Show Me My Opponent: Auburn (#2)

Here we are: after four-plus months of hot basketball action, we have finally arrived at the very end. Here is how I thought it would go:

And here is how all of those ended up going:

  • Record prediction: most likely 18-13, 10-8 SEC play
  • Team MVP: All-SEC John Fulkerson
  • NCAAT? check back next Sunday
  • Record vs. Florida/Kentucky: 2-1!
  • Pick 2 Click: I think we have to go Fulk here, yeah? Maybe Yves Pons?
  • Most Important Non-SEC Game: It actually ended up being the home Memphis game, but not for the reasons anyone expected. This is now a Quadrant 2 loss because Memphis has politely decided to suck in the 2020 half of 2019-20. The most important win is…probably still Washington? Somehow? Either that or VCU.

So those projections ended up going about 2.5 for 6, I’ll say. We’ll monitor the ones still in play. It’s quite amazing that we’re here even wanting to look at preseason projections, honestly. Seven days ago, when I posted the preview of the Florida game, I included the Press F to Pay Respects meme as the featured image on the article. (I legitimately cannot thank the boomer that asked me “what exactly am I looking at? Do I have to press F to access the article?” You brought so much joy to my Friday.) I, along with most others, figured the season was basically over. This team might beat Florida, it might beat a rapidly declining star in Auburn, but it wasn’t going to win at Rupp.

Until it did.

Now, here we are, entertain us, these Tennessee Volunteers can get themselves back onto the NCAA bubble – not even the NIT one, y’all – with a win over an Auburn team that was 22-2 three weeks ago. What a world.

NEXT PAGE: I can’t link it because my grandparents read these but I very nearly made the @dril “Holy Mackerel” tweet the featured image.

Josh Merkel and Randolph-Macon have built a monstrous defense

If I told you that the best defense in American college basketball resides in the state of Virginia, probably very few of you would enact real surprise. Everyone already knows that Virginia and Tony Bennett have been a purely dominant defensive program for the last decade, and it’s what got them their first national championship in nearly four decades. However, I do have a surprise for you: this article is not about the University of Virginia. Rather, it’s about a different, even better defense in Division III just 75 minutes to the east that allowed 0.842 points per possession this year:

Randolph-Macon College, located in Ashland, enters tomorrow’s Division III NCAA Tournament with a 26-2 record. Outside of a pair of slip-ups, both by single digits, they’ve been just about unbeatable this season. All but one opponent of their 29 this season, including an exhibition against D-1 Richmond, has been held to 70 points or less, with 10 showings of 50 points or fewer. It made it that much more surprising that head coach Josh Merkel’s initial reaction when I asked about his defense was the following: “I think our defense stinks right now!”

When I reached Merkel in January after a 28-point road win, he elaborated a little more. “Usually, I like being under the radar. I don’t even think that highly of our defense, but I know the numbers are good and we’ll take it.” Scoring against Randolph-Macon this season has become more stressful than watching Uncut Gems. The Yellow Jackets enter the Tournament forcing opponents to shoot 37.4% from the field and 29.2% from three. That eFG% of 43.1% would rank third-best in D-1 – one spot behind UVA, I might add – but shot defense isn’t all that Randolph-Macon does. The Yellow Jackets forced turnovers on 23.8% of opponent possessions this year, blocked 12.2% of two-point attempts, and rebounded 73.6% of opponent misses. If your shot even made it to the basket, much less went in, it was a mild success.

It’s no shock that Merkel finds inspiration in what happened last season in Charlottesville. “We model some of what we do on Virginia,” he notes, though he’s also quick to say it’s not a true pack-line defense. “We want to force shots over a contest, limit everyone to one shot, and do it as a team. I say ‘guard your yard, but cover for each other.’” It’s a brutalizing, tough defense that has made life miserable for nearly every visitor. Even Richmond, in their November exhibition, got out-rebounded by Randolph-Macon and barely topped a point per possession.

The Yellow Jackets can run out different defensive looks based on the opponent. Per Synergy, they ran a press on 217 possessions and a zone defense on 283 more. Continually pushing the opponent to find new, inventive ways to not turn the ball over is Merkel’s specialty. “We pressure the ball and shrink the floor. We try to keep the ball outside of the paint,” he says. In particular, his strong, rooted guards are a bother to get around. “We’ve seen how effective it can be when you have strong players defensively,” says Merkel. For a team with zero players taller than 6’7″ and no players heavier than Noah Lindsay’s 216 pounds, Randolph-Macon is reliant on a quality strength + conditioning program to get them over the top. It works, I’ve gotta say:

We get really good guard play because our guards are committed to staying down and keeping the ball in front of them,” says Merkel. “They are not going to let that ball get to the second level of the defense as much. We don’t put a skinny guard out there, as we don’t want them to get bumped off their spots.” It’s a big part of why Randolph-Macon succeeds each night. Not only do the Yellow Jackets win the turnover battle most nights (by the old standard of turnover margin, Randolph-Macon averages a +6.3), they also don’t allow many, if any, open threes. This is just quality, tough perimeter defense:

It’s all about closing out hard and making an opponent know you’re there. Merkel tells me that on-ball pressure is what sets players apart. “A lot of it is air time, moving as the ball moves, and being there with a hot hand on the catch so no one feels comfortable shooting a rhythm three,” Merkel notes. “It needs to be a heavy contest with a hand and being there when he lands.”

