How does the schedule break down for Tennessee, and what are realistic expectations for fans to have?
Hey I have great news: the 2021-22 schedule will likely be played in the exact fashion it is listed and I will not have to tell you anything about opponents Tennessee ends up not playing because of COVID. Wonders never cease.
The breakdown here is going to follow the NCAA Teamsheet format of Quadrants 1, 2, 3, and 4, with a special 1-A for the best of the best that isn’t on the official teamsheet. Explanation(s) below. All numbers are NET rankings, which we obviously do not have but will be replaced with the Bart Torvik/KenPom/Haslametrics combined numbers for breakdown purposes.
- Quadrant 1-A: Home 1-15, Neutral 1-25, Away 1-35. As far as I understand it, at least. The elite of the elite.
- Quadrant 1: Home 1-30; Neutral 1-50; Away 1-75.
- Quadrant 2: Home 31-75; Neutral 51-100; Away 76-135.
- Quadrant 3: Home 76-160; Neutral 101-200; Away 136-240.
- Quadrant 4: Home 161-plus; Neutral 201-plus; Away 241-plus.
Got it? Uh, good. So here’s how we’ll do this: each Quadrant will be represented below with Tennessee’s projected opponents in that Quadrant. I’ll spend a little time talking on each opponent (while saving the actual good stuff for later previews), then provide a realistic projected record at the bottom along with some various “a team ranked 10th would expect to have this record” stats nerd garbage.
One last note: The number you see below is the average ranking for that team on the three main metrics sites I monitor.
Expected opponents: #10 Villanova (neutral), *#6 Purdue (neutral)*, #16 Texas Tech (neutral), #13 Memphis (neutral), #17 Alabama (away), #15 Kentucky (away), #8 Texas (away), #15 Kentucky (home), #21 Arkansas (away)
Total games: 8 (9 if Tennessee draws Purdue in their Connecticut tournament)
That is a lot of high-end competition. As an example, in the last full regular season completed (2019-20), only 26 teams played 8 or more games against our arbitrary Q 1-A definition. Precisely two of those teams – Kansas (the #1 team in America) and Wisconsin (a likely 4 seed) – posted winning records. It is very, very tough to win more than half your games against a set of teams like these.
For Tennessee, they’re likely to only play Purdue if they beat Villanova, so that would remove part of the equation. The Texas Tech thing is interesting: the head coach that made them tick is gone, but their roster rates out well from a talent perspective. Memphis has top-five talent but a very questionable offense. Alabama lost some key players from their 2-seed squad. Kentucky has reloaded, but it may take them a while to look like Kentucky. Texas added more via the transfer portal than any team has in history. Arkansas…well, they’re Arkansas. I think we know that they’re permanently frisky, particularly on the road.
Realistic expected record: 3-5 or 4-4. (If Tennessee plays Purdue, push it to 4-5, right in line with a 45% or so shot of winning.) Tennessee is going to lose some games. Sorry to let you know this; it isn’t football where every game is life or death. The actual metric projection here is 3.5-4.5, so anything where Tennessee pulls off 3-4 wins here is right in line with what you would expect from somewhere between the 10th-18th best team in America. If you get out of these eight games at 4-4 you’re probably pretty darn good.
- A top 5 team would expect to go 4-4.
- Top 10: 4-4.
- Top 25: 3-5.
- Top 40: 2-6 or 3-5.
Home 1-30; Neutral 1-50; Away 1-75.
Expected opponents: The above eight plus *#29 North Carolina (neutral)*, #46 Colorado (road), #42 LSU (road), #25 Florida (home), #54 Mississippi State (road), #28 Auburn (home), #21 Arkansas (home).
Total games: The above eight plus the confirmed six games plus a game against either Purdue or UNC makes for a total of 15 Quadrant 1 games.
Again, that is a lot. Nearly half of Tennessee’s 31-game schedule will be among the very toughest competition in America. Losses will happen, because going undefeated against this schedule would be an insanely good performance. Again, in the last full regular season we had (2019-20), only 15 teams played 15 or more games against Q1 competition; of those 15, seven managed a winning record. It is no coincidence that all but one of those teams were projected to be 4 seeds or better.
The list of games above were elite levels of tough; these are more like tricky tough games that are a little more frustrating when you don’t win. Colorado, LSU, or Mississippi State may not make the NCAA Tournament, but they could all be just good enough to steal a home win and leave you with an annoying loss that isn’t actually bad but feels bad when it happens. The home games are where you probably need to hold serve against tough competition. North Carolina should be good, but is in Year One of a new coach and it’s slightly more likely that Tennessee only plays them if they lose to Villanova the previous day. (Which is probably the most likely outcome.)
Realistic expected record: 3-3 or 4-2, which, when combined with the above six games, filters out to 6-8 or 7-7 against all Quadrant 1 competition. The swing game is the Purdue/UNC draw: Tennessee would be a small underdog against Purdue and a small favorite over UNC. If Tennessee goes 4-2 against this group and 3-5 against the first, they could still come out with a >.500 record against Quadrant 1 competition. As noted earlier, that basically locks you in as one of the ~15 best teams in America. If you go 8-7 against the very best competition you have, you’re probably pretty good. I know they don’t print banners for 8-7, but it’s a decent goal.
Assumption to get to 15 total games: the UNC/Purdue game is just converted to a 50% chance of winning (which is actually pretty much dead-on if you averaged out UNC and Purdue’s metrics).
- A top 5 team would expect to go 8-7 or 9-6.
- Top 10: 8-7.
