Tennessee Vols vs. Florida Atlantic Owls
Line: Tennessee -5.5
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York City, New York
When: Thursday, 3/23 at 9:00 p.m. ET
No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic might be considered a “Cinderella” team in the 2023 NCAA Tournament, but the Owls are 33-3 and a top-25 KenPom team for a reason.
They advanced past No. 8 seed Memphis in the opening round of the Big Dance before taking advantage of an opportunistic draw when No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson took down top-seeded Purdue. FAU will face its toughest opponent of the season on Thursday night against defensive-minded No. 4 seed Tennessee in the Sweet 16.
The Vols struggled down the stretch of the regular season, but they put those issues in the past with a 65-52 win over No. 5 seed Duke on Saturday. Their physical style of basketball attracted scrutiny from national college basketball experts.
“We’re a tough, hard-nosed team. That’s how we play everybody,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “But knowing that (Duke) had a lot of freshmen, we knew that if we come in and apply more pressure and be tough and physical, then they would have to deal with it.”
Oddsmakers opened Tennessee as a 5.5-point favorite once the matchup was set on Sunday night. The line briefly dipped to -5, but it returned to -5.5 as of Tuesday afternoon. Thursday night’s total opened at 131 before moving slightly down to 130.5. That’s where those numbers remained on Wednesday morning, with FAU at +210 on the money line at both Circa and the Westgate SuperBook.
Tennessee has gone ‘under’ in eight of its last 11 games as a favorite.
The Vols are KenPom’s top-ranked defensive team in college basketball, allowing the third-fewest points per game (57.8). They forced 15 turnovers in their upset win over Duke, while senior forward Olivier Nkahmhoua scored 27 points on 10 of 13 shooting.
Tennessee needed someone to step up offensively after losing starting point guard Zakai Zeigler to a season-ending knee injury late in the regular season. Senior guard Santiago Vescovi leads the way with 12.7 points and 4.6 rebounds per game, while Nkamhoua and Josiah-Jordan James are both in double figures as well. Vescovi buried two key 3-pointers during a run midway through the second half that gave UT some separation from the Blue Devils.
This will be a clash of styles, as Florida Atlantic ranks No. 32 in scoring (78.4), No. 18 in 3-point attempts per game (26.4) and has six players who have attempted more than 100 triples this season. The Owls also like to push the pace, whereas Tennessee ranks No. 240 in average possession length.
“We never felt like we were a Cinderella story because of our record, because of the players in that locker room,” FAU head coach Dusty May said.
Florida Atlantic looked rattled at times against Fairleigh Dickinson, but it ultimately had too much talent and firepower. Sophomore guard Johnell Davis had 29 points, a career-high 12 rebounds and five assists for the Owls, who shot just 9 of 31 from 3-point range and 11 of 18 from the charity stripe. They are facing the top-ranked 3-point defense (26.4%) in college basketball on Thursday night.
Tennessee has gone ‘under’ in four of its last six games, while Florida Atlantic has gone ‘under’ in four of its last five. The Owls are 2-13 in their last 15 games against SEC teams, but they are 4-1 against the spread in their last five games as underdogs and are 6-3 ATS in their last nine games overall. They won outright at Florida but lost at Ole Miss earlier this season.
The pick: Tennessee -5.5
It’s rare for this to be the case for a Sweet 16 team, but Florida Atlantic has only faced one top-35 KenPom team this season (Memphis at No. 20). The Owls certainly haven’t seen a defense that is even close to Tennessee’s level, especially from a physicality standpoint. I think this a nightmare matchup for an undersized (No. 329 in height), offensive-minded mid-major school. While I’m not ready to completely forget what happened at the end of the regular season, Tennessee looked more like its early-season self in the dominant second half against Duke. The Vols have the tempo, defense and size to control the way this game is played, and Florida Atlantic’s reliance on outside shooting is going to be an issue against the top perimeter defense in the country. Tennessee has allowed 57 points or fewer in five of its last seven games while quietly knocking down at least 45% of its shots in six of those outings.