Tennessee Volunteers vs. Mississippi State Bulldogs Pick & Prediction MARCH 15th 2024

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The first quarterfinal of the Southeastern Conference tournament between top-seeded Tennessee and ninth-seeded Mississippi State on Friday in Nashville means vastly different things to each team.

While the fifth-ranked Volunteers (24-7) aim to take the first step toward securing a potential No. 1 seed at next week’s NCAA Tournament, the Bulldogs could remove any doubt about an at-large selection by beating Tennessee for the second time this year.

Mississippi State (20-12) earned the opportunity with a 70-60 second-round victory against eighth-seeded LSU on Thursday as Bulldogs freshman guard Josh Hubbard fired in a game-high 24 points. It was the sixth straight game with at least 20 for Hubbard, who’s averaging a team-high 17 points per contest.

“This shows me that when we play the way we can and we stick together we can beat anybody in the country,” Hubbard said of the win. “This is a good confidence booster for us.”

The result snapped a four-game losing streak that had moved the Bulldogs from safely in the NCAA field to definitely on the bubble. In addition to Hubbard’s scoring, they did it with defense, limiting the Tigers to 38 percent shooting while forcing 18 turnovers and coming up with 10 steals.

Mississippi State also did a good job taking care of the ball, coughing up just 12 turnovers.

Tolu Smith is the Bulldogs’ other big scoring threat at 16.3 points per game. In Mississippi State’s 77-72 upset of Tennessee on Jan. 10 in Starkville, Miss., Smith complemented Hubbard’s 25-point outburst with 23 points on just 10 shot attempts, going 9 of 12 at the foul line. Hubbard made 5 of 10 3-point shots that night.

While Mississippi State shoots to punch its NCAA ticket, the Volunteers want to get back on track after Kentucky ruined their senior day on Saturday with an 85-81 win in Knoxville, Tenn. SEC Player of the Year Dalton Knecht did his part with 40 points, going 6 of 15 from 3-point range, but his teammates were mostly shut down.

Zakai Zeigler and Josiah-Jordan James, who each scored 26 at Kentucky in a 103-92 win on Feb. 3, combined for 25 in the rematch. Tennessee’s Santiago Vescovi was held scoreless after putting up 11 points in the first meeting.

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes noted after the game that his team has run quite a gauntlet down the stretch. The Volunteers scored consecutive Top 25 wins over Auburn, Alabama and South Carolina prior to the Kentucky matchup. They have played the 10th-toughest schedule in Division I, according to Kenpom.com.

“I really hope this is one we can learn from,” Barnes said. “We were way too emotional. We’ve had a brutal three weeks.”

Knecht, who averages 21.4 points per game, delivered 28 in the first matchup with Mississippi State. Zeigler poured in 26 on 15 shot attempts, but the rest of their teammates managed just 18 points total, going 8 of 26 (30.8 percent) from the field.

The winner of the Tennessee-Mississippi State game will meet fifth-seeded South Carolina or fourth-seeded Auburn in a Saturday semifinal.

–Field Level Media

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