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Show Me My Opponent, 2022 SEC Tournament Championship: Texas A&M

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT Texas A&M
23-11, 9-9 SEC, #42 KenPom
LOCATION Amalie Arena
Tampa, FL
TIME Sunday, March 13
1 PM ET
CHANNEL ESPN
ANNOUNCERS Karl Ravech (PBP)
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -6.5
KenPom: Tennessee -7

Torvik: Tennessee -5.5

 

At least with Tennessee, you could’ve convinced yourself pretty easily that they were one minor upset of Kentucky away from an SEC Championship Game appearance. Texas A&M would’ve required quite the amount of mental gymnastics. The Aggies lost eight in a row, lost to Vanderbilt on February 19 to fall to 5-9 in conference play, and were roughly as close to the NCAA Tournament as Georgia. Out of nowhere, they have become one of the hottest shooting teams in the nation with a defense that’s pretty hard to prepare for on short notice.

Tennessee, meanwhile, just put up its tenth Quadrant 1 win and has forced the door open to the 2 seed line after they were once 11-5, 2-3 SEC. Sunday seemed more like a lark than a real possibility two months ago. Now it is here, and Tennessee is 40 minutes away from their first SEC title since 1979 for the third time in five years. If you treat all of these as slightly-weighted coin flips, eventually one has to land in Tennessee’s favor. Eventually.


Texas A&M offense

This was originally previewed back in February, but there’s been some fairly significant changes. I’m still doing the bullet-point structure here because of time constraints. Same basic structure of offense, same general lack of post-ups, same “hit shots and win, or don’t” status.

  • In the first preview, I mention that A&M doesn’t have a true #1 scorer. This is no longer true. Quenton Jackson (14.8 PPG) has been a volcano of recent; since the Tennessee game on February 1, Jackson’s scored 18.1 PPG on 59/40/82 shooting splits. He takes and makes more shots than anyone else on the team and has drawn a ton of fouls as of late. Don’t let him cook the frontcourt.
  • Second banana is Tyrece Radford (10.8 PPG season-long, 13.3 PPG last 12 games), who is scorching from deep: 25-for-44 on threes since February 1. I would consider not letting him shoot threes.
  • The third guy is the same guy you remember from the first battle: Henry Coleman III (11.2 PPG season-long, 11.8 PPG last 12), who remains terrific at the rim (69% on the season) and horrific everywhere else (22.8% on Other Twos). Coleman is a bear on the boards and draws lots of fouls, too.
  • The other two high-usage guys you need to know are Wade Taylor IV (7.3 PPG last 12) and Hassan Diarra (6.8 PPG last 12). You remember Taylor from him randomly exploding in TBA; what you may not remember is that he’s followed said explosion up by going 9-for-51 on threes and 17-for-51 on twos. Diarra, meanwhile, is much less Disaster Factory but just not as notable in either direction; he is simply a solid player.
  • A guy you’ll annoyingly have to watch out for is Hayden Hefner (3.5 PPG season-long, 4.9 PPG last 12), who I don’t think is related to Hugh but is slaying the nets from downtown (11-for-26 last 12) at the moment. It always hurts more when the bench hits you.
  • The rotation is still 10 players deep, which is proving useful against teams like Arkansas that only have seven playable guys. Still, guys like Obaseki/Henderson/Gordon have been in Struggle Mode as of late and you’d prefer them on the court over others.

CHART!

Texas A&M defense

Same annoying thing to prepare for as you remember. First preview linked here. What’s new:

  • They’ve turned up the heat. Torvik ranks A&M’s defense as the ninth-best in the nation over the last 10 games, with all the turnovers playing a huge part. Teams are turning it over on nearly 22% of possessions against the Aggies; Arkansas gave it up on almost 21%.
  • Some of this heat has been driven by…wait for it…luck. Shocker! Teams are shooting 26.5% from three against A&M over the last 10. Part of this is, obviously, good defense. Another part of this is A&M, a team with a 50/50 Guarded/Unguarded rate, seeing opponents shoot 30.9% on open threes and 19.8% (!) on guarded ones. The former is probably a little more sustainable than the latter.
  • Defensive rebounding remains a problem. A&M has allowed their opponents to rebound 32% of misses over this 10-game run, which ranks 318th-best nationally. It was almost entirely why they nearly lost to Florida and Auburn despite both teams shooting very poorly.
  • It remains relatively easy to score at the rim against this team. Opponents are hitting at nearly a 64% rate over this 10-game run, per Synergy.
  • The big key is still finding ways to score in general half-court offense. When A&M slows an opponent down, it becomes pretty hard to generate points; they rank in the 86th-percentile or better against ISOs, post-ups, and ball screens.

How Tennessee matches up

The first game was more or less Tennessee forcing A&M to solve a math problem: does 3 > 2, or does it not? Tennessee hit 11 threes to A&M’s seven in a game Tennessee won by 12. That game featured A&M hitting some wild shots, which we’ll touch on, but for the most part, Tennessee identified early on that the Aggies couldn’t stop the drive-and-kick game. Tennessee generated 24 catch-and-shoot threes in the first game, and Synergy deemed 18 of them to be open (AKA, no defender within four feet of the shooter). That’s a heck of a rate.

A similar thing will have to happen here to win this game. I don’t know that Tennessee needs to shoot 42% from deep to win again, but against an A&M team that has become the Golden State Warriors of Tampa Bay, maybe you do. Tennessee will likely have to go deep in the clock against an Aggies side that slowed Auburn down into their second-slowest game of the last month. If so: gotta move the ball, gotta hit the nail on the free throw line, gotta look for the open man. Play smart basketball and such.

Along with this: get some good twos. A&M’s biggest struggles defensively this year have come against teams that are either good at converting second chances via the glass or hammer the rim with a variety of off-ball cuts and screens. To boot, Tennessee’s 1.261 PPP in the first A&M game is still the worst defensive efficiency surrendered by the Aggies all season. The threes were one thing, but Tennessee getting 10 points off of nine basket cuts were something else worth noting.

The two missed shots on cuts were via fadeaway jumpers; the cuts that ended in layup/dunk attempts were a perfect 100% FG%. A&M is hyper-aggressive on defense, which lends itself well to forcing turnovers, but they can get drawn away from the basket and give up easy looks down low. Tennessee’s guards need to be smart in taking advantage of the open space down low, just as they did the first time out.

Defensively…don’t turn it over? Texas A&M scored 29 points on 21 transition possessions in the first game; the other 51 offensive possessions resulted in 51 points. You can survive A&M going for 1 PPP, but banking on a second-consecutive 1.2+ PPP game is probably not that realistic. If Tennessee takes care of the ball and forces A&M into half-court offense, the game will look and feel like your average Tennessee basketball game: Sludge City, USA.

A&M spent a lot of time in ball screens in the first game and more or less did nothing with them. Synergy credits the Aggies as putting up just seven points on Tennessee over the course of 18 possessions, which is atrocious. Tennessee completely shut down what Texas A&M primarily wanted to do, and it took lots of fouls and OREBs and a couple crazy shots for A&M to stay in the first game. (Also a serious overperformance on free throws: 21-for-25, or +4 above what they’d be expected to shoot.) If Tennessee continues to own the pick-and-roll, forcing Texas A&M’s ball-handlers into tough decisions, I think they win this game.

I mean: Tennessee is 40 minutes away from the first SEC Championship since many readers were born, including myself. They’re expected to win by every metric system in existence. Whatever it takes to win, win.

