IHTIT: Tennessee Vols vs. Saint Peter's Peacocks NCAA Tournament Preview (3/21/24)

It's March Madness Time in Tennessee: Following a regular season title clinching win against South Carolina on March 6, Tennessee (24-8, 14-4 SEC, 13-8 vs. Quad 1&2) has turned in a couple of... we'll say uninspired performances, losing to Kentucky on senior day and to Mississippi State in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament. But this is the Big Dance, and whatever you've done to this point--both good and bad--are out the window as each game becomes a one-game season, and survive and advance becomes the mantra. That's true too for the Vols' first-round opponent Saint Peter's (18-13, 12-8 MAAC, 0-3 vs. Quad 1&2). The Peacocks limped into their conference tournament as a 5-seed, barely over .500 in conference play, but pulled off three straight Ws to claim the Metro Atlantic's auto-bid. 

This will be the second all-time meeting between the schools. Tennessee won the one previous meeting 54-40 in the first round of the 1984 NIT. 

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  • I'll expound on this in a bit, but St. Peter's doesn't score. The one true offensive threat they have is All-MAAC 1st-teamer Corey Washington, who in addition to being an all-around good shooter, is particularly adept at drawing fouls and shoots 80% from the line. 
  • Similar to a Rick Barnes team, St. Peter's is a defensive-minded squad. Senior guard Latrell Reid is the MAAC defensive player of the year and recorded eight steals against UMBC earlier this year, the most by a MAAC player in 2024. 
  • Not pictured is Peacock freshman guard Armoni Zeigler, Zakai's brother, a fact that if you didn't already know, will be repeated ad nauseum by the broadcast crew Thursday night, I'm sure. Armoni is a solid contributor for Saint Peter's, and even started several games for the Peacocks in the middle of the season. Here he is with a SportsCenter Top 10 dunk against Manhattan in January: 

There was a certain sense of dread seeing Saint Peter's as Tennessee's draw for round 1. The Peacocks were the darling of the tournament a couple of years ago and Vol fans got no end of enjoyment from seeing Kentucky fall to a school whose athletic budget could be covered by John Calipari's pocket change. Now, this previously unknown Jesuit school from New Jersey is a known giant killer, and the Vols haven't played their best basketball in weeks. Pardon the BVS, but this seems like a recipe for a particularly Big Orange disaster. 

But this isn't that Saint Peter's squad. There are some holdovers on the roster, but outside of Reid, none of them got meaningful playing time in '22. That '22 team sprinted into the MAAC tournament as the #2 seed winning 7 of their last 10 games. This year's club limped into the conference tourney a #5 seed, barely going .500 in their last 10. Heck in 2022 Saint Peter's played Division III school Nyack and won by 40, this year's club barely survived DIII Keane, winning by just 3 points. The coach is different, but the teams have similar styles: smothering defense and plodding offense. But when you look at the numbers: 

I'm not going to pretend to know how statistically significant those numerical differences are. But I can be convinced the #25 defense, alongside a semi-functional offense, can pose a problem in the tournament for just about anybody (and in 2022, it did). I'm not convinced that the #75 defense, when paired with an offense that amounts to a dead body floating in a flooded ditch, will resemble anything like the Cinderella Peacocks from two years ago. 

The best case scenario for Saint Peter's is to make this a slow, methodical, plodding game. But even in that worst-case scenario for UT, do you not think the Vols can out-plod the Peacocks? A year ago Tennessee was maligned by national media for dragging Duke down into the mud, and while the irony of UT losing this game the same way would be incredible, I don't see the #75 defense nationally beating the #3 defense at their own game. As long as the Vols get scoring from Dalton Knecht, or anyone really, Tennessee will win this game easily.

Prediction: Tennessee 75, Saint Peter's 54
Mediocre Betting Advice: I'm not a fan of this line (Vols -21.5) or the total (129.5). Kenpom has UT winning by 19. It's entirely possible that UT runs Saint Peter's out of the gym and wins by 25, 30, or more. It's also possible that two defensive-minded teams shooting in an unfamiliar gym struggle to generate points which makes the under 129.5 seem likely). Tennessee could win this game by 15 and never really feel in danger. I'm in the weird position of thinking UT wins comfortably, but still needing to take Saint Peter's +21.5, just because it's so many points
Prediction Record YTD: 12-5 SU, 10-7 ATS, 9-6-1 O/U


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