As we approach the start of 2021, it is a great time to take a look back at the start of the NCAA Men’s College Basketball season. With nearly every league well into conference play at this point, I wanted to take a look back at the first half of this abbreviated season and check in on which teams have been elite at covering spreads and cashing tickets.
In this article, we are going to take a look at the 5 best against the spread teams in college hoops this year. These teams might not be winning every game outright, but they are covering spreads and getting their backers paid. For the sake of this argument, I won’t go with a strict winning percentage as I think that a team going 8-1 is better than a team that has gone 2-0. Let’s get started with my top-ranked ATS team, the Drake Bulldogs!
Drake Bulldogs – ATS Record: (9-0)
No matter which way you slice it, the Drake Bulldogs have been the best team against the spread this season. They lead the country in the total number of ATS wins with 9, and they have yet to fail to cover a number at 100%. Drake is 11-0 on the season, but two of those games came against D2 schools St. Ambrose and McKendree, and books didn’t take action on those games. But if they did, the Bulldogs won those games by an average of 34 points, so they likely would have covered those numbers as well.
Drake isn’t just covering, they are blowing teams out with a +12.1 average margin of victory against the spread. That is one of the highest in the country and by far the highest of any team that has played a full schedule.
The Bulldogs play in the Missouri Valley Conference, and they are making a case for an at-large bid no matter what happens in league play. Drake will compete with Loyola-Chicago for the Missouri Valley Conference Championship and the automatic bid into the NCAA tournament that goes with it, but if they keep destroying teams, it is going to be hard to keep them off the dance floor, even if they come up short in the MVC tournament.
✅Only team in the country 11-0
✅2-0 in #MVCHoops
✅4th road win of the season
— Drake Basketball (@DrakeBulldogsMB) December 29, 2020
So, how are the Bulldogs getting it done this season? They are lighting it up from 3-point land. Drake is shooting a blistering hot 41.9% from beyond the arc as a team, 6th best in the nation. Their adjusted field goal percentage is also elite at 58.8%. The Bulldogs have played a soft schedule with an SOS of 288th, but that softness is built into the lines, so you can’t say that this is just a case of weak scheduling.
With the way that the Missouri Valley has scheduled their conference games this year, the Bulldogs caught a huge break. Instead of having to play at Loyola-Chicago, they get to play host to the Ramblers in both games, coming on back-to-back nights on January 10th and 11th. Even a series split with Loyola-Chicago would likely be enough to ensure a top-2 seed in the MVC tournament and could be enough to get the Bulldogs an at-large bid look. If you haven’t watched Drake play a game this season, you need to take notice, as this is the type of team that will bust your bracket in March!
VCU Rams – ATS Record: (8-2)
The Rams of VCU have taken a different path to ATS dominance than Drake, as they aren’t undefeated outright like the Bulldogs, but they have still covered games at an impressive 80% clip. VCU managed to win 2 out of their first 3 games outright as underdogs, knocking off Utah State 85-69, getting +2.5 points, and defeating Memphis 70-59 while getting +5.5 points. The Rams nearly covered against West Virginia as big underdogs, as they lost 78-66, but were only getting +10.5 points, missing a cover by less than a bucket.
Against Penn State, the Rams kept it close enough to cover in a losing effort, and after being betting underdogs in their first 4 games of the year, VCU came out of it looking great at 3-1 ATS. Since that tough start against solid competition, VCU has run up a strong record both outright and ATS, blowing out overmatched teams like Mount Saint Mary’s and Western Carolina. The Rams did have a scare at home against James Madison, where they snuck past the Dukes by just a single point and failed to cover, but they got right back on track in their last game, winning and covering against St. Joe’s.
We have forced 15 turnovers for the 10th straight game because that’s what we do. #Havoc
— VCU Basketball (@VCU_Hoops) December 30, 2020
The A-10 looks to be wide open right now, as they have 8 teams in the Kenpom top-100, but only Saint Louis looks like a team that is a lock to get an at-large bid if the season were to end today. VCU has used stellar defense to dominate teams, as they are ranked 16th in the country in defensive efficiency. The Rams force turnovers at a rate of 25.8%, and they block shots and steal that ball as well as any team in the A-10.
Head coach Mike Rhoads saw his Rams take a step back last season when they won just 18 games and had a losing record in league play. That came a year after he took VCU to the Big Dance, powered by a 25-8 regular-season record and a regular-season A-10 title.
Rhoads hasn’t had the level of success that former VCU coaches Will Wade and Shaka Smart have had at the school in recent years, but with the league up for grabs, this could be the year the Rams breakthrough with a second-weekend appearance in the NCAA tournament.
Baylor Bears – ATS Record: (7-1)
The Baylor Bears just might be the best team in the country. And surprisingly enough, as a general rule, the best teams in the country aren’t usually great against the spread, but that just hasn’t been the case this year for Baylor. Baylor is in a two-horse race to be the best outright team in the nation with Gonzaga, and despite being enormous favorites in many of their games, they are still covering numbers nearly every time out.
The Bears have been favored in every game they have played this season, and in all but one of those games, they were laying double digits. Baylor won their first 7 games ATS, covering giant lines like -43.5 against Arkansas Pine Bluff and -35 against Central Arkansas. The Bears slipped up their last game ATS though, as they were laying a whopping -44 against Alcorn State and won the game by “only” 29 points.
The absurd numbers have been a function of both soft scheduling and Baylor’s bad luck. The Bears saw games against Texas and Gonzaga, both teams in the top-10 nationally, canceled at the last minute due to Corona Virus concerns.