This strategy has been wildly successful. As I’ve noted in the past, Ken Pomeroy studied three-point percentage and found that defenses have very little control over it for the most part. And yet: I think Randolph-Macon is really onto something. Over the last three years, the Yellow Jackets have held opponents to 31.9%, 30.1%, and now 29.2% from downtown. Considering that Divisions II and III haven’t moved the three-point line back yet like Division I has, this makes it even more impressive in an era of maximum three-point shooting.

In a true victory for a blog that has “stats” in its title, Merkel also let me know that he and the Randolph-Macon coaching staff are big on making sure they win three of KenPom’s Four Factors every night on the court. “We have three big stats – differential in field goal percentage, rebounding margin, and turnover margin,” says Merkel. For each of those, he wants to be +10%, +5, and +5 on any given night. On the season, they’ve actually come pretty darn close to hitting all three. Randolph Macon is shooting 8.7% better than opponents, out-rebounding opponents by +2.2 per game, and winning the turnover battle by +6.3.

Last year, we were 2-4 when we lost two of those three stats. We were 25-0 when winning at least two of three,” says Merkel. “There’s hundreds of things that go into every game, but analytics and numbers are easy for our guys to see and understand at halftime so they know what needs to improve.” (A quick side note: Merkel and staff do not use Free Throw Rate as one of their main factors, because, in Merkel’s words, “we might be the worst in the country at it.” True to his remark, Randolph-Macon actually would rank dead last in Division I in offensive Free Throw Rate. You can get away with this when you are 26-2.)

As the Division III Tournament begins, Randolph-Macon is staring down what might be its best-ever shot at a national championship. The Yellow Jackets rank #3 in the D3Hoops.com poll, are a host team for the first two rounds, and are ranked higher than every opponent in their bracket but one (Wittenberg). When I asked Merkel what had to happen for his team to win a title, he said he wanted the offense to be much more loose and free, though not at the cost of sacrificing their defensive principles. “I think that’s what we’re striving for is getting to a point where everyone we put into the game is playing with utmost confidence,” says Merkel. It’s a noble goal to strive for. When your defense is putting every opponent in a figure-four leg-lock:

I’d say you’re pretty darn close.

The teams I most want to make the NCAA Tournament from each conference

These next 12 days or so are among the most fun days of the season. Conference Tournament Week(s) are exciting, sad, happy, and a wild ball of emotions all rolled into a two-week cycle. Some of your faves don’t get to make the Tournament, while others come out of nowhere to become nationally beloved squads. As best as I can, I’ve tried to find the most interesting or exciting team from all 32 NCAA conferences that people should be rooting for to make the NCAA Tournament. Several of these from the Big Six + high-end mid-major conferences are already locks to make the field, but others need to win their tournament to get in. Consider it a rooting guide of sorts.

The teams are listed in alphabetical order by conference. The number in parentheses next to a team is their odds of making the Field of 68, per Bart Torvik’s website. I know it’s not a perfect metric, obviously, but it’s reasonable and worth working with.

Atlantic 10: Dayton (100%)

Like some other teams on this list, I wrote about Dayton back in mid-February, and most of what I wrote still holds true. However, the Flyers have somehow been even better offensively lately. They had a mild hiccup at George Mason last Tuesday, posting their first sub-1 PPP game of the season, which is insane. Other than that, it’s been smooth sailing. Dayton is now shooting 63.1% from two, which would be a Division I record, and hasn’t lost since before Christmas. The A-10 has a couple other fun offenses, namely Davidson, but Dayton stands far, far ahead of the rest of the pack. If you like basketball, you should root for them to make the Final Four.

ACC: Duke (100%)

I’ll admit that this one has become tough to defend lately. The Duke offense has struggled as of late, posting 0.794 PPP against Virginia and 0.866 PPP against NCSU. However, those efforts were interspersed with games like a 1.245 PPP against Notre Dame and 1.213 PPP over Virginia Tech. The fact of the matter is that there’s no runaway great offense in the ACC this year. I considered Louisville for this slot, and they may yet overtake Duke…but no Louisville player is as singularly thrilling as Vernon Carey, Jr.

America East: UMass Lowell (0.5%)

This one requires explanation. Like any lover of 12/13 seeds, I want Vermont to win the America East conference tournament with ease. I’m not that silly. But, in the event Vermont doesn’t win it, I’d love for UMass Lowell to be there in their place.

Pat Duquette, despite coaching at a school with just about zero positive athletics history outside of hockey, has crafted an offense that’s finished in the top 50 of 2PT% in three of the last four years with a great shot at a fourth year in five. Few teams out there get more of their points at the rim. If only they could play defense – they gave up 92 and 94 to Vermont.

American: SMU (4.2%)

There’s no super-lovable AAC offenses this year, but SMU comes fairly close. This isn’t a great team, but they take a lot of threes, get off a lot of good passes, and knock down nearly 55% of their twos. For no reason at all, here’s them dropping eleven threes and a 67% hit rate on twos on the Memphis Tigers:

Atlantic Sun: North Florida (18.4%)

I think this is the single most fun offense that literally no one has seen in 2020. North Florida operates out of Jacksonville, and head coach Matthew Driscoll has stayed the course there for eleven seasons, making the NCAA Tournament once in 2015. For most of his tenure, they’ve been well ahead of the curve on three-point attempts, but this edition of the Ospreys is unhinged: 52.3% of their shots are from three. The Ospreys make 38% of these shots, meaning that almost 46% of their offense comes from the three-point line. Here’s my North Florida sell: on any given night, they could lose to anyone (Ls to #250 Tennessee State, #304 NJIT). Also, on any given night, they can shoot their way to a victory (win over #69 Liberty).

