Spartans worthy of bettors’ backing

It’s easy to bet on Michigan State, especially in February and March, and that’s because Tom Izzo is tough. That trait not only rubs off on his players, it wears opponents thin.

In many ways, Izzo is the ideal college basketball coach, firm but fair and always fiery on the sideline. The Spartans defend, rebound and attack the basket to get high-percentage shots. It’s a reliable winning formula, even if it’s not always the prettiest thing to watch.

What a mistake it would have been for Izzo to bolt for the LeBron James-less Cleveland Cavaliers two years ago. Izzo’s style makes him a college guy, not just another overpaid NBA bench jockey.

Ten days ago, I touted Ohio State as the Big Ten’s best team, and that is looking like a mistake. Michigan State took over sole possession of the league lead Sunday by grinding out a 76-62 victory over Purdue.

The Spartans’ team leader is Draymond Green, a 6-foot-7-inch senior who goes about 250 pounds. He flirted with a triple-double while totaling 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. He made 3 of 4 3-pointers and tightened up defensively on Robbie Hummel.

The Boilermakers, 4½-point underdogs, got 24 points and 15 rebounds from Hummel, but Green mostly shut him down after halftime to help turn a 38-35 deficit into a win and cover.

In November, Michigan State took a couple of lumps in neutral-court losses to North Carolina and Duke, but eventually emerged as a better team that is peaking going into March — again.

Izzo continues to take his team into snake pits and never flinch. The mean-in-green Spartans have won at Purdue, Ohio State and Wisconsin. The toughest teams are the ones that win on the road.

If nothing else, remember that No. 7 Michigan State, which is 22-5 straight up and 18-7 against the spread, is a bet-on team this time of year and a smart pick to advance at least a few rounds in the NCAA Tournament bracket.

College basketball is not as popular with gamblers as the NFL, but it should be more popular, and Saturday was a reason why. One of the most intriguing wagering days of the season just passed. If you missed it, circle the date on the calendar next year.

“I would have to say that is the biggest college basketball Saturday of the year, as far as the number of games,” LVH sports book director Jay Kornegay said. “We counted the games. We were joking about it.”

There were 129 games on the board at the LVH. Sixty-seven were part of the BracketBusters, an enormous schedule of nonconference matchups between minor and midmajor teams that is arranged by ESPN.

A normal Saturday rotation has around 100 games. It’s worth repeating this was 129, a staggering number.

“I don’t know if it’s the most games ever, but I wouldn’t doubt it,” Kornegay said. “And then you basically multiply it by three.”

The LVH posted first-half and halftime lines on every game, presenting a great challenge for oddsmakers and countless opportunities for bettors.

The biggest winners — and teams to watch in March — were Drexel, Murray State, Wichita State and Creighton.

Drexel, tied for first in the Colonial Athletic Association, was a 3-point underdog in a 69-49 win at Cleveland State. The Dragons won their 15th consecutive game.

I wrote about Murray State’s Isaiah Canaan in Friday’s paper, and didn’t jinx him, amazingly. Canaan hit 5 of 8 3-pointers, and his 23 points led the 16th-ranked Racers past Saint Mary’s, 65-51. Murray State (26-1) closed as a 2-point favorite in a win it needed for its resume.

Wichita State cemented its status as the top threat in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Shockers (24-4) were 3-point road favorites in a 91-74 victory over Davidson. Joe Ragland, who torched UNLV for 31 points in early December, shot 11-for-14 and scored 30.

Doug McDermott had 36 points and 11 rebounds as struggling Creighton stormed back to beat Long Beach State, the best team in the Big West, 81-79 at the buzzer.

A regular board game turned out to be the craziest. Down 20 points late in the first half, Notre Dame rallied to beat Villanova 74-70 in overtime. The Irish even covered as 2-point favorites in Philadelphia. The collapse of the Wildcats, who are an atrocious 6-17 ATS, should not have come as a shocker.

There are two types of teams, bet-against losers like Villanova and bet-on brawlers such as Michigan State. Izzo is a money coach.

Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts the “Las Vegas Sportsline” weeknights at midnight on KDWN-AM (720) and thelasvegassportsline.com.

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