A personal writing history (of sorts), and a sports investment portfolio

Something longer-term readers of mine may remember is that, for years, I wrote about Tennessee football. I did not actually begin covering Tennessee basketball in a serious/somewhat season-long fashion until the 2017-18 campaign. For a while, this made sense, because of a couple of things:

  1. College football is significantly more popular in Knoxville, TN than college basketball.
  2. Simultaneously, Tennessee football was in a good-enough spot in 2015 and 2016 that writing about them on a weekly basis was, if nothing else, interesting.

This is why if you Google my name and “Knoxville” or “Tennessee”, you’ll see the usual results of this site but you’ll also see that I covered Tennessee football up to midway through the 2018 season, after which I finally accepted two things that reversed the above two observations.

  1. College football is more popular, but college basketball is more interesting to me;
  2. Tennessee football was very much not in a good spot in 2018, while the basketball team was in the best spot it had been in a decade.

So: the Show Me My Opponents that used to be about college football are now about college basketball. Maybe they’ll still exist in five months, maybe they won’t. This post is not really about that. Last year I explained the writing process behind these. This summer, in lieu of a superior essay idea, I’m explaining why I got to where I’m at and how I’d describe my personal investment in the five major sports (baseball, basketball, American football, hockey, and football/soccer) at this point of my life. Spoiler: it’s a lot different than 2015-16.


More or less, I’ve written something in some form for most of my life. I wrote little recaps of NFL games for my grandfather when I was 7; I wrote a college basketball newsletter exclusively for myself at age 13; I wrote for my high school’s newspaper at age 16-17 about a variety of things. But out of boredom after graduating college in 2015, and to escape the monotony and horrors of my first real day job, I started writing little recaps of every Tennessee football game on a personal blog.

These received mild attention in the form of getting offered to be a Staff Writer™ for a local blog that no longer exists, wherein I did the same thing. But I had a curiosity that I wanted to explore: the idea of previewing every game in a fashion that other sites didn’t do at the time. I mention MGoBlog on this site all the time for obvious reasons, but they were really well ahead of the blog competition in terms of covering every Michigan football game from every angle. One thing they did better than anyone was using GIFs and video to explain how the opponent worked. (Here’s a 2021 example by writer Alex Drain.)

Tennessee had nothing like this, and until Austin Burlage did it for a few years (here’s his newsletter, if you’re a college football fan I’d sign up), it hasn’t had anything like it since. These early previews were kind of terrible, but they were honest and offered more information about the opponent than any pay site in existence. This preview of the 2016 Georgia game is probably the best-ish example of it; if you look at it closely, you’ll recognize a lot of hallmarks of the basketball coverage. There’s GIFs. There’s tons of stats examples laid throughout it. There is a menace towards the vague opponent that is hammered into you by way of fandom of our national bloodsport.

So: I did that for two full seasons. I committed to do it in 2018, and even did it on a paid basis for Reed’s Ranch, which is a podcast/media outlet run by my good friend Jon Reed. I’d imagine these previews were still at least fine, but frankly, midway through the season, all passion had departed. I skipped a couple of the late season games and never wrote about the team again.

Part of this is because Tennessee football sucked at the time and frankly furthered a 15+ year tailspin I’m not convinced they’ll fully recover from. (A very cynical read of it would not be Nebraska football but rather Indiana basketball, which has made terrific hires on paper that have simply failed to work out, over and over and over again.) The other part is that, as long as I can remember, I’ve simply preferred basketball as a sport. I played it for a long time, yes, but it’s just more watchable and understandable to me. Unless you played football, it’s honestly pretty hard to understand everything that goes on unless you invest as deeply into it as the MGoBlog writers do or guys like Burlage did.

That’s why those previews no longer exist. I haven’t written a thing about college football since November 2018 (unless you count a personal essay about attending the Big Ten Championship Game) and I don’t plan on writing anything about it again, barring a serious change of heart and mind. I simply find basketball to be the much more interesting and consistently unusual sport to write about. This is not to disdain college football fans or anything; it just doesn’t mean much to me personally anymore. Basketball does, though. However, that’s a complicated story as well.


Circa 2016, all of six years ago, I would’ve ranked the major American-ish sports for me as such:

  1. College basketball
  2. College football
  3. NFL
  4. NBA
  5. NHL
  6. Vague, loose soccer interest
  7. MLB
  8. Other loose ends (auto racing, whatnot)

And this likely would’ve been rational for each one. College basketball had just finished popping out what some consider the best national title game in the sport’s history. College football had a terrific national championship game and new blood in the playoff with exciting teams popping in and out of the upper echelon. The NFL was…well, the NFL: interesting. The NBA had a terrific rivalry with the Warriors and Cavaliers. The rest, minus my Nashville Predators fandom, were on a separate level to themselves, but they did exist.

The problem is that these rankings are no longer accurate and haven’t been for a long time. That’s explained above somewhat, I guess, but the best way to explain it further is to do something very self-indulgent. Below are how I personally feel about the five major sports in America, with separate breakdowns for college vs. professional where necessary. I don’t expect agreement, obviously, but I think for someone who writes in the public sphere, this is a useful exercise to explain to you where I’m coming from and why the writing on this site is done the way it’s done. Also, it’s June, and I’m not writing about the transfer portal if I don’t have to.

These are done in alphabetical order.

Baseball

A pretty frustrating, yet rewarding sport to follow.

For the following reasons:

  1. Baseball’s star players are the most interesting they’ve been to me, the viewer, in 20 years. Shohei Ohtani is the most singularly captivating player the sport has had since Barry Bonds. Juan Soto is crazy entertaining. Both Juniors, Tatis and Guerrero, are amazing. It’s the richest group of upper-echelon talent in a long time…
  2. …so why is it somehow harder than ever before to actually watch the games? MLB already makes you pay $160 or so for the rights to MLB.TV, admittedly a terrific service, but you’re out of luck if you live basically anywhere in America, because at least one or two teams will be blacked out in your market. (If I didn’t have access to our family’s cable login, I could not watch Braves or Reds games, for instance.) This is all while they parade games around on Apple TV+, Peacock, YouTube, and a variety of services.
  3. For every good move the sport makes, it seems to find an equally bad one to pair with it. A pitch clock? Terrific and sorely needed to speed up the game. The runner on second still in existence? Horrible, not real baseball. Universal DH? Probably a good thing because there have been extremely few pitchers that should be hitters in my lifetime. Deadened baseball that neutralizes any impact a universal DH brings? Awful for watchability.
  4. Rob Manfred is probably the single worst sports commissioner since I’ve been alive, which is an incredible accomplishment when you consider his competition.

Despite all of this, I absolutely adore listening to baseball games and could listen to a quality radio broadcast all day. (The Phillies crew has been my favorite of late for running purposes.) MLB could rank pretty high on someone’s list if they gave it time, but the people that run the sport make it remarkably hard for anyone to want to give it the necessary time.

Basketball

Shockingly, I still feel pretty rosy about basketball as a whole. I play at a local gym once or twice a week; I watch most NBA Playoff games; I watch most NCAA Tournament games. This website covers the college basketball season in-depth, typically. So yeah, this is my favorite sport. But I’ll go deeper with that, starting with

College

Where I think we’re at an inflection point of sorts, not just transfer-wise. Statistically, this was the most efficient season of offense (at 1.02 ORtg) since the three-point line was moved back prior to the 2019-20 season. This is because we’re seeing fewer turnovers than ever, which I’d call a good thing considering some of the slop I grew up watching. There are still a lot of three-point attempts, improving free throw shooting, improving shot selection on the whole, and the lowest Free Throw Rate in the sport’s history.

…but at the same time, did anyone else feel like this most recent season was pretty underwhelming? The second-best team this year was Houston, a 5 seed who was indeed really good but would’ve ranked sixth-best in 2020-21 and seventh-best in 2018-19. The champion (Kansas) ranks 21st of 24 champions in KenPom’s database. The sport also posted its lowest Assist Rate since that stat has been measured. One-on-one scoring is obviously a good and exciting thing, but it’s weird to see college basketball trending in a less team-friendly direction while the NBA is going the opposite way, posting its second-highest Assist Rate as a league ever.

I also thought this NCAA Tournament was one of the three worst since I started watching in 2002. This Tournament ranked 35th of 35 (in the 64/68-team era) in 3PT%, 34th in FG%, and 32nd in efficiency. A 15 seed made the Elite Eight, which was interesting until they immediately turned back into a 15 seed in the Elite Eight. The two best teams in the field got bounced because of unusually poor shooting nights. To top it off, the low Free Throw Rate did lead to less fouling and shorter games, but a genuinely useful argument can be made that this was a negative. Teams are getting away with fouls they would’ve been called on just a few years ago, which is leading to poorer offense.

So: I think that college basketball, on the whole, is in a good spot. NIL has given teams the chance to compete with second-round (and some late first-round) NBA contracts, which is allowing players who may have otherwise gone to the NBA Draft to return for a well-deserved payday. Most of the top 20 picks in this upcoming NBA Draft opted to play college basketball instead of the G-League or international play, which is a positive trend. Only one (Leonard Miller) of the top 50 2022 recruits elected to skip college. That’s good for the quality of the game.

Still, changes must be made. Officiating probably needs to be stricter in the sense that teams shouldn’t be allowed to get away with hyper-physical play. The block/charge call requires a full rewrite and frankly should result in more block calls. Most of all, the sport must have a fully standardized basketball for all teams. The fact that even high-major basketball teams can realistically play with six different basketball brands in one college season is truly insane. I’d still rank college basketball first, but either due to age or focus I’m more aware of its shortcomings and flaws than ever.

Professional

The inflection point passed here a while ago. Players have more freedom than ever before, which is a great thing, but as a fan of a non-elite team (the Pistons) who generally watches the Playoffs as a neutral, I do wish there were more rivalries. I’m honestly not sure what you’d call the best rivalry the NBA has right now, which is a real drawback when there are several excellent college rivalries where both sides have genuine hatred for the other. Rivalries make sports more interesting. The best one in the NBA at the moment is either Bucks/Heat (which is a ‘rivalry’ in the sense that they had two playoff matchups) or Mavericks/Clippers. (Hawks/Knicks could be it if either team ever discovers a real general manager.)

The quality of the play itself is fine and I think 1990s basketball fans greatly overstate how much more ‘fun’ it was to watch at that time. At the time I wrote this section, Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Finals had just happened. I had a great time watching Boston come back from 17 down to win by 12 thanks to a pretty shocking fourth quarter, all of which would’ve been much more difficult to imagine in the 1990s when the three-pointer wasn’t that popular. I greatly enjoy the fact that there are four two-time MVP holders actively playing and that the young talent in the league is as exciting as I can recall.

All of the standard complaints apply: the regular season is too long and the final 25% of it is almost entirely meaningless. The diversity of styles between teams is not as great as it used to be. Player freedom is terrific, but I do selfishly miss players building up rivalries with teams or even coaches over the course of several years. Too many players like NFTs. The Pistons probably won’t get Jaden Ivey in the upcoming Draft. None of these complaints are that great, I guess, but they feel obvious and real.

Football (the American variety)

Well, here we go.

College

I think it was 2018 when it first hit me: it’s the exact same teams every year.

It’s the exact same ones.

Oh yeah, sure, they might let LSU steal one from time to time. Maybe they’ll let Notre Dame in, as a bit. Maybe Michigan State slides in once on the good fortune of having the world’s largest horseshoe jammed firmly up Mark Dantonio’s rear end. But for the most part, it became pretty clear by summer 2021 that this is a six-team sport, and really more of a three-team one. There have been eight Playoffs now and 32 total bids; Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma are responsible for 21 of them. It probably says a lot that when the 2021 Playoff happened it felt like a miracle that only one of those four actually made the field.

This is why I’ve more or less stopped watching games I have little-to-no emotional attachment in. (That’s a nice way of saying I watch every Michigan game to talk to my dad about them and watched five or six of Tennessee’s games last season.) For the most part, 124 of the 130 (I think?) top-flight FBS teams have no better than a 2% shot at making the playoff year over year. This past season felt like a huge breath of fresh air because famed historical underdogs Michigan and Georgia made the field of four. And even then, we still ended up with approximately the Same Old Crap: an all-SEC title game that was profusely boring for 75% of the allotted time.

Sure, there are interesting stories every year. There are ones like Coastal Carolina coming out of nowhere to go undefeated; Cincinnati sneaking into the College Football Playoff and acquitting itself about as well as any other 4 seed; people tell me Wake Forest was entertaining. That’s all good and nice. What chance did they have to win the actual national championship after the sixth week of the season?

This is why I’ve gravitated more to college basketball being the premier college sport. For better or for worse, all of the top 15 teams in the sport enter the season-ending tournament with at least some chance of winning the title. You hang banners and hold town-wide celebrations for simply being one of the last four standing in a tournament that resembles more meat grinder than fair setup. If you make the last four in college football and aren’t named Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, or Ohio State, your reward is getting to play a team with much more money and much more resources and much more stars than yours. Michigan/Georgia looked entertaining on paper but revealed itself to be more like a 1 vs. 8 than the supposed 2 vs. 3.

Therein lies the problem: until the powers that run college football can figure out most people don’t want a 4-6 team sport, this will continue staying the same and likely getting worse. The most likely four-team Playoff combination for 2022, per oddsmakers, is…Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, and Ohio State. The exciting thing about the basketball Final Four is that, in the same time span of eight years and 32 total bids, 22 different teams have survived to see the final weekend of the season. In college football, that number is 13, and over the last five Playoffs (20 total bids), it’s nine. One sport sees real variety; the other produces more of the same on repeat. It’s like the Premier League, but the Premier League has real rivalries built on 100+ years of hatred. With teams changing conferences constantly and long-standing rivalries simply dying you don’t even get that anymore.

The other major problem: attending games kind of sucks now. College football’s game time has continued to balloon, with the most recent average number sitting at 3 hours, 24 minutes, the longest in the sport’s history. Any fan of a team that appears on FOX/CBS/ABC during the season will notice the relentless waves of awful advertisements (anyone want to estimate how often they saw the Matt Damon crypto ad this year?) that interrupt otherwise potentially interesting games. Commercial-kickoff-commercial is becoming more normalized, which is horrifying. I attended two college football games in 2019 and one of them, a 42-3 blowout, lasted 3 hours, 42 minutes with the kickoff coming nearly 15 minutes past scheduled start time.

This should not happen, and neither should the absurd, ballooning ticket prices that are a scourge. I live 20 minutes from one of the most historic stadiums the sport has to offer. I have not attended a game since 2019 and haven’t paid for a ticket since 2017. Why? Because even against garbage opponents, it’s no less than a seven-hour time investment in frequently uncomfortable weather and cheek-to-cheek seating to watch football that isn’t very high-quality. If I actually have to pay for tickets for my wife and I, that’s no less than an $80 investment (including parking) to sit in the nosebleeds or around a $110 investment if I’d like to sit in the worst lower bowl seats. Again, this is against bad teams, not even interesting opponents. When you can watch the same game from a better angle in 70-degree comfort at home and the crowd numbers themselves are lower than they’ve been in 40 years, why attend?

Couple all of this with how easily people seem to dismiss largely underpaid athletes bashing their brains in for our collective entertainment and it’s become easier to simply do something else rather than stay attached.

Professional/NFL

The problem is that the NFL is the most interesting it’s been in a long time thanks to great quarterback play and quality rivalries that are developing at hyper-speed. Every time the Bills and the Chiefs play each other, I actively desire to clear my schedule to watch it. Every time the Packers and Bucs get to face off, I want to see it happen. Sunday Night Football, as an entertainment product, is (and maybe was, depending on new announcers) the single most well-oiled machine sports has going right now.

The NFL has a ton of problems. It’s far too easy at forgiving domestic abusers. The commissioner is an annoyance. They seemingly have a new disaster occur within the league every year. The Super Bowl is generally an underwhelming affair. BUT. The NFL Playoffs have been excellent as of late, the league is great at developing season-long storylines, and your team is never that far away from jumping out of irrelevance. All it takes is one great quarterback, which I find inherently more interesting than college simply being “who has the most five-stars?”.

Hockey

Credit to Gary Bettman, I guess. After the worst Playoffs the sport had seen in over a decade, they decided to make goalie pads a little smaller and let offense run the show. All it’s done is make the 2022 NHL Playoffs the best that I can recall seeing in forever. The first game of the Western Conference Finals the other night finished with an 8-6 score. The stars have largely shined at various points. Goalies have a tougher job than they have in two decades, which has made it much more exciting when a goalie steals the show. Crowds are back in full force. The Carolina Hurricanes ate it at home in a Game 7. This is all after a pretty entertaining regular season in which the league saw the most goals scored in 26 years.

I still have a hard time fully attaching myself to hockey that isn’t the Nashville Predators, simply because national TV coverage remains a little spotty in the States and I’m not willing to interrupt everything I’m doing to watch, say, Boston versus Florida on a Tuesday night. But that’s more of a me problem than a league problem. Now to wait and see how the NHL inevitably screws this up.

Soccer (or football)

Up to two years ago, I would’ve considered the idea of soccer fandom kind of laughable. I never fully bought in to the new waves of fandom that hit the States during/after the 2010 and 2014 World Cups; I loosely followed soccer abroad but didn’t find it that interesting. MLS didn’t really appeal to me because the closest team was in Atlanta. The USMNT was at its lowest point in decades.

And then I watched this game.

On a tip, I was told by two friends with very different rooting interests to check out this Leeds United squad. They were in the Premier League for the first time in 16 years and played a pretty intense style of soccer. I didn’t think much of it – I’d previously failed to become a Crystal Palace, Swansea City, and even AS Monaco fan – but I gave it a try. Watching these clearly undermanned guys throw themselves at the defending champions with such pace and ferocity was the single most exciting thing I’d seen in a sports affair since COVID hit.

I started to watch more Leeds United games. They’d escape battles with Fulham and Sheffield United and Aston Villa and other teams I vaguely knew about. Suddenly, in December, I realized something that would’ve shocked me months prior. Tennessee was playing Florida in a college football game at 3:30 on CBS just like old times. I barely cared to even look up at the screen it was on. On my laptop, I had Leeds, who were playing Chelsea on NBC at the same time. Despite a loss that wasn’t very close, it was simply more entertaining start-to-finish by far. Something unfathomable had happened: European football had passed American football for me in the span of a few months.

It honestly hasn’t been close since. I watch most of the important English affairs, but I’ve taken an interest in soccer as a whole. The USMNT is back in my life and I actively look forward to their matches. I try and keep up with Nashville’s new squad. I’m invested in and actively following Knoxville’s new semi-professional team. I’m hoping to attend as many matches as I can, both local and regional, this year. I can’t say the same for pretty much any other sport.

The sport of the future has finally hooked me. As for what state it’s in, I’m not sure I really know; the English will tell you it’s the worst it’s been in decades, while other Europeans will say it’s in a good spot. Americans seem pretty happy with the quality of it. All I know is this: I’m still learning and finding new reasons seemingly every day to love it more. Could this one day become my favorite sport? Possibly, even though I never played it. I just know it’s become #2 on my board in a stunningly light amount of time, and I’m quite thankful for it.


