The RTI team makes their picks for the No. 5 Vols’ match-up with Auburn on Saturday afternoon. Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford and staff writer Ben McKee share their predictions for the Vols’ regular season finale.
At the beginning of the season, a lot of us thought this game could potentially be the game deciding the SEC regular season champion. That’s certainly what the SEC thought when they scheduled this game for regular season finale. As it stands, it could still decide the SEC regular season title, but Auburn isn’t playing for it.
If the Vols defeat Auburn on Saturday, they’re guaranteed at least a share of the SEC regular season title. Auburn, meanwhile, is playing for the fourth-seed in the SEC Tournament, which would give them the last double-bye of the tournament.
There should be plenty of motivation for both teams in this game, and I’m worried the Vols will be walking into a hornet’s nest on Saturday. UT has played in plenty of hostile environments this season, and the noon tip-off (11 AM local time) could help numb that crowd some. But the Tigers have been exceptionally better at home than on the road, and it’ll be Senior Night for Auburn, too.
The Tigers are 14-2 at home this season and have lost those two games by a combined seven points. They’re averaging over 85 points per game at Auburn Arena, too. Not only that, but Auburn excels at shooting threes and forcing turnovers. They’ve attempted the 10th-most three-pointers in all of college basketball this season, and they’ve made the seventh-most threes among all 353 Division I schools.
Tennessee has been bad at stopping teams from distance this season. That is, until their last handful of games.
Ever since the Vols got blasted by Kentucky three weeks ago, they’ve been a lot better at guarding the perimeter. Tennessee is holding opponents to a 31.1 shooting percentage from three over their last five games. That’s after the Vols were allowing teams to make around 39 percent from three for most of SEC play.
Auburn really worries me in this game. They have two really good guards and a very underrated big man in Chuma Okeke. But the Vols have three really good guards, and they have the reigning SEC Player of the Year as a big man.
I don’t feel extremely confident in my pick in this game, but I do think the Vols get it done. Auburn will be fired up for Senior Night and to take on UT in general, so I expect them to have a lead at some point (and maybe for an extended period of time) in this game. But once the final buzzer sounds, I think the Vols will emerge victorious and hand the Tigers only their third loss at home all season.
Pick: Tennessee, 72-68
MVP: Grant Williams, Tennessee forward
I expect Chuma Okeke will be matched up with Grant Williams, and I think that’s a better match-up for Auburn than what a lot of Vol fans might expect. But overall, I think Williams will be able to find a way to score and get close to 20 points in this one. He could even eclipse that total. Auburn doesn’t rebound well, so Kyle Alexander and Williams should have the ability to grab double-digit rebounds.
I couldn’t hate this match-up for Tennessee any more than I do.
I hate it for one simple reason; Auburn’s ability to shoot the basketball from distance. With the way Tennessee has struggled to defend the perimeter at times this season, it’s not a great combination. At 37.5 percent, Auburn is the SEC’s best 3-point shooting team, having hit the seventh-most 3-pointers (330) in all of college basketball this season. On average, the Tigers are making 11.0 threes per game – which ranks sixth in the country.
Bryce Brown and Jared Harper lead the 3-point barrage, having combined for 176 of the Tigers’ 330 three-pointers made this season. Brown is shooting 40 percent from three while Harper is shooting 38 percent.
Tennessee’s 3-point field goal defense ranks 109th in the country, as the Vols are allowing opponents to shoot 33 percent. The Vols have stepped up on the defensive end over the last two games, holding both Kentucky and Mississippi State to a season-low in points.
Though the last two games have been excellent, the bigger sample size points towards Auburn being able to have success from the 3-point line. In 22 of Tennessee’s 30 games this season, opponents have made at least seven 3’s. Of those 22 games, opponents have made 10 or more threes on eight different occasions.
While that is my biggest concern, Auburn is also the most disappointing team in the conference this season and one of the most disappointing teams in the entire country. Though the Tigers have been money from the 3-point line, they’ve struggled to gel together as an offense and haven’t played well on the road.
Tennessee is quite simply the better team on paper. In order for Auburn to win, Harper, Brown, and Chuma Okeke will need to come up big. There are some fun match-ups to watch in this game – Okeke vs. Grant Williams, Harper vs. Jordan Bone, and Brown vs. Jordan Bowden/Lamonte Turner – and Auburn has won five of its last six. But even at the Tigers’ best, Tennessee is the better team.
With the Vols back in the groove they were in earlier this season that propelled them to a No. 1 ranking, I’m taking Rick Barnes’ experienced group to pull off a close win on the road. Oh, and they’ll claim a second consecutive SEC title.
Pick: Tennessee, 80-77
MVP: Tennessee forward Admiral Schofield
I mentioned the intriguing match-ups in this game above, but one match-up I’m watching for is who from Auburn is going to defend Admiral Schofield. The Tigers tend to go small with their line-up, which should result in a favorable match-up for Schofield. He’s been money the past two games against Kentucky and Mississippi State, and I expect that to continue against the Tigers on Saturday afternoon.