College Basketball Betting: Maui Invitational Championship Preview
The final of the always-exciting Maui Invitational is somewhat unexpected. Most of us were waiting to get a look at Michigan State taking on Kansas in this game, giving us an early peak at two national title contenders slugging it out on a neutral floor. Instead, the Spartans fell at the first hurdle, upset 71-66 against Virginia Tech. It’s not all that surprising that the Hokies struggled in a let down spot against Dayton in the semi-finals, but the Flyers’ absolute destruction of their ACC opponent should make people stand up and take notice, no matter what happens against the Jayhawks in the final.
Dayton started the season ranked 57th in KenPom, and were projected to finish third in the Atlantic 10, placing them squarely on the preseason NCAA tournament bubble. Heading into the game against Kansas, the Flyers now sit 23rd in KenPom’s rankings, comfortably ahead of VCU (36th) and Davidson (72nd), the two teams projected to finish ahead of them in conference play.
What’s impressive is not just managing to beat the likes of Georgia and Virginia Tech on a neutral floor, it’s that Dayton has been absolutely suffocating in Maui. First up, the Flyers crushed Anthony Edwards and the Georgia Bulldogs 80-61. Georgia shot the ball well (49% from the field) but Head Coach Anthony Grant, formerly of VCU, saw his players force 22 turnovers off a team who had not turned the ball over more than 14 times in any of its previous games. Couple that with the fact that Georgia only coughed it up 14 times in the following game against Michigan State, and the effectiveness of Dayton’s defense is only further illustrated. More than the turnovers, Dayton’s mastery over potential top NBA draft pick Anthony Edwards was a sight to behold. Edwards scored only six points, on 2-for-10 shooting. Edwards lit up Michigan State the next day, going off for 37 points.
Dayton followed up the defeat of Georgia with a phenomenal offensive performance against Virginia Tech, who one day earlier had held Michigan State to 40.7 percent from the field. Dayton shot a ridiculous 63.6% for the game, and connected on 11 three-pointers. As impressively, the Flyers held Virginia Tech to a mere 20 rebounds. It is important in the early going for bettors to identify teams that can win in different ways, and there’s plenty of reason to buy stock in Dayton, as they cruised in back-to-back games against two teams who they may well be comparing resumes with come March.
However, we’re still dealing with a step up in class against Kansas tonight. Dayton have issues with depth, and run eight-deep. Playing a third game in three days will be a tough task, but it could be mitigated by the fact that Kansas too play a short rotation. The real issue is going to be whether the Flyers’ fatigue makes it impossible for them to deal with the substantial size disadvantage they are at in this matchup. Star forward Obi Toppin has been remarkable in the early going, averaging 24 PPG and 8.2 RPG, but he has not faced anything like the frontline of the Jayhawks. Beyond Toppin, Ryan Mikesell is the only cog in the rotation about 6’ 5”. Lining up against the likes of Udoka Azubuike, David McCormack, and Silvio De Sousa could easily prove to be too much for a team playing for a third straight day. The fact is that Kansas will have size and skill advantages all over the floor. While the Flyers may still be effective defending the perimeter, this is a classic game where the bigger team gets the better looks and just wears down its opponent.
Kansas have hardly been brilliant to start the season, however. The Jayhawks lost their opener 68-66 to Duke in a game they simply had no business dropping. Kansas held Duke to 36% from the field, but managed to turn the ball over a preposterous 26 times. Indeed, sloppy play throughout the early season schedule has prevented the Jayhawks from really looking the part of title contender. An AP ranking of 4 is tempered somewhat by a KenPom ranking of 8, which feels about right.
In fairness, last night’s game against BYU did give us a better idea of Kansas’ ceiling. After a tight first half that saw BYU trail by only two at the break, Kansas outscored the Cougars 27-11 to start the second half and putting the game quickly to bed.
It’s hard not to see a similar story emerge in this one, although a double-digit blowout may be unlikely. After all, fatigue and size concerns aside, Dayton has simply been one of the best team’s in the entire country to open the season. Through five games, the Flyers’ offense ranks first in the nation with an offensive efficiency rating of 1.239. The team has a transition offense in the 97th-percentile, to go along with a half-court offense in the 99th percentile. Yes, of course, this cannot hold. But, this is an offense that could regress plenty and still be very, very good. Conversely, Kansas are unsurprisingly a dominant force in the half-court. The Jayhawks are scoring 0.971 PPP in this offense, ranking in the 93rd-percentile. This should present Kansas with a substantial offensive advantage, as half-court defense is the only area where Dayton has struggled, surrendering 0.867 PPP, landing the Flyers in the 26th-percentile.
Kansas, as expected, have been a monster on defense, giving up only 0.705 PPP in the half-court. Beyond the big bodies upfront, the wings are long and athletic and point guard Devon Dotson has been providing excellent on-ball and pick-and-roll defense.
The uncertainty of how these teams will each react to the fatigue of a third game in three days makes a play on the total very difficult. However, there’s a reasonable likelihood that Dayton coach Anthony Grant wants to push the pace in this one, leaning on a great transition offense and trying to mitigate potential issues in the half-court. It won’t be easy to keep up that sort of energy level in this one, but that may actually translate to high shooting percentages, an increase in free-throw attempts, and a high-scoring affair. When it comes to the side, there’s a lot to like from Dayton, and early returns suggest the Flyers will be a tournament, and could well be the favorites for the Atlantic 10 title by the time we get to conference play, but 4.5 points ultimately feels a little low. This may be a bit of a cautious overcorrection from the market here, as the Flyers have been blowing the spread out of the water in four straight ATS wins. In Maui, Dayton has covered the line by 16 and 23 points against Georgia and Virginia Tech, respectively. No matter what, though, this is going to be a fun one, and a game that will help bettors paint a better picture of these teams as they get closer to conference play.