College Basketball Betting: Merrimack, Siena, and Alabama State Cleared for Takeoff
In the sea of hypothetical hands raised, three eager beavers stand out among the college basketball crowd: Carm Maciariello, Joe Gallo and Mo Williams. These head honchos lead the only three college basketball programs (Siena, Merrimack and Alabama State), outside of the Ivy and Patriot Leagues, that are still sitting idle as the dawn of 2021 approaches. While many teams have 10 or more games under their belt, the Saints, Warriors and Hornets are both winless AND undefeated at the same time. Siena has endured not one, not two, but THREE separate 14-day COVID shutdowns. Merrimack had two separate games cancelled within 24 hours of tip off, eliminating an already barren non-conference schedule gutted by the Patriot League’s decision to play conference games only. Alabama State opted out of the non-conference entirely, following the Patriot’s model. Now, they are cleared for takeoff.
As discussed below, all three of these teams could yield promising returns in the betting markets this year for various reasons, but tread lightly on pouncing too soon. So far this season, teams making their debut against a team who has played one or more Division I games are 52-62 ATS, falling short of the spread by roughly a point a game. This negative cover margin has come down the last few weeks – fading teams making their debut was worth closer to two points earlier in the year – but the lack of live game experience is still a minor road bump for teams fresh out of the shoot.
Siena Saints – Let’s start with the bad. On top of the 42 days lost due to strict adherence of COVID contact tracing protocols, two potential starters, Gary Harris (promising sophomore wing) and Dana Tate (bruising big from Rhode Island), left the program within the last two months. Prior to those defections, Siena boasted a top-3 roster in the MAAC and looked ready to hit the ground running as one of the MAAC’s feared frontrunners. But it’s not often a pro prospect of Jalen Pickett’s caliber slips through the Power 6 conference cracks. Pickett’s presence alone nearly guarantees the Saints remain in the upper echelon of the conference standings, and the fortuitous ruling by the NCAA granting immediately eligibility to transfers will part the seas for Jackson Stormo (Pepperdine) and Kyle Arrington (Eastern Illinois) to play right away.
The loss of Harris and Tate will sting, but Manny Camper is an explosive weapon on the wing and Pickett’s deputy on both ends of the floor. And two more newcomers should make an immediate splash in Belmont transfer Nick Hopkins and seasoned freshman Aiden Carpenter.
Keep in mind that this team roared across the finish line last year by winning 12 of their last 13 games. The Saints climbed 50 spots in KenPom’s overall rankings during that span, two spots below where Pom’s 2021 projections slate them this year (#143). A déjà vu of 2020 could be in store with the abundance of newcomers – that is, a sleepy start followed by a red-hot finish. Coupled with the extreme COVID disruptions, the Saints may be overpriced in January but could be a sleeping giant as March approaches.
Merrimack Warriors – Last year’s mid major darling, Joe Gallo and his shapeshifting zone defense stymied the entire NEC. No one could solve Merrimack’s amorphous defensive structure, as the likes of Juvaris Hayes, Jaleel Lord and Idris Joyner preyed on perplexed ball handlers all year long. Hayes, the steal king, is now gone, as are Lord and Joyner, leaving Merrimack with a depressed talent crop relative to last year’s standards. Steady contributors remain, but without the element of surprise in their corner, this might be a hard crash from last year’s NEC title team.
However, a silver lining for Merrimack exists. As outlined in Matt Norlander’s spotlight last week, the Warriors were able to install all of their offensive sets and plays early in the preseason before the recent COVID disruption put players and coaches on their own islands during December. The same caution tag applies here as it does to Siena, but the Warriors should ramp up to full speed a hair quicker.
Alabama State Hornets – Renowned LeBron James sidekick, Mo Williams, is the most recent former NBA hoopster taking his talents to the college ranks. The track record for former NBA players holding the clipboard in college is not great, but Juan Dixon’s mini boon at Coppin State is an encouraging precedent. Williams isn’t shy about boasting his bright eyed and bushy tailed demeanor. He’s giddy to hit the ground running, but choppy waters lie ahead of Williams in his first college coaching rodeo.
This anecdote from HBCUGameday.com sums up the daunting challenge ahead of a completely overhauled roster:
“It’s a whole new system. A whole new team,” Williams said. “We have eight new players.”
Implementing a brand new operation with brand new employees would take time at any company. Imagine setting that up at full speed in a COVID-constrained offseason. That’s what Williams is up against this year, a troubling omen for the Hornets who forfeited all of their non-conference tune-up games.
You can follow BettorIQ contributor and Three Man Weaver member Matt Cox @mattycox.