January 18: #24 Tennessee 68, Vanderbilt 60 (12-5, 3-3 SEC)
January 22: #24 Tennessee 64, #13 LSU 50 (13-5, 4-3 SEC)
Sometime during Tennessee’s wire-to-wire beating of top-15 LSU on Saturday – maybe when it was 42-28 and Tennessee had held LSU to three points across the last 10 minutes of play – I had a realization. For all of the complaining, all the whining about how this offense isn’t terribly good and the product on the court is genuinely unwatchable at times, we are discussing a team that ranks in the top 15 nationally in the advanced metric of your choosing. They are very, very good at several things. The thing they are very best at is taking about 90% of their opponents, turning the heat up on defense, watching as the dirt turns to wet, wet mud, and seeing these overmatched opponents flop around, unable to find stable footing in the Knoxville slop.
This is the genesis of good things for Tennessee. Sure, you get the occasional great shooting nights…sure, Tennessee still has the capacity to do a lot of good inside the perimeter…sure, there are other ways to win. But this – dragging other teams into the mud like little pigs, watching them flounder as you laugh at how uncomfortable they are – this is Tennessee’s identity. And at some point, you have to be alright with that.
I’m there. I’m good with it. If Tennessee has to win games 64-50 and 66-46 and 69-54 and 66-60, good. They’re wins. Three of those are butt-kickings. Tennessee is wholly uncharmed by style points. They simply don’t care if you think it’s pretty or watchable or goody-goody two-shoes happy happy joy stuff. They are winning games by stuffing the opponent in a locker for 40 minutes. Only two teams have managed to escape an opponent-adjusted locker-stuffing this season; they are ranked #6 (Villanova) and #7 (Kentucky) on KenPom as I type.
The most fun Tennessee team of all-time is still 2018-19 Tennessee, the only team of the Rick Barnes era to have a truly good offense. I don’t mind speaking that as a truth, because it is a truth. I like watching great offense a lot more than I do great defense, because I like watching the orange ball go in the net and the crowd going bonkers. It is a good thing and it is supposedly why anyone watches this sport in the first place. Then again, attempting to figure out what Tennessee fans want on a weekly basis has proven difficult.
The point of this is that Tennessee basketball has an identity. Tennessee basketball is Mountain Wisconsin. Bo Ryan, outside of about two years where he had a top 10 pick on his roster, was entirely unconcerned with making you happy with lovely offensive play. He did not care about how much you liked watching the ball go in the net. He only cared about winning by any means necessary. (Reportedly, he also cared pretty deeply about quitting midseason because ALLEGEDLY an affair was going on. I do not believe that will ever be a concern with Rick Barnes.)
Bo Ryan-era Wisconsin would drag you into the mud and watch you flail around helplessly as the Badgers cruised to wins of 57-50 and 52-45 and 68-56, all over top 15 opponents. You were not born in the slop. You were not raised in the slop. This Tennessee team seems wholly comfortable pulsing your team in the blender for an uncomfortable amount of time.
Nothing about this is terribly pretty. I also am not sure that ‘pretty’ really matters right now when the team is 13th on both KenPom and Torvik and cruising right along towards being a 3 or 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It is exactly what most of us expected preseason. The route to get there has been choppy, but with Tennessee’s most difficult month out of the way, maybe February is where you get the style points and the capital-F Fun back. Look at this:
And tell me you can’t feel at least a little bit of excitement for the local basketball program. Even taking those games in the 50s as coin-flips, you can pretty easily stare at that and see an 8-2 run in SEC play to the finish with at least two added Quadrant 1 wins. That would be 13-5 in the SEC, or merely tying the second-best SEC effort Tennessee basketball has seen in 14 years. That’s pretty good. The team is pretty good. It’s worth acknowledging, even if they don’t play a style most actively desire.
The other thing that has happened is that Tennessee has sort of kiboshed the idea of Smokey as the team’s mascot. This role is now Uros Plavsic’s to lose.
In the span of three weeks, Plavsic has turned from a guy most fans saw as completely unplayable to arguably the team’s best post player. I’m typing that out now and it still feels unbelievable. I promise you it’s real. These are the conference-only numbers via Bart Torvik’s site:
The last thing we saw prior to SEC play was John Fulkerson dropping 24 points on an Arizona team that looks like, at worst, one of the four or five best college basketball has to offer this year. The last time Uros Plavsic had scored double-digit points was February 1, 2020. His career-high for rebounds in a game: four. This is for a 7-footer who entered college as a low four-star recruit that convinced both Arizona State and Tennessee to take a chance on him.
Plavsic drawing a billion fouls against Alabama is one thing. Plavsic putting up 13 & 7 on the road at Vanderbilt is another thing. But hitting this, the longest shot attempt of his season:
And doing this two minutes later:
Is something entirely new. (I don’t care that the block probably should’ve been goaltending. It looked cool and that counts.)
Uros Plavsic will probably never be a dominant basketball player. The agility may never be there. I obviously would prefer to never see him attempt a jumper because I’m sure that would look as weird as it does in my head. Also, all of the previous three sentences are entirely meaningless. Right now, Uros Plavsic is doing everything he can to make Tennessee the best basketball team it can be. He’s earned his right to start and finish games ahead of John Fulkerson and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield. Right now, the team is about 1.5 points better per 100 possessions when he’s on the court versus when he’s off.
