Eight Games, Pt. 6: Bruised Orange

Eight Games is a series on modern Tennessee basketball that plots the history of the program from 1997-98 to present (the last 24 seasons). In this series, there are eight chapters, each referring to a specific time period in Tennessee basketball told through the lens of one game in that period. This series runs every Monday and Thursday in the month of October 2021. You can follow all editions as they’re listed here.

Cuonzo Martin didn’t really leave Tennessee in the middle of the night like the classic tales go. The news broke while I was in a 12:40 PM English class on a Tuesday; it was something you texted your friends about the rest of the day, and by the time Martin did leave, it was sort of an understandable surprise. A long-term Martin and Tennessee marriage seemed destined to fail. Athletic director Dave Hart clearly wasn’t that interested in spending over his hypothetical budget to keep Martin, and while fans had managed to get behind Martin in March, they had wanted him fired in January and February.

All of this goes to say three things, none of which deserve their own paragraph:

  1. Tennessee was deemed a toxic position to take by national media members;
  2. As such, a coaching search was likely behind the 8-ball before it even started;
  3. I remember driving to my part-time job at a local Catholic school and hearing a caller on local sports radio station 99.1 FM asking if Tennessee could hire Billy Donovan from Florida.

In only its fifth day of the search, Tennessee had seemed to zero in on a candidate they really liked: Louisiana Tech head coach Mike White. At the time, White’s resume was pretty impressive. After an extensive run as an assistant at Mississippi, White took the head coaching job at Louisiana Tech prior to the 2011-12 season. All he did was give a moribund program their longest run of success since Karl Malone was on campus. White’s teams went 18-16, 27-7, then 29-8; all he was missing was an NCAA Tournament bid.

For about 12 hours, Mike White was going to be Tennessee’s next head coach. Then Hart, again, got in the way. He and White seemed to have a disagreement on Tennessee basketball’s budget for White’s assistants. White wanted more money; Hart wouldn’t budge. (White has also said he wasn’t completely convinced he wanted to leave Louisiana Tech yet, to be fair to Hart.) White backed out of the job. Tennessee’s only super-serious candidate to that point was out.

Next up on the list was everyone’s agreed-upon “break in case of emergency” pick: Southern Mississippi head coach Donnie Tyndall. Tyndall also had his own impressive Conference USA run while holding a pair of NCAA Tournament runs from his time at Morehead State, including a fairly infamous win over Louisville. Tyndall had only been with USM for two years, but those two years were quite special: records of 27-10 and 29-7. Tyndall had a reputation for quick, deep turnarounds at programs who were on the cusp of success but couldn’t get over the hump. In theory, you could see where Tennessee was coming from.

Tyndall, with his ultra-thick Michigan accent (memories of “Vals” still ring in my ears), was hired on April 22, 2014. Most everyone was willing to give him a Year Zero: a year where no one cares all that much about wins and losses as long as you fight hard and show progress. Tennessee returned just 27.4% of its minutes from the previous season, one of the lowest rates in all of basketball. Making the NCAA Tournament wasn’t likely; a good season would probably be an NIT bid. The clock had been reset.

Unfortunately for Tyndall, he was resetting his own clock in a different way all during this time. Tennessee seemed to have no idea of this until it was far too late.

NEXT PAGE: Lost dogs and mixed blessings

Eight Games, Pt. 5: Sweet Virginia

After the 2009-10 season, it seemed like Tennessee’s future as a basketball program had never been brighter. They were coming off the longest postseason run in school history; the two winningest seasons in school history took place over two of the previous three seasons. Tennessee had a chance to establish themselves as something close to one of the 15 best programs in college basketball, possibly even top ten. This was a status the program hadn’t really reached consistently since Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld were on campus. So, yeah, Tennessee basketball was in its best place in 30+ years.

In fall 2008, Bruce Pearl hosted a small gathering at his Knoxville home. At that home were several key figures, including an Ohio State point guard that would grow to be perhaps the most pivotal figure in modern Tennessee basketball. He never played a minute in orange.

Aaron Craft was a four-star point guard from Ohio who, for a brief time, had committed to come to Tennessee. During the fall of 2008, he attended this small gathering at Pearl’s home. He was a high school junior who wanted to spend time with his likely future coach. Craft would later decommit to attend the more local Ohio State (a program at a similar once-every-30-years peak), which was fine. However, there was one huge problem with Craft’s attendance at this party: high school juniors were not allowed to attend off-campus events with college coaches.

Pearl knew this. The staff knew this. You can report this as some sort of relatively minor violation and get away with a slap on the wrist or whatever the NCAA is feeling at the moment. A truth-teller can self-report this violation, maybe have probation at worst, and move on with their life.

For reasons known only to Pearl and his staff, the staff denied the party ever happened. They denied that Craft was in attendance. There was one major problem with this white lie: the NCAA was given a photo of Craft and Pearl, standing with each other, inside Pearl’s home. The identity of the photographer, along with who sent the NCAA this photo, is still unknown. Many Tennessee fans believe that this was a plot by Ohio State themselves to kill a newfound recruiting rival; some believe Craft or Craft’s father took the photo themselves as blackmail. The truth of all of this will never be known.