Starters + rotations

Three things to watch for

  • Turn the faucet off. Texas A&M is an impressive 15-0 when posting an eFG% of 53% or better and 8-11 otherwise. This is generally driven by how well they do/don’t hit threes; A&M is also 12-1 when shooting 40% or better from deep. A&M just posted its two best 3PT% performances of the entire season in this tournament, which is either a great sign if you believe in regression to the mean or a terrible one if you believe that we live in a painful simulation.
  • Can Tennessee choose its shots wisely? In the first battle, Tennessee only got 15 shots at the rim, but they went 13-for-15 and hit threes, so they won. A situation where Tennessee is not taking numerous mid-range jumpers is ideal; you really should be able to generate open threes with fair consistency as you did the first time.
  • Officiatin’. Well, obviously. But I mean it this time: A&M is 18-2 when the opponent shoots 20 or fewer free throw attempts and 5-9 otherwise.

Key matchups

Quenton Jackson vs. Josiah-Jordan James. Individual plus-minus is about as useful as nothing at all, but sometimes it’s right: Tennessee was +8 with James in the game for 30 minutes yesterday and -1 in 10 minutes without him. They’ll need James for 35 to slow down one of the hottest scorers in America.

Henry Coleman III vs. Center Roulette. Coleman has held steady throughout the year as a terrific rebounder and quality foul-drawer that nonetheless cannot create his own shot very well. If Tennessee restricts him to just rebounds and exploits his lack of verticality on defense, they could create a significant advantage.

Tyrece Radford vs. Santiago Vescovi. Pretty simple matchup: who shoots better? Radford is blistering the nets at the moment, but Vescovi may be the SEC’s best deep shooter.

Three predictions

  1. Santiago Vescovi hits four threes;
  2. Tennessee wins three of the Four Factors and commits fewer fouls;
  3. Tennessee 69, Texas A&M 63.

Show Me My Opponent, 2022 SEC Tournament: Kentucky (III)

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT #5 Kentucky
26-6, 14-4 SEC, #2 KenPom
9-16, 8-9 SEC, lol lol lol lol 2020-21
LOCATION Amalie Arena
Tampa, FL
TIME Saturday, March 12
3:30 PM ET
CHANNEL ESPN
ANNOUNCERS Tom Hart (PBP)
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Kentucky -3
KenPom: Kentucky -2

Torvik: Kentucky -1.1

You again. You again!!!!

Both of these teams took care of business yesterday, which is pretty useful at a time where the #1 seed in the SEC Tournament lost and the #11 seed gave Kentucky quite the 40-minute battle. Tennessee enters this game playing for a potential 2-seed, Kentucky possibly for the final 1 seed. This is also a great narrative battle: John Calipari vs. the only coach that’s beaten him with regularity in the SEC. John Fulkerson vs. the team he’s owned in years past but not so much in 2022. Kennedy Chandler vs. a fellow first-round pick. Shooter vs. shooter in Grady vs. Vescovi.

This is a great basketball game played on a day where you have nothing else to do but look at the snow and smile. What’s better than this? Just guys being dudes.


Kentucky’s offense

Well, I’ve previewed this team twice already, and 18 hours is not a great amount of time to write much in the way of new observations. That being said, here are the major changes.

  • Leading scorer and likely Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe (17.1 PPG, 15.2 RPG) has gone to a new level over the last month: 20.6 PPG, 15.6 RPG over a nine-game stretch where six opponents were among KenPom’s top 50 teams. Not bad, that.
  • TyTy Washington (12.6 PPG) and Sahvir Wheeler (10 PPG), the two point guards, both missed a pair of games with injuries, but are back to full health. Washington in particular was terrific against Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals.
  • A player stepping up: Jacob Toppin, who’s averaged 7.6 PPG/4 RPG over the last eight. Toppin still remains less than impactful as a shooter, but he’s unstoppable in the paint when he chooses to go there. His height/agility may be unmatched on UK’s roster.
  • A player stepping down: Keion Brooks, who’s averaged just 8 PPG (#6 on the team) in that same span. Brooks is 13-for-15 at the rim and 12-for-38 everywhere else to go with a team-worst 22% TO% rate.
  • Everything else is the same. Grady hits threes. Mintz does too, just not as much. The rotation is now firmly down to seven players, with Lance Ware being the occasional eighth.

CHART!

Kentucky’s defense

Same as above. Two previews linked here; updates:

  • The offense has lost no steam whatsoever and has only gotten better; I cannot say the same about the defense. It’s been the 84th-best defense in CBB over Kentucky’s last 10 games, per Torvik, and recently fell outside the KenPom top 25 for the first time since Christmas.
  • This is because of a pair of serious issues: no turnovers being forced and mediocre defensive rebounding. Kentucky’s only forced turnovers on 15% of opponent possessions (300th-best) and has allowed OREBs on 30.6% of missed shots (284th) since February 2. The DREB% is more defensible because these are largely very good rebounding teams, but the complete lack of turnovers forced is a problem.
  • Along with this: the interior/two-point defense is…strangely average? Kentucky ranks 74th in season-long 2PT% allowed, which would be very good for many programs but is the third-worst rate of the Calipari era. Over the last 10, opponents are converting 49.2% of twos, which ranks 148th-best.
  • The key is still that they never foul. Among the seven-man rotation, no player has averaged more than 3.4 fouls per 40 over the last month, and Tshiebwe sits at an astounding 2.4. Tennessee got him in foul trouble on home court, but a neutral court feels like tough sledding.
  • None of the individual Kentucky defenders grade out as obviously bad, but Brooks has the worst Synergy metrics and on/off splits via Hoop-Explorer. His main matchup: Josiah-Jordan James.

How Tennessee matches up

Two consistencies have happened in Tennessee’s two battles with Kentucky:

  1. Tennessee has gotten a surprising amount of open catch-and-shoot threes via drive-and-kick actions;
  2. Tennessee has used off-ball screens to create quality ball movement, which has led to a surprising amount of easy points at the rim.

Considering it’s held true for two, the first should probably work for three. Kentucky’s roster construction lends itself to quality perimeter defense for most opponents, but something about the off-ball motion of Tennessee’s offense has given them a higher shot quality than most. I don’t know that I could fully explain it, but part of this is just that Tennessee’s frontcourt sets a ton of perimeter screens, and Kentucky’s frontcourt (AKA, Tshiebwe) are not often willing to leave the paint. This is how you create sink-and-shoot scenarios as such:

If Kentucky continues to struggle to cover the perimeter against Tennessee specifically, I remain confident that Tennessee can find a points advantage outside of the paint. They’ve outscored Kentucky by nine on threes through two games, which is pretty important for a game projected to be very close.

The other part of this is utilizing some of Tshiebwe’s defensive limitations. As amazing a shot-blocker and rebounder as he is, you can still pull him away from the paint if you pull your frontcourt pairing out of the paint. Tennessee has consistently done this since Nkamhoua went out, which is nice, because I think most people had grown tired of Tennessee’s post-up addiction. They’ll still do it some, but it won’t be that often. This is useful because if you draw Tshiebwe out, that leaves a gap down low that basically no other UK rotation member can replace. Cutting to the basket at this time is how you generate points consistently.

The Kentucky defense is the significantly lesser unit of the two. Can it still choke out an opponent? Of course, because they’re crazy talented. But their struggle in putting away teams with defense as of late is of serious interest. You’ve gotta be able to do that to make the Final Four. I know Tennessee can. What about Kentucky?

Anyway, the defensive side of this is pretty similar to the last two: do whatever you can to wall off the paint and force Kentucky to shoot over the top of it. Kentucky has had games where they’ve shot well, but threes aren’t exactly their forte. Tennessee fixed the ball-screen issue at TBA, but they’re still giving up some good looks from deep to Kentucky. If Tennessee turns these into guarded, tough threes:

They can easily win this game. Then again, the guy shooting that is Kellan Grady, who is absurdly good from anywhere. Tennessee’s gotta hope for positive variance in their favor and a favorable officiating crew that lets some contact go between Tshiebwe and the various centers.

