A Good Year for the Roses

The first run that wasn’t in a backyard I can remember is with my dad at age 11. The neighborhood we lived in was your standard suburban idyllic subdivision of sorts, except ‘suburban’ in this case meant ’90 minutes southeast of Nashville’ and ‘idyllic’ meant ‘had about 15 feet between houses instead of 1.5’. It was this neighborhood with rolling hills and on a bicycle, you could at least momentarily feel like you were hitting NASCAR speeds on the downhills.

I remember that run because there was no part of the downhill that felt like NASCAR speeds. It all felt so sluggish, so weak, so pathetic. Almost 20 years later I can chalk that feeling up to “literally had never run a mile before” but at the time it was about as discouraging as it gets. You’re searching for answers, and the only answer that comes up is “I cannot.”

I’ve been thinking about that day a lot lately. Since the calendar turned to August I’ve been training for my first marathon. It’s been going well, which is a nice thing to report. The crazier thing is how…fine everything feels. There have been runs of 14, 15, 17, and 18 miles. Last week was a 36-mile week, the longest I’ve ever done. This week’s long run is only 13 miles, which is hilarious to type out.

All of this is not a humblebrag, not by any means. There are far faster, far better, far more entertaining runners out there. I am more likely to never be the outright winner in a race I enter than to do so. That’s fine. A while ago, this stopped being about winning everything and more about finding all of the little wins that pile up over the course of days, weeks, months, years. There have been a lot of those lately.

Formative moments like that run at age 11, then, must be a little win. It felt terrible at the time, but so do some of the ones I do now. It felt embarrassing, but so did my Knoxville half-marathon performance last fall. They were all little, painful wins in their own way. That’s something I can feel a little more comfort in knowing now.

For the last couple of months, I started shooting basketballs left-handed. There is not really an appropriate way to communicate to you how alien this feels. I am right-handed; I write right-handed; I perform basically every necessary life skill right-handed. I have shot a basketball right-handed from the first time I picked up a basketball. I am not really great at it, but I can hit a lot of threes in a controlled setting and I am an average white pickup basketball player with my right hand.

The problem, of sorts, is that I have zero ability to finish at the rim, convert a floater, or do much of anything other than dribble with my left hand. A left-hand layup is doable but not consistent; everything else was more or less off the table. I simply never gave it that much thought, because 1) I went professional in something other than sports 2) See previous. I’ve never had much a reason to change that until a couple of months ago, when we bought a house with this in the backyard.

The outdoor basketball I use is a faded Wilson Evolution that has a leak somewhere which causes me to have to pump up the ball every two days. The rim is something like 10 feet, 8 inches, AKA not standard height. The setting is always open to weather conditions, which may include any of the following: rain, wind, excessive sunlight, or excessive darkness. The ‘court’ is an 18′ x 9′ poured pavement that offers zero chance of a corner three and requires me to step into the grass to practice any sort of deep shot.

This has been my oasis in long days, my home of homes. It is where, a few weeks ago, I began taking left-handed jumpers. Left-handed hook shots. Left-handed floaters. Left-handed free throws. And yes, left-handed layups. The feeling of the shot release has gone from feeling completely alien to at least feeling tolerable. Every day feels a little bit better. It’s gone from something that seemed kind of impossible to something I look forward to every single time I step outside.

Because of another thing that happened in my life recently, that has proved notable.

I woke up one day in early August and felt worse than I’d felt in a long time. Not like a real sickness, but a collection of fatigue, exhaustion, nervousness, a headache, etc. One’s first thought in these times is always COVID-19. I tested out of it multiple times. Then I wondered if it was an iron deficiency, which is common in runners. It was not. I kept trying to find answers, when the answer was staring me in the face the entire time. It has been for years.

