I targeted a play today that reminds me of a play that I posted last week on Twitter in the match-up between Ohio University and Toledo. In that game, the opening line was -11 in favor of Toledo, who was the home team. That line crashed all the way down to 8.5 before tip, and we hit it at that number. Toledo ended up winning by 23 points.
Tonight, the line between Tennessee and Vanderbilt opened at -11.5 in favor of the Volunteers and has crashed down to -8.5/9 across the board. I am not compeltely sure why, either. Sometimes the “sharp money” gets cute, trying to over-analyze certain spots. “Vandy couldn’t possibly go 0-6 straight up (1-5 ATS) in conference play, could they? They are a good basketball program!?” Well…under Bryce Drew, not really. Take a look at the numbers for yourself.
Vanderbilt basketball has been on a steady decline since they fired Stallings and brought in Drew. Not to mention, Darius Garland, who is projected to be an NBA lottery pick, was injured in November. He was far and away the best offensive player for the Commodores and essentially ran their offense. In the four games that Garland played the entirety of, Vanderbilt averaged 83 points per game. Since Garland’s injury, the only games in which Vanderbilt broke 80 points were against Savannah State (ranked #343), Arizona State (#60), Tennessee State (#308), and UNC Ashville (#351). In all other games without Garland, the Commodores average 64.89 points per game. Saben Lee and Maxwell Evans are not true point guards at this level and cannot run an offense efficiently, especially against elite defenses.
Vanderbilt has played in six games against teams ranked in the top 75 in adjusted defensive efficiency. They won only one of those games, and in their five losing efforts, did not cover 9 a single time (pushed it once). In those six games, Vanderbilt scored 58 points, 47 points, 55 points, 71 points, 81 points, and 65 points, respectively. Tennessee ranks 24th in adjusted defensive efficiency.
In SEC play, Vanderbilt averages 61.4 points per game. They rank second-to-last in the conference in adjusted offensive efficiency and dead last in effective field goal percentage. Their only SEC loss by less than 9 points was the game last week against South Carolina when the Commodores were outscored by 13 points in the second half. Vanderbilt ranks 116th overall in adjusted offensive efficiency, and that seems really high to me. They shoot only 33% from three, but shoot a decent 52.8% from inside the arc, which ranks 99th overall. They shoot only 69.4% from the free throw line and they have their shots blocked 9.9% of the time, which ranks 225th.
Vanderbilt has played five opponents that rank in the bottom 50 according to Ken Pom’s rankings. I believe their already mediocre offensive numbers are skewed from those five games. This team is not anything near even an average offensive team, let alone a “decent” offensive team, which their 116th ranked adjusted offensive efficiency indicates.
I believe that Vanderbilt’s defensive numbers are skewed from these games as well. The ‘Dores rank 111th in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing their opponents to only shoot 31.3% from three (57th) and 46.9% from two (57th). However, Tennessee’s offense is unlike anything Vanderbilt has seen this season, as the Vols rank second overall in adjusted offensive efficiency. Vanderbilt has lost all four of its games against teams ranked inside of the top 50 in adjusted offensive efficiency by a margin of 9 or more points.
Tennessee has played 17 games and has scored less than 70 points only once. In fact, they have scored less than 80 only five times. Such is life when you are the second most efficient offense in the country.
The Volunteers rank 10th overall in effective FG% (56.5%). They shoot 36.4% from three (80th) and 57.4% from inside the arc (9th). The shoot well above average from the free throw line, averaging 76.7% (11th), and they rank 1st overall in offensive block percentage (4.4%), which means they hardly ever have their shots blocked. Kyle Alexander, Grant Williams, and Admiral Scofield are very strong around the rim.
Tennessee’s opponents shoot only 31.5% from three and 44.5% from two against the Vols, partly due to the Vols’ elite shot-blocking ability. Tennessee blocks 15.6% of their opponent’s shots, ranking 7th overall. The Vols do not turn the ball over (32nd overall in TO %), and they rebound at an elite level, all while getting to the free throw line at a high rate (57th in FTR).
Tennessee ranks 7th overall in minutes continuity and 59th in experience (2.09 years). That will come in handy in this match-up because Memorial Gymnasium is such an odd place to play with the benches being on the baselines rather than the sidelines. The top five players in minutes for Tennessee are all juniors and seniors, meaning they have each played at least two games in Memorial, so they are familiar with the set up. Only two of Tennessee’s main rotational players are sophomores and none are freshmen. Compare that to Vanderbilt, who has two freshmen and two sophomores in their main rotation and has a minutes continuity that ranks 280th overall (35.3%). Remember, minutes continuity is the percentage of a team’s minutes that are played by the same player(s) from last season to this season. So, even though Vanderbilt has some older players on the team, those players did not play many meaningful minutes for the Commodores last season.