Starters + rotations

Three things to watch for

  • Consider this: hit shots. This is going to be the first bullet of this section until the end of time, or at least until I think of something else. All six of Kentucky’s losses have come when the opponent has posted a 50% eFG%, which Tennessee has managed to do both times out. Likewise, UK is 20-1 when posting 50% or better.
  • How big can you be on the boards? Kentucky’s posted a 40% or better OREB% in five of the last eight games, which is insane considering the competition. Adjusted for competition, Tennessee has been one of the ~25 best defensive rebounding teams this season. If Tennessee can find a way to keep that Kentucky number at 30% or so, it’s a good sign.
  • Is TyTy the guy? Tennessee can reasonably survive a great Tshiebwe game if no one else steps up to help. The TBA win would’ve happened regardless, but it was obviously helped by Washington being hobbled somewhat. Washington was fantastic against Vandy yesterday; a Tennessee win is very reliant on him not following that up.

Key matchups

Oscar Tshiebwe vs. Center Roulette. Typing that out is anxiety-inducing. Tshiebwe is the POY front-runner; Tennessee’s best frontcourt player is entirely up to debate on any given night. If Tennessee holds Tshiebwe to similar numbers as posted in TBA (13 & 15 on 5-15 shooting) it’s a massive win.

TyTy Washington Jr. vs. Santiago Vescovi. Washington will end up being matched with a few different guys, but Vescovi should get the lion’s share of minutes and could potentially go a full 40 if not in foul trouble. Washington is a terrific mid-range shooter but is vulnerable to variance from deep; Vescovi may be the single best deep shooter in the league. Exciting matchup!

Sahvir Wheeler vs. Kennedy Chandler. Wheeler’s best attribute is his speed, which can blind opponents on his best nights. The unfortunate part of it for Wheeler is that his shooting is not often matching his agility. If Chandler can force Wheeler into a lot of pull-ups or runners, I will be with all of the people who say he should be on the All-Defense team. (He probably should’ve been on a 10-man All-Defense team.)

Three predictions

  1. Tshiebwe puts up another double-double (17 & 13 or so) but requires 15 shots to get there;
  2. Josiah-Jordan James leads Tennessee in scoring;
  3. Kentucky 69, Tennessee 68.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Mississippi State (II)

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT Mississippi State
18-14, 8-10 SEC, #44 KenPom
18-15, 8-10 SEC, NIT runner-up 2020-21
LOCATION Amalie Arena
Tampa, FL
TIME Friday, March 11
6 PM ET
CHANNEL SEC Network
ANNOUNCERS Tom Hart (PBP)
Dane Bradshaw (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -8
KenPom: Tennessee -6

Torvik: Tennessee -6.2

One of the nice things about basketball is that you can just point at a calculator and say 3 > 2 sometimes. This doesn’t always work, because it is better to be good at both than to be good at one or the other. However, if you’re blatantly bad at one or if you’re living out 1984 and telling your team that 2 + 2 = 5, this turns into a problem. As such, I think this explains Mississippi State basketball, a team that is 0-10 as an underdog (18-4 as favorite) in part because they do not understand that threes are a part of modern basketball.

Tennessee enters this game on a heater, having won 12 of 14 despite losing a starter to season-ending injury. Mississippi State did blow out South Carolina last night, but this may be window-dressing on a season that began 13-5, 4-2 SEC and is now 18-14, 8-10. Ben Howland’s job is in serious limbo, with buzz growing on ESPN+ articles that his time is drawing to a close in Starkville. If only he had the TI-83 to add 2 and 3 together.


Mississippi State’s offense

Tennessee played this team barely a month ago, so you can read a full overview of the offense from the first post. These are the updates:

  • After losing a must-win game, Ben Howland panicked his way into trying three new starting lineups before eventually arriving back at the one they started against Tennessee. Nothing has changed, but I figured you might smile at that.
  • As State’s season has turned into desperation mode, the best player hasn’t been the guy everyone would expect, but rather Tolu Smith (13.8 PPG/6.2 RPG season-long, 15.5 PPG/6.1 RPG last 8 games). Smith is attempting nearly 6 FTs a game, has put up a 72.7% FG% on 55 rim attempts, and has become the co-#1 option offensively.
  • The other is the obvious: Iverson Molinar (17.8 PPG). Molinar had a great season, but since the Tennessee game he’s taken a significant hit: 44% on twos and 14% (!) on threes, both of which are 9% and 12% decreases from season-long numbers. A 39.9% eFG% in the month your team needs you most is egregious.
  • Beyond that, no one has averaged more than 8.1 PPG since the Tennessee game. Next up on the scoring list is D.J. Jeffries at 9.4 PPG season-long, but his usage rate is barely above that of Justin Powell’s.
  • The most efficient guy right now is Andersson Garcia (6.5 PPG/5.8 RPG since February 9), but his impact is more felt on defense and his main source of scoring income is an incredible ability to draw fouls.
  • Here’s the stat that I feel sums up why Ben Howland will be either retired or coaching somewhere else in a year: over the last nine games, no Mississippi State player has made more than five three-pointers. The team as a whole since February 9: 17.8% from deep on 112 attempts.

CHART! Small updates from the first time. Rocket Watts was DFA’d picked up a practice injury and seems done for the year.

Mississippi State’s defense

First preview is linked here. Updates:

  • State’s defense has surprisingly strengthened a tad since last time out; Torvik ranks them as 40th-best over the last 10 games.
  • The problem is that this is largely driven by an opponent 28.2% hit rate on threes, which I would be more inclined to believe in if State wasn’t posting a 52/48 Guarded/Unguarded rate. That’s about average, which is fine, but 28.2% is significantly below average. Regression coming.
  • Everything else is more or less the same. Context-free stats would indicate a defensive rebounding flaw, as opponents have rebounded 30% of their misses over the last month-plus (#265 nationally). However, that’s 2.5% below expectation, as the opponents have averaged 32.5% this season. Still good.
  • The scariest guy on defense right now is Garcia, who has posted 12 steals in the last six games. State’s defense is 8.2 points better per 100 possessions when he’s on the court.
  • Nothing else new to report. State still doesn’t press unless it’s desperation time and never runs a zone defense. Something interesting is that of State’s five lowest 3PA% allowed this season, four have come in the last eleven games. State doesn’t have much in the way of rim protection and has consistently sat in the 200s in 2PT% allowed, so opponents don’t see much of a reason to bomb away all that often.

How Tennessee matches up

No GIFs today, sorry. Free time has been very limited this week. Back tomorrow, if applicable.

The fundamental yes/no question in every Mississippi State game this year has been if the opponent hit enough shots or not. I guess that holds for literally every team ever constructed, but it feels especially pertinent for State. The Bulldogs are a perfect 15-0 when winning the eFG% battle this season; they are 3-14 otherwise. It’s pretty stark, but it helps making preview a game on short notice very easy: hit your shots, win the game.

Tennessee’s largest and most consistent source of points this season has been simple: a guard drives the ball to the paint, then kicks out to an open shooter. Generally, this has been Santiago Vescovi or Josiah-Jordan James, but it could be anybody on the right night. If Tennessee gets quality paint penetration in this game, it’s going to open up a lot of looks from deep against one of the least-positive perimeter defenses the league has to offer. Tennessee’s main issue in this game, to me, is avoiding settling for mid-range jumpers like they did in the first battle. You’ve got to look for threes first; threes will be what drives the separation factor.

Along with this, State has done a poor job of defending ball screens this year. Synergy places them as 30th-percentile in P&R defense over the course of the season. Tennessee doesn’t usually run many ball screens, but in the first game, they posted more P&R possessions (21) than they had in all but two other SEC regular season games. Clearly, Barnes and company see this as an area of opportunity.

