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.

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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.

 

Fisher, Malzahn relive 2014 national championship when Texas A&M visit Auburn

Fisher, Malzahn relive 2014 national championship when Texas A&M visit Auburn

Two schools with a shared legacy as college football dark horses meet this weekend. Texas A&M were named national champions three times but the last was in 1939. Auburn has been honoured five times but it’s complicated.

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The Aggies’ most recent claims to success are more dubious. Johnny Manziel’s freshman Heisman that turns out to be his career peak in the US although he’s coming on strong in the CFL with Montreal. The school’s successful courtship of former Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher wasn’t exactly Ohio State landing Urban Meyer, although it may turn out to be more ethical in the long run. I said maybe.

Auburn only lays claim to two of its five proffered championships but has strong arguments it should have won in two other seasons. Miami leapfrogged them in 1983 after squeaking past Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. The War Eagles went undefeated in 1993 but were on probation. There was also the 2014 National Championship game at the Rose Bowl in which Auburn were nipped by Florida State 34-31 SU. The coaches in that game will be facing off again at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Can Gus Malzahn claim a small measure of revenge by knocking off Fisher’s No.25 A&M?

Jimbo Fisher had the better of it in 2014 but may be feeling nervous this season. He recently accused Gus Malzahn of employing “illegal tactics” on offence. [Photo: Kevin C Cox]

It won’t be easy even with the home advantage. The LINE moved in the Aggies’ favour early in the week. The Tigers were giving six points. Then it dipped to four. A&M won at Jordan-Hare in 2016 although Auburn returned the favour in College Station last year. In fact, the visiting team has won the past five meetings STRAIGHT UP. The winner is 3-2 AGAINST THE SPREAD in that stretch with the three wins coming in the most recent games.

Both teams are 5-3 SU. The Aggies lost to Mississippi State last week. Auburn were idle but ended a two-game slide the previous Saturday against Ole Miss. Both teams are 5-3. The shifting line could be explained by Gus Malzahn’s announcement that leading rusher Jartavious ‘Boobee’ Whitlow and starting right tackle Jack Driscoll are day-to-day. Jimbo Fisher’s biggest concern is reserve wide receiver Jhamon Ausbon’s foot surgery, which rules out his 15 catches and 221 yards until the bowl season.

The TOTAL [49] is conflicted by recent trends. Texas A&M is 4-0 with the UNDER in their last four games, all SEC clashes. On the other hand, Auburn exploits bye weeks very well. They’ve gone OVER three times and pushed once in their last four opportunities.

Overall, the road team is 6-0 ATS in the last half-dozen encounters, with the underdog 3-0-1 ATS.  A good deal depends on whether Boobee Whitlow is fit for the game and if not, whether Kam Martin and Shaun shivers can step up in his absence. Even so, the Aggies are coming off a loss and Auburn is rested, challenging the trend of road team’s winning streak in this matchup. With doubt on both sides rather than confidence, I feel safest risking my money on the UNDER in this one.

Free Pick: Texas A&M v Auburn: UNDER [49]
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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

 

Wake-up call for the Rockets against the Nets in the Barclay Center?

Wake-up call for the Rockets against the Nets in the Barclay Center?

During this stretch in which west coast teams make an eastern pilgrimage, you would think the Houston Rockets would be looking to establish momentum while keeping the Brooklyn Nets down. Instead, it’s the other way around. The Rockets obviously don’t have the Beastie Boys on their playlist. All they’ve been doing is sleeping on their early season journey to Brooklyn. Will they finally wake up now they’ve arrived?

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A fairly anonymous Nets squad is 3-5 SU under first-time head coach Kenny Atkinson. Mike D’Antoni’s Rockets, featuring James Harden, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, are 1-5 SU. Early season concerns focussed on Lebron James and the Los Angeles Lakers’ 0-3 start. They’ve won three of their next five. Houston’s issues appear to go much deeper.

Harden and Paul are driving the team but the former is doubtful for this one after already missing two games with a strained hamstring. Houston lost both those games [to Portland and the LA Clippers] by double digits.

Despite Harden’s absence, both the betting public and the experts are solidly in the Rockets’ corner. Is that because Brooklyn needed overtime to break their own three-game slide against Detroit on Hallowe’en night? It might be. Even so, Houston will need a few tricks to treat themselves to a win on the road.

Much will depend on what they get from Carmelo Anthony. Against the Clippers in Harden’s first game out of the lineup, the Brooklyn native responded with 24 points in 34 minutes. He hurt the team at the other end, however, ending up -17 on the court for the night. Against Portland, he disappeared completely, putting up eight points on 2/12 shooting while attempting only a pair of threes. Once again, the Rockets were outscored by 17 while he was on the court. If Carmelo with the hot hand shows up, Houston can cope better at the other end against the Nets than the Blazers.

For all that, Houston is giving away a point on the road. I know Brooklyn doesn’t throw a lot of household names at you but is everyone a slave to the brand these days? Or is it that the visitors have won the last four STRAIGHT UP in this series?

