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Mega-matchups only for Saturday's best bets in college hoops

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There will be plenty of time to get weird. Conference tournaments are around the corner, featuring the sweat of betting two NEC teams in an empty gym in a place you didn't know existed.

However, with three Saturdays left in the major conference schedule and some big-time regular-season bangers, there's no time to waste.

No. 2 Houston @ No. 11 Baylor (+2.5, 137.5)

Since last Saturday's sneak preview of a theoretical bracket, top-four seeds Purdue, UConn, and Arizona have all lost. To quote the traditional 11 a.m. lead-in to March Madness' noon Thursday tipoff, "Houston Cougars, come on down!"

The more things change in college hoops, the more they stay the same. The personnel changes, but the Cougars are still analytical darlings (No. 1 on KenPom). In its first season in the Big 12, Houston has answered questions about what might happen playing in a power conference. However, the team has lost (Iowa St., TCU, Kansas) more than it's won (BYU, Texas) when going on the road against a good program in the toughest night-to-night league in America.

The Cougars favored by a bucket makes sense by the numbers, but Baylor has the best offense Houston has faced all season (No. 4, according to KenPom). And the home-court advantage in Waco can be significant for big games like this. The price is right to fade the Cougars.

Pick: Baylor moneyline (+120)

No. 8 Duke @ Wake Forest (-2, 152.5)

I was hoping we'd get Wake Forest as a 'dog, and maybe we still will once the market potentially piles in on Duke. Either way, this is the game the Demon Deacons have been waiting for when it comes to impressing bracketologists and the selection committee.

Wake Forest hung with Duke in Durham less than two weeks ago, but it couldn't make a big shot down the stretch, hitting threes at just 23%. The Demon Deacons are shooting 37% from deep this season (25th nationally) and, like most teams, are better at home (where they're undefeated).

This would act as the Blue Devils' best road win of the campaign. Even though Tyrese Proctor is back, this has all the makings of one that Duke will drop before closing the regular season strong.

Pick: Wake Forest (-2)

Iowa @ No. 12 Illinois (-9, 173)

Illinois had its own "oopsy" this week, going from covering -7.5 at Penn State to losing outright in a blink. Meanwhile, Iowa made all the baskets in a 47-point first half at Michigan State. An otherwise underwhelming Hawkeye team came down to earth in the second half, but it was too late for the Spartans.

Returning home for their first game at Assembly Hall in 11 days, the Illini should be dialed in on both ends of the floor. A total in the 170s suggests both teams will score at will, so a 9-point spread shouldn't be as daunting as it would be if points were at a premium.

Pick: Illinois (-9)

No. 10 North Carolina @ Virginia (+2.5, 130.5)

Without trying to be overdramatic, this might be a referendum on this edition of the Tar Heels.

Last season, North Carolina struggled with what Virginia does (sweltering defense and painfully methodical offense). Of course, the Tar Heels were bad in the previous campaign, and the Cavaliers were good. In 2022, on its way to the national title game, North Carolina handled the unranked Hoos' pack-line defense easily.

RJ Davis, Harrison Ingram, and Cormac Ryan (hitting 10 of his last 21 from three) can stretch Virginia's defense. My projected point spread of UNC -3.3 suggests a little value on the favorite, as too much confidence is being put on the Cavaliers' 144th-ranked offense (KenPom) to keep up.

Pick: North Carolina (-2.5)

Texas @ No. 9 Kansas (-7.5, 144.5)

In a season in which road wins have been hard to come by, Texas' handful of away victories are impressive, even if they didn't come against a team as good as Kansas.

Dylan Disu took some time to reintegrate into the Longhorns' offense, but he's recorded 15-plus points in nine straight games. Disu is the type of interior presence who could get Hunter Dickinson and KJ Adams Jr. into foul trouble - something the shallow Jayhawks have to avoid if they're going to cover a number that's a point enough higher than the -6 I have projected.

Pick: Texas (+7.5)

Matt Russell is the lead betting analyst for theScore. If there's a bad beat to be had, Matt will find it. Find him on social media @mrussauthentic.

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