Outback Bowl: Iowa, Mississippi State strangers on a collision course?

Offensive linemen need to stock up on deodorant when facing Mississippi State.
Sack-monster Montez Sweat gives them more than they can handle on most Saturdays.

Sometimes bowl games revive old rivalries. Alabama and Clemson first hooked up in 1900. Clemson won the first three matchups, all within five years. The Crimson Tide made up the ground and then some before the First World War and following the Second. Then there were four classic matchups between Frank Howard and Bear Bryant from 1966-69. ‘Bama won them all. Now, Dabo Sweeney and Nick Saban hook up in the National Championship for the fourth time in as many years with Saban edging the series 2-1.

On the other hand, bowl games also create new rivalries. Fittingly on New Years Day, Mississippi State and Iowa hook up for the first time in the Outback Bowl in Tampa.

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Both teams are 8-4 [SU]. The Hawkeyes come in unranked but the AP Poll has the Bulldogs 18th. Their respective records in the Over/Under are telling. Iowa comes in 8-4, Mississippi State 2-9.

It’s not just that Kirk Ferentz’s attack loves to go over the top while Joe Moorhead prefers to ground and pound. Mississippi State’s running game produces points. The difference is their defence really gets after it, stifling opponents. When only one team is scoring, the Under comes out on top more often than not.

The strength in defensive coordinator Bob Shoop’s unit is the line. Montez Sweat leads the way with 11.5 sacks and a forced fumble on the year. When opposing offensive lines focus on the 6′ 6″ 245 lb senior, Erroll Thompson [4] and Willie Gay [4.5] find their way to the quarterback. It’s junior defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons who stuffs the run, however. The 6′ 4″ 300-pounder leads the ‘Dogs with 15.5 tackles in the backfield.

Anthony Nelson and AJ Epenesa in the Iowa front seven guarantee this will be a defensive battle.

Iowa QB Nathan Stanley and running back Mehki Sargent will be put to the test. Stanley threw for 2,638 yards, 23 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Sargent added 748 yards on the ground with 10 TDs, nine rushing. Problem: Mississippi State is #1 in the nation in defence, yielding only 12 points per game.

The Hawkeyes’ defence wasn’t too bad, either, ranking 10th at 17.4 ppg. Anthony Nelson [9.5 sacks/11 tackles for loss] and AJ Epenesa [9.5/15.5] lead the charge. The Bulldogs rushing trio [Nick Fitzgerald 1,018 yds/12 TDs, Kylin Hill 691/7 and Aeris Williams 502/4] should be in for a long afternoon, too.

Iowa plays in the Big Ten West and avoided confrontations with Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. They lost at home to their toughest opponent, Northwestern, but gave it a go at 14-10. Mississippi State, on the other hand, counts Alabama, LSU, Florida and Kentucky as their four defeats in the stacked Southeastern Conference. Capitalising on turnovers is the Hawkeyes’ best hope but key for both teams.

The LINE is Iowa [+7].
The TOTAL is a meagre 41

The powers that be are trying to push you into betting the Over but neither side in this one fields a blazing offence. The Bulldogs rank 66th in the nation, scoring 29.1 ppg, the Hawkeyes 42nd at 31.5, but it’s their defensive numbers you should key on. Remember, the two schools bookend the top-ten in the country on that side of the ball. Take the UNDER and run.

Free Pick: Mississippi State v Iowa UNDER [41]
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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction. Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

Is Stanford v Pitt rematch in the Sun Bowl worth the 86-year wait?

Pitt running backs Qadree Ollison and Darren Hall ran roughshod over opponents in 2018. Can they cap it off with a Sun Bowl win over the Stanford Cardinal?

Schools on opposite coasts rarely meet. Travel time clashes with study time. That said, Stanford and Pitt clashed three times in eleven years. Pitt edged the budding rivalry with 16-7 and 7-0 wins in 1922 and 32. Stanford came away with a 7-6 triumph in 1928. Then Pitt played Floyd Mayweather to Stanford’s Manny Pacquiao, ‘avoiding’ a rematch for eight-and-a-half decades. Finally, the Cardinal have an opportunity to even the score with the Panthers in this year’s Sun Bowl.

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Although the two schools haven’t met in nearly a century, each produced a legendary NFL quarterback. John Elway and Dan Marino were two of the greatest arms the pro game has seen. Elway did get to hand the ball to Pitt alum Tony Dorsett in the Hall of Fame running back’s latter years.

It won’t be like-for-like in this long-awaited reunion. While Stanford quarterback KJ Costello loves to air it out, throwing for 3,435 yards, 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions over the Cardinal’s 8-4 season, Pitt is strictly FedEx Ground.