After all of this self-indulgence, I figure it’s only fair to close with this: how would I rank my personal investments in each sport now versus six years ago? After thinking about it for a few weeks, this is what I’ve got:

  1. College basketball
  2. Soccer
  3. NFL
  4. NBA
  5. NHL
  6. MLB
  7. College football
  8. Other loose ends (auto racing, etc.)

Really, the only things that have changed that much are soccer’s rise and college football’s fall. I’d still rank the four major sports more or less the same, though they’re closer rather than further apart. If anything, maybe this is a useful learning exercise: why do I like these sports? Why do I watch them? Maybe it’ll stoke some curiosity for you, too.

Footsteps in the dark

All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.

I. The marathon to the marathon

The 1904 Olympic Marathon May Have Been the Strangest Ever | History|  Smithsonian Magazine

Ask any non-running person to name a road race – literally any race – and the first the majority will name is a marathon. The first officially-organized marathon took place in the 1896 Summer Olympics, though they’ve certainly been around far longer than that. Running as a concept has been around pretty much as long as the universe has been around. Aside from the obvious contender of walking, it very well may be our kind’s oldest, most well-worn sport. And yet: it seems so much easier to just go for a walk compared to going for a run, despite that history. Much easier to default to a nice, peaceful two-mile walk through the woods compared to a less peaceful, more painful two-mile run, despite it being the same distance.

Many of us are wired this way. I was for many years. Prior to January 2020, I can count on two hands the number of times I actually ran. This was not necessarily due to poor health; since 2011, I have been within what the BMI (a terrible calculation) calls a healthy weight range. I went to the gym with fair regularity for most of the last several years. I even got into weightlifting for a while, something that would’ve seemed absurd to me when I was but a stick figure my freshman year of college. Aside from the occasional jog here or there, though, the running bug never came to bite me.

This is until Christmas 2019, more or less. One of my 2020 goals was to run a 5K with my father. He’s been running 3-4 times a week for 40+ years with a few interruptions here and there, but despite various lower-body pains, he is still able to run anywhere from 2-5 miles on a whim with low amounts of stress. I admired it greatly. I’d run one 5K ever, a July 4th one in my hometown where I made it about 1.5 miles in before burning down and 2.9 miles in performing a run/walk combination before sprinting to the finish to simply get it over with. He’s run several races and runs that 5K distance at least weekly. Catching up is hard to do, but someone has to do it.

Those first couple of months of 2020 went swell enough. I slowly built up from one uninterrupted mile to 1.5 to two. Then we changed gyms to one with an indoor track, and suddenly, I got up to three. Seemed easy enough at that point; I wondered how soon I’d be able to touch four miles. Then I went to the gym on March 19, 2020 for the final time for two months. I didn’t run; I played basketball because I had no idea when the next time I’d be allowed to shoot on a basketball goal would be. I tried running outdoors that weekend. Suddenly, I had a realization that I probably should’ve had earlier: running outdoors is way different than on an indoor, bouncy track.

Momentary setback aside, I kept running anywhere from 3-5 times a week, because in the early COVID days, there was literally nothing else to do. Everything was shut down. I was tired of doing push-ups and cursed air squats. Why not run? Essentially, those three words – why not run? – have fueled the last two years. Even when gyms re-opened and you could work out again, even when basketball courts re-opened and you could shoot again, I kept running. It was the only reliable way to get out of the house, then it slowly became something I actually did enjoy.

That summer, the initial goal of running a 5K with my father was accomplished. In the two years since, it’s been blown by at a rate that’s even surprised me, the person who is doing it. I ran a half-marathon in April 2021 a year after being unable to run three consecutive miles. Then I ran three more half-marathons (one race, two virtual) in the 12 months after. The next goal is to run a marathon – the full 26.2 – by the end of 2022. This is after I could barely complete one mile three years prior without wanting to vomit.

There are a lot of positives to this; I have selected five. Part one is the journey to here; parts two through six are what I’ve felt joy in along the way.

II. Viewing party

Part of the beauty of this is that there are no screens in front of you. I am in the slow, arduous process of dragging myself off of the Internet, which is another way of saying I am tired of social media and wish it was not semi-required for what I do. On these longer runs – 6 miles is the example here – that’s a minimum of 50 minutes spent not looking at a screen. 50 minutes spent not having to hear about trending topics. All I see is real life, real birds, real trees, real greenways.

Certainly, one could open up Twitter to relieve the physical stress of running. Maybe it would be nice to hit the refresh button for the billionth time out of boredom. But one could also just not do that. When running, there are millions of things you can think about. Why are there so many places to sit in my home? Why do I always want a Pepsi when it is 92 degrees outside, even though I have not had a soda since March 2016? What makes waffles so attractive compared to pancakes? Who first added Mitch Albom books to high school English curriculums? Will America pay for the many crimes we have laid upon others? (This is a question I only consider when I have hit mile 11. Also, it’s the same query as the Mitch Albom one.)

None of these require a screen. They just require my own thoughts and the noises emanating around me. On some runs, I’ll take an earbud out and just listen. Without fail, there are birds chirping. There is a light breeze blowing. Maybe you hear cars in the distance, or if you’re lucky enough to run by the water, maybe a boat will go by. Other times, I am in an unfamiliar place, and I will take out an earbud for the obvious reason of not wanting to be hit by a car. The physical sightseeing aspect of running is perhaps its strongest attribute. Every major city in the world is runnable; every place in America becomes one you can explore on your own two feet. I make it a point to get at least one run in everywhere I travel now, which is something I would’ve reserved for a drive in the past. It helps me feel like I’m there rather than just passing through.

Recently, I ran at Seven Islands State Birding Park. The birds lived up to the hype. I am a newer birdwatcher, occupying the fandom both of my grandfathers had, but I counted 10-15 different species. There were deer everywhere. As is the case everywhere in Knoxville, there were a few bunnies out and about. But most importantly, there was one fat raccoon, waddling out of my way as I made it out to the island within the park. I caught them by surprise, as they did to me. I leapt back for a second before realizing he was on his way to hide in the grass, and felt bad for a second. That said, I’d be lying if it didn’t bring a huge smile to my face.

In writing about a 50-mile race he ran last year, Paul Flannery said that there are few times in life when you think to yourself “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else than where I am right now.” In that moment, I was happiest in being with the fat raccoon that initially looked like my own fat cat.

III. Ch-ch-changes

As mentioned earlier, the goal when I began doing this was to simply complete one (1) 5K with my father. I had never done that before; I figured being able to run 3.1 miles would be a nice, fine accomplishment. Considering that under 3% of the U.S. population runs a 5K every year, per Running USA, automatically ranking out in the 97th-percentile or higher would be a good feeling. (It’s actually more like 94th-percentile or so; around 18 million Americans sign up for at least one road race every year.) This would have been good and fine and I would have been happy.

Then everything got cancelled, everything was closed, and the only thing I could do was run. The only place I ran was Knoxville Catholic High School, which was a block away from where I lived in March 2020. You can complete one loop of the greenway section and the school’s parking lot in roughly 0.7 miles. If you take that as ‘laps’, my goal was initially to complete three laps. Then it was four. Then it was five. Then, by early October, it was eleven with an additional 0.3 miles at the end to push it to a total of eight miles.

Something I’ve grown to love about running is how malleable the goals are. They can generally be as aggressive or as peaceful as you’d like them to be at a given moment. Want to simply run one mile? That’s a goal you can chase. Hoping to become a first-time marathoner? You can chase that, too. For a while, I wanted to run a sub-23 minute 5K, then I realized it was making running a little less enjoyable on the whole. No worries; I adjusted my goals and hoped to stay under 25 while working on 10K or longer runs in the process.

At the current stage of my life, where I have long realized I could not get minutes for any college basketball team in existence and I am barely an okay wiffleball player, there is but one sport I can legitimately invest myself into as an athlete. Running is it for me, because it never, ever gets boring. Being able to change things on the fly simply keeps it interesting and keeps me going. Two years ago, the idea of ever running a marathon was frankly laughable. One year ago, the idea of doing it just seemed kind of bad. As I write this, it seems genuinely exciting and like something I will have a fun time doing. You can toss the Paul Rudd look at us, who would’ve thought? meme in here easily.

IV. Uptight (everything’s alright)

The worst and best part of my relationship to running is two-fold:

  1. Entering actual road races;
  2. Strava leaderboards.

The first race I entered, a half-marathon in Louisville in April 2021, was perfectly fine. They released us in corrals of 50 every 15 minutes over the course of four days; my corral released at 6:45 AM on a Sunday where it was 45 degrees at sunrise and my wife was baffled that I was walking outside in short sleeves and shorts. (Actually, my only ‘fix’ from that day would’ve been to go with a tank top instead.) In that race, I remember four guys in matching tanks, one of which had a GoPro strapped to his head, speeding past me. I also remember running with a guy for the first mile or so, him speeding off, then feeling some pretty deep satisfaction when I caught that guy at mile 10 and finished a few hundred feet ahead of him three miles later.

The second race – the Covenant Knoxville Half Marathon in October 2021 – was much less fine. This was the first full race (meaning no social distancing or real restrictions) I’d entered in over ten years. I was shoulder-to-shoulder with seemingly half of the city. They put me in the first corral (AKA, fastest) for reasons I still don’t understand. It was 70 degrees, 100% humidity, and poured rain for half the race. I remember feeling utterly helpless for the final six miles of the race, watching person after person past me as I had to stop and walk. It remains the most physically grueling thing I have done to date.

The problem with looking at the first race as overtly positive and the second as all negatives is that both were equally helpful in giving me places to find joy in running. The first is obvious: I beat my goal of a sub-2 hour run by nearly five full minutes and had Popeyes an hour later. The second was the much tougher lesson. Some days, it isn’t your day. Actually, most days, conditions are far from the perfection of mid-40s and agreeable humidity. Watching everyone sprint by me that fall Sunday was a wake-up call: just because I could keep pace with the guys running 1:50 or less half-marathons for the first two miles did not mean I should have done so. It would have been perfectly acceptable to scale back, recognize 70/100%/Noah’s Ark was not likely to produce PR-worthy efforts, and run my own race within a vacuum.

The key is learning my own limits, accepting those, and being fine with not being the fastest runner anywhere on any given day. In my one-person mental leaderboard, I am always first and last, and this is okay. Of course, it does not mean I can’t look at this without some tinge of jealousy.

That is a leaderboard for a 0.9-mile segment of one of Knoxville’s greenways. I’ve ran it many times; my PR is 7:33, which converts to an 8:20/mile pace. Not bad at all. This ranks 1500th out of 3,359 best efforts, which was incredibly humbling the first time I saw it. Most of the guys who lead the local charts are or were members of the University of Tennessee’s track team, which obviously makes sense. They’re going to demolish me and 99.99999% of runners every single day. A year ago, I probably would’ve dwelled more on that. Now, when the men and women of the track team blow past me at NASCAR speeds, I simply smile. They get to run their own race; I run mine.

V. Peace

The joy of edging closer to the finish is, obviously, wonderful. I think about all of the runs that come before it. I think about every little thing I have done to get there; every little, marginal, tiny improvement that has been made along the way. Shaving a few seconds off here and there. All the early alarm clocks; all of the lost sleep. There is good and bad in this, but the more of these I do, the more peaceful it all becomes – not just approaching the end of a big run, but throughout it.

Think about it: what is the very quietest place you can be at when you live in a city of nearly 200,000 people? There are plenty of spots to choose from. Some will choose the comfort of their bedroom, assuming the neighborhood around them cooperates. Some may select to drive in silence, though the teeming buzz of a car engine can throw this off at times. (Unless you’re an electric car driver, in which case, maybe that is more your speed.) My personal favorite spot before running became a significant day-to-day portion of my life was Sharp’s Ridge, a mini-mountain in North Knoxville that is mostly known for an overlook of the city and several huge broadcasting towers.

Find Your Footing Along Sharp's Ridge in Knoxville

Unfortunately, I have yet to add trail running to my list of everyday capabilities. Once I get over my crippling fear of [REDACTED], I will begin considering running the Sharp’s Ridge trails. Until then, my new favorite spot is located off of Island Home Avenue in South Knoxville. This is a very specific, very tiny moment of zen, and it only occurs early in the mornings.

For about 15 minutes in the mornings, as the sun is rising and the sky still has that hazy, orange-to-blue glow to it, there is no place I would rather be in the world than this. As someone who’s struggled with faith immensely at times in their life, particularly in the last couple of years, I feel more faithful and at peace in scenes like this than in places I’d theoretically be happier and less sweaty in. It is precisely this I’ve realized: the mental peace of running is perhaps why I run above anything else. Nothing makes me feel calmer, even when the humidity is high and it’s a tough day out there.

VI. Finish line

Next weekend, I’m running in what’s said to be Knoxville’s oldest road race: the Expo 10K, formerly known as the Expo 10,000. It is the 40th edition of the race, which is pretty exciting. This is not a brag of any sort, merely a statement of fact and an explanation why this post comes out as six separate pieces. (A 10K is technically 6.22 miles, but this is my post and my tired fingers typing it out, so oh well.)

Probably somewhere around mile 4, regardless of heat and humidity, I may mentally stop and think about how far away all of this seemed just two years ago. On Memorial Day weekend of 2020, which would normally be a weekend I visit several friends and make plans, I quietly ran four miles for the first time at the high school near my house. There was no one in attendance and no medal to take home; it was just my personal achievement to remember. That was fine. So this will be, too.

Maybe at mile 5, I can think of how my father inspired me to do this without knowing it, or how my friend/coach Jake remained optimistic about my abilities even when I couldn’t be. Or mile 6, near the finish line, when I’ll see my biggest supporter of all: my wife.

At this point, 6.22 miles is merely one of the 13 longest runs I’ll have done so far in 2022. Considering that it’s projected to be the 41st-longest run of my year come December 31, it could easily be lost in the shuffle as one of several similar runs that ended in similar fashion. For whatever reason, though, I find myself feeling a little sentimental. A little happier. And a little more at peace with everything, more or less. Hopefully the same exists for you, whether that’s in running or gardening or whatever activity brings you joy.

A brighter summer day

I made a resolution this year to pay deeper attention to baseball. Part of this is made quite easy locally, with the University of Tennessee’s baseball team in the midst of an excellent season. The other part of this is a little less easy, in that I grew up watching a lot of baseball. My grandfather’s favorite sport growing up was baseball, and while the love for it more or less skipped a generation, he passed it down my way. His favorite team was one I could not consciously copy once I was old enough to realize who they were: the New York Yankees. My father claims a loose Detroit Tigers fandom, being from the Detroit suburb Southfield, so ten years ago I elected to follow the Tigers.

This is boring history that provides a loose-enough explanation for me being a huge baseball fan from, say, 2001-2014, then very loosely to not at all from 2015 to 2019. There are many long-lasting effects of the pandemic on humanity, but one of them on me, the protagonist of history, was that I started watching regular season baseball again in 2021. Something about it seemed comforting and warm. It was like re-embracing an old friend. It helped that I no longer felt completely lost in terms of baseball discussion with my grandfather or with friends, so there was that, too.

The problem any normal person will see with committing yourself to regular season baseball is that every team plays 162 games. I would estimate that all but ~60 of these games cross-pollinate with other sporting seasons, such as the NBA/NHL playoffs, the start of European football in mid-August, and, of course, our national bloodsport in September. For about 60 games, you really don’t have anything else on. The problem is the other 102ish.

Having had an MLB.TV subscription since 2009, I’ve long been a fan of the application’s ability to let you watch literally every broadcast the sport has to offer. Also, having been a numbers nerd for even longer, re-diving into Fangraphs, one of our nation’s best websites, was another bonus. When I first got into MLB.TV, it required a lot of bouncing around various games to figure out which broadcasts I liked or didn’t like. Being a Yankees/Tigers fan at the time, I naturally gravitated to those two. The point is that these were television broadcasts with television announcers. I never thought twice about the radio option, because not being able to actually watch the game felt like the most old-timers thing imaginable.

The great people of Fangraphs commissioned a months-long project in late 2020 and early 2021: a nationwide survey of opinions on local broadcasts, both television and radio. You can view the final results here, but predictably, a couple numbers stood out to me. The average TV baseball broadcast is rated a 6.6/10; the average radio broadcast is over a point higher at 7.8/10. There is no other sport of which I know this to be the case, that the fans on average prefer not seeing the game to seeing it. (At least in this specific sense.)

With that in mind, I spent the first month of the 2022 season sort of reconnecting my old-timer soul with the old-timer act of listening to a baseball game. I did it over, and over, and over again. I have to report that the average Fangraphs responder is accurate: the act of listening to baseball is superior to viewing it. This is because a radio broadcast is more versatile: in 2022, I can take it anywhere and do anything while listening and paying attention. If we are forced to own smartphones, this is my questionably-moral act of offsetting the brain damage.

There have been 17 Tigers games to date this season; I have listened to at least part of 13 of them. I have never felt more connected with the team I’ve chosen to support. Part of this choice is made easy by the fact that, in the Fangraphs survey, Detroit’s TV team ranks dead last in MLB. (They are genuinely very, very bad, and watching any Bally Sports broadcast brings its own problems.) But a much bigger part is that, for the first time, I feel like I get it. I get why this is the national pastime. And I get why radio broadcasts have been so beloved for so long.


The first radio broadcast of a baseball game occurred in August 1921, a game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies. 101 years later, we still listen to baseball on the radio. Does this reflect a desire to connect with a nostalgia people like me have never quite held? I wonder, but I have no answer. But imagine being there in 1921, somewhere in Pennsylvania, and you hear some of that broadcast. You cannot actually watch the game happening at the ballpark, but a proper visualization of it via transmission of electromagnetic waves is now possible.

I couldn’t find a report more recent than summer 2018, 97 years after that first broadcast, but the message is likely the same today: no sport in America is more popular to listen to than baseball. This is despite the fact that baseball now ranks as America’s third-favorite sport, and whenever Gallup runs their next poll, it could very well rank fourth behind soccer/European football. Why is this so?

I think of it this way: while I do not mind listening to a football game on the radio, it is not my first choice (unless it’s a Westwood One broadcast). Football is, at its core, a visual game. Same with basketball, which is really hard to follow on the radio. Hockey comes closest, because with the natural noise of the game you’re able to somewhat visualize what’s going on, but it ranks second to baseball. A random Tuesday evening game between, say, Oakland and Texas can be turned on. The stakes are low. A homer is hit. To where? It may not matter; you hear the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, the excitement of the announcer. An audio-based game deserves to be heard audio-first.

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first radio broadcast in 2021, Wall Street Journal writer and book guy Jared Diamond wrote about why we do this. There’s Vin Scully and Gary Cohen, of course, but for a Tigers fan like me, there’s Dan Dickerson. Every city has their own person, one who paints the picture for you over a three-hour course that you can zone in and out of. Diamond himself notes the upside of the perceived boredom: “Radio requires no such commitment, lending itself to how baseball is ideally consumed: as a familiar sound in the background as life goes on, there for you when you want it, wherever you are. Understanding basketball or football on the radio takes active listening. Baseball can be listened to passively, the excitement in the broadcaster’s voice dictating the level of attention needed at that moment.”