The key is to utilize the passing ability of the ball-handler. Chandler and Zeigler can pressure the rim very well, but it’s their passing ability that could really open this game up for Tennessee. A well-timed pass to the roll man can both provide two points and help sink State inward to open more looks from deep.

The defensive side of this is a curious and weird case. For once, you don’t really have much fear of the opponent out-shooting you from deep. No high-major basketball team gets a lower percentage of its points from three than Mississippi State; just once since the Tennessee game have they hit more than three threes. Instead, this is all about protecting the rim. State will take a bunch of mid-range twos and you’ve got to live with that, but making sure the shots at the rim are well-contested and hard to convert is of utmost importance.

State’s biggest drivers of points down low have unsurprisingly been Molinar and Smith, but in half-court play, it’s Smith’s basket cuts that have shredded opponents. Tennessee has to toe the delicate line between committing too much to a driving Molinar and overplaying to allow Smith open while also not undercommitting to Molinar. The good news I can share is that Tennessee remains an excellent basket cut defense. In the first game, State only scored four points on seven cuts. It took a significant shooting overperformance for them to stay in the game. Absent that, Tennessee needs to control this game within five feet of the rim.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: Role is algorithmically-determined by Bart Torvik. 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

  • Make shots. Again, the stat: State is 15-0 when they win eFG%, 3-14 when they lose. If Tennessee hits 8-9 threes in this one I’m not really sure how State would overcome that beyond either turnovers or a foul parade.
  • Frontcourt production. Mississippi State obviously has the best player of either frontcourt in Smith, but can Tennessee find someone that’s better than Garrison Brooks at the 4? This is a game I’d expect Josiah-Jordan James to show out.
  • Protect the boards. Mississippi State is 2-6 this year when held to a 30% OREB% or lower; Tennessee, in their first post-Nkamhoua game, held State to 28% the first time out. I guess people are allowed to live in fear after the Arkansas rebounding issues, but that’s the only time Tennessee’s gotten got on the boards in a surprising manner since the injury.

Key matchups

Iverson Molinar vs. Kennedy Chandler. And also Zakai Zeigler. Molinar may play all 40 in this one and has regularly taken on 35-36 minutes a night as of late. His shooting post-Vols (38.8% eFG%) has been atrocious, but I would prefer to not let this be the game he reheats.

Tolu Smith vs. Center Roulette. So, as of now, Center Roulette’s main minutes-getter is Jonas Aidoo…which would be fine if he wasn’t almost tied with Uros Plavsic for center minutes. Roulette it remains. Anyway, Smith has been State’s best player over the last month and can change the game with how frequently he draws fouls.

Garrison Brooks vs. Josiah-Jordan James. This will be BHH to start, but James will most commonly draw the matchup. Brooks is 14-for-50 on everything that’s not a layup/dunk over the last month and frankly may be State’s worst defender; this is why I think James could have a big game.

Three predictions

  1. This is the final game Ben Howland coaches at Mississippi State, but NOT because he is fired;
  2. Chandler and Vescovi combine for 10 assists;
  3. Tennessee 69, Mississippi State 61.

2021-22 Bracketology, Vol. 3: where Tennessee stands, SEC Tournament scenarios, and possible draws

If you missed the previous two editions, here’s Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.

Well, hey: this has been a pretty fun season. I’ve had a decent-enough time writing about it. Now, we get to a month that is either torture or more torture, no matter who you root for.

I promise that March can be, and should be, fun. You’ve just got to let it be fun in the first place. What could be more fun than exploring numerous hypotheticals that may or may not come true? For a stats obsessive like myself, it’s my college hoops prime time: all sorts of scenarios, many of which do not really exist.

Cutting to the chase here because this is a long post: these are the six things I’m covering in today’s article.

  • Where Tennessee stands, bracket-wise, as of March 7
  • Various SEC Tournament scenarios and seeding potentials
  • Partner likelihoods
  • Best 1/2/3/4/etc. seeds to pair with
  • Location likelihoods

This is the same format as Volume 2, which was posted just over a week ago, which makes sense to me. Based on feedback from various readers, I’ve tweaked some of the sourcing here and am trying to incorporate what the Bracket Matrix views as the very best bracketologists, alongside with the stats stuff you already know about. Onward!

Where does Tennessee stand at this moment?

Prior to this weekend, it felt like Tennessee would likely lock themselves in at no worse than a 3 seed by beating Arkansas. I think that still remains the case, but after Duke lost at home to a mediocre North Carolina team and Wisconsin lost at home to a wretched Nebraska side missing a starter, you can start to envision the path to a 2 seed, one that may not even require an SEC Tournament title.

That’s all hypothetical, which we’ll entertain in a bit. For now, Tennessee ranks 11th on the Bracket Matrix seed list. One person requested a seed list that was just the top 10 bracketologists on the Matrix (I’m refusing to use BM for obvious reasons); that has Tennessee as the 10th overall seed, barely a hair behind Purdue for 9th overall. The teams Tennessee has to pass to get a 2 seed, at least from the general consensus, are Purdue (9th) and Villanova (8th). (This is where I note that I am not understanding why Duke is 7th on the seed list.) Wisconsin (11th) and Texas Tech (12th) are also in that mix, but both posted worse losses this weekend alone than anything Tennessee’s done this year.

How does the SEC Tournament affect this?

We’ll cover a variety of different scenarios here:

  • Tennessee goes 0-1 against either Mississippi State or South Carolina, both of which would be Quadrant 2 losses
  • Tennessee goes 1-1 and loses to Kentucky
  • Tennessee goes 1-1 and loses to Alabama
  • Tennessee goes 2-1 and loses to Auburn/Arkansas
  • Tennessee wins the SEC Tournament

Might as well get the worst possible outcome out of the way first.

1. Tennessee goes 0-1, losing to either Mississippi State or South Carolina

Expected impact: Drop of 2 spots on seed curve, per Torvik; 0.6 drop in Average Seed, per INCC Stats
Seed range: 10th-13th overall; 3-4 seed

This, obviously, is the worst scenario. Tennessee posts their first Quadrant 2 loss of the season as the worst possible time, ruining their status as one of just eight teams with zero Q2-Q4 losses. Maybe State jumps into the top 50 as a result, but considering they would likely get plowed by Kentucky immediately after, I doubt it.

The net impact of this one is pretty intriguing, though. Torvik (who is not a bracketologist, just a stats guy) has Tennessee 8th on his site’s seed list right now, so his simulation places a loss to MSU as only costing Tennessee two spots on the seed curve. It even might be preferable to actually being 8th and having to draw Gonzaga as your 1. Even so, that seems rosy, and it’s probably a situation that has Tennessee closer to 12th or even 13th overall.

2. Tennessee goes 1-1, losing to Kentucky

Expected impact: …nothing. Zero change on seed curve, per Torvik; zero change in Average Seed, per INCC Stats
Seed range: 8th-12th overall; 2-3 seed

This is the status quo. The path to a 2 seed would be very dependent on everyone else. Auburn is likely locked in at no worse than a 2; same for Kansas and Kentucky. That leaves two 2 seed spots open for six or so teams. At that point, Tennessee is rooting for at least four of Duke, Wisconsin, Villanova, Purdue, and Texas Tech to fail to improve their resume in some meaningful fashion. The problem is that you become even more dependent on the teams likely ahead of you (the first three) to all really blow it. Duke would have to fail to win an ACC Tournament game; Wisconsin probably would, too. Villanova…maybe 1-1, with that one being a bad loss? Not sure.

Either way, pretty hard to go 1-1, lose to an agreed-upon top five team, and drop below the 3 line. If anything, this probably just solidifies Tennessee’s status as a 3 seed.