Big Ten: Iowa (100%)

Has Luka Garza, plays fast, everyone shoots threes and passes the ball effectively. What more do you need?

Big 12: Kansas (100%)

The best team in America is also the Big 12’s most enjoyable offering this year. In general, major-conference basketball is a bit more restrictive and on-the-whole less enjoyable than, say, the Ohio Valley, but Kansas has two of the best players in the nation in Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike. They’re also flawed in a fascinating way, struggling to hit free throws to put away easy victories and having turnover issues that lost them games against Duke and Baylor. A very talented, interestingly flawed squad.

Big East: Creighton (100%)

Prior to a horrifying beatdown at the hands of St. John’s this past Sunday, this was the fastest-rising high-major team in the nation. This is the best Creighton squad since Doug McDermott was running off of screens for open threes, and this group hits threes and twos at fairly similar rates. Ty-Shon Alexander (39.3% from three), Marcus Zegarowski (39.1%), and Mitch Ballock (43.3%) are all a blast to watch, and when this offense is cooking, as it was in an 81-59 win over Butler on February 23, it seems particularly hard to slow down.

Big Sky: Northern Colorado (37%)

This could be a stretch, but hear me out: this is maybe the most fascinating mid-major offering of the year. Northern Colorado does the following things:

  • Ranks 20th in eFG% and 11th in TO%
  • Makes 36.8% of threes (33rd), 53.7% of twos (28th), and takes 45.2% of their shots from downtown (26th)
  • Takes fewer non-rim twos (13.4% of all shots) than all but three D-1 teams
  • Opponents have taken just 23.7% of their shots from three against Northern Colorado, the lowest rate in America…
  • …and have also posted an Assist Rate of just 33.2%, easily the lowest rate in America.

They offer such an intoxicating combination of pros for analytically-minded viewers that I can’t imagine not rooting for them to go as far as possible.

Big South: Radford (50.1%)

This one was between Radford and Winthrop, the two best teams in the Big South, but I ended up riding with Radford. The Highlanders have the 36th-best eFG%, the 6th-lowest offensive Steal%, own a Quadrant 1 win over Richmond, and have a coach named Mike Jones.

Big West: Cal State Northridge (4.4%)

If you haven’t heard of Lamine Diane, you have got to hear of him immediately:

Affectionately named Cocaine Diane by NBA Twitter user @Cosmis. Diane averages 25.5 PPG and 10.1 RPG, owns a usage rate of nearly 37%and plays 36 minutes a night. He is a long-lost article of a different era: a high-usage shooter that takes lots of long twos, is recklessly fun to watch, and single-handedly propels a team’s fortunes either upward or downward. CSU Northridge is tracking for a 3/4 seed in the Big West conference tournament, but you really should watch every Lamine Diane game you possibly can.

Colonial: Hofstra (28%)

There are so many options to pick from in what’s quietly been the most enjoyable conference across the board this season. 2 seed William & Mary offers Nathan Knight, who is like East Coast Diane, and has never been to the NCAA Tournament. 3 seed Towson has plenty of good shooters and hasn’t made the Big Dance in 29 years. 4 seed Charleston offers Grant Riller, a future NBA player. 5 seed Delaware made 56.5% of their twos in conference play. Even 6 seed Northeastern has Jordan Roland, a hilarious volume shooter that makes 40% of his threes and scored 42, 39, and 38 points in games this year.

Even keeping my personal bias aside, I sided with Hofstra, who offers up easily the best offense in the conference. The Pride made nearly 40% of their threes in conference play, and star Desure Buie averaged a line of 20/4/6 in conference play. Also, Hofstra hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2001 and owns zero Tournament victories. Basically everyone in this conference is easy to root for, but Hofstra reigns supreme.

Conference USA: North Texas (38.9%)

Along with Northern Colorado, one of my pet teams for the back half of this basketball season. The Mean Green haven’t been to the NCAAT since 2010, but this edition is a blast. North Texas makes 38% of their threes (14th) and 55.2% of their twos (13th) for a 55.9% eFG% (6th!). They’re quietly a great bet for a potential upset, as they limit possessions to an extreme (350th in tempo), make 77.1% of their free throws, and force turnovers on 20.8% of opponent possessions. Per Bart Torvik, North Texas owns the 11th-best offense in the nation in 2020. They’re currently tracking for a 13 seed. Depending on the matchup, they look to be as good a March value as exists at that seed line.

Horizon: Green Bay (8.2%)

Green Bay is the 3 seed in the Horizon League, but due to the Horizon League’s conference tournament structure, they’re at a disadvantage by not finishing in the top two. They’ll have to win three games instead of just two to make the NCAA Tournament. Still, I’ve admired Linc Darner’s strategy since he took over in 2015-16. The Phoenix will push the pace at all costs (#1 in Avg. Poss. Length in 2019-20), limiting turnovers, and don’t care at all if they give up buckets on the other end. They’ve won games 102-92, 92-89, and 94-90…and lost games 92-88, 98-94, and 90-84. They are insane, and they are a blast. (Also considered: Wright State, who had the actual best offense in conference play and are pretty enjoyable in their own right.)

Ivy: Yale (38.3%)

This one is easy. Yale has the best player in the Ivy League (Paul Atkinson, 17.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG), leads the league in 2PT%, 3PT%, and eFG%, takes lots of threes, and is oddly dominating on the defensive boards (4th nationally in DREB%). They’ve still got to win their league, but they’re better set up to pull off a March surprise this year than they were last time out.

