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College Hoops Weekly Betting Preview: Is Notre Dame On Upset Alert?

Nearly seven months after Connecticut cut down the nets in Houston, college basketball returns in force.

Monday’s 2023-24 season tip-off has an incredible 183 games on tap, and 21 of the 25 teams in the AP preseason poll in action. While a number of those contests will involve Division II opponents and therefore won’t have betting odds—looking at you, Indiana State versus St. Mary Of-The-Woods College—it still shapes up as a smorgasbord for college basketball bettors who have been starving since last spring.

Unfortunately, there are no games involving two ranked teams, as most of the big boys are easing into their regular seasons. But Monday night does feature two notable power-conference matchups, both at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas: Georgia against Oregon, and No. 21 USC against a Kansas State team that reached the Elite Eight last season. Sportsbooks have the Pac-12 teams each as slight favorites, the Ducks by around 5 points and the Trojans by around 3.

And yet, there absolutely should be opportunity for sports bettors to find value outside of those rare games matching power-conference opponents. Just look back at last season’s opening night, when top-ranked North Carolina won by only 13 over 23-point underdog UNC Wilmington, No. 14 TCU survived 35-point underdog Arkansas-Pine Bluff by just a point, Arizona State beat 14.5-point underdog Tarleton State by three and 19.5-point favorite Missouri held off Southern Indiana by six.

Then there were the opening night shockers, like +1000 underdog Stetson winning at 17.5-point favorite Florida State, +942 underdog Sam Houston State winning at 16-point favorite Oklahoma, and +229 underdog UC-Davis winning by 10 at 14-point favorite California. With so many games on the schedule, we’ll undoubtedly see more of those close calls and upsets on Monday. The trick for sports bettors, then, is figuring out where they’ll occur.

Beware of Bad Teams

Looking back, that UC Davis upset in Berkeley to open last season perhaps shouldn’t have been a surprise, given that the Golden Bears went on to finish a woeful 3-29. Likewise, the Florida State team that lost outright to Stetson last season on opening night would go on to finish 9-23. The Oklahoma team that lost to Sam Houston State wound up 15-17. Minnesota, which survived 9.5-point underdog Western Michigan by a point to open last season, would finish 9-22.

Translation: bad major-conference teams are the ones most vulnerable to an upset (either of the outright or point-spread variety) on opening night. And this season, no major-conference team is projected to be worse than Notre Dame, which college hoops analytical guru Bart Torvik projects to finish 10-20 overall. The Irish have an intriguing opener against Niagara, which managed a winning record last season in the MAAC and added three Division I transfers to complement two returning starters.

South Carolina, which Torvik projects to be the worst team in the SEC this season, opens against a South Carolina Upstate program that the Gamecocks have struggled to blow out—South Carolina has won by 15, 18 and 13 points in the past three meetings. 

Then there’s Louisville, which lost games to Bellarmine, Wright State and Appalachian State last season, and opens the 2023-24 campaign Monday against a UMBC program that added three experienced Division I transfers to a program that finished 18-14 last year.

There’s also one potentially interesting matchup Monday involving a highly-ranked team. No. 4 Michigan State opens at home against James Madison, which went 22-11 last season and was picked to win the Sun Belt. The Dukes, who lost at Virginia by five points a year ago, return seven players including All-SEC guard Terrence Edward. While JMU likely doesn’t have enough to win outright in the Breslin Center, that spread will be worth watching.

3 Potential Opening Night Upsets

What are the most likely upsets on Monday night? Here are three possibilities:

  • St. Thomas at Cal: Did we mention Cal was dreadful last season? The Bears made lots of changes after that 3-29 debacle, hiring a new coach (Mark Madsen of Utah Valley) and adding transfers from Memphis and Texas Tech. St. Thomas, which jumped straight from Division III to Division I, returns three starters from a team that went 19-14 overall and 20-10-1 against the spread last season.
  • UMBC at Louisville: The Cardinals turned over their roster after last season’s 4-28 campaign, seeing seven players hit the transfer portal and adding nine newcomers. But five of those are high school signees, so expect this revamped Louisville team to take a while to gel (if it ever does). The Retrievers were a .500 team against the spread last season, covering against Georgetown and Maryland, and added top scorers from South Carolina-Upstate and Chicago State for this year.
  • Kansas State vs. USC: The Wildcats lost all-everything guard Markquis Nowell, who powered K-State to the Elite Eight. But Jerome Tang’s team has reloaded with the addition of transfer Tylor Perry, who averaged 17.3 ppg last season at North Texas, and wing Arthur Kaluma from Creighton. The Trojans are loaded with three returning starters, Washington State transfer DJ Rodman and a star-studded freshman class—but openers are tricky, and K-State is good enough to win this one outright.

Opening Night’s 3 Best Games

OK, enough about bad teams and potential upsets. For sports bettors who like to search for those narrow edges in close, competitive matchups, here are the best three games of college basketball’s opening night:

  • Iona at Charleston: Rick Pitino may have moved on to St. John’s, but this is still a battle of two tournament teams from last year. The new Gaels coach is Tobin Anderson, who led FDU to the upset of Purdue in last year’s Big Dance. Charleston was picked as the preseason favorite in the CAA, Iona second in the MAAC, and both teams have lots of experience returning. The Cougars were 17-1 at home a season ago.
  • Merrimack at Vermont: The Catamounts keep rolling, and are favored to win the America East for the fifth time in six seasons behind guard Aaron Deloney, who shoots 60% from the 3-point arc. Merrimack closed last season winning 11 straight a streak that included a win over FDU in the NEC title game, but they were unable to play in the tournament because of Division I transition rules. The Warriors return a fantastic backcourt, and employ a zone defense that gives opponents fits.
  • Northern Kentucky at Middle Tennessee State: We could very well see both of these teams in March, given that Northern Kentucky was picked to win the Horizon League and MTSU tied for first with Liberty in the Conference USA preseason poll. The Norse return the great backcourt that fueled last season’s run to the NCAA tournament, while the Blue Raiders add an Iowa transfer to the group that lost a three-point game to Florida Atlantic (remember them?) in last season’s C-USA tournament.

Best Against the Spread

The best team in college basketball last season against the spread was Utah Valley, which compiled a 25-9 mark according to data at Team Rankings. But the Wolverines will be hard-pressed to replicate that success: they saw four starters transfer to power-conference programs, and lost their coach, Madsen, to Cal. Behind UVU at 27-11-1 against the spread was national champion Connecticut, which opens Monday against Northern Arizona.

The Huskies add Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer and five-star freshman guard Stephon Castle to a roster that includes returning starters Tristen Newton and Alex Karaban, and will likely move 7-2 center Donovan Clingan into the starting lineup. The early portion of the schedule is loaded with games against Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina and Gonzaga, but UConn should ease into its title defense against an NAU squad that went 12-23 a season ago.

Another team for sports bettors to watch: Eastern Kentucky, which returns four starters from the squad that went 23-10-1 ATS a year ago, and shapes up as the best team in the Atlantic Sun.

And then there’s Florida Atlantic, which returns almost the entire roster that crashed the Final Four last season, and went 25-11-1 ATS along the way. The Owls tip off their season Wednesday against Loyola of Chicago (coming off a 10-21 campaign) and also take on Illinois, Charleston and Arizona before starting play in the American Athletic Conference.

And just think, it’s only opening night—five more months of college basketball to come!

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