Panthers QB Kenny Pickett threw for 1,500 fewer yards than his Sun Bowl opponent. He was too busy handing the ball to a pair of 1,000-yard rushers. Qadree Ollison picked up 1,190 yards, Darren Hall 1,021 over Pitt’s 7-6 campaign. Between them, the pair found the end zone 20 times.

Stanford’s defence has their hands full but they’re used to it. Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson’s ball hawks forced eight fumbles in 2018, recovering seven. If Pitt offensive coordinator Shawn Watson tries to catch his counterpart overloading the box, the Cardinal secondary will be ready. As a unit, they picked off 11 throws this season. Sophomore cornerback Paulson Adebo grabbed four and defended 18 passes.

Pitt’s defence loves to dole out punishment too. Randy Bates group forced 17 fumbles. Problem? They recovered just the one. The secondary intercepted nine balls. Damar Hamlin and Jason Pinnock claimed two apiece but senior DB Dane Jackson will be tasked with shutting down KJ Costello’s favourite target. Jackson defended 13 passes on the season. His assignment, JJ Arcega-Whiteside, fell just short of a 1,000 yards for Stanford, catching 60 Costello throws for 969 yards and 14 TDs.

KJ Costello’s arm must be better than Ollison and Hall’s legs if Stanford are to come out on top.

Pitt DC Bates and defensive line coach Charlie Partridge might be thinking about a blitz package to harry the junior signal caller. Tailback Bryce Love elected to sit his 739 yards rushing out at the Sun Bowl to prepare for the NFL draft. Trevor Speights and Cameron Scarlett must pick up the slack. Both had similar yards-per-carry stats to Love but neither reached the 250-yard mark. Scarlett is the more explosive back with seven TDs. Head coach David Shaw may go with him in this one.

Pitt ended their regular season as Clemson’s whipping boys in the ACC Championship. Stanford finished on a high beating arch-rival Cal 23-13 for a third straight win following a mid-season hiccup during which they lost four of five.

The Sun Bowl LINE is Pitt [+4.5]. The TOTAL is 52.

AGAINST THE SPREAD, Stanford is 3-0-1 in their last four, 10-1 in December games. Pitt is 0-4 in neutral site games but 7-1 following a game in which they pass for less than 170 yards. Kenny Pickett was 4/16 for eight yards and an interception against Clemson. [Ouch]

The OVER is 4-0 in Stanford’s last four games after an ATS victory.

Who do I like? It isn’t Bryce Love, although I understand the caution behind skipping bowl games when an NFL paycheck looms and you’ve been busting your hump for free for 2-4 years. It is what it is but it’s a real pain in the ass for Stanford fans and the team as a whole. If Cameron Scarlett isn’t ready to keep Pitt honest, it will be a long afternoon for the Cardinal.

I feel like he’s ready, though. I’m not prepared to say the Cardinal will dominate because Pitt will try to control possession through Ollison and Hall. Still, I expect the scoreboard to light up like the Wall Street ticker at opening bell. Bet the Over here and have a Happy New Year.

Free Pick: Stanford v Pitt OVER [52]
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Important questions when South Carolina meet Virginia

Junior quarterback Jake Bentley leads the South Carolina Gamecocks into Charlotte, NC 
to face the Virginia Cavaliers in the Belk Bowl.

Let’s get the niggling question out of the way first. For those of you who’ve never been to North Carolina, Belk is the region’s classy department store. It’s the Macy’s of the Carolinas [my slogan, not theirs] and even sponsored the Charlotte Thanksgiving Day Parade until 2013.

I google way too much.

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Anyway, minds at ease, we can now turn to important matters, namely football.

South Carolina and Virginia come to town with largely identical records but distinctly different squads. Both are 7-5 Straight Up and Over/Under. Each is 4-4 SU in Southeastern and Atlantic Coast Conference play respectively. The Cavaliers are one game better [8-4] Against The Spread and SU at home [6-1]. The Gamecocks boast two SU wins on the road to their opponent’s one.

The big differences lie in how each school arrived at their similar records.

Although South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp appears to have followed another former Florida Gators coach’s trail from Gainesville to Columbia and the Gamecocks are a pass-happy offence in the proud Steve Spurrier tradition, he comes to the top job from the defensive side of the ball. That is a problem for South Carolina, who gave up nearly as many points per game [27.2] as they scored [32.6].

