Florida Gators vs. Tennessee Vols
Line: Tennessee -6
Where: Stephen C. O’Connell Center, Gainesville, Florida
When: Wednesday, 2/1 at 7:00 p.m. ET
No. 2 Tennessee will be looking to extend its four-game winning streak when it travels to Florida for an SEC battle on Wednesday night.
The Vols have won nine of their last 10 games, moving up in the polls and establishing themselves as a legitimate Final Four candidate. Their latest showing was an 82-71 win over then-No. 10 Texas on Saturday during the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, as they led for most of the game and easily covered the closing spread of -5.
“Right now, I love this team,” head coach Rick Barnes said. “We’ve got a chance to be as good as we want to be.”
Florida will be motivated for another opportunity to record a resume-building win, as the Gators are coming off a 64-50 loss to then-No. 5 Kansas State. They had won five of their six games coming into that contest, but they are just 12-9 (5-3 SEC) overall this season.
Things are not going to get any easier on Wednesday night, as Tennessee leads the nation in scoring defense (54.5) and defensive field goal percentage (34.5). The Vols opened as 5-point favorites in this matchup at offshore sportsbook BetOnline on Tuesday afternoon, but the number was quickly adjusted to six. Wednesday night’s total opened at 131 points, which is a half-point higher than the total from last January when Tennessee picked up a 78-71 win as a 10-point home favorite.
The Vols have won four straight games by double digits since their stunning loss to Kentucky 2.5 weeks ago. Guard Zakai Zeigler averaged 16.5 points, 8.5 assists, 3.0 steals and 2.5 rebounds in wins over Georgia and Texas last week, earning SEC Player of the Week honors. He had 22 points and 10 assists in the win over the Longhorns.
“We’re big on playing like grown men,” Zeigler said. “That’s what’s going around the locker room a lot. That we’ve just gotta be out there and be grown men. We can’t let anyone out-physical us. That was one of the key points for us to win this game (vs. Texas).”
Tennessee’s physicality has certainly paid dividends on the defensive end, but it has also led to an offensive rebounding percentage that ranks second nationally in KenPom’s metrics. The Vols will be looking to clean up a turnover rate that is No. 240 and shoot better from 3-point range (33.9). They are facing a Florida defense that is sitting at No. 10 in defensive field goal percentage and No. 8 in adjusted efficiency, according to KenPom.
The Gators need more from an offense that is No. 237 in effective field goal percentage (49.4) and No. 302 in offensive rebounding. They scored a season-low 50 points against Kansas State on Saturday, shooting just 4 of 22 from 3-point range.
“We got some looks,” Florida coach Todd Golden said. “I thought we should’ve shot the ball a little better than we did. It’s been a little bit of an Achilles heel for us on the road, whether it be Auburn, Texas A&M, tonight.”
Florida is led by veteran forward Colin Castleton, who is averaging an SEC-best 3.2 blocks per game and is just four blocks away from passing Joakim Noah on the school’s all-time shot block list. He is averaging team-highs in points (14.9) and rebounds (7.6) as well. Sophomore guard Will Richard is the only other player scoring in double figures, chipping in 10.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
Tennessee has won seven of the last eight meetings between these teams, covering the spread in six of those contests. The Vols have only covered once in their last five trips to Florida, though. They have gone ‘under’ in four of their last six head-to-head meetings.
Florida has been playing low-scoring games all season, cashing the ‘under’ in 11 of its last 13 games. The Gators are 5-1 ATS in their last six games, while Tennessee is 4-1 ATS in its last five games.
The pick: Tennessee -6
This spread opened a tad lower than I expected, especially with KenPom predicting a 68-60 win for the Vols. This is simply not a good matchup for a Florida team that has not proven it can keep pace with the teams in the upper echelon of college basketball. The Gators only have one win over a top-25 team this season, which came against then-No. 20 Missouri earlier this month. Tennessee continues to be a low-variance team due to its strong defense, as the Vols have only had a few poor showings all season. This has allowed them to be very profitable in the betting market, and I would not expect that to change against a Florida team that they have handled over the last four seasons.