February 6, 2018
By Brian Edwards
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Tennessee (17-5 straight up, 13-7 against the spread) will enter Rupp Arena tonight brimming with confidence. After all, Rick Barnes’ third team has already taken it to Kentucky this season.
The Volunteers are on fire, compiling an 8-1 SU record and a 7-2 ATS mark in their past nine games. The only outright defeat during this stretch came in a 59-55 setback at Missouri as two-point road underdogs.
Kentucky can relate to losing in Columbia, as it has turned that trick twice. The Wildcats lost at South Carolina (76-68) on Jan. 16 and then went down Saturday at Missouri. They dropped a 69-60 decision to the Tigers as 2.5-point ‘dogs, with the ‘under’ (140.5 points) easily cashing.
After losing to Frank Martin’s team, UK lost at home to Florida by a 66-64 count. At this point, it would be an understatement to imply that Big Blue Nation was abuzz with panic and anxiety. The pulse of BBN stabilized a bit with a 78-65 win over Mississippi State as a 7.5-point home favorite.
Then came a 10-point underdog spot at West Virginia in the marquee game of the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Kentucky was greeted rudely by the Mountaineers, who dashed out to a 17-point first-half lead. Bob Huggins appeared to be his way to improving his career head-to-head record against John Calipari to 9-3.
UK freshman Kevin Knox wasn’t having it, though. Knox exploded for 34 points and seven rebounds to spark the ‘Cats to an 83-76 comeback victory. The freshman guard drained 5-of-8 launches from 3-point range and his team dominated the glass with a 47-30 rebounding edge.
The optimistic UK fan saw the win at WVU as a turning point in the season, one that would propel this freshman-laden squad to great things. It was a view that didn’t age well, especially after last week’s home date with Vanderbilt.
The Commodores have been in the SEC cellar all season. They’ve been the only SEC school ranked outside of the RPI Top 100 since mid-December. Bryce Drew’s team started the season 1-14 ATS and lost a senior guard who was a double-figure scorer, Matthew Fisher-Davis, to season-ending shoulder surgery a few weeks ago.
Nevertheless, Vandy went into Rupp last Tuesday and led by six at intermission and by 12 with less than 16 minutes remaining. But Drew’s team had a meltdown of epic proportions in the final minute and especially the last two seconds. Vandy made just 1-of-5 free-throw attempts in the final minute, including a front-end miss by senior guard Riley LaChance with a three-point advantage and just 20 ticks left.
After a missed free throw while nursing a two-point lead, the ‘Dores committed an unfathomably dumb foul about 60 feet from the basket with two seconds remaining. The ‘Cats made the subsequent FTs to force overtime and eventually won 83-81 when Vandy missed a potential game-winning trey at the horn.
Cuonzo Martin’s squad jumped on Kentucky early and held a 28-18 lead at intermission. The Tigers led by as many as 14 and UK never mounted a serious threat in the second half. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was UK’s only player in double figures with 15 points, and he also dished out six assists and had a pair of steals. Missouri held Know to only five points, his second-lowest scoring output of the season.
BetOnline.ag opened Kentucky (17-6 SU, 10-13 ATS) as merely a one-point home favorite for tonight’s 7:00 p.m. Eastern tip on ESPN. As of early this morning, most spots had UK favored by 1.5 or two with a 141-point total for ‘over/under’ wagers.
UT has a 5-2 SU record and a 6-1 ATS mark in seven true road assignments. The Volunteers have covered the spread in three straight blowout wins by margins of 68-45, 84-61 and 94-61, including Saturday’s 33-point destruction of Ole Miss as 10-point home ‘chalk.’
Lamonte Turner needed only eight shots and 21 minutes of playing time to score 17 points against the Rebels. Turner nailed 6-of-8 attempts from the field and 5-of-6 from downtown. The sophomore guard handed out four assists without committing a turnover.
Grant Williams added 17 points and four rebounds, and Admiral Schofield finished with 15 points and 12 boards. Kyle Alexander contributed 14 points, six boards, four blocks and two steals, while Jordan Bowden had 13 points, three steals, three rebounds, two blocks and five assists compared to merely one turnover.
Barnes is in the running for SEC Coach of the Year right there with Auburn’s Bruce Pearl. Tennessee is No. 13 in the RPI Rankings, sporting a 3-5 record against the Top 50 and an 8-5 record versus the Top 100. The Vols have home wins over Kentucky, Texas A&M, LSU and Ole Miss, in addition to road victories at South Carolina and at Iowa State. They have a monster neutral-court win against Purdue and another over N.C. State that’s seemingly improving by the day.
Williams dropped 22 points and eight rebounds on the Boilermakers. The undersized 6’5” forward is averaging team-highs in scoring (16.2 points per game) and field-goal percentage (48.1%). He’s averaging 6.2 rebounds per game and has 29 blocked shots. Schofield (12.5 PPG, 6.3 RPG) is making 43.8 percent of his 3-pointers, while Turner (10.7 PPG) has buried 36.7 percent of his 3’s and 91.2 percent of his FTs.