I’ve talked in the past about mental health and my relationship with it on this very website. The problem is that I am very open about it yet am quite bad at recognizing when my own mental health is no longer in a great state. In early August, a whirlwind of things was occurring all at once. We went under contract for a house after a year-long housing search. I’d taken on a new position at my day job in the spring and the responsibilities were ramping up. Our calendar was packed with an immense number of events. School was back. I still wasn’t sure if this website would exist in a few months. Truthfully, I didn’t want to write about basketball anymore.

All of this, for whatever reason, hit at once. It is inarguably a lot. For three weeks, I woke up every day with my heart racing and my mind spinning about what could possibly come that day. Focusing proved impossible. I frequently drifted in and out of conversations with friends that I’d normally have no problem participating in. I no longer wanted to do basic things I enjoyed: playing basketball, going on walks, even simple discussions with others. As you may or may not have noticed, I haven’t written anything on here since late July. That was because I couldn’t figure out what was wrong until the proverbial ‘check engine’ light came on and was highlighter orange in my face.

In mid-August, I did the thing that people always tell you to do that is far easier said than done: I got help. I went to my doctor, had a heart-to-heart with her for 45 minutes, and cried in a strip mall medical clinic as we came to an agreement that medicine might help. (Without going into much detail here, it has.) For the first time in four years, I started seeing a therapist again. I began sharing what we worked on together with my wife, which has helped us grow even closer through our own individual battles. It is a genuine blessing that it’s all worked so positively in such a short time.

I am sharing this now because of two things:

  1. It is deeply important to me, and to the future of my writing;
  2. I have learned that it can be helpful for others to open up about their own experience, simply because it proves you are not alone.

To make myself work again, I had to change what I was doing and accept that things couldn’t be the way they’d been. It was imperative to reach out into a new, uncomfortable place and understand that I simply had to go for it, be there, and trust the process. To hold on and realize it can, and will, be okay.

In some aspect, this feels like a massive breakthrough.

These three separate stories are just related enough that I can squeeze out a narrative and a reason for you to be reading this post. The running helps me see the little gains and wins. The left-handed shooting helps me remember that progress is not linear, some days are going to be better than others, and that is fine. The counseling – and yes, the medicine – is like the best of both.

It all had to come together for me to be back here, once again, for another season. Not in a life-or-death sense, no; just a “do I want to keep doing this” sense. I bounced back and forth between running it back for another year or calling it quits, at least publicly.  This project has, in earnest, gone for four full seasons. A fifth was going to require a change of some sort. In the last year, I got a promotion at my day job, bought a house with my wife, moved, and went through the loss of one of my closest companions. To keep doing all of this for $0.00, or just above it, is no longer sustainable.

The previous paragraph is not a complaint. This being free, or pretty close to it, was more or less by design. I’ve never sought to make writing about Tennessee basketball a career, because such a career has an unfortunately hard and low ceiling. There are very few college programs, maybe six or so in all of America, that could sustainably support a year-round beat writer that doesn’t have to pivot to football or baseball coverage out of season. Tennessee is not one of them, which is fine.

However: what if Tennessee basketball is enough, in a part-time gig sense? The question bugged me for months and months until I finally gave in to figuring out the answer, which I arrived at after a lot of discussions with friends and trusted agents. I can’t and don’t want this to be my job. That being said, I’m happy to continue making it a passion project and a worthwhile hobby.

That leads to a three-part announcement:

  1. I will be writing about Tennessee basketball, and college basketball as a whole, for the 2022-23 season.

Self-explanatory. All of the stuff you guys seem to like – the previews, the weekly game recaps, national posts, etc. – will be around. I will still refuse to do podcasts unless I know you personally, because there are far too many podcasts in existence and you do not need another one about Tennessee athletics.

Here’s the catch.

2. After this post publishes, the writing I do will no longer be at this website. It will be at a paid newsletter.

3. There will be a further announcement about that on Monday.

For the 2022-23 college basketball season, most of the work I do will be behind a paywall on Substack. I’m making it an affordable one and will work as hard as I can to make it a place worth your time, money, and interest. I think I’ve done that here, but such a model is not really workable on WordPress, so elsewhere we go. It’s just a website, anyway.

