Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: LSU, Part One

OPPONENT #21 LSU (13-1, 1-1 SEC, #11 KenPom)
(19-10, Round of 32 2020-21)
LOCATION Maravich Assembly Center
Baton Rouge, LA
TIME Saturday, January 8
Daymeon Fishback (analyst)
Torvik: LSU -4.6

Right, right. Weird weather this week…extremely frustrating mid-week performance against what should’ve been an overmatched SEC opponent at home…this follows an annoying road loss at a hated opponent…heading to Baton Rouge on a Saturday…you aren’t fooling me this time, script writers. I already saw it in February 2019.

“What did we learn, Palmer?”

I don’t know, sir.”

“I don’t [REDACTED] know, either.”

LSU’s offense

I did not expect to be writing about how dire LSU’s offense seems. Will Wade has overseen four full seasons of work at LSU; three of those ended with an offense ranked among the 12 best nationally. Wade runs a free-flowing motion offense with a good amount of ball-screens and even more ISOs. They represented a big chunk of the offense in 2018-19 and 2020-21; I figured that would be the case again this year. Not so.

LSU’s running fewer ISOs and more ball screens than ever because there is no Javonte Smart or Tremont Waters-level guard on the roster. The best player (and scorer) is Tari Eason (15.6 PPG), a Cincinnati transfer that’s a poor shooter but is relentless at getting to the paint, whether in transition or in half-court. If it makes sense, Eason is like a co-#1 option in transition but a co-second banana in half-court; the guy just rim-runs and is crazy dangerous when LSU picks up the pace.

The problem with Eason being your leading scorer but your second/third half-court banana is that the role of main scoring option in the half-court falls to Darius Days (14.3 PPG), a stats darling and efficient player that nonetheless isn’t built to be the #1 scoring option. On the last two LSU NCAA Tournament teams, Days posted Usage Percentages of 17.6% and 16.1%, which helped him be super-efficient but also penned him in as a role player. If you look at his measurables – 6’7″, 245 – you may guess that Days is a bully-ball big. Not so; more than half of his shots come from three, and at 35.4% on 99 attempts/also 35.4% for his career, he’s LSU’s most dangerous shooter.

The problem is that a guy who sits at 35.4% is LSU’s best shooter. Even in an SEC seemingly dire of great shooting options (the median rank: 225th), LSU’s 3PT% rank of 250th is right in line with that of Tennessee-Martin. Only three players have 40+ attempts from deep, and none are shooting better than Days. Xavier Pinson, the Missouri transfer and final double-digit scorer (11 PPG), takes about five per game…and is barely cracking 32%. To be fair to Pinson, he’s been exceptional at pushing LSU’s offense to the rim off of the aforementioned ball screens.

In general, I do like LSU’s actual shot selection. Over 43% of their shots come at the rim; they don’t take many objectively bad shots; they’ve been unlucky on unguarded threes. Even so, you can see where this is leading to. Consider it a cascading effect: LSU doesn’t have a Javonte Smart-level guard that can pressure the rim, so teams are packing the paint and forcing LSU to finish through contact, which is leading to a lower FG% at the rim than they’re accustomed to (121st-best this year, 25th last).

Couple this with LSU being unable to generate many open threes (offensive Guarded/Unguarded of 67/33, the second-worst in the SEC) and you can see where this is going to be difficult to fix without Pinson or Eric Gaines suddenly turning into Smart or Skylar Mays.

CHART! “Yes” means “is efficient at doing so”; “somewhat” means “can, but not efficiently”; “no” means you can be mad. SPECIAL NOTE: I’ve included free throw percentages here upon request. The numbers used are a player’s career FT%, not 2021-22.

LSU’s defense

LSU’s defensive efficiency rankings the first four years of Will Wade: 136th, 59th, 179th, 124th. Pretty bad! LSU right now: Number Freaking One. It’s an exciting time where we get to play Is This Real or Are You Being Tricked by Sample Size?

We’ll start with the main difference-maker: a full-court man-to-man press that accomplishes taking several seconds off the clock and forcing a solid amount of turnovers. LSU currently presses on 28.7% of all possessions, per Synergy; that rate was barely 9% a year ago. Against higher-end competition, I haven’t seen them force a ton of turnovers prior to the half-court line, but the corner trap they enforce with Pinson and Eason here is obviously hard to get around.

Once you actually do get into your half-court offense, I would strongly advise against posting up with much frequency. LSU’s frontcourt is demolishing post-ups right now; they sit in the 96th-percentile nationally in part because they’re completely closing down driving lanes with their length and forcing a lot of bad decisions.

So: you do get up actual shots against this team. It is hard to find good ones, though. LSU is different from a lot of heavy rim-protection teams (8th in Block%) in that they really don’t force many runners; they just make you take a ton of jump shots, particularly from deep. About a third of opponent attempts have come at the rim against this team, and 18% of those attempts have been swiftly smashed into the dirt. You can score down low against LSU, but you either have to play fast or be really smart and decisive with cuts to the basket. Their ball-screen defense ranks in the 99th-percentile, and with Eason/Efton Reid both blocking shots at a high rate, well, I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper.

However: I do think there’s some regression coming. LSU is allowing over 47% of all shots to come from beyond the three-point arc, which is one of the highest rates in college basketball. It makes sense: a team that is murdering all two-point baskets is going to naturally force you to take deeper shots. But a couple of things stand out:

  1. LSU is allowing over 40% of all half-court possessions to end in a catch-and-shoot three;
  2. Their Guarded/Unguarded rate on these, while superior to the national average, is still just 60/40.

Over the last five seasons of college basketball, 35 teams have finished a season allowing opponents to get 46.5% or more of their shots from three. Exactly one of these teams – 2019-20 Fordham, a top 65ish defense – finished with an opponent 3PT% below 32%. LSU’s, as you can see in the graphic, is 26.7%. The last non-COVID team to finish a season forcing opponents to make less than 27% of their threes: 2007-08 VCU.

What LSU is doing from three is not sustainable. Everything else may unfortunately stick, but think of them as a top-10 defense, not the “#1 by a country mile” defense. There are cracks, and they can be exploited. Eventually.

How Tennessee matches up

If you read the last five words of the LSU defensive section – they allow lots of threes – and immediately groaned, I understand you and see you. BUT! Consider this a get-right opportunity of…some sort.

The good news is that Tennessee has been well above the national average in generating truly open catch-and-shoot threes. Almost half (49.3%) of Tennessee C&S attempts are deemed as Unguarded by Synergy, and it feels real. For Tennessee to only be hitting 34.1% of these, 2% below the national average, is…well, bad luck.

Take a look at who’s on the roster. Santiago Vescovi’s only hitting 31.4% of his open threes. Josiah-Jordan James: 13.6%. Victor Bailey, Jr.: 13.6%. You may have opinions on all three, but none of them are that poor of shooters. The general process of finding open threes is working; just ensure the right guys keep taking them.

You’ll get a ton of deep looks in this one. The problem is that you have to take two-point attempts, too. Tennessee will probably take a few mid-range shots here, and as long as it’s not Victor Bailey or James (or, honestly, Kennedy Chandler) taking them, I can’t say I’ll be upset. Still: Tennessee badly needs to generate offense at the rim to keep pace.

