Tennessee’s tricky December is likely going to result in a loss or two, which is fine

I joke about two things online very often: 1. The nuthouse fervor of any and all online communities based around college athletics; 2. The fact that said nuthouse communities apply Football Mindset to other sports. When you are stuck in Football Mindset, every loss is a Big Event. Every loss that happens has the potential to change a narrative for a coach for years to come. (Unless you root for Indiana or Duke football, I guess.) It makes sense for a sport that has 12-game seasons and very few data points to apply to.

It doesn’t make sense to apply Football Mindset to college basketball, a sport with greater variance, 30+ game seasons, and a significantly higher amount of parity. Only one program (Florida) has posted back-to-back championships in the same year. No team has finished a season undefeated in 45 years. The best program over the last decade of the sport is in freaking Spokane, Washington. And yet:

I feel like this perhaps applies especially well to fan bases where football is the dominant sport. There’s nothing inherently wrong with football being the dominant sport at a school! It’s just a bit of a strange way to look at basketball, a sport where literally everyone loses at least once and in almost every season, every high-major basketball team loses 3 or more times. Heck, Tennessee’s most recent SEC basketball title came in a year where they lost five regular season conference games. The arc of history is a long one, and not everything is linear; off nights happen.

I bring all of this up because this December is Tennessee’s trickiest month of pre-January affairs they’ve had to navigate since November 2010 if not further back:

That’s an astounding five opponents ranked 57th or better in the span of four weeks. As far as I can tell, Tennessee hasn’t had a December this busy in over two decades. They’ll be favored in six of these seven games, and two are fairly obvious gimmes, but that leaves five games with a spread within three points, i.e. Literally One Possession in a Basketball Game. That’s five somewhat-weighted coin flips. Apologies to UNC Greensboro (who’s dropped 11 spots since the start of the season, FWIW, and has a new coach) and USC Upstate, but this month should be remembered by the Tier A games.

I ran the numbers on what fans can reasonably expect after remembering how you’re supposed to calculate probabilities. Here’s the rough odds of each record in this five-game stretch, based on KenPom’s numbers:

  • 0-5: 1.6%
  • 1-4: 10.4%
  • 2-3: 26.7%
  • 3-2: 34%
  • 4-1: 21.8%
  • 5-0: 5.5%

The point of this exercise is that it’s going to be very, very hard to get through this month unscathed. Bart Torvik’s TeamCast notes that even a team playing at the level of the current #1 team in metrics systems (Gonzaga) would only be expected to go 5-0 about 31% of the time. When you’re Tennessee – very good, very interesting Tennessee, but a flawed and imperfect Tennessee – your odds are understandably quite a bit shorter. Even the very best team would fail to go 5-0 against this fivesome in 69% of scenarios.

The good news here is that, 83% of the time – AKA, five out of every six – Tennessee is going to win between 2 and 4 games against this tough slate. Unless an outlier performance happens, you can count on Tennessee finding at least two wins. Even in the very worst-case scenario for an NCAA Tournament resume – one where the Volunteers only take the two ‘easiest’ wins – Tennessee would walk away with a road win over Colorado (who is 20-5 at home against Top 100 teams since 2017) and either a home win over Arizona (who looks like a legitimate Top 15 team) or a neutral site win over Texas Tech.

Consider the possibilities of the potential win triplets in the scenarios where Tennessee goes 3-2 (what a top 10-20 team would be expected to do):

  • Road win over #57 Colorado, neutral win over #29 Memphis, home win over #19 Arizona: 24.2% chance of winning all three; most likely three-team pairing
  • Road win over #57 Colorado, neutral win over #16 Texas Tech, home win over #19 Arizona: 20.2%
  • Road win over #57 Colorado, neutral win over #16 Texas Tech, neutral win over #29 Memphis: 19.8%

Or the most chaotic, most annoying, also most satisfying, and therefore funniest tri-win scenario:

  • Neutral win over #16 Texas Tech, neutral win over #29 Memphis, road win over #11 Alabama: 12.1%

I am no psychic; I do not know what will happen this month. What I do know is that if you allow yourself to understand that a two-loss month for Tennessee is Actually Good and genuinely very beneficial to the team’s fortunes in March, you’ll be a much more satisfied and well-adjusted person if that comes to fruition. (If they go 2-3 or worse, depending on the losses being close, you’re more than welcome to get a little upset.) If they go 4-1? Well, buddy, that’s icing on the cake. Any scenario where Tennessee gets four wins out of five would genuinely move them up an entire seed line and possibly two come Selection Sunday while (likely) temporarily placing them in the AP Top 10.

I have two goals in mind:

  1. Win three of the first four games (Colorado, Texas Tech, Memphis, Arizona). Any collection of wins here is great for a March resume, and it allows Tennessee (in my head, but not in reality) to go into the Alabama game with less stress.
  2. Get at least two wins away from home. Winning in front of a home crowd is nice, but you don’t play in front of home crowds in March.

Months like this are horrible and wonderful. Gone are the stress-free blowouts of Quadrant 4 teams (minus the obvious one on Tennessee’s schedule); now, you get to find out just how good Tennessee actually is. To be honest, it’s better to find out something now than to find out something at the worst possible time three months from now. This is going to be a December to remember in some aspect, but hopefully, you don’t have to sit through 500 car commercials to see it unfold.

And hey, if you like applying Football Mindset, think of it this way: you’ve only gotta go .500 to make a bowl. Tennessee only has to go .600 (roughly 7-5, which they did this season) to make this month a successful one. “Vols with two losses or fewer!” doesn’t have the same ring as “Vols by 100”, though, so do what you gotta do.

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