IHTIT: Tennessee Vols at South Carolina Gamecocks Basketball Preview (3/6/24)

It's Hoops Time in Tennessee: After making a statement against Alabama on Saturday night, Tennessee (#4, 23-6, 13-3 SEC, 12-6 vs. Quad 1&2) has earned a shot at winning the SEC regular-season championship against South Carolina (#17, 24-5, 12-4 SEC, 10-3 vs. Q1&2)

There are a lot of wacky SEC title scenarios that could play out--going into Tuesday night, there was still a possibility for a five-way tie for 1st in the SEC. But for the Vols it is simple: win Wednesday and you've got your first outright title since 2008. At the same time, South Carolina is hunting for the title themselves after being picked to finish last in the preseason, reminiscent of Tennessee's 2017-18 SEC co-championship season. 

Tennessee also has payback for January's 59-63 loss to the Gamecocks as a motivator. It was the only time UT was held under 60 points this season, and just one of four times the Vols were held under 70. The loss was a rare one for Tennessee against South Carolina, holding a 52-29 record in the all-time series, with 8 wins in the last 10 meetings between the two schools. Tennessee also has a winning record on the road in this series, holding an 18-17 record in Columbia, SC. 

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  • Ta'Lon Cooper slaughtered Tennessee from behind the three-point arc in the first meeting. Cooper was 4/5 from three, and while at first glance his 18 points pales in comparison to the 31 Dalton Knecht scored in that game, SC's 35% from 3 was much more effective than UT's 24%. Cooper was the engine behind that effort. 
  • One of the Gamecocks' weaknesses is failure to get to the line effectively--dead last in the SEC in FGA as a percentage of their offense. But in the previous game between these teams, USC was dominant at the line as well, with BJ Mack leading the way on 7-8 shooting from the stripe. 
  • Tennessee shot just 60% from the line in that game, and could've won had they shot as well as Carolina did from the line that night. 
  • Myles Stute wasn't supposed to play in that first matchup with a shoulder injury, but came off the bench with 13 points on 3/3 shooting from 3 and 4/4 at the line. He's been out again with a knee sprain, but it sounds like he will be available Wednesday. 
I dare you to figure out this South Carolina team. They are ranked #17 in the AP poll, but the computers show them no love, appearing in the mid-low 40s in most CPU rankings. In fact, look at the win probability chart from the first time UT played USC: 

In a real-time analysis of the game state and taking both teams into account, and with the Gamecocks leading for nearly the entire game, the formula resisted giving South Carolina better than a 50% chance to win until the last 10 minutes of the game. And it took until the last five minutes to keep the win prob. in USC's favor. Yet against the odds and logic, South Carolina won, and now the Gamecocks enter the last week of the season with a shot at the crown and an "us against the world" mentality that is always a powerful motivator. 

But the Vols are motivated, too. So while it's tempting to look at USC's 10-3 record against quad 1&2 teams and think of them as criminally underrated, you've also got to consider that just three of those wins come against quad 1 teams (SC is 3-3 vs Q1, UT is 6-5). South Carolina has mostly dodged the top of the SEC as well, other than this rematch against Tennessee, the Cocks only played each of the other title contenders once (beating UT and Kentucky but losing to Auburn and Alabama) The Vols are more battle-hardened. The odds say Tennessee should win this game. And while Carolina beat those odds once this season, I don't see them doing it again. 

Prediction: Tennessee 76, South Carolina 69
Mediocre Betting Advice: KenPom has the game as a five-point UT win. The betting line is Vols -5.5. The total is 139.5, which seems low, but this series has had some crazy low totals, and it's 50/50 on which side wins. Maybe I'm being a homer here, but this feels like a game where Tennessee asserts themselves to take the SEC title and further their case for a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Tennessee -5.5 and over 139.5.
Prediction Record YTD: 11-4 SU, 9-6 ATS, 8-5-1 O/U


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