In the first meeting at Thompson Boling Arena, Kentucky was outscored 47-28 in the second half after leading by eight at intermission. Schofield went for 20 points, nine rebounds, four assists, four steals and one block, while Williams finished with 18 points, eight boards and four assists. Knox didn’t have any assists at UT and went 1-of-9 from the field.
UK has won 13 of 14 home games, limping to a 5-9 spread record. The Wildcats are 4-3 ATS in seven games as single-digit home favorites.
Kentucky is No. 16 in the RPI with its 3-4 record against the Top 50 and 10-6 mark versus the Top 100. Cal’s team has home wins over Louisville, Texas A&M, Utah Valley, Vermont, East Tennessee State, Virginia Tech, Georgia and Mississippi State. The ‘Cats also own road scalps at WVU and at LSU.
Calipari took to Twitter on Sunday to plead for the fan base’s help in tonight’s showdown vs. UT. “We need you Tuesday to be at your best from the tip to the finish. If we’re going good, ride it and push us to make the lead unbearable. If we’re struggling some, encourage us and bring us back. The last eight minutes of the game, do not sit down! We need you more than ever now!”
Knox is averaging a team-high 15.1 PPG to lead four freshmen who are scoring in double figures. Gilgeous-Alexander (12.7 PPG), Hamidou Diallo (12.0 PPG) and P.J. Washington (10.3 PPG) join Knox as the team’s top scorers.
The ‘over’ is on a 12-6 run for the Cats to improve to 12-10 overall and 8-5 in their home games.
The ‘under’ is 11-9 overall for UT, 4-3 in their home games.
**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**
-- The ‘under’ is 9-1-2 in the last 12 Tennessee games played at Kentucky. The ‘under’ is 15-5-2 in the past 22 encounters at Rupp, TBA or various SEC Tournament sites.
-- Tennessee is 7-2 ATS with four outright victories in the past nine head-to-head meetings with Kentucky.
-- The first tip on Tuesday will occur at Hinkle Fieldhouse, where Butler hosts Xavier at 6:30 p.m. Eastern on Fox Sports 1. The Bulldogs were three-point home favorites as of early this morning.
-- Indiana rushed Rutgers early and often in Monday’s 65-43 win at the RAC. Archie Miller’s team easily covered as a 2.5-point road favorite, while the 108 combined points comfortably dipped ‘under’ the 129-point total. Juwan Morgan stole the show with 24 points, eight rebounds, two blocked shots, one steal and two assists without a turnover. Morgan made 10-of-14 FGAs and knocked down 3-of-4 attempts from long distance. Robert Johnson added 19 points for the Hoosiers, who coaxed Corey Sanders into a 1-of-11 shooting night.
-- Syracuse went into Louisville last night and captured a 78-73 win as a seven-point underdog. The ‘Cuse hooked up money-line supporters with a +260 return. Tyus Battle scored 25 points to help the Orange avoid a three-game losing streak. They improved to 16-8 overall and 5-6 in ACC action. In Joe Lunardi’s latest edition of ‘Bracketology’ that was released Monday at ESPN.com, Syracuse was a part of his Next Four Out.
-- West Virginia held off a late Oklahoma rally last night to win 75-73 in Norman as a four-point road underdog. WVU hooked up money-line backers with a +160 return. The 148 combined points stayed ‘under’ the 167-point tally. Lamon West scored 17 points for the winners, who got 14 points apiece out of Esa Ahmad and Sagaba Konate. Jevon Carter contributed 10 points, eight assists and six steals, while OU star freshman guard Trae Young scored 32 points but had only one assist.
-- Mississippi State will host Alabama tonight at The Hump on the SEC Network at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. The Bulldogs were three-point favorites as of early this morning. Ben Howland’s squad is 15-1 SU and 6-5 ATS at home. Meanwhile, Alabama is 2-4 SU and 4-2 ATS on the road. Along with Missouri, these schools are tied for fifth place in the SEC standings with identical 5-5 records.
-- Arkansas will take on South Carolina tonight at Bud Walton Arena on ESPN2 at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. As of early this morning, the Razorbacks were seven-point home ‘chalk.’
-- Cincinnati will look to sweep the season series from UCF and stay unbeaten in AAC play tonight. Mick Cronin’s team, which is 21-2 overall and 10-0 in league play, will face the Knights in a 7:00 p.m. Eastern tip on the CBS Sports Network. Most books had the Bearcats favored by 15.5 points early this morning, with the total set at 122.5. UC won the first meeting in Orlando by a 49-38 score. The Knights lost their second-leading scorer and rebounder (Tacko Fall) to a season-ending injury vs. UC, but they now have B.J. Taylor back after he missed the first encounter.
-- Boise State is mired in a 1-4-1 ATS slump in its past six games, but it has won three straight since a 74-68 loss at Nevada. The Broncos face New Mexico tonight at The Pit in Albuquerque on ESPNU at 10:00 p.m. Eastern. Most books had BSU listed as a 1.5-point road favorite early this morning. The Lobos are 10-3 SU and 7-3 ATS at home. Chandler Hutchison scored 21 points and handed out eight helpers in Saturday’s 93-91 non-covering win over UNLV in overtime at Taco Bell Arena in Boise.
Follow Brian Edwards' sports gambling opinions on Twitter at @vegasbedwards.
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