NCAA Basketball: Saint Mary's/Western Kentucky Preview, Odds and Prediction - 03/17/2021

by Big Al Staff

The first round of the National Invitational Tournament begins on Wednesday with two games on ESPN2. The nightcap tips off at 9 PM ET with Western Kentucky playing Saint Mary’s at the Comerica Center in Frisco, Texas. The NIT has all their games this year in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in either Frisco or Denton.

Western Kentucky got upset in the championship game of the Conference USA tournament, 61-57, in an overtime heartbreaker as a 2.5-point favorite last Saturday. The Hilltoppers got beat in the finals in the last three Conference USA tournaments. They forced overtime by scoring the final seven points in regulation before the Mean Green pulled away in the additional five-minute period. Joel Anderson led the team with 14 points. The senior is scoring 9.2 points-per-game. Junior Charles Bassey had 13 points with 11 rebounds. The 6'11 NBA prospect is averaging 17.7 points-per-game and 11.5 rebounds-per-game. Senior Taveion Hollingsworth adds 13.6 points-per-game.

The Hilltoppers enter the NIT with a 20-7 record after an 11-3 regular-season mark in Conference USA. Rick Stansbury oversaw the program’s fourth straight 20-win season. Western Kentucky registered impressive non-conference victories against Alabama and Memphis. The Hilltoppers rank 88th by the kenpom ratings.

Western Kentucky ranks 113th in adjusted offensive efficiency at kenpom. They rebound 32.1% of their missed shots, ranking 53rd nationally. Stansbury’s team is 62nd in free throw rate, which they take full advantage of, with a 79.0% clip at the charity stripe, ninth-best in the nation. The Hilltoppers rank 81st in adjusted defensive efficiency at kenpom and second-best in Conference USA. They hold their opponents to just 45.8% shooting inside the arc, 38th nationally. They have the sixth-best defensive free throw rate.

Stansbury will not have Carson Williams tonight, who is out for personal reasons. The senior was averaging 7.5 points-per-game and 5.3 rebounds-per-game in 26.9 minutes-per-game.

Saint Mary’s lost to Gonzaga in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tournament, 78-55, as an 18.5-point underdog on March 8th. The Gaels were led by Logan Johnson’s 15 points. The junior leads the team with a 13.5 points-per-game average. Tommy Kuhse added 13 points, with the lone senior on the roster improving his 12.6 points-per-game average.

Randy Bennett’s team is 14-9 and ranks 77th nationally by kenpom. Their 4-6 record in conference play got skewed by COVID cancellations that took away winning opportunities against the bottom-half of the WCC. Seven of their nine losses are against teams ranked 38th or better in the kenpom ratings. Saint Mary’s lost three times to Gonzaga and twice to BYU while also falling to San Diego State and Memphis in non-conference play. But setbacks to Pepperdine and Santa Clara, ranking 112th and 154th at kenpom, are concerning blemishes on their resume. The Gaels’ highest-profile team is against Colorado State, which ranks 63rd at kenpom.

Saint Mary’s ranks 198th in adjusted offensive efficiency after losing their top three scorers from last season. After finishing fifth in the nation last year with a 38.7% shooting percentage from 3-point range, the Gaels only made 29.3% of their 3-pointers this season, 328th nationally. Saint Mary’s turned the ball over in only 17.1% of their possessions, ranking 79th nationally.

The Gaels are once again an outstanding defensive team under Bennett. They rank ninth nationally at kenpom in adjusted defensive efficiency. Saint Mary’s holds their opponents to 45.9% shooting inside the arc, ranking 42nd nationally. They limit their opponents to rebounding 22.0% of their missed shots, eighth-best in the nation.

Saint Mary’s is a two-seed in their side of the bracket, with Western Kentucky a three-seed. BetAnySports lists Saint Mary’s as a 2.5-point favorite with the total set at 125.5.

Computer prediction:  Saint Mary's 65 Western Kentucky 63

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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