What it ultimately led to was this: a 2010-11 season where a cloud began to hang over Pearl and Pearl’s assistants from night one. Every game Tennessee played this season would be plagued with a timeline of ‘violations’ that ESPN would run through every game, discussing ad nauseum. The season began on November 12th, 2010; seven days later, Pearl was notified that he would be suspended for exactly half of the SEC conference schedule because of his lie to the NCAA. Something funny happened, though.

Under the most scrutiny a Tennessee basketball team has faced in my lifetime, and probably yours as well, a team replacing almost half of its scoring from 2009-10 and pushing a likely one-and-done freshman to the forefront in Tobias Harris just…owned November. Like, to an extent no one saw coming. Tennessee entered the preseason NIT as expected runner-ups and proceeded to dominate #7 Villanova in the second half of a game they won 78-68. Then they went on the road two weeks later to #3 Pittsburgh (at a “neutral” site in Pennsylvania) and won that game, too.

Along the way, there were missteps – Tennessee had to tighten games defensively to escape upset bids by Belmont (85-76), Missouri State (60-56), and a VCU team few expected much from (77-72), but winners win games. They rose from #23 in the preseason AP poll to #7 on December 13. Somehow, despite Pearl’s suspension, despite everything bad building from this recruiting incident, it seemed like the program was not only going to survive but thrive in this sloppiness. Maybe they really were a top ten program.

Three days after that Pittsburgh game, Tennessee hosted Oakland University at home. Oakland was a good team that went on to be a 13 seed in that year’s NCAA Tournament, but when you’re #7 in the country, you expect to beat Oakland at home. And it went that way for one half, as Tennessee put up 50 and led by double digits. Then they turned the car off.

Oakland came back, owned the final 15 minutes in particular, and won, 89-82. This remains Tennessee’s only loss as an AP Top 10 team to an unranked non-SEC opponent. Still, college basketball is weird. This was the same team that just beat two top 10 teams in two weeks. A neutral-site game against Charlotte should’ve been a nice course correction. It turned into one of the most excruciating games Tennessee has played since I began watching, peaking with a late-game broken coverage that allowed Charlotte – CHARLOTTE – to steal a 49-48 win.

In three days, Tennessee went from #7 in the AP Poll with wins over teams ranked #7 and #3 to a team that lost to Oakland University and Charlotte. Just like that, the balloon didn’t just leak, it popped. Tennessee lost at home to USC four days later. They needed a last-second layup to escape a fourth straight loss against Belmont, 66-65. They slept-walked through a horrid December 29th game against Tennessee-Martin and barely won by six. Then, perhaps most embarrassingly, Tennessee hosted a mid-day nationally televised game against the College of Charleston on New Year’s Eve and got utterly demolished.

The Craft news was the first sign of a problem, but in 17 days of real time, Tennessee went from a team some were seriously looking at as a Final Four contender to a team with losses to Oakland, Charlotte, and College of Charleston. And it would somehow only get worse. A random 104-84 win over Memphis was a brief respite, but SEC play started (with “interim” head coach Tony Jones) with an awful road loss to Arkansas. Then it was an overtime home loss to an unranked Florida squad. Then Tennessee had to come back from 17 down at home (on College GameDay, for reasons still unknown) to escape Vanderbilt.

By the time Pearl was able to return permanently (excluding a January road loss to UConn that Pearl was eligible to coach), Tennessee was 15-8 and 5-3 in the SEC. Pearl’s first two games back were road losses to Kentucky (by 12) and Florida (by 1). The train simply never got back on the tracks. Thompson-Boling Arena, a place that had become fearsome for SEC opponents, gave Tennessee a 6-8 home record after November. Tennessee managed to make the NCAA Tournament as a 9 seed. On the day of the game, multiple players on the team have reported watching athletic director Mike Hamilton give an interview to ESPN in which he said he wasn’t sure if Pearl would be back for the 2011-12 season. No wonder the team was steamrolled shortly after.

Pearl would be fired after the season ended, then would receive a three-year show-cause from the NCAA banning him from coaching in college. Tennessee had to embark on a coaching search yet again. Similar to Pearl’s own search, it took several misdirections and ended up in a place almost no one had expected when the search began.

NEXT PAGE: You can’t always get what you want

Eight Games, Pt. 4: Pearl of the Quarter

Eight Games is a series on modern Tennessee basketball that plots the history of the program from 1997-98 to present (the last 24 seasons). In this series, there are eight chapters, each referring to a specific time period in Tennessee basketball told through the lens of one game in that period. This series runs every Monday and Thursday in the month of October 2021. You can follow all editions as they’re listed here.

On the heels of the inarguable Greatest Season in Tennessee Basketball History, Bruce Pearl had to re-tool on the fly. Gone were Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith; in came four Top 100 recruits to give Tennessee a total of six on the roster, along with JUCO newbie Bobby Maze and a few year-older guys in Tyler Smith, Wayne Chism, and J.P. Prince. (Also Brian Williams. Never forget Brian Williams.) Those Top 100 recruits, in order of highest-to-lowest ranking, were:

  • Scotty Hopson (#11 in 2008 class), a 6’7″ guard expected to be a phenomenal shooter who could play the 2, 3, and 4;
  • Emmanuel Negedu (#43 in 2008 class), a 6’7″ forward who came to Knoxville after initially committing to Arizona and was scouted as being dominant at the rim;
  • Renaldo Woolridge (#70 in 2008 class), the 6’9″ son of 12-year NBA player Orlando Woolridge who had a burgeoning rap career on the side;
  • Cameron Tatum (#96 in 2006 class), a 6’7″ player who took a prep school year and redshirted the 2007-08 season who was expected to be an excellent shooter.