3. Tennessee goes 1-1, losing to Alabama

Expected impact: …also nothing. Zero change on seed curve, per Torvik; -0.1 change in Average Seed, per INCC Stats
Seed range: 8th-12th overall; 2-3 seed

This is the same scenario as above, just more annoying because it’s Nate Oats and you’re losing to the wonder boy that directed his team to an SEC Tournament 6 seed. I know we’re including the 8th overall seed (the last 2) as a possibility here but it would feel pretty frail. If you lose to Kentucky by three points or something nobody will care; if you lose to Alabama by three points, it’s a lot less impressive. This would be a 3 seed.

4. Tennessee goes 2-1 and loses to Auburn/Arkansas

Expected impact: +2 change on seed curve, per Torvik; +0.2 change in Average Seed, per INCC Stats
Seed range: 7th-10th overall; 2-3 seed

At this point, you’re really on the line. Even in a scenario where Tennessee is beating Alabama on the way to the title game, that’s an additional Quadrant 1 win at a neutral site, and Alabama would be the highest NET team Tennessee’s beaten away from home. If it’s Kentucky, well, even better.

By process of elimination, one of Wisconsin/Purdue (potentially, both) will fail to win the Big Ten. Texas Tech is third-best in odds to win the Big 12. Duke plays in the worst Big Six conference and lost the same number of conference games as Tennessee. Even if Villanova were to win the Big East, you’re staring down a scenario where Tennessee could very well be no worse than 10th overall, could easily be no worse than 9th, and could potentially slip in as the final 2 seed depending on other outcomes. Not bad.

5. Tennessee wins the SEC Tournament.

Expected impact: 404 file not found
Seed range: 5th-9th overall; 2-3 seed

I mean it has been 43 years, after all. But in the unlikely event Tennessee finally does the thing we have been begging them to for eleven Presidential administrations, the following things will happen in turn:

  1. I will hoot and holler;
  2. Tennessee will be a 2 seed, unless…

So: 5th may even be a little aggressive. I reached out to the guy that runs Delphi Bracketology, and he indicated that it would be very unlikely for anyone below Kentucky (6th overall) to grab that final 1 seed. I would agree with him. Those top six seeds may even be fully locked in, and Kentucky may be unable to fall to 7th or lower.

That said…this would be a Tennessee team with 10 Quadrant 1 wins, zero Q2-Q4 losses, and at least one win over one of the two SEC teams in contention for a 1 seed. It wouldn’t really matter what anyone else would do. Tennessee would pass Duke with relative ease, and we already covered that one of Wisconsin/Purdue will eliminate themselves from 2 seed competition. At that point, as long as neither Wisconsin/Purdue win the Big Ten (again, the most likely scenario) you should be fine. 2 seed, just root for not getting Gonzaga as the 1.

Who do you think Tennessee is most likely to draw?

Well, because I am the protagonist of history and everything is specifically designed to harm me, not you, Tennessee will be drawing the First Four winner of Michigan/Memphis in the Round of 32.

More specifically, there aren’t that many updates from last time. The committee rules state that the top four teams (in seed lines 1-4) from a conference cannot be in the same bracket, meaning Tennessee won’t see any of Auburn/Kentucky/Arkansas until a hypothetical Final Four appearance. You can eliminate them from any bracket designs. Beyond that, Tennessee will have nine potential opponents among their 1-4 seeds: three for each seed line, excluding the one Tennessee is on.

Right now, per the consensus, these are the teams Tennessee is technically allowed to be paired with by seed line. Included are the 3 seeds in the event that Tennessee is not a three:

  • 1 seeds: Gonzaga (WCC), Baylor (B12), Arizona (P12)
  • 2 seeds: Kansas (B12), Duke (ACC), Villanova (BE)
  • 3 seeds: Wisconsin (B1G), Purdue (B1G), Texas Tech (B12)
  • 4 seeds: Providence (BE), UCLA (P12), Illinois (B1G), Arkansas (SEC)

Considering the next team up on the seed list is currently Houston, a team that just got pantsed by Memphis, I feel it’s reasonable to state that no fewer than 12 of those 13 teams will be among the top 16 on Sunday. So: you can feel pretty confident in who you’re looking at here.

Beyond that, you have to consider the other conferences, too. We know that the SEC teams cannot be paired together. Who must the 1 and 2 seeds avoid?

  • Gonzaga: none, unless you don’t want them to play previous opponents Duke or UCLA again
  • Baylor: Kansas (2 seed), Texas Tech (3 seed), and probably Texas (5 seed)
  • Arizona: UCLA (4 seed)
  • Kansas: same as Baylor
  • Duke: just other ACC teams, but the committee may want to avoid Gonzaga and Kentucky rematches
  • Villanova: Providence (4 seed), Connecticut (5 seed)

Attempting to figure out how the committee would actually order these teams is a struggle. My guess is that if Baylor wins it’ll be hard to keep them out of the overall 1 seed, but any other scenario results in Gonzaga as the 1. For the purposes of our simulation (of a sort), we’re going with the following seed order based on top bracketologists:

  • 1 seeds: Gonzaga, Baylor, Arizona, Auburn
  • 2 seeds: Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, Villanova
  • 3 seeds: Purdue, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Texas Tech
  • 4 seeds: Illinois, UCLA, Providence, Arkansas

Along with this, I’m indulging a specific and silly part of the equation: seed list rankings. Technically, Tennessee would be #10 on this list. Duke would be #7, Auburn #4, so on. The goal, in theory, is to create a bracket that totals 34 from these rankings: 1 vs. 8, 9 vs. 16. The problem is that when conferences get involved, it gets pretty difficult to actually do that. This is the most even seed line ranking I could produce:

West Region (34)

  1. Gonzaga (1)
  2. Villanova (8)
  3. Purdue (9)
  4. Arkansas (16)

South Region (34)

  1. Baylor (2)
  2. Duke (7)
  3. Tennessee (10)
  4. Providence (15)

Midwest (lol) Region (34)

  1. Arizona (3)
  2. Kentucky (6)
  3. Texas Tech (12)
  4. Illinois (13)

East Region (34)

  1. Auburn (4)
  2. Kansas (5)
  3. Wisconsin (11)
  4. UCLA (14)

See how it gets jumbled on the final two regions? Because of the prominence of the SEC, Big 12, and Big Ten on the top seed lines, it becomes pretty hard to just slate these teams in an easy order. Still, this is a way of getting to 34 per region. Also, while we’re on this subject, Duke has technically requested to be in the Midwest Region, but that request only works if you’re a 1 seed, which is…unlikely. (Don’t doubt the selection committee to somehow find a way to indulge this, though.)

To answer the original question here, it’s just very dependent on results. Tennessee is technically equally likely to draw any of the nine teams they’re allowed to draw, but depending on where Tennessee falls on the seed curve, they’ll be much more likely to grab one versus another. For instance, if Tennessee does end up 10th in the committee rankings, it’s more likely that they are paired with the 2nd overall seed (Baylor as of now), assuming that there are no conflicts with the 2 or 4 seed. Likewise, Tennessee would be less likely to draw the worst 4 seed (16th overall) unless it’s not possible to fit the bracket evenly otherwise.

Who does Tennessee want to be paired with most and least at each seed line?

This is a modified version of the GOAT/Poop Draw that I’ve done the last few seasons for Tennessee. Instead of building a full region out, though, it seems more useful just to give you a general overview of who’s hot and who’s not at each seed line. (Plus, the last time I did the draws, a guy got very mad at me for the concept of them in the first place. Happy Tuesday, guy!) This is ordered from 1 to 16, just like the real thing. WARNING: because of the nature of one-bid leagues, about half of which see a conference tournament upset of the 1 seed, it will get very wobbly towards the end. Stay with me.