To quote Jon Bois, this is how baseball moves: not at all, then all at once. This is a stage of life where I am writing this on a screen, you see everything in your daily life on a screen, and we are begged to tie ourselves to the screens as often as we can. The act of turning a baseball game on that you cannot see is like a minor act of rebellion. It is a revolution against non-stop visuals and unwanted advertising shoved in your face. Baseball on the radio has survived for 101 years because it is one of the few things we have left that we don’t have to visualize. The guy on the transmitter is doing it for us, and he is doing quite the good job.


I think it was July 2009, somewhere in there, my grandfather purchased MLB.TV for the first time. A lifelong Yankees fan, he had toyed with a few different ways to watch the games despite never actually living in the New York market. The Yankees being the Yankees, he could more or less guarantee at least one national broadcast every week during the season. But missing those other 120 or so games isn’t fun, so why not invest in the streaming service that covers the rest?

The first game we watched together was a mid-summer game between the Yankees and the Oakland Athletics. It was 90+ degrees out yet again, because it was July, and my grandparents came over to have dinner with us. My grandfather smoked for a long time, so we sat on the back porch, watching the game on the MLB.TV stream on the iPod Touch my father had gotten me the previous Christmas. Thinking of it now, I cannot imagine that picture was 100% crystal clear. It was on a tiny device with a black screen that projected images at your face, years before we were to fully realize the impact of such a thing on our brains.

In that moment, I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else. I don’t think he wanted to, either. It was just us, just us and a baseball game using a device that wouldn’t have existed two years earlier and a streaming service that wouldn’t have in the prior decade. MLB.TV debuted in August 26, 2002 and slowly grew until it seemed to explode late in the 2000s. The confluence of decent Internet speeds and better streaming service meant a product that felt leagues ahead of all the other leagues. It was like an addiction we couldn’t quit going back to.

After that first game, I’d go over to their house and we’d come up with excuses to watch a variety of games. The Tigers are playing the Blue Jays at 2 PM on a Saturday? Sure, nothing better going on at the moment. The Rangers are tied in the eighth against Houston? Put it on. Nothing was off limits any longer; it was all baseball, as often as we could get it on. We could do that pretty often at that time. Once the ability to sync radio broadcasts with TV was introduced, we started doing that sometimes, because it reminded him of how much he loved listening to the radio broadcasts growing up.

The years passed, the addiction faded for a while, but every March, I would call him to make sure the MLB.TV login still worked for both of us. His username never changed. The passwords did occasionally when he forgot the previous one, but they had a pretty consistent theme over time. Every time I went to their house from April to October from 2011 onward, the odds were >80% that a Yankees game would be on the television. Even after I made the switch to Tigers fandom, we still watched games together as often as we could. Even after I stopped watching baseball almost entirely for four years, we still watched when we were in the same room.

The account is in my name now. There have been other transitions over the last few months; that was one that felt more powerful than it probably should have. But despite my own preferences, I will not be changing the Favorite Team within the application from New York.


It is April 26 and sunny outside. It’s been warm lately; the hints at summer ahead are growing stronger as we slowly leave winter behind, then spring. Spring signals a rebirth to many for a variety of reasons.

In these times of late, with world news seeming ever scarier and the national news not helping, I think of the guy who created Northwoods Baseball Sleep Radio. Taking a nap with a baseball game on in the background is one of the best ways the sport can be experienced. Time can be warped. Dimensions can be altered. Commercials can be somewhat soothing. A brighter summer day of years past comes back to warm your memories and comfort your heart. Hope springs eternal.

On Monday, I mowed and listened to the Brewers play the Giants, with Jon Miller on the call. Sometimes I’ve been putting on Phillies games in the background while working because I like the camaraderie and charisma of their radio team. The Brewers broadcasts generally have the most charming ads. The Tigers have successfully narrowed it down to just one annoying between-innings ad this year, a Little Caesars one, which is about 78 less than the TV broadcast offers. You’ll hear the final out of the fourth inning, then immediately hear an ad for Menards or Ollie’s Bargain Outlet. The dulcet tones of a broadcaster can somehow even make Chevron or Quicken Loans seem like the exact opposite of themselves.

I’m not quite sure what the explanation of the sudden radio explosion in my life is. I do not own a physical radio at the moment, and my alarm clock doesn’t play AM or FM. All radio feeds I listen to are filtered through a technological device of some sort, whether my phone or MacBook or a television. There is no true moment of sitting in the garage, drinking Miller Lite, and listening to a baseball game on a physical radio on a Friday night.

But the facsimile of playing it through one of those devices works just fine. Baseball works remarkably well as a mowing companion, almost regardless of what game you have on. I can get to work on our small garden while listening to the Tigers game. I can replace all of the filler podcasts I have in Spotify with the calming, timeless tones of any random baseball game. It beats running five miles to a real soundtrack sometimes. (In my brief experience of diving in head-first over the last month, the Brewers, Giants, and Rays have the three best radio crews in the sport. The Yankees, regrettably, have the worst.)

Even without that physical radio, the act of playing a baseball game on the radio and not watching it is that minor revolutionary act. For pockets of time, the world stops turning so fast. Everything slows for a little while. A soft ground ball is hit to second, who tosses it over to first for the second out of the first inning. Things are okay again, as the sun comes out for good. A brighter summer day is back, once again, to take us home. I welcome it happily.

Reviewing my 2021-22 preseason predictions

Now that the season is over and I’m winding down basketball coverage for a while, I figured I’d do something I’ve never done before: review the preseason predictions I made in early November to see what I got right and got wrong. I’ve also never done preseason predictions publicly to this extent before, so I guess it’s all one big new thing, but whatever.

I felt like doing this because it doesn’t seem like any other writer bothers to check back to November to see where they were right and were wrong. Often, I’d imagine this is out of convenience: if you ignore your wrongest, worst takes, they will eventually float away in the ether as long as the Freezing Cold Takes guy never finds them. People don’t like remembering when they were wrong, therefore they try and sweep it under the rug.

I actually think it makes me, personally, better at writing and at analyzing statistics if I can see where and why I went wrong. I mean, one of the conference champions I picked in here went 2-16 in their conference. That’s hilariously bad. In fact, a lot of these predictions were pretty wrong. That’s why they’re valuable: if I elect to do this again in late October or early November, I can look for commonalities on what went wrong. That’s probably not true; I’ll just keep following KenPom.

Anyway, this also includes a review of the SEC-specific predictions I did at the end of the post. Onward!

Conference Champions

Here’s my rule here, because one-bid leagues are very very weird: I am giving myself a half-point for a regular season champion and an additional half-point for a conference tournament champion. I think this is fair. This gives me a total of 32 points to grab.

Teams are bolded if they won one title or the other and bolded and italicized if they won both titles. If they won neither, they’re just normal old text.

  • America East: Vermont (1 point)
  • American: Houston (1 point)
  • ACC: Duke (0.5 points)
  • Atlantic Sun: Liberty
  • Atlantic 10: St. Bonaventure
  • Big East: Villanova (0.5 points)
  • Big Ten: Michigan
  • Big 12: Kansas (1 point)
  • Big Sky: Southern Utah
  • Big South: Winthrop
  • Big West: UC Santa Barbara
  • CAA: Northeastern (special shame here: they finished dead last!)
  • Conference USA: UAB (0.5 points)
  • Horizon: Wright State (0.5 points)
  • Ivy League: Yale (0.5 points)
  • MAAC: Iona (0.5 points)
  • MAC: Buffalo
  • MEAC: Morgan State
  • MVC: Loyola Chicago (0.5 points)
  • MWC: San Diego State
  • NEC: Bryant (1 point)
  • OVC: Belmont
  • Pac-12: UCLA
  • Patriot: Colgate (1 point)
  • Sun Belt: Georgia State (0.5 points)
  • SoCon: Furman
  • SEC: Tennessee (0.5 points)
  • Southland: Nicholls State (0.5 points)
  • Summit: South Dakota State (1 point)
  • SWAC: Prairie View A&M
  • WAC: New Mexico State (0.5 points)
  • WCC: Gonzaga (1 point)

So: out of 32 conferences, that’s 18 where I picked either the regular season winner or the conference tournament champion; that was the same team in just seven conferences, but hey. That comes out to a total of 12.5 points out of a possible 32. Frankly, getting that much ahead of time is a decent-enough output for me.

The Higher Than/Lower Than Section

  1. Top 15 team I would have in the top 5-10: Illinois.

Considering Illinois wrapped the regular season at 18th in KenPom, I’d call this a mild whiff. Illinois was more or less as good as the average person expected, which is both an achievement (considering how many injuries they had the entire season) and a disappointment (considering they actually got worse once one of those players came back). Illinois failed to make the Sweet Sixteen yet again, so this was a miss. Success rating: 4/10.

2. Top 25 team I would have in the top 15: St. Bonaventure.

I thought this was the best non-Gonzaga mid-major. I thought very wrong. Bonaventure finished in the 90s in KenPom, failed to make it to even the A-10 semifinals, and generally was a huge disappointment. Success rating: 0/10.

3. Top 40 team I would have in the top 25: Xavier.

Look: I think this was defensible. Xavier, for three months, lived up to this just fine. They were in the KenPom Top 25 as late as February 5. Then, they collapsed. It looks really bad now, but I think I’m assigning myself a success rating of 5/10. This feels like less of a miss than Illinois for the sole reason a top 25-40 team’s variance is naturally going to be higher.

4. Top 75ish team I would have in the top 40: Saint Mary’s.

Should’ve said top 20. Success rating: 10/10.

5. Roulette-chip team that I would pick to make the NCAA Tournament and maybe win a game: UCF.

This just didn’t work out. Johnny Dawkins brought back almost everything from a decent team last year and didn’t improve whatsoever. I’d genuinely consider a change. Success rating: 1/10.

6. Top 5-10 team I’m least confident in: Kentucky.

Well, they’re no worse than a top 5 team, so this was a miss. BUT: they lost in the Round of 64, so maybe this is a win? Kentucky gelled together a bit better than I’d anticipated. I thought of Kentucky as top 15, but not top 10; this was incorrect. Success rating: 5/10.

7. Top 11-20 team I’m least confident in: Oregon.

This, however, was nailed. I kept looking for reasons why everyone trusted Oregon all offseason and was completely baffled. Sure, Oregon made the Sweet Sixteen, but two things happened: they lost the best player from that roster and had to replace several more. Along with that, Oregon only actually won one game in the NCAA Tournament; if you’ll remember, VCU had to forfeit their Round of 64 game due to COVID issues.

This is not a 10/10, though. I figured that Oregon would still be of 9/10 seed quality and be in the top 40. Oregon wrapped a profoundly disappointing season at 19-14, #79 in KenPom. The idea was right here, but I was actually a little off by more than anticipated. Success rating: 8/10.

8. Top 25ish team I am not sure makes the NCAA Tournament: Virginia Tech.

Again: could not figure out why this team was in everyone’s top 25 or on the borderline. The metrics average I used had them in the 40s. The problem: Tech was a top 25 team; they just couldn’t buy a close or useful win until the very end of the season, when they used it all up in the ACC Tournament to make the Big Dance. Success rating: 6/10.

9. Non-AP Top 25 Vote-Getter That Will Be in the Poll at Year’s End: Loyola Chicago.

Didn’t end up being true. Loyola ended the season in the KenPom Top 25, which is great, but is not the AP Top 25 I was aiming for. Had they had a better NCAA Tournament outing, maybe they would’ve gotten in, but they didn’t. The actual winner of this was Providence, who was a worse team than Loyola but kept winning because we live in a fallen nation of no consequence. Success rating: 4/10.

10. Preseason KenPom Top 10 Team That Finishes Outside of the Top 25: Baylor or Duke.

No and no. This actually ended up being two teams, both from the Big Ten: Ohio State and Michigan. How convenient. Success rating: 0/10.

11. Preseason KenPom Top 20 Team That Misses the NCAA Tournament: Houston or Alabama.

Again, a whiff. This ended up being #18 Maryland. Success rating: 0/10.

12. Preseason KenPom Top 40-65ish Team That Ends Up 15th or Higher: Saint Mary’s.

This isn’t actually completely 10/10 perfect, but it’s a 9.5. Saint Mary’s finished the season 17th on KenPom and was wildly successful. Success rating: 9.5/10.

13. Sickos Team of the Year: Wisconsin. 

This is an award that goes to the KenPom Top 50 team from a high-major conference with the worst offense, which generally means they’re really good on defense and all of their games are excruciating to watch. Wisconsin, unfortunately, ended up being more entertaining than usual. The 2021-22 Sickos Team of the Year was Iowa State, who fittingly beat Wisconsin in the Round of 32. Iowa State doesn’t feel like a gross team because they were massive overachievers, but they had the 171st-best offense and scored 60+ one time in their final six games.

14. Chaos Team of the Year: LSU.

This is an award that is the inverse of sickos behavior: a Top 25 KenPom team from a high-major conference with the worst defense, which means their games are typically high-scoring, high-variance chaos. LSU was chaotic in their own right, but they did not win this award. The 2021-22 Chaos Team of the Year was Purdue, who had the second-best offense, the 93rd-best defense, and managed to both be ranked #1 in the AP Poll while eventually losing to a 15 seed in the Sweet Sixteen. It was fitting.

15. Where Did You Come From Team of the Year (75th or lower in KenPom to start the season, ends up top 25 by season’s end): Belmont. Or South Dakota State. Or Buffalo.

No, no, no. For the first time since 2016-17, no sub-75th team finished in the top 25. Murray State nearly did, finishing 26th after starting 128th, but it wasn’t enough. Every team in the top 25 opened the season no worse than 47th in KenPom. Success rating: 3/10, because Belmont and SDSU were both really good.

16. Your National Champion Will Be: One of Gonzaga, Michigan, or Kansas. 

HOW ABOUT IT! Success rating: 10/10. Even though I did not pick Kansas to advance beyond the Sweet Sixteen.

SEC-specific predictions

I’m not entirely sure how else to do this so: a guy I know measured my November predictions against everyone else’s and just figured out how many spots I was off in total. I appreciated that, so you’re seeing it copied word-for-word here. A +1 means I had them too high by one spot; a -1 is the reverse.

1. Tennessee (+1)
2. Kentucky (+1)
3. Alabama (+3)
4. Arkansas
5. Auburn (-4)
6. Florida (+3)
7. LSU (-2)
8. Mississippi State (+2)
9. Mississippi (+4)
10. Vanderbilt (+1)
11. Texas A&M (-3)
12. South Carolina (-5)
13. Missouri (-1)
14. Georgia

That’s a total of 30 points off, with three teams being 3+ spots off of their eventual finish. Frankly, it could’ve been worse. The SEC Media Poll finished at 34 points; Athlon, 34; CBS, 32; ESPN, 31. I’ll take it.

Here’s some other predictions from the article:

  1. Seven SEC teams make the NCAA Tournament. One off: six.
  2. SEC Player of the Year: Jahvon Quinerly (Alabama). This guy got benched at one point by Nate Oats and was kind of terrible at times, so whoops. I honestly figured that multiple Kentucky players – mainly Washington and Tshiebwe – would split SEC Player of the Year votes and would likely fail to garner the necessary nod. Unfortunately, Tshiebwe alone was a monster.
  3. SEC Freshman of the Year: Kennedy Chandler (Tennessee). Could’ve been worse. I had Jabari Smith second in this balloting. Chandler was terrific towards the back end of the season and was Tennessee’s best player in March.
  4. Leading scorer: Scotty Pippen Jr. (Vanderbilt). 100% true! Pippen finished at 20.4 PPG in a Sisyphean effort to push Vanderbilt to be a team of any note whatsoever.
  5. Leading rebounder: Oscar Tshiebwe (Kentucky). Well.
  6. Leading assist-er(?): Scotty Pippen Jr. Pippen didn’t even finish in the top five. This ended up being Sahvir Wheeler of Kentucky, a player I thought was kind of awful at times at Georgia but predictably got much better under a real coaching staff.
  7. Sickos Game of the Season: South Carolina at Georgia, February 12, 2022. In terms of lowest FanMatch score for any SEC game this season, it actually ended up being Georgia at Kentucky on January 8 (15.7 FanMatch, or one spot below Belmont/UT-Martin). However, I don’t know if including a good team is the true spirit of the prize. Instead, this should go to Georgia at Missouri on March 5, which was the worst SEC vs. SEC game of the year in terms of pure KenPom ranking average.
  8. Actual Best Game of the Season: I said it would be Tennessee at Alabama on December 29, 2021. While that was indeed a good game, it held neither the highest FanMatch rating of the season for the SEC nor the highest Excitement rating. Respectively, those would go to Kentucky at Tennessee (February 15, 2022; FanMatch of 84.8, 5th-highest of the entire season) and Alabama at LSU (March 5, 2022; Excitement Index of 3.35, overtime game).
  9. Number of 1 & 2 seeds: 0. If only. Instead, this ended up being two (Kentucky and Auburn), but both were out before the Sweet Sixteen.

How did your personal predictions fare this year? I’d be curious to hear about them. Email statsbywill at gmail with the subject line “Bad Predictions” to share the very worst take you had on basketball this season. They’ll be kept private and we can laugh about them privately.

The 2022 NCAA Tournament is possibly the worst offensive tournament in modern history. Why?

In theory, March Madness should be the happiest time of the year for a website like this. Considering this is the first normal Tournament since 2019 – all games have been played, nothing has been cancelled, and full crowds are allowed in all arenas – it should be a time of celebration. To boot, the 2022 NCAA Tournament has produced 12 upsets (a seed difference of 5 or greater), which will go down as tied for fourth-most in Tournament history barring a North Carolina win or two in the Final Four. Everything should be feeling better. So why have I had this nagging feeling that I’m watching maybe the single worst NCAA Tournament of my lifetime?

Let me explain it this way: of course a site centered around Tennessee basketball complaining about a bad NCAA Tournament is going to sound like sour grapes. But I’ll cut you off at the pass. This analysis is mostly objective, even though I’d also say this has been the least satisfying NCAA Tournament in a long, long time. (TL;DR: Upsets are only useful the first two rounds, and the four remaining teams have a combined 7% likability. I’d trade any of them for Houston, Gonzaga, or even blue blood UCLA.) How could a statistician feel positive about an NCAA Tournament producing stats like these?

There have been 35 NCAA Tournaments since the three-point line was introduced in 1987. The 2022 NCAA Tournament is…

  • 27th in points per game at 68.6 (2012, 65.7);
  • 33rd in offensive efficiency (numbers pre-1997 are estimated) at 0.996 PPP (1999, 0.988 PPP);
  • 34th in FG% all time at 42% (1999, 41.9%);
  • 34th in eFG% all time at 47.7% (1999, 47.6%);
  • 34th in Scoring Percentage (i.e., how many possessions end in some amount of points) at 44.5% (1999, 44.2%);
  • and, worst of all, 35th in 3PT% at 31.5%.