Combining these new guys with the returners, along with Tennessee’s upward momentum as a program, convinced the media that Tennessee was unlikely to take much of a step back at all. The Vols began the 2008-09 season ranked #14 nationally, obliterated their first five opponents (including a 90-78 win over #21 Georgetown), and by the time mid-December rolled around, the only blemish on their record was a defensible 83-74 loss to #9 Gonzaga where the Bulldogs hit 55% of their threes to Tennessee’s 29.2%. That kind of stuff happens because college basketball is a weird, variance-driven sport.

On December 13, 2008, Tennessee traveled to Philadelphia to take on Temple for just the second time in 35 years. They probably should’ve stayed home.

Three days later, Tennessee would hold a Marquette team featuring Wesley Matthews and Jimmy Butler to a 45.8% eFG% in a 12-point victory. Back to normal! Then they had to survive a Belmont upset push for a full 40 minutes, escaping with a 79-77 win. It was kind of like this for…well, most of the season. Every good thing would almost immediately be followed by pain; every source of joy stamped out by a newer, larger source of frustration. Tennessee would lose on the road to an unranked Kansas squad, at home to Gonzaga in overtime, and wouldn’t be ranked again after January 12th, 2009.

A steadying win on the road versus a bad Georgia team was immediately followed by the Jodie Meeks Game, where Meeks dropped 54 points on Tennessee in Thompson-Boling Arena as one of the worst Kentucky teams in 30 years defeated Tennessee by 18 points.

A rare double-digit road win at Memorial Gym versus Vandy was followed by an excruciating two-point home loss to Memphis and another home loss to an LSU team that was their toughest competition in the worst SEC in 25 years. A surprising demolition of Florida at TBA (which would be followed later in the season by a road win/sweep of the Gators) gave Tennessee fans hope before a two-point win over a 2-14 Arkansas team and a horrid road loss to an Auburn team that posted a 50% OREB% yet again derailed hopes. As Tennessee turned the page into March, what looked like a seriously promising season as recently as New Year’s Day had turned into the first true disappointment of the Bruce Pearl era: 17-10, 8-5 in the SEC. Tennessee was still pretty likely to get into the NCAA Tournament, but they needed wins sorely.

Out of seemingly nowhere, these Volunteers went on a run. Tennessee went 3-1 to close the year, the only blemish being (of course) a 70-67 home loss with a buzzer-beater against Alabama on Senior Day.

And for once, the SEC Tournament was not a source of utter humiliation. Tennessee would demolish that same Alabama team by 24 on Friday. They’d outlast Auburn on Saturday. The bracket broke wide open. The 1 and 2 seed from the West were eliminated; all that was left was a Mississippi State team that finished its regular season at 19-12, 9-7 SEC. That wasn’t a team that would make the NCAA Tournament field without a victory. Tennessee had defeated them just 18 days prior at home. They were locked into the NCAA Tournament, likely somewhere in the 7-8 seed lines with a win. It seemed easy enough. Until Tennessee just…couldn’t hit anything at all. Tennessee had one of their worst two-point shooting days the program has seen in recent memory: 12-for-42, or 28.6%. Tyler Smith, who was genuinely very reliable on twos his entire career, went 1-for-12. No one could bring it home.

Tennessee still somehow led this game late. Then Phil Turner, who entered the final 90 seconds with five points in the game, scored seven to push State to a 64-61 lead. Tennessee would get one final shot, courtesy of Smith…

Of course it didn’t go in. A genuinely frustrating season doesn’t end that way. Neither did it in the NCAA Tournament, where 9-seed Tennessee had to battle back from a halftime deficit against 8-seed Oklahoma State only to give up a three-point play late to lose, 77-75. (Footnote: This is a game I drew the line on watching again. There is a Real Story that goes with this game for me personally which requires substantial explanation.)

For the first time in Pearl’s four-year tenure, fans had reason to doubt which direction the program was going in. This season shouldn’t have been what it ended up becoming. The recovery would have to begin as soon as Pearl could make it happen.

NEXT PAGE: Show biz kids

Eight Games, Pt. 3: Born to Run

In life, the thing you often want most is the thing that probably isn’t best for you. All sorts of factors can be leaned into here. This thing could be dangerous for you. Maybe it was good for you ten years ago; it may not be so good for you now. Perhaps the timing just isn’t right. Maybe this thing is quite expensive, and you’re on a bit of a budget crunch. It happens. Maybe you start rethinking why you wanted this in the first place and realize it wasn’t right for you.

For a large chunk of the month of March after Buzz Peterson was canned, Tennessee fans seemed obsessed with the idea of hiring Bob Knight, then at Texas Tech. (I imagine his Indiana resume requires no explanation.) At the time, Knight was 64 years old – again, the essential opposite of the young Buzz – and was in the midst of quite the successful second act. His Red Raiders had gone 23-9, 22-13, 23-11, then 22-11 with a newly-furnished Sweet Sixteen bid in March 2005. It was the school’s second-ever Sweet Sixteen run in the 64/68-team era. Obviously, what he was doing was quite remarkable.

