IHTIT: Tennessee Vols vs. Kentucky Wildcats Basketball Preview (3/9/24)

It's Senior Day In Tennessee: Colin Coyne, Dalton Knecht, Josiah-Jordan James, and Santiago Vescovi will all be celebrated in their final home game for Tennessee (24-6, 13-3 SEC, 13-6 vs Quad 1&2). It should be an especially emotional send off for Santi and JJJ, who have each been with the program for so long it seems like they would've played their first games in Stokley. Of course, emotions are always high when Kentucky (22-8, 12-5 SEC, 7-7 Quad 1&2) comes to town, and this time the Cats are looking to avenge a 103-92 loss to the Vols a month ago. Plus, the crowd will be charged with the energy of celebrating Tennessee's first outright SEC regular-season title since 2008, clinched Wednesday at South Carolina. It should be a veritable glass case of emotion. 

UT's win at Rupp didn't put much of a dent in the 78-160 deficit the Vols have in this series. But Tennessee's 52-59 record against UK at home doesn't look nearly as bad, despite UT winning just two of the last five against the Cats in Knoxville. 

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

  • Dillingham, Reeves, and Sheppard are all top-100 nationally in 3-point %, with Sheppard being #2 overall. 
  • Sheppard is also top-10 in effective FG% and total shooting %, as well as steal %, while being top-100 in offensive rating.
  • Reeves is top-100 in eFG%, TS%, and ORtg. 
  • Dillingham is #43 nationally in 3FG%, and top-100 in assist rate. 
  • What I'm saying is, these guys play offense. 
Kentucky shoots well and plays fast--the #1 eFG% in the SEC/#5 nationally with an average possession time of less than 16 seconds. The Cats out-dueled the SEC's other top offense two weeks ago, beating Alabama 117-95. That game was part of a strong run UK has been on after dropping three in a row at Rupp earlier this season: the Cats are 7-1 in the SEC since losing to the Vols on February 3. 

Once Tennessee beat South Carolina Wednesday night, the importance of this game seemed diminished. After all, the SEC title is clinched and UT has already beat Kentucky this year. What is there to play for? But, you know, it's Kentucky. And it's senior day. There is pride on the line, as well as a chance for Tennessee to not just win the SEC but dominate it. In a year that many have called the strongest SEC ever, to clear first place by two or three games rather than squeaking by would be an absolute statement. And to send these seniors out with a win against the hated Cats would make this arguably the best Tennessee basketball regular season, ever. 

Playing around with some numbers on KenPom, it turns out that when Tennessee shoots well from three, they tend to win. That is not surprising. What is interesting, though, is that 2-point shooting is one of the most highly correlated stats for Kentucky's wins. All of UK's eight losses come in their 10 worst 2-point shooting performances. Tennessee, statistically, has the #6 best defense at defending 2-point shots. So while UK will almost certainly get a fair share of points from downtown, it's inside the arc that Tennessee has a winning edge. 

There's a chance that the emotion of senior day, a little bit of a let-down after clinching the title, and a highly-motivated Kentucky squad with a powerful offense becomes too much for the Vols to handle Saturday. But it's more likely that UT takes care of business. 

Prediction: Tennessee 89, Kentucky 77
Mediocre Betting Advice: My feeling is that if the emotion of Saturday doesn't sink the Vols, it will boost them to a runaway victory. I didn't expect the book to see it that way too, and I was a little surprised by the 8.5-point spread. KenPom has the game as a 9-point Vol victory, and these teams have more than enough scoring ability to carry the 164.5 total. Tennessee -8.5 and over 164.5.
Prediction Record YTD: 12-4 SU, 10-6 ATS, 8-6-1 O/U


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