LSU has only had 2.5 games (Penn State, Auburn, and the first half of Texas State) where they’ve even looked somewhat wobbly on defense. In those three games, the opponent had a point guard that was constantly applying pressure in the paint and forcing LSU to double them inside. Was it always efficient? No, but it generally worked. For Tennessee to win this game, Kennedy Chandler has to get at least 10 points in the paint. That’s as simple as I can make it.

The defensive scout here is moderately easier: LSU will want to use ball-screens to either get Pinson going downhill or to free up Days on the perimeter for a three. Other things will happen, such as lobs to Efton Reid, but the first two are the main actions we’re looking for. (Also please do not let Tari Eason eat in transition.)

Tennessee’s defense has been excellent this year at shutting down passing lanes, funneling guards to specific areas of the paint to be blocked by Fulkerson/Nkamhoua, and doubling/hard-committing to ball-screens to force the guard away from the basket and out of the main action. All of that has to hold here for a road win in a tough environment. If Tennessee forces Pinson or Eric Gaines to make tough decisions with the ball in their hands, the odds of a win increase. Pinson has a TO% of 25.1%; Gaines, 28.4%. I want the ball in their hands against Tennessee’s best five, not in Days or Eason’s.

Look: this is gonna be tough. But it’s far from impossible. Take the right shots, don’t allow open threes, and force LSU to finish through contact at the rim. The only quasi-starter LSU has that actually finishes at a high-end rate down low is Eason, and we covered how he’s more a transition threat than half-court. Low and slow, please.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: MPG is minutes per game. PPG/RPG/APG/Fouls/Twos/Threes are what you’d guess. USG% is the percentage of possessions a player uses on the court. OREB%/DREB% are your available rebounds usurped. Finally, PRPG! is Bart Torvik’s Points Over Replacement metric; the higher the better. If you’re on mobile, zoom in; if on desktop, right click -> Open Image in New Tab.

Three things to watch for

  • Can Tennessee hit a third of its threes? Well, this is kind of the thing. Kentucky nearly won despite shooting 38.2% on twos because they took and hit several threes. LSU’s three worst defensive performances have featured the opponent hitting 31% or more of their deep balls.
  • Who gets more shots up? This is #6 vs. #11 in defensive TO%; it’s also two top-100 rebounding teams. A possible advantage exists here for Tennessee in that LSU is a below-average turnover prevention offense, while Tennessee ranks as a top-40 TO% side.
  • Will Tennessee finally commit to shortening its rotation? LSU has played no more than 8 players most of the season; Tennessee has played 10 or more in every single game. For what it’s worth, Tennessee finally committed to an eight-man rotation for the entirety of the second half + overtime against Ole Miss. This may be overstating the issue, but it is rare that a team goes deep in March playing more than 8 guys.

Key matchups

Tari Eason vs. John Fulkerson/Josiah-Jordan James. With Eason on the court, LSU plays faster and looks far more functional offensively. Eason is the best player this team has; the combo of Fulkerson and James have to find a way to limit his impact on both ends.

Darius Days vs. Olivier Nkamhoua. This is LSU’s only high-level shooter and it’s a 6’7″ bowling pin with arms. The path to a win here: hold Days to 12 or less.

Xavier Pinson vs. Kennedy Chandler. I thought Pinson would be the guy for LSU entering the season, and in some aspect he has – LSU is about 14 points better per 100 possessions with him out there – but essentially none of that is because of his shooting or his defense. If Chandler is serious about being a top 10 pick, a top 10 pick would put up something like 15 and 5 assists in this one. That may not seem like much, but this is the #1 defense playing #2, so.

Three predictions

  1. Will Wade yells at an official over 70% of the fouls called;
  2. The ending of this game somehow makes both fan bases mad online;
  3. LSU 65, Tennessee 63.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Mississippi

OPPONENT Mississippi (8-4, #107 KenPom)
(16-12, first round NIT in 2020-21)
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
Jon Sundvold (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -16.5
KenPom: Tennessee -15

Torvik: Tennessee -13.7

EDITOR’S NOTE (WHICH IS ALSO ME): Kermit Davis (Mississippi HC) said to the media yesterday that Ole Miss has a pair of COVID-positive players and that top scorer Jarkel Joiner is questionable to play. If anything happens, I’ll update the preview.

UPDATE: Jarkel Joiner (14.8 PPG) is out, per Kermit Davis. Disregard what’s written about him.

On Ken Pomeroy’s wonderful website, there are little (A) and (B) buttons next to each game that signify Tier A (a top 50 opponent, location-adjusted) and Tier B (top 100, same thing) opponents. He used to call them Tiers of Joy, but after they got usurped by the NCAA for the NET’s Quadrants 1 and 2, they’re now just Tiers A and B. They’re still quite useful because they tell you which games to get most excited about.

Of Tennessee’s 18 remaining games, this is one of only six without the little (A) or (B) next to it. Ken has Tennessee favored by 15 here; they were favored by 16 against ETSU. That’s the level of opponent you’re drawing. Ole Miss beat Memphis, sure, but that looks less rosy by the day; Ole Miss lost by 23 to 106th-ranked Western Kentucky on a neutral in Atlanta and gave up a 25-4 run in a home loss to a Samford team that just lost by 32 to Furman. Your main goal: do nothing embarrassing.

Mississippi’s offense

The graphic above spells it out fairly well, but it’s worth hammering in some of the details. 280th in 3PT%. 223rd in eFG%. Below the national average in OREB%, FT Rate, and FT%. The only thing they really do well is not turn the ball over, but you could argue that missing shot after shot without much threat of a second-chance opportunity is as good as a turnover. Ole Miss hasn’t made more than 31% of its threes in a game since November 18. Adjusted for opponent strength, Bart Torvik credits Ole Miss with going sub-1 PPP in seven consecutive games. It’s made even worse by just how atrocious their shot selection is.

We’ll get to that. First, it is useful knowing that OM does offer one guy (and a potential second) that is generally able to get his points. Jarkel Joiner (14.8 PPG) is a senior combo guard who’s had to play out of position for much of the season as the main ball-handler. By no means is Joiner bad at that; he has one of the lowest TO% (8.2%) for a moderate-usage player in America and he uses those ball-screens to spring himself free for a wide variety of jumpers. Joiner takes almost as many mid-range twos (50) as he does threes (62), so you’ve got to pick and choose which one you’re more comfortable with. Me: the twos. He’s hitting 42% (0.84 points per shot) on those versus 35.5% (1.065 points per shot) on threes; let him take the 18-footer and move on.

Joiner is a pretty good player who is very clearly the best option Ole Miss has offensively. The second-best is a guy who’s played four games: miniscule (5’9″) freshman Daeshun Ruffin, who’s scored 52 points in the four games he’s played. The Ruffin thing is interesting because he’s the only other guy who’s averaged double-digit points in any fashion while also using the OM ball-screens in a much more intriguing way. Ruffin’s just as likely to reject the pick and barrel his way to the rim as he is to actually use it. Ruffin is a much more natural point guard, and Kermit seems to see this; he ran him for 25 minutes against Samford after not letting him top 16 in any other game.