As Tennessee’s search ran over the course of two weeks, there were three questions Tennessee was required to answer:

  1. Is this coach actually interested in coming to Tennessee?
  2. Can Tennessee afford this coach’s salary?
  3. Will this coach be available anytime soon?

Knight (behind Pat Summitt, of course) was first and foremost on the average Tennessee fan’s mind. As of March 24 – the morning of Texas Tech’s Sweet Sixteen game against 7-seed West Virginia – Knight was technically available. He’d reportedly made vague overtures that if Tennessee called, he’d listen. And, hey, Knight could be ‘available’ as soon as the next day, were Texas Tech (a 6 seed) to lose as a very slight favorite.

Quietly, Knight’s salary didn’t seem to be all that absurd to buy out. At the time, Knight was reportedly making about $400,000 a year at Texas Tech, which is before all sorts of bonuses (and his relentless appearances in commercials) probably got him north of $500K/year. Knight wasn’t hurting for money at this point of his career; this was more about loving the game than anything else. He even would lose that day to West Virginia, bringing Texas Tech’s 2004-05 season to a close right as Tennessee’s search seemed to heat up. But it never materialized, and reporting now suggests Knight was never that serious of a candidate beyond using Tennessee for a quick raise.

The search narrowed itself to four candidates. Three of them were already available if offered. Bobby Lutz (Charlotte, 47 years old) seemed to be the early leader; Chris Low reported that he both had a phone and in-person interview with athletic director Mike Hamilton. Lutz’s credentials were pretty good at the time. Through seven seasons at Charlotte, Lutz was 135-83 with five NCAA Tournament appearances (including a win in Jerry Green’s final game at Tennessee) and had consistently made Charlotte a top-three team in a conference that had four NCAA Tournament teams with six the previous season. (He was also from Hickory, North Carolina, a town we will obviously never hear about in this series again.)

Lutz fell out late in the running, as did UAB’s Mike Anderson (45 years old), who was 65-34 in three seasons with UAB and had already taken the Blazers to a Sweet Sixteen the previous season. Anderson consistently hung around as a potential candidate but never seemed to materialize in the upper crust.

The third, and briefly most likely option, was Dana Altman of Creighton. We know a lot more about Altman now, but at this time, he was a 46-year-old who had coached in the Great Plains for all but one year of his coaching career. He’d been at Creighton for 12 seasons, completely changing the program’s trajectory and overseeing six NCAA Tournament bids in the seven seasons leading into this coaching search. Creighton had won at least 20 games seven years in a row, which seemed like an obvious grand-slam hire to anyone following closely.

Altman, for reasons I can’t explain beyond the shoulder shrug ASCII guy, never caught on with Tennessee fans. You see in that poll above that he barely outranked Bobby Lutz, a guy who is named Bobby Lutz. His resume was fabulous, and he was widely considered to be in the top two for the Tennessee job, though he never seemed to express his interest publicly.

Throughout a two-week period of March, Mike Hamilton interviewed several candidates, gauged the interest of many more, and seemed to simply…wait it out. It was a bit different pre-Twitter, but even then, two weeks from fired coach to hired coach feels like a lifetime as a fan. It’s like aging in cat/dog years; it simply seems much, much longer than it is. Hamilton was waiting out one final candidate who had overseen his own surprising run to the Sweet Sixteen. That candidate had the backing of one very important historical figure in Tennessee’s tapestry.

NEXT PAGE: Dancing in the dark

Eight Games, Pt. 2: Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve?)

Eight Games is a series on modern Tennessee basketball that plots the history of the program from 1997-98 to present (the last 24 seasons). In this series, there are eight chapters, each referring to a specific time period in Tennessee basketball told through the lens of one game in that period. This series runs every Monday and Thursday in the month of October 2021. You can follow all editions as they’re listed here.

After Jerry Green was…uh, “retiring,” Tennessee embarked on a national search to find a coach the program could hold onto for several years. The typical cliche you hear when a coaching search happens is generally the same: the new coach needs to be the opposite of the previous one. If that didn’t work, let’s try this. (We’re going to briefly ignore Green’s 71% win rate and overall general success at Tennessee in a short timespan.)

The last coach was old? Let’s go young. The last coach was a jerk? Let’s try a nice(r) guy. The last coach couldn’t win when it counted? Go find a guy that wins in March. As a hire, Buzz Peterson reasonably met all three basic points: Peterson was 38 when Tennessee hired him. Most who know Buzz seem to describe him as a generally nice person, which was realistically a refreshing thing to hear after Jerry Green had asked you to meet him in the KMart parking lot. Lastly, Peterson had just five years of head coaching experience, but he took Appalachian State to the 2000 NCAA Tournament and, in his one year at Tulsa, won the NIT championship. Lest you doubt all of this, it’s in the newspaper, so it seemed true enough.

The Tennessean, April 3, 2001 The Tennessean, April 5, 2001

All of that seemed like a fine enough resume to Tennessee, who hired Peterson after a fairly short search that included a run at…well, you let me know how you feel about this list.

