Welcome to SEC semi-final Saturday. The “late” game of the semis is a massive one. It’s #2 seed Kentucky v. #3 seed Tennessee. Kentucky is a 2.5-point favorite. The total is 138.5 Let’s get after it.
Great news for Kentucky out the box: TyTy Washington was magnificent yesterday. He dropped 25 points on 8-of-17 shooting and was the team’s leading shooter, as it should be. The bad news, they needed just about every bit of it. Vanderbilt led by seven in the second half and was within striking distance the entirety of the game. He had not scored 20 points in a game since January 15. In that game, he notched 28 against Tennessee (dramatic chipmunk meme). Also of concern for Kentucky is that same TyTy Washington and his consistency whilst battling injuries and rhythm issues. He hasn’t had back-to-back good games in a month.
Tennessee used a big effort early in the second half to pull away from Mississippi State. Josiah-Jordan James doused the Bulldogs with 12 straight points on four consecutive deep balls and the coasting was on from there. Now it’s time for these two SEC studs to meet for a third time.
There are three things that matter the most for me when betting close teams this time of year. The first is coaching. Coaching inside the 40-minutes between these two is a draw for me because Rick Barnes isn’t afraid of those awful checkboard uniforms. He’s 9-7 against Calipari. If anything, slight edge goes to the Vols. Secondly, defense. Tennessee’s defense allows fewer points than Kentucky and also a lower opponent field goal percentage than the ‘Cats. The Vols are also vastly superior to UK in turnover margin. Protecting the ball and getting it back are huge in tight games. Finally, where are the game-altering players? This one leans Kentucky for sure. Oscar Tshiebwe has a great shot at being Kentucky’s first unanimous Player of the Year since Anthony Davis. I mentioned TyTy before and if that guy plays like he did against Vanderbilt, Kentucky will be really tough to beat.
Tennessee’s approach will be defense-oriented, no doubt. We watched the Vols back Kentucky down just a month ago with that mindset. I think the biggest key is what Rick Barnes preaches about his team the most and got in the Mississippi State game yesterday: balance. The Vols had five players get into double-figures scoring against the Bulldogs. A month ago when Tennessee beat Kentucky, four Vols players scored in double-figures.
I’m a fan of this Tennessee team’s grit and they are on a heater right now. Nothing seems to slow them down for too long and if things get hairy, they rely on their defense to hold court for their offense to catch up. Let’s go for that plus-money in what will be a phenomenal game atmosphere in Tampa. Vols moneyline is the pick for me (+122).