As mentioned above, I spent the full offseason trying to figure out if this was worth attempting to push forward. There’s a draft on this site with a similar word count that will never be posted, because that version was the explanation for why this project had to end. On Labor Day weekend, watching football, I realized something: I can’t quit it. Not just basketball; I can’t quit Tennessee as a subject. Not yet. Not now.

The point of all of this: I love what I do. I want to keep doing it. I cannot keep doing it for free, which is okay. That’s a change I can accept, and one I’m willing to make. It’s the change I sought all offseason, and the answer I was most comfortable with arriving at. This is a little win that I hope becomes a bigger one in the long run. I hope you’ll be willing to join me for the ride.

Searching for the next 60-point scorer

In its own way, 50 or more points is incredibly impressive. Given that college basketball games have around ~70% of the possessions of an NBA game and a significantly lower portion of usage-rate stars, it’s probably no surprise that a 50+ point game happens just over once a season. Only 14 times since 2010 has a Division I player dropped 50 or more against another Division I team; no player has scored more than Cameron Young’s 55 for Quinnipiac against Siena in 2019 in that time span.

Young’s game is worth breaking down, because it’s one of the more realistic paths to a lot of points. Hot night from three? Check (9 for 13). Lots of free throws? Check (16 for 20). Aided by the fact the game went to triple overtime? Oh yeah. Young played 54 of a possible 55 minutes. Only one 50+ point scorer – Ray Lee for Eastern Michigan in 2017 – played less than 32 minutes. Unsurprisingly, you gotta be on the court for most of the game to get close.

What’s perhaps most surprising, though, is realizing that Young’s 55 points is the most anyone has scored in a game in 12 years. Then you Google “most points scored by a player in Division I game” and you are reminded of this.

Those are the last five times anyone has scored 60 or more points in a Division I basketball game. It’s a fascinating list: one NBA player in Eddie House; a cup-of-coffee guy in Askia Jones; three players that only fans of the school (yes, U.S. International was a Division I school) or Kansas fans (in Ben Woodside’s case) would immediately recognize. But the most important thing you’ll see are those dates. The last 60-point games happened within two months of each other in the 2008-09 season. No one has come within five points since.

It’s also interesting to note the obvious: the last three guys to do this all needed multiple overtimes to get there. No one has scored 60 or more in regulation since Bill Clinton’s first term. From 1961 (AKA, when integration really began to take hold in NCAA men’s basketball thanks to Loyola Chicago) to 1994, a 34-year span, a player cracked 60+ points roughly once every two years. It happened 19 times total in that 34-year span. It’s happened three times since.

Why is this? Fourteen players have at least come within shouting distance of it since Ryan Toolson’s 63-point game in 2009, but no one has actually cracked the barrier. It’s not for a lack of triple-overtime or further games, either; there were 15 of those in the 2021-22 season alone. No one has managed to have the combination of high-volume shooting, an unusually efficient night, and the boost of extra time needed because of a lack of help from the rest of the team to drag them over the top.

How do we get there? As best as I can tell, I’ve found a few key commonalities between the best of the best – those who’ve scored 52 or more points – along with notes from the Toolson/Woodside games that stand out. Also, I went on a Facebook adventure to get in touch with a former 60-point scorer to hear their thoughts, so you have that now, too.


*=plus one

1. You’re gonna need 50+ minutes

The average amount of on-court time among the seven players who’ve scored 52+ points since 2010-11 against Division 1 competition: 45 minutes. That might even be too few. Toolson played all 60 minutes in Utah Valley’s four-overtime win; Woodside played 51 of a possible 55 in a triple-overtime loss. (By the way, scoring 60 and still losing has to be a horrific feeling.) Plus, thanks to that list above, you can see that the only three 60+ point scorers in the last 25 years required multiple overtimes to get there.