All of the coaches on that list would have been fascinating experiments for various reasons. Of course, knowing what we know in 2021, at least three of those coaches (and probably a fourth, Gregg Marshall, pre-self-inflicted controversy) would be first-ballot entrants in a College Basketball Coaching Hall of Fame. Tennessee didn’t know that at the time, and to be fair, neither did anyone else. Young coaches are exciting, obviously, but every single one represents a roll of the dice without a ton of information about how great or not-great each one is. We have educated guesses, yes, but even those educated guesses don’t always work out. (Check out Nebraska football for a fretful version of this exact experiment.)

That’s a long way of saying “yeah, I get it.” Left out of the bio is that Peterson’s dad was a Tennessee graduate and Peterson went to several games growing up. Passion for the team and for the fans, something that Jerry Green never quite nailed down, would not be an issue for Buzz. Along with that, it wasn’t as if Tennessee was the only school pursuing Peterson. They had to battle off South Carolina for his services. Along with that, the Tennessean reported that only one candidate from that above list was a true finalist: Marshall at Winthrop. (Jeff Lebo, then at Tennessee Tech, was the other.)

So, sure, you hired a guy with a light resume, but he loves Tennessee and I guess that counts for something.

NEXT PAGE: What do I get?

The Tennessean, February 20, 2001

Eight Games, Pt. 1: Another Green World

Eight Games is a series on modern Tennessee basketball that plots the history of the program from 1997-98 to present (the last 24 seasons). In this series, there are eight chapters, each referring to a specific time period in Tennessee basketball told through the lens of one game in that period. This series runs every Monday and Thursday in the month of October 2021. You can follow all editions as they’re listed here.

A man rises from his seat. It is late; the air is thick and noise around him is heavy. The noise, depending on the night or even the time of the night, can be quantified as ‘good’, ‘bad’, or ‘mixed.’ This man possesses an unusually special ability to make those around him feel all three noises at once. He is a master of emotional confusion; a level above at his highly-specific craft.

The audience around him may not know it at the time, but in their presence, they’ve reached the inflection point of one man’s work. It’s the point at which there is no turning back; a point where people firmly fall on one side or the other with the man in question. These points are unpredictable, and by the time they arrive, they’ve blown past you in what feels like no time at all.

In the process of rising from his seat to issue a call to those mere feet away from him, he clenches his fists, stands as straight as he can, and strikes a pose that remarkably simulates holding in the poop of a lifetime.

This man is Jerry Green, either the most-hated or most-underloved coach in modern Tennessee basketball history.

NEXT PAGE: Taking tiger mountain (by strategy)

How much mid-range is too much mid-range?

Hello out there. I hope you’re trying to enjoy the dog days of summer. Every day is exactly the same; an 88-to-93 degree high, a 69-to-73 degree low. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes it doesn’t. Much like basketball, something either goes down or it stays out. This is perhaps the peak time of boredom, something we rarely get anymore with our collective addiction to social media and online life. You can zone out for minutes, even hours and realize that nothing around you has changed all that much. In its own way, it is quite nice.

More than any other time this could possibly be written, mid-August in the middle of Sludge Weather seems like the ideal time to continue the Mid-Range Discourse.

AFTER THE JUMP: The Discourse begins anew

Continue reading “How much mid-range is too much mid-range?”

What matters most in winning college basketball’s closest games?

Sports, in general, lend themselves to classic cliches. The team that continuously wins coin-flip fixtures wants it more. They get the 50/50 plays. Clearly, they have more heart, or perhaps they’re just the more experienced team. Sometimes, we talk about how you can’t let a team like them hang around and how these teams, or players, or coaches, or heck, fans are simply winners. They get it done when it counts.

All of the above are various cliches I’ve heard surrounding close, tightly-contested games. Also, all of the above are cliches I’ve heard across every single sport I watch. The same teams with experience or heart or devil magic seem to exist in all sports, from football to basketball to hockey to European football to curling. They’re everywhere, pervasive at all times, unable to be hidden from. Announcers and sportswriters love cliches like these because they’re narrative-friendly and for the most part, you can’t really disprove them.

How is one supposed to disprove an individual or team having the larger amount of heart, exactly? Do we get postgame MRIs detailing heart girth? Do we get live blood pressure readings in the final moments of a high-leverage situation? Along with that, I’ve never understood how I can say a team didn’t want it more. I mean, I can’t get in their heads or read their inner thoughts. I don’t know if one player is thinking about wanting to take the last shot or throw the final pitch while another is thinking about Arby’s.

Basketball, particularly of the college variety, could be the best testing grounds for all sorts of ideas and philosophies. Are there certain statistical elements that lend themselves to teams winning more close games? Are these elements different in any way from those that decide every other basketball game? Can we actually prove or disprove some of the less airy cliches surrounding basketball’s closeness? I spent a month’s time this offseason diving deep into these questions and more. Whether or not it proves to be of real use, we’ll see.

NEXT PAGE: What defines a close game? What are some of the common stats-unfriendly tropes that can be proven or disproven?

Statcast Goofin’, Vol. 2: The weird and weirdly fun Miami Marlins

Even the idea of writing the title of this piece felt a little off. The fun Miami Marlins? The same franchise that sold everything it could the second they had any type of success? The franchise that, prior to 2020, had made the playoffs twice ever and won the World Series both times? The Marlins, a team that’s never won their division and finished above .500 for the fifth time ever last season (out of 28 tries) at 31-29? This is all before we get to how they routinely played in empty stadiums in a pre-COVID time and that they’ve ranked in the bottom five in MLB attendance every year from 2001 to now except for 2012, the first year of their new ballpark.

