Saturday’s matchup between the host No. 14 Murray State Racers (25-1) and No. 16 Saint Mary’s Gaels (23-4) is easily the best-ever matchup in the decade-long history of ESPN’s BracketBusters games. Those are staged games by the network(s) between mid-majors with high RPI ratings to help boost teams’ RPI come Selection Sunday for a potential at-large NCAA Tournament bid.
How big is it Saturday? Even Dick Vitale will be on hand for the ESPN telecast, his first visit to Murray State.
(As part of the BracketBusters deal, Murray State will make a return trip to St. Mary's sometime over the next two seasons.)
Saint Mary’s at Murray State Betting Story lines
Would it be possible for a team that was once ranked in the Top 10 and was the country’s final unbeaten club to not get an at-large NCAA Tournament bid? Some experts believe it is for Murray State should the Racers lose one more regular-season game and then not win the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament (they already won the regular-season title for the third year in a row).
That’s because Murray State’s strength of schedule is in the 200s, three of its wins have come against non-Division I teams, and a large chunk of the rest have come against teams in the 200s or worse in RPI.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that even a mini-losing streak would cause Murray State to be left out thanks to solid non-conference wins over Harvard (a total blowout), Southern Miss, Dayton and Memphis.
Saint Mary’s, meanwhile, appeared a lock to end Gonzaga’s reign as the West Coast Conference regular-season champion (11 years in a row, although SMC tied last year) before a stunning home blowout loss Wednesday night to Loyola Marymount, 75-60. That was the Gaels’ final home game of the season and their first home loss. They still control their own destiny in the WCC.
And Wednesday’s defeat was exceptionally painful for Saint Mary’s. Gaels point guard Matthew Dellavedova, the heart and soul of the club and likely the WCC Player of the Year, twisted his right ankle in the game and is questionable for this one. The Aussie is one of 11 national finalists for the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award and leads Saint Mary's with averages of 15.7 points and 6.4 assists in 37 minutes per game.
Frankly, there is no reason for Saint Mary’s to play Dellavedova in this non-conference game with the WCC title as the target and the Gaels assured of an NCAA spot. In addition, shooting guard Stephen Holt also hurt his ankle in Wednesday’s game and didn’t make the trip to Kentucky. He's the team’s best perimeter defender and is averaging 10.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals per game. Holt probably is out weeks.
The only healthy guards listed on the Gaels' roster are Jorden Page, who averages 8.3 points a game, and redshirt freshman Zach Sanchez, who has played seven minutes all season. This should be a major problem as Murray State is a guard-oriented team, led by Ohio Valley Player of the Year candidate Isaiah Canaan (19.2 points per game, second in OVC, and also a Cousy finalist).
Saint Mary’s and Murray State have met twice, with the Gaels winning both, but not since 2006. They do have one common opponent: San Francisco. Back on Nov. 25 in Alaska, Murray State beat the Dons, 70-67, on the way to winning the Great Alaska Shootout. SMU beat WCC foe San Francisco, 87-72, in Moraga, Calif., on Jan. 9.
Saint Mary’s at Murray State Betting Odds and Trends
I had decided ahead of time to preview this game because, well, it’s the best BracketBusters matchup we have seen and only one of two Top-25 matchups on a fairly weak Saturday (Ohio State-Michigan being the other). But with Dellavedova’s status up in the air, the line no doubt will be in flux. It opened as SMU minus-2.5 with no total but expect some movement on the side.
SMU is 10-11 ATS overall and 4-4 on the road. MSU is 10-9-2 ATS overall and 3-6-1 at home. ‘Over/under’ records: SMU 11-10, MSU 11-10. Saint Mary’s is 0-4 ATS in its past four but 4-1 ATS in past five non-conference games. Murray State is 4-0-1 ATS in past five non-conference games but 1-6 ATS in past seven at home.
College Basketball Picks: Saint Mary’s at Murray State Betting Predictions
This all hinges on Dellavedova. I don’t think he plays as there is really no point, and the Gaels, who don’t exactly have a large athletic budget, had to travel across country not exactly in style.
In fact, the morning after their LMU loss, the Gaels boarded a flight bound for Kansas City, to make a connection to Nashville, where they practiced and spent the night before making a two-plus hour drive Friday to Murray, Ky. They'll bus back to Nashville after the game Saturday night, then work their way back to California.
That has to take a lot out of the team. Welcome to a mid-major program.
Still, if Dellavedova plays, I like the deeper, bigger Gaels to cover. But if not, Murray State is the pick here. It’s arguably the biggest game in school history, at least at home. And a win gets the Racers off any perceived “bubble.”
Doc Moseman is the owner of Doc’s Sports college basketball picks website.