— Baylor Basketball (@BaylorMBB) December 24, 2020
So, it’s not like the Bears tried to play a bunch of cupcakes, but that is how it has worked out with a current SOS of 258th. But you can argue it is harder to cover huge numbers against bad teams than it is to cover small ones against good teams, so what Baylor has managed to do remains impressive, no matter who they have played.
The cakewalk is just about over for Baylor, though, as they kick off league play in the loaded Big 12 on January 2nd against Iowa State, on the road. Looking ahead on the schedule for the Bears, they have 16 out of their last 17 games coming against the top-100 nationally, so we are going to see just how good this team really is. They have certainly passed the eye test against bad teams, and we know they have a lot of talent, but covering in league play is a whole other animal.
It is hard to see the Bears struggle too much against the increased competition, though, as the one game they have played this year against elite competition, they dominated. Baylor played the top-10 ranked Fighting Illini of Illinois and blew them out by 13 points, easily covering the -4.5-point spread. The week to circle on your calendar for Baylor comes in mid-January, where the Bears play West Virginia, Texas Tech, and Kansas in a 6-day stretch.
Liberty Flames – ATS Record: (7-1)
The Liberty Flames flat out win basketball games. Liberty doesn’t get a lot of national media attention playing in the ASUN, but man, has this team figured out a way to win a lot of basketball games. Last year, they won 30 games, and in 2019, they won 29 games. I don’t care who you are playing, if you are able to win that many games, you are doing something right. This year, the Flames are once again racking up the wins, as they are 8-3 straight up and 7-1 ATS.
The knock on Liberty in the last couple of years has always been their weak schedule. Last year, the Flames played one of the easiest schedules in the country with an SOS of 345th, and the year before, they played the 230th softest schedule. But that just hasn’t been the case this season, as they have a more than respectable SOS of 145th.
After failing to cover on opening night against Purdue, the Flames have covered in 7 straight games. Similar to Drake, several of the Flames games haven’t had numbers posted on them as they played D2 schools, but had the books posted lines, Liberty would have covered them for sure.
The Flames beat Columbia International by 47 points and Carver Bible by 53 points. It hasn’t been all beating up on weak teams for Liberty this year, though, as they have covered as underdogs in their last 4 games, winning 2 of those games outright.
There’s no place like home 🏡 https://t.co/dyNk7MpQKM
— Liberty Men’s Basketball (@LibertyMBB_) December 30, 2020
No team likes to jack up more 3-pointers than Liberty does, as they score a whopping 57% of their points from deep. And they can absolutely knock them down as they are hitting nearly 40% as a team. That’s not to say that they can’t score inside the arc, though, as they are actually one of the more efficient teams from 2-point land as well, shooting a scorching hot 62.1%.
Liberty is a heavy favorite to once again run the table in the ASUN and take another trip to the NCAA tournament, and with only league games left on their schedule, they don’t have another game scheduled against a team ranked in the top-200 nationally. Expect a lot of big numbers for Liberty to cover the rest of the way out, but after seeing how well this team can score the basketball, I’m not sure there is a number that they can’t find a way to cover if they get hot.
Tennessee Volunteers – ATS Record: (6-1)
There were several teams that I could have put here in this last spot. The Iowa Hawkeyes are 7-3 ATS, Sent Hall is 8-3, Toledo is 8-2, and Grand Canyon is 6-0. And while each of those teams certainly deserves a mention, I think what the Tennessee Volunteers have done has been the most impressive of the group.
The Vols are 7-0 outright on the season, and their only miss ATS came when they were laughably overpriced as -35-point favorites against South Carolina Upstate. They won that game comfortably 80-60, but didn’t come close to covering the inflated spread.
The reason I moved the Vols ahead of the rest of the pack is how they are covering numbers. Tennessee is winning by an average of over 9-points a game ATS. That is 2nd best of any team on this list behind only Drake. There have been several huge spreads for Tennessee to cover, but they have also had 3 games where they were single-digit favorites, and they went 3-0 ATS in those tightly contested games.
We’re all in.
— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) December 31, 2020
The wins over Colorado, Missouri, and Cincinnati all came against top-100 teams and were impressive wins. The win over Missouri was particularly impressive as the Tigers were undefeated at 6-0 on the season before getting blown out by the Vols by 20-points on their home floor. The SEC is going to be tough this season, with 13 of the 14 teams currently ranked in the top-100 nationally, so there aren’t going to be many soft spots for Tennessee in conference play.
But after seeing how well the Vols have played against the good teams they have played this year, Tennessee is my pick to win the SEC regular-season title. Tennessee prides itself on the defensive side of the basketball, and they currently rate out as the 2nd best defensive team in the nation, trailing only the Texas Tech Red Raiders. The Vols are holding teams to just 42% shooting from the field, and they block more shots than any team in the SEC, coming in at 4th in the nation in block rate. This is a Final Four caliber team playing in Knoxville this year.
There you have it, folks, my picks for the best against the spread teams in the country right now for men’s college hoops. The books are always looking to adjust numbers on these teams, so make sure that you are aware of that before making your plays.
It is very rare to see teams cover 90% or more of their games by the end of the season, so be on the lookout for regression in the second half for all of these teams. Thanks for reading, and make sure that you swing by TheSportsGeek’s NCAA Men’s College Basketball picks page, where we bring you all the sharp betting advice that you need to make money betting on college basketball this season.