MAAC: Siena (31.2%)

This is a wild turn. For most of the last six years, Siena was a brutal watch. In particular, the last two seasons have been awful. Siena offered up extremely slow basketball with lots of missed shots and a pair of offenses that ranked 316th and 251st. This year, under first-year head coach Carm Maciarello, they’ve sped things up a bit. They hit 37.4% of their threes in conference play, rank #1 in the conference in offense, and have the conference’s best player in Jalen Pickett. None of the MAAC teams are all that exciting to watch, honestly, especially in years where Iona is down, but I’ve got to give Siena credit for a watchable product.

MAC: Akron (36.5%)

Loren Cristian Jackson:

LCJ makes an absurd 45.1% of his threes and offers up a 125.4 Offensive Rating, which is the best I could find for someone with a 26% Usage Rate or higher. The team also has a player named Tyler Cheese (TYLER CHEESE!), gets 37% of their points from threes, plays fast, and hung with both Louisville and West Virginia well into the second halves of each game. Currently tracking for a 13 seed or thereabouts if they win the MAC.

MEAC: Bethune-Cookman (15.2%)

To be honest, this is the worst conference in basketball, largely because these universities simply do not have the level of funding necessary to compete with everyone else. It sucks, and I feel terrible for them. But I do think Bethune-Cookman would be a fun story. Daytona Beach’s premier basketball program has never made the NCAA Tournament and plays a fast, loose brand of basketball built on getting to the free throw line and forcing opponents into bad mistakes. Very nearly beat Georgia Tech in early December, losing 68-65 on a late three.

Missouri Valley: Northern Iowa (58.5%)

Already wrote about these guys, but they ended up hitting 40.9% of their threes in conference play and posted a 56.1% eFG%. Behind BYU, they’re the second-best deep-shooting team in the nation. They slumped a bit to end conference play, but did recover to blast both Evansville and Drake. Will be a great value pick at the 11/12 seed line if they make the field.

Mountain West: San Diego State (100%)

This one was pretty easy. Malachi Flynn is one of the most exciting players out there, regardless of conference. If there’s a shooting category in existence, SDSU ranks in the top 35 of it nationally. I recommend watching this past Saturday’s Nevada game, where the Aztecs had an unusually weak defensive performance (by their standards, mind you) and Malachi Flynn’s 36 points on 20 shots covered it all up.

Northeast: St. Francis (PA) (28.2%)

A bit out of left field, this one – few outside of the Northeast are paying attention to Northeast Conference happenings, especially when the conference has never won a non-First Four NCAA Tournament game. St. Francis (PA) will be worth your time on a Tuesday/Wednesday evening if they win the NEC, at least. The Red Flash operate easily the best offense in the NEC, play a faster-than-normal pace, have a great volume of shots, and probably should’ve beaten Richmond in early November in an overtime loss.

Ohio Valley: Belmont (50.7%)

Same as it ever was. Like basically every Belmont team before it, this one takes a lot of threes, makes a lot of twos, plays fast and loose, and wins a lot of basketball games.

Pacific 12: Oregon (100%)

Oregon has risen all the way to 7th in KenPom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency on the back of some outstanding three-point shooting (38.4%, 9th) and high-level shot volume (68th in TO%, 43rd in OREB%; one of only nine teams in America to rank top 75 in both). There are points of games where it feels like Oregon’s had the ball for ten minutes straight, and it seems like a potentially devastating offense for March opponents to stop if they can’t beat them on the boards.

Patriot: Colgate (53.4%)

These guys again! Matt Langel’s Raiders are the class of the Patriot League once again, with an offense that generates tons of great looks from downtown and sustains its shot volume by rarely turning the ball over. Every member of the main rotation, including 6’10” center Rapolas Ivanauskas, has hit at least 13 threes this season. They beat Cincinnati in December by way of a bizarre ending, but this is a super-fun offense that could reasonably give a high seed trouble for a while for the second straight Tournament.

Sun Belt: Little Rock (15.4%)

Admittedly, I haven’t thought much about Little Rock since their defeat of Purdue in the 2015 NCAA Tournament damaged the bracket I had with Purdue in the Elite Eight, but hey, here they are. I find this group pretty interesting. They rank 35th in eFG%, get a ton of points at the free throw line (#4 in Free Throw Rate), and are good on the boards. They aren’t the best team in the Sun Belt (Texas State) and might not even be the second-best (Georgia State), but they do have the best offense in the conference.

Southern: Furman (25.5%)

Full disclosure: as a resident of East Tennessee for 8.5 years now, I will not be rooting for Furman to win the Southern Conference. Really, I find myself even more attracted to UNC Greensboro, a team that should have made last year’s NCAA Tournament as an at-large, over Furman. But I’m not going to deny how nice it would be to see this Furman offense on a national stage. The Paladins take over 46% of their attempts from three, making around 35% of them. They make 57% of their twos because of Bob Richey’s creative offense that takes very few bad shots. Most notably, I actually do think they could give a March opponent real trouble. Furman is one of just four teams in the nation to rank in the top 45 in both offensive and defensive Turnover Rate. They’re aggressive and wise – a deadly combo!

SEC: LSU (93.8%)

Talked about these guys back in February, but nothing meaningful has changed – still a top-three offense in America that is an absolute monster on the offensive boards and at the rim. If Skylar Mays was a tiny bit more consistent from downtown and the Tigers bothered to play defense more than one out of every five games, I would trust this team far more in the NCAA Tournament than I do…but it does admittedly make for a super-watchable combination. Certainly worth your time to watch them in an 8/9 game on a Thursday evening as they lose 83-82 to Oklahoma or Xavier.

