Betting Preview and Prediction: Tennessee at Kentucky

Tennessee forward John Fulkerson had a game-high 27 points to lead the Vols to an 81-73 win at Rupp Arena last season.

Tennessee Volunteers vs. Kentucky Wildcats

Line: Tennessee -4

Total: 124.5

Where: Rupp Arena

When: Saturday, 2/6, at 8:00 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

No. 11 Tennessee might be viewed as “inconsistent” over the last few weeks, but the betting market tells a different story.

Sure, the Vols won and easily covered as 3.5-point favorites in an 80-61 blowout over Kansas in the Big 12/SEC Challenge last weekend. Outside of that, it’s been four games where Tennessee didn’t come within five points of covering the number.

Perhaps the most frustrating of those games for Rick Barnes and his staff was Tuesday’s 52-50 loss at Ole Miss. The Vols controlled the game from the onset, but the offense went ice cold down the stretch, allowing Ole Miss bettors to cash in on the outright upset.

Now Tennessee must go to a place that has been a house of horrors historically. Kentucky has won 17 of the last 20 meetings between these teams at Rupp Arena.

“They’re still Kentucky,” Tennessee assistant coach Desmond Oliver said. “No one is going in there thinking that because of their record or whatever that they’re not a team that can go out there and blow you out and beat you pretty badly.”

The Vols opened as 4-point road favorites at Circa Sports in Las Vegas on Friday afternoon. Barring a major line move, this will be only the second time they have ever been favored at Rupp Arena.

Two of Tennessee’s three road wins in the series (since 2000) have come in the last three years. The Vols won as 2-point underdogs in 2018 and pulled off an 81-73 upset as 8.5-point ‘dogs last season.

They will be hoping to avoid falling to .500 in SEC play on Saturday night. Kentucky, meanwhile, has a chance to get back to .500 in conference play with a win.

The Wildcats are coming off consecutive losses at No. 9 Alabama and No. 18 Missouri, failing to cover the spread in both games. Their last home game was an 82-69 win against LSU two weeks ago.

Kentucky’s struggles this season have been well-documented. John Calipari’s team is No. 299 nationally in effective field goal percentage and is No. 284 in turnover rate. The Wildcats do not shoot the ball well from any spot on the floor.

They are up against a wall in this game, as Tennessee brings the nation’s No. 1 defense to Lexington. The Vols are No. 15 in opponent’s effective field goal percentage and are No. 11 in turnover rate. Kentucky could have an edge on the glass, though.

The Wildcats are No. 35 in offensive rebounding percentage and Tennessee has struggled to rebound over the last few weeks. Those struggles could become a real issue against the fifth-tallest team in college basketball.

Freshman guard Brandon Boston Jr. leads Kentucky with 12.0 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. He is only hitting 36.7 percent of his attempts from the floor, though. Five-star freshman Terrence Clark has been out for nine games due to an ankle injury and is listed as ‘questionable’ for Saturday’s game.

Kentucky’s defense has been the only thing keeping them in games this season. They rank No. 13 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. Tennessee turned the ball over 16 times at Ole Miss, so the turnover battle will be important on Saturday.

The Vols’ two players averaging double digits are senior forward John Fulkerson (11.0) and junior guard Victor Bailey Jr. (10.4). Fulkerson poured in 27 points as the Vols rallied from a 13-point deficit last season.

Kentucky is 1-5 ATS in its last six games, including a 1-4 ATS mark in its last five home games. The Vols are 1-4 ATS in their last five outings, but they have covered at an 8-4 clip in the last 12 meetings between these teams.

The pick: Kentucky +4

I’ll take the points in what should be considered a toss-up game. The Wildcats have not been good this season, but their defense is more than capable of slowing down a stagnant Tennessee offense. They also have the length to give Tennessee tons of issues on the glass, much like they did during a late comeback against Missouri. The Vols are capable of winning this game by double digits, but their recent form is way too inconsistent to trust. I expect this one to come down to the final possession.

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