Best Bets: Previewing Tennessee-Kentucky, Big 12 title race, Nevada-Utah State

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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. 4 KENTUCKY at No. 7 TENNESSEE, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (CBS)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Tennessee 74, Kentucky 71
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Tennessee 74, Kentucky 71
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Tennessee 73, Kentucky 72

The biggest game of the weekend could end up acting as the de-facto SEC title game, as two of the three teams currently tied for first in the SEC standings will square off in a rematch of a blowout that happened in Rupp Arena two Saturdays ago.

The final score of that game was 86-69, as P.J. Washington went for 23 points, Keldon Johnson finished with 19 and Kentucky used a 14-0 run to open the second half and blow Tennessee out of the water. That game was won, however, by the job that Reid Travis did on Tennessee’s all-american forward Grant Williams and the strength that Travis has in the paint. His absence — assuming his knee injury keeps him out — may end up being the difference-maker on Saturday afternoon.

Let me explain.

Tennessee’s offense is unique in the sense that they are a hyper-efficient team that relies more on two-pointers than any hyper-efficient offense I can ever remember seeing. In an era of analytics and Morey-ball and the Golden State Warriors, the Vols operate on post-ups and mid-range jumpers. Just 24.3% of their point come from three-pointers, which is 333rd nationally. Villanova, they are not.

So much of that offense is created by the way that they run offense through Williams, running actions that A) get him isolated in the low- and mid-post, and B) use his strength to seal off shot-blockers when Tennessee’s guards drive. Travis is uniquely suited to being able to take that away because of just how strong and physical he is:

By no means does that mean that Kentucky cannot win this game.

For starters, E.J. Montgomery and Nick Richards are actually better offensive rebounders than Travis, and that may actually be the most exploitable part of Tennessee’s defense. And if there is a real weakness in Kentucky’s defense, it is their ability to run people off of the three-point line.

And all of that comes before the simple fact that Tennessee’s guards are not going to have it easy trying to break down Kentucky’s perimeter defense. That’s the knock on them. Their backcourt is not a game-changing backcourt, and if there is something Kentucky’s guards do well, it’s guard the ball.

PICKS: It will be interesting to see where this line opens, but at first glance I do think I like Tennessee, assuming it ends up around the Tennessee (-3) that the metrics are projecting. Part of that is because the Vols are playing at home. Part of it is because of the absence of Travis.

But I think that it is also worth mentioning here that after the win in Rupp, Tyler Herro told reporters, “I think they’re scared of him, honestly,” referring to the way Tennessee views P.J. Washington. After Tennessee’s win at Ole Miss on Wednesday night, Admiral Schofield told reporters, when asked about the Kentucky game, “Hopefully we aren’t scared of PJ.” That team is aware of Herro’s quote. They are going to be play in a sold out Thompson-Boling Arena. And the concerning part of that is that during this recent Tennessee slide, one of their issues is that they haven’t been playing with the same level of toughness. This is essentially the same team as last year, but where they were a top ten defense nationally last year, this year they are sitting outside the top 35.

I fully expect Tennessee and their roster full of upperclassmen built like body-builders to be up for a fight against a Kentucky team that will start four freshmen and a sophomore.

No. 9 MICHIGAN at No. 17 MARYLAND, Sun. 3:45 p.m. (CBS)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Michigan 65, Maryland 64
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Michigan 65, Maryland 63
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Maryland 64, Michigan 63

Michigan bounced back from last Sunday’s home loss against Michigan State by absolutely boat-racing a Nebraska team that looks to be dead in the water. Maryland, on the other hand, followed up a week where they won at Iowa and beat Ohio State by losing to Penn State by 17 points.

The x-factor here is going to be the health of Charles Matthews. He did not play on Thursday night after injuring his ankle against the Spartans, but Michigan did push back against a report that said he suffered a serious ankle injury.

I don’t love this matchup for the Terps from a personnel perspective, not when Bruno Fernando is going to have to deal with Jon Teske and Anthony Cowan is going to have Zavier Simpson in his face for 40 minutes. Missing Matthews would be a major loss on the defensive end of the floor, but with Isaiah Livers starting, Michigan should be able to space the floor better.

That said, since the blowout win at Villanova in November, the Wolverines have lost on the road against the three teams ranked highest on KenPom that they’ve played. In total, they’ve dropped three of their last six road games, and Maryland has not lost at home in Big Ten play and has lost just twice in College Park all season long.

PICKS: If I can get Maryland as an underdog at home, I am going to take the Terps and the points. If we get word that Matthews is going to be playing, I like the under as well.

No. 6 MICHIGAN STATE at INDIANA, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (FOX)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Michigan State 72, Indiana 64
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Michigan State 72, Indiana 65
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Michigan State 75, Indiana 62

Michigan State is coming off of their biggest win of the season — beating Michigan in Ann Arbor — and now get a chance to land a bit of revenge on the Hoosiers for an overtime loss they took at home a month ago that is still, to the day, the single-most head-scratching result of the season.

Before beating Wisconsin in double-overtime on Tuesday night, that win at Michigan State was the only win that Indiana had to their name since January 3rd. They have lost 12 of their last 14 games as their offense has devolved into a stagnant mess.

Sparty has their own issues, however. They are playing without Nick Ward and Josh Langford, which leaves the entire offense on Cassius Winston’s shoulders. He was the initiator on 45 of their 57 possessions in the win over Michigan, and 36 of those 45 possessions involved him using a ball-screen.

