2021-22 Tennessee men’s basketball season preview

What is the realistic floor and ceiling for this team?

It feels a little safer to ask this question in 2021-22. Theoretically, there will not be nearly as many 21-day pauses this year due to COVID. I’m not really certain if game postponements will be a thing; I guess we’ll just have to see. Regardless, it seems like things are gonna be very slightly easier to predict in a fairly hard-to-predict sport. I would like to define three things here: realistic, floor, and ceiling.

“Realistic” means that we’re roughly going one standard deviation above or below the expectation – nothing too crazy one way or the other. Sure, the bottom could completely fall out for a program the starts the season in the top 15 and they end up 7-11 in the SEC. Or, more likely, the bottom is that things don’t come together as well as everyone hopes and they’re 10-8 or something with a 9-10 seed in March. That’s what the “floor” is: the lowest realistic expectation based on what we already know about the team. The “ceiling,” of course, is the highest realistic expectation. That’s what I’m trying to work with here.

Anyway, my average expectation is that Tennessee finishes the year as somewhere between the 10th and 18th best team in the KenPom rankings. They enter the year 14th, which is wonderful, but it also seems like almost everyone gives Tennessee the exact same outcome range. That would be great if preseason expectations ended up being 100% correct at year’s end, but they often don’t. Sometimes they go wrong in good ways; sometimes they just go very wrong.

If Tennessee hits its realistic ceiling, I would think that it’s because at least three of the following five things occurred:

  • Either Tennessee’s offense or defense finishes the regular season as a top 10 unit;
  • The other unit finishes no worse than inside the top 25;
  • Kennedy Chandler exceeds the hype and not only is the SEC’s best freshmen but one of the SEC’s ~15 best players;
  • Either John Fulkerson reverts to 2019-20 form or Josiah-Jordan James makes The Leap into being a borderline first-team All-SEC player;
  • A less-prolific player – whether it be Victor Bailey, Santiago Vescovi, Justin Powell, or Brandon Huntley-Hatfield – becomes a top-20 SEC player.

If three (or more) of those things happen, it is moderately easy to plot a path to where Tennessee finishes the season somewhere between 3rd and 7th on KenPom. They are already likely to be a very good basketball team, so a nine or ten-spot jump is going to seem pretty small, but that’s a genuinely significant leap to go from a likely 4 seed and a desire for a Sweet Sixteen bid to a 1 or 2 seed with an inside track on the Final Four. 

The problem with already being very good is this: if you are merely good – like, back end of the Tournament good, maybe make a surprise second-weekend run good – it is a massive disappointment compared to starting the season in the top 15. For Tennessee to touch its realistic floor, at least three of the following things will likely have happened:

  • Either Tennessee’s offense or defense – I think we all have our guess which one would be less surprising – finishes outside of the KenPom top 50;
  • The other unit either barely cracks the top 25 or finishes outside of it entirely.
  • At least one major injury occurs among the starters that causes the team’s depth concerns to be exposed. I think an injury to any of Fulkerson, James, or Chandler that causes them to miss more than half the season would potentially trigger this.
  • Victor Bailey fails to crack double digit points per game and ends up barely touching 10 minutes per game by season’s end due to defensive struggles.
  • Neither freshman – Chandler or Huntley-Hatfield – plays at an all-SEC level, and Huntley-Hatfield is the team’s seventh-best player at season’s end.
  • The team’s best player is Justin Powell. Not because he ends up significantly exceeding expectations, but because Fulkerson runs back his 2020-21 form, Bailey struggles deeply, and James fails to develop offensively.

That was really depressing to write, so I hope none of that happens. Anyway, I think if three of those six items come to fruition, Tennessee is probably looking at a real annoyance of a season: not bad enough to miss the Tournament and end things early, but not good enough to keep fans off of Rick Barnes’ back or terribly interested in the games themselves. Anywhere from 33rd to 40th in KenPom would be about right for this situation. Tennessee still makes the Tournament, but as a 9 or 10 seed that wins one game at very best.

