The start of college basketball season always gives way to some exciting non-conference matchups, and that is certainly the case tonight, with the Wisconsin Badgers welcoming the Tennessee Volunteers to the Kohl Center. Both teams started their seasons with blowout wins over mid-major opponents, and now the overhauled rosters will face their first true tests of the year.
Despite their big win on opening night, the Badgers offense that struggled last season now needs to face one of the best defenses in the country, and I think that matchup will result in their first loss of the year.
Over the offseason, the Tennessee Volunteers went out and upgraded their roster through the transfer portal by bringing in Dalton Knecht and Jordan Gainey. Those additions to an already strong roster provided an immediate impact in the first game of the season, with Knecht scoring 17 points and Gainey adding 14. Overall, the Vols shot 46% from the field and 40% from three in their 80-42 win over Tennessee Tech.
Arguably the scariest aspect of the win was the fact that the Vols managed to score 80 points, with Santiago Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler combining for just five points. Zeigler is still working back from an ACL injury that kept him out last season, and Vescovi just had a down-shooting night, but the potential this team has on offense when those two perform at their highest level should strike some fear into fellow SEC opponents.
Offense isn’t even the true strength of this Tennessee team, as they are currently ranked 1st on KenPom in adjusted defensive efficiency rating. The Vols forced 16 turnovers and held Tennessee Tech to 26% from the field, so they offer a significant challenge to the Badgers offense.
The Badgers finished the 2022-23 season ranked 252nd in offensive rating, but they opened their season by dropping 105 points on Arkansas State. Chucky Hepburn led the way with 20 points, but transfer AJ Storr showed he’ll be able to help improve the offense by adding 15 points.
If the offense can play close to the level they did on Monday night, then the biggest area the Badgers need to address is their defense. Last season, Wisconsin was 185th in opponent effective field goal percentage, and allowing 76 points to an Arkansas State team that is 173rd in offensive rating on KenPom is a good indicator last year’s defensive shortcomings have not been fixed.
Tennessee enters their first big non-conference matchup as (-2.5) point road favorites, and I’ll be backing them for my play. One big scoring night against a mid-major opponent is not enough to convince me that Wisconsin will have a high-level offense this season. I have a hard time believing they can shoot close to 65% against arguably the best defense in the country.
Last season, the Vols held opponents to an effective field goal percentage of 42%, which was the third-lowest percentage in the country, and they showed on opening night that they will be suffocating shooters again this season. Tennessee has a lot of length and can frustrate shooters from deep, while guys like Jonas Aidoo, who recorded four blocks on opening night, can affect shots in the paint.
Even if Wisconsin does find success on offense tonight, their defense will still likely hold them back from winning a close game. The Badgers were 90th in opponent offensive rating last season and 221st in field goal percentage allowed, which will not get the job done tonight against scorers like Dalton Knect. If these teams meet again down the road, maybe the Badgers could hold their own, but I don’t think they’re ready for an opponent like this.
Tennessee Volunteers (-2.5)(-110)