Meanwhile, Bronco Mendenhall’s team play the type of football their coach’s name suggests. Smashmouth. Junior quarterback Bryce Perkins, who sat out two seasons in transferring from Arizona State, isn’t afraid to throw the ball but the Cavaliers boast two players in the backfield who threatened 1,000 yards in 2018. Running back Jordan Ellis put up 920 yards on 189 carries for a solid 4.9 yards per rush. Perkins himself added another 842 with a 4.3yd average. Each ran it into the end zone nine times.

South Carolina QB Jake Bentley lets his arm do the yard work. He has three rushers to leg it out. Rico Dowdle [638yds, 4TDs], Mon Denson [415yds, 2TDs] and Tyson Williams [319yds, 4TDs] do their share but the junior signal-caller passed for 2953 yards and 27 touchdowns, this season, albeit with 12 interceptions. His favourite target is Deebo Samuel who racked up 882yds on 62 receptions for 11 TDs.

Virginia Cavaliers safety and ball hawk Juan Thornhill can’t wait to see what Jake Bentley does without his top receiver.

Unfortunately for Bentley and the Gamecocks, Samuel elected to skip the bowl to prepare for the NFL draft. Without him, the 35 points Muschamp’s offence put up in defeat to Clemson loses significance. Bryan Edwards caught 52 balls for seven scores and 809yds. He must pick up the slack. Third back in the rotation, Williams is questionable as he rehabs a broken hand.

Virginia’s defence loves a quarterback who stays in the pocket. Senior safety Juan Thornhill has five picks, benefitting from linebacker Chris Peace’s ability to pressure the quarterback. Peace, also a senior, banked six sacks in 2018. As a team, the Cavaliers have 15 INTs and 22 sacks.

South Carolina’s aerial attack v Virginia’s pass defence is the key matchup in the Belk Bowl. Samuel’s absence could be critical. Bowl games are notoriously unpredictable, though, because both teams lose their momentum [or inertia] with several weeks off. Bentley has had all the time in the world to work with other receivers.

Trends conflict. South Carolina is 4-0 ATS v winning teams and in their past four bowls. Nominally the visiting team, they’re giving away four points in the Line. Virginia is 5-0 O/U in their previous bowl games with the Total in this one at 54. The teams haven’t met since 2003.

Overall, you must look at Virginia’s voracious pass defence and South Carolina’s undermanned receiving corps. It’s tempting to bet the Under but this looks like Virginia’s game to lose.

Free Pick: Virginia [+4]
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A Christmas Feast on the West Coast

The top two teams in the Pacific Division meet on Christmas Day.

The NBA began playing Christmas games in their sophomore season [1947]. Television broadcasts started in 1967. Marketing consultants didn’t need to be consulted for the league to schedule top matchups on a day when everyone was at home with nothing to do except pretend they were listening to Uncle Dan.

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Who wouldn’t want to watch Bernard King post 60 points rather than hear another lecture on Ronald Reagan’s statesmanship? Or see Patrick Ewing rally the Knicks past the Celtics and bury Michael Jordan and the Bulls at the buzzer in ’85 and ’86 rather than Dan’s Reagonomics reprisals?

Although the Knicks carried the tradition through its early decades, the Lakers and Celtics took over the role just before the millennium turned. One or the other has featured since 1999. Both since 2008. When LeBron James made his Decision, the Miami Heat joined the act.

Now that LeBron has taken Robert Plant and Jimmy Page’s advice and gone to California, the blockbuster matchup is the Lakers v the Golden State Warriors.

After a sluggish start in LaLa Land, the King has his new team rolling. The Lakers are second in the Pacific [19-14 SU], behind the Warriors, fourth overall in the Western Conference.

Golden State is doing slightly better [23-11 SU] but isn’t the imperious side of recent years, as their .500 record away from the Oracle Arena demonstrates.

The Warriors are at home for this one, however, where they are 15-3 Straight Up. The Lakers are two games under .500 on the road.

Kevin Durant may have elected for strength in numbers by signing with Golden State,
 but he isn’t afraid to take on any double team.

In addition to entering hostile territory, LA arrives shorthanded. JaVale McGee’s 11.8 points and 6.7 rebounds per game are a significant miss. Without him, they dropped a 107-99 decision to Memphis on Sunday. Tyson Chandler is also questionable after missing that game with back spasms.

The Warriors aren’t completely healthy although Damian Jones 5.4 ppg and 3.6 rpg are easier for Steve Kerr to replace.

Luke Walton’s one advantage in this matchup is familiarity. He coached Golden State during Kerr’s recovery from back problems in 2015/16. He knows the Warriors’ roster, Kerr’s tendencies, and how to deal with the hostile crowd. On the other hand, it hasn’t helped him yet. Kerr has won all but the first of their eight games since Walton became Lakers head coach in 2016.

