Vols are small favorites vs Creighton in Sweet 16

Vols are small favorites vs Creighton in Sweet 16

As of Friday morning, most books had the second-seeded Tennesse Volunteers (26-8 straight up, 17-16-1 against the spread) installed as three-point favorites vs. third-seeded Creighton in Friday’s Midwest Region semifinals. The total was 144 points and the Bluejays were +125 on the money line at a lot of spots, but they were +135 at the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas.

Most shops opened Tennessee as a two-point favorite with a total of 142.5 late Saturday night. These teams will square off at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit in the second game of the evening session at around 10:10 p.m. Eastern on TBS.

The Vols are in the Sweet 16 for a second straight season and the third time in Rick Barnes’s nine-year tenure thanks to Saturday’s 62-58 win over Texas as 6.5-point favorites at Spectrum Center in Charlotte. The 120 combined points went ‘under’ the 144.5-point total.

Dalton Knecht and Jonas Aidoo buried six consecutive clutch free throws, including three front ends of one-and-one opportunities, in the final 25 seconds. Knecht finished with 18 points and nine rebounds, but he made only 5-of-18 field-goal attempts, 1-of-8 launches from 3-point range and had more turnovers (three) than assists (one).

Tobe Awaka gave Tennessee a huge lift in his 11 minutes off the bench, contributing 10 points, five rebounds and one blocked shot. Aidoo produced 11 points, four rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots, while Josiah-Jordan James had nine points and nine boards.

Zakai Zeigler struggled with his shot, too, hitting just 2-of-12 FGAs and 1-of-8 from 3-point range. He had six points, three steals and seven assists compared to four turnovers.

The good news is that the Vols survived despite a disastrous 3-of-25 shooting (12.0%) effort from beyond the arc. They made only 22-of-65 FGAs (33.8%) but had a 42-36 rebounding advantage had twice as many offensive boards (14) as the Longhorns (7).

The bad news for Tennessee is that its offense has been limited to 56 (vs. Mississippi St.) and 62 points in two of its last three games. That sort of offensive ineptitude is what’s led to the Vols’ demise in so many NCAA Tournament exits in recent years.

Like Tennessee in its SEC Tournament quarterfinals loss to Mississippi St., Creighton (25-9 SU, 19-15 ATS) also bowed out of the Big East Tournament in its first game, a 78-73 setback vs. Providence.

Nevertheless, both teams responded and took advantage of fresh legs to win a pair of games last weekend and advance to Motown this weekend.

Greg McDermott’s team pulled away from Akron early in the second half, building its lead to as many as 20 points on the way to a 77-60 win as an 11.5-point favorite. The 137 combined points fell ‘under’ the 143.5-point total.

In Saturday’s late game in Pittsburgh, Creighton went on a 4-0 run in the final 28 seconds thanks to two free throws from Baylor Scheierman and a mid-range jumper with 13 seconds left to tie the score at 62-62 and send the game into overtime.

At the line to shoot a front end with 27 ticks remaining with Oregon leading by two, N’Faly Dante missed to set up Scheierman’s tying bucket. The Ducks’ Jermaine Cousinard missed a potential game winner at the end of regulation.

After Creighton’s Steven Ashworth put his team ahead 71-68 with a pair of made free throws with 28 seconds left, Cousinard answered with a deep, well-contested 3-pointer to tie the game again with 18 ticks left.

Creighton’s potential game winner from Tyson Alexander at the end of overtime was off the mark, sending the game to double OT.

At this point, gamblers on ‘under’ 148 points were in a world of trouble. Likewise, the Bluejays appeared to be the fresher team, and they still had a chance to cover as four-point favorites.

And that’s exactly what happened. Ashworth and Ryan Kalkbrenner drained back-to-back buckets from downtown to start the second extra session with a 6-0 run for Creighton. The Bluejays extended their lead with a Jasen Green dunk, two free throws from Ashworth and two more from Alexander.

Despite spectacular efforts from Cousinard (32 points, eight rebounds, three assists and two blocks) and Dante (28 points, 20 rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks) for the Ducks, Creighton advanced with an 86-73 double-OT win that hooked its backers up with a miracle cover as a four-point favorite.

In last year’s Sweet 16, Tennessee lost a 62-55 decision to FAU at Madison Square Garden in New York City. On the flip side, the Bluejays buried Princeton 86-75 before losing 57-56 vs. San Diego St. on a late free throw by the Aztecs in the Elite Eight.

KenPom has Creighton ranked 11th in the nation in offensive efficiency, third in effective field-goal percentage (57.4%), third in two-point percentage (59.7%), 11th in free-throw percentage (78.4%) and #32 in 3-point accuracy (36.6%).

KenPom has the Bluejays at #23 in defensive efficiency and #10 in defensive effective FG percentage.

Tennessee is ranked #3 nationally at KenPom in defensive efficiency and #4 in defensive effective FG percentage. KenPom has the Vols ranked #29 in offensive efficiency and #24 in pace.

Creighton is #182 in pace. Totals have been an overall wash for the Bluejays, with the ‘over’ and ‘under’ both cashing 17 times apiece. With that said, the ‘over’ has hit at an 11-5 clip for McDermott’s squad in its last 16 outings.

The ‘over’ is 17-16-1 overall for Tennessee, but the ‘under’ is on an 8-2 roll in its last 10 games.

The Vols are 6-7-1 ATS in 14 games as single-digit favorites, but 18 of their 26 wins have been by double-digit margins. In fact, all 26 UT victories have been by at least four points.

Creighton has been an underdog only three times, going 1-2 both SU and ATS. However, the one win – an 85-66 victory over UConn as a 2.5-point home ‘dog – was extremely impressive.

Tennessee is 4-3 SU but 2-5 ATS in seven games played on neutral courts this year, while Creighton is 3-3 both SU and ATS in six games at neutral venues.

The Vols have been to the Elite Eight only once (2010) in program history, going an abysmal 1-9 in 10 previous Sweet 16 appearances.

Things to Watch:

1-Zakai Zeigler’s relentless defensive on-ball pressure can wear down opponents. Point guards hate when they’re guarded for 70-plus feet by quicker defenders, and that’s what Creighton’s Ashworth is going to be coping with Friday night. Although Ashworth’s 3-point shooting numbers are down this season, he remains a lethal marksman from long distance (280 career treys, 38.8 career 3-point percentage). Will Ashworth’s 3-balls come up short in the second half? If so, you’ll know why.

2-If Zeigler and Knecht aren’t hitting their perimeter jumpers, will the Vols be able to find enough offense from other players?

3-Can the Vols avoid extended slumps offensively where they go cold and can’t get buckets for five-minute stretches? This happened when UT was nursing a second-half lead between four and eight points in a Round-of-32 loss vs. Michigan two years ago. It happened again in the Sweet 16 last season when Barnes’s team managed merely 55 points vs. FAU.

4-We have an outstanding matchup in the lane between the two centers, UT’s Jonas Aidoo and Creighton’s Kalkbrenner. Will either player see his minutes limited due to foul trouble? If so, the opponent will have a major advantage.

PREDICTION: I have an in-pocket Creighton future ticket to win the national title at 40/1 odds. Therefore, I’m going to sit this one out. However, I offered plenty of my opinions on this week’s Bets & Ballgames with Edwards & Greeson show that you can check out on Southeastern 14’s YouTube channel.