Prediction Panel: No. 18 Kansas vs. No. 15 Tennessee

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    No. 18 Tennessee welcomes No. 15 Kansas to Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday night as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge for a 6 p.m. tip on ESPN.

    The Vols (11-3, 5-3 SEC) enter the contest coming off a 56-53 win over Mississippi Sate on Tuesday night that snapped their two-game losing streak. Freshman guard Jaden Springer returned to action after missing the previous two games due to a left ankle injury and made a drastic difference. Springer only had nine points, but dished out five assists, grabbed four rebounds and blocked a shot.

    Kansas (11-5, 5-4 Big 12) is coming off a 59-51 win over TCU on Thursday night to snap a three-game losing streak. Juniors David McCormack and Ochai Agbaji led the Jayhawks. McCormack had a team-high 15 points to go along with six rebounds, a block and a steal. Agbaji had 13 points, a team-high four assists and three rebounds.

    Tennessee is 1-4 all-time against Kansas after losing last year’s matchup 74-68 on the road. The five previous meetings have been decided by an average of seven points. UT’s only even win against the Jayhawks came in 2010 when it beat a top-ranked Kansas team in Knoxville.

    Managing editor Ben McKee, as well as RTI contributor Blake Von Hagen, make their predictions for Saturday’s game between the Vols and Jayhawks:

    Ben’s Pick

    Saturday night’s matchup between No. 15 Kansas and No. 18 Tennessee pits two struggling teams against one another. Both teams are coming off of wins, but they each struggled in victory. The Jayhawks have lost three out of their last four games while the Vols have lost two out of their last three.

    Both teams are stellar defensively, but struggle on the offensive end. Tennessee ranks 70th in offensive efficiency according to KenPom, while Kansas ranks 33rd, respectively. The Vols’ offensive efficiency has taken a massive hit of late following poor showings without freshman guard Jaden Springer due to injury. But Springer is back and helped guide UT to a win over Mississippi State.

    This will be an ugly, sloppy game that Tennessee finds a way to win at the end. The Vols have fresher legs than Kansas courtesy of the schedule and that will be evident late in the game.

    Pick: Tennessee, 61-60

    MVP: Tennessee freshman guard Jaden Springer

    Tennessee is able to win this ugly, sloppy game because of Springer. He adds so much on both the offensive and defensive end of the floor and that was evident in the last game out. UT will win a close game on Saturday courtesy of a Springer drive and kick out to Santiago Vescovi for a game-winning three.

    Blake’s Pick

    A win on Saturday night would be crucial for both teams. Kansas has struggled over the last few weeks, but it has the talent to give Tennessee a lot of trouble. The Vols are an excellent defensive team, but there are some serious question marks on offense. Kansas only hit 23 percent of its 3-pointers on Thursday night and freshman Jalen Wilson was held scoreless. Some important matchups to watch on Saturday will be Wilson against Yves Pons and Jayhawks forward David McCormack against John Fulkerson.

    Both teams are struggling to shoot the ball right now. However, Kansas at least has an identity, which Tennessee is sorely lacking. The Vols do not know where to go with the basketball in the half court. Kansas is more capable of getting out in transition—that is where the Jayhawks are going to win this game. Wilson is an athletic swingman who is going to give Tennessee problems in the open court. The Vols are in the better scheduling spot and have the better defense, but I have more faith in Kansas to make key plays down the stretch.

    Pick: Kansas, 66-59

    MVP: Kansas freshman forward Jalen Wilson

    Wilson is coming off the worst game of his collegiate career, but he has scored at least 15 points four times against ranked teams this season. He is a matchup problem for Tennessee on Saturday night, particularly on the offensive glass.