Even with LeBron on the court at the Staples Center, it wasn’t close. The Warriors came away 117-106 winners while giving away six points to the LINE. They’re giving away nine at home.

Kerr’s squad welcomed the Christmas Eve amnesty after hosting the Mavericks and Clippers on back-to-back nights. They came away with wins in both but may be a little gassed on Christmas. Sunday night against the Clippers was a wide-open affair. It ended 129-127 with the Warriors only failing to score more than 30 in the final quarter.

Can LeBron add to tradition and intrigue by pulling off the latest NBA Christmas miracle?

Golden State tends to respond when opponents light them up. They’re 4-0 with the UNDER after giving up more than 125. The Under is also 8-1-1 following the Lakers’ last nine SU defeats and 6-1-1 in their last eight against .600+ teams.

That said, the OVER is running 28-11 in the series. Knowing that, I still expect it to be 28-12 come Boxing Day [!]. Both coaches will be emphasising defending, the Lakers are shorthanded, the Warriors fatigued.

The TOTAL is 235. While Golden State topped that on Saturday and Sunday, they didn’t in six of their previous seven. The Lakers have managed it in just three of their last ten. Both teams need to be at their best to hit that level. Neither is. Go with the Under.

Free Pick: LAKERS + [9 POINTS]
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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.


Will Big Ben’s errancy cost the Steelers against the Saints?

New Orleans rides the NFL wave’s crest this season. Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ 3rd-ranked passing attack must hang more than ten on the Saints to maintain their grip on the AFC North and a playoff spot.

Pittsburgh comes into New Orleans with the NFL’s 4th-ranked offence and 9th-best defence. The Saints are 7th and 11th respectively. If Mike Tomlin’s squad edges Sean Payton’s slightly on both sides of the ball, why is New Orleans playing for home field advantage in the NFC with a 12-2 record while Pittsburgh desperately clings to first in the AFC North at 8-5-1?

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One key factor is balance. Pittsburgh’s offence relies almost entirely on Ben Roethlisberger’s arm. Their running game ranks 30th overall. New Orleans ranks eighth in rushing and 13th in the air.

It’s the other side of the ball that offers the Steelers hope in this crucial matchup. That’s where the Saints are unbalanced, boasting the league’s best run resistance but trying to hide the 29th-rated passing defence. It hasn’t hurt them yet but those numbers play right into Roethlisberger’s hands. He’s more than ready to open an early present if the Saints secondary is in a giving mood.

Pittsburgh tailback James Conner picked the right week to sit out with an ankle injury although his shot at a 1,000-yard rushing campaign may fall 91 yards short if he isn’t back for the final week. Jay Samuel faces the Saints’ front seven in his place. Starting receiver and kick return specialist Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster is knocked up too but telling any reporter who’ll listen that he’s good to go.

The Saints are healthy. With the game under the dome, weather won’t be a factor. On its face, this one promises to be a wide-open affair.

Roethlisberger is threatening 5,000 yards passing. He comes into the game on 4,462 with 30 touchdown passes but also 15 interceptions. Turnovers are another problem for Pittsburgh. Drew Brees has thrown for 800 fewer yards but one more TD and just five INTs. Big Ben is the Steelers’ strongest asset but also their greatest weakness.

Drew Brees airs it out less than Ben Roethlisberger but less risk has led to greater reward.

The two clubs have met only three times since Brees came to the Mississippi Delta from San Diego in 2006. He lost the game in his first season but won the next two. The most recent meeting, in 2014, was the barnburner everyone expects in this one, with the Saints edging it 35-32.

Neither team brings much momentum into the game. The Saints have won two since suffering their second defeat to Dallas to end November. Pittsburgh ended a three-game losing streak in stunning fashion, knocking off the suddenly vulnerable New England Patriots 17-10 at Heinz Field. Both need to build on those meagre foundations with the playoffs looming.

The LINE has the Saints at -6.5. The TOTAL invites punters to bet the Over at 52.5Both teams run hot streaks Against The Spread and with the Under on artificial turf. In addition, the Saints favour the Under in their last four games after surrendering 14 points or less while Pittsburgh is 4-0-1 ATS after covering or beating the Line the previous week, 4-1-1 after their most recent Straight Up wins.

Desperation is on the Steelers’ side. They have much more to lose. The problem is when they go for it, they crap out too often. Look for turnovers to kill their hopes in this one. Take New Orleans. Give the points.

Free Pick: New Orleans -6.5
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Rams at Bears not the NFC playoff preview you might think

Snow isn’t in the forecast for this evening’s tilt in the Windy City but the mercury will drop below freezing.

