The Continental Main Event begins on Friday night, and this is perhaps one of the best fields of any tournament surrounding Thanksgiving this season.
The games begin with Baylor hosting Virginia at 7 pm ET, followed by UCLA vs. Illinois at 9:30 p.m. ET.
Baylor comes into this tournament as the favorite, but not by much.
Baylor has the better offense compared to its opening-round opponent, Virginia. Since UVA plays at a snail’s space, it can be hard for it to find the energy for a comeback.
On the other side, Illinois comes into its game vs. UCLA as short underdogs, but can rebound on the offensive end and push the Bruins’ pace to a level of discomfort they are not used to.
With this being the case, Illinois likely has the most value in the field, given how close these teams are from a talent spectrum. Baylor being the favorite makes the most sense, but it only looks valuable in the first game.
This should be one heck of an event before Feast Week.
No. 16 Virginia vs. No. 5 Baylor
The Cavaliers are renowned for their unbelievable slow game. They rank 363rd in Adjusted Tempo and average 19.4 seconds per possession on both sides of the ball.
This helps when they can hit their 3s, as they are shooting 48% from deep on this young season.
They also are relatively deep, with eight guys averaging at least 18 minutes per game. Adding Ben Vander Plas from Ohio definitely helped the depth in the post because they have a tendency to be a bit guard-heavy.
If they get to play their game, they can come out on top.
This team is more balanced than anyone in this tournament. The Cavs rank top-10 in both Adjusted Offensive and Defensive Efficiency.
That said, much of their production comes from the free throw line (23.5% of UVA’s points), and they rely on the 3 more so than Baylor (44.4% of UVA’s points).
If they can drive and hit outside shots, they have a shot at this tournament title.
Their pace slows down the game, so if they fall behind, it becomes incredibly difficult to make a comeback.
Basically, this team needs to draw fouls and hit their 3s. If the Cavs do not, it will be tough for them to beat Baylor because they are allowing bad opponents to shoot nearly 37% from deep on them.
This is not a good matchup for them. Here’s a look at their effectiveness on offense:
Photo by CBB Analytics
The Bears won a title in 2020 for a reason. Scott Drew has pulled this team up from the trenches, and this season, the Bears are led by the experienced backcourt of Adam Flagler and LJ Cryer.
Caleb Lohner (BYU) and Jalen Bridges (West Virginia) were nice additions from the transfer portal.
Flo Thamba and freshman Keyonte George have proven valuable, as well.
This is one of Drew’s deepest teams, and that could eventually lead them to a Final Four run.
The Bears turn opponents over nearly 30% of the time, ranking 10th in the nation in turnover rate thus far.
They also can hit the 3, with around 39% of their offensive scoring production coming from downtown.
Lastly, their depth is unmatched. They have four scorers averaging at least 10 points per game and nine players averaging at least 14 minutes per game.
George is the player who can make a difference on the wing. With Virginia concentrating on Bridges, Cryer and Flagler, George could come up big when needed as the man who can do it all.
This team fouls a ton. The Bears rank 287th in FTA/FGA and they have not played a team ranked above 174th in KenPom yet.
They also struggle to make free throws of their own (66.7%), so this can be a problem against a team like UVA.
No. 19 Illinois vs. No. 8 UCLA
Illinois looks brand new. Kofi Cockburn, Jacob Grandison, Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams and Alfonso Plummer are no longer on the team, and all five were key contributors on last season’s tournament squad.
Brad Underwood went out and landed a few familiar names — Terrence Shannon Jr. (Texas Tech), Matthew Mayer (Baylor) and Dain Dainja (Baylor) — via the portal.
They also have a loaded freshmen class featuring Sencire Harris, Jayden Epps, Skyy Clark and Ty Rodgers.
The only continuity in this lineup has been from Coleman Hawkins and RJ Melendez.
This team has potential, but is still a bit raw at the moment. This is a complete contrast to the other teams in this tournament.
This sounds like such a cliché, but this team can run the floor from positions 1-5, and most cannot keep up with it.
Shannon is a 6-foot-6 wing. Melendez is an inch taller. Hawkins is 6-foot-10. Dainja and Mayer come in at 6-foot-9 apiece.
The Illini run like Baylor can, but with a ton of length on the wings. There is a reason they rank 13th in offensive rebounding percentage at the moment.
Look for them to push the pace vs. UCLA and draw some contact. How often do you see a forward/center guard the ball and take it the distance like this?
This team has not played together long and at times, it shows. The Illini turn the ball over 19.2% of the time, and like the other teams in this field, their strength of schedule has not been too daunting yet.
They also only shoot 64.6% from the strike, but given how often they get there — especially with Hawkins and Shannon — they can somewhat negate these issues.
The Bruins might have the most experienced set of leaders in this tournament. Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell have seemingly been on the team for 10 years.
This is shockingly one of the teams in this tournament without a major impact transfer. Most of these guys are homegrown, which is hard to find in basketball nowadays.
Jaylen Clark and Adem Bona have stepped up as a junior and freshman, respectively.
This team has a pretty balanced offense, but sometimes slips up defensively. The Bruins are a little more disciplined than Illinois — having played together as a unit for longer — so their 24.1% turnover percentage could be an enormous edge in game one.
Early on in the season, teams with returning players are sometimes undervalued in the market. The Bruins have a number of experienced and polished upperclassmen, complimented by immense young talent (like Bona).
They need to take care of the ball, and they have a solid edge over Illinois in game one.
Photo by CBB Analytics
Disadvantage: Free Throws
Collectively, the Bruins have been awful from the line at only 67.5%. They also rank 313th in FTA/FGA, which does not bode well against an Illini team that thrives off of getting to the strike.
They need to make up for this shortcoming by hitting a few extra shots. Otherwise, Illinois will grind this game out and win in a tight matchup.
Continental Tire Main Event Best Bets
Baylor is a small favourite, so a sprinkle on it would not be considered chalk, necessarily.
However, UVA played a close game with North Carolina Central. Obviously, the Cavs were just shaking off the rust, but it takes them ages to come back in a game.
Baylor should win and advance. Take them at -4 if you see it.
UCLA is a slight favorite, but Illinois is hot and cold. With a field this close in talent, it is hard not to go with the biggest underdog by odds.
Take Illinois over UCLA on the moneyline if you are feeling risky. Otherwise, the Ilini should cover.
In this scenario, Illinois would match up with Baylor in the final. The Illini can exploit the fouling issues Baylor has encountered this season. The Illini distributes their scoring better between 2s, 3s and free throws, so having a fallback option if something is not working offensively is always a safe bet.
Take Illinois as underdogs in the title if it beats UCLA.