Best Bets: Previewing Tennessee-Kentucky, Iowa State-Kansas State, weekend’s biggest games

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Here is everything you need to know when betting the biggest games this weekend.

As always, this is coming out before the Vegas lines for Saturday’s games, so we are using projections from KenPomTorvik and Haslametrics to walk through how the game will play out. 

No. 1 TENNESSEE at No. 5 KENTUCKY, Sat. 8:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Kentucky 74, Tennessee 72
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Kentucky 74, Tennessee 72
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Kentucky 75, Tennessee 73

There are a number of reasons that this battle of top five teams is one of the most interesting matchups of the season, and perhaps the most relevant is the obvious: These are both top five teams! I know Kentucky just lost to LSU in Rupp Arena, but that still doesn’t really change the fact that Kentucky is, legitimately, one of the eight-to-ten teams that are the most likely to earn a spot in Minneapolis for that first weekend in April.

Kentucky still gets two shots at Tennessee, who also must travel to LSU. A SEC regular season title is still very much in the cards for the Cats.

And all of that is before you get to the actual personnel matchups here, which should be terrific. Grant Williams, for my money, is No. 2 in the National Player of the Year voting. He’s been dominant on the block for the Vols this season, and he will be asked to go up against P.J. Washington and Reid Travis on Saturday afternoon. The more intriguing matchup of the two will be Washington, who himself has been playing like a first-team All-American over the course of the last three weeks.

It is precisely that frontcourt battle that is going to play a major role in determining the outcome of this game. For starters, it will be strength on strength. Tennessee’s offense runs through Williams. Kentucky’s offense runs through Washington and Travis. We also need to note that the Wildcats can be absolutely dominant on the offensive glass. They are third nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. They know that there are times where their best offense is a missed shot, and the Vols have not been great on the defensive glass this season.

The perimeter battle may actually end up being more interesting. As we discussed on the Why Your Team Sucks podcast, the concern for both of these teams is whether or not there is enough firepower in their backcourts to win at the level they expect to win. For Kentucky, the concern is obvious: Ashton Hagans, as good as he is defensively, is not a threat on the offensive end of the floor while Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson have gone through the bouts of inconsistency that you expect out of freshmen.

The conversation is a bit more nuanced with Tennessee. Their backcourt is not overloaded with high-end talent, and if there is an issue standing between them and a national title, it’s whether or not those guards are going to be able to win them close games against elite teams. We will get that answer on Saturday night.

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

PICKS: All three metrics project this game to be play in the mid-70s with the line landing at Kentucky (-2). Frankly, I am not sure what side I want to be on here. On the one hand, Kentucky is coming off of a home loss, they are hosting the No. 1 team in the country in their building and they have a roster that has more talent on it. It’s also worth noting here that while Tennessee is on a 19 game winning streak, the only surefire NCAA tournament team they’ve beaten in that streak was Gonzaga on Dec. 9th. The best team they have played in the last two months was … Alabama? Florida? This will be their first major test in a long, long time.

That said, there is a very real difference in toughness and experience on these two teams. This is the same Tennessee roster that won the SEC last year. They have been through the rigors of a title race. They are also a much older and tougher group of guys that were overlooked throughout their career, and I can guarantee that there is nothing they would love more than pounding on some highly-touted freshmen that haven’t had to fight the fights they’ve fought.

Tennessee is the most complete team in the country, but I just cannot bring myself to pick against Kentucky after the way they lost on Tuesday. If the line opens at (-2), I’ll probably be on the Wildcats, but here’s to hoping the total opens in the high-140s and we can bet the under instead.

No. 23 IOWA STATE at No. 18 KANSAS STATE, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Kansas State 64, Iowa State 63
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Kansas State 65, Iowa State 64
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Iowa State 66, Kansas State 65

Might we be getting a battle between the two best teams in the Big 12 on Saturday afternoon? That could very well be the case.

The first time these two teams got together, Kansas State won 58-57 in Ames after an Iowa State defensive breakdown in the final seconds gave Barry Brown an easy bucket for the win. I do not expect the rematch to be quite as ugly as the first battle, and the reason for that is the return of Dean Wade. He played 22 minutes in the first game, but he was not back to being himself after battling a foot injury. He is now, and he’s playing the all-american we predicted him to be.

And for my money, he will be the most important player in this game, especially with Cartier Diarra out after undergoing surgery on his hand. Iowa State plays four perimeter players at almost all times, meaning that Wade is going to be the mismatch. He’ll have smaller players — Talen Horton-Tucker? — on his when he’s at the four and will be guarded by slower bigs when he is at the five. If he can win those matchups on the offensive end, it will be tough for Iowa State.

Wade’s return has boosted Kansas State offensively. There was one point this season where they ranked outside the top 200 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric, and while they are hardly last year’s Villanova with Wade — their best shooter and best passer — back, they have worked their way back to 109th in KenPom’s rankings. In conference play alone, they are the fifth-best offensive team, one spot in front of Kansas, and that includes their 0-2 start to league play where they scored 47 points against Texas and 57 points against Texas Tech.

