Tennessee Vols vs. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns
Line: Tennessee -11
Where: Amway Center, Orlando, Florida
When: Thursday, 3/16 at 9:40 p.m. ET
Fourth-seeded Tennessee has plenty of things to put in the rearview mirror when it faces No. 13 seed Louisiana in the opening round of the 2023 NCAA Tournament on Thursday night.
The Vols have struggled to advance past the first weekend in eight seasons under head coach Rick Barnes, making the Sweet 16 just once (2019). They lost seven of their final 12 games heading into the Big Dance, along with losing point guard and Naismith Defensive Player of the Year semifinalist Zakai Zeigler.
“We have to rely on each other a whole lot more,” veteran wing Josiah-Jordan James said. “We don’t have one distinguished point guard. We’re trying to do it by committee, so we have to take that challenge on as a group with the guards. We have to share the ball like he did, and we have to do it as a collective.”
Zeigler was Tennessee’s second-leading scorer (10.7 points per game) behind senior guard Santiago Vescovi (12.9). Despite his loss, oddsmakers still opened the Vols as 14-point favorites when the bracket was revealed on Sunday night. Bettors quickly pounced on that line, driving it down to -10.5 before it ticked back up to -11.5, and now back down to 11 this morning.
The Vols are 4-8 against the spread in their last 12 games, but Louisiana is 0-7 ATS in its last seven games against SEC opponents. Thursday night’s total opened at 136.5, and it was down slightly to 136 points early this morning. Louisiana has gone ‘under’ in five of its last six games.
Tennessee will welcome a low-scoring game with open arms on Thursday, as it relies on a defense that ranks second in adjusted efficiency and first in 3-point percentage (26.2). It creates an intriguing matchup due to Louisiana’s tendency to get hot from the perimeter.
The Ragin’ Cajuns are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014 after winning the Sun Belt Tournament title game against South Alabama. They only faced one major-conference team during the regular season, losing to Texas in a 100-72 blowout as 17.5-point underdogs.
Junior forward Jordan Brown, a former McDonald’s All-American, leads Louisiana with 19.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. He shot 57% from the floor this season while posting 10 double-doubles, leading an offense that is No. 54 in effective field goal percentage (53.0) and No. 31 in offensive rebounding rate. They will be at a height disadvantage on Thursday night, ranked No. 270 compared to Tennessee at No. 138.
The Vols rank fifth in the nation on the offensive glass, which has softened the blow of an effective field goal percentage that is No. 196 (50.3). Their late-season struggles continued in the SEC Tournament when they lost to Missouri as 5.5-point favorites, despite Vescovi scoring 17 points and shooting 5 of 9 from 3-point range.
“Granted, we’ve had some tough losses, but we don’t really listen to the outside noise,” James said. “We have all the fuel, all the motivation we need because we know we have to go down there and get the job done.”
Brown does most of the heavy lifting for Louisiana, but senior guard Greg Williams Jr. (13.1) and senior forward Terence Lewis II (11.0 points, 7.5 rebounds) are key contributors as well. They will need to ramp up their defensive intensity, as they are No. 283 in 3-point percentage (35.9) and No. 148 in adjusted efficiency.
The pick: Tennessee -11.5
It is understandable why Tennessee is not generating a ton of national optimism heading into the tournament, but this is not a particularly concerning matchup for the Vols. They have one of the best one-on-one defenders in the country in Jahmai Mashack, who has already shut down several future NBA stars this season. He’ll likely get a good amount of run guarding Brown on Thursday night. Tennessee’s issue has been scoring the ball, but it is facing a subpar, smaller defensive team in this game, and the Ragin’ Cajuns have not been able to defend the perimeter. Vescovi’s sharpshooting will open up the paint for a plethora of Tennessee big men, giving the Vols some easy buckets to get into a rhythm. Louisiana was blown out by Texas early in the year, and it has gone winless ATS in its last seven games against SEC teams. I expect Tennessee’s size and defense to disrupt Louisiana throughout the evening, covering up some of the issues that the Vols have against elite teams.