The seven players that got to 52 or better were averaging around 1.17 points per minute; if you sustain that same rate to get to 60, you need at least 51.3 on-court minutes to do it, or triple overtime. Ryan Toolson, the Utah Valley 63-point scorer, knows very well how long this can take. “My coach always jokes that the most impressive thing of that game wasn’t my scoring but that I stayed in the entire 60 minutes, which also might be some other kind of record,” Toolson told me via Facebook Messenger.

If this happens again – and given basketball’s general move in an offense-friendly direction, it probably will soon – it is likely going to come from a game that required two or more overtimes to decide the winner. “I was lucky that I had a perfect storm where I was scoring well and then was given an entire extra 20 minutes to continue to do so,” said Toolson.

2. No less than 25 field goal attempts, with 15+ makes…

Cameron Young ended his game with 24, but he’s the only player among those who dropped 52+ to take fewer than 26. Young also got 20 free throw attempts, which is certainly plausible on the right night, but college basketball just posted its lowest-ever Free Throw Rate, so who knows. Anyway, Young could get away with 24 shots because he went 15-for-24 from the field and 9-for-13 from deep.

The next guy to do this will almost certainly have to hoist a lot of shots, which he should be, because we’re trying to score 60 points here. Every player who scored 52+ points made at least 15 shots and posted no worse than a 53.3% FG%. The worst two-point outing of any of them was Markus Howard’s 5-for-12; everyone else was at 50% or better from two. You likely can’t just get there on twos, though; not if you want to make your job easier.

3. …and likely at least six made threes

Only one player among the seven at 52+ points didn’t make a three: Darius Lee of Houston Baptist. (Sadly, Lee passed away in a shooting in his hometown of Harlem just a few weeks back.) The other six nailed at least six threes and attempted at least ten. The average production of the crew from deep: 7-for-12. Toolson went 7-for-11 from deep; Woodside went 2-for-6, but he also attempted 35 FREE THROWS. That is in ALL CAPS because it is something you desperately need to know. 35 free throws. (I reached out to Woodside for this article; if I can get in touch with him in the next few days, his comments will be edited in.)

Anyway, you may need to boost this number even further. The final statline of a 60-point game in this day and age is probably requiring something around 8-11 made threes, depending on how much you can produce inside the perimeter and how well you get to the free throw line. Speaking of that:

4. Hope you’ve got a favorable officiating crew

The seven players to score 52 or more averaged 13 free throw attempts, and that average is brought down immensely by a total outlier: Jimmer Fredette, the shooting wunderkind who had one (1) attempt in a 52-point affair. Five of seven players hit double-digit attempts. In their 60-point efforts, Toolson got to the line for 21 attempts and made 20. Woodside got 35 attempts (!) and made 30. The message is relatively clear: gotta get fouled, gotta get lucky.

5. Also, probably be a guard

Toolson and Woodside were both 6’4″ or shorter. All seven 52+ point scorers were guards. This is more about “can shoot really well from deep” than “is small,” but it cannot hurt. Like, sure, Zach Edey can probably take 26 field goal attempts and get to the line 14 times if he wants, but considering he will not be shooting a three, your best-case scenario is, like, 46 points. You need threes, and you need guys that can chuck it from deep.

6 (BONUS). Also also, don’t give up too early

This is not actually something to look for, just a thing to keep in mind. Woodside had SEVEN POINTS at halftime of his 60-point game. Did the three overtimes help? Obviously. But the point stands that he went from being on pace for a 14-point night to merely the second-greatest scoring night of the last 22 years. Toolson had 19 in the first half and had four overtimes to aid his work, but still, that’s just a 38-point pace. He also didn’t understand how well he was scoring. Per Toolson: “I had no idea that I broke the 60-point threshold until after the game when our team trainer asked what I thought I had. My guess was high 40s or low 50s.”

Even Cameron Young, the owner of the highest-scoring game since the Woodside/Toolson run, had all of 24 points 27 minutes into a triple-overtime game. Does it help if you have a monster first or second half? Obviously. The last guy to score 53 or more in regulation – Nate Wolters of South Dakota State in 2013 – got there because he dropped 38 POINTS after the break.