From Thanksgiving on, Roger Goodell surrenders his office as NFL Commissioner to Old Man Winter in Northeast and Midwestern cities. Cold weather adds a harsh, challenging element to football missing before the holidays, under domes and in southern climes.

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I’ve lived in South Florida for the past three decades but still get the sniffles watching a late-season telecast from the “frozen tundra” at Lambeau Field. Carbon dioxide billowing from nostrils and mouths as lineman face each other on the line of scrimmage. The quarterback barking out the equivalent of smoke signals over their heads. You can almost feel the cold even if you’re watching the game poolside. Only football brings you the steaming scalps of 300 lb not so woolly mammoths removing their helmets on the bench after an 11-minute drive. If shoveling snow wasn’t the trade-off, I might still be up north.

The Los Angeles Rams put their NFL-best 11-1 mark on the line at Soldier Field in that unfamiliar, unfriendly environment tonight. If the Rams can acclimate to the Lake Effect, they’ll be in the post-season. With the pressure off, they can focus on securing home-field advantage throughout and resting players ahead of the postseason.

At 8-4, the NFC North-leading Chicago Bears can put themselves on the playoff’s doorstep by exploiting their experience with harsh conditions. Given favourable results elsewhere, they can even cross the threshold. 

The Rams offensive scheme is perfect for cold-weather football. Let running back Todd Gurley pound the Bears front-seven into submission. The former Georgia Bulldog is no stranger to wintry conditions, having grown up in Baltimore. 

A former [California Golden] Bear and a tenacious Bulldog will test Chicago’s resolve on Sunday night football.

That said, quarterback Jared Goff surely expects to test the Bears secondary. he can breach 4,000 yards in this game and the only injury worries for either side come at free safety for Chicago. Both starter Eddie Jackson and backup Deon Bush were held out of practice on Friday and listed as doubtful. Jackson is expected to play despite a bruised shin. Bush isn’t due to a hamstring.

Da Bears must rely on their defence to keep the Rams at bay. Second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky lags 1,300 passing yards behind Goff although he’s produced 20 TDs and nine INTs to the Rams signal caller’s 27 and seven. While Gurley provides 70% of LA’s 1673 yards on the ground, Jordan Howard leads the way for Chicago with a meagre 612. That’s just 44% of their 1,385, with Trubisky abandoning the pocket to add another 363. 

The LINE narrowed a half-point on Tuesday, leaving the Bears as +3 underdogs. The TOTAL sits at 51.

Surprisingly, the OVER  is 6-1 in the Rams’ last seven December games. Less shocking, they’re 0-3-1 AGAINST THE SPREAD vs teams with winning records. LA is 2-6 ATS in their last eight.

Meanwhile, the OVER is 4-0 in Da Bears last quartet against plus-.500 teams and Chicago is 6-0-1 ATS at Soldier Field against winning teams.

With a narrow spread  in this one, the OVER  seems a safe play but the cold weather makes me frisky. Take Da Bears and the points.

Free Pick: CHICAGO +3
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UConn must be on their guard against Florida State in Newark

Six-foot senior guard David Nichols negotiates traffic in Florida State’s squeaker against Purdue.

Is there a natural law forbidding a school from excelling at basketball and football [forget academics] simultaneously? Florida State’s shift from football powerhouse to AP Top 25 basketball program hints there is. 

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Once upon a time, the Seminoles bossed the college football landscape. Before Nick Saban went to Alabama, Bobby Bowden had his team in the national title picture year in, year out. When quarterback Charlie Ward ended up as the New York Knicks’ point guard, the general reaction was, “Wait, the ‘Noles play roundball, too?”

Now, Florida State’s gridiron program is in disarray. They’re 5-7 overall, 3-5 in the ACC. No bowl for you. 

On the other hand, the hoops squad is rocking the rock. Leonard Hamilton’s group is 7-1 on the early season, ranked 11th. They travel to the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ to take on the University of Connecticut Huskies tonight in an early evening tussle. 

Coach Dan Hurley’s Huskies are on a roll themselves, boasting a 7-2 record ahead of conference play. It helps that UConn’s games all came at Gampel Pavilion or a neutral venue but they’re not complaining.

The Seminoles only road trip to the opponent’s building ended in an 80-69 win over Tulane. They’re 2-1 in neutral venues. The Huskies are 1-1.

Alterique Gilbert controlled Lafayette. Can he ride his momentum to dominate Florida State?

