After beating Memphis at the buzzer in the first round, Florida Atlantic survived an inspired effort from NCAA Tournament darling FDU to reach its first Sweet 16 in school history.
Now it’ll face its toughest opponent all year in Tennessee, which slayed red-hot Duke in the second round and is the biggest favorite of Thursday’s four-game slate.
Here’s how we’re betting this Sweet 16 contest, which tips off at 9 p.m. Eastern on TBS.
(9 p.m. ET)
It makes perfect sense why Tennessee is dealing as a modest favorite here after its statement win in the second round.
But this also feels like a dangerous spot against one of the most undervalued teams in this tournament.
The Volunteers deserve plenty of credit for how well they played last Saturday against Duke, which entered that game as one of the hottest teams in the country and a rotation full of former top prospects and future NBA players.
It hardly mattered: Tennessee went right at the inexperienced Blue Devils, who had nearly as many turnovers (15) as made field goals (21) and couldn’t match the Vols’ physicality on defense.
Rick Barnes’ group also forced Duke into an unusually high volume of 3-point shots (6-for-22) in the face of Tennessee’s long and athletic frontcourt.
That approach won’t be as effective against Florida Atlantic, which features a deep rotation full of versatile playmakers who rarely turn the ball over and can light it up from deep.
The Owls generate 37.2 percent of their points from 3-pointers, which ranks first among remaining tournament teams and 25th in the country overall.
Leading scorer Johnell Davis (13.9 PPG) – who posted a ridiculous 29 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and five steals in the second round – is one of three regulars shooting 38.8% or better from long range in a rotation that legitimately runs nine players deep.
That depth should help FAU match the intensity that Tennessee relied on to overwhelm Duke last weekend.
It also helps keep this team fresh and aggressive on both ends of the court – a key reason why the Owls are among just 10 teams nationally with top-35 efficiency on both offense (29th) and defense (34th).
It’s also important to consider the lingering vulnerability of these Volunteers without starting point guard Zakai Zeigler (ACL), who has missed his team’s last five games and won’t be out there on Thursday, either.
Senior guard Santiago Vescovi has done an admirable job as the lead ball-handler, but FAU’s defense is among the nation’s best at preventing easy assist opportunities.
That’ll put a ton of pressure on this Tennessee offense to create its own shots and avoid turnovers, which has been a clear issue since Zeigler’s injury.
Throw it all together, and this just simply feels like too many points to be laying on Thursday’s favorites – especially given Barnes’ shaky tournament history that includes a 3-13-1 record against the spread in his last 17 games.
With a week to prepare for the Zeigler-less Vols, I like the Owls’ chances to keep this one close or even pull the outright upset.
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