The only thing this Tournament has done at an elite level that isn’t a bad elite thing is limiting turnovers (15.5% of all possessions), but that also leads to the lack of excitement. Turnovers are lower than ever and offensive rebounds are similarly at a Tournament-long valley, which means a lack of events. Coupled with the lack of made shots, it’s made for a lot of boring basketball. The median Tournament game has been decided by nine points, which is a hair lower than usual, but this Tournament has also produced eight games where the winner has scored 59 or fewer points. This is all before you get to the usual attractors: no buzzer-beaters, no true Instant Classics after the first day of the Tournament (Arizona/TCU, maybe?), not even many elite players still playing. (Among the 10 players in KenPom’s Player of the Year ballot, just one – Paolo Banchero – is still alive in this Tournament.)

No matter how you slice it, this has been an underwhelming, brick-filled Tournament. Naturally, I had to ask a lot of people smarter than me why. I polled several coaches and media members, giving them anonymity in return for what they thought was the reason for this particularly defense-friendly Tournament. I’ve divided up their responses into five theories, along with a sixth I’ve explored for my own good. Can I promise an answer? Not really. But I can promise that your theory of choice is probably listed on here somewhere, and I have tried to see if it makes sense or not.


Are players taking too many threes?

I’d be interested to know the percentage of threes taken in this tournament compared to past. Maybe too much reliance on the three?

Is the three point attempt rate higher than before?

This one is fairly simple to answer: not really. Actually, for once, three-point attempt rate is going in the other direction. In one aspect, this theory could reasonably be accurate: the 2022 NCAA Tournament has the fourth-highest three-point attempt rate in March since the three-point line was standardized in 1987. That’s pretty big; take a look at the below graph and you’ll see just how big it is.

In fact, you can see a pretty good story with it. In 1994, the 3PA% breached 30% for the first time in March, and it never dipped below 30% again. It held somewhere between 31-34% for 22 years, until finally, in 2016, we hit 35% or higher for the first time. My guess is that it never goes below 35% again. However, you can see that we’ve possibly hit Peak Three with the 2019 NCAA Tournament, the only one to ever have an attempt rate above 40%. This year represents a regression of sorts to the 2016-2017 NCAA Tournaments.

The other intriguing part of this: matching the postseason three-point attempt rate with its larger sample-size brother, the regular season.

There’s a serious part of your story: teams are taking fewer threes in the postseason than they did from November to early March. Three-point attempt rate in March is still pretty close to the regular season rate, but the 2022 NCAA Tournament tells quite the story: only the 2015 NCAA Tournament has a greater decrease from regular season attempt rate to postseason attempt rate. Teams are taking 2.01% fewer threes in March as of now.

In theory, you could explain part of this drop by noting that fewer three-point heavy teams made the field this time around. Among the NCAA’s top 35 teams in 3PA%, only two made the field: Alabama and Villanova. Alabama bombed out early, but Villanova is still playing, so maybe this isn’t the best test case. Still, think of it this way: if you apply that same “top 35 in 3PA%” query to previous years, five Top 35 teams made it in 2021, six in 2019, and five in 2018. We just had an unusual dearth of high-3PA% teams this year. Then again:

Median 3PA% of NCAA Tournament Field, Last Five Years

  • 2022: 37%
  • 2021: 36.9%
  • 2019: 38.5%
  • 2018: 37.3%
  • 2017: 36.4%

If anything, this Tournament should have had marginally more three-point attempts than last year. And yet: that graph above shows it’s the lowest 3PA% since 2017. So: I don’t think it’s the volume of threes, necessarily. Maybe it’s the quality?

Are the wrong players taking the shots?

Players that don’t shoot the three well enough are embracing the revolution by shooting more threes than they typically do . This has caused an influx of three-point attempts, but the percentage of makes across the entire NCAA drops because these new shooters aren’t shooting at a good enough percentage.

Guys who should not be taking threes are taking them.

I’ve broken down the concept of the Right Shooter™ as follows: a player who hit 34% or more of his threes in the regular season (AKA, above the national average of 33.7%) while taking 45 or more (AKA, roughly 1.5 or more a game). That gave us a sample size of 187 players across 68 teams to work with, or roughly 2.67 per team. I think this lines up with a subjective view of the game: the average NCAA Tournament team has about 2-3 guys you’re happy with taking whatever they want to take from three, followed by a lot of coin-flips or no-gos on the rest of the roster.

The best way to compare this is to show what these guys did in the regular season. Across a data set of 187 players, this group went 9428-for-24284 on threes, or 38.8%. Every other three-point attempt by NCAA Tournament teams: 7343-for-23483, or 31.3%. That’s a huge difference: 1.164 points-per-shot versus 0.939. You’d much rather have the Right Shooters take these shots than the Wrong Shooters. Something else you’ll notice is that our Right Shooters took 50.8% of their team’s three-point attempts on average; everyone else got slightly less than half. Again, seems right: 2-3 shooters getting just over half the deep balls tracks mentally.

What’s left to prove, or disprove, is if these splits held up in the 2022 NCAA Tournament. Here’s how it’s held up in March:

  • Right Shooters™: 53.1% of all three-point attempts; 32.9% 3PT%
  • Wrong Shooters™: 46.9% of all three-point attempts; 30% 3PT%

Interestingly, teams’ best shooters are actually taking a hair more of the share of three-point attempts than they did in the regular season, at 53.1% vs. 50.8%. The problem: the best shooters have gone dead cold this March. Collectively, those 187 players, which include some of the best shooters in America, are shooting 5.9% worse in this three-week sample size than they did across the regular season as a whole. It’s the Wrong Shooters that are more in line with expectations, at 1.3% below.

So: it’s not that bad shooters are necessarily taking more shots, really. It’s that the best shooters are failing to produce the best results in the spotlight, and teams frequently have nowhere else to turn. Why could this be so?

Is there more switching defensively/better defense in general?

The defense has been outstanding [this Tournament]. Hard to get open looks. 

Much more switching defensively than in years past both on and off the ball makes it harder to create advantages which generate open looks. Length across the board in college basketball is at its highest level both in standing height and wingspan, which makes everything more difficult, including shooting and finishing.

Yes and no. I think this is pretty hard to measure with straight-up metrics. Subjectively, you could say “yes” and not many people would really blink at it. Per Patrick Stevens, this has been the most defense-friendly Tournament in years:

What makes that stat even worse is that the number is now eight, after Villanova’s 50-44 defeat of Houston, with three games still left to play. The possibility of one final stinker still exists. Stevens only goes back to 2011, but eight sub-60 winners is tied with 2006 for the most Defensive Battles™ in the shot-clock era (36 Tournaments strong). You’re watching the fastest Tournament by average tempo (68.6 possessions per game) since 2003, but simultaneously the lowest-scoring Tournament since 2015. What gives?

A popular theory, among nearly everyone I talked to, is that the defense is just straight-up better this March than usual. There’s a few different ways of looking at this that could help things make sense. If you want to see if more high-end defenses made the Tournament than usual, you can look at this and say…no, actually:

Percentage of Top 30 Defenses That Made NCAA Tournament:

  • 2022: 26/30 (86.7%)
  • 2021: 26/30 (86.7%)
  • 2019: 26/30 (86.7%)
  • 2018: 22/30 (73.3%)
  • 2017: 22/30 (73.3%)

If you prefer the median NCAA Tournament defense:

Median NCAA Tournament Team’s Defensive Efficiency:

  • 2022: 95.9 Adj. DE
  • 2021: 94.1 (!)
  • 2019: 96.6
  • 2018: 98.1
  • 2017: 96.6

You could look at that and say that, yes, this is a pretty strong defensive Tournament. And yet: shouldn’t 2021 have been far more defense-friendly if that were the case? The 2021 NCAA Tournament ranked 19th out of 35 NCAA Tournaments in terms of offensive efficiency; in the KenPom era (2002-pres.), it ranks 14th of 20. Not a great offensive Tournament, really, but certainly better than this one. Along with that, despite having the worst defenses in the sample size, 2018 actually ranks second-worst among the last five Tournaments in terms of efficiency.

One final way of attempting to answer this is through Synergy data. Like anything that requires human eyes to log statistics, Synergy’s data is subjective to the viewer. Still, it’s the best publicly-available database out there that is even somewhat comparable to Second Spectrum for the NBA. The best way of using it for this purpose is to take their Guarded/Unguarded data, as well as what they have for pull-up (off-the-dribble) jumpers, and see what it says.

In the regular season this year, Division I basketball teams shot 32.1% on guarded catch-and-shoot threes, which is any spot-up three where a defender is within four feet on the shot. (Synergy may deem this differently, but it is what I’ve always taken to mean an open vs. contested attempt.) On open catch-and-shoot threes, the D-1 average was 37.4%. Clearly, being open makes a difference: over the course of 100 three-point attempts, you’d hit about five more ‘open’ ones than you would ‘guarded’. Some teams are great (Villanova) or terrible (Wisconsin) at shooting against any sort of guarding, so, again, subjective.

Still, we could use that in three purposes: to determine if teams are simply missing a bunch of catch-and-shoot threes in March, to see if there are more guarded attempts than normal, and to see if teams are getting fewer catch-and-shoot threes period.

Catch-and-shoot threes, regular season versus NCAA Tournament:

  • Regular season: 34.6% 3PT% on all C&S threes; 37.4% open; 32.1% guarded
  • NCAA Tournament: 33.8% 3PT% on all C&S threes; 37.8% open; 30% guarded

Guarded vs. unguarded threes, regular season versus NCAA Tournament:

  • Regular season: 53.4% Guarded, 46.6% Unguarded
  • NCAA Tournament: 52% Guarded, 48% Unguarded

Average number of catch-and-shoot threes per game, regular season versus NCAA Tournament:

  • Regular season: 15.8 combined per game (8.4 Guarded, 7.4 Unguarded)
  • NCAA Tournament: 14.5 combined per game (7.5 Guarded, 7 Unguarded)

There’s a lot to take from this. Firstly, teams are having a horrific time hitting guarded catch-and-shoot threes this March. 30% on guarded ones is what Nevada, who ranked 247th in guarded FG%, shot in the regular season. That’s pretty bad. But the fact that the sport as a whole is down 0.8% on these shots (admittedly in a smaller sample size) is pretty interesting. Along with that, there have been fewer catch-and-shoot attempts in the postseason by a significant margin…but said catch-and-shoot attempts have also been slightly more open.

Subjectively, you could say that this has been a fantastic defensive Tournament, and it would be hard to disagree. At the same time, take a look at Ken Pomeroy’s pre-Tournament rankings on March 15. Zero top 10 defenses made the Final Four. In fact, none of the top 25 did: Villanova, at 28th, was the best defense before the Tournament started to be one of the last four standing. How much does defense matter in terms of stopping opposing threes? Pomeroy’s research, spilled onto this page several times over, notes that teams can prevent three-point attempts, not makes as frequently. The field of 68 has done a good job of this, but it alone would not explain the worst 3PT% in Tournament history.

Is shot selection worse than usual?

I think decision making [this Tournament] is very poor. Kids are trying to finish drives at the rim over length vs. playing off 2 feet and making a play for their teammate on a drive and kick. Tons of tough long twos as well – poor shot selection leads to poor FG%.

Thankfully, this one is a little easier to measure. In the regular season, teams got 35.5% of all shots at the rim, 26.8% in Other Twos territory (not a layup, dunk, or tip-in, but still a two), and 37.7% threes. I’ve done private work in the past for teams that shows the percentage of Other Twos increases by roughly 4% when playing Top 100 opponents versus playing everyone else, and one would expect that to more or less hold in a Tournament that mostly contains Top 100 opponents.

Still: I think this one has real merit. The average attempt at the rim in half-court offense, per Synergy, went down at a 55% rate. (Per Hoop-Math, this is 59.3%, but I don’t have the ability to split by regular season/postseason on there.) In the NCAA Tournament, this conversion rate has fallen to 53.5%. Makes sense; you’re playing tougher opponents in general. Has the theory held up for shot selection?

  • Regular season: Rim 35.5%, 3PA 37.7%, Other Twos 26.8%
  • NCAA Tournament, per CBB Analytics: Rim 32.6%, 3PA 35.7%, Other Twos 31.7%

The CBB Analytics work is of particular note, because it hammers in something that’s felt very real while watching the games. Per their data, 10% of all shots have been 16+ foot two-point jumpers, the least-efficient shot in college basketball. 18.3% of all shots have been two-pointers outside the paint. (There’s an array of runners, floaters, paint jumpers, post-up turnarounds, etc. that fall in the Other Twos category, too.) These rates are +2.6% and +4.6% above their regular season counterparts. So, yes: shot selection has been markedly worse in the NCAA Tournament, about 1-2% worse than what I would’ve personally expected.

And yet: the two-point shooting hasn’t really been the problem. Even despite this downgrade in shot selection, the 2022 NCAA Tournament has produced a 2PT% of 47.9%. That’s down from the last several Tournaments, sure, but it’s also a superior 2PT% to 14 NCAA Tournaments from 1987 to now. In fact, this has more or less been an average Tournament from a two-point perspective. Teams are missing a few more shots at the rim than usual, but it’s been counterbalanced somewhat by about a 0.5-1% over-performance on mid-range twos, per the CBB Analytics data. To sum it up: the shot selection has been bad, but it hasn’t really been the entire reason for this Tournament’s offensive car crash.

Is it the ball?

An issue I think that is crazy in college basketball is the variance in basketballs used: Adidas, Nike, Wilson Evo NXT (NCAAT), Old Wilson Evolution, and Spalding TF-1000. [With regards to the Evo NXT], these balls are pumped up and not broken in for March throughout the season.

This is, by some measure, the hardest one to prove or disprove. I am not there in person feeling the basketball itself, so I cannot tell you if it feels like an outdoor ball or it’s hard to get in a rhythm with. Several reviews online believe this ball to be an upgrade over the previous model (Wilson Evolution), which is the ball I own and love. Considering that basically nobody used this ball in games from November to early March, though, it makes the below trendline pretty troubling.

68 NCAA Tournament teams, regular season, various balls: 35.1% 3PT% on 47,767 attempts
68 NCAA Tournament teams, 2022 NCAA Tournament, Evo NXT ball: 31.5% 3PT% on 2,674 attempts

Now, it’s worth noting that in most NCAA Tournaments, there’s an underperformance of about 1-2% from regular season to postseason. You can explain this in various ways, all of which we’ve tried in the past: better defenses, tougher competition, higher stress, unfamiliar venues. All of those are reasonable. But: to be underperforming that regular season rate by 3.6% is a serious outlier. Did any team foresee this coming?

The only way I can imagine testing this, and it is extremely silly, is to use Getty Images to our advantage. I looked through photos of every team in the field from November to March, looking to see which ones used the Evo NXT in any game this season. (Inspired by a New Mexico State fan sharing a photo from January.) Is this unscientific? Yes, and it leaves smaller schools at a serious disadvantage, because photographers aren’t at their games as frequently. But what other way can you really test this that isn’t me telling you this is the worst 3PT% ever and a massive delta from the regular season?

Of the 68 teams in the field, I could confirm, via at least one photo, that 25 teams used the Evo NXT ball either in the regular season, their conference tournament, or both. That’s just 37% of the field using the ball that 100% of the field uses for three weeks in March, which seems less than ideal. If you split out the 25 teams who did have photographical evidence of experience with the ball versus the 43 who didn’t, here’s how it shook out:

  • Did use the Evo NXT ball prior to the NCAA Tournament: 283-for-894 (31.7%)
  • Didn’t use the Evo NXT ball: 560-for-1780 (31.4%)

Uh…well, that’s all of a 0.3% difference. It’s more that everyone isn’t shooting well versus just the teams that had no experience. Still, I think there’s a great point to be made here. Why are we entering the NCAA Tournament with a ball that over half the field seems to have not used in a game? Why can college basketball not agree on one, or at most two, standardized balls to use over the course of a season? The answer, as always: money.

Is it simply a sample size issue?

No coach or media member mentioned this theory, which is completely fine. All of the five theories above were interesting and worth researching. However, it’s a question I have to ask myself: would I be worrying this much about March Madness if this same sample of play happened over two weeks in November?

All you have to do is look back to the first three days of the season, in fact.

  • November 9-11: 31.6% 3PT%
  • NCAA Tournament: 31.5% 3PT%

But that sort of obscures what we’re talking about here. The trendline of a season’s 3PT% goes up from November to March, and true to form, the last three days of the regular season (March 4-6) saw teams shoot 33.9% from three, which is 2.3% higher than they did in the first three days of the season. So why would it bottom out, seemingly out of nowhere, at a time when teams should be shooting better than usual?

If you just watched the first round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament, you wouldn’t imagine that much of anything was wrong at all. Teams shot 34.2% from deep, about 0.5% above the average of the last 10 years. That’s not a huge leap, but it was surprising. The regular season’s 3PT% of 33.7% is the second-lowest ever since the NCAA began tracking threes at the introduction of the three-point line in 1986-87. This is undoubtedly due to the NCAA moving the three-point line back. The three seasons before the line was moved back a foot: 34.8% from deep. Last three seasons: 33.6%. So there’s that.

But that alone still wouldn’t explain what’s happened, starting in the Round of 32. Across the nine Tournaments directly preceding 2022, teams shot 1.1% better in the Round of 32 than they did in the Round of 64. This has a pretty simple explanation, to me: better teams are alive, and said teams are playing their second game in the arena of a weekend. You’re more familiar with your surroundings. That did not happen this year. In fact, it gave us the worst Round of 32 3PT% performance I can find on record.

Teams shot 29.1% in the Round of 32 this year, the worst single-round performance of either of the first two rounds I was able to find. That, obviously, is not ideal. To go with this, teams have shot about 1.1% worse from deep from the Sweet Sixteen onwards. There are multiple explanations for this that all make sense to me: different venues, tougher defenses, more stress, etc. But it’s still hard to explain the 2022 teams shooting 27.5% from deep in the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight.

With the trendlines looking the way they look, one of two things seem like they can happen this coming weekend:

  • It gets worse. The remaining Final Four teams are now moving to another different arena, their third in three weeks. Teams will have likely never shot at this arena before arriving. What’s turned into a truly disastrous shooting performance remains disastrous, as the Final Four teams (expected to shoot 36.1% on threes based on season-long numbers) shoot 32% or worse.
  • It really is a sample size issue and regresses to the mean. You can’t judge everything off of 24 games of data, and the Final Four teams have a reasonable outing in line with previous NCAA Tournament trends: roughly 34-35% from deep across the three games.

Either answer will give us more theories, which leads us back to the initial question of why this happened, which then starts the debate(s) all over again. Have we learned anything? I’m not so sure. But I look forward to learning how this closes up this weekend.

