13 Auburn Tigers vs. 12 Tennessee Volunteers
8 p.m. ET, SEC Network
Neither of these teams wanted this season to turn out this way.
Auburn was looking for a bump in Bruce Pearl's second year. Instead, it got a year full of adversity. Keeping players in good standing and on the court was never a solved problem for the Tigers, and it showed in the their inconsistency. Mid-January was a high point when they beat Kentucky and Alabama in consecutive games. Arguably, the low point came two games into Kareem Canty's absence when, against these Tennessee Volunteers, the Tigers shot 24% in a 71-45 loss. They recovered a couple games later to win at Arkansas, but it was a momentary respite. Auburn is coming into this game on a three-game slide.
Tennessee was supposed to be entering the second year of the Donnie Tyndall era, but instead it was starting over yet again with Rick Barnes. The non-conference slate largely went fine, with only a stumble against Nebraska standing out as a not-decent loss. The SEC schedule began ominously, though, as these Auburn Tigers knocked off the Vols 83-77 in the opener. UT recovered and beat both Florida and South Carolina in January, but the month ended with the team below .500 overall and just 3-5 in the SEC. The Vols ended on a slide, winning just one of their last seven leading into Nashville.
At their best, both squads were able to beat Kentucky on their home floors. Neither was completely hopeless through 2015-16. But "erratic" only begins to describe how the teams have been.
Just look at the games between these teams. When Kevin Punter had a fantastic game against the Tigers, the Volunteers lost. When he sat the bench a lot in foul trouble, UT won by 26. Punter is done for the year after foot surgery, so it's anyone's guess how that'll affect this game. The KenPom ratings would tend to favor Tennessee, as they have UT at 119 and Auburn at 194, but those ratings in the Vols' case largely reflect a team with Punter available.
This game has real NCAA bubble implications, with Tennessee providing Florida's worst RPI loss and two of Vanderbilt's top 150 RPI wins. The Vols are barely above the RPI 150 line, and staying there would be a help to both of those teams. It's unlikely that UT would end up above 150 with a loss here.
Ultimately I like Auburn to win this game. Tennessee feels like a team that's ready to be done with the season. The game being in Nashville might give a UT lean if Vols fans show up because neither of these teams has had much success in hostile environments. I suspect they won't pack the place after a season like this, though.
I'll take the ebullient Pearl's ability to get a team up and ready in this game, and I have doubts about how up UT will be. Give me Auburn, but I could easily be completely wrong. There isn't a good way to know what we're going to get from either squad. Auburn 63, Tennessee 57