PICKS: This could be the game that wins Kansas State the outright Big 12 title. They currently hold a two-game lead over the field in the loss column, and their schedule really lightens up down the stretch. Their next two games are at West Virginia and Oklahoma State at home. They still have to go to Allen Fieldhouse, but they end the season with Baylor at home, TCU on the road and Oklahoma at home.

Win on Saturday, and Kansas State can afford a loss at Allen Fieldhouse and still control their own destiny.

I will be very curious to see where this line opens. The metrics still are underrating Kansas State because of how dreadful they were without Wade, so if this opens around Kansas State (-1), then I will hammer the Wildcats.

No. 24 MARYLAND at No. 6 MICHIGAN, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (FOX)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Michigan 67, Maryland 60
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Michigan 68, Maryland 61
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Michigan 66, Maryland 62

This could be the worst possible time for anyone to play Michigan. The last time we saw the Wolverines, they were getting embarrassed by the last place team in the Big Ten as Penn State went up 13 points at halftime as John Beilein was tossed before he even made it back to the locker room for the break.

Michigan is now tied for first in the league instead of having sole possession of first place, and they’re heading home pissed off after a loss where they played terribly?

That’s a tough spot before you consider that Maryland just does not matchup well with Michigan. Anthony Cowan will have to deal with Zavier Simpson. Bruno Fernando will have Jon Teske to battle with. They are Maryland’s two major sources of offense.

PICKS: I tend to lean towards Michigan here, even if the line opens at (-7) or so. I just don’t know where Maryland gets offense from.

(Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

No. 13 VILLANOVA at ST. JOHN’S, Sun. 5:00 p.m. (FS1)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Villanova 73, St. John’s 72
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: St. John’s 75, Villanova 74
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: St. John’s 76, Villanova 72

I actually think St. John’s is a difficult matchup for the Wildcats because of the way the Johnnies play. Like Villanova, they essentially role five switchable perimeter players out there without much, in any, interior scoring presence. For years, Villanova has thrived on their ability to create mismatches all over the floor, and I just don’t know if they’re going to be able to do that against the Johnnies. The first time they played this year, St. John’s led for most of the game before a late Villanova run won it.

That said, there is no comfort betting on a team that is as inconsistent as St. John’s is. They are currently 6-6 in Big East play with home losses to DePaul, Georgetown and Providence, but they’ve also swept Marquette this season.

PICKS: I have no idea what this line is going to be. KenPom is favoring Villanova by one point. Torvik has St. John’s winning by one. Haslametrics has the Johnnies winning by four. If St. John’s ends up favored, I’ll probably bet Villanova simply because I am not in the business of betting against Villanova, especially when Jay Wright is going up against Chris Mullin.

N.C. STATE at No. 2 DUKE, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Duke 89, N.C. State 70
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Duke 93, N.C. State 73
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Duke 94, N.C. State 72

I have a feeling that this game is going to get really ugly, really quickly.

The way to beat Duke is proven. Defensively, you stay disciplined, you pack the paint, you gap them and you dare them to beat you with jumpers. Offensively, you need to slow the game down and control tempo, avoiding quick shots and live-ball turnovers that lead to layups. N.C. State wants to press, they want to run and they want to gamble to force turnovers.

I just don’t see that working out all that well.

PICKS: The projections suggest Duke should be roughly a 20 point favorite, although I think the line will be closer to (-17ish). I like the Duke side if that is the line, but I like the over even more, assuming it opens around 160. For perspective, when N.C. State played North Carolina, the final scores were 90-82 and 113-96.

BAYLOR at No. 15 TEXAS TECH, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Texas Tech 66, Baylor 58
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Texas Tech 67, Baylor 58
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Texas Tech 68, Baylor 56

The question that you have to ask here is whether or not you buy the Texas Tech that we’ve seen of late. After a swoon in mid-January that saw Chris Beard’s club lose three in a row, they’ve won five of their last six, including a pair of blowout wins in the last two weeks that have seemingly given them their confidence back on the offensive end.

And that’s where I think this game will be won. Baylor runs a wonky zone that is somewhere between a 2-3 and a 1-3-1, and the issue that the Red Raiders face is that they can really go through droughts offensively, especially when Jarrett Culver isn’t on his game. They aren’t a great shooting team or a great passing team, and those are the two things you need to be able to do to beat a zone.

That said, the shots have been falling of late. They made 22 threes in their last two games.

Two other things to note: Baylor has lost two of their last three games, but Makai Mason returned to action on Monday after missing last Saturday’s game against Kansas State. There is no word yet on King McClure’s status. The first time these two teams played this year, Baylor won 73-62 in Waco.

PICKS: I’ve long been a believer in Texas Tech, and I think that the Bears are going to come back to earth hard over the final stretch of the season. They won three of their first four road games in Big 12 play, but those were wins at Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Oklahoma, the bottom three teams in the league standings. Their four road trips to end the season: Texas Tech, Iowa State, Kansas State and Kansas. If this line opens at (-8), I’ll be on the Red Raiders.