Kentucky Wildcats vs. Vanderbilt Commodores
Line: Kentucky -8.5
Where: Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, Tennessee
When: Friday, 3/10 at 9:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
No. 6 seed Vanderbilt will try to continue building what is starting to resemble an NCAA Tournament resume when it faces No. 3 seed Kentucky in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament on Friday night.
The Commodores kept their bubble hopes alive with their 77-68 win against LSU in the second round on Thursday night, winning for the fourth straight time and the ninth time in their last 10 games. Their lone loss during that stretch came at LSU on Feb. 22, so they were able to avenge that setback.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had Vanderbilt among his ‘Next Four Out’ heading into Friday night, so the Commodores still have work to be done. They will have to beat Kentucky for the second time this month after stunning the Wildcats as 10-point underdogs in Lexington last Wednesday.
Oddsmakers opened Kentucky as a 5.5-point favorite for the third meeting between these teams this season, but the early betting action quickly pushed that spread to -7.5. By early Saturday afternoon, most spots had UK at -8.5.
The total opened at 146 points before dipping to 144.5, as of late Friday morning.
Kentucky begins its quest for an SEC Tournament title after winning five of its final six games during the regular season, with the lone loss coming to Vanderbilt. The Wildcats closed their campaign with an 88-79 win as 5-point underdogs at Arkansas on Saturday, covering the spread for the fifth time in six games.
Antonio Reeves poured in a career-high 37 points, while Oscar Tshiebwe posted a double-double with 12 points and 13 rebounds. The Wildcats have already done enough to clinch an NCAA Tournament bid, projected to be a No. 6 seed in Lunardi’s latest update.
They rank No. 14 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings and have the third-highest offensive rebounding rate in college basketball. It all starts with Tshiebwe, the reigning national player of the year, who is averaging 16.4 points and 13.1 rebounds per game. He finished with 21 points and 20 rebounds in the loss to Vanderbilt last week.
“He’s a load down there, but our guys just continued to battle,” Vanderbilt coach Jerry Stackhouse said following that game. “We still have a lot of basketball ahead of us, but we’re just happy about tonight, coming in, having something to play for this time of the year. And beating the King at its house is pretty special.”
They will have to do it without SEC Defensive Player of the Year Liam Robbins on Friday night, as he suffered a season-ending leg injury in that second meeting with Kentucky. He leads Vanderbilt in scoring (15.0), rebounding (6.8) and blocked shots (3.2).
Jordan Wright stepped up with 15 points and 15 rebounds on Thursday night, while Tyrin Lawrence finished with a team-high 22 points on 6 of 7 shooting from the floor and 9 of 11 from the charity stripe. The Commodores rank No. 23 in adjusted offensive efficiency due to a low turnover rate and high offensive rebounding percentage, despite being outside the top 180 in 3-point percentage (33.8), 2-point percentage (48.6) and free-throw percentage (70.7).
DraftKings has Kentucky at +400 to win the SEC Tournament, giving the Wildcats the third-shortest odds behind Alabama (+150) and Tennessee (+340). Vanderbilt is a 30-1 longshot at the bottom of the market.
The Commodores have covered the spread in eight of their last nine games, going ‘over’ the total in four of their last five. Kentucky has gone ‘over’ in eight of its last 11 games, but it has gone ‘under’ in 13 of its last 20 against Vanderbilt.
The pick: Kentucky -8.5
It’s actually a little easier to lay a spread like this in an elimination game, as Vanderbilt is more likely to foul down by seven or eight points with 30 seconds left than it would be in the regular season. I don’t expect it to come down to that though, as the Commodores are going to have a lot of trouble slowing down Kentucky without Robbins. He missed the first meeting between these teams, resulting in a blowout win for the Wildcats in Nashville several months ago. The Commodores have been a great story to follow during their late-season surge, but they are ultimately going to come up short of the Big Dance anyway. Kentucky will dominate the boards against a shorthanded Vanderbilt team that is playing for the second time in 24 hours.