Southland: McNeese State (0.9%)

The only truly good team in the Southland is Stephen F. Austin, and I am obviously rooting for them to go far. That said: McNeese State has had the marginally better offense in conference play. Most importantly, they have Dru Kuxhausen, maybe the single best three-point shooter in the nation. Kuxhausen is 92-for-197 (46.7%) this season as a JUCO product; in McNeese’s last two games, both wins, he made 14 total threes. All the guy does when he’s on the floor is toss up threes, and a lot of them go in.

Summit: South Dakota State (32.2%)

As I wrote last month, these Jackrabbits are both young (#341 in experience) and a total blast. They ended up making 57.4% of their twos on the season, second-best behind Dayton, and made nearly 40% of their threes in conference play. They’re the best team in the Summit League with the best offense in an absurdly deep offensive conference. We’ve got to get these guys in the Big Dance, though I will accept South Dakota or Oral Roberts as replacements.

SWAC: Texas Southern (13.8%)

Similar to the MEAC in that these teams, sadly, don’t have the funding to compete with many on the big stage. That said, you can always get behind Texas Southern, a team that puts up absurd non-conference schedules every year and almost always puts a serious scare into an opponent or two. This year, it was Wichita State and Oregon, two teams the Tigers were massive underdogs against but hung with to the very end. Plus, they play fast and get to the free throw line a lot, which could reasonably keep them in a game with a 1 seed for a little while. More of a First Four curiosity, if I’m being honest.

Western Athletic: New Mexico State (64.8%)

I love that, no matter who the coach is or what stage of life this program is at, they will basically always be there for me in March to bet on again and lose. New Mexico State’s potential in March has haunted me for a full decade now, starting with them nearly toppling 5-seed Michigan State in 2010 and pushing all the way to last year’s extreme near-upset of 5-seed Auburn. Yet again, despite numerous injuries in non-conference play, NMSU is rounding into a terrifying whole. They’ve won 18 straight games, hit a lot of threes, get a ton of rebounds, force lots of turnovers, are senior-heavy, and will almost certainly lose by six points to 4-seed Oregon in the Round of 64.

West Coast: Gonzaga and BYU (both 100%)

This was the only conference I allowed a quote-unquote “tie” for, because this is the only conference that offers up two of the three most watchable teams in 2019-20 college basketball. For 35 minutes or so, the game between these two at BYU last weekend was as fun a game as any I’ve watched this year; I really wish they played five times this season instead of the maximum of three. Nothing I can say at this point sells these teams better than their own product can. It’s a massive win for basketball if we get a WCC tournament championship between these two.

Show Me My Opponent: Kentucky (#2)

Go ahead and prepare yourself for what will be an onslaught of pieces over the next two weeks, assuming Kentucky wins the SEC Tournament. Kentucky has turned the corner. Kentucky is once again a national championship contender. Kentucky has the most John Calipari team to date. In this new article from Kyle Tucker of the Athletic, we explore why this Kentucky team is more prepared for March than you think. Every single one of these pieces will exist, and every single one of them will ignore a key fact: barring a serious overachiever run from Kentucky, this will be Calipari’s second-lowest-ranked KenPom team, aside from the aborted Nerlens Noel year.

But Will, you may clamor, isn’t this because KenPom factors in non-conference results too heavily? I mean, that’s obviously possible. It’s happened with other teams in the past. But let’s check out Bart Torvik’s site, which can separate results by non-conference and conference play in a system very similar to Ken’s.

Kentucky in non-conference play: +15.8 Adj. EM; 36th
Kentucky in SEC play: +18.6 Adj. EM; 23rd

Wow, look at that title contender! If you’re curious, the last five Kentucky teams all ranked higher in SEC play than this one has. It’s obviously pretty nice that Kentucky is 14-2 in SEC play, and that’s worth talking about. However: have you considered the fact that this is the least-good SEC since 2012-13 when it produced three NCAA Tournament teams? The SEC ranks dead last among Big Six conferences in Ken’s ratings, with Kentucky being the only team in the top 30. Heck, Florida – the team Tennessee took a near-20 point lead on – is the second-best team in these ratings. There’s as many teams ranked 140th or worse as there are teams in the top 35.

Here’s what I’m trying to get at: before giving in once again to the Kentucky machine, consider the context. This is a terrible SEC in a down year for college basketball as a whole. Even if you exclude the Evansville loss entirely, Kentucky’s played at the level of the 26th-best team since, per Bart Torvik. (Want to go from post-Ohio State loss onward? 19th.) All of the college basketball tastemakers will be crowning this team as being an “under the radar title contender.” Given a perfect draw, even I might squeeze them in further than I’d expect. All I’m asking you to do is not get swallowed up in the hype yet again, lest your bracket get busted in the Sweet Sixteen.

They’ll still beat Tennessee, I’m afraid.

NEXT PAGE: Kentucky: a basketball team

All of Tennessee’s remaining SEC conference standings scenarios, from best to worst

It is a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Knoxville, Tennessee. It may well be our prettiest day of the year thus far. As you would expect, I have taken full advantage of this day to write a very silly blog about everywhere Tennessee could finish in the SEC standings. As of this writing, per my understanding of the SEC rulebook, Tennessee basketball can finish anywhere from fifth to eleventh by the time the regular season wraps itself up in six days. I’ve broken down every possible scenario as I understand it, from the silliest (a six-way tie for fourth) to the easiest. Here’s all of ’em.