Tennessee has won the last two games at Memorial against much better, more experienced Vanderbilt teams. In 2017 they won by 12, and last season they won by 8 in Nashville. Tennessee has flourished into one of the best all-around teams in the country and after a disappointing yet winning performance at home against a hot Alabama team, I expect Tennessee to be ready for this game tonight.
But Sammy, why has the line moved three full points off the opening number? Surely Tennessee is a square play, right? What about the reverse line movement (RLM)?
The way I approach that is simple. Odds makers readjusted the line to try to even out the action on the game. Obviously, money has come in on Vanderbilt from somewhere. Could be one person that Vegas really respects, could be multiple sources that see value in the underdog. Regardless, money is coming in on the Commodores. Some call this “sharp money” since a high percentage of tickets are on Tennessee, while a majority of the handle (total money wagered on the game) is actually on Vanderbilt. Sharp money is not always smart money, though. Sometimes it is just noise. I would be willing to bet that most “sharps” have not watched more than one or two halves of Vanderbilt basketball this year.
Listen, nothing is guaranteed when it comes to sports betting or gambling in general; we all know that. Could Vanderbilt play their best game of the season and cover 8.5/9 points? Absolutely. However, I do not see it happening tonight against their best opponent year to date. I do not care that Tennessee lost at Vanderbilt last time the Volunteers were a one seed in 2008. I do not care about the line movement in this game. I am going to rely the way I approach these games to tell me what is the right and wrong side. Could Tennessee lose straight up tonight? Yes. Could Vanderbilt hit a “meaningless” three as the buzzer expires and cover the 9 point spread? Yes. But, one loss does not change the way that I handicap games, and it most certainly does not jeopardize my bankroll. It is merely a small blip on the large radar of sports betting. There are certainly times where I think that RLM should be taken into consideration. A lot of the time, it is just noise. Tonight, I think it is noise. I do not see any statistical reason for me, or anyone, to back Vanderbilt tonight.
Knoxville is only about 2.5-3 hours from Nashville. While I do not see a boat load of Vols fans making the journey to Nashville on a Wednesday, there are surely more Tennessee fans living in Nashville than Vanderbilt fans (I would know, I live here). Because of that, I expect half of Memorial Gymnasium to be colored orange tonight.
To make a long story longer, I do not think Vanderbilt has the offense to keep up with Tennessee. It is that simple. Tennessee is one of the most experienced teams in the country, coming off a season that ended in disappointment when they lost to Loyola Chicago in the second round of the tournament. After almost dropping a game at home to Alabama, I expect Rick Barnes to have the Volunteers ready for this in-state rivalry. Including the game against Alabama, the Volunteers have had only two games that they won by less than 10 points, and they have lost only one game outright. In the game following their loss, they had a margin of victory of 28 points, and after their three point victory against Gonzaga, Tennessee beat Memphis by 10 in Memphis. That tells me that this team rebounds well after close games. Coming off of their three point victory at home against Alabama, look for Tennessee to control the pace of this game and get what they want around the rim. I expect Schofield, Williams, and Alexander to completely abuse Moyer, Shittu, and Ryan in the paint, and for the Volunteers to run away with a double digit lead, covering the original line of -11.5. In fact, I am expecting this line to close somewhere around 10/10.5 when it is all said and done.
Despite being on the road, the fact that the Vols will be playing in their home state, presumably in front of a large number of their own fans, should temper some of the nerves that come along with being the number one team in the country.
The Pick: Tennessee -9
Keep in mind that Tennessee should be shooting AWAY from its bench in the first half. This game could potentially be close in the first half because Rick Barnes will be at the back of the offense, meaning they will not be able to see his play calls or adjustments unless they completely turn around to look at him. So, keep an eye on that and if this game is close for some reason at halftime, you can jump on the Volunteers in the second half when they are running their offense facing towards Coach Barnes. We took advantage of this in the South Carolina game last week if you follow me on Twitter. The only down side is that Tennessee could start the game hot and you will miss out on the value of the second half line.
Follow me on Twitter: @SammySharps