter in March if it continues to struggle away from home in those areas.
For the season, Ole Miss is a stellar 15-3 against the spread (after a 14-1 start!). The Rebels are 8-1 ATS on their home floor. Iowa State is 11-6-2 ATS this season, after cashing tickets for backers six of its last eight. The Cyclones covered their last two road challenges at tough sites … at Kansas and at Texas Tech.
▪ No. 25 Mississippi State hosts No. 16 Auburn (SEC Network, 7:30 p.m.) in a battle of teams who were left out of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge because one league has 14 members, the other just 10. Too bad this game will get overlooked in the hoopla.
Like Ole Miss, Mississippi State is in a bounce-back spot off a similarly sized blowout loss. The Bulldogs (+7) fell at Kentucky 76-55 Tuesday. Here, three-pointers were the big issue. State was just 3 of 20 (15%), while Kentucky was 8 of 16 (50%). That’s 15 points of the 21-point victory margin. Mississippi State was out-rebounded 43-36.
Against the spread, Mississippi State is a disappointing 8-10 ATS for the season. That includes a 1-4 ATS mark in SEC action. Auburn is 8-8-1 ATS thus far. But, the Tigers’ are trending in the wrong direction. Auburn is 3-8 ATS its last 11 after a 5-0-1 point spread start.
Note that Auburn is coming off a pair of straight up nail biter losses to Kentucky and South Carolina. A third straight failure might knock the Tigers all the way out of the rankings.
In terms of the full SEC/Big 12 battle, the nation’s eyes will be on #9 Kansas at #8 Kentucky (ESPN, 5 p.m.) The Wildcats have been in more impressive form of late, apparently having fully recovered from its season-opening Duke debacle. If you’re a basketball handicapper, you’ll be pondering many big games for both of these teams for the next several weeks. Must-see TV even if you’re taking a betting respite from the Super Bowl until tournament time.
Also worth your time if you’re a serious sports bettor or an avid fan: Florida at TCU (ESPN2, 11 a.m.) features a pair of possible spoilers currently projected to reach the Big Dance; Alabama at Baylor (ESPNU, 11 a.m.) is a battle of teams currently on the bubble; West Virginia at #1 Tennessee (ESPN, 3 p.m.) will give the top-ranked Vols a chance to refocus after disappointingly close wins over Alabama and Vanderbilt that missed the market by 10 and 9 points at the end of regulation.
▪ That 15-3 ATS mark for Ole Miss we just mentioned is still best in the nation. Virginia is tied with the Rebels at 15-3. Other winning point spread records of note according to the standings page at covers.com: Oklahoma 14-3-2, Drake 14-3-1, Michigan State 15-4, Pittsburgh 13-5-1, Gonzaga 14-6, St. Mary’s 14-6, Georgia Tech 13-6, and Houston 13-6.
▪ On the futures watch, Duke is still the market favorite to win the National Championship at prices ranging from 7/4 to 2/1. Gonzaga is next in line at 8/1 or 9/1 (prices vary from shop to shop, and soon nationally from shore to shore). Plenty of variance in the next group from 10/1 to 18/1: Virginia, Tennessee, Michigan, Michigan State, Kansas, Kentucky, and Nevada.