Beyond Joiner and maybe Ruffin, there is no Ole Miss player that can consistently create their own shot. Tye Fagan and Austin Crowley can do it, but the consistency factor is simply not there. Fagan is a bad shooter (28.4% on 88 career threes) who can score at the rim but do little else; Crowley is a bad-and-streaky shooter (29.2% on 96 career threes, but 6-7 in the first two games this season) who can’t score much of anywhere. Ole Miss can score at the rim, but Ruffin is the only guard on the team that reliably creates the space necessary for the offense to operate. Even then, they spend an alarming amount of time taking awful mid-range twos that make no one happy. Even 7-footer Nysier Brooks, who may be the third-best offensive player, isn’t even cracking 9 PPG because he attempts barely 5.8 shots per game. He has a mildly-intriguing jumper, but rarely uses it.

At least when Tennessee took a billion mid-range jumpers last year, the vast majority were within 15 feet of the basket. Ole Miss laughs at this and has taken a truly remarkable 82 shots from 17 feet to the 3-point line this season. 2020-21 Tennessee: 69 for the entire season. Shameful, this.

CHART! When a Mississippi player makes a shot, refer to this to understand if you should be upset. “Yes” means “is efficient at doing so”; “somewhat” means “does so, but not efficiently”; “no” means you can be very mad. SPECIAL NOTE: I’ve included free throw percentages here upon request. The numbers used are a player’s career FT%, not 2021-22.

Mississippi’s defense

As usual, here is the far more interesting and watchable side of Kermit Davis basketball. Ole Miss is once again running that weird, unlike-anyone-else-in-the-conference hybrid of a man-to-man defense mashed up with a 1-3-1 zone that morphs into one or the other mid-possession. Considering that this is the least-talented Kermit-era Ole Miss roster on paper, it’s still a little impressive in some aspect that KenPom rates this out as a borderline top-50 unit. (Last year’s ranked 25th.) The scout is still basically the same: hit a good amount of the myriad of open threes you receive and you’ll win; toss up a 7-for-29 outing and you’re going home sad.

The difference between 2021-22 Ole Miss and 2020-21, which was a lot better on defense, is pretty easy to sum up:

  • 2020-21 Ole Miss: 31.8% of all opponent shots at the rim, 58.2% FG% allowed (158th nationally)
  • 2021-22 Ole Miss: 36.6% of all opponent shots at the rim, 62.8% FG% allowed (301st nationally)

Can we spot the difference? Ah, I think I’ve found it:

  • 2020-21 Ole Miss: had Romello White
  • 2021-22 Ole Miss: does not have Romello White

That’s somewhat reductive, but it gets the point across. With White on the court last year, per, Ole Miss played at the level of the 10th-best defense in America (AKA, Arkansas). Without White: 50th-best. You may remember such dire times as Tennessee managing an 8-for-26 hit rate on twos against White and company in one of the dumbest, worst games ever played. The good news, if you’re a Tennessee supporter, is that White is gone. Replacement Nysier Brooks is taller, but not as effective at blocking shots and less good at foul avoidance. The zone itself is effective as keeping the ball out of the paint, but there’s no individual standout defender (Luis Rodriguez comes closest). As such, they’ve had some serious issues containing ball-screen actions, ranking in the 26th-percentile in P&R defense nationally.

With the rim issues have come a reduction in how many mid-range twos they’ve forced. Again, recall Tennessee only getting six shots at the rim last season out of 49 total; this year, only Mississippi Valley State, the literal worst team in college basketball, has managed fewer than 17. The length of Nysier Brooks is occasionally enough to force a runner/floater:

But it’s still not enough to make up for the shift in shot selection. Right now, among the 14 SEC teams, Ole Miss is actually forcing the second-lowest amount of jumpers per 100 half-court possessions. (Only Florida has forced less.) The amount of runners/floaters they’ve forced are tied for the best in the conference, but again, how much of a difference does it make when your opponent’s shot quality is objectively better this year versus last? Also, all of this is against a 12-game offensive slate that KenPom ranks as the 330th-toughest in America, meaning Ole Miss has basically played a SWAC schedule and managed to allow that hit rate. Imagine what’ll happen when they play Alabama or Kentucky.

As stated up top, the Ole Miss goal is going to be to make you shoot over the top of them. Their zone/man hybrid has produced a hilarious reverse split where opponents are hitting 37% of guarded threes, but 28% of wide-open ones. They’re below-average at forcing guarded threes, but they’ve been lucky the 3PT% allowed isn’t worse. The trend has been fairly obvious: in the nine games Ole Miss has held opponents below 1 PPP, only one opponent has shot better than 33.3% from deep (Mississippi Valley State, of all teams); in the three they haven’t, all three have shot 37% or better.

The bet you’re placing here is that allowing this type of shot to constantly be open isn’t sustainable.

Considering opponents have shot about 2.3% worse than expected given their shot quality, I don’t think that’ll hold.

The last thing to watch for: turnovers. Ole Miss forces them in bunches, and one of their best qualities as a team is their ability to have active hands on the perimeter. Don’t let them get hot, so they say.

Avoid turnovers, take the open threes, hammer the rim.

How Tennessee matches up

The good news: Tennessee supposedly should have their full roster available for this one, which certainly beats having two of your three best players unavailable when playing #19. Anyway, one of the main issues with Tennessee’s battle against Ole Miss last year, other than the obvious, was that no guard, wing, or forward appeared confident whatsoever in their ability to get to the rim. Fast forward precisely one year, and Tennessee now has two guards (Chandler/Zeigler) and three frontcourt players (Fulkerson/Nkamhoua/Huntley-Hatfield) who appear pretty darn confident that they can bully-ball you. If Justin Powell (19.3% of all attempts at the rim) or Santiago Vescovi (20%) can push just a little more, we’ll include them, too.

The easiest way to get points down low against Ole Miss has been…well, quite simple: cuts to the basket. I feel like I mention this in every preview, but basket cuts have been the most efficient play type in college basketball for a full decade now. Tennessee’s been very good at making them a big part of their offense. Tennessee’s guards can push the issue with driving to the paint, but it’s on the frontcourt to likely finish through contact. I’d like to see more than, you know, one made basket at the rim this time around.

Likewise, Tennessee is going to get some interesting experience in dealing with this weird zone. As outlined in the defensive section, I’m not sure I would call it terribly successful at forcing tough threes, and it doesn’t even force that many jumpers in the first place. Still, Tennessee takes an above-average amount of jumpers in the first place, and you want these to be three-point jumpers and not ones from 17 feet. The best way to crack this style of zone/man hybrid is to go inside-out and work your way to open threes on the wing and in the corner. This one’s at the top of the key, but you get the point; keep Ole Miss on their toes.

Defensively, you basically have to funnel Jarkel Joiner into the mid-range attempts he loves so much. Even a night where Joiner hits 50% of those is still better than him hitting 40% of his threes. There is no true go-to guy on this Ole Miss roster; Daeshun Ruffin could reasonably be that but is a 5’9″ freshman who has played four games. Force Joiner into these mid-range pull-ups off the dribble; he is skilled at hitting them, but it’s better than the alternative of giving up a shot at the rim or from deep.

The Ruffin thing is fascinating because he’s drawing fouls like crazy and is better at getting to the rim than anyone else on the Ole Miss roster, yet he’s made one three in four games (worth noting he was a 37% three-point shooter in Nike EYBL in 2019, though). He also has yet to face a frontcourt as stout as Tennessee’s at defending the rim. This is the exact type of game where walling off the paint is the first and second goal and you can give up the jump shots happily, because with 12 games of data to use, Ole Miss appears to be a terrible jump-shooting team.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: MPG is minutes per game. PPG/RPG/APG/Fouls/Twos/Threes are what you’d guess. USG% is the percentage of possessions a player uses on the court. OREB%/DREB% are your available rebounds usurped. Finally, PRPG! is Bart Torvik’s Points Over Replacement metric; the higher the better. If you’re on mobile, zoom in; if on desktop, right click -> Open Image in New Tab.