Yes, I’ve elected to write about the fun Miami Marlins. Even if you get past all those qualifiers, you’ll have to stick with me here past the surface level of fun, because the Marlins meet very few of the traditional requirements I’d look for. As of May 20, Miami ranks 24th in runs scored per game, 26th in Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA), and 27th in strikeout rate. Statcast offers these Marlins as weak hitters, too: their average exit velocity ranks 24th (one spot below the Orioles), they have fewer hard-hit balls (385) than all but five other teams, and dead last in MLB in expected Weighted On-Base Average.

When everything shakes out after small sample sizes become larger, the Marlins are most likely going to end up being one of the five worst offenses in the league. This is all before we pay attention to how they rank eighth-best in runs allowed per game and fourth-best in average exit velocity allowed. If you attend a Marlins game this year, the odds you’re going to see a low-scoring game are higher than almost any other team in baseball. If you attend a Marlins-Mets game, you should probably stay at home instead.

So now that you have all of that in mind, please take me seriously when I say the Marlins – 19-23, currently fourth in the NL East, with playoff odds on Fangraphs of 0.8% – are one of the most aesthetically enjoyable watches you can have in baseball this season. Do they hit like the Astros, White Sox, or Dodgers? No, but they have one budding star and a wide collection of weird also-rans that keep them entertaining. To go with that, they’ve got three of the game’s best young pitchers, all of whom may already be top 50ish pitchers in the league, all of whom are 25 or younger. Let’s explore these weirdos who have great uniforms and reside in one of the strangest stadiums in America.

Also, they just unveiled these utterly amazing new uniforms.

Smooth Jazz is the young star Miami deserves

Of the cities I’ve personally been to, Miami is a strange one. It’s like this weird clash of party culture combined with gorgeous architecture; nothing about what you see in Miami makes all that much sense, but it dances together. It’s a fascinatingly unique place, which is why Jazz Chisholm, Jr. is the perfect future star for this franchise.

Chisholm is barely 23 years old and barely broke into last year’s Marlins roster mostly thanks to the variety of maladies that befell the Marlins earlier that season. Chisholm posted a mortifying slash line of .161/.242/.321, which is, uh, bad. He did post a pair of home runs, but he very much seemed not ready for the whole thing; in 62 plate appearances, he struck out 19 times and reached base just 15 times. It wasn’t a great introduction.

Fast forward to today, and suddenly, Chisholm has developed into one of the game’s most exciting young stars. This is, of course, aided by the fact that he seems like a grand personality. Chisholm dyed his hair blue prior to the season, regularly gives good quotes, and, well, seems like a perfect fit for a franchise (and league) in dire need of a marketable player.

It also helps that in his true rookie year, Jazz has turned into the best hitter on the Marlins roster, posting a slash line of .301/.372/.554. His weighted Runs Created (wRC+) is 157, good enough for 18th-best in baseball and one slot below a guy you may have heard of. Enough about the fancy stats, though: I think you probably want to see the dingers.

The above video represents one of Chisholm’s two homers against 100+ MPH pitches this season, the only two home runs against 100+ MPH pitches by anyone in baseball. (It’s also the only home run surrendered by Jacob deGrom on an 0-2 count in his illustrious career.) In fact, it was the first home run against a 100+ MPH pitch since September 9, 2019 (Miguel Rojas). To do this once in a career is pretty impressive, especially considering Statcast reports no player from 2008 to 2020 managed to hit multiple home runs off of 100+ MPH pitches. So, yeah, imagine the pleasant surprise when Chisholm did it again barely a month later.

Look at where that pitch is; it’s way, way out of the zone. Chisholm doesn’t care, and his bat catches up to a 100.5 MPH pitch several inches out of the zone with relative ease.

What Chisholm is doing is rather unique, especially for a rookie who wasn’t all that much of a can’t-miss prospect. Chisholm signed as an international free agent with the Diamondbacks in 2015 and ended up with the Marlins in the 2019 Zac Gallen trade. Entering 2021, Fangraphs had Chisholm as a low-end top 50 prospect and the Marlins’ fourth-best; their most likely outcome showed him as a fine everyday starter. He’s been more than fine, I’d say. The below graph is a simple, meaningless one from Statcast showing those who are both hitting the ball well and are fast on the basepaths:

(The dot to the immediate left on Acuna is Mike Trout, for the record.) Is Chisholm anywhere as good as Ohtani, Buxton, Acuna, or Trout? Uh, probably not, at least not yet. But as a general list of Guys I Look Forward to Watching Every Day, Chisholm has rapidly ascended to the very top of this list. This combination of power and speed really isn’t that common, and as of the time of writing, Chisholm and Fernando Tatis, Jr. (another player at the top of such a list) rank almost equally. Baseball needs more players as fun, as likable, and as talented as Jazz Chisholm.

The Marlins also have some other players of interest – Jesus Aguilar and Miguel Rojas are both very good hitters worth your time – but everything here is put in the shadow of Chisholm, a player eight years younger than both Aguilar and Rojas and with a far brighter future than either.