WIN OUT, FINISH 18-13 (10-8)

This one’s obviously a stretch. Tennessee has won once at Rupp Arena in the last 20 years, and it took some heroic efforts to make it happen. Still, this Kentucky team hasn’t cracked KenPom’s Top 25 in a month, and anything technically is possible. There’s about a 12% chance Tennessee wins out, per KenPom.

As it stands, as many as six teams can technically finish 10-8. Mississippi State (10-6) plays South Carolina (9-7) this week, but that’s the only game involving multiple teams of the six pack, which also includes Florida, Tennessee, Texas A&M, and Alabama. All of the scenarios are listed below, from most to least stupid.

  • All of Mississippi State, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M, and Alabama finish 10-8. First off, it would be proof that we are indeed living in a simulation. Secondly, here’s how this would shake out. The SEC’s first tiebreaker is opponent records within a group to be tie-broken. Assuming everything we need happens, here’s how that looks:
    • Florida 3-2, Miss State 4-3, South Carolina 4-4, Tennessee 3-3, Texas A&M 3-3, Alabama 2-4.
  • SOOOOOOOOO here’s how that would look. Florida, by virtue of having the highest winning percentage, would be #4. Mississippi State is next at #5. All of South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas A&M have the same winning percentage; Alabama brings up the rear at #9. It then proceeds to how you did against the #1 seed on down. Considering both South Carolina and Tennessee would have wins over Kentucky, this would lock Texas A&M down at #8. Thenconsidering South Carolina only had to play Kentucky once instead of twice, thereby owning a 1-0 record vs. Tennessee’s 1-1, this would lock in South Carolina as the #6 and Tennessee as the #7. Take a deep breath. This would mean Tennessee plays the #10 seed, which could be any of four different teams, on Thursday at 7 PM ET.

That was pretty stupid. What if we took some ties that are also very stupid and went through them, one-by-one?

  • A five-team tie for fourth involving Mississippi State, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas A&M. Again, so dumb it makes me angry. But in this scenario, the group standings would be Florida 2-2, Miss State 3-2, South Carolina 4-3, Tennessee 2-3, Texas A&M 2-3. Mississippi State would be #4, South Carolina #5, Florida #6, Texas A&M #7, Tennessee #8.
  • A five-team tie for fourth, but with Alabama instead of Texas A&M. Florida 2-2, Miss State 4-2, South Carolina 2-4, Tennessee 3-2, Alabama 2-3. Mississippi State would be #4, Tennessee #5, Florida #6, Alabama #7, South Carolina #8. Tennessee would play the winner of the 12/13 game (Wednesday, 7 PM ET) on Thursday at about 3:30 PM ET.
  • A five-team tie for fifth, with everybody but Mississippi State. I am really regretting doing this. Florida 3-1, South Carolina 4-2, Tennessee 3-2, Texas A&M 2-3, Alabama 1-3. Florida would be #4, South Carolina #5, Tennessee #6, Texas A&M #7, Alabama #8. Tennessee would play the winner of the 11/14 game (Wednesday, 9:30 PM ET) on Thursday at about 9:30 PM ET.
  • A four-team tie for fourth, involving Florida, Mississippi State, Tennessee, and…sure, South Carolina. Florida 1-2, Miss State 3-1, Tennessee 2-2, South Carolina 3-2. Mississippi State #4, South Carolina #5, Tennessee #6, Florida #7. Tennessee would play the winner of the 11/14 game (Wednesday, 9:30 PM ET) on Thursday at about 9:30 PM ET.
  • A four-team tie for fifth, involving Florida, Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Alabama. This scenario would require South Carolina to win both and finish fourth, as we’ve already resolved the “what if South Carolina beats Miss State but loses their other game” question above. Florida 1-2, Miss State 3-1, Tennessee 2-1, Alabama 1-3. Mississippi State #5, Tennessee #6, Florida #7, Alabama #8. Tennessee would play the winner of the 11/14 game (Wednesday, 9:30 PM ET) on Thursday at about 9:30 PM ET.
  • A four-team tie for fifth, involving Florida, Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Texas A&M. Last one of the big ones we’ll do. Florida 1-2, Miss State 2-1, Tennessee 1-2, Texas A&M 2-1. Texas A&M beat Mississippi State, so they would be the #5 and Mississippi State the #6. Tennessee beat Florida, so they would be the #7 and Florida the #8. This would mean Tennessee plays the #10 seed, which could be any of four different teams, on Thursday at 7 PM ET.

Here’s how a wide variety of three-way ties at 10-8 would resolve themselves.

  • Tennessee, Florida, Mississippi State: Tennessee 1-1, Florida 0-2, Mississippi State 2-0. MSU > Tennessee > Florida.
  • Tennessee, Florida, South Carolina: Tennessee 2-1, Florida 1-1, South Carolina 1-2. Tennessee > Florida > South Carolina.
  • Tennessee, Florida, Alabama: Tennessee 2-0, Florida 1-1, Alabama 0-2. Tennessee > Florida > Alabama.
  • Tennessee, Florida, Texas A&M: Tennessee 1-1, Florida 1-1, Texas A&M 1-1. This then goes to record against 1 seed: Tennessee 1-1, Florida 0-2, Texas A&M 0-1. Tennessee > the other two.
  • Tennessee, Mississippi State, South Carolina: Tennessee 1-2, Miss State 2-1, South Carolina 2-2. MSU > South Carolina > Tennessee.
  • Tennessee, Mississippi State, Alabama: Tennessee 1-1, Miss State 2-1, Alabama 1-2. MSU > Tennessee > Alabama.
  • Tennessee, Mississippi State, Texas A&M: Tennessee 0-2, Miss State 1-1, Texas A&M 2-0. A&M > MSU > Tennessee.
  • Tennessee, Alabama, Texas A&M: Tennessee 1-1, Alabama 0-2, Texas A&M 2-0. A&M > Tennessee > Alabama.