Three things to watch for

  • How early and often does Tennessee attack the rim? Mississippi has allowed a 62.8% hit rate at the rim this season, despite playing what KenPom judges as one of the worst non-conference slates in America. I genuinely believe Tennessee should convert no worse than, like, 65% of theirs in this game.
  • Can Tennessee win the boards somewhat handily? It’s not this predictive for everyone, but Ole Miss in four games where they’ve failed to crack a 23% OREB%: 0.724 PPP, 1.123 (against #302 New Orleans), 0.742, 0.877 (against #201 MTSU). You already know that the nights OM is actually on are pretty rare, so don’t give them more shots than they deserve.
  • Can Ole Miss reach a combined number of made threes + forced turnovers that’s…I don’t know, 27 or higher? I mean I can’t think of a serious path to victory for Ole Miss that doesn’t involve “out-of-nowhere three-point explosion” or “Tennessee turtles offensively the entire game.”

Key matchups

Jarkel Joiner vs. Santiago Vescovi. Well, when he’s the only guy who’s played five or more games that averages 10+ PPG, he has to be a key matchup. Joiner is the best shooter on the team, both off-the-dribble and catch-and-shoot; Vescovi and company can’t let him shake free. I’d like to see Tennessee force five or more Joiner mid-range jumpers.

Daeshun Ruffin vs. Kennedy Chandler. Ruffin has yet to start a game, but he looks like easily the best option Ole Miss has at point. Ruffin is a foul-drawing terror but hasn’t really played anyone with serious frontcourt length and stamina yet; he also has not played anyone nearly as good as Chandler. Good news is that Ruffin grades out as a just-okay defender.

Nysier Brooks vs. John Fulkerson. Brooks commits 4.5 fouls per 40 and is facing one of the SEC’s GOATs in foul-drawing. Do your thing.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee converts 15 or more shots within four feet of the rim;
  2. Tennessee ties a KenPom-era (2001-02 to present) program record by holding its 10th-consecutive opponent below 1 PPP;
  3. Tennessee 73, Mississippi 56.

Revisiting Tennessee’s remaining schedule, from an NCAA Tournament resume perspective

Look: it is January 2 as I type this. I have not much to do at this point in time. I am watching my beloved, stupid Detroit Lions blissfully keep pace for the #1 overall pick. I am sitting through the longest break in Tennessee basketball’s schedule that they’ll have all season. So, naturally, this leads to me checking in on Twitter and seeing a truly terrific tweet from an online buddy:

Content! Content! Thank you for the content.

This is merely a quasi-symptom of what I’ve thought about doing for a few days: providing everyone an update of what Tennessee’s schedule is likely going to look like the rest of the season. I did this in the preseason for the season preview, but it’s been two months, so an update seems useful. Tennessee has 18 games left; 17 of those are SEC opponents, one of those is Texas in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. My guess is that people would like to know how Tennessee measures up here in all likelihood.

I’ve decided to measure this in a two-step method:

  1. First, I’m just using the projected Quadrant 1/2/etc. games as given by Bart Torvik’s website. Torvik actually does projected NET ratings using the available formula, which is really cool. We’ll also use his rankings, which are slightly different from Ken Pomeroy’s but use the same general idea.
  2. Also, I’m using’s Build Your Own Top 25. I’ve weighted it as such: efficiency matters more than W-L, but only by a hair; there’s a mild bonus given to more dominant teams; there’s also a slight boost by weighting the last 30 days 10% more than the resume as a whole. These ratings, to my understanding, use KenPom as a source.

What this is going to do: provide you with two ratings. The first rating is their current rating on Bart Torvik’s website; the second is the BYOT25 rating. How useful is this? No clue, but it beats doing nothing.

The breakdown here is going to follow the NCAA Teamsheet format of Quadrants 1, 2, 3, and 4. Explanation(s) below. All numbers are NET rankings, which we obviously do not have but will be replaced with the Bart Torvik/KenPom/Haslametrics combined numbers for breakdown purposes.

  • Quadrant 1: Home 1-30; Neutral 1-50; Away 1-75.
  • Quadrant 2: Home 31-75; Neutral 51-100; Away 76-135.
  • Quadrant 3: Home 76-160; Neutral 101-200; Away 136-240.
  • Quadrant 4: Home 161-plus; Neutral 201-plus; Away 241-plus.

I’ll list out any differences between the two methods as they exist. Right now, Tennessee ranks #13 on Torvik, #12 on KenPom, and #16 in the BYOT25 thing because the non-conference schedule did…not exactly come together as planned. (Recall that Colorado and Memphis were preseason Quadrant 1 games.) Onward.

Quadrant 1

Previously, this also included Quadrant 1-A, but there’s no difference this time out, so…yeah.

Scheduled games:

  • January 8 at LSU (#12/#13)
  • January 15 at Kentucky (#16/#17)
  • January 22 vs. LSU (#12/#13)
  • January 29 at Texas (#7/#19)
  • February 9 at Mississippi State (#35/#44)
  • February 15 vs. Kentucky (#16/#17)
  • February 19 at Arkansas (#67/#57)
  • February 26 vs. Auburn (#8/#5)

Expected wins: 4.1 out of 8 (Torvik); 4.2 (KenPom)

I guess if you like stability, it’s worth knowing that seven of these eight are the same as they were two months ago. The only new game is home LSU on January 22, a suddenly-pivotal affair for SEC title race purposes. Tennessee projects as an underdog in three of seven, all on the road (LSU, Kentucky, Texas). Regardless of what numbers you’re using, these seven games represent the toughest, most ruthless chunk of Tennessee’s remaining schedule. The most likely outcome for each is a close, tight affair that you’re rooting for the coin flip to land in your favor.

As of now, Tennessee is 2-3 against Quadrant 1 opponents, and if they can find a way to somehow get over .500 across 13 total games (7-6, or 5-3 here), that would be quite a big win. Torvik’s numbers currently project just nine teams in all of college basketball to finish above .500 (min. 10 games) against Quadrant 1 competition. Even six Quadrant 1 wins would be pretty useful, because only 15 other teams are projected to get that many. (In the last full season of 2019-20, 18 teams did this.)

A top ten team would be expected to go either 4-4 or 5-3 against this eight-game slate; it would behoove Tennessee to get to one of the two.

Odds of various records:

  • 0-8: 0.3%
  • 1-7: 2.5%
  • 2-6: 9.3%
  • 3-5: 20.2% (5-8 overall)
  • 4-4: 27.2% (6-7 overall)
  • 5-3: 23.5% (7-6 overall)
  • 6-2: 12.5%
  • 7-1: 3.9%
  • 8-0: 0.5%

Quadrant 2

Scheduled games:

  • January 18 at Vanderbilt (#84/#89)
  • January 26 vs. Florida (#25/#38)
  • February 1 vs. Texas A&M (#81/#56)
  • February 5 at South Carolina (#121/#82)
  • March 5 vs. Arkansas (#67/#57)

Expected wins: 4.01 out of 5 (Torvik); 3.92 (KenPom)

Tennessee will be favored to win all five of these, and in the case of a couple of them (Texas A&M and South Carolina), they’re likely going to be favored by double-digits. Yet none of these five are super-sure things. They’d only be a five-point favorite at Vanderbilt right now, for example. Colorado is a Quadrant 2 game now, and remember how wobbly that felt going in. Even home Arkansas isn’t a cinch.

