IHTIT: Tennessee Vols vs. Alabama Crimson Tide Basketball Preview (1/20/24)

It's Hoops Time in Tennessee: the Vols (#6, 13-4, 3-1 SEC, 8-4 vs. Quadrant 1&2) host Alabama (RV, 12-5, 4-0 SEC, 4-4 vs. Q2+) on Saturday. Unlike the last time Bama came to Knoxville, the Tide are not the #1 ranked team in America--in fact they are just in the "receiving votes" category in the AP poll. But that might be human error. 

In just about every computer ranking system, this a top-10 matchup. In fact, several computer polls have Alabama ranked ahead of UT. The Tide are sitting on five losses, but none of them egregious. Like the Vols, Bama lost to Purdue and their losses to Creighton and Arizona are similar to UT's losses to Kansas and UNC. The main difference is that UT has impressive wins over teams like Wisconsin and Illinois, while other than a road win against Mississippi State (which Tennessee failed to do), Bama has no particular resume-building win. As a result, the Tide needs a victory they can point to, while the Vols need to assert themselves as kings of the SEC. 

Make no mistake, this is a huge game Saturday.

Preview graphic below--but first I want to comment on Nate Oats shoving Missouri's Aidan Shaw during their game Tuesday. No, Shaw should not have been in Alabama's huddle. However, it's not Oats' job to remove him. There were officials on the spot, and you could make a long list of others who should be getting Shaw back to his own bench before you get to Oats. It's not Woody Hayes punching Charlie Bauman in the 1978 Gator Bowl. But it's not far from Bob Knight choking Neil Reed in 1997. In each case, an authority figure put hands on a student-athlete out of frustration. That's unacceptable, yet here we are accepting it, I guess. Oats got nothing more than a milquetoast reprimand from Greg Sankey and the SEC and it's been more or less hand-waived away by much of the media. Anyway, I've replaced Oats' picture in the preview graphic with a stock photo of a bully shoving a kid into a locker, so there.

See the basketball glossary for more information. Click for larger version. 

"Bullet points" is a phrase I hesitate to use with a Nate Oats' team (it's always him, isn't it?) but here you go:

  • For the second straight game, all of the opponent players featured here are transfers. All of those transfers won multiple all-conference and/or player-of-the-year awards at their previous schools. It's basically a mid-major all-star squad, and I mean that as a complement. 
  • Alabama's offense is arguably the best in the SEC. The Tide leads in offensive rating, 3-point %,  effective FG% (a stat that weighs the value of 3-point shots), and are second in points per game
  • Mark Sears is the engine that drives Alabama's offense. Sears leads the SEC in points produced (a stat that considers assists, points, and offensive rebounds) and Effective FG%, among other scoring categories. He scores a lot but he feeds his teammates, too
  • Aaron Estrada is also dangerous. Estrada has a high degree of usage in Alabama's offense and ranks highly in many offensive categories as well. He also ranks in the top 10 of both assists and points produced, giving Alabama the rare double "Helper" flair in the graphic.
  • When Bama isn't shooting 3s, they try to work the post for easy points. How much Jonas Aidoo limits Alabama center Grant Nelson will be a key matchup for the Vols on Saturday.
Alabama comes in winners of six in a row and seven of their last 10. Those three losses were away from home against premium competition. Tennessee has won nine of their last 10, with the one loss at Mississippi State last week. Alabama has won six of the last ten in this series, but most of those wins have come in Tuscaloosa. Bama has just two wins in Knoxville since 2015.

KenPom has Tennessee as a 4-point favorite with a 63% certainty of winning. NET rating has the Vols as 5-point favorites, and ESPN analytics also has UT right at a 63% chance of victory. Early betting lines had the Vols -5 before quickly moving to -5.5 and an O/U of 162. It’s a matchup of one of college basketball’s most efficient offenses against one of college basketball’s most efficient defenses. I tend to prefer the defensive team, especially at home, and considering with Dalton Knecht, that defensive team actually has scoring options. 

Prediction: Tennessee 81, Alabama 75
Mediocre betting advice: KenPom has UT’s home court advantage at 4.1 points. If you like the Vols -2 on a neutral court, and that’s not unreasonable, then you might like them -5.5 at home. There’s also the fact that the under has hit 10 straight times in this series. It would have to get pretty deep in the 80s for UT to cover 5.5 and hit the over.  The margins feel razor thin here so a smart bettor probably stays away. But we’re not about that here. I like Tennessee -5.5 and under 162


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