I’ve Been Here Before, Looking at the Wild Country

March 1: #13 Tennessee 75, Georgia 68 (22-7, 13-4 SEC)
March 5: #13 Tennessee 78, #14 Arkansas 74 (23-7, 14-4 SEC)

“When someone seeks,” said Siddhartha, “then it easily happens that his eyes see only the thing that he seeks, and he is able to find nothing, to take in nothing because he always thinks only about the thing he is seeking, because he has one goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal.”

You think about a date long enough and it becomes etched in your memory: March 7, 2020. That was the date of the last college basketball game I had attended for nearly 20 months. My favorite jacket that I own is a green overcoat with fake fur on the hood. Because I – we – live in East Tennessee, the amount of time this jacket gets pulled out of the closet is maybe eight times a year. I wear it for fun sometimes even when it’s 42 degrees, just because it’s a comfy jacket. The first time I put it on in December 2020, the day before Tennessee was to play its fourth basketball game of that season, I discovered something I’d left behind from the Before Times: a ticket from the February 8, 2020 game against Kentucky, the most recent ticket purchase I had made.

A year-plus of surreal events touching your screen. Two years of a pandemic. What feels like a lifetime without something that feels vaguely normal. Even getting back to the arena this season felt a little abnormal at first. I couldn’t attend the Arizona game due to Christmas obligations. All of the games I attended through most of the first three months were far from sellouts. Part of this was due to opponent quality; part of it was due to a slightly-underwhelming win-loss record; part of it, of course, could be COVID-related.

The Vol Pass is sold through the university for $150. Considering what you get – access to all 16 home games, including what ended up being four games against Top 15 opponents – it is one of the last respites of reasonable ticketing that exists in our nation. Attendance is plummeting everywhere you look. College football reported its seventh-consecutive drop in attendance. Dennis Dodd locked the replies on his Tweet about it because people correctly said “it’s the money!” The NBA and NHL are having a hard time bringing fans back. About the only thing that’s going up right now across the board is English football, famous bastion of normal fandom (which I adore).

A post I look at frequently because it feels like it sums up everything is a strange oddity from Lawyers, Guns, and Money: a post about Michigan football’s average ticket price from 1900 to 2000, adjusted for inflation. Why it exists, I’m not sure, but it’s useful.

The average ticket price at Michigan Stadium in the first post-COVID season – a season where even Michigan lifers didn’t actually believe in them as a Playoff team until 42-27 had finalized – was $146, per SeatGeek. That number hasn’t touched double digits since 2014, a season where they were trying to fire anybody they could. Tennessee football has to fill 102,455 seats, an insane amount for a team with a 40% conference win rate at home in the last decade. Average ticket price during that time: $93.

Tennessee basketball fell from 4th to 5th this season in average game-by-game attendance. It was frankly understandable. Until January 22, Tennessee had played four games against teams ranked 200th or worse in KenPom at Thompson-Boling Arena; they’d had just one opponent (Arizona) rank higher than 78th. That Arizona crowd was pretty excellent despite a lack of students in attendance, but that felt like a fluke more than the norm. Even the LSU crowd on January 22 sounded somewhat subdued on air.

The Florida game four days later was one of the most poorly-planned sporting events I have ever attended. We left our house, which is normally a 20-minute drive from the arena, at 4:57 PM; we parked at 6:07 and got into the arena at 6:19. Whatever ESPN person is responsible for this is a miserable cretin. All of this is beside the point: in the second half of a must-win home game, the crowd got as loud as I could remember hearing it since the moment Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield left campus. It proved crucial in a victory.

Three weeks later, Tennessee drew the #3 team in America to town for a 9 PM tipoff. A similar story unfolded: the opposing team started hot. Then, a sellout crowd with the lowest percentage of blue I have seen since I started attending Tennessee basketball games turned things around.

11 days later, after the longest week of my life, Auburn came to town. This was the Auburn team that spent weeks at #1, the same team that kept telling the analytics to shove it. All Auburn did was win close ones. All Auburn did, for years, was spin Tennessee into a tizzy. Rick Barnes, for all of his positives and general ownership of John Calipari, could never beat Bruce Pearl. Down 39-28, it felt unreasonable to ask for it. The crowd delivered. The students Swag Surfed. The floor was fed.

Tennessee, through all of this, kept bringing people back. Everyone who jumped off the bandwagon in January wanted back on in March. The story was similar for Arkansas, a team that started 0-3 in SEC play then rattled off a 13-in-14 stretch to be in a position where, with a win and an Auburn loss, they’d be the SEC’s 1 seed for the conference tournament. The crowd was asked, for the first time in a while, to checker Thompson-Boling Arena. The crowd delivered.