A three-headed monster that deserves serious investment

If you’re old enough to remember the 2003 Marlins, that team had an intoxicating collection of young pitching talent on their roster. Some names you’d remember right off the bat (Josh Beckett); others might take a few minutes or hours to picture (Dontrelle Willis, Brad Penny). Either way, those Marlins rode their way to stardom off the back of three excellent 25-or-younger pitchers, the three of whom combined to allow just five earned runs in 32.1 innings of work in their World Series victory over the Yankees.

These Marlins, of course, are very likely to not achieve the same level of stardom. Two of their three semi-stars are already 25, with the third (Trevor Rogers, 23) being two years older than the youngest of the 2003 group. Still, Miami has somehow stumbled their way into a fabulous collection of pitching talent that, hopefully, they won’t sell away this time.

The best of the three, at least via his work this season, is Rogers. The 23-year-old ranks 15th in the majors in Wins Above Replacement (1.5, one spot below Max Scherzer), holds a 1.74 ERA (a problematic stat, obviously) that ranks fifth-best, and is striking out 11.32 batters per nine innings of work. Rogers’ go-to is a four-seam fastball, a pitch he throws 61% of the time that’s accumulated 43 strikeouts in just nine games of work:

Interestingly, Rogers appears to have made this pitch a bit better from 2020 to 2021, when it was actually a below-average MLB pitch. While 2020 provides the smallest sample size of any MLB season in modern history, it did seem notable that hitters weren’t having much of an issue catching up to Rogers’ fastest pitch. Opposing hitters posted a .444 wOBA (very bad!) on his four-seamer. However, the Statcast data showed a player who may have simply been unlucky. Per their expected Batting Average and expected wOBA data, Rogers’ best pitch should’ve been posting a .195 opposing BA and a .314 wOBA, not the actual .314 and .444 numbers it got.

Fast-forward to May 2021, and he’s experiencing more positive regression to the mean than almost anyone in baseball. This year, batters are hitting his four-seamer at just a .205 rate, and he’s added a full 1.4 MPH on average to this pitch. That’s important, because it makes his best secondary pitch, a changeup with elite vertical movement (+5.7 inches of movement versus the average, fifth-highest out of 63 qualifying pitchers) significantly more effective.

In both seasons, Rogers has held a remarkably stable Whiff% of around 34-35% on this pitch, but the key this year is that fewer opponents are able to hit it well. The Hard-Hit Percentage on his changeup is down around 4% from last year, and opposing batters aren’t having much luck getting a productive at-bat out of it. Hitters are 9-for-50 (.180) against this pitch, with only two extra-base hits.

Lastly, Rogers’ most improved pitch is a slider that he tries to push down and away from right-handed hitters and down and in on left-handers. (Interestingly, he uses his slider much more frequently against lefties than he does his changeup. We only have 117 pitches of data here, but that’s just under the 124 times he threw the slider last year. Compare these numbers and you’ll see how much better it’s been:

  • 2020: 30.9% Whiff%; .404 wOBA; .593 Slugging Percentage (.410 expected)
  • 2021: 45% Whiff%; .241 wOBA; .214 Slugging Percentage (.291 expected)

This isn’t typically Rogers’ at-bat-ending pitch, but it’s one he uses to get a lot of weakly-hit balls. Only 27.3% of contact against Rogers’ slider is that of the 95+ MPH exit velocity variety, and it rarely produces anything other than a weak groundout or line drive.

Rogers is making things look easy right now. Even if his numbers regress somewhat – both Fangraphs and Statcast see some less-sunny numbers coming his way – he’s still on track to be one of the 30 or so best starting pitchers in baseball. Lest we forget, this is a 23-year-old in his first full season doing that. The potential is very much there, and he’s a fairly obvious pick for the Marlins’ most likely All-Star in two months.

The #2 pitcher here is the oldest of the trio by a few months. Sandy Alcantara came to Miami by way of a trade with St. Louis in 2017, and in this, his third full season as a starter but only his second as a 162-game feature player, he’s blossoming in real time. The ERA of 3.63 may not jump off the page, and neither will the less-flashy strikeout numbers, but Alcantara has progressed from a likely reliever to the second cornerstone of one of baseball’s best rotations. In lieu of strikeouts, Alcantara has produced an array of off-speed material that makes his 96-98 MPH four-seam fastball a tough one to catch up to.

Alcantara has always had elite arm strength – FanGraphs themselves highlighted it in their 2019 scouting report – but the off-speed stuff took a while to develop. In 2017, Alcantara’s first partial year in the majors, all four of his pitches where seen as below league-average, the best of which was a changeup he used around 13% of the time. Even as recently as last season, Alcantara rarely relied on this pitch, and it was generally seen by Statcast as roughly a league-average off-speed option.

In 2021, Alcantara has somehow turned his most forgettable pitch offering into his very best. It’s produced a 37% Whiff%, a .127 opponent batting average, and a lot of gross swings:

The easiest explanation for this sudden shift is a relatively simple one: improved command. In 2020, Alcantara’s 68 changeups were scattered all over the place, and it appears he genuinely did not know where it would end up:

After a full offseason of work, Alcantara has nearly quadrupled his usage of the pitch this season, clearly in part because he’s improved his command of it:

Largely gone are the attempts to make this a down-and-in pitch for left-handers. Too frequently, Alcantara’s pre-2021 changeups ended up just being inside and not sinking, which led to five homers against the pitch in 2019 and 2020 combined and a lot of easy hits. Now, Alcantara just makes this pitch go down and stay down, and hitters haven’t adjusted to it yet. His control has improved immensely, which is allowing him to make a lot of guys look silly. Most importantly, they just can’t make good contact: no starting pitcher in baseball has a lower Barrel% (how often a batter hits it in the “sweet spot”) than Alcantara as of today at just 2.6% of all contact swings.

