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Sun Belt Leader Little Rock In Underdog Role at Texas State on Thursday Night

I’m not quite sure how, but Marquette got us to the window last night with a late-game flurry and nearly found a way to pull off the outright upset. Let’s hope that rubbing the bellies of the gambling gods has indeed worked and we can string together another set of victories with our daily spotlight college basketball previews.

If we’re being honest, Thursdays are my favorite days for doing these. Most of the major conferences are idle, so I have my pick of the litter as far as games that are somewhat off the beaten path. Maybe the most important game of the night is in the CAA between Charleston and Hofstra, but we’ve given the Colonial a lot of love. Besides, you can read about it in my situational betting article.

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Instead, our focus will be on the Sun Belt. Well, as we like to call it around here, the Fun Belt. We’ve got a good one in San Marcos, where the Texas State Bobcats host the Little Rock Trojans. This one also got some run in the “sitch” article this week, but I want to write about it anyway and this is my article, damnit.

Texas State is favored by 2.5 at Bovada Sportsbook and several other shops across the market with a total of 136.5. This line did open 3.5 out there in the marketplace, so some early activity has been on the visitors from Arkansas.

It is not a great season for Sun Belt basketball. In fact, the league ranks 16th out of the 32 conferences according to our chief resource Mr. Bart Torvik. Per Torvik, Georgia State is the top dog in this league, but the Panthers are a full three games in back of the Trojans. Little Rock leads the pack at 12-2 and a win here for Darrell Walker’s team might just sew things up. There is one game left with Georgia State, but the two Louisiana schools are left on the schedule at home and the Trojans look like double-digit favorites in those meetings. With just six games left in conference action, a minimum of 14 wins would make it tough for anybody to catch up.

With 15, it would be pretty much impossible. So this is a big one tonight for Trojans. With that in mind, though, it may be an even bigger one for the Bobcats. Texas State suffered a sixth loss in conference action last Saturday with a road tilt at Appalachian State. That Coastal Carolina/App State double is a tough trip and the Bobcats blew a 17-point lead in the first half to lead by only five at the break. They led by as many as nine in the second half, but completely collapsed late.

That sets the stage for this rematch. Little Rock beat Texas State by four back on January 2. It turns out that finishing games has been a problem for Danny Kaspar’s team. Texas State led by as many as 15 in the first half of that game as well and came up on the short end. Little Rock was fortunate to come away with that win, as they were -6 in turnovers only made three of 11 three-pointers.

The three-point stat is important. After putting up 11 threes against Texas State and Louisiana, the Trojans have taken at least 12 in every game and have taken at least 20 in each of their last four games. All of the sudden, they are starting to bomb away from distance. They’ve actually had quite a bit of success with it, too, going 40-of-96 in the last four games.

For the season, Little Rock is shooting 35.7% from 3 and 52.7% from 2, so this has been a fairly efficient offense. The only real big mark against this team is that the Trojans rank 338th in the nation with a 23% TO% on offense. Imagine where an offense with shooting numbers like this would be without the turnovers.

Ironically enough, that has also changed over the last five games. Little Rock’s TO% marks over the last five are 13.7, 17.4, 19.4, 17.1, and 12.9. Of course, they’ve played some of the bottom of the barrel teams in the league, but still. Things seem to really be coming together offensively for the Trojans. Perhaps they are better utilizing Marko Lukic, the 6-foot-7 freshman with some range. He’s had 22, 12, and 17 over the last three games, going 8-of-16 from distance. He returned to the team on January 9 and was not out there for the first Texas State game.

Of course, there is always some give and take. In three of the last four games, the defense has disappeared. South Alabama had 1.125 points per possession back on January 25. After a decent effort against Coastal Carolina, who was 5-of-30 from 3, the Trojans allowed 1.341 PPP in the 93-86 win over App State and 1.252 PPP to Arkansas State in a three-point win last Saturday.

Texas State doesn’t have the shooting numbers that Little Rock has. The Bobcats do, however, take much better care of the basketball with a TO% of 16.7%, which is among the best in the country. They also force turnovers at a high rate with the 40th-best TO% on defense at 22%. Texas State is only allowing 44.9% of two-point shots to go in the cylinder. On the other hand, Texas State fouls a lot and struggles to rebound on the defensive end.

I’m not a basketball coach and I can’t say that I’ve seen a lot of Texas State this season, but Kaspar loves to spread the playing time around. Senior leader Nijal Pearson plays the most with 82.8% of the minutes and 5-foot-9 spark plug Mason Harrell is second with 69.2%, but there are a lot of guys that see substantial minutes for this team. Maybe the bench needs to be shortened a bit given the number of blown leads this season.

Outside of Pearson, the Bobcats haven’t had enough consistent scoring options. They rank 326th in 3P Rate, even though they are 242nd in the nation in 2P% at 47.6%. It seems to me that some fundamental changes would help this team, which starts fast, but struggles mightily as the game goes along.

Is this a game with some regression to the mean? Texas State ranks 331st out of 353 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s Luck factor metric. Little Rock ranks 21st. The Trojans have won a lot of close games and Texas State has not.

I’m looking at the over here. Texas State plays at a very slow tempo, which is why we have the low total here, but Little Rock gets to the free throw line a lot and so does Texas State, while having one of the highest free throw rates against in the nation. Both teams are good at shooting free throws. Little Rock seems to be taking a lot more threes lately and Texas State is better at defending inside the arc. I’m thinking we get a high-scoring affair tonight. The total is creeping up towards 137, so get on this one quick.

Pick: Over 136.5

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