- Top 25: 7-8.
- Top 40: 6-9 or even 5-10.
Home 31-75; Neutral 51-100; Away 76-135.
Expected opponents: #38 Arizona (home), #66 Ole Miss (home), #85 Vanderbilt (road), #42 LSU (home), #105 South Carolina (road), #113 Missouri (road).
Total games: Six.
These are games that actually do feel bad when you lose them but probably shouldn’t, at least as long as it’s not in the Vanderbilt/South Carolina/Missouri triad. Only five teams went undefeated against Quadrants 2-4 in 2019-20; three of them were ranked first through third in NET. Barring Tennessee being one of the five or so best teams in America, they will probably suffer one loss that makes people very angry online and turns local sports radio into Heaven’s Gate.
Of these six, the obvious best team is Arizona, who gets Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd as their new head coach and seems to be generally agreed-upon as a low-end NCAA Tournament team. That would be a good win at home and could potentially end up a Quadrant 1 victory if they just overachieve by, like, eight spots. Same with LSU and same with the road Vanderbilt game. You would really like to go 6-0 against this group, but because .75*6 = 4.5, your odds of actually going 6-0 are more like 15-20%. It’s a nice overachievement if so, but more than likely, it comes at the expense of a superior Quadrant 1 victory.
Realistic expected record: 4-2 or 5-1 with a lean towards 5-1. The actual expectation here is roughly 4.6-1.4, but it’s a little reliant on Vanderbilt being better than they’ve been and Arizona being a hair better in Year One in a new system with a new coach. Tennessee getting out of this set of six games at 5-1 would be a perfectly fine result. For reference, the top four NET teams in 2019-20 all went undefeated against Q2 competition, but 12 of the 13 teams ranked 5-17 lost at least once to a Q2 opponent. It happens.
- A top 5 team would expect to go 5-1.
- Top 10: 4-2 or 5-1 with a slightly heavy lean towards 5-1.
- Top 25: 4-2.
- Top 40: 3-3 or 4-2.
Home 76-160; Neutral 101-200; Away 136-240.
Expected opponents: #153 East Tennessee State (home), #105 South Carolina (home), #102 Texas A&M (home), #85 Vanderbilt (home), #177 Georgia (road).
Total games: Five.
Any loss to one of these five opponents would be extremely alarming. The top 22 teams in NET in 2019-20 combined to go 135-2 against Quadrant 3 competition, which is probably a small overachievement but still gives you an idea of how bad it would feel to lose any of these games. You might be allowed one minor scare; perhaps South Carolina or Vanderbilt have an unusually good shooting day from downtown and Tennessee only wins by six points. That’s fine. It simply has to be a win.
Realistic expected record: 5-0. The actual metrics here say around 4.4-0.6, but your odds of going undefeated here are slightly above 50%. Any loss here could potentially drop you a full seed line in March. It’s that bad.
- A top 5 team would expect to go 5-0.
- Top 10: 5-0.
- Top 25: 4-1 or 5-0 with a lean to 5-0.
- Top 40: 4-1.
Home 161-plus; Neutral 201-plus; Away 241-plus.
Expected opponents: #352 Tennessee Martin (home), #284 Tennessee Tech (home), #280 Presbyterian (home), #164 UNC Greensboro (home), #328 USC Upstate (home).
Total games: Five.
These are the games that I struggle to find people to attend for free because they’re typically on Tuesday nights when people have already made dinner plans. I do feel a little bad that UNC Greensboro missed the Quadrant 3 cut by all of four slots, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they rose to that level. In general, I would guess that one of these five teams ends up outperforming their preseason ranking…but none of these five games should be close. UNC Greensboro is the only game where I wouldn’t bat an eye if the final margin is within 20 points.
Realistic expected record: 5-0. Tennessee’s actual expected record here is 4.93-0.07. No top 20 NET team lost to a Quadrant 4 opponent in 2019-20. Don’t do it.
No hypotheticals are required because even top 40 teams should go 5-0 against this group.
So: now that you’ve read a billion words on Tennessee basketball, here are my honest expectations for the season in prediction form to fulfill the demands of conventional sports writing.
- Tennessee loses 7-9 games. I’m thinking Tennessee gets to either 7-8 or 8-7 in their 15 (!) Quadrant 1 games and goes 15-1 or 16-0 against everyone else. There will be a Quadrant 2 loss; my honest guess is either the road Vanderbilt game (midweek and sandwiched between games against Kentucky and LSU) or home Arizona (right before Christmas, immediately after a huge game with Memphis).
- Tennessee either goes 12-6 or 13-5 in SEC play. Sounds disappointing, I guess, but this is a crazy tough schedule. For the record, 13-5 would have gotten you 2nd, 4th, T-1st, 3rd, and T-1st the last five full seasons of SEC play. 12-6 would get you no worse than 4th and a first-round bye and currently projects to get you a share of the conference title. (I would caution that it’s taken at least 13 wins to get a share of the title in every 18-game season so far.) It’s not bad at all.
- Tennessee beats at least one marquee opponent on the road. Marquee here means any of the following: Alabama, Kentucky, Texas, or Arkansas. Any of those wins are legitimate ESPN headline-grabbers.
- Tennessee loses a game that makes me log off for two full days. Have you seen this fanbase?
- Tennessee ends up somewhere between a 2 and a 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. 23-8 (13-5) against one of the 10-15 hardest schedules in America probably has you at a 3 seed, to be honest.
I’m looking forward to this season. I hope you are, too. See you in the arena.