For the purposes of this exercise, we’re sticking with the teams currently slotted to be at those seed lines, per the Matrix consensus.

  • 1 seeds: I mean, as long as you don’t draw Gonzaga (#1 overall by 5.3 points in KenPom), it’s probably agreeable. Whether you trust the metrics is besides the point; I simply think that Tennessee does not have enough roster options in the post-Nkamhoua era to contain both Timme and Holmgren for a full 40. Everyone else is at least rational. If you read into late-season performance, Arizona (#2) has played like the 11th-best team over the last 10 games, and Tennessee is technically allowed to play them again. Not great for a 1 seed. Other than that, uh…Baylor?
    • Also: this is kind of a bad batch for 1 seeds, with three currently sitting at +28 AdjEM or lower. While someone has to make it to the Final Four, the last year where at least three of the four 1s entered at +28 or lower in KenPom was 2014, a year when Florida was the only 1 seed to make the Final Four. Before that: 2006, when no 1 seed made it.
  • 2 seeds: The good news is that, by way of being in the SEC, you cannot draw Kentucky (#3), who is likely to be the highest-ranked 2 seed by some distance. The worst team you can technically draw is Duke (#6), who did just lose at home to a team Tennessee beat by nearly 20. Pardon me if I am more than a little worried at the whistle Coach K, who demands to be feted at every turn, will receive in March. Beyond that, your current options are either Kansas (#9) or Villanova (#10). If Tennessee ends up a 3, hope that Wisconsin (#30) won the Big Ten.
    • Speaking of which: On Wisconsin! Yes, seriously. Over the last 20 years, 17 3 and 4 seeds that ranked outside of the KenPom Top 25 have made it to March. Zero have made it beyond the Sweet Sixteen, and only two have made it to the Sweet Sixteen. You want Wisconsin in your bracket. Promise.
  • 3 seeds: I think I speak for everyone when I say no one wants a Tennessee/Texas Tech (#11) rematch. The other options here are Purdue (#13) and Wisconsin (previously covered, #30), both of whom would be reasonable.
    • Purdue is on pace to enter the Tournament with the nation’s #105 ranked defense. The sample size of teams with sub-100 defenses is predictably low, so I’ve extended it to teams with defenses ranked 90th or worse. This is still just a nine-team sample size, but of nine 1-4 seeds with a sub-90th defense, only one of those teams (2015 Notre Dame) made it beyond the Sweet Sixteen. Five went out by the Round of 32.
  • 4 seeds: I don’t know that any of these are like…truly wretched? But if you’re somehow a 1 seed you don’t really want UCLA (#8, #11 NET) in your bracket. Feels like they’re on a collision course with whoever the last 1 seed is, though. (They can’t draw Arizona, and their resume actually ranks second-strongest among the current four 4 seeds). Illinois (#18) is very hot and cold. If you’re Tennessee and, for some reason, you want your 1 seed to stay intact, root for Providence (#36), who will be the lowest-rated 4 seed since 2011 Vanderbilt (#37; lost in Round of 64) if everything holds.
  • 5 seeds: I know that your most recent impression of Houston (#5!) is that they got blown out by Memphis and that they’re down two starters, but think of it this way: they’ve been down two starters since January 2. Since that time, Bart Torvik’s site ranks them as the fourth-best team in America. It speaks to how good a coach Kelvin Sampson is that this is the case. If anything, as long you’re not a 1 or a 4, you badly want Houston as your 5 seed. Anyway, the other 5 seeds, as constructed, are all pretty dangerous: Texas (#15), Saint Mary’s (CA) (#16), and Connecticut (#20) all have at least one win over a Top 10 team.
    • The concept of all four 5 seeds being…well, 5 seeds (20th or better) would actually be somewhat novel. It’s only happened twice before: 2018 and 2005. In those years, 5 seeds went a combined 7-1 in the Round of 64, produced five Sweet Sixteen teams, and two Final Four teams. That may or may not happen this year, but now you know.
  • 6 seeds: Considering Tennessee’s likely status as a 3 seed, know that you only have two options here, as the other two are Alabama and LSU. Tennessee would not want to draw Iowa (#14), who is kind of bad defensively but top 5 on offense and has All-American Keegan Murray on their team. Tennessee would want to draw Ohio State (#26), a team that feels pretty collapse-ready. Ohio State actually rose to 17th before losing by 13 at home to Iowa on February 19, a loss that kick-started a terrible stretch where they’ve gone 3-4 and lost to Michigan and Nebraska at home.
    • A fun OSU fact: their two closest statistical comps are 2009 California (a 7 seed that got stomped in the Round of 64) and 2011 Arizona (a 5 seed who came a point short of the Final Four). Who knows!
  • 7 seeds: Fraught territory for 2 seeds this year, potentially. No one wants to draw Murray State (#25), a team that has lost once since Thanksgiving (to Auburn) and is scalding-hot. Colorado State (#33) is less metrics-impressive but has several good wins. Meanwhile, USC (#40) has a very thin resume for 25-6 and has fallen off defensively.
  • 8/9 seeds: Again, given Tennessee’s positioning and the general fluidity of these seeds, you probably want the 1 seed to have the toughest possible draw. In that case, you’re hoping your 1 seed has to beat either San Francisco (#21) or San Diego State (#23) to make the Sweet Sixteen. You could also hope for Boise State (#27), another Western team that’s flown well under the radar. A bad draw here would be Michigan State (#43), who is coached by Tom Izzo but has played horrendous basketball for the last six weeks.
  • 10 seeds: If you’re a 2, you don’t want Wake Forest (#34), who is the only 10 seed currently inside the top 40 on KenPom. Everyone else is whatever. Worst offender is Creighton (#70), who ranks a spot below Chattanooga, a team that will be either a 12 or 13 seed.
  • 11 seeds: This is where it gets hairy. 6 seeds are 19-21 versus 11 seeds since the First Four became a thing. I can’t imagine that’s much of a surprise. The 11 seed line has generally turned into the best teams from one-bid leagues + the best messy teams from high-majors. The 6 seed that has to play either Memphis (#28) or Michigan (#31) will be dreading it immensely, as will the corresponding 3 seed that has to play the equivalent of a 7-8 seed. The other 11 seeds are frankly not scary, unless…
  • 12 seeds: Loyola Chicago (#24), just like COVID-19, will never go away fully. I think they probably end up an 11 seed, which is why I’m discussing them immediately…but as of the time of writing, they were the highest-rated 12 seed. You don’t want to play them. The 12 seed you would want is Rutgers (#73), who would be a First Four winner. Also not that into the idea of playing North Texas (#48) if I’m a 5.
  • 13 seeds: WARNING! From here on out, it’s sketchy territory at best; none of the teams mentioned will, at the time of publishing, have won their conference. Anyway, the best 13 seeds this year are all helpfully ranked right next to each other: Vermont (#66) and Towson (#67). Furman (#74) is also close, though by the time you read this they may have lost the SoCon title game. The safest option for 4 seeds this year would be a hypothetical matchup with Princeton (#105).
  • 14 seeds: The good news for 3 seeds: as of now, there shouldn’t be any truly scary 14 seeds. Last year, three 14 seeds entered the Tournament in the KenPom top 100, which was pretty unusual. This year, we might have one, and that’s only if very few conference tournament upsets happen or if New Mexico State (#87) gets underseeded somehow. Other than that, the options are teams like Wagner (#127) or Montana State (#142).
  • 15 seeds: It’s not 100% going to happen, but there’s a potential scenario where multiple teams on the 15 line are rated higher by KenPom than anyone on the 14. Colgate (#125), for instance, is currently tracking for a 15. Similarly, Jacksonville State (#141) could be a little plucky if they can find their way into the field. The 15 seed that went to the Sweet Sixteen last year entered the Tournament 151st, and FGCU entered the 2012-13 dance 124th. Anything can happen, but somewhere around 150th is probably the rough barrier.
  • 16 seeds: It feels pointless trying to project these because they never end up with the teams they start with, but Norfolk State (#165) is actually a little spicy. Considering the average 16 seed enters the NCAA Tournament around 205th-210th, gotta take what you can get.