Indiana is going to know what’s coming. Can they stop it?

PICKS: This is tough. On the one hand, I think Michigan State has a statement to make, and with a Big Ten title very much within their reach, I expect them to play like it. I think that it is also worth noting here that that game was somewhat fluky. Michigan State shot 8-for-22 from the free throw line and the Hoosiers, who shoot 30.8 percent from three (323rd nationally) made six straight second half threes.

That said, assuming this line ends up around Michigan State (-9) — the average of the metrics — I think I like the Indiana side here. In their last eight games, Indiana has covered that spread seven times.

(Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

No. 5 NORTH CAROLINA at CLEMSON, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: North Carolina 76, Clemson 71
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: North Carolina 75, Clemson 73
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: North Carolina 78, Clemson 71

This feels like a trap.

Because based on the way that the metrics are projecting this game, the line looks like it is going to end up somewhere around North Carolina (-5), and that seems way too low. The Tar Heels are rolling right now. They have won four straight, 11 of their last 12 and 15 of 17 since the loss to Kentucky on Dec. 22nd. In the last 10 days, they’ve won in Cameron Indoor Stadium by 16 points and knocked off both Florida State and Syracuse at home by an average of 13 points. They’ve climbed into the top five of every ranking on the planet, and they are widely considered one of the few teams that can realistically be listed as a national title favorite. Win out, and they are, at the worst, co-ACC regular season champions. Clemson has one win over a tournament team and that came at home against Virginia Tech when the Hokies were without Justin Robinson.

And they’re only giving five?

PICKS: I think I like Clemson here. The Tigers are right on the NCAA tournament cutline — we have them as the first team out — and this will be their last chance at adding a Q1 win to their resume. The last two times that the Tar Heels have played at Littlejohn Coliseum, they struggled. They lost last year and in 2017, the national champion Tar Heels got taken to overtime by a 15-loss Clemson team. I don’t know if Clemson wins, but I do think they keep it close.

No. 11 TEXAS TECH at TCU, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Texas Tech 68, TCU 64
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Texas Tech 69, TCU 65
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Texas Tech 71, TCU 64

Part I of the Big 12 title race tips off in the afternoon, as the Red Raiders head to Fort Worth to take on a TCU team that really needs another win or two to seal up an at-large bid. The Horned Frogs are just 6-9 in Big 12 play and have lost four of their last five games. Chris Beard’s club has won six in a row, and the first time there two teams got together, Tech was up 16 by halftime and won 84-65.

PICKS: I like Tech to cover, assuming the line opens around (-5), and I also think that this game goes over the total if it’s in the low 130s. The Red Raiders got the dud out of their system when Oklahoma State took them to overtime in Lubbock on Wednesday. Prior to that game, they had been shooting 47 percent from three in their last five games. The last time these team played, TCU let Tech shooting 9-for-21 from beyond the arc.

BAYLOR at No. 16 KANSAS STATE, Sat. 8:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Kansas State 64, Baylor 60
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Kansas State 65, Baylor 59
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Kansas State 64, Baylor 59

Somehow, Baylor is still in the Big 12 title picture despite seeing seemingly half their roster get injured and running out a rotation that includes seven newcomers. If they win at Kansas State on Saturday, they will be in a three-way tie for second place in the conference, just a game off the pace set by Texas Tech. They have to win this game to have a chance.

Kansas State, on the other hand, already owns a win over the Bears — which came in Waco — and are playing for the right to say that they ended archrival Kansas’ streak of Big 12 regular season titles. Motivation abounds.

PICKS: For me, the pick here is Kansas State even if the line opens around (-5), and the reasoning is pretty simple: Dean Wade will be playing. He is the best shooter and the best passer on Kansas State, and the Wildcats have been much, much better against zone defenses with him available. It is worth noting that Cartier Diarra likely won’t play for KSU while Makai Mason and King McClure will be back for the Bears, but I still lean towards Bruce Weber’s club here. I’m betting on Bramlage to turn back into the Octagon of Doom and for Kansas State’s defense to win out.

No. 12 NEVADA at UTAH STATE, Sat. 8:30 p.m. (CBSSN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Utah State 72, Nevada 71
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Utah State 73, Nevada 72
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Utah State 74, Nevada 73

There is so much on the line for Utah State in this game. They need this win if they want to have any sense of comfort heading into Selection Sunday with the Mountain West’s automatic bid. They are also still playing for a Mountain West regular season title — they’ll be tied for first place with Nevada if they can get a win.

But here’s the wildest part: This is going to be the first time all season long that the Wolf Pack will play a game that qualifies as a Q1 game, according to the NET. Other than the win in January at home against the Aggies, Nevada has playing just one team — Arizona State (63) — that ranks in the top 75 of the NET. They’ve struggled on the road this season, including a loss at San Diego State the last time they left Reno, and the Spectrum can get rocking for a big game.

PICKS: All that said, I’m going to have a very hard time betting against Nevada to win a conference game if they are getting a point or two, as all of the metrics suggest. I’m not convinced USU has the perimeter defenders to be able to slow down the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline, and I worry about Nevada being able to go small and play Neemias Queta off the floor.

I’m going to hope Nevada opens around (-3) and take the USU money-line.