It Is What It Is

March 17: (3) Tennessee 88, (14) Longwood 56 (Round of 64) (27-7)
March 19: (11) Michigan 76, (3) Tennessee 68 (Round of 32) (27-8, season over)

Starting off March Madness by hitting 14 threes and dropping 88 points on a vastly overmatched opponent was probably an unfair way to get things rolling. Was it incredibly funny and fun and stress-free? Of course. But there are very few words on that game, because no one remembers the blowouts. Everyone remembers the classics. Everyone remembers the Round of 32 games that meant something, especially when a lot of things are happening and it’s back-and-forth the whole way.

So: you do a lot of things right. You turn it over only seven times, the second-lowest turnover rate of the season.

So that’s good, even if it was somewhat predictable against a Michigan team that never forces turnovers. And then you also put up a 53.1% hit rate on twos, almost 5% above Tennessee’s season-long hit rate. That’s pretty good, too. Teams that do both of those things since 2010-11: 61-12 in the NCAA Tournament. But then you look at who two of those 12 are.

Never matter; the past is the past. You shoot 18 three-point attempts. Tennessee has hit 40% of these over the last two months. They just hit 58.3% of them in a first-round demolition. All you have to do is hit a few of those threes. Most were of the catch-and-shoot variety; the average catch-and-shoot three went down at a 35% rate this year. A 35% shooting game would’ve counted as a below-average performance for Tennessee.

One standard deviation from the mean on 3PT% this season has been about 10%. For the average team on an average night, anything from 23% to 43% is reasonable. For Tennessee, a team that shot 36.5%, anything from 26% to 47% was reasonable.  Anything outside of that range, in some aspect, was an outlier beyond normal explanation. If a team guards every single one of your catch-and-shoot threes somehow, that should lead to you shooting, like, 5-10% worse than normal. Some amount of bad shooting is just bad shooting; a larger amount of it is whether the coin flips in your favor.

A 36% coin flip came up cold 89% of the time. On 18 attempts, 16 of which were catch-and-shoot ones, Tennessee made two. A team full of dudes that were making these 40% of the time made them 11% of the time two days after making them 58% of the time. It is so baffling that even Sports Reference came up empty.

It is what it is.


This Tennessee team spent the better part of the back half of the season subverting expectations and changing their identity game by game. A potential season-destroying injury to the team’s best center resulted in the team getting better for a time. Four Top 15 teams came to Thompson-Boling Arena, three of which came to visit post-injury. None of them left with victories. Tennessee took their show on the road to Tampa, drew the SEC’s supposed toughest team, and led for all but 27 seconds of a semifinal that wasn’t as close as the final score suggested. Winning the program’s first SEC conference tournament title since 1979 the next day was almost an afterthought.

They then spent all of Thursday telling the nation how disrespectful it was for Tennessee to have been given a 3-seed behind multiple teams they had superior resumes to. Longwood came into Indianapolis with some amount of high hopes; all of those hopes were thoroughly dispelled by approximately the 19th three Josiah-Jordan James made that gave Tennessee a 25-point halftime lead. Heading into Saturday, the general vibe even from Michigan fans was that this Tennessee team was going to be too much to handle. It made sense: a legitimate top-6 team in America playing an 11 seed. Why wouldn’t it?

In the game preview I noted that it would take some sort of heavy RNG game in Michigan’s favor to swing the tide fully their way. It barely happened on their threes; aside from Hunter Dickinson having a great day and going 3-for-5, the rest of the roster went 3-for-11. They did not win the game from deep. Tennessee, the superior shooting team with more options and better depth, just couldn’t find it. Some days, it’s not your day. I think we all know this, but fandom obscures it in a manner that makes it a lot harder to accept. It is what it is.

I spent most of Sunday predictably thinking about the difficulties of being on The Other Side of the three-point revolution. Tennessee spent this season completely remaking themselves in a new offensive image. This will stand as the team that set the single-game record for threes in their very first game. They took more three-point attempts than any Barnes team has ever taken, whether here or at Texas or anywhere before. Tennessee had made at least six threes in eight consecutive games and 13 of the previous 14. Tennessee started 0-for-4, then went 2-for-3. Then, they never hit another three again.

Everyone online keeps insisting that the threes can’t be the thing. It has to be Rick Barnes. I guess when the head coach continues to disappoint in March that’s sort of the obvious target. Blame’s gotta go somewhere, after all, and blaming it on bad luck is seen as real dire mental straits to be in. But. Rick Barnes is not the one missing 16 of 18 threes. Rick Barnes is the guy who pushed for more threes and fewer mid-range twos after a career of doing the exact opposite, so I guess you can be mad at him for that. Who would’ve guessed that progressing your offense into a more modern, Tournament-friendly style somehow made you feel worse?

It is what it is. What else can it be but madness? Against the fourth-worst defense Tennessee had played since January 26 (16 games total), upon video review, Tennessee got nine three-point attempts where the nearest defender was 4+ feet away. They hit one of them. The threes are the thing, more than any other thing can be. Such is life; such is madness.


Because everything this blog does is ripped off of MGoBlog in some fashion, this line from the head writer (Brian Cook) after Michigan’s 63-44 loss to Texas Tech in 2019 keeps bouncing around in my head:

A collective mania set in as this was happening as the horrible results overwhelmed anyone’s ability to process what happened before them. Four different threes rimmed out in the first half. . . . Maybe there are reasons you go 25% from three. There are no reasons when you go 13% and 0%. Just frustration, and an offseason a little more sudden than hoped for.

And that’s more or less it. Rick Barnes played Tennessee’s four best non-centers, with zero substitutions, for the entirety of the final 15:03 of this game. Their best center was Uros Plavsic, which would have been a laughable statement in November. Michigan’s point guards combined for four points. Tennessee won the turnover battle by eight and the offensive rebounding battle by four, a +12 advantage in shot volume. They outscored Michigan 20-7 in points off of turnovers. They did a lot of things very well. They just didn’t have a good day with the one thing that decides 80% of coin-flip basketball games now.

The offseason has begun at least a week earlier than everyone wanted to. I abstained from going to Saturday’s game for a variety of reasons, which now seems wise because seeing 2-for-18 in person is likely worse than seeing it on TV. Tennessee tied their fourth-worst 3PT% of the last 12 seasons with the second-best 3PT% team they’ve had in that time span. None of this is required to make sense, because March Madness as a concept is not supposed to make sense. To quote Jon Bois, there is only one winner, and it comes at the cost of 63 losers. Tennessee merely joins the pack in a more painful, stupid way than most others.

Frankly, that is not how I’d like to remember this team. Watching Tennessee’s defense pour motor oil down the nostrils of opponents twice a week was a joy. Watching Kennedy Chandler evolve from a fledgling five-star into a legitimate first-round pick was wonderful. Finding a new fan favorite in Zakai Zeigler was a delight. Uros Plavsic evolved from a mascot into an actual useful piece. Santiago Vescovi turned from Just A Shooter into First-Team All-SEC. Josiah-Jordan James went supernova mode in the back half of the season and went from a disliked player by the average fan into a beloved star. John Fulkerson became both mascot and bench piece. Everyone who took the court, at some point, did something memorable and beautiful. I will remember that fondly.

I will also remember that, during a two-month period watching the main inspiration for my writing passing away, I kept looking to a battalion of 18-24 year-olds to keep doing good things, and they kept doing them. As the clock ticked down and Tennessee was leading Texas A&M by 15, I thought about how much my grandfather would have loved to see it. But up there, far away from all of our worry and strife, he had a great view of it. Maybe they toss the Chick-Fil-A cows up in heaven, too.


At the start of March I was listening to the episode of The Square Ball, a Leeds United fan magazine and podcast, immediately after Marcelo Bielsa was fired. (I prefer the English ‘sacked,’ but gotta stick with your audience and such.) Bielsa was a heroic figure to Leeds supporters for two main reasons: 1. He brought the club back to the Premier League for the first time in nearly two decades; 2. He is potentially the only manager in the modern era of the club, and most clubs, to feel bigger than the sport itself.

One of the hosts mentions the relief of Leeds’ midweek and Saturday games during the Bielsa era, with a specific focus on the last two years. Bielsa had a rough end to his tenure. At the time of the show, Leeds were just a hair out of the EPL relegation zone. You lose a lot of money when you fall out of the EPL; it’s not a good time. The prevailing theme of their discussion is just how Bielsa felt like more than a football manager. More than Just A Guy. More than Just A Game. Specifically, there is this sentence from one of the hosts:

Because of what’s going on globally, it oddly matters more. When the world is legitimately falling apart, you cling onto the few things that make you believe and are an escape from all of the bad stuff.

Thinking of this season in those terms three months ago was a laughable concept. I came into this season expecting a Sweet Sixteen run or something similar and to simply have some amount of fun watching basketball again. I wanted to go to games again. Being at home for all of 2020-21…losing the Tournament in 2020, even if Tennessee wouldn’t have been in it…it simply took a toll. I didn’t feel it or notice it at the time. In January, it hit like a delayed adverse effect from bad medicine.

These two years have been hard on a lot of people. Comparatively, I came out of it scot-free. I wasn’t laid off and gained a promotion at my day job. My marriage flourished, even in a harsh economic time. We made good, useful changes to our day-to-day routine. I learned to be happy working from home. I learned to love running. I looked forward to getting out of the house. The 2020-21 season, which might as well be a repeated visual of seeing the Knoxville Catholic running loop four mornings a week, ended up giving me more and greater opportunities in the basketball world than I ever could have imagined.

This season started well, too. The season began barely two weeks after I finished a massive work project. We were going to games again. COVID wasn’t over, but it was on its way out. Things seemed better. Winter came. We kept going to games, and it felt like diminishing excitement every time. Mid-January, after Tennessee had gotten carpet-bombed by Kentucky and my wife sat in different bedrooms in COVID quarantine, I wondered what the point was. February came about and made it that much tougher. In the midst of all this, all you can do is to lean onto those strong ties, the ones you believe in, and see them as escapism.

This team slowly turned into a bizarre form of escapism as the season went on. They were flawed, just like every other collection of 18-24 year old men in human history. They were frustrating. But twice a week, they would open up the mud pit, pull an opponent in, and watch them flail around for two hours helplessly. This group’s run ended earlier than expected, but the memories they provided will last a long time. I will miss them quite a bit.


No more analysis. Just two notes.

  • Thanks for everything. The amount of people to thank for this year’s coverage is immense. I have decided to thank most individuals privately, but there are some that I want to share public thanks for. Carly Warren, my wife, who somehow feels okay letting me invest 15 hours a week into this on top of a 40-hour job and a housing search. You are my hero. Andrea, my mom, who understands me in a way no one else can and is a hero. Scott, my dad, for all you do. Andy, my brother, who did attend his first game this year. Matthew, my best friend, legal advisor, and trusted agent. Jon Reed, the person who is more responsible for my “readership base” than anyone else. Seth Hughes, who never fails to give me good advice and is one of the smartest people I know. Grant Ramey, Mike Wilson, Wes Rucker, Ryan Schumpert, Ethan Stone, and everyone else that I know and talk to on the local beat. Chase Thomas, who continues to talk to me weekly somehow. Jimmy Dykes, who has changed my life in many ways. Tom Hart and Dane Bradshaw. Reed Carringer. There are many, many more, and this post is already very long.
  • 2022-23 coverage. Is undecided. I’ll be up front and say that I’m exploring how to continue to make this work; whether it will work is not yet determined. For now, I am taking a break that I think I’ve earned.

Show Me My Opponent, 2022 NCAA Tournament: Michigan

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT (11) Michigan
18-14, 11-9 Big Ten, #30 KenPom
LOCATION Conseco Fieldhouse
Indianapolis, IN
TIME Saturday, March 19
5:15 PM ET
CHANNEL CBS
ANNOUNCERS Ian Eagle (PBP)
Jim Spanarkel (analyst)
Jamie Erdahl (sideline)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -6
KenPom: Tennessee -6

Torvik: Tennessee -5.4

I have to admit that I was surprised by people responding to my post about how stress-free Tennessee’s game was yesterday by saying Michigan was next and they’re already stressed. Okay? I mean it’s March: after a certain point, generally the first round, you are going to have to play and beat really good teams. Sometimes you have to do that in the Round of 64. Tennessee didn’t, so they do now.

Anyway, Michigan was a preseason top 5 team that was extremely disappointing for a couple of months, then just became normal disappointing after recovering to make the NCAA Tournament and win a game. This is not 9-16 Kentucky, just a roster with serious construction flaws that took a while to gel. They’re now top 30 in KenPom for a reason, which is that they are pretty talented and pretty good, particularly on offense. Still, Michigan has an insane run of play going: for 11 games, they’ve alternated wins and losses. That means this is due to be a loss, which would send Tennessee to the Sweet Sixteen. Maybe it will be that simple. Maybe I am Sisyphus. There is simply just one way to find out: playing the game.


Michigan’s offense

Let it be known that this is the significantly more fearsome unit on the average night. Michigan ranks in the top 20 offenses per KenPom for a reason: they consistently get good twos, they have guys that make tough shots, and they possess a certain level of crazy. That crazy can get them in trouble (an 11-minute stretch against Indiana with no made field goals), but more frequently, it gives them life (such as coming back from 15 down against a 6 seed). The other thing is that Juwan Howard is genuinely a terrific offensive coach:

The problem is that Juwan the Coach may be ahead of Juwan the Roster Construction Guy. Michigan’s main problem, which shows up more on defense, is that there are a grand total of zero wings among rotation members. Caleb Houstan is a 4; Terrence Williams is a stretch 4; Kobe Bufkin is a 2. Therefore: no real wings, nothing resembling a JJJ type. Now you know.

The obvious #1 guy is Hunter Dickinson (18.4 PPG, 8.3 RPG), one of the best bigs in America. You may see this and think “but Tennessee shut down the best big in America, Oscar Tshiebwe, three different times. Also, Kentucky lost to Saint Peter’s, which is the funniest thing to ever happen.” All of that is true. But Dickinson is a bit more than Just Big: a terrific post scorer who is also an excellent jump-shooter. Synergy rates him in the 82nd-percentile in jump shooting among all players, not just bigs. This is why Dickinson is an elite player: there’s all the usual stuff in the post, but he can just as easily pop off for a mid-range jumper or, worse, a three. This is a guy who’s shooting 58% on mid-range twos right now and it feels unusual when he misses.

So: Dickinson is a bucket and a problem, and I didn’t even get to him being a good passer for a big. The problem is that Dickinson can be all Michigan has on certain nights, and even then, it isn’t always enough. Dickinson went for 20+ in 14 Michigan games this season; M only went 9-5 in those, including 6-4 against Big Ten competition. That’s still >.500, but generally, when your best player has a great game, you’d expect a better win rate. This is because the rest of Michigan’s team is largely coin-flips that either come up golden or goose-egg depending on the night.

Michigan’s #2 in scoring, but #4 in terms of on-court usage, is the efficient guard Eli Brooks (12.4 PPG). Brooks isn’t Michigan’s most talented player or shooter, but he’s their most consistent one at 38.6% on threes and, per Synergy, 38% on mid-range twos. Brooks also has a pretty silky floater he unloads that he’s converting 46.5% of the time, so watch out for that. Unless Michigan really needs him to take over, which doesn’t happen often, Brooks can be generally expected to take 8-12 shots a game and occasionally get to the paint. Just don’t let him get off an open catch-and-shoot three.

The other main shooter is Caleb Houstan (10.6 PPG), the closest thing Michigan has to a wing that’s actually a stretch 4. Houstan is hitting 36.6% of his 161 three-point attempts, but that doesn’t tell the story. Here is one hilarious split:

  • Caleb Houstan, home games: 47.7% 3PT%
  • Caleb Houstan, everywhere else: 29.2% 3PT%

Here is another.

  • Caleb Houstan, 59% eFG% or better (13 games): 12-1 record for Michigan
  • Caleb Houstan, <59% eFG% (21 games): 6-13 record for Michigan

Wait! One more.

  • Caleb Houstan, open catch-and-shoot threes (per Synergy): 47.1% 3PT% on 68 attempts
  • Caleb Houstan, every other three-point attempt: 29% on 93 attempts

How a freshman shooter who only shoots well at home is this predictive for Michigan I don’t know, but that’s the case. If Tennessee forces Houstan into threes where he’s off-balance or literally has to move at all, it’s a win. If you leave him open, it’s bad news.

Lastly: Devante’ Jones (10.7 PPG/4.6 RPG/4.6 APG). Jones is the true point guard on this Michigan roster and has developed into a very good Big Ten starter after having a very slow start to the season. Jones is a relatively infrequent jump-shooter; he took 90 across 31 games, and most of them were threes (33.8% 3PT%). Jones’ main value add is as a passer and paint scorer. The problem for Michigan is that Jones may not play; he missed the Round of 64 Colorado State win due to a concussion. Howard seems optimistic Jones could be back for this game, but at the time of writing, nothing had been confirmed in one direction or the other.

The swing piece here is Moussa Diabate (9 PPG/6 RPG), a hilariously athletic center and poor shooter (8-for-31, per Synergy) who nonetheless will do 1-3 things a game where you’re like “that’s a first-round pick.” Diabate is 79-for-100 at the rim and 30-for-99 everywhere else; you cannot let him get open off of Michigan’s numerous pick-and-rolls. Others: Terrance Williams III shot 38% on threes and Tom Izzo got mad about it. Brandon Johns Jr. began the season as a starter but now plays 10 MPG or so. Kobe Bufkin: 16-for-26 at the rim, 14-for-53 everywhere else. Frankie Collins started in place of Jones against Colorado State and was fantastic, but prior to that, his season high was 8 points and he still has more turnovers than assists.

CHART!

Michigan’s defense

Here’s where I’d argue the lack of a true wing is most impactful. Last year’s Michigan roster had top-10 pick Franz Wagner, Isaiah Livers, and Chaundee Brown, three terrific players who could guard numerous positions and stay with guards. This year’s roster has Houstan, who was atrocious the first two months of the year on D, and…uh…well…

Here is the problem. At shooting guard is Eli Brooks, a 6’1″ player. Brooks is a gritty little dude who makes a ton of fun plays and hustles hard every time out. Brooks is also 6’1″ and regularly guarding 6’3″-6’6″ guys. This is a problem when you are playing 6’3″-6’6″ guys that can shoot well. This is a key reason why Michigan ranked in the 6th-percentile in defending off-the-dribble jumpers and 21st-percentile overall. Some of this is obviously luck-based, but some of this is just “your personnel cannot defend our personnel.”

The Michigan season can be defined by its hilarious 11-game win-loss-win-loss flips, sure, but it’s also more or less about a lack of wings that means having to panic into a zone mid-season (roughly 9% of the time, per Synergy, but more like 15-20% since January) to save the tournament streak. This worked out, and I credit Howard for doing it. Michigan did a terrific job of getting away with zone defenses against quality offenses by simply guarding them very well during the season; it is weird to see a 71/29 Guarded/Unguarded split in a zone but 67/33 in man. The point is that Michigan often has guys in place to force tougher shots. It just hasn’t always worked out.

