I Just Called to Tell You That I Hope You’re Doin’ Fine

Drive-By Truckers, “Feb. 14”

Four weeks ago I wrote a very depressed, whiny post about how I was no longer enjoying this specific season in Tennessee history. I would say this is the pull quote of choice:

There’s still two months left of basketball to fix how this feels. The problem is that a healthy amount of people who follow me online see “there’s still two months left of basketball” and are feeling their eyeballs roll back in their heads, because it means you still have to watch this very-flawed team play basketball. I guess I’m still in the “wait until March” camp, but when the head coach has literally the third-most underwhelming NCAA Tournament resume of any active HC, I’m not sure what there is to wait for.

This was indeed whiny. There were indeed two months left in the season, and when you play what looked like the three toughest SEC opponents all in your first five SEC games, it’s not fun to cover loss after loss. But I promise there’s some sort of defense for this. After the Kentucky debacle, Tennessee was still in the KenPom top 15, but their offensive/defensive imbalance felt like its own ravine. Tennessee had the 51st-best offense and the 5th-best defense. Teams with that sort of split have gone far before, but when you have Pomeroy’s own research about how offense matters a bit more in March, some of your own research, and the admitted Barnes March problem…well, it sort of puts a cap on how excited you can get.

That’s how it felt at the time. A month later, things are different. Tennessee has won seven straight SEC games; the only loss is a one-point road loss to Texas, who is no worse than a top 20 team by any metric available. The offense has jumped from 51st to 29th; nearly 75% of Elite Eight teams in the last decade have ranked in the top 30 offensively. The defense, despite Vanderbilt hitting what I would politely call Garbage Shots, is still ranked 6th-best. Tennessee had a pretty bad shooting night on Saturday and rose in the advanced rankings because they got fouled so much and rebounded so well.

This is all adjusted for schedule, by the way. Tennessee now has five wins over Tier A (Pomeroy’s equivalent of Quadrant 1) this season; they had six at this time in the magical 2018-19 season and five in 2017-18. This is a very, very good basketball team that is poised to stand with some of Tennessee’s best in the history of the program. It’s alright if you allow yourself to like them. Forgiveness is a good thing, as is grace. The Tennessee of January 15 doesn’t seem to be the Tennessee of February 13. They have two huge opportunities in the week ahead: home Kentucky, road Arkansas. If they even go 1-1 in those, that’s a success. That’s what one of the 10-15 best teams in the sport would likely do.

I feel like it’s coming. The difference between the squad of a year ago and this particular edition is that even on nights where things aren’t firing on all cylinders, there are hustle plays. There are millions of deflections. There are more rebounds than at any point since the Cuonzo/Tyndall eras. There’s players willing to step up and take key shots at key moments.

Putting all objectivity aside, which I think I lost the capacity to possess a while ago, this is on pace to be no worse than one of the three most lovable Tennessee teams of my lifetime. In March, the only strength of schedule you can control is the very first game you play; everything after is up to the hands of fate. I’m ready for the dice roll.

The immediate devastation of the Olivier Nkamhoua injury was more human than athlete to me. Nkamhoua is here from Finland; as an international athlete, the NCAA has found one last piggish act in preventing Nkamhoua, Santiago Vescovi, and other international athletes from profiting off their name, image, and likeness. As we all know, because I hear it every day online and offline, the greatest crime you can commit is being born in a country that is not the United States of America.

So Nkamhoua already has that going against him, and that’s pretty bad. Think about everything else that goes with it. This is a young man that moved from Finland to the United States in his teens to attempt to follow his basketball dreams. Said dreams lead him to Maryland, where he becomes a late-blooming prospect that appears on Tennessee’s radar. Tennessee takes him in, and a local writer makes a Grant Williams comparison that gets brought up every week for the next two-plus years.

Nkamhoua struggles his first year and second; frankly, watching him play basketball most resembled the SpongeBob episode where the titular character is being blindly informed over a radio how to drive a car. But this offseason, seemingly all of those complaints disappeared. If you read the tea leaves, all you heard about was how Nkamhoua was the most improved player on the roster. I would ask around about it and hear back “sure, but we need to see it in real games,” which was entirely fair. I mean, you hear a player get compared to a first-round draft pick, come out and very much look not like that, and you become wary of any and all praise.

The season starts. Nkamhoua looks much improved indeed, but he still disappears for games, even weeks, at a time. From January 8 (LSU) to January 29 (Texas), he fails to crack double-digits even once. He begins losing playing time, and it feels like you’re not really back at Square One but you’re starting to see it in the distance after you thought you’d driven far away.

Then he reappears. The Texas A&M game presents a 15 point, 7 rebound, 3 block performance that is his best against anyone in a month and seems to restart his season and his drive. He starts well against South Carolina, too: in 17 minutes of play, he puts up 7 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 blocks. I guess that doesn’t look great when written out, but if you extrapolate that to his 27 minutes against A&M, that’s the equivalent of 11/8/3 in an SEC road game. Pretty darn good.