Then they delivered again, and again, and again, and again, and again.

Tennessee was a perfect 16-0 at home this year. The other members of the SEC’s top four went a combined 53-1. Across all of college basketball, per KenPom, the home-court win rate this year held steady with 2020-21 at 57.5%. That roughly equates to a two or 2.5-point edge, which is all of one basket. If a crowd is responsible for an extra couple of points, that’s useful enough. Ken’s site doesn’t give any one program a home-court advantage of more than 4.8 points, which belongs to Texas Tech.

But maybe, just maybe, a group of 21,678 people can look at statistics that have held up for years, decades even, and say “we are bigger.” This group rallied behind a team in need all season and delivered. This group of fans, and many thousands more, rallied around Tennessee’s most beloved player in a time of need and delivered. Every time Tennessee asked for more, the fans came through. Every time they were asked to do anything at all, they did it. Every time the in-arena DJ begged older fans to get out of their seats at a critical time of the game, they did it. It was all they could do to help. It’s all they know how to do: help.

There are a lot of things to slow down and consider as the season ends. Many of them revolve around the team itself, the most resilient group with the most lovable player Tennessee has produced in some time. A team that kept delivering monster home wins left and right is certainly something you’ll remember for a long time. But what stands out more than anything is the money.

I spent $150 (well, $300 for two) on the Vol Pass this year. What a bargain, man. I got to see 10 of the games, all wins. Tennessee played #4, #3, and #14 in a three-week span and beat them all, leading over half of those 120 minutes by double-digits. So many points were scored. So many turnovers were forced. So many bench celebrations were seen. So many good things, which really did end up outweighing the bad, were observed about the on-court product.

Greater than any of that is how many different fans I saw. I went into this season seeking the normalcy of basketball; what I actually found felt more impactful and meaningful. We never sat by the same people twice, unless you count the now-famous band member who performs advanced art to “Enter Sandman”. We sat in nine different sections, both lower and upper deck. Some people we sat by were…less than wonderful, but on the whole, they were fine people. The uniting thing was that they were all involved. All of them were there for the game. Not for the bets; not for a social media post; not even for March, necessarily. For the basketball. For the feeling of being in an arena again. For community, for fandom, for high-fives, for joy.

It was all there, and I saw it. You’ll never take it from me, not from this brain. Not when I needed it most. They delivered, and they delivered some more. I’ll miss it.


HELLO. This is the notes section. I know we haven’t done this in a minute, but it’s a good time to bring it back.

  • Bracket Watch. There will be a full post about it on…Tuesday? Maybe? But rest assured, I am Monitoring™ the situation. As of the time of writing (Sunday, 9:38 PM ET), Tennessee is 11th overall in the Bracket Matrix consensus, AKA the third 3 seed. I’ve noticed some of the top bracketology people having them 9th or 10th. We’ll see what bears out.
  • We must become the pitiless censors of ourselves officials. I mean come on man. The Arkansas game tipped off at 12:02 PM ET, and while game script played some importance in this being a thing, no college basketball game that ends in regulation should take a full 2:30 to wrap. We’re looking at a situation where you’re not leaving campus until, like, 3:15 PM ET…and that’s before you have your actual drive home. What are we doing here? Enough of the fouls, enough of the reviews.
  • Which brings me to the Coach’s Challenge. College basketball should institute this within the next five years. As Jon Reed pointed out to me yesterday it’s improved the final minutes of NBA games immensely. Each coach/team gets one challenge. Think that’s not enough? Think of watching an official review a play for five minutes then keeping the call on the court.
  • A night for double-big lineups. I have hated on these previously, but they worked against Arkansas. Tennessee was outscored by 4 when using single-big lineups; they outscored Arkansas by 8 with multiple bigs on the court. Part of this was due to Tennessee’s foul issues but Tennessee also had a heck of a time getting decent looks from two.
  • On Georgia. Tennessee sleep-walked for a while, hit the gas, went up by 15, turned off the car, then idled home to survive. None of what happened in this game had any real factor for Arkansas. It’s like playing Missouri in football: it happens, you remember nothing other than a cool play or two.
  • The new rotation post-Nkamhoua. It breaks down as such, per KenPom. Tennessee has shrunk itself to a nine-man rotation but I imagine most didn’t figure Powell to be mostly out of it:

PG: Chandler 31 MPG/Zeigler 9
SG: Zeigler 17/Vescovi 16/Bailey 6
SF: Vescovi 17/James 15/Powell 4/Bailey 4
PF: James 16/Fulkerson 12/Huntley-Hatfield 12
C: Aidoo 14/Plavsic 14/Fulkerson 6/Huntley-Hatfield 6

Thanks for reading along this year. More posts to come.

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