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Prediction Panel: No. 3 Tennessee vs. No. 5 Auburn

(Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

The RTI team makes their picks for the Vols’ match-up with Auburn in the SEC Tournament Finals on Sunday afternoon. Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford and staff writer Ben McKee share their predictions for the Vols’ title bout with the Tigers.

Nathanael’s Pick

When the Vols have had to make adjustments against a team they played not too long ago under Rick Barnes, they’ve generally succeeded. I think the same is going to happen on Sunday.

Tennessee and Auburn just played a week ago, and the Tigers spoiled the Vols’ chances of winning a share of the SEC regular season title. This time, Bruce Pearl’s Tigers will be looking to keep the Vols away from another potential conference title.

In the last match-up, Tennessee got away from their style of play in the second half and jacked up a bunch of threes. They attempted 28 three-pointers, one off their season-high. That’s not UT’s brand of basketball, but it is Auburn’s, and that’s why the Tigers won 84-80 on their home court.

Auburn will be playing their fourth game in four days, but Tennessee will be playing their third game in 40 hours. I don’t know if either team will have an advantage over the other when it comes to fatigue.

If Tennessee runs their offense through Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, and Jordan Bone like they did against Kentucky on Saturday, they should be able to win. Auburn doesn’t have the defensive match-ups to stop UT’s dynamic trio if all three are focal points of the offense. Auburn has been impressive in the SEC Tournament, but let’s be honest: They haven’t faced a team who can do what the Vols can offensively in this tournament, and the Tigers just aren’t the same team on the road/on a neutral court as they are at home.

For the Vols, defense will be the key in this game, not offense. Tennessee will be able to find points, that I’m sure of. But it will be on UT’s perimeter defenders to stop Auburn’s barrage of threes, and that was an issue the last time these two teams played.

Whichever team plays their style more consistently will be the team that wins. And I think it’ll be the Vols.

Pick: Tennessee, 79-73

MVP: Grant Williams, Tennessee forward

Based on how he’s done in tournament play over the last two years, I’m very tempted to pick Admiral Schofield as my MVP for the game. But Williams was a beast against Auburn a week ago, and the Vols needed to turn to him earlier than they did. I think he’ll be able to have another great game against the Tigers as long as UT makes him a priority in the paint. They should if they want to win.

Ben’s Pick

I didn’t feel good about last Saturday’s match-up with Auburn. As Tennessee and the Tigers prepare to play for an SEC title on Sunday afternoon, the feeling has returned.

Tennessee’s biggest weakness is its lack of ability to defend the perimeter at a championship-level. Auburn has made 381 three-point shots this season, the most in the country. The Tigers are making just over 11.2 threes per game while Tennessee only makes 6.8 threes per game. UT wants to run their offense through Grant Williams, and Auburn wants to take around 30 three-pointers. Whoever wins the game will have had success in getting the other team out of their comfort zone.

A week ago, when Tennessee fell to Auburn, it was because Bruce Pearl’s team was able to get the Vols to play a different style of basketball. Because of that, I believe the Vols will be locked in. Tennessee has been really good in games over the past two instances when playing a team in which they lost to earlier in the year. That’s because the players and coaches do a great job of realizing what they didn’t do well the first go-round, and then they make the proper adjustments. Just look at how Tennessee performed in Rupp Arena a month ago, and then how the Vols whooped the Cats in Knoxville, and then in Nashville on Saturday.

As was the case against Kentucky, Jordan Bowden, Jordan Bone, and Lamonte Turner’s defense – not offense – will determine if Tennessee wins the SEC Tournament for the first time since 1979. Auburn can be a lackluster defensive team at times, so the points will come. But can Bowden, Bone, and Turner limit Auburn’s dynamic guard duo of Bryce Brown and Jared Harper? If so, Tennessee walks away SEC Champs.

Pick: Tennessee, 85-83

MVP: Grant Williams, Tennessee forward

The back-to-back SEC Player of the Year is going to earn his money on Sunday afternoon against Auburn. Tennessee didn’t go to Grant Williams early enough vs. Auburn last Saturday, but on Sunday, I expect him to be the focal point of the offense. The Tigers didn’t have much of an answer for Williams when the Vols made an effort to get him the ball. Tennessee will ride the back of the two-time SEC Player of the Year to an SEC title.

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