Today's Free Picks for
Posted at 4:00 PM EST. Odds subject to change.
Rupp Arena - Lexington, KY
Texas A&M Commerce +28½ over Kentucky
7:00 PM EST. Maybe the biggest overlay on the board today. College basketball royalty versus a virtual nobody is the perfect setup to take back probably eight or more points than we should be.
Texas A&M-Commerce’s inaugural season as a Division I program went about as well as could be expected. The Lions finished with a .500 record in Southland play and had plenty of highlights throughout the year, from beating Air Force and Hawaii in non-conference play to starting 7-3 in league games. That hot start has laid a foundation for the Lions, and there’s a determination to keep building and take another step forward right away. Head coach Jaret von Rosenberg admitted there were things he didn’t anticipate when making the leap to D1 but now, with those “learning experiences” behind him, the coaching staff feels a few tweaks can be made that can push them to the Southland’s upper echelon.
The biggest thing von Rosenberg wanted his group to work on this offseason was conditioning. Commerce routinely went 10-deep in its rotation, but the rigors of a D1 schedule caught up with them late, as the Lions lost seven of their last nine games. All the returners coming into the summer were in way better shape than they were last summer. The efficiency of those workouts are at a higher level. Chief among those new additions are a pair of JUCO transfers in Zondrick Garrett (Pensacola State) and Kwo Agwa (Howard College). Both are rangy, raw 6-7 forwards with elite athleticism. Commerce has to replace star wing Demarcus Demonia, a second-team All-Southland performer, who overwhelmed opponents (and starred in highlight reels) with his athleticism and relentlessness. but two bigs (Garrett and Agwa) both have that kind of leaping ability.
It’s back to what worked for Kentucky. Kind of. Kentucky’s last two seasons ended with a thud. The Wildcats fell short of lofty expectations so coach John Calipari is going back to what worked in the 2010s. Talented teenagers. Lots of them.
Kentucky brought in the nation’s top recruiting class for 2023, filled with four 5-star prospects in DJ Wagner, Aaron Bradshaw, Justin Edwards and Rob Dillingham. Throw in 4-star guard Reed Sheppard and a 7-1 big man from Croatia in Zvonimir Ivisic, and it’s akin to the teams that ran roughshod over the SEC 10-15 years ago. When the rest of D-I is turning to the transfer portal to fill gaps or build out rosters, is this Calipari panicking? Living in denial? Or is he simply zigging while everyone else is zagging?
We’ll just let Calipari explain it. "You know if you ask me talent or experience, I'm taking talent, and talent usually figures it out," he said. He tried the transfer thing, getting way older, and it flopped the last two years. So he's going back to what he knows, rolling with eight freshmen, two sophomores, two seniors while the rest of college basketball goes old. "I'm going to recruit the best freshman player that I can get," Cal said. "Now, you could say, 'It's not going to work anymore!' Well, we'll see. Let's play it out and we'll see."
Is that wishful thinking? Calipari's got his critics for the team's shortfalls, but is there something to the fact that the SEC is just better than it used to be? Actually, that might be underselling it. Gary Parrish, Terrence Oglesby and other national analysts think it's the best league in the country, in no small part to all the coaching upgrades over the years. It's wild to look at the league's coaches from 2015 and compare them to 2023.
Truth be told, Kentucky was feasting on a bad basketball league in the first decade under Calipari. Now, to be fair, they were also kicking everyone from every league's ass in those days too but the coaches and the financial commitment to basketball in the SEC have both been dramatically upgraded in recent years. Calipari recently said he used to only worry about two or three other teams in the league, and now it's eight or nine. Frank Martin used to apologize for hurting his friend Cal's strength of schedule. It's no coincidence that Calipari keeps saying, "Administrations win championships" lately.
The Wildcats also don’t have any available big men right now. Like, at all. Sophomore Ugonna Onyenso and Bradshaw have both been recovering from foot surgeries over the summer. There’s no timeline for their return (most speculate early 2024), though Bradshaw wasn’t happy about the never-ending rumors about his recovery or if he’ll play at all for UK. And Ivisic? The 7-1 center who committed in August as insurance to the health issues for their other big men? He’s actually not eligible to play.
The school issued a statement Thursday about him: “As a department, we want to clarify, Zvonimir Ivisic has been cleared to practice and play in all intrasquad games. That said, he cannot compete against outside competition, including exhibition games, until he is approved by the NCAA. There was miscommunication in this regard and, as we always do, we plan to adhere to NCAA rules. until he is fully cleared, Zvonimir will be withheld from games against outside competition. That leaves West Virginia transfer Tre Mitchell — all 6-foot-9 of him — as the long “big man” on the roster.
Mitchell has looked awesome in exhibition games as a stretch-five, and it makes Kentucky a much more fun, modern offense, but they're going to run into some large humans in non-league and league play, and they need somebody with some size to actually become available. So, uh, where’s the optimism? After all, this is Kentucky. Even when the ‘Cats are bad — 48 wins over the last two seasons — they’re still dangerous but not well-seasoned enough to be spotting 30 points less a basket to a team that is being looked upon as a punching bag for Kentiucky, ala the Washington Generals vs the Globetrotters.
Back to Calipari for just a sec….Dude gets paid a ton of money, and he set the expectations high early in his tenure, winning the title in 2012 and going to the Final Four in 2011, 2014 and 2015. But over the last three years, Big Blue Nation has been starting to sour on Calipari. The ‘Cats went 9-16 during the pandemic year, lost to St. Peter’s in the first round in 2022, and finished 22-12 and couldn’t get out of the first weekend last season. Calipari would still be owed about $33 million after this season, so it’ll take another first-round exit or not getting into the NCAA Tournament for something to happen (fired) in Lexington. He’s feeling it and his old school ways may have worn out. There are lots of ways for Commerce to come in under the number here and we’re on it.
Texas A&M Commerce +28½ -105 (Risking 2.10 units - To Win: 2.00)