Just like anyone else, Michigan has been wide-open to variance. The Wolverines are 4-8 when a team shoots 35% or better from deep against them and 14-6 when they don’t. Michigan is pretty good at running shooters off the line, and the fact that they’ve forced 20 games where opponents have shot worse than 35% is nice to see. Still: there will be some openings.

The problem with running shooters off the line with this roster is that it opens up a lot of driving lanes. Refer back to the lack of a consistent ball-stopper; refer back to how their two best defenders are a 7’1″ center that isn’t very fast and a 6’1″ point guard that may or may not play. If you get this Michigan team rushing at you on the perimeter, there will be lanes to the rim. That’s how a team with Dickinson can be giving up a 64.1% FG% at the rim, per Torvik, which is tied for fourth-worst among the 68 Tournament teams.

Michigan is also a very poor post defense team, but I think Tennessee’s odds of exploiting that are a lot better by drawing Dickinson/Diabate out of the paint than by playing bully-ball. Colorado State tried bully-ball and it worked when David Roddy was hitting crazy fadeaways; everything else was torture chamber stuff. I mean, watch this play: an extremely similar one to one Tennessee ran for John Fulkerson yesterday. Feels like basket cuts, once again, could come into play here.

Again: 78th-ranked defense in the nation that never forces turnovers, ranks 206th in 2PT% allowed, and has just the one somewhat-consistent rim protector who isn’t a foul machine. (Diabate is very promising, but 4.5 fouls per 40 leads him to play less minutes than you’d like.) Michigan went 0-12 in games where they gave up 1.09 PPP or greater, 4-13 when the opponent posted an eFG% better than 50%, and 4-8 when the opponent made 8+ threes.

How Tennessee matches up

The first instinct here is that Michigan ranks in the 23rd-percentile in ball-screen defense, Tennessee has Kennedy Chandler/Zakai Zeigler, and you think “okay, do that.” And that would probably work out just fine. Michigan has deployed a variety of coverages to try and make things work this year, but they’ve most often settled on putting Dickinson in drop coverage because of the mobility concerns. (I would also mention that Dickinson has played with nagging injuries over the back half of the season and still looks awesome despite it.)

Tennessee has not run a ton of ball screens this year or really ever under Rick Barnes, but it’s been effective when they have. Synergy has Tennessee’s ball-screen offense in the 68th-percentile; that number is obviously not adjusted for schedule, but take that number with the Michigan one and you can see the potential advantage. If Dickinson comes out to hedge or double, Tennessee will be playing 4-on-3; if Dickinson plays drop coverage, a good shooter like Chandler will have an open shot.

Along with that: gotta get stuff going at the rim, simple as. Michigan’s rim FG% allowed is horrible, of course, but being 8th-percentile in post-up defense is alarming no matter what type of schedule you’re playing. That being said, Tennessee’s post-up efficiency is similarly brutal, so I’d prefer to not see many of them. Instead, utilize Michigan’s perimeter aggressiveness to your advantage: when they rush to close out a shooter, drive to the basket instead. There, you can either go up for a layup or continue the power-play by finding someone open in the dunker spot. Either can work.

Defensively, this is first and foremost about slowing down Dickinson. You can’t shut him down – only three times this year did he fail to at least 11 points – but you can slow him down somewhat. Tennessee has to find a way to force Dickinson to his left, where he’s less comfortable. Per Synergy, Dickinson had 162 single-coverage post-up possessions this season. The 23 times he faced up were pretty obvious: most were jumpers. The other 139 are pretty interesting: 112 times turning to his right (his strong side), just 27 to his left. Dickinson was still very effective going to his left, but he’s not nearly as confident in it. If you can force him left, maybe you force a worse game? It’s not purely like last year where Dickinson could only go right but he’s still learning.

Beyond that, you’ve just got to force the toughest threes you can and hope the shooting variance gods smile on you Saturday. I did a study in late January of the Big Six teams to see just how much variance a team had in 3PT% from game to game; Michigan led the field with ease. At the time, anything from 19% to 54% from deep was within reason. That trend has more or less held for them: 10-3 when they shoot 35% or better from deep, 7-11 when they don’t. Or, if you prefer: 8-2 when shooting 40% or better, 6-4 when shooting 30-39%, 4-8 when shooting worse than 30%. I think Tennessee can survive Michigan shooting 35% or something. You have to do whatever you can to ensure that’s not 40% or better.

Starters + rotations

Three things to watch for

  • Which averages hold? Tennessee versus top 40 offenses: 69.8 PPG allowed. Tennessee versus defenses ranked 40th-100th: 74.7 PPG scored. Michigan versus top 40 offenses: 74.4 PPG allowed. Michigan versus top 40 defenses: 68.6 PPG. Taken all together, that would suggest a 75-69 Tennessee win. But I know better than to trust anything at all in March.
  • Shooting percentages. I mean if Tennessee posts their season average of 36.5% or better from deep, this should be a win. Tennessee is 18-1 when they shoot 35% or better from three. Of course, this is reliant on Michigan – a team averaging a 33-34% hit rate – not having an RNG game in their favor.
  • Turnover margin. This may be where the game swings Tennessee’s way. Michigan ranks 336th in defensive TO%; Tennessee ranks 15th. Tennessee projects to have a +5 advantage in TOs, which would be tough to overcome for a Michigan team in need of every shot they can get.

Key matchups

Hunter Dickinson vs. Center Roulette. Tennessee has narrowed down their center rotation to Plavsic/Fulkerson/Huntley-Hatfield but frankly, this could be an Aidoo game. Dickinson will need someone to challenge him vertically as best as humanly possible. You’re also rooting for Dickinson to be relatively inefficient on his jumpers.

Eli Brooks vs. Santiago Vescovi. Brooks is the Gritty Gritstein (h/t MGoBlog) of Michigan: a guy who makes all the little plays and seemingly never stops moving. Brooks can reasonably keep up with Vescovi for a while, so it’s on Tennessee to set good screens to get Vescovi open.

If Devante’ Jones is playing: Devante’ Jones vs. Kennedy Chandler.

If Devante’ Jones is out: Caleb Houstan vs. Josiah-Jordan James. My guess is that Jones plays. In that case, Chandler has to be prepared to be hounded by Jones for all 40 minutes. You can fool Jones into touch fouls from time to time, but mostly, he’s just a pest. Any time you can force him into taking jumpers you have to. Houstan, meanwhile, is somewhat simpler: just make him move.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee records a +5 or better advantage in the turnover department;
  2. Michigan has a run of 2-3 made threes followed by six straight misses;
  3. Tennessee 73, Michigan 67.

Show Me My Opponent, 2022 NCAA Tournament: Longwood

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT (14) Longwood
26-6, 15-1 Big South, #139 KenPom
LOCATION Conseco Fieldhouse
Indianapolis, IN
TIME Thursday, March 17
2:45ish PM ET
CHANNEL CBS
ANNOUNCERS Ian Eagle (PBP)
Jim Spanarkel (analyst)
Jamie Erdahl (sideline)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -18
KenPom: Tennessee -15

Torvik: Tennessee -14.4

Yes I’ve seen all of your Longwood jokes and they are very funny. So original! Ha Ha!

Anyway, the first thing that will jump out about the Longwood Lancers is that they are from Farmville, Virginia. Secondly, they’re 19-1 in their last 20. This is their first NCAA Tournament, and they romped through the Big South pretty well. They had the best in-conference offensive efficiency by a fair margin. That’s all good. This is also a 14-seed that has not beaten a team ranked higher than 159th in KenPom and has played one game against a top 100 team, Iowa. That game ended in a 33-point defeat where they trailed 73-34 with 16 minutes left.

Tennessee, meanwhile, is coming off a conference tournament championship of their own. Both feel like massive rarities to each school’s respective fans. Of course, Tennessee’s expectations for March are quite a bit higher than Longwood’s. You don’t want to get bitten by the 14-seed bug in the first round, but you don’t want to lower the expectations much, either. This is the best 3-seed in the field, ranked like a 2-seed, taking on a team that ranks 139th and is the third-lowest 14. If anything went wrong, it would be one of the most stunning upsets ever. Then again, crazier stuff has happened.


Longwood’s offense

This is the superior unit of the two. You look at those basic numbers and admittedly, some of the sweat starts to build: 5th in 3PT%. 19th in OREB%. 50th in Free Throw Rate. It all feels like your classic Giant Killer coming home to roost one final time to kill off any optimism or hope you have left as a basketball viewer. I promise there is good news coming; we’ll get the tough stuff out first.

Basic offensive structural scout: Longwood runs a good amount of ball screens on the perimeter meant to open up dribble penetration for the guard, who can either take it to the basket or dish it to an open shooter. As shown in the above graphic, Longwood is more willing to get to the rim than take a three, but when they do shoot, they’re pretty efficient. Unsurprisingly, when the tallest player in the rotation is three different 6’7″ guys, you aren’t going to see much posting up. Onto the show.

The best, highest-usage, and highest-scoring player is Justin Hill (14.2 PPG/4.9 RPG/4.2 APG), a 6’0″ guard who is the closest thing the team has to a true point guard. The unusual thing about Hill is his willingness to attack the rim at all costs. You can squint and see Hill as Longwood’s Kennedy Chandler: a guy who takes more layups than threes and is one of the best rebounding point guards in America. Longwood doesn’t push the pace often, but when they do, Hill is the ringleader who attacks the basket like crazy. In half-court, he’s more likely to use ball screens to get what he wants.

Hill is the #1 option; Isaiah Wilkins (12.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG) is the #2. Wilkins is a 6’4″ wing that serves as the 3 in this small-ball offense. The thing you’ll immediately notice and fear about Wilkins is obvious: 40.9% from three on 137 attempts. Wilkins is also the best rebounder on the team and is simply a good shooter in general, but it’s worth noting that Wilkins doesn’t take threes off the dribble. Per Synergy, Wilkins has taken 39 off-the-dribble jumpers this year; 33 were mid-range twos. Wilkins is reliant on Hill and backup Jordan Perkins to create his shots for him, but he moves well off the ball and gets open fairly often.

Lastly: the scariest shooter. DeShaun Wade (12 PPG) is the third option; with a 50% FG% at the rim and more three-point attempts than twos, he’s the second-closest thing to Just A Shooter Longwood has. Wade hit 46.6% of his 148 three-point attempts this year, which is legitimately terrifying. You do not want to let Wade shake loose on the perimeter for any reason. You can’t really run him off the line, either; Wade is 26-for-57 on mid-range jumpers. Still, that beats threes. If Wade gets loose:

It’s not good. You can think of him as Longwood’s Vescovi, in a way.

The rest of the offense is various spare parts of mild interest. Center Zac Watson (7.8 PPG, 3.7 RPG) is fifth in the team in scoring and serves as a ball screen/basket cuts specialist. Leslie Nkereuwem (8.9 PPG, 4.8 RPG) is a defensive turnstile that is the main user of post-ups. Nate Lliteras hit 38.6% of his 83 three-point attempts. Starter Jesper Granlund (4.1 PPG) attempts a shot once every blue moon and mostly stays out of the way.

To sum it up: if Wilkins and Wade aren’t hitting 50% of their threes, they don’t generate much in the way of easy twos. That seems troublesome against the nation’s third-best defense.

CHART!

Longwood’s defense

This is the more relieving half of the preview. Some of the Longwood numbers are good, of course; they’re top 100 in three of the Four Factors. I would remind you that those numbers are not adjusted for competition and they came against a schedule KenPom ranks as the 340th-hardest out of 358. This is an aggressive man-to-man defense that forces turnovers and doesn’t commit a lot of fouls, which is nice, but this is also a defense where the tallest player is 6’7″ and they allowed the 274th-best FG% at the rim against said #340 SOS. This is just the seventh defense Tennessee has played this year ranked worse than 150th by KenPom; they averaged 86.8 PPG in the other six games. Even if you want to lower the average by moving that to 100th or worse, it’s still 82.6 PPG across ten games. You get where I’m going.

The first thing I noticed when researching Longwood, other than everything, is that hilarious 2PT% ranking: 319th. Sometimes, teams will have unusually high 2PT% allowed in part because opponents are randomly very hot on mid-range twos against them. This can happen against smaller teams sometimes, but Longwood is allowing a 36.8% hit rate on mid-range jumpers, so no need. This is all about the rim and an alarmingly bad stop rate down low.

Remember that SOS ranking of #340? Synergy, which does not adjust for SOS, ranks Longwood’s around the basket defense in the 4th-percentile nationally. I would not imagine this is a surprise; the leading shot-blocker is Zac Watson, who is 6’7″ and has all of 17 blocks on the season. Longwood only played two offenses ranked in the top 125 this season: Iowa and Winthrop. Across three games, those two teams converted 59% of two-point attempts. Longwood ranks in the 3rd-percentile defending basket cuts, one of Tennessee’s most successful plays. 10 of Longwood’s last 11 opponents have converted over 50% of their two-point attempts. Again, I think you get the point.

However, the one super-positive thing everyone’s going to look at is the 3PT% allowed. Longwood does rank 46th at 31%, which does indeed save their eFG% from being purely in the crapper. That’s about 1.4% below the expected hit rate of 32.4%, which is solid. To go with that, Longwood’s Guarded/Unguarded split of 57/43 is a hair better than the national average, so I could reasonably say this is a solid-enough defense at forcing guarded threes. Then again, this is a Tennessee team that’s hit 39% of threes over the last two months and ranks among the nation’s 70 best 3PT% teams. Longwood played six games against members of the top 70 this year. Those six games: 17-for-72 (23.6%) on guarded threes.

If Longwood has figured out how to turn great three-point shooting teams into dust, I think that’s great. I also think that, considering those same teams shot 24-for-46 on open threes, it’s probably just your average perimeter defense.

How Tennessee matches up

Most of why I think Tennessee has a significant advantage in this game can be boiled down to two things:

  1. The height differential in the frontcourt, as Longwood’s starters are 6’4″ and 6’7″;
  2. The fact that Tennessee has Kennedy Chandler and Longwood does not.

I guess these can somewhat go together. Chandler was one of just seven players in America 6’1″ or shorter to attempt 160+ shots at the rim this season. He converted these at a 60% rate, which is good for someone his size. If you want another list, try this: 6’1″ or shorter players that took 150+ shots at the rim and 100% threes. Chandler and Darius McGhee of Liberty were the only small guys this year to meet those numbers and post percentages of 58%/37% or better at both spots. The point is that, on first glance, there is no point guard on the Longwood roster that can check Chandler consistently when he’s driving to the rim. Once he gets there, there’s no big man to really stop him, either. The only team Tennessee really played like this in regular season with a similar height deficit was USC Upstate; Chandler scored 17 points on 11 shots.

The other aspect of this is also pretty obvious: while Longwood has two utterly terrific shooters that held up very well against their best competition, Longwood doesn’t have the ability on the other end to dictate the game on the perimeter. I guess they believe they can, but it’s frankly hard to visualize. If Tennessee’s frontcourt gets going, Longwood will have to sink in to compensate, which will open up a lot of threes for Vescovi and friends.

Defensively, the first task is going to be making Hill take the toughest shots possible in the paint. Hill will get to the paint several times in this game no matter what Tennessee does, and frankly, the idea of him being forced to pass to one of the two S-tier shooters is not really something I’m looking for. Instead, I actually think Tennessee can dare Hill into taking some really bad shots in this game. For such an effective slasher, Hill hit just 54% of his attempts at the rim and 31% of his 84 non-rim two-pointers. Force him into a half-court set and his shot quality drops that much further. The more you can force Hill into shots from 5-10 feet away as opposed to those that are true layups, the better off you’ll be.

Then…the shooters. I would simply title this section “allow as few open catch-and-shoots as humanly possible” because that’s all this really is. If there’s any way possible to force the ball out of the hands of Wilkins and/or Wade, Tennessee may win this game by 20+. Those two are shooting 43.9% from deep; the rest of the team, combined, is at 35.4%. I would take a three-point attempt by literally anyone else on the roster before I let Wilkins or Wade get a clean catch-and-shoot look off. Make these guys finish over the top of long-armed defenders.

Just win.

Starters + rotations

Three things to watch for

  • Well, the shooting. Of course. If Tennessee has a normal (read: 34% or better) 3PT% night, I’m not sure what the path for Longwood to a win would be, exactly. I think they’d have to shoot >50% from deep, which is not a thing you can exactly rely on.
  • Can Longwood slow Tennessee down in the paint at all? This would appear to be Tennessee’s most obvious advantage, both in terms of their tallest guy being 6’7″ and because Longwood ranks 319th in 2PT%. (Frankly, considering the schedule they played, this would be like drawing Georgia on a night where you’re not looking ahead to Arkansas.) If Tennessee isn’t at 55% or better on twos it would be a surprise.
  • Rebounding? Maybe? I mean I’m hunting everywhere for potential Longwood advantages and aside from their two main shooters, this might be it, as they rank in the top 50 in both OREB% and DREB%. That being said, average opponent OREB% faced: 27.4%. Tennessee: 33.2%. Not to be all “they haven’t seen anything like this,” but, uh, have they?

Key matchups

Justin Hill vs. Kennedy Chandler. Hill’s the top dog and will attack the rim like crazy. Chandler will do the same and is a superior shooter. This comes down to how often Tennessee forces Hill into 5-10 foot shots instead of <5 footers.

Isaiah Wilkins vs. Josiah-Jordan James. This is the most common matchup, at least. In seven games against Top 200 teams (yes, I know), Wilkins was Longwood’s best and most consistent player. I kind of think he leads them in scoring here. I would like to see James use his size advantage here: take Wilkins, a player with zero blocks in said seven games, to the rim. Or just shoot over him.

DeShaun Wade vs. Santiago Vescovi. Shooter versus shooter. Wilkins and Wade shot 45.7% from deep on 70 attempts in the seven Top 200 games; everyone else, 30.1% on 93. My thought is that Tennessee has the perimeter athleticism to force one or the other into a bad shooting night if not both.

Three predictions

  1. Chandler/James/Vescovi combine for 7+ made threes;
  2. Tennessee converts at a 65% or better rate at the rim;
  3. Tennessee 79, Longwood 60.

How stats and history would pick the 2022 NCAA Tournament

A year ago today, I published what became one of the most popular posts on this website, about how 20+ years of data accumulated from KenPom and Bart Torvik could tell you what might happen in March. Whether or not it was useful in any real way is frankly up to the reader, I guess. It got two of the four Final Four picks right, including the #1 value pick of the entire NCAA Tournament, Houston. However, it missed on five Elite Eight teams and seven Sweet Sixteen sides. However, it did go 27-5 in the first round, the best record I have ever posted in a bracket I’ve submitted to a bracket pool.

I’m going to be frank. The level of care I have for submitting brackets at this point is pretty low; I am doing this more because a lot of people really like it than because I personally desired to write this. But: there is some sort of enjoyment in sharing a relatively unique perspective of current statistics and previous history to attempt to inform your bracket.