Where will Tennessee be headed for the first two rounds?

I’ll repost the chart I did last time.

Teams Within 500 Miles of a Site, Per a Website My Brother Sent Me

  • Buffalo, NY (Thu/Sat): Kentucky (440 miles), Purdue (447), Duke (476), Villanova (280), Providence (388), Connecticut (193), Ohio State (290)
  • Fort Worth, TX (Thu/Sat): Kansas (445), Baylor (83), Texas Tech (269), Houston (236), Texas (174), Arkansas (292)
  • Indianapolis, IN (Thu/Sat): Kansas (488), Auburn (496), Kentucky (148), Purdue (62), Duke (474), Tennessee (290), Wisconsin (286), Illinois (113), Ohio State (168), Alabama (435)
  • Portland, OR (Thu/Sat): Gonzaga (294)
  • Greenville, SC (Fri/Sun): Auburn (235), Kentucky (251), Purdue (459), Duke (213), Tennessee (115), Ohio State (355), Alabama (271)
  • Milwaukee, WI (Fri/Sun): Kansas (474), Kentucky (386), Purdue (186), Wisconsin (76), Illinois (203), Ohio State (327)
  • Pittsburgh, PA (Fri/Sun): Kentucky (289), Purdue (364), Duke (330), Villanova (256), Tennessee (376), Illinois (435), Providence (457), Connecticut (236), Ohio State (161)
  • San Diego, CA (Fri/Sun): Arizona (361), UCLA (112), USC (112), Saint Mary’s (CA) (451)

I imagine the selection committee doesn’t have an exact-mile point-to-point chart in the room on Selection Sunday, but they probably have a general idea of which teams prefer which locations based on proximity. It matters, otherwise they’d put Kansas in San Diego or whatever.

Anyway, this is how I think each location shakes out as of now, based on the current top 16. All of these are assigned in order, based on closest available location.

  • Buffalo: Providence, Arkansas
  • Fort Worth: Baylor, Kansas
  • Indianapolis: Kentucky, Purdue
  • Portland: Gonzaga, UCLA
  • Greenville: Auburn, Duke
  • Milwaukee: Wisconsin, Illinois
  • Pittsburgh: Villanova, Tennessee
  • San Diego: Arizona, Texas Tech

Some brief comments:

  • Buffalo could shift based on if Villanova wants that over Pittsburgh, but considering the latter is a shorter drive by about 1:15, I doubt it. However, the committee could make an executive call here. Arkansas fans are rabid, but how many are willing to travel on Buffalo on short notice?
  • Fort Worth is locked in.
  • Indianapolis is probably locked in. The only thing that could change is if Purdue falls behind Tennessee in seeding order or if they pick Milwaukee instead.
  • Portland is half locked-in with Gonzaga. UCLA obviously makes more sense in San Diego, but I made an executive decision to send Tech to its closest remaining location as they’re ahead in the pecking order.
  • Greenville is locked in unless Duke falls beneath Tennessee/decides they’d rather play in Pittsburgh for some reason. Considering Greenville is a four-hour shorter drive, it would be weird to elect to go elsewhere.
  • Milwaukee is locked in unless Illinois falls to the 5 line or Purdue wants to play there instead.
  • Pittsburgh is fluid. Villanova would prefer this over Buffalo, but refer to the Buffalo notes for the issues there. Tennessee would prefer both Greenville and Indianapolis, but both may fill up by the time Tennessee is slotted somewhere. If Tennessee goes to Indianapolis instead, Pittsburgh probably becomes a landing spot for a helpless 4 seed…like Arkansas!
  • San Diego is half-locked in with Arizona. Texas Tech is somewhat close to a lock because I can’t figure out where else you’d send them.

How does the mess you typed out affect Tennessee?

…seems like you should be looking at Pittsburgh hotels or AirBNBs? Maybe? I’d give the percentages as such:

  1. Pittsburgh (55%)
  2. Indianapolis (20%)
  3. Greenville (20%)
  4. Randomizer (5%)

Complain about the odds if you want, but Indianapolis simply seems more realistic because I can envision Tennessee moving ahead of Purdue more than I can them moving ahead of Duke. I do not agree with that being the case – frankly Purdue’s resume is significantly better than Duke’s – but it appears to be the case. Worth noting that ~77% of the odds here correspond to a Friday/Sunday site.

Can you repost the thing about how Tennessee only plays day games in March?

Sure. From last time, here’s Tennessee’s tip times since the field expanded to 68:

  • 4:30 PM ET (2021)
  • 3 PM ET (2019)
  • 12:40 PM ET (2018)
  • 2:45 PM ET (2014)
  • 12:40 PM ET (2011)

That’s five consecutive daytime tips in a row. A fair(ish) Selection Committee and TV crew would give Tennessee an evening slot, but they could’ve done that after three or four in a row, too. My recommendation is to not be surprised by anything that happens.

Anything else?

If there’s more I’ll just Tweet it out, because 4,200+ words is enough. I think there’s a compelling case to be made for Tennessee as having a better resume than the counterparts they share the 3 seed line with, but if I’m going to make it I would prefer for it to not sound fanboy-ish. Thanks for reading; more to come.

I’ve Been Here Before, Looking at the Wild Country

March 1: #13 Tennessee 75, Georgia 68 (22-7, 13-4 SEC)
March 5: #13 Tennessee 78, #14 Arkansas 74 (23-7, 14-4 SEC)

“When someone seeks,” said Siddhartha, “then it easily happens that his eyes see only the thing that he seeks, and he is able to find nothing, to take in nothing because he always thinks only about the thing he is seeking, because he has one goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal.”

You think about a date long enough and it becomes etched in your memory: March 7, 2020. That was the date of the last college basketball game I had attended for nearly 20 months. My favorite jacket that I own is a green overcoat with fake fur on the hood. Because I – we – live in East Tennessee, the amount of time this jacket gets pulled out of the closet is maybe eight times a year. I wear it for fun sometimes even when it’s 42 degrees, just because it’s a comfy jacket. The first time I put it on in December 2020, the day before Tennessee was to play its fourth basketball game of that season, I discovered something I’d left behind from the Before Times: a ticket from the February 8, 2020 game against Kentucky, the most recent ticket purchase I had made.

A year-plus of surreal events touching your screen. Two years of a pandemic. What feels like a lifetime without something that feels vaguely normal. Even getting back to the arena this season felt a little abnormal at first. I couldn’t attend the Arizona game due to Christmas obligations. All of the games I attended through most of the first three months were far from sellouts. Part of this was due to opponent quality; part of it was due to a slightly-underwhelming win-loss record; part of it, of course, could be COVID-related.

The Vol Pass is sold through the university for $150. Considering what you get – access to all 16 home games, including what ended up being four games against Top 15 opponents – it is one of the last respites of reasonable ticketing that exists in our nation. Attendance is plummeting everywhere you look. College football reported its seventh-consecutive drop in attendance. Dennis Dodd locked the replies on his Tweet about it because people correctly said “it’s the money!” The NBA and NHL are having a hard time bringing fans back. About the only thing that’s going up right now across the board is English football, famous bastion of normal fandom (which I adore).

A post I look at frequently because it feels like it sums up everything is a strange oddity from Lawyers, Guns, and Money: a post about Michigan football’s average ticket price from 1900 to 2000, adjusted for inflation. Why it exists, I’m not sure, but it’s useful.