The Nets’ lack of flash is reflected in the TOTAL, as well, which sits at a meagre 213.5. On the other hand, the Rockets didn’t score a 100 points until their fifth game, a 19-point loss to New Orleans. It’s D’Antoni’s style to let it all hang out. The Rockets haven’t held an opponent under a 100 this season. Their 1-5 record tells you how that’s worked for the team. How will it be any better without Harden?

Brooklyn’s defence may have the answer, as in they haven’t had an answer for most teams in this campaign. The only team they held to double-digits was Cleveland. Can these teams run at each other all night? Recent trends say they can. The OVER took the last four games between the two in Brooklyn and four of the last five overall. Can Houston pull out a win? They’re 1-6 AGAINST THE SPREAD in the last seven against the Nets. Again, with the LINE at one in Brooklyn’s favour, there’s not much margin for error. Leave that alone and go with the Over.

 

Free Pick: HOU v BKN OVER [216]
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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

 

Push comes to shove at Heinz Field: Browns, Steelers must settle their Week 1 business

Push comes to shove at Heinz Field: Browns, Steelers must settle their Week 1 business

I wanna push you around — Well I will, well I will
I wanna push you down — Well I will, well I will
I wanna take you for granted, I wanna take you for granted
Yeah, well I will

Matchbox 20 frontman Rob Thomas and producer Matt Serletic wrote about an abusive relationship between a man and woman when they penned Push, although they could have been talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns. For the last few decades, NFL teams [and even former owner Art Modell] lined up to push the Browns around and take them for granted. The Steelers were the Harvey Weinstein in that dynamic but Cleveland fights back now, these days.

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Head coach Hue Jackson fashioned a #MeToo movement of sorts. This season’s first encounter between the two former AFC Central stalwarts ended in the ultimate push, a tie. Cleveland remains in the AFC North cellar with a 2-4-1SU record. Pittsburgh still tops the division with a 3-2-1SU mark. Cincinnati and Modell’s remade Browns, the Baltimore Ravens wedge between at 4-3 SU. The four teams are reviving the AFC Central vibe from the 70s and 80s. Jackson’s group aren’t on the same level as the other three yet but they’re coming up hard. Opponents take them for granted at their peril.

Big Ben still likes to push defenders around.

The line doesn’t reflect that. Vegas and the online Brits have the Steelers giving eight points at Heinz Field despite the 21-21 Smoky Mountain standoff in Week 1. The total is 49. The first meeting squeaked the OVER by a point. Their other three divisional matchups combined all went Under. Further evidence that AFC Central ghosts are haunting the North.

The main reason for the high line and total is Cleveland’s injury situation. The receiving corps has been riddled. Three players are on injured reserve. Third wideout Rashard Higgins is doubtful with a bum knee. DeMari Scott is questionable with a shoulder injury. Starting center JC Tretter is questionable, too, with an ankle issue. Fewer targets and a gimpy snapper won’t help rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield move the ball.

On the defensive side, starting middle linebacker Joe Schobert is out with a hamstring. The secondary is as short-staffed as the receivers. Starting cornerback EJ Gaines isn’t expected to clear concussion protocol. Free safety DeMarious Randall is questionable despite groin and ankle problems. DB Terrance Mitchell is on IR, leaving the Browns with just TJ Carrie on the right corner. Guess where Ben Roethlisberger will be looking to pass on Pittsburgh’s early drives?

Steelers right guard Marcus Gilbert is questionable with a knee injury. Otherwise, Mike Tomlin’s first and second units are ready to go.

Coming off a bye week, the Browns are 0-4-1 AGAINST THE POINT SPREAD in their last five. The Steelers stand 0-5 ATS in the same situation, so the push theme continues. The UNDER is 5-1 in games following a SU Cleveland loss. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh knows how to keep their momentum rolling, hitting the OVER in the last five games following a performance that produced at least 350 total yards.

Head-to-head, the OVER is running 11-5-1 at Heinz Field but Cleveland is 3-0-1 ATS in their last four meetings overall. Injuries must be a concern but both the line and total seem high. Which is the better bet? If Cleveland is going to struggle to pass the ball, I’m inclined to go with the UNDER.

Free Pick: CLE at PIT: Under [49]
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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

 

What does it take for Northwestern to make you a believer?

What does it take for Northwestern to make you a believer?

Things change; people don’t deal well with it. That explains the current political climate not only in the United States but the rest of the world. It also explains why people think Wisconsin are just in a bad patch and Northwestern are playing way over their heads. I don’t want to start on a false premise, however, so let’s be clear. The Badgers are bad. The Wildcats are good.

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Part of the problem is perspective. Wisconsin at their best toys with a BCS ranking. Northwestern at their best will put the fear of purple into any squad.

Don’t put much stock in the Badgers rebound after taking a 25-point beatdown in the Big House. Their 49-20 win over Illinois only looks good when you don’t compare it to Northwestern’s 39-0 treatment of the Illini. They won by ten more points and kept their state rivals off the board.

