Obligatory Post About How Losing Shorthanded to Alabama is Okay But It Raises the Exact Same Questions Yet Again

This is the seventh in a series of weekly recaps surrounding the 2021-22 Tennessee men’s basketball season.

December 29: #19 Alabama 73, #14 Tennessee 68 (9-3, 0-1 SEC)

Ah, this is how I know it’s basketball season. Not the first loss; not the second; not even the big wins. Not the upsets. Not the amazing buzzer-beaters that make up year-end YouTube videos. Nope: it’s the close, crushing loss when your team is shorthanded that somehow finds the only way imaginable to leave you annoyed and angry.

The staring into the middle distance, the “why didn’t Rick Barnes do this? Why did he do that?” feeling, the wondering why you stayed up until 11:20 PM when you have a 6:45 AM alarm. It’s all back, baby! College basketball! Didn’t you miss it? Didn’t it give you the life you thought you were missing? Or am I simply late to the party on realizing that, in some way, I also have developed Football Mindset?

Objectively speaking, losing by five points to the #19 team on the road when you’re down two of the team’s three best players is not a bad result. Even though neither site adjusts for absences, even the metrics sites are fairly impressed by Tennessee’s efforts; Bart Torvik’s Game Score metric gave Tennessee an 88, which is a good result even before you consider Tennessee led for 28 of a possible 40 minutes. For large portions of this affair, Tennessee controlled the flow of the game, dominated defensively, and forced Alabama into difficult threes that sort of exposed the Alabama Problem: if you stop the flow of points in the paint, you slow down the offense as a whole.

All of that is good and fine. Tennessee held its ninth-straight opponent under one point per possession, which is a streak that’s now a game short of the KenPom-era program record of 10 consecutive sub-1 PPP games (2013-14). They won the turnover battle again. They got to the free throw line a lot. In the absence of Kennedy Chandler and John Fulkerson, Santiago Vescovi and Olivier Nkamhoua stepped up and played very good, very useful games. (Honorable mention to Zakai Zeigler, who wasn’t great on offense but held up much better than I would’ve anticipated on D.)

Again, objectively speaking, Tennessee put up a really good effort against what I anticipate is one of the 20 or so best teams in America in Alabama. Tennessee had multiple chances in the final minute of this game to tie or take the lead and simply didn’t come through; you can imagine that a full-strength Tennessee gets better shots throughout the game and potentially comes home with a surprise road W. We’ll never know, because I guess COVID will never end.

The problem is that it’s hard to be objective when the game unfolds in two particular ways:

  1. Tennessee leads by six points with four minutes to go;
  2. Tennessee spends the vast majority of the final 20% of this game with Victor Bailey, Jr. on the court instead of Justin Powell.

The first point here is a catch-22. At the start of the game, I would have adored any scenario that ended in “Tennessee leads by six points with four minutes to go” because that felt pretty unlikely even with a full-strength roster. Tennessee was certainly aided by what was an outlier of a poor shooting night from Alabama, sure, but they were winning the shot volume battle and seemed to win many of the 50/50 plays. You could easily talk yourself into the ‘toughness’ cliche.

The second is the one that’s going to be talked about the rest of the season. The first image here is Victor Bailey’s 2021-22 On/Off numbers:

The second is Justin Powell’s.

For reasons that I cannot entirely parse, Bailey was the player who got the majority of the run down the stretch of this game as Tennessee’s offense seized up and Powell sat on the bench, quietly watching. To the credit of local media, Rick Barnes was asked to rationalize his choice. I can’t say I’m pleased by the answer.

Justin Powell is not a good on-ball defender. I have half a season of Auburn data and half a season of Tennessee data to say that’s almost certainly the truth. The defense is inarguably worse with him on the court; even though I do not think much of this is Victor Bailey’s doing, the defense is basically break-even with Bailey out there. Whatever, fine, you get your little nitpick win.

But when it comes to the actual effect on the team on the court, Justin Powell is, by any objective measure, the superior option to Victor Bailey. Want to use Net Rating? The team is 15 points better with him on the court over 100 possessions than it is with Bailey. Want to talk offense? The offense is 21 points better with Powell. Three-point shooting? Powell 42% (43% for his career), Bailey 23% (35% career). Individual defensive impact? Bailey and Powell are almost the exact same: a 2.9% Stock% (steals + blocks) for Bailey, 2.6% for Powell. Player that literally just played 26 minutes against the #8 team in America in a win? Justin Powell.

I think this is what sticks. Tennessee played better than I anticipated. They held down Alabama’s offense more than almost any other team has. They forced some surprising guys (Jahvon Quinerly being the main example) into foul trouble. They led for almost three quarters of the game. But you’re sitting there with a 63-57 lead, four or five minutes on the clock, and somehow it never seems to cross anyone’s mind that the lone available guy on the roster who can hit a dagger three to actually bring home the win isn’t on the court.

(Sidebar: I think I’ve had my fill of Tweeting negative things about individual players online. I cannot imagine Victor Bailey, Jr. feels very good today; there is literally zero reason whatsoever for me or anyone else to pile on relentlessly. I say something about Bailey (or Plavsic) (or JJJ) (or anyone at this point) and the replies are a mess of pure garbage. No más. I should’ve remembered the golden rule: Never Tweet.)

So here we are: Tennessee blows a winnable game in a situation where I’m objectively supposed to feel okay but subjectively feel annoyed yet again. Bart Torvik tracks the average lead of every game in America; per his website, this is the 18th time in the Rick Barnes tenure Tennessee has lost a game they led the majority of, with ten of those coming since the start of 2018. Bruce Pearl, the guy everyone will not let go of, has done that just three times in the last four seasons. Every single season, somewhere between two and four times, Tennessee will lose a game that most agree they really should’ve won.

On the flip side, Tennessee has won fourteen games since 2015-16 where they’ve trailed the majority of the way. (Perhaps you remember the 2020 win at Rupp Arena before the world ended.) When that happens a couple of times this year, it will feel nice. Until Tennessee figures out a way to stop losing these winnable games, these affairs will continue to feel uniquely unsatisfying even when they shouldn’t.

I feel like I’m repeating myself but this is a loss that really doesn’t mean all that much because it is one game in a 35ish-game season and Tennessee literally just beat a top ten team at home. I wrote a whole thing about how Tennessee should be pleased to get out of December with just two losses in the month; they did exactly that. Both losses were close, coin-flip things. They did exactly what the average top 10-15 team should have doneYet, somehow, like always, I find myself frustrated and wondering why X decision didn’t happen or why Z decision did.

In retrospect, I should have remembered one of my favorite images:

Whatever happens, happens. I can’t control it, therefore it is what it is. On to the next one.

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