It’s once again worth noting the rarity of going undefeated against the second Quadrant. As of now, only one team with a minimum of four games against Q2 is projected to go undefeated (Houston). Last year, that number was also one (Baylor); in 2019-20, it was six; in 2018-19, 11. The trend is decidedly not moving in the right direction, which probably makes sense with 2021-22 possessing the highest amount of returning roster talent in the sport’s history. It will be pretty tough to go 5-0 against this group; let’s just hope that if there is a loss, it’s an understandable one.

Odds of various records:

  • 0-5: 0.03%
  • 1-4: 0.6%
  • 2-3: 5%
  • 3-2: 20.2%
  • 4-1: 41%
  • 5-0: 33.2%

Quadrant 3

Scheduled games:

  • January 5 vs. Ole Miss (#112/#112)
  • January 11 vs. South Carolina (#121/#82)
  • February 12 vs. Vanderbilt (#84/#89)
  • February 22 at Missouri (#252/#147)
  • March 1 at Georgia (#217/#239)

Expected wins: 4.57 out of 5 (Torvik); 4.5 (KenPom)

Well, all five of these teams stink in various fashion. All five have terrible losses; all five would be terrible losses if they happened. Tennessee will be double-digit favorites in all of these. As a reminder, the top 22 teams in NET in 2019-20 combined to go 135-2 against Quadrant 3 competition, which is probably a small overachievement but still gives you an idea of how bad it would feel to lose any of these games. Missouri and Georgia are actually Quadrant 4 as of now, but Torvik forecasts them to barely scrape above 240 in NET by year’s end; the less Quad 4 games you play, the better. It seems like it would be hard for either to fall below 240 simply by virtue of playing in an agreed-upon top-four conference.

The most likely outcome here is Tennessee going 5-0, and it better be. Any of these losses would be so singularly embarrassing that it would have the power to cancel out a win over, like, Kentucky. You would beat Kentucky at Rupp and still be thinking about losing to Ole Miss. Don’t do it.

Odds of various records:

  • 0-5: well, imagine a bunch of zeroes followed by a one
  • 1-4: 0.03%
  • 2-3: 0.6%
  • 3-2: 6.3%
  • 4-1: 31.3%
  • 5-0: 61.7%

So: let’s talk most likely overall records, then. Right now, Tennessee sits at 9-3, 0-1 in the SEC. Bart Torvik’s numbers project a 12-6 finish in the SEC for Tennessee, which would put them in a four-way tie for second. KenPom: 12-6, tied for third with Alabama. (They would lose this tiebreaker and be the 4 seed, which still gives you a double-bye.) ESPN’s BPI: 13-5, three-way tie for first with Kentucky and Auburn.

If you’re looking for probabilities, Bart Torvik’s numbers give Tennessee an 85.4% chance of finishing somewhere between 10-8 and 14-4 in the SEC. My opinion here is that, if you’re looking for a regular season title, it’s going to take a minimum of 14 conference wins to at least get a share of the championship. In every metric system I use, at least one team is projected for 14 right now; maybe you get some late-season luck (2017-18, as an example) and it ends up being 13. But: 14 wins is probably the goal.

The only way Tennessee can realistically get to 14 or better is by playing like a top ten team the rest of the season with essentially no serious interruptions. If they go 4-3 in their remaining games against SEC Quadrant 1 competition (losing to Texas in this scenario), they’d have to go perfect against Quadrants 2 and 3. Is that possible? Certainly; it happens in a hair under 21% of all scenarios. But that’s not probable. It merely means it can happen. Tennessee’s gotta be really, really good to make that happen. If they do indeed play like one of the ten best teams in existence, that 21% figure rises to a little under 26%.

Even so, Tennessee will find it pretty hard to find more than 13 SEC wins this year. That’s fine; it’s what I had penned in the preseason. 13-5 in an SEC with five Top 20 teams and an expectation of 7-8 NCAA Tournament teams is a very good record and would likely be enough to lock Tennessee in as no worse than a 3 seed in the NCAAs entering SEC Tournament weekend. (It also probably locks Tennessee in as no worse than a 3 seed in the SEC Tournament, for the record.)

So: that’s the situation Tennessee is in. If Auburn can find a way to be less than expected…if Kentucky keeps having hiccup games…if Alabama can simply have enough off-nights…even if LSU simply isn’t the best defense in America, Tennessee stands to benefit from it. 12 games worth of data with all preseason baselines removed have Tennessee slotted as the 12th-best team in America, per Torvik. Even including preseason, they’re 12th on KenPom. Nearly every metrics system in existence has Tennessee as somewhere between the 8th and 15th-best team in America. I promise you there’s worse positions to be in.

Obligatory Post About How Losing Shorthanded to Alabama is Okay But It Raises the Exact Same Questions Yet Again

This is the seventh in a series of weekly recaps surrounding the 2021-22 Tennessee men’s basketball season.

December 29: #19 Alabama 73, #14 Tennessee 68 (9-3, 0-1 SEC)

Ah, this is how I know it’s basketball season. Not the first loss; not the second; not even the big wins. Not the upsets. Not the amazing buzzer-beaters that make up year-end YouTube videos. Nope: it’s the close, crushing loss when your team is shorthanded that somehow finds the only way imaginable to leave you annoyed and angry.

The staring into the middle distance, the “why didn’t Rick Barnes do this? Why did he do that?” feeling, the wondering why you stayed up until 11:20 PM when you have a 6:45 AM alarm. It’s all back, baby! College basketball! Didn’t you miss it? Didn’t it give you the life you thought you were missing? Or am I simply late to the party on realizing that, in some way, I also have developed Football Mindset?

Objectively speaking, losing by five points to the #19 team on the road when you’re down two of the team’s three best players is not a bad result. Even though neither site adjusts for absences, even the metrics sites are fairly impressed by Tennessee’s efforts; Bart Torvik’s Game Score metric gave Tennessee an 88, which is a good result even before you consider Tennessee led for 28 of a possible 40 minutes. For large portions of this affair, Tennessee controlled the flow of the game, dominated defensively, and forced Alabama into difficult threes that sort of exposed the Alabama Problem: if you stop the flow of points in the paint, you slow down the offense as a whole.

All of that is good and fine. Tennessee held its ninth-straight opponent under one point per possession, which is a streak that’s now a game short of the KenPom-era program record of 10 consecutive sub-1 PPP games (2013-14). They won the turnover battle again. They got to the free throw line a lot. In the absence of Kennedy Chandler and John Fulkerson, Santiago Vescovi and Olivier Nkamhoua stepped up and played very good, very useful games. (Honorable mention to Zakai Zeigler, who wasn’t great on offense but held up much better than I would’ve anticipated on D.)

Again, objectively speaking, Tennessee put up a really good effort against what I anticipate is one of the 20 or so best teams in America in Alabama. Tennessee had multiple chances in the final minute of this game to tie or take the lead and simply didn’t come through; you can imagine that a full-strength Tennessee gets better shots throughout the game and potentially comes home with a surprise road W. We’ll never know, because I guess COVID will never end.