Consider also that Northwestern came up a field goal short of defeating Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines at Ryan Field at September’s end. Pat Fitzgerald’s squad did topple Michigan State in East Lansing and knocked off the same Purdue squad that just embarrassed Ohio State. Add in a victory over nationally-ranked Kentucky, and you have a team that isn’t just ramrodding a lightweight Big Ten division, but one that can win big games.

Northwestern aren’t afraid to run right at people. Wisconsin have been tripping over themselves to stop opponents.

Wisconsin lost to a BYU team that was manhandled by Washington and Utah State in back-to-back weeks.

Northwestern were outclassed by Duke early in the season and edged by Akron. The Zips have a penchant for claiming scalps against better programs than the Wildcats, however. Since their 1-2 SU start, Fitzgerald’s group has only lost to Michigan.

The Badgers are more banged up than their hosts, too. DE Isaiahh Loudermilk remains out of the lineup and several others are doubtful. Each team has a running back making his return. Bradrick Shaw is expected to be in Wisconsin’s lineup after recovering from an ACL problem. John Moten IV will rejoin the Wildcat offence after missing a week. Senior Solomon Vault also returns to the receiving corps.

More a product of poor defending, the Badgers are 4-0 with the over in their most recent conference games and when playing schools with winning records. Their 7-1 run Against The Spread on grass isn’t so telling under their current circumstances.

Northwestern is 7-0-1 with the OVER in games after sub-20-point outings. They squeaked past Rutgers 18-15 SU last week in New Jersey. They’re also 8-1 ATS in similar affairs. Further proof this is a team with character. They’re 4-1 ATS in the last five meetings at Ryan Field although, to be fair, the -1 came in Wisconsin’s last visit. The under has prevailed four out of the last five encounters between the two sides, regardless of the venue.

Wisconsin was giving away 4.5 points at the writing although that number was in freefall at the time. People are beginning to believe in the Wildcats. So should you.

Free Pick: Northwestern +4.5
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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

 

Can the Timberwolves bring the undefeated Bucks down?

Can the Timberwolves bring the undefeated Bucks down?

Five teams remain unbeaten to start the 2018/19 NBA season. The Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs,  Oklahoma City Thunder, Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James Lakers do not rank among them. That isn’t sarcasm, by the way. After winning the over in the Lakers’ first victory this season, based on LBJ delivering an overdue statement, I owe the man a compliment. The King was understated, scoring only 19, but delivered 10 assists in the 131-113 romp. Was he telling me not to sweat the details? Unfortunately, I know no other way to get through life.

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The details this year are that Milwaukee is undefeated in their first four. The Minnesota Timberwolves are casting about for the scent to bring the Bucks down in their encounter tonight in the aptly named Target Center. When you keep on winning games, that’s what you find on your back.

The biggest target is tacked on Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak leads Mike Budenholzer’s squad in scoring, rebounds at both ends of the floor and matches Eric Bledsoe with 6.8 assists per game. He also has the joint-most blocks in the squad, although Brooks Lopez averages more per game. So, can T-Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau come up with a scheme to stop the Bucks’ superstar?

Moving on…

Seriously, though, the Wolves can compete. Jimmy Butler can match Antetokounmpo’s scoring numbers. Karl-Anthony Towns is a force on the boards. Andrew Wiggins is coming along. Derrick Rose is in there somewhere. Off-court issues continue to plague the team. Butler is the new DeMarcus Cousins, desperate to be elsewhere. What’s odd is he has a supporting cast many stars would die for and a coach with whom he’s bonded at two different clubs. Talk about sweating the details.

Can the Wolves run as a pack against the Bucks to end their perfect start? Milwaukee’s won seven from their last ten meetings although the teams have split the last four. After a narrow, one-point victory at Charlotte to open, Budenholzer’s crew won the next three comfortably, albeit all at the FiServ Forum. Minnesota has a point-and-a-half to play with at home. Milwaukee will be out of their comfort zone. Intriguing, but with a moody team like the Wolves, it can go either way.

What about the total? Again, it depends on which Timberwolves team we get. In their five games to date, they’ve played two well over and three a distance below the 232 the houses are offering for this one. the Bucks scores are grouped tighter around that number but they’ve only exceeded it once.

Both teams’ recent trends Against The Spread and the total favour the Bucks and the over.

The Bucks are 4-0 on Fridays ATS of late. They’re over in their last five after winning ATS. On the other hand, they failed to beat the line in their last five against teams who win at home. Small sample size, but the Wolves are 2-0 at the Target Center this season.

Minnesota went over in nine of their last ten against teams with winning road records. Again, small sample size. The Bucks only travelled to Carolina this term. Flipping the script, Minnesota’s philosophy is ‘thank God, it’s not Friday’. They’re 1-6 ATS heading into the weekend.

Head-to-head, the Bucks are running 7-2 ATS. I don’t see them as a lock to go 5-0, however. I’m more comfortable with the overwhelming under numbers: 7-1 in the last eight in Minneapolis, 15-5-1 overall in the last 21. We’re not playing blackjack, so hit me one more time on that one, dealer.

Free Pick: MIL v MIN: Under [232]
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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.