SEC/Big 12 Challenge: Texas at Tennessee

SEC/Big 12 Challenge: Texas at Tennessee

Tennessee Volunteers vs. Texas Longhorns

Line: Tennessee -5.5

Total: 134.5

Where: Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville, Tennessee

When: Saturday, 1/28 at 6:00 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes will face his former team when the No. 4 Vols host No. 10 Texas in a highly anticipated orange-and-white battle on Saturday night.

ESPN’s College GameDay is traveling to Knoxville for the Big 12/SEC Challenge matchup at Thompson-Boling Arena. The two programs met last year for the first time since Barnes was fired by Texas in 2015 after 17 seasons—Texas picked up a 52-51 win as a 4-point home favorite in a game that sailed ‘under’ the total of 125.5.

DraftKings opened Tennessee as an 8-point favorite on Friday afternoon, while the total opened at 135. By late Friday night, most books had the Volunteers down to -6.5, but the number was down to 5.5 early Saturday morning. The total was bumped up to 136 points late Friday, only to be lowered to 134.5 by early Saturday.

The Longhorns have gone ‘over’ in nine of their last 12 games overall and eight of their last 11 on the road. Tennessee has gone ‘under’ in 12 of its 20 games this season, including six out of 10 at home.

Those trends do a good job of explaining the way these teams play, as Texas brings its high-powered offense on the road to face the top defense in the country. KenPom has Tennessee ranked first in adjusted defensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage and 3-point percentage.

“We’ll play the best defensive team in the country on Saturday,” Longhorns interim coach Rodney Terry said. “Coach Barnes, he’s like family to me. He’s a mentor, someone I stay in close contact with on a regular basis. It’s gonna be a great game. It’s gonna be a great atmosphere.”

Tennessee has won eight of its last nine games coming into this matchup, cruising to a 70-41 win over Georgia on Wednesday as a 16.5-point favorite. The Vols have now covered the spread in three straight games, which included wins over Mississippi State and LSU.

Their defense held Georgia to just 29.1% shooting from the floor and a 4 of 22 mark from beyond the arc, marking the Bulldogs’ lowest scoring output of the season. Tennessee has won 11 games by at least 20 points, which is tied for the most in that category in school history.

Offensively, the Vols aren’t flashy, ranked No. 40 in efficiency and No. 141 in effective field goal percentage. They had nine different players score at least five points against Georgia, paced by Zakai Zeigler’s 11 points. Senior guard Santiago Vescovi leads the team with 12.2 points and 4.2 rebounds per game, shooting 35.2% from beyond the arc.

“Once we settled in, we’ve got an unselfish team,” Barnes said. “We had talked about, coming into the game, defensively what we needed to do better. We still think we’ve got a ways to go there.”

The Vols will certainly have a chance to prove something to their head coach on Saturday, as Texas ranks No. 12 in adjusted offensive efficiency. The Longhorns are a top-15 team from 2-point range (56.2), but they are barely inside the top 200 in 3-point percentage (33.4). They are the eighth-most experienced team in the country, which has allowed them to overcome the firing of head coach Chris Beard due to a domestic violence matter.

Their latest win came in an 89-75 final against Oklahoma State, as veteran guard Marcus Carr poured in 21 points and big man Timmy Allen added 17, helping the Longhorns cover the 8-point spread and sweep the season series. They led for all but the first two minutes of the game and never let Oklahoma State get within six points in the second half.

Texas has gone 8-2 under Terry’s guidance, although it has only covered the spread four times during that stretch. Carr leads the team with 17.6 points per game, while Allen (10.7), Tyrese Hunter (10.3) and Sir’Jabari Rice (10.0) are each in double figures as well.

The Longhorns have failed to cover the spread in five straight meetings with SEC opponents and has gone 5-10 ATS in their last 15 games this season. Tennessee is 5-2 ATS in its last seven games and 5-1 ATS in its last six games against Big 12 teams.

The pick: Texas +5.5

I’d be surprised if Tennessee doesn’t ultimately find a way to win this game, but I’m not seeing any value on the Vols with a spread this large. Texas is one of the most experienced teams in the country and has been outstanding offensively, which makes it tough to win by a large margin against the Longhorns. They have only lost two games by double digits and have a pair of top-10 wins under their belt. Tennessee struggled with a high-scoring Arizona team last month and had a letdown showing against Kentucky in front of a loud home crowd two weeks ago, so I think Texas has some value as a three-possession underdog on Saturday night.

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