For this man at this time, I couldn’t be happier. I think of all the tweets and online comments he’s seen about how he’s an embarrassment to basketball. How he shouldn’t be a scholarship player at an SEC university. How he somehow tricked 1.5 coaches (sorry, Bobby Hurley isn’t a real coach) into giving him a scholarship. How Rick Barnes was dumb for continuing to give him a chance. You read a quote like this:
And you read this, from Plavsic’s own writing about his basketball career before last season began:
And you remember entirely what it is that makes you care about college sports in the first place. Uros Plavsic doesn’t have to do any of this. It is entirely of his own volition. Never once has Plavsic complained to the media about not playing, about being a team cheerleader, about being a guy who didn’t really contribute much to the team during his first 2.5 seasons in orange. Every single game, whether the guy is on or off the floor, you see the energy Plavsic has that he tries to transfer to everyone else. After every dunk last season, the first person you’d see cheering from the bench was Plavsic. After every block, Plavsic was yelling at the opponent and letting them know precisely what he thought of them.
At this moment, for this time, Plavsic is the Master of Ceremonies. If you want to further the analogy of the first section of this post, Uros Plavsic is the Master of Mud. He has learned how to drag opponents, whether in the Twitter sense of dragging someone or simply lulling them to sleep with his array of hooks and quietly-improving defense. At perhaps the least-likely time of his entire career, he has emerged as a genuinely important and lovable piece of the puzzle at Tennessee.
Rooting for Uros Plavsic to succeed is almost as easy as breathing air. I look forward to continuing to do it, no matter how the rest of his season plays out. He’s earned his moment in the sun; I sincerely hope that, for him, it lasts a very long time. In a season laden with various frustrations, he and Zakai Zeigler have been tethers to fandom in a way I haven’t experienced in a while. It’s nice to see them repaid for their work.
Some various notes of the last week:
- Tennessee posted a 38.4% eFG% against Vanderbilt and won. Unfortunately, that happened, but it feeds into our pig-slop narrative so hang on with me. Tennessee’s now won five games in the last three seasons where they posted a 40% or worse eFG%; only Texas A&M, among SEC teams, is able to say the same. Obligatory!
- Tennessee’s now held 15 of 18 opponents below 1 PPP. So, without context, you probably don’t care much about this stat, but I promise it’s pretty important. KenPom rates Tennessee’s schedule so far as the 8th-toughest in America, with nine games in the Tier A (his equivalent of Quadrant 1) grouping. Only three teams – Villanova, LSU, Kentucky – have topped 1 PPP. Consider that last year’s awesome defense allowed nine teams to go >1 PPP, the 2017-18 killers gave up 15 >1 PPP games, and as far as I could find, no Tennessee team in a non-COVID season has allowed fewer than 12 of these games (2009-10). This is on track to be a historically good defense, and they’re a week away from finishing the meat of their schedule. The final ten games feature six against Quadrant 2 or lower competition, or one more than all of December/January combined.
- Even the LSU slop was actually pretty successful on offense. Tennessee managed 64 points on 65 possessions (0.985 PPP), which looks bad on its face…but is also the highest PPP surrendered by LSU this season by a good margin. Torvik translates this to about a 1.23 PPP performance against an average defense, which is insane.
- The Jimmy Dykes thing. He reached out Tuesday morning with a request and, thanks to some features I have via Synergy, I provided an answer Wednesday night. He is a good guy that I find myself constantly thankful for.
- One bad thing: the Fulkerson/Plavsic lineup. Without fail, it seems like this gets anywhere from 3-10 minutes of run each game. It’s perhaps the one thing Barnes does that drives me the nuttiest, because it’s objectively a terrible combination. I would stop doing this immediately and just play one or the other, because it’s an offensive disaster.
- Looking for God in the orange banners. Will Wade at his most spiritual. I will report back if I hear that God has made Will an offer of strongness.
Lastly: Game Scores. Bart Torvik has this awesome metric called Game Scores that are essentially telling you on a scale of 0-100 (average being 50) how good or bad your performance was. Basically, if you put up a 95, you’re playing like a team with a Pythag rating of .9500 (which would be top 5 right now). All of this to say that these are the current 95+ Game Score rankings:
Half of Tennessee’s performances have been really, really good. The other half have been somewhere between ‘still good’ and ‘oh God.’ Anyway, while I do think LSU’s are aided by some insane 3PT% luck, this feels like a mostly-fair representation of how good the very best of the SEC is. Auburn is a step ahead of everyone else; LSU gets there on their best nights; Tennessee is capable of crushing an opponent on any given night. The real surprise is seeing that Kentucky’s only uncorked a few truly dominant outings, one of which was obviously against Tennessee. Also, this should help you understand why Texas A&M isn’t even a top 60 KenPom team despite being 15-4: they have no results of any significance and are almost never dominating.
Thanks for reading. For more Tennessee basketball content and whatever else, head to @statsbywill on Twitter. If you would like to reach out privately: statsbywill at gmail.