Lastly, Pablo Lopez doesn’t strike out that many people (8.4 per nine innings, the lowest of the three), partially because he has a league-average fastball at 94 MPH and very little spin or movement on the pitch. Instead, like Alcantara, Lopez has made a pretty dramatic shift to his changeup and to off-speed pitches in general. Just 31.8% of Lopez’s pitches are four-seam fastballs, and instead, he’s made a shifty change his main pitch of choice:

However, Lopez’s four-seamer is giving him a lot of productive outs. Statcast produces something called Run Value, which is a measurement of how many runs your pitch is keeping off the board per 100 pitches against the average pitcher. (Or something like that.) Lopez’s four-seamer is one of the 50 best pitches in baseball right now, mostly because he leaves very few balls over the middle of the plate. Like Alcantara, his command is up and the improvement is real:

The fun thing about these Marlins is that, after profiling their four best players, there’s still some more unique and intriguing pieces beneath the surface. Yimi Garcia (a reliever) is running wild with a 1.53 ERA and rarely walks anyone. Dylan Floro regularly produces some of the lowest exit velocities in baseball and offers a sinker/four-seamer combo that’s proving extremely difficult to put in play.

Along with that, the minor leagues have a pair of fascinating pieces that I’d really like to see in the majors at some point this year. Jesus Sanchez is a 23-year-old outfielder that got a few plate appearances last year, and while it seemed like his momentum towards the majors had largely died out, he’s been demolishing AAA pitchers so far this season. In just 13 games of play, Sanchez has knocked seven homers and is hitting .509.

Alongside Jesus is another Sanchez: Sixto. He’s 22 and likely would’ve made the roster to start the season had he not had a shoulder injury. Sanchez got seven starts last year (plus one in the playoffs) and showed why he’s such a tantalizing prospect. Sanchez’s fastball (used 23.8% of the time last year) averages 98 MPH, has an unusually high amount of horizontal movement, and resulted in a swing-and-miss nearly 30% of the time.

However, the real star of the show was his changeup. (Something about the Marlins and their changeups, I tell you.) Sanchez’s change merely rated out as one of the most dangerous pitches in the game; in terms of pitches used in at least 50 plate appearances, only two pitches in all of baseball – Tyler Clippard and Devin Williams’ changeups – were deemed superior on a RV/100 rate. It doesn’t get a ton of whiffs, but it’s proven extremely difficult to make good contact with.

Collectively, these Marlins probably won’t make a ton of memories for the average baseball fan. They aren’t expected to hang around the playoff race for long, and truth be told, they’re more likely to end up with 90+ losses than they are to factor into a wild card race at all. And yet: you really need to watch this team, particularly if any of Rogers/Alcantara/Lopez are starting and especially if one or more of the Sanchezs are called up soon. Even if none of their three best pitchers are on the mound, Jazz Chisholm has become a must-watch hitter on every at-bat.

Yes, the Marlins are weird, but they’re a particularly pleasing type of weird that makes for a good viewing experience. They’ve got a load of fascinating prospects, some quality young talent, and multiple future All-Stars. Watch them before everyone else catches on in two years.

How “Show Me My Opponent” gets made

Like any normal-brained person, for most of the last 15 years, I’ve had a real obsession with the television show How It’s Made. On the off-chance you’ve never seen it, it’s a nominally Canadian TV show that got lots of run on the Discovery Channel in the late 2000s/early 2010s and now resides on the Science Channel. I don’t know that I could properly explain why I love this show so deeply, beyond stating that something about the start-to-finish process of watching a product become A Product has always been and will always be oddly compelling.

The idea behind this post is a somewhat self-indulgent version of How It’s Made. A few different people have asked in the past how I do what I do with regards to previewing 30+ Tennessee basketball games every season. This last season completed my third straight year previewing every Tennessee basketball game, meaning I’ve written about the last 96 Volunteer basketball fixtures in great detail. Every preview in the 2020-21 season was at least 2,000+ words and all but two were 2,500+, meaning that at least twice a week every week, I’m writing anywhere from 5,000-7,000 words about the basketball program at the university I attended.

Doing this repeatedly for free is, of course, a form of insanity. It has also afforded me opportunities I never would’ve received otherwise: seeing and hearing my stats referenced on television, forming new friendships in sports media, growing my “platform” and “brand”, etc. If nothing else, I think this could be mildly useful for younger (than me) writers, like those in college or high school, who would like to write on things they’re passionate about one day.

By popular request, here is a rough timeline of how the Show Me My Opponent series on this website gets made. To give the most accurate representation of how this works, I’ve picked a game at random from the middle of the SEC conference season – February 10, 2021, a Wednesday, when Tennessee played Georgia.

NEXT PAGE: How the, uh, sausage? gets made