The problem is that it’s hard to be objective when the game unfolds in two particular ways:

  1. Tennessee leads by six points with four minutes to go;
  2. Tennessee spends the vast majority of the final 20% of this game with Victor Bailey, Jr. on the court instead of Justin Powell.

The first point here is a catch-22. At the start of the game, I would have adored any scenario that ended in “Tennessee leads by six points with four minutes to go” because that felt pretty unlikely even with a full-strength roster. Tennessee was certainly aided by what was an outlier of a poor shooting night from Alabama, sure, but they were winning the shot volume battle and seemed to win many of the 50/50 plays. You could easily talk yourself into the ‘toughness’ cliche.

The second is the one that’s going to be talked about the rest of the season. The first image here is Victor Bailey’s 2021-22 On/Off numbers:

The second is Justin Powell’s.

For reasons that I cannot entirely parse, Bailey was the player who got the majority of the run down the stretch of this game as Tennessee’s offense seized up and Powell sat on the bench, quietly watching. To the credit of local media, Rick Barnes was asked to rationalize his choice. I can’t say I’m pleased by the answer.

Justin Powell is not a good on-ball defender. I have half a season of Auburn data and half a season of Tennessee data to say that’s almost certainly the truth. The defense is inarguably worse with him on the court; even though I do not think much of this is Victor Bailey’s doing, the defense is basically break-even with Bailey out there. Whatever, fine, you get your little nitpick win.

But when it comes to the actual effect on the team on the court, Justin Powell is, by any objective measure, the superior option to Victor Bailey. Want to use Net Rating? The team is 15 points better with him on the court over 100 possessions than it is with Bailey. Want to talk offense? The offense is 21 points better with Powell. Three-point shooting? Powell 42% (43% for his career), Bailey 23% (35% career). Individual defensive impact? Bailey and Powell are almost the exact same: a 2.9% Stock% (steals + blocks) for Bailey, 2.6% for Powell. Player that literally just played 26 minutes against the #8 team in America in a win? Justin Powell.

I think this is what sticks. Tennessee played better than I anticipated. They held down Alabama’s offense more than almost any other team has. They forced some surprising guys (Jahvon Quinerly being the main example) into foul trouble. They led for almost three quarters of the game. But you’re sitting there with a 63-57 lead, four or five minutes on the clock, and somehow it never seems to cross anyone’s mind that the lone available guy on the roster who can hit a dagger three to actually bring home the win isn’t on the court.

(Sidebar: I think I’ve had my fill of Tweeting negative things about individual players online. I cannot imagine Victor Bailey, Jr. feels very good today; there is literally zero reason whatsoever for me or anyone else to pile on relentlessly. I say something about Bailey (or Plavsic) (or JJJ) (or anyone at this point) and the replies are a mess of pure garbage. No más. I should’ve remembered the golden rule: Never Tweet.)

So here we are: Tennessee blows a winnable game in a situation where I’m objectively supposed to feel okay but subjectively feel annoyed yet again. Bart Torvik tracks the average lead of every game in America; per his website, this is the 18th time in the Rick Barnes tenure Tennessee has lost a game they led the majority of, with ten of those coming since the start of 2018. Bruce Pearl, the guy everyone will not let go of, has done that just three times in the last four seasons. Every single season, somewhere between two and four times, Tennessee will lose a game that most agree they really should’ve won.

On the flip side, Tennessee has won fourteen games since 2015-16 where they’ve trailed the majority of the way. (Perhaps you remember the 2020 win at Rupp Arena before the world ended.) When that happens a couple of times this year, it will feel nice. Until Tennessee figures out a way to stop losing these winnable games, these affairs will continue to feel uniquely unsatisfying even when they shouldn’t.

I feel like I’m repeating myself but this is a loss that really doesn’t mean all that much because it is one game in a 35ish-game season and Tennessee literally just beat a top ten team at home. I wrote a whole thing about how Tennessee should be pleased to get out of December with just two losses in the month; they did exactly that. Both losses were close, coin-flip things. They did exactly what the average top 10-15 team should have doneYet, somehow, like always, I find myself frustrated and wondering why X decision didn’t happen or why Z decision did.

In retrospect, I should have remembered one of my favorite images:

Whatever happens, happens. I can’t control it, therefore it is what it is. On to the next one.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Alabama

OPPONENT #19 Alabama (9-3)
(26-7, Sweet 16 in 2020-21)
LOCATION Coleman Coliseum
Tuscaloosa Torture House, AL
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Alabama -2.5
KenPom: Alabama -2

Torvik: Alabama -3.4

On the surface, Tennessee is drawing an Alabama team heading in the opposite direction as itself. Alabama pulled off two of the best wins anyone has had this season by beating Gonzaga and Houston, then proceeded to get blown off the court by a Memphis team no one thinks is great, almost lost to Jacksonville State at home, then did lose to Davidson at home. Tennessee, meanwhile, led a top 10 Arizona team wire-to-wire and is literally an Act of God away from going undefeated over the last month of basketball.

And yet: this is a road game at a top 20 KenPom team that has beaten Gonzaga and Houston and is coached by possibly the brightest young star in college basketball, all while Tennessee has had COVID rumors swirling around it for the last 24-36 hours. Pardon me if I am alarmist.

Continue reading “Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Alabama”

Heartwarming: Geriatric Kingsport Man Listens to Death Metal For First Time

This is the sixth in a weekly-ish series of two-game recaps of the 2021-22 Tennessee men’s basketball season.

You spend your entire semi-professional writing career online and you’re gonna make some mistakes. One of them was saying Tennessee needed to deploy a bunch of ball-screens against Arizona, which they did, and then they proceeded to score all of 5 points on 18 ball-screen possessions, per Synergy. Another is seemingly any time I have tweeted about poor Uros Plavsic. The latest is thinking that we were probably all-the-way done on ever seeing something like this again.

I know that Twitch bans streamers for saying a word referring to white people now, so use your imagination, but look at this doofus. Almost no one that looks like this is going to be a quality college basketball player. It does not matter that he is a tall, goofy white guy; it matters that on every play, John Fulkerson looks like he is forcing all of his power and strength into the next dribble. Has there ever been a normal photo of Fulkerson playing basketball? I have done approximately three minutes of research and the initial answer is “no, don’t think so.” I mean look.

John Fulkerson has never appeared in a normal basketball picture because John Fulkerson is not a normal basketball player. He never has been. What else do you say of a sixth-year super-senior, a player who had twice as many offers from Big South conference members (4) as he did Big Six offers (2)? How else do you describe a player who willingly fades into the background to share the spotlight with the younger, higher-potential members of Tennessee’s roster, yet seems to know exactly when it’s his turn to come to the forefront?

Part of it is that, after six years, you sort of come to believe that he will somehow return for a seventh season, then an eighth. You think you’ll always see the slow post-ups, the shot fakes, the fadeaway shooting method that sees Fulkerson release the ball at an angle that would make every YouTube shooting coach cringe. You think he’ll continue to be there on the nights where you wonder “why is John Fulkerson still so important to this?” And then you see all the little things he does, the little quirks that open up Tennessee’s offense or provide as a shut-off valve defensively.