If it gets down to two-way ties, those are all fairly simple.

  • Tennessee vs. Florida: Tennessee defeated Florida and owns the tiebreaker.
  • Tennessee vs. South Carolina: Tennessee split the season series with South Carolina, but South Carolina would own a 1-0 record against #1 seed Kentucky to Tennessee’s 1-1. They own the tiebreaker.
  • Tennessee vs. Mississippi State: Tennessee lost to Mississippi State and would lose a head-to-head tiebreaker.
  • Tennessee vs. Alabama: Tennessee defeated Alabama and owns the tiebreaker.
  • Tennessee vs. Texas A&M: Tennessee lost to Texas A&M and would lose a head-to-head tiebreaker.

A no-tie scenario involving six different teams is…not likely. But obviously, you’ll know where Tennessee lies.

GO 1-1, FINISH 17-14 (9-9)

This is currently the most likely of the three outcomes for Tennessee. The Vols will be favored to lose at Kentucky, yet favored to defeat Auburn at home.

Four teams can still finish 9-9 in this scenario. South Carolina would have to lose out to finish 9-9; all of Alabama, Tennessee, and Texas A&M would have to finish 1-1. The odds of all of these things happening hover around 2%, which is…not 0%!

  • In the event of a four-team tie: South Carolina’s 3-2 record against the group would be best, placing them #6. Texas A&M is next at 2-2, placing them #7. Tennessee went 2-3 among these three opponents, making them #8. Alabama went 1-2, which is a lower winning percentage than Tennessee’s 2-3, making them #9. Tennessee would play Alabama in the 8/9 game on Thursday at 1 PM ET.

Alternately, there is the more likely scenario that all three teams go 1-1 while South Carolina goes 1-1 or 2-0 to lock up the #6 spot. This is currently hovering around 17%, which sounds low, but is a fairly high probability for anything involving three teams and six separate outcomes.

  • In the event of a three-team tie: Texas A&M went 2-0 against this group, placing them #7. Tennessee went 1-1, beating Alabama but losing to Texas A&M; this makes them #8 again. Same deal for Alabama, who goes #9. Tennessee would play Alabama in the 8/9 game on Thursday at 1 PM ET.

Now, let’s get into some simpler, yet less likely scenarios. As it stands, Texas A&M will be heavy underdogs to Auburn this week while being slight underdogs to Arkansas. For Alabama, they are large favorites over Vanderbilt and small favorites over Missouri. Tennessee, currently, is a moderate underdog at Kentucky and a small favorite over Alabama. For the purposes of our, uh, “simulation,” we will assume that Tennessee goes 1-1 in this. These are all hypothetical two-way ties.

  • Alabama goes 2-0, Tennessee 1-1, Texas A&M 1-1. Because of Texas A&M’s win over Tennessee, they get the #8 seed as Tennessee gets #9. Same deal as our other sims, but Tennessee would instead play Texas A&M in the 8/9 game.
  • Alabama goes 1-1, Tennessee 1-1, Texas A&M 0-2. Due to Tennessee’s win over Alabama, they would finish #7 in the conference as Alabama finishes #8 and Texas A&M #9. Currently, four different teams can finish #10 – Arkansas, Missouri, Georgia, and Ole Miss. Tennessee would draw the…winner? of this quadrant in the 7/10 game on Thursday at 7 PM ET.
  • Texas A&M goes 1-1 or better, Tennessee 1-1, Alabama 0-2. Texas A&M owns the tiebreaker over Tennessee, so they would finish #7. Tennessee gets #8 and draws Alabama in the 8/9 game on Thursday at 1 PM ET.

Now, for all of the no-tie scenarios.

  • Alabama goes 2-0, Tennessee 1-1, Texas A&M 0-2. Tennessee is the #8 seed and plays Texas A&M at 1 PM ET on Thursday.
  • Texas A&M goes 2-0, Tennessee 1-1, Alabama 0-2. Tennessee is the #8 seed and plays Alabama at 1 PM ET on Thursday.
  • Both Alabama AND Texas A&M go 2-0, Tennessee 1-1. Tennessee is the #9 seed. By virtue of Texas A&M’s win over Alabama, Tennessee would play Alabama at 1 PM ET on Thursday.
  • Both Alabama AND Texas A&M go 0-2, Tennessee 1-1. Tennessee is the #7 seed. They would play the 10 seed, likely either Arkansas or Missouri, at 7 PM ET on Thursday.

LOSE OUT, FINISH 16-15 (8-10)

Oh God.

As many as five teams can technically finish 8-10: Alabama, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Arkansas, and Missouri. This would determine slots 7-11 in the SEC standings, if it did happen. The odds of all five teams doing this are incredibly low, but here’s how that tie would break out.

  • A five-way tie between these five teams goes like this: Alabama 1-4, Tennessee 3-2, Texas A&M 4-2, Arkansas 5-2, Missouri 2-5. The teams would slot like so: Arkansas #7, A&M #8, Tennessee #9, Missouri #10, Alabama #11. Tennessee would play Texas A&M in the 8/9 game on Thursday at 1 PM ET.

Let’s just get the four-way ties over with.

