After going undefeated all the way to the championship game of the NCAA Tournament last year, it looks like Gonzaga is poised to do it again. After topping then-No. 5 Texas two weekends ago, the top-ranked Bulldogs built an early 20-point advantage last night over No. 2 UCLA, on their way to an 83-63 win over the Bruins that saw Drew Timme score 18 points and freshman Chet Holmgren put up 15. The Zags easily covered the seven-point spread on the neutral court in Las Vegas, and Mark Few’s team will remain in Sin City over the Thanksgiving holiday, where they will compete next on Friday against No. 5 Duke, which will be their third top-five matchup of the young season.
But before we get there, tournaments in the Bahamas, Las Vegas, New York, and Florida feature top teams playing non-conference opponents. There are more than bragging rights at stake here, as wins over quality teams in November can make a big difference when it comes to the NCAA Tournament committee selecting teams for the big dance.
Let’s start with a former power school that’s been quiet in recent years but find themselves back in the top-25 with their return to the conference that made the school famous.
(22) UConn Huskies vs. (19) Auburn Tigers
The Bet: Auburn +2.5
Defending national champion Baylor is among the top-tier teams participating in the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas this week, but the most intriguing first-round matchup is a battle of ranked unbeaten teams, as the No. 19 Auburn Tigers take on the No. 22 Connecticut Huskies. After years struggling in the American Athletic Conference, UConn is back in the Big East and finds themselves in the top 25 for the first time under head coach Dan Hurley. The also made the NCAA Tournament last year for the first time since 2016, losing as a 7-seed to Maryland in the first round.
The Tigers struggled last year but have solid leadership under Bruce Pearl, reached the Final Four in 2019 and had a team that was capable of doing so in 2020 before the tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Huskies are ranked second in NCAA Division 1 with 92 points per game and rank fourth in points allowed with 51. UConn, however, has played four games and have not been tested by a power conference team yet, so taking on No. 19 Auburn is a huge step up in competition. Despite the high average, the Huskies are spreading the ball out, as their leading scorer, Adama Sanogo, is putting up 15.8 points per game. Tyrese Martin is adding 13.5 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per contest.
The Tigers have only played three games and are also solid defensively, allowing 57 points per contest. Their offensive numbers were dragged down in a 58-52 win at South Florida last Friday. Jabari Smith is averaging 13.3 points and nine rebounds per game for the Tigers and is shooting the 3-point ball at a 46.7% clip.
The two teams met in 2016 and ‘17, both Auburn wins in games that the Tigers also covered in. Auburn has also gotten off to hot starts in recent years, going 13-2 straight up in their last 15 games played in November. And even though the Huskies have started the season 4-0 with comfortable wins over all their opponents, they have only covered the spread in two of those games. This will also be their first game away from home, while the Tigers played on the road in Tampa last week before heading to the Bahamas for this tournament.
We like the Tigers winning here in a close matchup. But that’s no slight against UConn–there will be brighter days ahead for the Huskies this season.
Ohio State Buckeyes vs. (23) Florida Gators
The Bet: Florida -2
The Fort Myers Tip-Off plays their championship game tonight, with Ohio State and No. 23 Florida already having had a couple non-conference tests heading into this one tonight.
The Gators handled Cal 80-60 thanks to a 32-12 run in the last 10 minutes of the first half that allowed the defensive-minded Gators to cruise to the victory in the second half. Florida adds that win to its non-conference resume, which also featured a win at home over the then-No. 20 Florida State Seminoles two weekends ago, 71-55. Colin Castleton is leading the Gators in points (17.0 PPG) and rebounds (9.8 RPG) this season.
Ohio State plays an SEC team for the first time after having their hands full with two Big East opponents. The Buckeyes fell to Xavier 71-65 in Cincinnati last Thursday and they edged No. 21 Seton Hall 79-76 when Meechie Johnson Jr. hit a 3-pointer with 2.3 seconds left. The Pirates were coming off an upset of fellow Big Ten team Michigan in Ann Arbor last week. E.J. Liddell is averaging 22.4 points per game to lead Ohio State so far this season.
After beating Elon by 13 and failing to cover in their opener, the Gators have covered in their last three games, winning each by at least 16 points. While 4-1 this season, the Buckeyes are just 2-3 against the spread. Both teams are averaging 76 points per game, but the Gators have the tighter defense, allowing 55 per game compared to Ohio State’s 69 points allowed per contest.
The better defense coupled with the fact that Florida is only playing a few hours away from their campus at Gainesville will give them a home-court feel in what’s technically a neutral-site game. Those factors will be enough to give the Gators a win and cover here.
(9) Memphis Tigers vs. Virginia Tech Hokies
The Bet: Memphis -2.5
In year four under Penny Hardaway (along with a coaching staff that features Larry Brown and Rasheed Wallace, among others), Memphis looks to be back in the position that they were in under John Calipari in the 2000s, ranked in the top 10 and one of the strongest non-power conference teams in the country. After finishing the 2019-20 season on a high note by winning the NIT, the Tigers return to New York to take on undefeated Virginia Tech in the semifinals of the preseason NIT.
The Tigers have the superior offense, averaging 85.8 points per game compared to the Hokies’ 76. Virginia Tech is led by senior Keve Aluma and is surrounded by 3-point shooters, as they have connected on 42.5% of their shots from long distance. Memphis ranks in the top-25 in 3-point defense, so they will be tested here.
Neither team has played elite competition so far this year, with the most impressive win between the two teams being Memphis’s 74-62 win over Western Kentucky over the weekend. The Hilltoppers are just 1-3 but played Minnesota and South Carolina to closer games before their matchup with the Tigers.
The Hokies have the best scoring defense in Division 1, allowing just 48 points per game. This is due, in part, to a methodical offense that ranks 306th nationally in possessions per game with 65.1. Memphis, meanwhile, is 10th in that statistic with 78.2 possessions per contest. A faster pace could frustrate the Hokies defense into mistakes, and if Memphis gets going, it might be difficult for Virginia Tech’s defense to keep up.
The Hokies’ prowess on defense shouldn’t be overlooked, but the Tigers have too many weapons on offense, and it will be tough for Virginia Tech to keep up with the increase in competition at this early point in the season. We like Memphis to cover the 2.5-point spread and go on to try and win the preseason NIT to go with its postseason crown from this past spring.