For whenever this gets picked up by people who don’t normally read this website, many of these picks will be wrong. Even the very best brackets miss on an average of 13-15 picks out of 63 total a year. If I missed on 15 total picks, I would be beyond thrilled. I missed 22 last year; maybe that can get below 20 this year. Who knows. I look forward to seeing how it all unfolds.

As a reminder, here’s how all of this works: What this is is simply a game-by-game projection of the field of 68 based on a document I’ve put together since 2018. Bart Torvik has an amazing page on his site with detailed historical KenPom projections of each game over the last 20 years of postseason play. Using that, I’ve accumulated enough data to make informed, quality guesses on how the NCAA Tournament may go.

Along with that, this year’s projections will factor in heavily to provide a baseline of measurements. KenPom’s numbers expect about 5.04 Round of 64 upsets, the highest number I’ve seen in a projection in a few years; Torvik sits at 4.75, a little lower, but still in that 5 upset range. I’ll share the five upsets these numbers would most incline you to pick. Author’s note: many stats were also brought in from this amazing guide to the NCAAT I found on Reddit.

Onward? Onward.

Round of 64

West Region

(1) Gonzaga over (16) Georgia State. Well, obviously.

(9) Memphis over (8) Boise State. KenPom actually has Boise as a tiny favorite, but Torvik and EvanMiya have Memphis as a favorite. Either pick is fine because I don’t think either team is beating Gonzaga (more later), but the favorite in these 8/9 games over the last 21 years is 58-26.

(5) Connecticut over (12) New Mexico State. The metrics average here has UConn at about 71.5% to win; 5 seeds at 70% or better are 28-6.

(13) Vermont over (4) Arkansas. This is probably wild if you’re an SEC fan, but, again, riding the metrics. 4 seeds at 70% or worse to win since 2000 are 7-10. This is also a play against Arkansas going deep; teams at 40% or worse to make the Sweet Sixteen (Arkansas is at 38%) are 2 for 29 in doing so. Catamounts!

(11) Notre Dame over (6) Alabama…or (6) Alabama over (11) Rutgers. Precisely what you needed: a game that you have to wait until Wednesday at midnight to pick. Notre Dame would be at 42.1% to beat Alabama if they played; 11 seeds at 37% or better are 29-21 since 2000 in winning. Rutgers, however, would be at 34%, which is below that 37% threshold. 11 seeds below 37%: 7-27. I don’t know that I really like picking either, frankly, but again, a situation where either winner would be out in my Round of 32.

(3) Texas Tech over (14) Montana State. At 91.1%, Texas Tech is merely one of the eight largest 3-seed favorites since 2000. No 3 seed at 85% or better has lost their Round of 64 game, a perfect 36-0.

(7) Michigan State over (10) Davidson. Utterly disgusting. But: Michigan State, in the metrics average, is at 52.2% to win. The favorite in 7/10 games is 65-19.

(2) Duke over (15) Cal State Fullerton. The general threshold for “oh?” 2/15 games is about a 10% chance of winning for the 15 seed. Fullerton is at 7.6%. I’d love to see it, but.

South Region

(1) Arizona over (16) First Four Winner. No need to elaborate.

(9) TCU over (8) Seton Hall. Either pick is fine here. TCU is favored by Torvik; Seton Hall by KenPom. Tiebreaker goes to the better team as of late: TCU.

(5) Houston over (12) UAB. What a huge bummer UAB couldn’t be matched up elsewhere; I wanted to see them make a run. I guess they technically could. But: at 80.9% to win, Houston is one of the largest 5-seed favorites in modern Tournament history. No 5 seed at 76% or better has lost (17-0). This reminds me strongly of Villanova/Winthrop a year ago.

(4) Illinois over (13) Chattanooga. Technically, this meets our criteria for a 13 over 4. UTC has a 31.2% shot to win per KenPom; we’re focusing on 13 seeds at 30% or better this year. Unfortunately, Torvik has them at just under 23%, and the average takes them out of full consideration. I would not be surprised at all to see UTC win this, though; Illinois is not a strong 4 seed.

(11) Michigan over (6) Colorado State. About once every Tournament, a 6 seed will be at 54% or worse to win their first game. Those 6 seeds are 4-16 in the Round of 64 since 2000. Colorado State is at 50.4% on KenPom and a hilarious 41.7% on Torvik. Absolutely amazing draw for Michigan, at least for one game.

(3) Tennessee over (14) Longwood. Refer back to the Texas Tech stat: No 3 seed at 85% or better has lost their Round of 64 game, a perfect 36-0. Tennessee is at 92%. Feels like the Wright State game all over again.

(10) Loyola Chicago over (7) Ohio State. A tricky one: Loyola is at 54.3% to win per KenPom, but 47.3% on Torvik. Loyola wins both the averaging out and is the better team in their last 10 games.

(2) Villanova over (15) Delaware. So: remember the note about 2/15 games needing to be at that 10% threshold to be generally pretty interesting? Villanova sits at 89.4% to win by KenPom, 90.8% on Torvik. They’re the only 2 seed on either site to dip below 90% to win. Do I think Delaware wins this game? No. But 15 seeds at 10% or better to win, despite being 4-24, have an average margin of defeat a few points shorter than those worse than 10%. I think this one could be worth tracking.

Midwest Region

(1) Kansas over (16) First Four. Again, not expecting much. Similar to how the 2/15 games have a threshold, 1/16 games sit at 5% or above for interest and curiosity. This one is consistently at 3.6%. Skippable, especially since it’s the final game of Thursday. That being said: Texas Southern, if they win their First Four game, has the best defense of any 16 seed this year at 108th overall and did beat Florida in December.

(8) San Diego State over (9) Creighton. FINALLY! An 8/9 game that doesn’t require a coin-flip. San Diego State is at 62.2% to win; 8/9 seeds at 55% or better are 37-6. I would be very surprised to lose this one.

(5) Iowa over (12) Richmond. Iowa is at 82.5% to win; refer back to the “no 5 seed at 76% or higher has lost” stat.

(13) South Dakota State over (4) Providence. Apparently the Giant Killers system hates this pick, but whatever. Providence is at just 57.2% to win. Not only is this the third-lowest mark for a 4-seed ever, I had to institute a new part of the study for it: teams at 65% or worse are 3-7 in the Round of 64 all time, with none of them breaching the Sweet Sixteen.

(6) LSU over (11) Iowa State. Disgusting. Sickening. Makes me want to barf in a bag and pour it on my laptop. Unfortunately, someone must win this game. LSU sits at 62.2% to win, the highest of any 6 seed this tournament, unless Rutgers plays Alabama. As much as I’d like to see all four 6 seeds lose, one of them probably has to win. Even better: as you’ll see in the Round of 32, one of these two may be in the Sweet Sixteen.

(3) Wisconsin over (14) Colgate. Which is because the committee placed KenPom #34 at a 3 seed, the lowest-seeded 3 since 2011 New Mexico (#39), who got ransacked in the Round of 32 by an 11 seed and nearly lost to 14-seed Montana. Wisconsin sits at 75.5% to win on KenPom and 81.4% on Torvik. I would not blame you if you feel compelled to pick Colgate, because 3 seeds at 80% or worse are 21-6 at winning. Still, that’s 21-6. I know that I’m personally rooting for Colgate, because presumably, most ESPN users have Wisconsin at least in the Sweet Sixteen.

(7) USC over (10) Miami (FL). Neither one of these teams is very good, and both are the lowest-rated teams at their respective seedlines. Congratulations to Auburn on the Sweet Sixteen bid. USC is at a combined 51.9% average to win, and 10 seeds ranked 50th or worse on KenPom are 3-13 since 2006. Nasty, nasty game. Nasty!

(2) Auburn over (15) Jacksonville State. Ever since I saw this tweet:

I was rooting for Auburn to draw the hardest 15 seed imaginable. Of course, they drew one ranked ten spots below Missouri. Auburn is at 91.4% to win; the only upset path I can think of is one where Auburn foolishly attempts 30 threes and misses 24 of them. Wait a minute, that’s actually pretty realistic.

East Region

(1) Baylor over (16) Norfolk State. But with a warning: this is the only 1/16 game this year where the 1 is below 95% to win. Baylor is still at 94.7%, so something would have to go wildly wrong for an upset to happen. Still, maybe this one provides some interest at some point.

(8) North Carolina over (9) Marquette. Another easy one: UNC is at 56.1% to win; the KenPom favorite is 57-25 since 2000. Stylistically, Marquette generates almost no second-chances at all, which is a problem against a UNC team ranked #2 nationally in DREB%. This would require Marquette shooting 40% or better from deep to win.

(12) Indiana over (5) Saint Mary’s. I would actually prefer Wyoming win, because Wyoming is subjectively much more fun to watch for me. That being said, they would have about a 31-32% chance to win; while that’s still the best of any 12 seed this year, the hit rate for 12 seeds greatly increases beginning at 33-34%. Indiana would be at 41.2%, easily the best of any 12 seed. If you like upsets, root for Indiana; if you like fun basketball, root for Wyoming.

(4) UCLA over (13) Akron. In general, this is either the worst batch of 4 seeds or the best batch of 13 seeds in a decade. But this game sort of ruins the average on both sides. UCLA is a 2 seed in a 4 seed’s body; Akron is ranked below three teams seeded 14-15. UCLA is at nearly 90% to win; no 4 seed has ever lost above 83%.

(11) Virginia Tech over (6) Texas. I cannot stand picking super-popular upsets like this one. There’s actually more statistical value in taking Texas, because over half of ESPN users have selected VA Tech. The problem is that this upset simply makes a lot of sense. 11 seeds at 41% or better to win since 2000 are 23-12; all others are 13-36. VA Tech is at 44%, the second-best of any 6 seed this year. Considering the stats expectation is that 1.7 of the 6 seeds lose, I would pair this with the Colorado State pick and hope for the best.

(3) Purdue over (14) Yale. An upset would be fun, but Purdue is at 90% to win. Really wish Princeton had won the Ivy.

(10) San Francisco over (7) Murray State. San Francisco is at an impressive 57.6% to win and weirdly isn’t the Vegas favorite. The metrics favorite in 7/10 games is 65-19 over the last 21 tournaments.

(2) Kentucky over (15) Saint Peter’s. Somewhat similarly to Villanova/Delaware, I could see this one maybe being interesting, but it’s unlikely. Kentucky is at 90.7% to win, right near that 10% cutline, because Saint Peter’s is the best of the 15 seeds by some margin and has a legitimate top-40 defense. My guess is more that this is a lower-scoring affair – maybe something like Kentucky 69-56.


Round of 32

West Region

(1) Gonzaga over (9) Memphis. The wild thing about this game in particular is that, in theory, it could be Gonzaga’s single toughest game they play prior to the Final Four. Memphis has played like a top-10 team over the last several weeks and is a legitimate threat. Still, Gonzaga sits at 82.9% to make the Sweet Sixteen. No 1 seed at 82.5% or higher has missed it (18 for 18). I’ll believe it when I see it.

(13) Vermont over (5) Connecticut. The risk here is kind of obvious: what if Vermont loses in the first round? Well, then you lose a total of three points out of 192. Big deal. This is more of a three-pronged bet:

  • (4) Arkansas sits at 36% to make the Sweet Sixteen, per KenPom. 4 seeds at 40% or worse are 2-for-29 in making the second weekend since 2000. This includes Purdue and Oklahoma State from 2021.
  • (5) Connecticut sits consistently at 38-39% to make it on both KenPom and Torvik. 5 seeds at 41% or worse to make the second weekend: 10-for-56. Creighton broke the trend last year, but they did get to play a 13 seed on the way there.
  • (13) Vermont is at 13-15% depending where you look. Only ten 13 seeds since 2000 have been at 12% or better to make the second weekend; they’re 3-for-10 in doing it.

The problem is that only three 13 seeds period have made the Sweet Sixteen. If you want to take UConn here, that’s a fine pick, too. Somewhere, though, you have to try and create added value. Vermont has better versus-the-field value than nearly any other 13 seed to take the court before them. It’s worth a try.

(3) Texas Tech over any of (6) Alabama, (11) Notre Dame, or (11) Rutgers. This one is drama-free. Tech is at 66.2% to advance; 3 seeds at 57% or better are 20-for-26. If you really want to narrow it down, 3 seeds at 64% or better are 8-for-8.

(2) Duke over (7) Michigan State. Otherwise known as THE MOST INSUFFERABLE GAME IN THE HISTORY OF MANKIND. Unfortunately, Duke is at 63.6% to advance on KenPom and a bizarrely-high 69.8% on Torvik; 2 seeds at 63% or better are 32-for-42. If we’re lucky, this is Davidson vs. Cal State Fullerton instead.

South Region

(1) Arizona over (9) TCU. Same with Seton Hall. Arizona is at 76.3% on KenPom and 71.9% on Torvik; 1 seeds at 70% or higher are 51-for-57.

(5) Houston over (4) Illinois. With ya, Ken:

I just…don’t get it? Even if you like Illinois in this specific matchup, they’re at just 28.2% to touch the Sweet Sixteen. No 4 seed at 34% or worse has ever made the Sweet Sixteen (0-for-13). I guess Illinois could make it 1-for-14, but I’m not sure what about them is trustworthy.

(3) Tennessee over (11) Michigan. If you are a reader of this blog, you know that this will be a nightmare game for me. The good-ish news is that it doesn’t feel terribly dramatic. Tennessee is at 66.3% to touch the second weekend; refer back to the Tech stat for why those are absurdly good odds for a 3 seed.

(10) Loyola Chicago over (2) Villanova. Here is the thing: in a one-off affair, Villanova would be favored by four points or so. That still means Villanova is the most likely Sweet 16 squad. They’re at 58.8% to make it, per KenPom. And I know Tennessee fans probably want no part of another Sister Jean run. But whatever. I’m showing my work:

  • 2 seeds at 63% or worse to make the Sweet Sixteen are 19-for-42 in doing so. Villanova is the only 2 seed below 63% this season on KenPom. (Duke is at 63.6%, for the record.)
  • 2 seeds at 60% or worse, per Torvik’s database, sit at 14-for-35 in making the second weekend, just a 40% success rate.
  • 2 seeds with a spot differential of 20 or lower in KenPom are 16-12 since 2006. Loyola Chicago is 13 spots behind Villanova, while Ohio State is also pretty close at 21.
  • 2 seeds favored by 5 or fewer points, since 2006: 9-11. Villanova, per KenPom, would be favored by 4.08 points.
  • Loyola sits at 22.2% to make the Sweet Sixteen, per KenPom. 10 seeds at 17% or higher to make the Sweet Sixteen are 11 for 28 in doing so; all others are 2 for 56. (For what it’s worth, San Francisco and Davidson also meet this. Go 10s!) 20% or higher: 9 for 20.
  • Even if this is Ohio State instead, it’s still worth rooting for, but Ohio State is below the 20% threshold for 7 seeds to make the second weekend. (Below: 5-for-46. Above: 14-for-38.)

To win a bracket pool, you have to swing for the fences on a couple of picks. Just like last year, I’m hoping Loyola repays the faith. All of this over a two-point pick. Why do I do this?

Midwest Region

(8) San Diego State over (1) Kansas. This pick was originally Kansas over SDSU. This one is absurdly tough, and it’s one where I have to go against my first instinct, which is to pass on the upset. Kansas is the only 1 seed below 70% on KenPom to make the Sweet Sixteen, and there is real value to be had in betting against them. The problem is two-fold: 1. San Diego State’s offense, which ranks 157th on KenPom; 2. Since 2006, 1 seeds playing 8/9 seeds with offenses ranked worse than 50th are 23-2.

The odds of all four 1 seeds making the Sweet Sixteen are just 31%. This is fully an odds play; I am trusting that San Diego State will overcome their offense to go deep. They are the best 8 seed on the board by some distance, and their odds are significantly better than those of 8 seed counterpart UNC. Gotta swing for it.

(5) Iowa over (13) South Dakota State. Even if Providence wins, this is very easy: Iowa is at 60.4% to make the Sweet Sixteen, and 5 seeds at 45% or better are 13-for-16 in advancing. Quick sidebar: Iowa’s 60.4% Sweet Sixteen odds are the highest ever for a 5 seed.

(6) LSU over (3) Wisconsin. LOL. But I can defend this. LSU has the best odds of anyone in this quadrant to advance at 40.2%; 6 seeds at 34% or better are 11-for-23 in advancing. This is more a bet against Wisconsin, who sits at 34.5% to advance. 3 seeds at 42% or worse are 2-for-11 in making it. What an awful quadrant. This could just as easily be Iowa State/Colgate, frankly.

(2) Auburn over (7) USC. As funny as an Auburn loss would be, it seems unlikely. Auburn sits at 69.5% to advance; 2 seeds at 63% or better are 32-for-42 in making it.

East Region

(1) Baylor over (8) North Carolina. This is the toughest one in the entire bracket for me.

Do I like this pick all that much? Frankly, no. I don’t like either Baylor or Kansas to go far at all, really. But this came down to two things:

  1. Significantly more people are picking UNC than San Diego State despite SDSU having the better upset odds;
  2. In a larger bracket pool, that makes San Diego State the superior value pick over UNC.

I believe that one of the 1 seeds will be going home before the Sweet Sixteen, based on the numbers that show me 1.02 are expected to go home. I think that it will either be Baylor or Kansas. I just simply think Kansas may have the worse matchup.

(4) UCLA over (5)/(12) Doesn’t Matter. UCLA is at 58.2% to advance per KenPom and 58.1% per Torvik; both are well above the standard 53% rate that I normally look at for obvious 4-seed advancements. 53% or better: 15-for-17 making S16. I suppose I’m rooting for the 12 seed to win so UCLA’s path is better.

(11) Virginia Tech over (3) Purdue. Slightly over half of all 3 seeds make the Sweet Sixteen: 48-for-84 since 2000, or 57%. We all expect 3 seeds to make it every year, particularly when their paired 6 seeds lose over 50% of the time in the first round since 2011. That’s just not the case. 3 seeds that actually make the Sweet Sixteen have insane win rates – 50% in the next round! – but getting there is a struggle.

Anyway, Purdue is at 50.5% to advance, per KenPom. 3 seeds at 52% or lower to make the next round are just 19-for-48; all others are 29-for-36. Even if you bump that up to 57% or lower, it’s still just 27-for-58, or a 46.5% shot at getting through. The other numbers are this: Ken’s numbers expect about 2.36 10+ seeds in the Sweet Sixteen. Torvik’s: 2.13. EvanMiya: about 1.96. The message is that at least two 10+ seeds should make the Sweet Sixteen. Three may be aggressive, but in 13 straight NCAA Tournaments, at least one 10+ seed has made the second weekend. The most common number of 10+ seeds in the Sweet Sixteen: three, which has happened 13 times in 36 tries. Try, try again.

(2) Kentucky over (10) San Francisco. This one is sad to say no to. Kentucky comes close to meeting the metrics for a two-seed loss, but at 64.9%, I can’t pull the trigger. Also, this is the nation’s #1 rim FG% offense going up against a team that ranked 90th-best in a significantly worse conference. For the record, I think Murray State would be an even less optimal matchup. The best possible single-game matchup here among the 7/10s may have been USC or Loyola.