On March 5, John Fulkerson will take the court for the final time as a Volunteer at Thompson-Boling Arena. I do not feel it is hyperbole to say that, alongside Admiral Schofield’s Senior Day, it will be the saddest, most bittersweet moment a significant segment of the fan base has experienced since Chris Lofton’s final three at home. I know this because every time I attend a game, I look at all the little children who have procured the #10 jerseys. The young ones that are somehow allowed to wear shirts that say Fulk Yeah. (Do you use that language around your mother?!?) The crowd that, every time Fulkerson’s name is announced, explodes in a roar significantly louder for Fulkerson than for any other starter.

For this weirdo sixth-year senior to still be here and still finding baffling ways to draw 13 fouls from one of the best defensive teams Tennessee will play all season is just…I mean, it is. It is, and there is no more making sense of it. Fulkerson is Fulkerson; if he does this again, consider it icing on the cake.

The other thing is that Tennessee held Arizona to 21 points in the first half, their worst output of the entire season, because the defense is an absolute wrecking ball and oh Tony Basilio if you think I didn’t hear your segment about how the defense wasn’t good I’m right here buddy.

What you’re seeing there is Oumar Ballo, a player who had blocked 13 shots and had zero of his blocked entering last night, get his stuff stuffed by Olivier Nkamhoua. It seems obvious that Nkamhoua is always going to draw complaints from Tennessee fans; I guess I get it. The guy still is not a terrific offensive player, and the hopeful comparisons of Grant Williams seem pretty far away. But: as discussed in the episode about bias, Nkamhoua has improved immensely year-over-year. He’s always been a good defender, but we’re looking at a guy who somehow quietly ranks 5th in the SEC in Block Percentage when he’s on the court.

That little graphic above is from last night. The ON is Olivier Nkamhoua. When Nkamhoua was on the floor for 35 defensive possessions for Tennessee, Arizona scored just 26 points. They made just 38.9% of twos with him out there. We’re 11 games into Nkamhoua’s third year. I don’t think he’ll ever be Grant Williams. He may not even be Kyle Alexander. But he could be a silent ringleader of the Death Metal Defense.

I think when you hold the nation’s #1 scoring offense 18 points below its average and become just the second team all season to not only hold them below 1.1 PPP, but 1 PPP, you’re precisely as good defensively as everyone is hoping for. The difference between the Yves Pons defenses and the post-Pons era is one where Tennessee somehow is even better at forcing bad shots and is replacing the supreme shot-blocker with a trio of wrecking balls. Fulkerson, Nkamhoua, and Josiah-Jordan James all rank within the top 100 nationally in Block Percentage; no other team has three players in the top 100. They are as violent as your typical metal album pretends it is.

To be fair to the metalheads, death metal (and black metal, the only sub-genre I can somewhat stand) is not really about death. I do not come away with the impression they’re serious about it. It’s mostly about face paint.

All of these guys, as serious as they appear to be on the outside, are playing music as an excuse to paint themselves. Seemingly 80% of all bands are in it for the paint; try a Google search on this one. And hey: I applaud it. It’s bizarre. It’s funny. It’s creative. It looks very sweaty and very uncomfortable, and it does not make any sense to me that it works the way it does, but it works, and I find that wonderful.

In some weird fashion, this is how I think of the Tennessee defense. In the preseason preview I wrote a whole thing about how I was kind of concerned we’d see an equal stepback on defense as we saw a step forward offensively. That clearly hasn’t been the case. Tennessee shot kind of terribly for a big stretch of last night’s game; the free throws really did push them over the top. But there wouldn’t have been that all-too-familiar please bring this home, you young men, I am overly reliant on this win to feel okay feeling without an amazing defensive performance.

“But they gave up 52 in the second half!” Yes, and they gave up 21 in the first half against a team that averages 91 points per game. Arizona only got off six unguarded catch-and-shoot threes out of 27 total three-point attempts in this game, per Synergy. No team had held Arizona below a 32.4% OREB%; Tennessee held them to 29.4%. Only one team had forced Arizona to turn it over on 20% or more of their possessions in the last 10 games; Tennessee hit 22.6%. Tennessee saw a frontcourt averaging 30 points per game and said “we will play these riffs in your face, silly men.” Tubelis and Koloko, who everyone was rightfully afraid of, combined for almost as many fouls (9) as points (10).

I do not know what the rest of the season holds, because I am not an oracle. But I do know that right now, this baffling collection of old and young talent, all of which I did not expect to gel together the way it has on this end of the court, is the best defense I have ever seen at Tennessee. They have held eight consecutive opponents (four of them Top 100 teams) below 1 PPP; only the 2013-14 Vols can say they’ve topped that at 10, and those Vols did not start the season completely shutting down all competition like these Vols have.

They are imperfect. They are flawed. They are a college basketball team. They are also a truly fun group of misfits, young men, Google Image Search heroes, and, because of course they are, anime nerds. Let’s see where the rest of this goes. For now, Christmas: surely every metalhead’s favorite holiday.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Arizona

OPPONENT #6 Arizona (11-0)
(17-9, fired coach 2020-21)
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -2
KenPom: Tennessee -2

Torvik: Arizona -0.5

Well, hopefully they play this one.

Two months ago:

“Of these six [then-Quadrant 2 opponents], the obvious best team is Arizona, who gets Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd as their new head coach and seems to be generally agreed-upon as a low-end NCAA Tournament team. That would be a good win at home and could potentially end up a Quadrant 1 victory if they just overachieve by, like, eight spots.”


Dearie me.

The TL;DR here: Arizona is legitimately great, presents serious height challenges for basically every opponent, and seems as serious a title contender as anyone right now. But: they did almost lose to Wichita State and had to battle a full 40 to escape Illinois. Let’s discuss.

Continue reading “Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Arizona”

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Memphis

OPPONENT Memphis (6-4)
(20-8, NIT champs 2020-21)
LOCATION Bridgestone Arena
Nashville, TN
Jay Bilas (analyst)
Andy Jacobson (reporter)
SPREAD KenPom: Tennessee -5
Torvik: Tennessee -2.6

Rivalries are strange. Rarely do two schools agree that both are at the same level of rival; Ohio State/Michigan or similar is the exception rather than the rule. In hockey, I’m always reminded of the Detroit Red Wings being the Nashville Predators’ main rival despite Nashville probably never ranking higher than fourth on Detroit’s priority list. This relates directly to Tennessee because neither of Tennessee’s supposed main rivals, Alabama or Florida, consider Tennessee their main rival. The only team who has Tennessee #1 on their priority list is Vanderbilt, and, well, yeah.

For some reason, we are here again. Tennessee’s main rival in basketball, for them, is Kentucky. I don’t feel that anyone comes close. Memphis’s main rival is no one, but if asked, fans would name Tennessee. These two programs cannot agree on anything. The two coaches cannot agree on anything. East Tennesseans despise Memphis and vice versa. 5.5 hours separate two programs that hate each other for reasons no one can seem to articulate why they hate the other and how much they actually do hate their competition. A loss by either side turns into days, weeks of fighting online, neither side coming out on top at year’s end.

The Basketball Battle of the Somme returns, possibly for the final time this decade. Seatbelts buckled, overhead restraint firmly clamped down, hang on and enjoy the ride.

Continue reading “Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Memphis”

The Sublime Object of Spartanology

This is the fifth in a weekly-ish series of two-game recaps of the 2021-22 Tennessee men’s basketball season.

