September Heisman

November 26: Tennessee 80, Tennessee Tech 69 (4-1)
November 30: Tennessee 86, Presbyterian 44 (5-1)

This is the third in a weekly-ish series of two-game recaps of the 2021-22 Tennessee men’s basketball season.

This could just be My Personal Lived Experience than something that’s actually happened, but I have to imagine at least some of the people who read this website are familiar with the idea of the September Heisman. Every single college football season, a player comes out of nowhere to string together 3-5 amazing games, leading observers to deem this person the Heisman Trophy favorite. Sometimes, these guys actually put it together for a full season, but when was the last time you thought about the names Kenny Hill, Case Keenum, Denard Robinson, or Geno Smith if you weren’t a fan of one of the teams involved?

I think about the September Heisman more than ever these days despite watching less college football than ever before. Every first month of the college basketball season brings some surprises, but none are more potent than the preseason-unranked team that starts the year on fire and threatens to upend everyone’s expectations. This year’s team: Arizona.

I don’t mean this as some sort of obnoxious self-promotion; it’s more just that I posted it and it’s easy to refer to. Anyway, two things are notable here: an average of 6 out of the 10 best November teams actually finish in the top ten each season, and with that, about 1-2 every season finish 30th or worse, i.e. an 8 seed or lower. Plenty a September Heisman has existed in basketball seasons past. Remember how future 7 seed Clemson defeated Purdue, Maryland, and Alabama in the first month of the season last year? Or how Nebraska climbed as high as #13 in KenPom in 2018-19? Of course you don’t, because you aren’t a fan of those teams. They ended the season precisely as unmemorable as most believed they’d begin it.

The track record of the teams that do play great basketball in November is generally pretty good; a 58% correlation to end-of-year success is better than a coin-flip. But it’s still barely better than a coin-flip.

  • All of the last four national champions were top 10 teams in November…
  • …but five of the 16 Final Four teams were outside of the top 10.
  • 18 of the last 25 KenPom top 5 end-of-year teams were top 10 teams in November…
  • …but only 10 of the last 25 KenPom 6th-10th end-of-year teams were in the top 10.
  • 22 of the 40 teams in years where NCAA Tournaments were held got to at least the Sweet Sixteen…
  • …but 18 of the 40 didn’t, with eight not winning a single game and three missing the NCAAT entirely.

Basically: if you’re Final Four good, you can be roughly 69% (nice) confident that you’re that way in November. But that’s why I keep insisting this is a long season. 31% aren’t that good in November. Only 40% of the back-end top 10 is. Even 28% of the end-of-year top five weren’t one of the 10 best teams in America at the start of the season. Through one month of play, with all preseason baselines removed, Tennessee ranks 27th on Torvik’s site. Considering they’re four spots higher overall on KenPom, I would imagine Ken’s no-baseline ratings probably have Tennessee somewhere around 18th-23rd. That’s fine; Tennessee is a very good team who played one objectively bad game, one shaky one, and three great ones.

It’s a long, long journey with a lot left to play for. Gotta live with it and love it.

Tennessee 80, Tennessee Tech 69

Don’t do this again. Please. The energy at halftime was a resounding “oh come ON” from a crowd that simply wanted to go home and either eat leftovers or finally dig their way out of the ham and turkey spiral. Who can blame them? Even if Tennessee had won this game by 20+, I beg of you: never, ever schedule a Black Friday afternoon game again. It was stupid before tipoff, and it only became dumber as the game progressed.

Small sample size! When two teams enter as such:

  • Tennessee Tech: 41% FG% Midrange, 27% FG% Threes
  • Tennessee: 37% FG% Threes

And have a performance as such:

  • Tennessee Tech: 11-19 Midrange (58%), 6-14 Threes (43%); +9.5 points above expected based on shot locations, per Haslametrics’ estimations
  • Tennessee: 6-23 Threes (26%); -4.9 points below expected based on shot locations

Then part of me just wants to say “burn the tape” and move on. You don’t play the game on paper, but if you did, Tennessee wins this by roughly 20-25 points, which was the pregame expectation, if Tennessee Tech has anything other than a total outlier shooting day. The fact Tech immediately followed this by shooting 43% on midrange and 31% on threes against Chattanooga hammers it home. Burn it, move on, whatever.

A profoundly stupid game with two frontcourt takeaways. Olivier Nkamhoua and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield brought this one home, combining for 30 points and 8 rebounds. Normally, I am not getting over the moon about anything when you’re playing Tennessee Tech, but you watch some of the stuff Nkamhoua did in this one:

And you’re like, oh yeah, that’s why he got all the preseason hype.

A word about rebounds. Tennessee allowed Tennessee Tech to rebound 35.5% of their missed attempts, which is moderately annoying and representative of something that’s bugged Tennessee in the past. I would be less perturbed by this if it wasn’t a historical pattern for Tennessee and Kentucky wasn’t a team they played every single season.

Parking praise. My fears about how difficult it’s become to park for Tennessee games – based on my most recent experience of the 2019-20 season – have seemingly been assuaged. This will undoubtedly change when Tennessee plays a good team at home, but all four home games I’ve attended (including the exhibition) have resulted in zero trouble finding a spot within half-a-mile of the arena. All for free, too!

Tennessee 86, Presbyterian 44

A pattern emerges. It’s all of six games in, but see if you can notice an odd/even pattern by way of Bart Torvik’s Game Score metric:

I would prefer that this goes away and Tennessee begins ransacking bad teams with regularity as they did in this one.

Ransacking. The first eight or so minutes of this one brought a legitimate fear that we were in for another obnoxious over-shooting performance by a bad opponent; the 32 minutes that followed proved it was not the case.

  • Presbyterian’s first seven possessions: 8 points (1.14 PPP)
  • Presbyterian’s next 55 possessions: 36 points (0.65 PPP)

Presbyterian took a lead to make it 10-8 six minutes in; Tennessee finished the half on a 37-11 run and slowly sucked the life out of a Quadrant 4 opponent for really the first time all season. (ETSU is Quadrant 3.)

Why do this? Presbyterian’s offense was precisely as excruciating to watch as the scouting report suggested. Numerous times in the first half, they failed to get any offensive actions started until 15-18 seconds had elapsed from the shot clock. Tennessee had something to do with that because they were denying a lot of off-ball movement, but the Blue Hose seemed totally unhurried. In some aspect, I respect that they’re willing to show up, make the game go by as quickly as possible, and collect their $90,000 or so check.

In another, I mean, you gotta play decent basketball. Presbyterian’s entire philosophy appears to be “in the last 10 seconds of the shot clock, we either feed the post or run a ball screen to get up a late-clock low-efficiency shot.” I am sure this team will win some games in Big South play because everyone does, but this is the single most inept offense I have seen in Thompson-Boling Arena since poor Alabama State came to town in 2019.

1 hour, 42 minutes. Per KenPom: the fastest Tennessee game since at least 2018-19 by a full five minutes, and possibly the fastest Tennessee has played in a decade. I reached out to Tennessee SID Tom Satkowiak to see if he has anything on this front and will edit the post if so.

I would like to propose a starting five. The great news for Rick Barnes is that four of these five players already start! Let’s make one little tweak for everyone: Chandler/Vescovi/Powell/Nkamhoua/Fulkerson. Right now, per Bart Torvik, these are the five best players on the team. Would anyone disagree with that statement? I certainly don’t. When Josiah-Jordan James returns, you can figure out if he should start over Powell or Nkamhoua, but for now, that’s my favorite five. Per, this lineup somehow only has 15 possessions together. I’d like to make that at least 15 possessions a game.

If you like the format of these or want to see changes, let me know at

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