All I’m saying is this: it’s very much okay to get excited about our dumb, hopeful hypothetical if a player enters the halftime break with 25+ points. It’s just not that predictive. In fact, the #1 candidate for our 60+ point game this year dropped 26 in a first half this past season, then proceeded to score all of four points the rest of the way.


Everyone in the sample above used no less than 29% of their team’s possessions over the course of the season. Toolson and Woodside were their respective teams’ main creators and scorers. Fredette was Fredette. Markus Howard was Marquette’s only creator. It’s going to have to be a guard that takes a lot of shots on a nightly basis and simply gets really hot in a game where, more or less, no one else from his team does.

Bart Torvik’s projection tools gives each player for this 2022-23 season a statistical baseline. Whether or not it ends up true is genuine guesswork, but it’s at least something to work with. Could a freshman come through and wreck our analysis? Sure, but considering the highest scorers have overwhelmingly been juniors and seniors, that seems most likely.

So: we’re looking for 1) A guard 2) That is expected to use 29% or more of their team’s possessions 3) And is an upperclassman 4) Who is at least somewhat efficient. Based on that, and on our above research, these are my seven best guesses for a 60-point scorer this season, if it happens at all.

Darius McGhee, Liberty. The list has to begin with the second-leading scorer in all of college basketball last year. McGhee’s career high is 48 points, set last year in a tight three-point win against Florida Gulf Coast. At 5’9″, McGhee may be a little too small for what we’re ideally looking for, but what is college basketball if not a home for misfits? The biggest drawback against McGhee is that he doesn’t get to the line that much; aside from one 18 FTA game against Kennesaw State, his career high in single-game free throw attempts is eight. If he finds a way to hit 16 shots, with 10 of them being threes, and gets to the line 18 times and hits them all, then we’re cooking. I do think he represents the best shot, as he had the highest usage rate in the sport last year.

Antoine Davis, Detroit. The other main contender is Davis, who has never ranked lower than 17th in usage rate nationally in any of his four seasons and decided to come back for a fifth year because he had little better to do. Davis may have the better shot simply because his supporting cast is worse. Liberty has made multiple NCAA Tournaments during McGhee’s time there; Detroit Mercy has not once come close. Anyway, Davis’s career high is also 48, but he gets to the line more frequently than McGhee and has hit 10+ threes three times. It just takes one game where Davis hits 10 threes, gets to the line 13 times (making all 13) and hits eight other shots somewhere. Simple enough! Worth noting that Davis dropped 39 points in 31 minutes this past season in a blowout win.

Max Abmas, Oral Roberts. Pretty easy to guess that a guy who’s averaged nearly 24 PPG the last two seasons will be a contender to score a lot of points on one given night. Abmas has a wider-known case for stardom than almost anyone on this list; the reason why he doesn’t rank higher is two-fold. First, Abmas has yet to top 42 points in a college game, which he did back in February 2021. Secondly, Abmas really doesn’t take as many shots as one would guess; his usage rate only ranked 5th-highest in the Summit last year and he’s touched our 25-attempt threshold just three times in three years. Still: this is a guy who’s played almost 95% of all possible minutes the last two seasons and never fouls, meaning he would be a strong candidate to simply be on the floor in a multiple-overtime game.

Jelly Walker, UAB. Walker became a minor star this March thanks to his terrific name and to a particularly thrilling style of play. Walker almost matches what we’re looking for perfectly: efficient shooter (40% from three), high usage rate (33.3% USG%, 17th-highest), and ended his most recent season by dropping 40 in a triple-overtime conference tournament win. The problem: that game is one of only three times Walker has scored more than 27 points. The good news is that his scoring jumped immensely in conference play, and for whatever reason, his only two 40+ point games are both against Middle Tennessee. Maybe the third time’s the charm.