December 11: Tennessee 76, UNC Greensboro 36 (7-2)
December 14: Tennessee 96, USC Upstate 52 (8-2)

Not to complain or anything about the extremely non-intense gig I have, but these games are becoming sort of rote. Drawing long-lasting conclusions from a pair of blowouts over teams that likely won’t come close to the NCAA Tournament in any aspect is difficult. These are fun to attend, which I’ll cover later, but…yeah. Not much to be said here beyond the obvious, which is that Tennessee looks the part of a borderline top 10 team (via KenPom) and appears to be almost exactly what I thought they would be six weeks ago. The recaps from here on out will be more excitable, simply because this concludes (beyond a couple of dire SEC sides) the Quadrant 4 portion of Tennessee’s schedule.

For help in attempting to make this interesting, and for the first time in the history of my website, I’ve called in two outside writers. These are two people humans “intellectuals” that will help tell you the story of what just happened, along with the story of what’s to come.

First up is Slavoj Žižek, Slovenian philosopher and ‘foremost exponent of Lacanian theory’.

I emailed Mr. Žižek and asked if he’d be interested in covering a pair of relatively stress-free, meaningless games that the University of Tennessee men’s basketball team played in. While I was unable to confirm that Mr. Žižek watched the two games we sent him, and was also unable to confirm that he has watched any basketball game in his 72 years of living, I feel pleased with his response. Now, his response appears to simply be three paragraphs plucked from a February 2021 piece on, of all things, the band Rammstein, with certain references changed to be about “Tennessee men’s basketball team” and their opponents. I’ve accepted it and was honored for him to reply. Slavoj!

“Friedrich Jacobi, the German philosopher active around 1800, wrote: “La vérité en la repoussant, on l’embrasse,”– in repelling the truth, one embraces it.

The fascination with total catastrophe and with the end of our civilization makes us spectators who morbidly enjoy the disintegration of normality; this fascination is often fed by a false feeling of guilt (Tennessee men’s basketball team as a punishment for our decadent way of life, etc.). Now, with the promise of the Tennessee men’s basketball team and the spread of new variants of UNC Greensboro men’s basketball team and USC Upstate men’s basketball team, we live in an endlessly postponed breakdown.

Notice how the time-frame is changing: in spring 2020, Tennessee men’s basketball team authorities often said “in 2020-21, it should get better”; then, in the fall of 2020, it was two months; now, it is mostly half a year (in the summer of 2022, maybe even later, things will get better); voices are already heard which place the end of the Tennessee men’s basketball team fans in 2022, even 2024… Every day brings news – Tennessee men’s basketball team works against new variants, or maybe they don’t; the John Fulkerson is bad, but then it seems it works quite well; there are big delays in the supply of three-pointers, but most of us will still get three-pointers by summer… these endless oscillations obviously also generate a pleasure of their own, making it easier for us to survive the misery of our basketball lives.

The Rammstein conceit that “we have to live till we die” outlines a way out of this deadlock: to fight against the NCAA Tournament, SEC Tournament, Memphis, Arizona, Alabama looming in the distance not by way of withdrawing from life but as a way to live with utmost intensity. Is there anyone more ALIVE today than millions of Tennessee men’s basketball team fans who with full awareness risk their mental-well being on a game-by-game base? Many of them died, but till they died they were alive. They do not just sacrifice themselves for us in exchange for our hypocritical praise. Even less could they be said to be survival machines reduced to the bare essentials of living. In fact, they are those who are today most alive.”

An eternal thinks to Slavoj for taking time off from researching Hegelian dialectic and eating two hot dogs to provide us with these words.

Next up, we have an even more special guest, a football-shaped feline who has learned how to type on a keyboard just in time for Tennessee battling two opponents with cat-related mascots. Please welcome in Cedric, our family cat and either a pest or precious depending on who you ask.

Cedric, as far as I know, has no concept of what basketball is or how it is played. However, he does have a concept of cats and cat-like behavior, which is why it is important to bring him in shortly before Tennessee plays the Memphis Tigers and the Arizona Wildcats. Seeing as Cedric somehow has the same stripes as the awful Memphis home court, and seeing as he is supposedly a descendent of some form of wildcat, he is the foremost expert at this website on both. Cedric, we would love to hear your thoughts on Tennessee’s next two opponents.

“Meow! Meow meow meow. Meeeeeeoooooowwwww. MEOW. Feed me. Please. Meow!”

Excellent! Thank you for that observation, Cedric. Please do not wake me up at 5:30 AM tomorrow.

Look: the actual basketball upshot of two games against two bad teams is genuinely very minimal. If you’re a coach or particularly invested observer, you can squint at a few bullet points for each.

UNC Greensboro:

  • In the first half of this game, Tennessee completely shut down what UNC Greensboro wanted to do with regards to backdoor cuts and screening actions. After halftime, until the second media timeout, UNCG were able to find some openings in Tennessee’s defensive coverage. After that second media timeout, Tennessee once againneutered what UNCG wanted to do over the final 12 minutes, allowing just eight points. That’s the hallmark of a good defense: you start well, the opponent adjusts, then you adjust to the opponent’s adjustments. Mike Schwartz and crew are doing a fabulous job.
  • Tennessee’s ball screen defense was just about perfect: 14 points allowed on 28 ball-screen possessions, per Synergy.
  • As I assumed they would based on pregame expectations, Tennessee was able to use penetration to create scaldingly wide-open shots. 21 of 32 catch-and-shoot threes were considered unguarded by Synergy, and even the 8-for-21 (38.1%) hit rate Tennessee produced here is fine.

USC Upstate: 

When the run of scoring looks like that, it’s why I invite Mr. Žižek (who is obviously not a college basketball guy, but presumably is at least aware of Luka Doncic, a fellow Slovenian) and my cat to do coverage. These games are just there to be there. You learn little and feel less, but they do give USC Upstate scholarship money and they also provide 40 minutes of fan service for little kids to be able to understand why basketball is cool. At the game last night, there was a family of six next to us and none of the kids knew or cared what USC Upstate’s KenPom ranking was or why they were so bad defensively. They only cared that Tennessee was scoring a bunch and making cool plays. I am fine with that and I like it.

I’ve noticed a fair amount of super-online Tennessee fans now being afraid of Memphis after the Tigers’ somewhat-surprising victory over #6 Alabama. I get it; everyone would prefer if they were dead and done. But it’s also probably nice that Memphis is playing a much better defense than Alabama (though any rational observer would note Alabama’s offense is better than Tennessee’s) and is also not playing at home. You cannot live in fear forever; we have to live ’til we die.

Aside from Missouri and Georgia, there are no more irreparably abject opponents on the schedule. The real college basketball season ends now. Let’s enjoy it.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: USC Upstate

OPPONENT USC Upstate (2-7)
(5-18 in 2020-21)
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
CHANNEL SEC Network+ (online only)
ANNOUNCERS Michael Wottreng (PBP)
Steve Hamer (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -35.5
KenPom: Tennessee -32

Torvik: Tennessee -27.7

Another one of the “I feel bad that you’re here, but at least you’re getting paid for it” games. USC Upstate hasn’t finished above .500 in conference play in seven years; they haven’t finished above 322nd on KenPom since 2016-17. The most interesting things about them: 1. They are Tennessee’s second-straight Spartan opponent, which provides an opportunity to remind you that 300 is a terrible movie; 2. When they came to town last December, they uncorked one of the most absurd made threes of all time:

This is a look-ahead scenario where Tennessee must play Upstate before playing Memphis on Saturday, certainly. But: please no more absurd made threes.

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