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Prediction Panel: No. 19 Tennessee vs. No. 13 Memphis

(Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

The RTI team makes their picks for the Vols’ match-up with Memphis in Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday. Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford and staff writer Ben McKee share their predictions for the Vols’ contest against the in-state Tigers.

Nathanael’s Pick

I’ve gone back and forth on this game quite a bit, honestly. Earlier this season, I thought Memphis would win and could possibly win by several possessions.

Now that the game is here, though, I’m not sure I feel that same way.

With both James Wiseman and Lester Quinones out for today’s game, that gives me a lot of pause in picking the Tigers. What I thought would be a huge strength for Memphis — their interior play — is lessened by the absence of Wiseman. The Tigers still like to work more inside-out on offense rather than using a more perimeter-oriented offense, but they aren’t quite as dominant down low without Wiseman.

Today’s game will be all about pace. Whichever team controls the pace better will be who wins.

Memphis loves to run up and down the court and put up a ton of shots. The Tigers have the 10th-fastest pace in Division I basketball according to Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo ratings. When you look at the Tigers’ average number of field goal attempts and free throw attempts in a game, they’re averaging about 88 chances to score every game.

Tennessee, meanwhile, has played more like Virginia basketball this season with their pace. The Vols ranked 303rd in KenPom’s adjusted tempo, and UT is only averaging about 76 opportunities to score a game.

The Vols’ defense has been tremendous this season, and Memphis has an extremely efficient defense as well. Both teams have some of the best field goal percentage defenses in Division I, and both have highly-rated defensive efficiency ratings.

Memphis really likes to turn opponents over, and the Vols have struggled with turnovers on offense this season. That’s the biggest area of concern for me in this game from Tennessee’s perspective.

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I think both teams will be playing with emotion. I think both teams are well-coached. I think Rick Barnes is a slightly better in-game coach than Penny Hardaway, and I think the Tigers are just missing a little too much without Wiseman and Quinones right now. All of that plus Tennessee’s homecourt advantage makes me lean towards the Vols.

As long as UT doesn’t make the dumb decisions they were making in the Florida State game and don’t give away the ball upwards of 15 or more times, I like Tennessee’s chances.

Pick: 69-63, Tennessee

MVP: Lamonte Turner, Tennessee point guard

A lot of Tennessee’s turnover problems have been because of Lamonte Turner. Yes, the redshirt senior has dished out a ton of assists this season, but he’s also been responsible for more turnovers than anyone else on UT’s roster. If Turner plays within himself and doesn’t make poor decisions, he should be the reason the Vols’ offense clicks enough to outscore the Tigers. I don’t know that I expect Turner to score 15 or more points, but if he can dish out seven or more assists and have two or fewer turnovers, that will be huge.

Ben’s Pick

I’ve been inclined to think that Memphis wins the second of the three-game series on Saturday afternoon simply because the Tigers have more natural talent. At least that is what the recruiting rankings tell us, as do NBA Draft boards.

Even without the potential No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft — James Wiseman — the Tigers’ post still poses a significant threat with Precious Achiuwa and DJ Jeffries. It’s crucial that John Fulkerson and Olivier Nkamhoua have strong days on the defensive end, as is the case for Yves Pons, who will likely draw the task of defending Achiuwa.

Memphis has a ton of young talent at its guard positions, but Tennessee has the nod in experience and has talent in its own regard.

This is why I think the Vols will win the game.

Memphis may have a more naturally talented team than Tennessee, but Rick Barnes has the better overall basketball team. Thompson-Boling Arena will be absolutely rocking in Tennessee’s favor, and they won’t get caught up in the emotions of the rivalry game like a Penny Hardaway-coached team will.

Pick: 63-60 Tennessee

MVP: Yves Pons, Tennessee forward

If Pons is tasked with defending Achiuwa, the junior forward is the most important player on the court Saturday. His defensive play and rebounding will be crucial, while it’s also critical that he scores around 15 points. With the way he has improved this season and the way he’s played with confidence, it’s hard to imagine Pons not handling his business.

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