  • Any four-way tie between Alabama, Tennessee, Texas A&M, and Arkansas: Alabama 0-3, Tennessee 2-2, Texas A&M 2-2, Arkansas 4-1. Arkansas > Texas A&M > Tennessee > Alabama.
  • Any four-way tie between Alabama, Tennessee, Texas A&M, and Missouri: Admittedly really hard to envision this happening? Alabama 1-3, Tennessee 2-1, Texas A&M 3-1, Missouri 1-4. Texas A&M > Tennessee > Alabama > Missouri.
  • Any four-way tie between Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri: Alabama 1-3, Tennessee 3-1, Arkansas 3-2, Missouri 2-3. Tennessee > Arkansas > Missouri > Alabama.

I think that’s it? Here’s all the possible three-way ties involving Tennessee.

  • We already resolved Tennessee, Texas A&M, Alabama above. Texas A&M > Tennessee > Alabama.
  • Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas: Tennessee 2-1, Alabama 0-2, Arkansas 1-2. Tennessee > Arkansas > Alabama.
  • Tennessee, Alabama, Missouri: Tennessee 2-0, Alabama 1-2, Missouri 1-2. Tennessee > Alabama > Missouri, I think.
  • Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri: Tennessee 2-1, Arkansas 2-2, Missouri 1-2. Tennessee > Arkansas > Missouri.
  • Tennessee, Texas A&M, Arkansas: Tennessee 1-2, Texas A&M 2-1, Arkansas 2-1. Texas A&M/Arkansas > Tennessee.
  • Tennessee, Texas A&M, Missouri: Tennessee 1-1, Texas A&M 3-0, Missouri 0-3. Texas A&M > Tennessee > Missouri.

Two-way ties:

  • Tennessee vs. Alabama: Tennessee defeated Alabama and owns the tiebreaker.
  • Tennessee vs. Texas A&M: Tennessee lost to Texas A&M and would lose a head-to-head tiebreaker.
  • Tennessee vs. Arkansas: Tennessee and Arkansas split the season series. Both would have no wins against Auburn; Arkansas’s theoretical win over LSU would give them the tiebreaker over Tennessee.
  • Tennessee vs. Missouri: Tennessee defeated Missouri and owns the tiebreaker.

If I’ve messed something up, please email statsbywill@gmail.com. Hopefully, it does not get as complicated as some of these scenarios may suggest.

Show Me My Opponent: Florida

From last week:

There are no KenPom Top 25 teams in The Stretch. That’s excellent. What’s not excellent is that Tennessee has only racked up seven conference wins to this point in a season where they really needed eight or more to feel good about this. Two games in particular will sit poorly with the players and staff if they can’t turn it around in these five games: the 63-58 home loss to a terrible Texas A&M squad and last weekend’s two-point road loss to South Carolina. The second of those is far less offensive to me than dropping a home decision to a team that has lost to Harvard, Temple, and Fairfield.

It’s all in the past now. Tennessee can rectify those games by winning one more game than they’re expected to. Both KenPom and Torvik anticipate Tennessee finishing the season 2-3 in these five games. That would add at least one Quadrant 1 win, which brings Tennessee to three on the season…or the same number as 21-6 Saint Mary’s, which is not good when you’ll end up playing six more Q1 opponents than they will. If Tennessee can get to four, that gets them onto the bubble. It’s that simple. Can Tennessee actually Do It? We’ll see.

Reader, they did not Do It. They were about 10 minutes away from Doing It, blew the game, and then got demolished by a team with more to play for on Wednesday. If all you care about is the NCAA Tournament, the season is over and you can begin planning your spring break travels without factoring in a potential Tennessee Thursday/Friday game. (Personally, I suggest that this is a great time to jump on the ETSU bandwagon if you haven’t yet.) This is an NIT team, assuming they can fart out 1-2 more wins this year, and that’s pretty much it.

If Tennessee somehow goes 2-1 over these final three, that would be nice. But no one trusts this team to do so, and no one should, really. Thinking about next year does make it better, though.

NEXT PAGE: A discussion on apple orchards

Show Me My Opponent: Arkansas (#2)

Man, whatever. It happened. Who cares.

This Tennessee team was never going to be as good as the top 20 KenPom ranking it received in preseason. It was never going to be on the level some thought it may be after the blowout win over Washington. There was no point in time in which I thought Tennessee would be any better than, like, a 7-9 seed. A lot of this is based on the roster Rick Barnes constructed, but whatever.

I’m sort of done talking about this season, to be honest. It is what it is, and next season is going to be much, much better. Rick Barnes is not Mike White, and I really have confidence that he is not going to blow a top 10 roster in the same fashion. Watching Florida has been a serious chore this year, though that’s for Saturday’s preview to discuss. Anyway, we are here, here is Arkansas.

For two months, this Arkansas team was the story of the SEC. A 12-1 start with wins over Georgia Tech and Indiana wasn’t perfect, obviously, but this looked like a group destined for an 8/9 seed in March, which would have been serious improvement over the 2018-19 NIT squad. For year one of Eric Musselman’s tenure to end like that…well, everyone would’ve been thrilled. This squad isn’t deep at all, and there’s tons of flaws, but you can’t ever fault their effort.

Unfortunately, #grit doesn’t always win out. In fact, #grit has taken lots of Ls lately. Arkansas is 5-9 since that 12-1 start, with the best win being a road squeaker over Alabama. They’ve fallen out of the NCAA Tournament field entirely, now being listed on Bracket Matrix as one of the First Four Out. (Oh, to be in such a luxurious position! It must feel nice.) Nothing is trending right for Arkansas – welcome to the club! – and all the goodwill of November and December feels lost. Did I mention that Tennessee and Arkansas fans should be best friends at this point?

NEXT PAGE: Musselman’s approval rating is still very high, though