Sweet Sixteen

West Region

(1) Gonzaga over (13) Vermont. Nice and calm. Gonzaga is at 70.8% to make the Elite Eight. Not only are those insanely high odds, but no 1 seed at 65% or better has missed the Elite Eight (13-for-13).

(3) Texas Tech over (2) Duke. You may have to wait until the second weekend to blissfully rid yourselves of the Retirement Tour™, but when it happens, I think it comes at the hands of this scary Texas Tech team. Not only would Tech currently be favored on a neutral court, they have superior Elite Eight odds to Duke (38.2% vs. 35.5%). 3 seeds at 31% or better: 16-for-24. All others: 8-for-60. 2 seeds at 40% or lower: 12-for-47. All others: 24-for-37.

South Region

(1) Arizona over (5) Houston. This one was a tough one to say no to. Both of these teams are utterly terrific, and the fact that KenPom’s #2 and #4 teams are forced to play each other in the Sweet Sixteen is an insanity that only European football’s seeding system can match. Again, this is a numbers game we’re playing. The numbers say this: Arizona has the second-best Elite Eight odds of the 1 seeds. 1.97 of the four 1 seeds are expected to get there, per KenPom. We need to drop two of them.

The issue is this: I just think Houston > Arizona is a taller mental gymnastics task than Iowa > Kansas. (Spoiler.) Teams with 44% or worse odds to make the Elite Eight are just 7-for-19; Baylor is at 43.3% on KenPom, while Kansas sits at 44.3%, right on the cutline. Arizona being at 47.2% was enough to push them just over the edge. Houston would have the on-paper shot volume edge, but Arizona would win in the foul department with relative ease and should out-shoot Houston. Tough, but fair.

(3) Tennessee over (10) Loyola Chicago. I would also take Tennessee over Villanova, for the record, as they’re the higher-rated team on both KP and Torvik. I promise this makes some pretty good sense, though, and not just out of homerism. Tennessee’s 39.2% Elite Eight odds are the eighth-highest ever for a 3 seed, per Torvik. The seven teams all ahead of them: Elite Eight entrants. Alternately, just refer back to the Texas Tech stat. There are two terrific 3 seeds this year and two meh ones; ride the two terrific ones.

Midwest Region

(5) Iowa over (8) San Diego State. Even if this is Kansas instead, Iowa is actually ranked ahead of Kansas on Haslametrics right now, and it genuinely may be defensible. Since January 15th – two months ago today – Iowa has played at the level of the 4th-best team in America, per Torvik. Kansas is third, but it’s a virtual tie. Frankly, it just comes back to the numbers: Iowa has the HIGHEST ELITE EIGHT ODDS EVER for a 5 seed at 31.4%. If not now, when? I shudder to think of the Fran McCaffery takes I’ll have to delete.

(2) Auburn over (6) LSU. Unfortunately, this one is straight forward: Auburn is at 48% to make the Elite Eight; 2 seeds at 40% or better are 24-for-37 (12-for-47 all others) and they very nearly crack the 50% super-safe barrier. Here’s hoping for an upset somewhere along the line. Jacksonville State?

East Region

(4) UCLA over (1) Baylor. 4 seeds at 25% or better to make the Elite Eight are 6-for-15, and UCLA sits at about 31-32%. Baylor is at just 43.3% to reach the Elite Eight, the lowest of any 1 seed. With the knowledge that 1 seeds at 44% or worse to make the Elite Eight are 7-for-19 in doing so, I am simply playing the odds.

(2) Kentucky over (11) Virginia Tech. Again, hoping for an upset, but I imagine the miracle VA Tech run ends here if it gets that far. Kentucky is *just* above that 40% barrier to crack the Elite Eight at 41.3%. Statistically, we can expect 0.73 10+ seeds to make the Elite Eight. I feel fairly confident that Virginia Tech is the most likely team to make it happen. Go Hokies?


Elite Eight

West Region

(1) Gonzaga over (3) Texas Tech. Gonzaga is at an astounding 53.7% to make the Final Four. Only 16 1 seeds have ever cracked 46%, and they’re at a collective 15-for-16. Gonzaga did it last year; I bet they do it again this time out, too.

South Region

This should go over well.

(3) Tennessee over (1) Arizona. Again: I’m merely playing the numbers. This is not a homer pick. If I could pick against Tennessee, I would, because doing this makes me nauseous. But I want to show you a couple of things.

These are the current odds on KenPom and Torvik. Arizona sits at 29.1% to make the Final Four on one site and 21% on the other. I think Torvik’s number is a little wild, but bear with me. 1 seeds with 33% or lower odds to make the Final Four are 4 of 40 in doing so (all others 28 of 44). Only one 1 seed this year is better than 33%: Gonzaga. The expected number of Final Four teams that are 1 seeds: 1.36 per KenPom, 1.29 per Torvik. That’s not two. That’s one.

Tennessee’s odds, for a 3 seed, are consistently at 20% to make the Final Four. Those are the seventh-highest odds for any 3 seed since 2000. They’re 5% higher than Texas Tech’s in 2019. 7% higher than Michigan’s in 2018. They are 1.7% higher than Florida in 2006. What I am telling you is this: it is okay to believe that the chance is real. If you don’t know, it was probably even harder to believe Tennessee would win the SEC Tournament, a tournament they had a 20.4% chance of winning.

The chance is there. Tennessee has a 53% chance of playing someone other than Arizona if they can make the Elite Eight. We’ll see if it happens.

Midwest Region

(5) Iowa over (2) Auburn. I don’t trust anyone in this region at all for a variety of reasons. Kansas’s metrics are very weak for a 1 seed hoping to make the Final Four; they’re out. Wisconsin is one of the weakest 3-seeds ever. Ditto Providence at the 4. 6-seed LSU has good metrics, but questionable motivation after firing their head coach. USC is the weakest 7-seed in the field. Miami is the weakest 10. San Diego State is the best 8, but their offense ranks in the 150s. Creighton lost a starter and is a big underdog in their first game. Iowa State looked great two months ago but appears to have firmly ran out of gas, scoring 41 points in their only Big 12 Tournament game.

That leaves you with Iowa, a team that hasn’t touched the Sweet Sixteen since 1999 or the Elite Eight since 1987. It has never made a Final Four in the 64-team era. It also leaves you with Auburn, a team that was #1 at one point this season. Auburn was great for a while, but they have some extremely obvious shortcomings: 258th in 3PT%, a bad offensive steal rate, and a 5-4 finish to the regular season that included an awful SEC quarterfinals loss. High seeds that lose in the conference tournament quarterfinals rarely make positive history.

However, high seeds that lose in the conference tournament quarterfinals rarely get such an advantageous draw. Think about Baylor, another team that copied Auburn’s result. Baylor’s path to the Elite Eight is likely #28 and #8 in KenPom. Auburn: #42 and #19, if LSU holds it together long enough. The problem with that is that Auburn just got done losing to #43 on a neutral court. Iowa, meanwhile, has lost twice since January 31 and has risen to #13 in KenPom, just three spots behind Auburn.

Frankly, this is not a pick I love. If any region seems destined to have a truly absurd champion, it is the Midwest, a region where teams seeded 5 or worse have a 39% chance of coming out on top. That is insane, especially when you consider the other three regions are at 21.5% (East), 14.2% (West), and 29.7% (South). The South Region reasonably could blow up, sure, but most of that value is generated by Houston with 17.6%. The non-Iowa 5+ seeds are at 20.7%, and Iowa has better Final Four odds than any other 5+ seed out there. Ride the insanity.

East Region

(4) UCLA over (2) Kentucky. Enough words. Straight to it: 2 seeds at 25% or worse to make the Final Four are 4-for-62 in getting there. Auburn is the only 2 seed that qualifies to go far enough this year, so maybe I lose it there, but whatever. At 17% to get to New Orleans, UCLA has the sixth-highest odds of any 4 seed since 2000 to do it. I recommend attempting to take advantage of one of the worst selection committee jobs in recent memory.


Final Four

(1) Gonzaga over (4) UCLA. When you say it like that it does sound pretty crazy: a straight-up Final Four rematch. It’s happened before, and UCLA was even involved in it with Florida, but it’s rare. Still, I just like the value of UCLA enough to take a swing at it. I think it ends against Gonzaga. Everything at this point of the tournament is a pure coin-flip, but Gonzaga sitting at 38.5% to make the title game is pretty good. 1 seeds at 33% or better, per Torvik, are 10-for-12 in getting there.

(3) Tennessee over (5) Iowa. Look, if you’re still reading, I think you know how stupid and insane this game even looks on paper. Tennessee ranks higher on every metrics site but Haslametrics and is one of the best 3 seeds ever. Give it a whirl, see how it feels.

THEN:

(1) Gonzaga over (3) Tennessee. Whether Tennessee makes it or not is sort of besides the point for this exercise. Gonzaga is at 27.5% to win it all; no other team is above 9%. Even Arizona is the only other team above 6.6%. Baylor entered at 8.2% last year, but those numbers were COVID-dampened. 2019: Virginia, 21.4%. 2018: Villanova, 18.1%. 2017: UNC, 10%. Weird champions happen, but the majority were at least in the double-digits. Only three champions have been below 7% to win it all since 2006: both UConn titles and 2015 Duke. That’s 11 of 14 tournaments where an unsurprising champion came out on top. Barring some sort of serious surprise, your champion this year is either Gonzaga or Arizona. I have Gonzaga as the only one of these in the title game, so there you go.


One final plea: please do not use these picks to bet on games or futures or whatever. These are for fun and are the product of a lot of weird research I feel bizarrely compelled to work on. If you want to win a bracket pool, please do not expect much, because I did not win mine last year and have not since 2010. However, I hope this helps.

When You Got Feelings and Guitar, You Wanna Trade It For Cash

SEC Quarterfinals, March 11: (2) Tennessee 72, (10) Mississippi State 59 (24-7)
SEC Semifinals, March 12: (2) Tennessee 69, (3) Kentucky 62 (25-7)
SEC Finals, March 13: (2) Tennessee 65, (8) Texas A&M 50 (26-7)

Perhaps the kindest thing Tennessee did was remove an immense amount of anxiety and drama from the SEC title game not even five minutes in. The game started at 0-0, obviously; it was 14-0 in essentially no time at all. Texas A&M never led, and the game was never within five points after early in the second half. It was rarely in double digits. But you’d be forgiven if you were a Tennessee fan and you were still waiting for the other shoe to drop with Tennessee up by 13 and 90 seconds still to play.

That is how things generally work here. The impossible is always possible at Tennessee. Purdue, one of the greatest shooting teams I have ever seen Tennessee play, can miss half their free throws, but a future insurance agent hits seven threes to win the game. Loyola Chicago can blow a 10-point lead, but win anyway because of a double-bounce mid-range pull-up. Tennessee can make their first Elite Eight, then have to fire that coach a year later. Tennessee is up on an 8 seed by six with four minutes to play, then never scores again. Tennessee can go 30+ years without a single coach lasting longer than six seasons.

Almost anything ends up on the table at this school. One of the only things that truly felt impossible was being able to lift the trophy on Sunday. Tennessee made it to Sunday one time in my life prior to 2018, played a significantly worse Mississippi State team, and lost. Tennessee was the higher-ranked seed in 2018 and 2019 and lost both of those, too. When the year counter increases by one every time out and touches 43, hope feels like a foreign concept.

As with everything written over the last month, this all starts after losing by 28 to Kentucky. I complained after the game that the Tennessee Treadmill had restarted and this team was well on its way to another annoying, forgettable run as either a 4 or 5 seed in the NCAAs. Maybe they make it to SEC Saturday, blow a late lead to Kentucky or Auburn, and this time I just laugh instead of feeling annoyed. 11-5 and 2-3 SEC, regardless of competition, is a record you look at and sigh towards. You beat Arizona at home, cool. Where’s the other wins?

The ratings on January 16 are a fun time warp of sorts. Every team in the top 16 finished 19th or better, which is remarkably steady for a season with two full months left, but the order of those teams became jumbled. At the time, though, you could argue opportunity was nowhere.

Fourth in the SEC with a loss to the fifth-place team below you that seems to have your number under their analytics darling head coach. An offense that, aside from that random Rupp explosion, resembled Iowa football. A sixth-year senior that scored zero points against the conference’s best team. No truly rootable players. Zakai Zeigler had not yet forced a stranglehold on the hearts of Tennesseans. 14th in KenPom is nice until you remember the 2020-21 team was 12th at that time the year prior. It can always get worse. Why wouldn’t it?

So, sure, Tennessee goes on a run that’s at least partially influenced by a lighter schedule. You get some really great home wins that you remember happily, but they’re all at home. The best non-home win remains a North Carolina team that just got an 8 seed.

You head to Tampa, which isn’t even Nashville, playing what’s best described as a fairly potent brand of feelingsball. You will remember this team; will anyone else? Tennessee gets teams stuck in the mud and whatnot, and you like their March odds, but you see Kentucky at second in KenPom and Auburn drawing a mid-50s Texas A&M team and figure you’re in for yet another SEC Tournament kick to the nuts. It never goes well. Why would it now?

Texas A&M wins and you get a little excited. Tennessee takes care of business; Kentucky struggles, but does the same. You head to Saturday with the same feeling of not wanting to be Charlie Brown running at Lucy holding the football for the 43rd year in a row. Tennessee beat Kentucky at home, but again, that’s at home. Amalie Arena was decidedly decked out in blue, almost like it would be for your standard Lightning home game. Tennessee has to overcome not just this, but the officiating pairing of Pat Adams and Doug Shows, the only officiating combo that can manage to unite Tennessee and Kentucky fans in anger.

Tennessee trails for all of 27 seconds in a game that’s rarely within eight points until the final couple of minutes. Kentucky makes their run, and then you remember the critical tenet of Feelingsball: Act like every high point in the game is simply Sisyphus reaching the top of the hill. The rock will roll down. Back up you will go. This should be impossible, but impossible always happens here. Kentucky will do their usual, as will Tennessee.

The most cathartic, signature moment of a game is not a made shot, or a block, or anything normal at all, but a hard-hat lunch pail rebound by a 6’3″ Uruguayan shooting specialist despite being boxed out by a pair of Kentucky players that are 6’7″ and 6’9″. If you could name a stronger, more perfect signature moment of the Rick Barnes era, I would like to hear it. It is absurd, and it is real, and it is beautiful, and it is Tennessee.

And then they win, and then you briefly allow yourself to think that This Is Real. Tennessee got to sit and watch the previously-assumed conference title favorite Arkansas go down to that mid-50s Texas A&M team, who gets to build their NCAA Tournament case on a national scale. The odds, more or less, have never been better. But then 2009 pops back into your head. It can’t actually be real, because it’s never been real in my life. The Feelingsball Team, the one that was born of the mud and drags all opponents into the mud with them, may be incredibly fun. After 43 years, or 28ish for me, you just have to see it to believe it.

All this team had to do was see it and believe it for 40 minutes on a Sunday in March. They were able to when mere peons like me could not. They saw 11-5, 2-3 SEC and laughed in its face. The SEC kept sending its best and brightest to Knoxville to attempt to pull off road victories, and every challenger failed. Then when Tennessee got to head south for a weekend, they took on the conference’s assumed best team and stuffed their top-10 offense in a locker for the entire game. They drew Texas A&M, a team that had played at the level of the 8th-best in America (per Torvik) over its last ten games, and blended their offense into a fine paste with burgundy tones. At game’s end, I thought about wishing my grandfather could’ve made it another month to see it, but his afterlife broadcast of the game was not interrupted by Xfinity and did not include the wire camera angle. Even better.

This Tennessee team has been telling anyone who will listen for two, three, even four months that they are legitimate. That they can do things no team has ever done in the history of the program. That they are capable of creating memories fans and followers believed impossible. Tennessee is two seed upsets away from the Final Four, and only one KenPom upset out of it potentially against a team they’ve already beaten. The prospects of something unforeseen no longer feel like attempting to see clearly through a kaleidoscope. The metrics are there to tell you that it’s okay to feel these feelings:

That’s since January 16, one day after the Rupp blowout, one day after it all felt meaningless. These kids believed it was far from meaningless; it was merely the start of a new season to them. They deserve it all. They gave us the good feelings, and turned it into something people have been waiting over four decades for. It’s worth letting America in on the secret.


Notes section and whatnot:

  • Tshiebwe handled. Tshiebwe against Tennessee, including the Rupp demolition: 9 & 12, 15 & 15, 13 & 11. For a guy who averaged 20 & 15 over the final month-plus of the season, Tennessee was able to figure out how to slow down the National Player of the Year consistently across all three matches. Along with that, Tennessee is the only team to foul out Tshiebwe this season. God bless Mike Schwartz.
  • Star status. Kennedy Chandler this weekend: 14.7 PPG, 5 APG, four steals, and six threes. That’s the closest thing Tennessee has had to a #1 option since Grant Williams departed.
  • THE HOTTEST SHOOTING TEAM IN AMERICA. Or something like it: Tennessee is shooting 39.2% from three over the last two months. The only team among the top four seed lines that’s outshot them in that time is Gonzaga, who is at 39.3%. This is legitimately one of the scariest deep-shooting teams out there. Tennessee!
  • Another team turned to wet mud. Tennessee played this Texas A&M team on February 1 and gave up 1.121 PPP; give Mike Schwartz and Rick Barnes a second-chance and they will twist the knife. A&M went for 0.798 PPP and that was a significant improvement over their halftime pace of 0.667 PPP.
  • Shooting variance goes your way. Teams shot 12-for-56 (21.4%) against Tennessee from deep in Tampa, which is fine. I think it’s good to cash in your luck when you need it most. I don’t think teams (especially Longwood, who is bizarrely efficient from deep on relatively few shots) will be quite that consistently bad against Tennessee, but against a potential second round opponent like Michigan, whose entire season has been “did you hit shots or didn’t you,” seems like it plays in Tennessee’s favor.
  • That being said… Almost none of the shots Kellan Grady or Davion Mintz attempted Saturday had any space at all; I find it no real surprise that they combined to go 0-for-8 from deep. They were off-balance the entire game.
  • Potential new rotation. Rick Barnes mostly went with seven guys on Sunday, eschewing Aidoo for all but three minutes. I ran a study for a D-1 staffer last summer that showed the average rotation size (8+ MPG) of Sweet 16 or further teams was 7.64 players. If Tennessee can be comfortable at eight, I think that’s optimal; you can extend to nine if you have foul trouble or something.
  • Longwood. Preview up Thursday morning. I think a podcast with Jon Reed and Seth Hughes is being scheduled. Not sure about other duties, but they could happen depending on variables.
  • Bracket stuff. Tuesday.
  • The thread title comes from “Donna Said” by Pardoner, a pleasant and pretty good rock song of no great consequence other than the fact the main riff is excellent. I would describe it as a toe-tapper.

Thanks for reading along this season; I hope March never ends. More coming, and if you would like me to be on your podcast or website or something, email statsbywill at gmail dot com.