Nkamhoua goes up for a layup that looks normal until it doesn’t. Play continues without him on the other end. He can’t put any pressure on the ankle; the last we see of him in a Tennessee uniform in 2021-22 is him throwing his headband against a wall in frustration. He comes back to the bench by the end of that game, and briefly, you think “alright, maybe he just misses a few games and comes back.” That’s not the case. Rick Barnes announces the season-ending injury two days later, conveniently right after you hit publish on a weekly recap.

Right then and there, it would’ve been reasonable for this season to begin a small spiral. Nkamhoua is no greater than Tennessee’s fourth option offensively, but he was the centerpiece for what I had begun to write about as the March Lineup: Chandler, Zeigler, Vescovi, James, and Nkamhoua. Four legitimate shooters and a fifth that can shoot when needed and protects the rim extremely well. Over the course of the season, it had been Nkamhoua who had assumed the vacant Pons role, which none of us really saw coming. Without him, Tennessee’s defense would suffer, and I simply guessed that the offensive gains might not make up for it.

We have all of two games of data to work with. Both of them are nine-point wins. One felt better than the other, but frankly, the other in this data set could’ve easily been a 15-20 point win on a normal shooting night. Both games provided a few lineup frustrations, but all you can ask for is this: Tennessee was expected to win about 1.3-1.4 games this week and went 2-0. That’s a successful week. It makes writing the recaps easier.

What makes things actually enjoyable is seeing images like Grant Ramey shared, presumably from a team video, where the team is calling Nkamhoua to check in:

Or this one, also via Grant, but from a very different scenario:

I have no clue how travel works with regards to injured players. At least in the NBA, there’s a set limit on how many bodies you’re allowed to have on the bench, and injured players sometimes makes the numbers not work, so they stay home. That being said, I hope we keep seeing Nkamhoua. I hope he feels supported in this time. I look at that image of Barnes FaceTiming Nkamhoua – which, raise your hand if you’re at least a little surprised Rick Barnes knows how to use FaceTime – and feel like you simply have to embrace this team, flaws and warts and all. They are becoming a joy to watch. They’re bringing those who can’t travel with them in person along with them in spirit.

The love these players have for each other feels very real. That image from 2020-21 about “culture,” when the four standing Tennessee players picked up the one from the floor, simply seems a lot more accurate for the 2021-22 edition. Whether you want to credit Zakai Zeigler, Kennedy Chandler, Nkamhoua, Barnes, Mike Schwartz, Smokey, or Kellen Hiser for that, it’s up to you. I just know that I like watching this team and I like them as people and I like them as players. It’s a nice feeling to watch a basketball team and realize that even the lineups you don’t like have players you like as people.

This is the notes section of Other Stuff That Didn’t Fit:

  • The midseason turnover issue seems to have ebbed. Well, it’s three games, but Tennessee’s won the turnover battle in three straight games. At one point, they’d turned it over on 20% or more of possessions in seven of nine games. I actually think the key part of this isn’t the backcourt but rather the big guys. Fulkerson and Plavsic have a combined two TOs since the A&M game.
  • The Chandler/Zeigler combo is questionably Tennessee’s secret sauce. I’m saying “questionably” because there are other factors. BUT: Tennessee’s offense, over the course of the season, is 5 points better per 100 when both are on the court versus one/neither. The biggest impact isn’t shooting but rather shot quality; Tennessee has a better rim-and-threes ratio, more assists, and is slightly better on twos.
  • You got both sides of the officiating coin. Tennessee had 16 fouls to State’s 14. Vanderbilt had 23 to Tennessee’s 16. But the two games felt way different: State had 23 FTAs to Tennessee’s 9 despite Tennessee having the higher two-point attempt rate, while Vanderbilt barely attempted any twos at all yet still managed to get up 20 FTAs. Tennessee got 31 and frankly got a couple of favorable calls. I’m not sure what the message is here, other than I have no idea how anyone could manage to be a professional coach and not want to bite a ref’s head off at least once a game.
  • Speaking of which: The Pippen Problem. I understand that college officiating is fundamentally different than the NBA because they’re fundamentally different games. That’s fine. But to be honest, I’ve felt a little warmer towards the NBA this season because they’ve tried to eliminate what I would charitably call 40% of Scotty Pippen, Jr.’s game: shot-faking, then blindly tossing your body like a grenade into the nearest defender. It works. It gets points. It clearly is something officials will call, unless you’re Kennedy Chandler, I guess. But does anyone actually like this?
  • Keep shooting. Tennessee went 11-for-37 on everything that wasn’t a layup or dunk against Vanderbilt. Whatever. Keep shooting. Considering Tennessee went 19-for-72 on non-layup/dunks against Vandy this year and has a much better percentage against basically every other opponent (including the one they’ll play Tuesday), forget about it and move on.

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