Sophomore Alterique Gilbert [4.7 apg] runs the offence for the Huskies. He’s coming off a career-high in assists [11] in the 90-63 win over Lafayette but senior Jalen Adams is the star, averaging 19.3 ppg. UConn is weak on the boards. Third guard Christian Vital leads the team with 5.9 rpg. You might say it’s vital for Dan Hurley to recruit a presence in the paint.

Expect FSU to attack them there. Seven-foot-four senior centre Christ Koumadje should have a big game. Hamilton expects twin point guards Terence Mann [sr, 2.1 apg] and Trent Forrest [soph, 3.6 apg] to spread the ball around. Four players average double figures in points, with Mann the highest at 11.1 ppg. Senior guard PJ Savoy averages 9.5. While both sides emphasise guard play, the ‘Noles look to penetrate more.

 It should come as no surprise that the UNDER is 9-2-1 in FSU’s last dozen outings. On the other hand, they save their best for Saturdays. The OVER is in their last eight to start the weekend. UConn loves the OVER. It’s 7-1 in the Huskies last eight non-conference tilts, 15-5-1 in recent neutral site matchups and 16-5 in their last 21 overall.

The TOTAL for this one is 152.5, the LINE UConn +9.5. The two schools have only met twice, the last time in 2011, so throw their head-to-head results out the window. This season, Florida State games have been consistently UNDER 152.5, often narrowly. UConn’s been well OVER on most occasions. Trust their magnetism to have the greater pull.

Free Pick: OVER Florida State v Connecticut [152.5]
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Are Temple ready for the National Champs?

Temple supporters are passionate but the Owls must swoop into the national champion’s house to claim a victory tonight. (Photo by Chris Chambers)

Sarcasm is a centuries-old art form as evidenced by the continued reference to Philadelphia as the City of Brotherly Love. If you’re looking for tenderness and compassion, you’ve come to the wrong town. The only love you’ll get in Philly is the tough kind. Its fans are loud and in your face. 

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They’re also knowledgeable on and off the court. The city is blessed with several of the nation’s top colleges and universities. When two meet on the hardwood… well, in the immortal words of Dick Vitale, “Oh baby!”

Tonight, the 7-1 Temple Owls fly out to the ‘burbs to take on national champs Villanova in the Pavilion. It’s said the early bird gets the worm. Even though worms and Wildcats aren’t an Owl’s natural prey, Fran Dunphy’s squad might wish this trip had been on the calendar in early November rather than December.

Jay Wright’s defending champions came into the season with something of a title hangover, going 2-2 in their first four. Since the rough start, Villanova’s ripped off four in a row. At 6-2, they’re now ranked 21st in the nation according to the AP.

The Wildcats’ points come from seniors Phil Booth [16.9ppg] and Eric Paschall [15.8]. Both love to let fly from beyond the arc. Half of Booth’s shots come from three-point land. Paschall finds his way inside a bit more. While 43% of his shots are threes, he also pulls down 5.3 rebounds per game. Six-foot-nine-inch sophomore forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree is the main force on the boards, however, pulling down 8.4 per. Fellow sophomore Collin Gillespie supplements Booth and Paschall’s scoring with another 11.3ppg.

Jay Wright’s side is small. Cosby-Roundtree and freshman Saddiq Bey [at 6’8″] are the big men. Oddly, Wright doesn’t have a true point guard running the show. The ball moves around, with no one player averaging more than 3 assists per game [Gillespie].

Obviously, the team mentality works for Villanova. They’re national champions two of the past three seasons and Wright’s players like to stay in the program for the full four years.

The Wildcats celebrate their 2018 NCAA National Championship.

While Fran Dunphy may wish he could’ve run up against Jay Wright earlier in the season, any history majors in his squad will tell him December 5th might be exactly the right time to play Villanova. Temple’s last win against the Wildcats came six years ago to the day in 2012. 

In the interim, the Owls have been shredded by their rival, losing five in a row with the narrowest margin being 16 points [in 2014 &16]. Little wonder the LINE in this one has Villanova giving away ten points. In every win, the Wildcats covered by at least 5.5 points. The OVER is 4-1 during that streak.

The American Athletic Conference doesn’t receive the same love as the Big East but, following two mediocre seasons in which Temple posted a combined 33-32 record their hot start has them back in the discussion for the NCAA tournament.

The Owls’ offence is more focused than Villanova’s. The scoring derives primarily from the guards. Senior Levan Shawn Alston and junior Quinton Rose each average 17.1ppg. When Alston isn’t taking the shot himself, he’s the main floor general with 5.8 assists per game.

Fronting up outside the paint isn’t Ernest Aflakpui’s natural habitat. He will eat opponents up inside, however.

