Prediction Panel: No. 7 Tennessee vs. No. 12 Missouri

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    No. 7 Tennessee begins SEC play on the road Wednesday night against No. 12 Missouri at 9 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.

    The Vols (6-0) enter the contest against former UT head coach Cuonzo Martin coming off of a 20-point win over USC Upstate on Dec. 23. Tennessee had a balanced offensive effort in which every player who saw action scored. Junior guard Victor Bailey Jr. led Tennessee in scoring for the second consecutive game, pouring in 18 points, while knocking down a career-high-tying eight field goals.

    Missouri beat Bradley 54-53 in its last game out. Senior forward Jeremiah Tillmon’s game-winning 3-point play with one second remaining lifted the Tigers to a seventh consecutive win. Mizzou improved to 6-0 for the 23rd time in program history, and the first time since the 2013-14 season. The Tigers’ current seven-game win streak is its longest since 2013.

    Tennessee leads the all-time series with Missouri 9-7, dating to 1961, according to Tennessee’s game notes. The Tigers 5-3 at home against the Vols, however. UT has won three straight games against Mizzou, which is their longest win streak in the series.

    Vols head coach Rick Barnes is 4-1 in head-to-head meetings against teams coached by Cuonzo Martin. Tennessee has never opened SEC play against Missouri. A win would give the Vols three straight victories at Mizzou Arena and make them 3-3 in SEC openers under Rick Barnes.

    The Rocky Top Insider team makes their picks for Tennessee’s matchup with the 12th-ranked Missouri Tigers. Managing editor Ben McKee, as well as RTI contributor Blake Von Hagen share their predictions for the Vols’ first SEC game of the season.

    Ben’s Pick

    Tennessee begins conference play with its toughest test to date. Martin’s Missouri team is healthy for once and as a result, the Tigers have catapulted into the top-15 after being picked to finish 10th in the SEC during the preseason. The Vols have yet to play a road game or a game against a ranked team this season.

    UT’s defense is elite and will put Missouri’s offense to the test. The Tigers have the weapons to score in Tilmon, leading-scorer Xavier Pinson, Mark Smith, Dru Smith and Javon Pickett. Pinson, M. Smith and D. Smith are Mizzou’s top-three leading-scorers this season and the only ones averaging double-figures.

    Missouri’s defense is also stingy. Wednesday’s game will be a street fight, but Tennessee’s athleticism at the guard position between Victor Bailey Jr., Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson will prove to be the difference. Both teams mirror one another, but as Blake points out below, Tennessee has been better about limiting turnovers and crashing the offensive glass.

    Vols win a close, ugly, sloppy game between two defensive-minded basketball teams that are going to create a lot of problems for opponents this season.

    Pick: Tennessee, 57-50

    MVP: Tennessee junior guard Victor Bailey Jr.

    In a close, ugly, sloppy game between two teams who are defensive-minded, I want the pit bull on my side. That’s exactly what Bailey is. He’s not afraid to stick his nose in the fight and get his hands dirty. He’s also efficient on both ends of the floor.

    Bailey has started each of the Vols’ first six games and is the team’s leading-scorer with 13.2 points per game. His 60 field-goal attempts are the most on the team. Bailey will lead the Vols to victory against the Tigers.

    Blake’s Pick

    This is the best game of the day in college basketball. It’s the first true test for No. 7 Tennessee and its another resume-building opportunity for Cuonzo Martin’s team. Missouri has quickly ascended from a team that finished below .500 last season to a potential contender in the SEC this year. The Tigers have the eighth-most experienced team in the nation and they love to do exactly what Tennessee does — play outstanding defense and efficient offense.

    There’s no questioning who the more talented team is, though. In a game where veterans John Fulkerson and Yves Pons will square off against Jeremiah Tilmon, Xavier Pinson and Mitchell Smith, it will be the Vols’ young guards who make the difference. Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer have the ability to crack open up a tough Missouri defense. Tennessee has also done a better job of limiting turnovers and getting on the offensive glass than the Tigers have this season. The Vols are also the better defensive team. This should be an ugly game, but the more talented team will get it done on the road.

    Pick: Tennessee, 68-59

    MVP: Tennessee freshman guard Keon Johnson

    There’s a reason Johnson is the only player on the roster who’s categorized as a “major contributor” by KenPom thus far. He has been opening things up for himself and his teammates— it will continue in this game.