March 25, 2016 (3:58 PM ET)
There are two picks tonight.
1) Take Houston Rockets at PK against Toronto Raptors for 3% of the bankroll.
The Rockets are just 35-37 on the season and facing an opponent that owns a 48-22 record and is chasing the Cavaliers for the top spot in the East! And yet the oddsmakers have set this game as basically a pick'em with no true favorite. That is interesting and quite telling! That's because normally you'd see the team with the far superior record installed as significant chalk. There is a reason Vegas has set such a short line on this game and unlike casual bettors, we aren't about to 'take the bait'. Let's examine some of the unique edges that Houston has in this contest.
The Rockets are fighting for their postseason lives and have no margin for error. After losing an important game against direct rivals, Utah Jazz on Wednesday, they temporarily slid down to the 9th spot in the West before regaining the 8th and final playoff position after Jazz lost in Oklahoma City. They've been given hope again and with 10 games remaining in the regular season, they still control their own destiny. They have to take care of home games such as this one however and need to immediately snap their current 3-game skid, something we believe they will do tonight. Coach J.B. Bickerstaff had this to say after the game: "The season's not over! We're in a position where, we take care of business we can still get into the playoffs. But we've got to take care of business. There are no more excuses!" He and his team understand the importance of getting a 'W' tonight and should have great urgency about them. It's not often that you see this squad drop back to back games at Toyota Center! They had yesterday off to rest and prepare for this contest and will be up for it.
The Raptors are an excellent team but they've found their travels to Texas frustrating. They have not won at this venue in nearly a decade, having lost 8 straight visits to Houston! The other issue for them is that they have another game scheduled tomorrow, which prevents them from being able to solely focus on the task at hand. They need to keep players fresh for Saturday's contest as well and that means if the game gets out of reach, they are more likely to throw in the towel and rest players than the home side would be, given that the Rockets have the day off tomorrow. This is a scheduling spot that definitely favors the desperate home side! The Rockets squandered a comfortable lead against Utah last time out but we don't see them making the same mistake tonight. We believe they'll do a better job of closing out the game this time around and reap the rewards in terms of a vital win that would see them not only keep their playoff spot in the standings but probably move up to 7th in the West since the Mavericks play the Warriors and are very likely to lose that game. That would be a huge boost for Houston and an incredible motivator! To potentially go from the brink of missing the playoffs to sitting in the 7th spot and suddenly having that extra 'cushion', simply by getting a home win, is very rewarding and something that this ambitious group will want to capitalize on.
Toronto has already lost to Houston once this season, earlier in March. They couldn't get the job done despite playing at Air Canada Center and having a comfortable lead at half-time! And that's largely because the Rockets present matchup problems for them. All-Star DeMar DeRozan is a natural scorer and gets his fair share of points but he has certain 'holes' in his game and doesn't contribute much in other areas. He averages only 4.4 rebounds and less than 4 assists per game. His biggest weakness however is his defensive skillset. And when he goes up against a player of James Harden's calibre, that gets magnified. That's because while both of these players are extremely efficient at getting buckets, one has a noticeable size advantage which makes him very tough to guard. Harden also had 8 steals in the games against Jazz and nearly got a quadruple-double! That is an aspect of his game that often goes unnoticed. He's also a very clever player and one that knows how to get 'calls' from the refs! This should be a closely contested battle but at the end, we believe Harden and company will find a way to win.
The Rockets are 6-2 after losing 3 or more consecutive games this season and 10-2 in this scenario over the last 3 seasons! This is a squad then that does not take poor streaks lightly. They are not a good team this season and that's why we've successfully gone against them many times as we did on Wednesday night by taking Utah, BUT, in this particular situation, they should get the job done as they were heavily out-rebounded by the Jazz and we don't see them having the same issue tonight. They've already proven that they play their best basketball when their backs are against the wall. It seems like they generally need a kick up the backside to get their act together and then just when everyone writes them off, they show their grit and character and snatch a victory. We expect them to take this game before having trouble further down the line.
2) Take Iowa State +5 spread against Virginia for 3% of the bankroll.
The Iowa State Cyclones seem to be peaking at precisely the right time of the season. After a rough stretch to end the regular season, the Cyclones offense is firing on all cylinders at the moment and that makes them incredibly dangerous at this stage of the tournament. They managed to avoid another early round upset in the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament, going up and down the floor with the Iona Gaels before ultimately coming away with a 94-81 victory. In their second round contest, they managed to hang 78 points on arguably the top defensive team in the country, coming away with a 17 point victory over Arkansas Little Rock. There is no question that they will take a step up in competition in this contest, with the ease that they have been scoring the basketball and the confidence they are showing right now, we don’t believe they will be intimidated and will likely come into this matchup looking to get out to another fast start.
The Virginia Cavaliers are certainly a quality team and deserving of their number 1 ranking (seed) in this tournament. They spent most of the season ranked in the top ten and finished ranked as the AP No. 4 team in the country. The Cavaliers entered the tournament having won five of their last six, with the lone loss coming to North Carolina by 4 points in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game. The Cavs absolutely dismantled their opening round opponents, Hampton, enroute to an 81-45 victory. Their second round match up against Butler was certainly not easy and the Bulldogs actually may have put a scare into the Wahoos, having led at the half 25-23. As Virginia has done multiple times this season, they started off slow, put picked things up in the second half. The team made 14 of their first 16 shots after the break and ended up shooting 73 percent in the second half to ultimately put the Bulldogs away. As impressive of a win as it wins, for any team to shoot 73% from the field is not something that can continue.
Both of these teams have different styles of play, but they are also similar in many ways. Both teams are loaded with experienced players that can impact the game in a number of ways. Malcolm Brogdon would like be getting a lot more attention if it were not for the season that Buddy Hield is having and the same goes for Iowa State’s Player of the Year nominee, Georges Niang. This game is likely to come down to pace and which style prevails. There is no question the Cavaliers will want to slow the things down and play in the half court, while the Cyclones will want to open things up and play fast. The determining factor here will likely be Iowa State ability to play in any style of game. They have the playmakers to adapt to their opponents style, while the efficiency on the offensive end to still put points on the board. We don’t believe Virginia would be able to keep pace in a track meet, should it turn into one. Virginia's success this season has come from playing lights out defense and making thing difficult for the opposing guards. The issue for the Cavs in this contest is that Iowa State has one of the most consistent guards in the country in Monte Morris who rarely turns the ball over. Iowa State's ability to protect the basketball and limit turnovers will likely be key in this contest.
At this stage of the tournament, there are nothing but quality teams left so it is hard to label any contest an "upset". We do like Iowa State to pull off the outright victory and advance to the Elite 8, however this matchup has the feel of a game that will likely go right down to the wire and be decided in the final few possessions. If we are correct with our assumption, then the points could likely prove valuable at the end.
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