No matter how hard they try to make the Maui Invitational seem normal, it's not. Putting Hawaiian shirts on the announcers or painting some flowers on the court doesn't change that the most iconic early season college basketball event doesn't feel the same.
The setting of a game on TV rarely matters more than it does for the Maui Invitational, with its instantly recognizable gym and the constant broadcast shots of the islands in between the action. The event is in Las Vegas this year for COVID-19 reasons (it was in North Carolina in 2020, which was even weirder), and we're getting an unlikely title game on Wednesday.
Wisconsin will take on St. Mary's, and the Badgers are 1.5-point favorites at BetMGM. It's far from the strongest field the Maui Invitational has had, and organizers likely figured on a Houston-Oregon final. When Houston got upset by fast-starting Wisconsin on Tuesday and St. Mary's overwhelmed an Oregon team that's still figuring out its new pieces, we got an unexpected championship game that will tip at 5 p.m. ET on Wednesday.
Wisconsin was picked to finish 10th in the Big Ten this season in the preseason media poll, with its young roster. A home loss to Providence early in the season seemed to reinforce that it would be a long year. But after a slow start in the Maui Invitational opener against Texas A&M, the Badgers guards have played very well and the bigs have done their job too. They came back to beat the Aggies and upset Houston behind Johnny Davis' career-best 30 points.
St. Mary's, like Wisconsin, has had plenty of success through the years but this wasn't an NCAA tournament lock heading into the season. It was picked to finish third in the WCC behind Gonzaga and BYU. But this experienced team is playing well on both ends, playing its slow tempo to hunt for the best shot on offense and grind opponents out on defense. The over/under for Wednesday's final is a very low 119.5. While viewers can expect a good, competitive game, it won't feature many transition baskets or a ton of points.
It won't feel like our normal Thanksgiving eve title game in this historic event. That doesn't mean it won't be a fun game to lead into the holiday.
Here's the first look at the sports betting slate for Wednesday:
A full day of college hoops
Other than conference tournament week and the first two days of the NCAA tournament, we rarely have as much weekday afternoon action from the sport as we get the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
As of Wednesday morning BetMGM had 66 games listed, and more will be added. The first three of those games tip off at 11 a.m. Eastern.
We get a matchup of ranked teams between Auburn and UConn from the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. Connecticut is favored by 3.5 points. The first game at the Battle 4 Atlantis is Michigan State vs. 4-0 Loyola-Chicago, and the Spartans are just 3.5-point favorites. Another good early-season matchup is Ohio State, a No. 2 seed in last season's NCAA tournament that has started a little slow, against 4-0 and No. 23 ranked Florida.
There's wall-to-wall basketball today. Get your hoops fix before the NFL takes center stage in the sports world on Thanksgiving.
The NBA has a lot of games too
The NBA uses Christmas as its holiday showcase, and it takes off on Thanksgiving. That means 13 games on Wednesday before the league takes Thursday off.
The biggest story is the Phoenix Suns, who have won 13 in a row and are 6.5-point favorites at the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday. The Cavs have been a feisty underdog this season, with an 11-7 against-the-spread record. They could cover as a home dog against the red-hot Suns.
The most compelling game could be the Brooklyn Nets as 1.5-point favorites at the Boston Celtics. The Nets are playing better lately after a relatively slow start to the season, and they should handle business against the up-and-down Celtics.
NHL has a robust slate too
If you prefer hockey, you have plenty of options. There are 14 NHL games on Wednesday. The one that will get the most attention is the New York Rangers at the New York Islanders. The Islanders have been a bit disappointing this season, and they're slight -105 underdogs vs. the Rangers (-115).
What's the best bet?
I'll take Michigan State. I still trust its talent over a Loyola team that has a new coach and not all the pieces back from yet another great run last season.