Archbishop Carroll product Ernest Aflakpui will match up with Cosby-Roundtree in the paint. The 6’10” doesn’t score often [6.4ppg] sophomore pulls down 7.5 boards per game. Sophomore Nate Pierre-Louis loves to mix it up with the big lads too. The 6’4″ guard from Plainfield, NJ’s Roselle Catholic HS pitches in 11.3ppg and 7.1 rebounds.

Temple’s 7-1 start hasn’t come against the same level of opposition Villanova faces. The Wildcats were blown out by #5 Michigan then edged by #25 Furman in OT, but rebounded with a victory over #11 Florida State. If you like comparing common opponents, however, both teams have beaten LaSalle this season. Temple beat them by eight at home, a PUSH. Villanova comes off a tough road win against the Explorers, their seven-point FAILING TO COVER the -16 line. 

This is a home game, though. The Wildcats are 15-5 AGAINST THE SPREAD in their last 20 at the Pavilion.

That said, the most compelling trend in this matchup is the UNDER. It’s 11-4 in Temple’s last 15 road games, 7-3 against their last non-conference opponents and 7-1 in Villanova’s last eight non-conference tilts and their last eight overall. Go with that in this one.

Free Pick: UNDER Temple v Villanova [140.5]
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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

Why wait for March Madness when you can have November Nirvana?

Zion Williamson can’t believe how easy it was for Duke to dispatch Kentucky.

Is one game into the 2018/19 NCAA basketball season to soon to crown the national champion? Yes. Yes, it is. There are early-season tournaments, holiday tournaments, conference play, inter-conference play, conference tournaments and the Big Dance yet to come. For teams who can make a deep run to the Final Four, as many as 40 games remain. The one that matters takes place on Monday, April 8th in Minneapolis, not Tuesday, November 6th in Indianapolis.

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On the other hand, it’s been seven bleak months in which a college player has not contested a shot in anger, rattled a rim, or gotten the Cameron Crazies on their feet. All anyone could do was watch the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup, the Champions League Final and World Cup, pennant races and World Series, all the while counting the days.

So, when #4 Duke and #2 Kentucky got it on to kick off the season, all that pent-up energy had to go somewhere. When it went into a 34-point rout, the ‘4’ in front of Duke flew out the window to be replaced by the ‘1’ on the chest of 2018’s answer to Charles Barkley, freshman forward Zion Williamson.

The 18-year-old from Salisbury, North Carolina rumbled for 28 points and seven rebounds in 23 minutes. Fellow freshman, RJ Barrett, from Mississauga, Ontario, outdid him with 33 points in 32 minutes. Aussie Jack White claimed 11 boards.

Now, the entire college basketball universe is anointing Duke national champions. One game does not a season make, but after such a dominant performance, the title is at least theirs to lose.

Mike Krzyzewski instructs freshman Trevon Duval during a game last season. His advice wasn’t to leave school after one year.

It’s difficult to bet against Duke and their coach in that scenario. Not because Mike Krzyzewski and Duke are invincible. No one is. Not now, not ever. Coach K has bounced back from several setbacks in the regular season, the tournament, the Final Four, the national title game and in the off-season. Now, the school is bouncing back from its reputation.

In his 38 years as Duke coach, Krzyzewski built a program that emphasised education as much as athletics. In 1999, the Blue Devils were the last founding ACC team to lose a freshman to the NBA. Its players were famous for staying in school, producing mature professionals like Shane Battier and JJ Redick. Even Duke standouts who failed to make it as NBA stars were prepared for success after school. Danny Ferry went into management. Jay Bilas became both a successful lawyer and television/internet personality.

In the last decade, however, the former Army player and West Point coach grew weary fighting a rearguard action. Even though Jay Wright and Villanova have won national titles twice in the last three years while keeping players in school and producing a 100% graduation rate in their squad, players declare early for the NBA as frequently from Cameron Fieldhouse as they do from Rupp Arena these days. Duke keeps producing dominant freshman classes but can no longer boast senior ones.

Williamson is the physical, RJ Barrett the finesse, but talent like theirs doesn’t wait around.

Coach K, once thought above reproach, fielded questions last year about an FBI investigation that found irregularities in his freshman class. Rookie Chicago Bulls center Wendell Carter Jr’s eligibility was questioned when it emerged his mother had lunch with an agent [now charged with corruption] when the player was just 16. Krzyzewski shrugged off the questions, suggesting it’s time the NCAA stopped exploiting its athletes, “take a look at amateurism and look at it probably defining it differently.

It’s a valid point. At the same time, it asks the dubious question, ‘if the NCAA doesn’t care about an athlete’s future, why should I?’

