Tennessee Volunteers vs. Auburn Tigers
Line: Tennessee -3
Where: Thompson-Boling Arena
When: Saturday, 2/26 at 4:00 p.m. ET
No. 3 Auburn could secure at least a share of the SEC crown with a win at No. 17 Tennessee and a Kentucky loss at Arkansas on Saturday afternoon.
The Tigers bounced back from a loss at Florida with a 77-64 win over Ole Miss on Wednesday. Tennessee responded from a loss as well, knocking off Missouri in double-digit fashion on Tuesday night. The Vols can keep their SEC regular-season title hopes alive with a win at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Auburn has only lost two games during league play, but both of those losses have come in its last two road games. The Tigers were 1.5-point road favorites at Arkansas and were 4.5-point road ‘chalk’ at Florida. losing outright both times. They’re 0-4 against the spread in their last four road assignments, winning by only three combined points at Georgia and at Missouri.
They will be in a different role on Saturday, as offshore sportsbook BetOnline opened Tennessee as a 2.5-point home favorite on Friday evening. Saturday afternoon’s total opened at 139.5. Those numbers had moved to UT -3 and 140.5 points by late this morning.
The Vols are riding a 15-game home winning streak going back to last season. They’re 3-0 ATS in three single-digit home favorite roles this year, covering in Knoxville in wins over Kentucky, LSU and Arizona.
However, Auburn is on a 6-0 run both straight up and ATS in this rivalry.
“I would think that playing Tennessee at Tennessee would be as difficult as winning a Final Four game,” current Auburn and former Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl said. “That’s very much what it would be equated to…So you want to be playing great teams at the end of the season, because it’s a barometer for where you are.”
The barometer says Auburn is a very good team right now. The Tigers are likely going to be the No. 1-seed in the SEC Tournament and they could be a top seed in the NCAA Tournament as well. They are one of four teams ranked inside the top 15 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.
Auburn has not been shooting well from the perimeter, though, knocking down just 32.1 percent of its attempts. The Tigers rely on a low turnover rate and high offensive rebounding percentage on that end of the court.
Star freshman forward Jabari Smith leads the team with 16.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Guards Wendell Green Jr. and K.D. Johnson are combining for nearly 25 points per game, with Green dishing out a team-best 5.0 assists. Forward Walker Kessler is averaging 12.0 points and 8.3 rebounds.
Kessler is also averaging 4.7 blocks per game, pacing an Auburn team that leads the country in block percentage. The Tigers will be facing a Tennessee defense that is third in adjusted efficiency.
Tennessee’s defense tends to crank it up another notch in big home games, going ‘under’ the total in four of its last five Saturday games at Thompson-Boling Arena. The Vols are not nearly as consistent on the offensive end, ranked No. 34 in adjusted efficiency.
They have had a lot of success on the offensive glass, but their shooting percentages are outside the top 100 from all three categories (3-point, 2-point and free throw). This will certainly be a test, as Auburn comes into this game at eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency.
Tennessee is led by a freshman as well—guard Kennedy Chandler is scoring 13.6 points and dishing out 4.8 assists per game. Junior guard Santiago Vescovi is also averaging 13.6 points, while guard Josiah James is adding 8.8 points and 5.5 rebounds. Freshman guard Zakai Ziegler has been a spark off the bench, averaging 8.7 points and 2.5 assists.
The Vols are playing without forward Olivier Nkamhoua for the remainder of the season due to an ankle injury. Fifth-year senior forward John Fulkerson is also ‘questionable’ with a hip injury.
Tennessee has covered the spread in four of its last six games, while Auburn is 1-4-1 ATS in its last six contests. These teams have cashed the ‘over’ in each of their last eight head-to-head meetings.
The pick: Tennessee -3
Tennessee has been untouchable at home this season, entering Saturday’s game with a perfect record at Thompson-Boling Arena. The Vols have taken care of business against several talented, lengthy teams in Arizona, LSU and Kentucky in front of their home crowd. Auburn has shown some cracks in the armor in recent road games, losing to Florida and Arkansas. This will be the loudest crowd that the Tigers have played in front of this season, so that is certainly a concern for a team that is outside the top 300 in KenPom’s experience ratings. Tennessee has been able to overcome its lack of post depth over the past two weeks—I think the Vols have value here in their biggest home game of the season.