In the murk that marks the first two months of a college hoops season, when the unknown and uncertainty reign, Ron Boyles smoked out a recent game in the manner befitting someone who has been making a living at it for nearly 40 years.
Boyles, 59, knew Winthrop to be the pride of the Big South, with more victories over the past seven seasons — all under coach Pat Kelsey — than any of its league peers. Kelsey goes into hornets’ nests, too, scheduling games at Kentucky, Florida State, Georgia, Alabama, Clemson and Illinois.
As a three-point favorite, Winthrop’s 10-point season-opening victory at Hartford did not stir Boyles. That arrived three days later, when, as 10-point underdogs, the Eagles lost by only three at Fresno State. The visitors, his excavation revealed, had led most of that game. “Fresno gave Oregon a game (five days earlier, a 71-57 Ducks’ victory),” he said. “I have Oregon (rated) very high. I’m saying, ‘Wait a minute, this Winthrop team is pretty good.’ (Kelsey) is high on his team, thinks he’s got some good players.’”
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Which triggered Boyles’s action the next evening, Monday, Nov. 11, when Winthrop was catching a whopping 18.5 points at Saint Mary’s, a known quantity with a top-20 ranking. The two-hour bus trip from Fresno to the Bay Area, he reckoned, would be a blip to 19- and 20-year-old players.
From start to finish, Winthrop played the hosts even and won, 61-59. Forwards D.J. Burns, a former four-star recruit who left the Tennessee Vols for his hometown program in Rock Hill, S.C., and Josh Ferguson, and swingman Chandler Vuadrin, a Division-II transfer, powered the Eagles.
Three days later, Winthrop stumbled in a three-point defeat at East Tennessee State.
Knowing when to strike, with such surgical precision so early in a campaign, demands experience and guts, and an artful touch. That describes Boyles, who in 1981 bolted from the Pittsburgh area on a Greyhound bus to stake his claim in Vegas. He learned hard lessons, figured it out, got married, had two kids, got divorced, and along the way legendary oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro dubbed the slim man “Skinny.”
College basketball is his wheelhouse action, so capitalizing during its five-month run is critical to maintaining the mortgage of his home in the Henderson 2 foothills.
He usually wagers $2,200 to make $2,000.
Never had to sweat, Skinny says of the Winthrop score, a rare situation in which a supposed big fish made a date with a minnow capable of punching above its weight.
“For most of these big boys, these are just money games; take your beating, get your hundred thousand (dollars) and go home,” he said. “The problem comes when they actually get one of these schools that can play a little bit, like Evansville. The big boy almost never takes these teams seriously.”
The previous night, Evansville — a 25-point dog — and coach Walter McCarty, the former Kentucky star, had shocked Rupp Arena by beating the Wildcats, 67-64. Skinny did not play it.
“Kentucky coasted, didn’t play any defense. No intensity,” he said. “If you play a team that you don’t take seriously, you can end up with a knot on your head.”
He follows about a third of the 32 conferences, keeping close tabs on another third. Nobody, he is certain, can effectively track all 353 D-I programs. He relishes a ranked team playing at an opponent that he deems capable. He opens his book, which contains invaluable information on teams and players, figures and statistics. He points to Northwestern, which dropped its opener to Merrimack as a big favorite.
On this night, Providence is favored by nine over the Wildcats. Skinny says that spread should be halved, but the Merrimack defeat skewed perception. He expected Northwestern to play well.
He was right. Northwestern beat the Friars, 72-63.
Selections with projected numbers courtesy of veteran Vegas oddsmaker Kenny White:
Missouri State vs. Miami, Total 132: Eighteen of the Bears’ past 19 games have gone Under. Expect more of the same in an unfamiliar environment for both squads, in Charleston, S.C., at an unusual noon tap. UNDER
Duke vs. California, Total 138.5: Prime time at Madison Square Garden features a Blue Devils team that, again, is a machine at both ends. Cal, though, has a top-20 offensive efficiency. Relax and prepare to be entertained. OVER
Cleveland State vs. NC-Wilmington -1.5: Two horrendously inefficient defenses meet in an afternoon tilt at the D.C. Classic. The Vikings, however, are worse, failing to cover three huge underdog spreads by more than six points per defeat. NC-WILMINGTON
Virginia vs. UMass, Total 119.5: This one’s being played at Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Arena in another noon tap, these two might struggle to hit triple digits. The Cavaliers’ first three games all went Under by an average of 25.2 points below the mark, while the Minutemen are among the nation’s top 10 percent in snuffing foes’ effective possessions. UNDER
Last week: 3-1