At 71, Krzyzewski has exchanged pragmatism for the ideology the 56-year-old Wright still practices at Villanova. Time is running out on his career. He’s made the Final Four just four times this century, winning three, however, in 2001, 2010 and 2015. That’s why it’s so difficult to rule Duke out. When they make it to the last weekend, they tend to finish on top.

In an effort to add another title to his collection, Krzyzewski’s recruiting the best athletes to fit his system, regardless of their commitment to an education.

Coach K’s new approach is paying early dividends. Before the romp over Kentucky, Duke were 4/1 favourites to win the NCAA Championship outright, EVEN MONEY to make the Final Four. UK was at 6/1 and 5/4 respectively. Villanova was 25/1 to defend its title, although their line moved to 15/1 on 8 November.

2015 was the 3rd time this century, fifth overall, Coach K claimed the national title. His twelve Final Fours are most overall.

As I said, it’s Duke’s title to lose. Mike Krzyzewski is in prime position to add to his legacy. At one time, graduating another senior class would have done that more than climbing a ladder and cutting away a net. Things change. Not always for the better.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

Falcons v Redskins: A not-so irresistible force meets a fairly immovable object

Falcons v Redskins: A not-so irresistible force meets a fairly immovable object

Two teams with short winning streaks meet in the 2018 NFL campaign’s ninth week. The Atlanta Falcons [3-4] visit FedEx Field in the nation’s capital to take on the NFC East-leading Washington Redskins [5-2]. The pressure is on the Falcons to not allow their season to slip away and the ‘Skins to consolidate their position and prove they’re a cut above the Dallas Cowboys and defending Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles.

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Washington head coach Jay Gruden resembles the fella on Antique Roadshow who discovers he’s picked up a long-lost Vincent van Gogh masterpiece at the flea market. Both quarterback Alex Smith and tailback Adrian Peterson are castoffs that other coaches no longer wanted. Andy Reid let the 34-year-old Smith go for a song to hand his offence over to young gun Patrick Mahomes. Smith has responded with a steadfast 1561 yards passing, eight touchdowns and just two interceptions. Peterson, 33, played for both New Orleans and Arizona last season. In ten games combined, he rushed for 529 yards and two TDs. He already has 587 and four this term.

Atlanta coach Dan Quinn, two years removed from an epic Super Bowl collapse is retooling on the fly. Tevin Coleman is now the main ball carrier and Steve Sarkisian is calling the plays in his second year, from the sideline no less. Matt Ryan can still sling it. The Boston College product, now in his 11th season with the Falcons, has put up 2,335 yards passing with 15 TDs and two INTs.

Quinn’s woes stem mainly from the defence, specifically the secondary. Of the last 10 offensive TDs scored against the Dirty Birds, eight were passes. It’s not that the defensive backs are being stretched, either. Seven came from inside the red zone. They just can’t cover anyone.

Atlanta is relatively healthy. RB Devonta Freeman remains on the IR with a groin problem. Kicker Matt Bryant is questionable for the game with a hamstring problem. Emergency replacement Giorgio Tavecchio was perfect against Philadelphia last week, with two extra points and three field goals, one for 56 yards.

Washington isn’t so lucky. Three starters and as many second-stringers are listed as questionable for the game. Wideout Jamison Crowder, left tackle Trent Williams and right cornerback Quinton Dunbar comprise the first group, RB Chris Thompson, left corner Adonis Alexander and weakside linebacker Ryan Anderson the other.

The LINE favours the Redskins by 1.5 points in this one. The TOTAL is 47.5. Something has to give there. Sarkisian’s offence racked up 30 points or more in four of their last six but went nine points UNDER against another NFC East opponent, the New York Giants, last week. Washington hasn’t conceded 20 points in their last three. They did surrender 43 to New Orleans before the streak began.

Atlanta is OVER in their last four after failing to cover but they’re UNDER in six of their last seven following a STRAIGHT UP win. The ‘Skins are UNDER in their last four after surrendering more than 250 yards in the air and their last five against losing teams. They’re also 5-0 AGAINST THE SPREAD vs teams with a losing road record, but that’s countered by the road team in this series sitting 5-1 ATS entering this tilt.

There’s a strong case for the UNDER in this one. Washington’s a top defence at home and Atlanta stalled in their last outing, rescued by a journeyman placekicker. On the other hand, the teams have alternated between OVER and UNDER in the last six and it’s OVER’s turn.

In the end, I think it’s simple. Atlanta can score and still lose. Washington doesn’t score much but consistently wins. Take the Redskins and give the points.

Free Pick: WASHINGTON -1.5
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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.