Prediction Panel: No. 3 Tennessee vs. No. 6 Mississippi State

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    (Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

    The RTI team makes their picks for the Vols’ match-up with Mississippi State on Friday night in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford and staff writer Ben McKee share their predictions for the Vols’ first game of the postseason.

    Nathanael’s Pick

    The last time these two teams played, it was Senior Night in Knoxville, and the Vols got off to a big of a sluggish start. But UT finally picked up their rhythm late in the first half, and they exploded in the second half to come away with a 71-54 victory.

    This time, I don’t expect such a blowout.

    Tennessee finally got some much-needed rest and hasn’t played in nearly a week. Mississippi State, meanwhile, is coming off a game late Thursday night against Texas A&M. Granted, the Aggies weren’t much competition for the Bulldogs, but still.

    The Vols match up well with Mississippi State, and they’ve owned the Bulldogs as of late. UT has won three-straight games against State, and they’ve been victorious nine of the last 11 times the two teams have played each other.

    I expect Tennessee to win, but I don’t think it will be a runaway game for the Vols.

    Mississippi State boasts one of the more dangerous scorers in the SEC in senior guard Quinndary Weatherspoon. He was named a First-Team All-SEC performer for a reason. He was bottled up the last time UT and MSU played, but he’s averaging 18.3 points a game and has scored at least 20 points in 15 games this season. Point guard Lamar Peters is an effective floor general, and the Bulldogs are a solid rebounding team thanks to the efforts of Reggie Perry, Aric Holman, and Weatherspoon.

    Tennessee isn’t devoid of solid players themselves, though. The Vols have two-time SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams and First-Team All-SEC forward Admiral Schofield as their headliners. Schofield especially has been a match-up nightmare for Mississippi State the last two seasons.

    If the Vols play like they did in the second half when these two teams met in Knoxville — attacking the rim and playing tenacious defense — then they should be able to win fairly comfortably. But I worry about rust, and the Vols’ loss to Auburn concerns me about their defense and their propensity to settle on offense.

    I think Tennessee will win, but I expect this one to be closer than a 17-point margin.

    Pick: Tennessee, 75-67

    MVP: Admiral Schofield, Tennessee forward

    Mississippi State just doesn’t have anyone who can guard Admiral Schofield effectively. When the Vols hosted the Bulldogs in Knoxville almost two weeks ago, Schofield led all scorers in that game with 18 points. In his last three contests against Mississippi State, he’s averaging 18.3 points and 6.3 rebounds while making over 40 percent of his three-pointers against them.

    Ben’s Pick

    To be honest, I don’t have a good feeling about tonight’s game.

    Sure, No. 8 Tennessee beat Mississippi State nearly two weeks ago by 17, but that game wasn’t indicative of how good of a team the Bulldogs have. The two groups are experienced, well-coached teams, and I’m expecting a much closer game on Friday evening.

    Last season, for instance, Tennessee won by 22 in Starkville, but then narrowly won 62-59 in the SEC Tournament. I believe we will see a similar sequence this season.

    For Tennessee, it comes down to Quinndary Weatherspoon. The All-SEC first team selection is averaging 18.3 points per game and has drained 53 threes this season. The Vols must force someone else to beat them, whether it be Tyson Carter or Lamar Peters. Carter can light it up from the 3-point line, as can Peters, though the point guard is much more of a distributor.

    With the way the Vols have defended the perimeter at times, Mississippi State could cause quite a storm.

    What it comes down to in this game is how State defends the post – particularly Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. Sure, Schofield likes to get his shots up, but the senior forward should be able to get to the rim with relative ease. In the past, Mississippi State has struggled to find a match-up for Schofield, and I expect that to continue.

    As for Williams, State doesn’t particularly match up well with the two-time SEC Player of the Year either. Freshman forward Reggie Perry will likely draw the responsibility, as will Abdul Ado. The pair struggled to slow Williams down in the first game. Williams only had 14 points, but it was on just six shots. He impacted the game elsewhere, pulling down 10 rebounds, blocking two shots, picking up two steals, assisting on three buckets, and getting to the free throw line six times.

    Ultimately, I’m rolling with Tennessee, though I expect for the game to be up in the air around the final media timeout.

    Pick: Tennessee, 72-70

    MVP: Admiral Schofield, Tennessee forward

    As I mentioned, Mississippi State has really struggled to defend Schofield. In the past three meetings, Schofield has scored 24, 13, and 18 points. The Bulldogs don’t have a great option to defend the All-SEC first team selection. Aric Holman has drawn the responsibility in the past and he’ll likely share duties with Perry once again. Schofield should have a big night.