Jordan Dingle, Penn. A ridiculous name, but also a ridiculous player. Dingle took 36% of Penn’s shots while on the court last winter and averaged over 17 field goal attempts a night. Dingle is capable of a lot. He’s made 7+ threes in a game twice, hit our 25+ attempt threshold twice in a week last season, and scored 30+ points five times in a nine-game stretch. He’s never scored more than 33, and I don’t love getting my hopes up for a guy playing for 1) Penn; 2) A Penn team with precisely zero top-150 offensive rankings since 2012. At the same time, Dingle had as many 30+ point games in 2021-22 as every Penn player did combined from 2015 to 2021. Worth a shot.

As a bonus, here’s two wild cards that are interesting. I didn’t feel their cases were as strong as the main five, but each is capable of a super-spectacular night if everything were to break perfectly.

Daylen Kountz, Northern Colorado. I just don’t think Kountz shoots enough, which is both a blessing (he’s very efficient) and a curse (career high of 21 field goal attempts). The upside here is real, though. Kountz averaged 21.2 PPG last year on 54/42/82 shooting splits and was the Big Sky’s best player. His career high is 36, but in a tight game and on a night he’s really hot, I think someone with those splits can reasonably put up 45-50. The question is if he’s capable of the next step up.

Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana. Despite just being in college for three years, TJD is coming up on Perry Ellis territory, where you assume he’s been in college since 2015. The problem with making TJD a real contender here is that he has three career three-point attempts, all misses, and he didn’t even average 12 field goal attempts a game last year. The reason why he’s on this list: he’s extremely efficient (career ORtg of 119) and I have some sort of a proof of concept of how this works. TJD put up 43 in a win over Marshall last November, a game that required zero overtimes and just 37 on-court minutes. That’s 1.16 points per minute, which is above what Toolson did (1.05 points per minute) and almost exactly Woodside’s production (1.17). Plus, he enters as the clear and obvious go-to guy on a team that is presumably aiming to score points. If he learns how to shoot, the case gets stronger.

One day, a Division I college basketball player will score 60 in a game again. Considering that team-wide scoring is up 3% versus where it was in the 2008-09 season, and considering the previous longest gap between 60-point games was nine years (currently 13 going on 14), we’re overdue for a scoring explosion. Except: what if we aren’t?

Over the last two seasons, the scoring leaders in Division I men’s hoops have scored 24.6 (Max Abmas) and 25.2 (Peter Kiss) points per game. Those are fine numbers, sure. The problem is that even the 25.2 figure would’ve ranked second-lowest in the 20-year span from 2001 to 2020. Team-wide scoring is up, but individual scoring explosions are down.

“I was actually very surprised [to hear] that it hadn’t happened again,” says Toolson, the now 13-season owner of the last 60-point outing. “I feel like the basketball world, with Stephen Curry leading the way, has changed drastically allowing players to have more opportunities to score.” It’s been true at the NBA level, where scoring is up 11% in that same 13-year timeframe and 13 60+ point games have happened in the last five seasons alone. (From 2000 to 2009: nine.)

If college basketball can find one guy to get hot on one night, anything is possible. Toolson knows it very well, and knows just the type of game that could do it. “I remember the Jodie Meeks 54-point game during my senior year,” said Toolson. “If you gave that guy on that night four overtimes, he might’ve scored 100.” All it takes is one legendary night – and preferably, one very close game – to make it happen.

The foremost expert on the subject seems to agree. “I feel like a 60-point game will come soon,” Toolson told me, “whether that’s from a one-and-done freshmen phenom or a senior with the ultimate green light and 4 overtimes.” Hopefully for us – though perhaps for him, maybe not hopefully? – that day will come soon.

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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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?”.


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

OPPONENT (11) Michigan
18-14, 11-9 Big Ten, #30 KenPom
LOCATION Conseco Fieldhouse
Indianapolis, IN
TIME Saturday, March 19
5:15 PM ET
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.


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

OPPONENT (14) Longwood
26-6, 15-1 Big South, #139 KenPom
LOCATION Conseco Fieldhouse
Indianapolis, IN
TIME Thursday, March 17
2:45ish PM ET
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.


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.