When will we know which direction Tennessee is actually headed? While I think Rick Barnes has wisely scheduled a pretty difficult group in non-conference play, I would wait before stating Everything Is Awesome or Everything Sucks until…let’s see…December 29th against Alabama. By this point, Tennessee will have played 12 non-conference basketball games, including five opportunities against Tier 1 opponents. You can glean something from individual games – November 20th versus Villanova is an obvious early tell – but it’s best to wait to form a full opinion until the very end of 2021. I think by that point, you’ll at least know within reason what Tennessee is, exactly.

Will Rick Barnes shift his offensive system to fit the newcomers, both transfers and freshmen?

Uh…well…I mean, I wish I had a better answer for you? The first exhibition is not until Literally Tomorrow and I am not privy to footage of the team’s scrimmage against Davidson, a decent-ish Atlantic 10 team. I will say this: I think that I’ve personally oversold the idea of Rick Barnes allowing for no changes to his offensive system. It’s probably more about “does the personnel fit what they hope to run” rather than “does Rick Barnes’ system fit the personnel.”

If it were all Barnes’ problem, teams would probably stop hiring coaches that run motion offenses. The problem with that is nearly every team in America runs some form of the motion offense. Tennessee’s just results in a higher-than-normal amount of mid-range jumpers, which are shots that I’m rarely excited to see college players take. Why? Because the vast majority of college players, shockingly, are not C.J. McCollum or Khris Middleton or Chris Paul or Kawhi Leonard.

I wrote about the perils of devoting too much of your shot selection to mid-range jumpers three different times in the last year, so I don’t feel like rehashing it much here. The essential piece of it that matters is this: if Tennessee wants to keep shooting these shots at the rate they currently do (somewhere around 31-36% of their offense), you have to hit at least 40% (75th-best) of all non-rim twos while maintaining top 30ish hit rates at both the rim and from three. If you do that, then you can have a top 50 eFG% offense, something a Barnes team has done just thrice in the last 23 seasons.

The problem with being a “stop shooting these shots” person is that until further notice, Tennessee is going to devote at least some of their offense to hunting these shots and it’s not that unrealistic for their personnel to hit them. Of Tennessee’s nine or so projected rotation members, I would argue one has useful-enough data on basically six of these players. Of those six – Bailey, Fulkerson, James, Powell, Nkamhoua, Vescovi – three either have at least one season of hitting 40% or better on these shots or have a career hit rate of 40% or better. (Surprisingly, Vescovi isn’t one – it’s Bailey, Fulkerson, and James.)

I think we can reasonably guess that Kennedy Chandler can hit these shots fairly well. Same for Zakai Zeigler. Questionably, you could say that Brandon Huntley-Hatfield can do the same, but if it’s me, I would prefer him to be a layups-and-threes guy as much as possible. Might as well maximize his available shot selection.

The flip side of this issue is that Tennessee should probably just shoot more threes. Tennessee tied for first nationally last season in mid-range jumpers attempted within 17 feet, per Synergy, which would be nice if that resulted in a hit rate better than 37%, a below-average hit rate on that shot nationally (37.5%). I do think you could call last year’s offense relatively unique in that Tennessee took more mid-range jumpers last year than they ever had before under Barnes, but I would imagine pretty much everyone looks at that stat and says “maybe don’t do that again.”

It’s worth stopping this momentarily to note that Barnes has changed what he’s done; it’s just not wholesale changes. You can look at the stretch of SEC play last year where Tennessee started hitting 76-78 possessions a game by way of taking more shots earlier in the clock. You can look at how Tennessee actually posted up far less (20% of all possessions in 2017-18, a hair over 11% in 2020-21) over the course of time. I do think there’s something to the theory of Barnes’ offense simply working a lot better with a mobile, confident point guard, which is something Tennessee has had for essentially 1.25 years of the Barnes tenure. If Kennedy Chandler is that, it’s going to look way, way better than it did last year. Let’s hope it does.

NEXT PAGE: Time for some predictions that certainly won’t look foolish in five months!

One thought on “2021-22 Tennessee men’s basketball season preview

  1. Great stuff, Will. You write well enough that I can almost convince myself that I understand it all! If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t put down a dime before I checked with you. Keep up the good work!

    Like

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