The average ticket price at Michigan Stadium in the first post-COVID season – a season where even Michigan lifers didn’t actually believe in them as a Playoff team until 42-27 had finalized – was $146, per SeatGeek. That number hasn’t touched double digits since 2014, a season where they were trying to fire anybody they could. Tennessee football has to fill 102,455 seats, an insane amount for a team with a 40% conference win rate at home in the last decade. Average ticket price during that time: $93.

Tennessee basketball fell from 4th to 5th this season in average game-by-game attendance. It was frankly understandable. Until January 22, Tennessee had played four games against teams ranked 200th or worse in KenPom at Thompson-Boling Arena; they’d had just one opponent (Arizona) rank higher than 78th. That Arizona crowd was pretty excellent despite a lack of students in attendance, but that felt like a fluke more than the norm. Even the LSU crowd on January 22 sounded somewhat subdued on air.

The Florida game four days later was one of the most poorly-planned sporting events I have ever attended. We left our house, which is normally a 20-minute drive from the arena, at 4:57 PM; we parked at 6:07 and got into the arena at 6:19. Whatever ESPN person is responsible for this is a miserable cretin. All of this is beside the point: in the second half of a must-win home game, the crowd got as loud as I could remember hearing it since the moment Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield left campus. It proved crucial in a victory.

Three weeks later, Tennessee drew the #3 team in America to town for a 9 PM tipoff. A similar story unfolded: the opposing team started hot. Then, a sellout crowd with the lowest percentage of blue I have seen since I started attending Tennessee basketball games turned things around.

11 days later, after the longest week of my life, Auburn came to town. This was the Auburn team that spent weeks at #1, the same team that kept telling the analytics to shove it. All Auburn did was win close ones. All Auburn did, for years, was spin Tennessee into a tizzy. Rick Barnes, for all of his positives and general ownership of John Calipari, could never beat Bruce Pearl. Down 39-28, it felt unreasonable to ask for it. The crowd delivered. The students Swag Surfed. The floor was fed.

Tennessee, through all of this, kept bringing people back. Everyone who jumped off the bandwagon in January wanted back on in March. The story was similar for Arkansas, a team that started 0-3 in SEC play then rattled off a 13-in-14 stretch to be in a position where, with a win and an Auburn loss, they’d be the SEC’s 1 seed for the conference tournament. The crowd was asked, for the first time in a while, to checker Thompson-Boling Arena. The crowd delivered.

Then they delivered again, and again, and again, and again, and again.

Tennessee was a perfect 16-0 at home this year. The other members of the SEC’s top four went a combined 53-1. Across all of college basketball, per KenPom, the home-court win rate this year held steady with 2020-21 at 57.5%. That roughly equates to a two or 2.5-point edge, which is all of one basket. If a crowd is responsible for an extra couple of points, that’s useful enough. Ken’s site doesn’t give any one program a home-court advantage of more than 4.8 points, which belongs to Texas Tech.

But maybe, just maybe, a group of 21,678 people can look at statistics that have held up for years, decades even, and say “we are bigger.” This group rallied behind a team in need all season and delivered. This group of fans, and many thousands more, rallied around Tennessee’s most beloved player in a time of need and delivered. Every time Tennessee asked for more, the fans came through. Every time they were asked to do anything at all, they did it. Every time the in-arena DJ begged older fans to get out of their seats at a critical time of the game, they did it. It was all they could do to help. It’s all they know how to do: help.

There are a lot of things to slow down and consider as the season ends. Many of them revolve around the team itself, the most resilient group with the most lovable player Tennessee has produced in some time. A team that kept delivering monster home wins left and right is certainly something you’ll remember for a long time. But what stands out more than anything is the money.

I spent $150 (well, $300 for two) on the Vol Pass this year. What a bargain, man. I got to see 10 of the games, all wins. Tennessee played #4, #3, and #14 in a three-week span and beat them all, leading over half of those 120 minutes by double-digits. So many points were scored. So many turnovers were forced. So many bench celebrations were seen. So many good things, which really did end up outweighing the bad, were observed about the on-court product.

Greater than any of that is how many different fans I saw. I went into this season seeking the normalcy of basketball; what I actually found felt more impactful and meaningful. We never sat by the same people twice, unless you count the now-famous band member who performs advanced art to “Enter Sandman”. We sat in nine different sections, both lower and upper deck. Some people we sat by were…less than wonderful, but on the whole, they were fine people. The uniting thing was that they were all involved. All of them were there for the game. Not for the bets; not for a social media post; not even for March, necessarily. For the basketball. For the feeling of being in an arena again. For community, for fandom, for high-fives, for joy.

It was all there, and I saw it. You’ll never take it from me, not from this brain. Not when I needed it most. They delivered, and they delivered some more. I’ll miss it.


HELLO. This is the notes section. I know we haven’t done this in a minute, but it’s a good time to bring it back.

  • Bracket Watch. There will be a full post about it on…Tuesday? Maybe? But rest assured, I am Monitoring™ the situation. As of the time of writing (Sunday, 9:38 PM ET), Tennessee is 11th overall in the Bracket Matrix consensus, AKA the third 3 seed. I’ve noticed some of the top bracketology people having them 9th or 10th. We’ll see what bears out.
  • We must become the pitiless censors of ourselves officials. I mean come on man. The Arkansas game tipped off at 12:02 PM ET, and while game script played some importance in this being a thing, no college basketball game that ends in regulation should take a full 2:30 to wrap. We’re looking at a situation where you’re not leaving campus until, like, 3:15 PM ET…and that’s before you have your actual drive home. What are we doing here? Enough of the fouls, enough of the reviews.
  • Which brings me to the Coach’s Challenge. College basketball should institute this within the next five years. As Jon Reed pointed out to me yesterday it’s improved the final minutes of NBA games immensely. Each coach/team gets one challenge. Think that’s not enough? Think of watching an official review a play for five minutes then keeping the call on the court.
  • A night for double-big lineups. I have hated on these previously, but they worked against Arkansas. Tennessee was outscored by 4 when using single-big lineups; they outscored Arkansas by 8 with multiple bigs on the court. Part of this was due to Tennessee’s foul issues but Tennessee also had a heck of a time getting decent looks from two.
  • On Georgia. Tennessee sleep-walked for a while, hit the gas, went up by 15, turned off the car, then idled home to survive. None of what happened in this game had any real factor for Arkansas. It’s like playing Missouri in football: it happens, you remember nothing other than a cool play or two.
  • The new rotation post-Nkamhoua. It breaks down as such, per KenPom. Tennessee has shrunk itself to a nine-man rotation but I imagine most didn’t figure Powell to be mostly out of it:

PG: Chandler 31 MPG/Zeigler 9
SG: Zeigler 17/Vescovi 16/Bailey 6
SF: Vescovi 17/James 15/Powell 4/Bailey 4
PF: James 16/Fulkerson 12/Huntley-Hatfield 12
C: Aidoo 14/Plavsic 14/Fulkerson 6/Huntley-Hatfield 6

Thanks for reading along this year. More posts to come.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Arkansas (II)

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT #14 Arkansas
24-6, 13-4 SEC, #19 KenPom
25-7, 13-4 SEC, Elite Eight 2020-21
LOCATION Thompson-Boling-Fulkerson Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME Saturday, March 5
noon
CHANNEL ESPN
ANNOUNCERS Tom Hart (PBP)
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: Tennessee -7
Torvik: Tennessee -5.1

On January 15, Tennessee was 2-3 in SEC play and had just gotten smoked by their biggest rival by 28 points. The season felt pretty stupid. I was thinking about how nice it must be to have never created an account on Twitter. On January 15, Arkansas was also 2-3 in SEC play, and while they’d beaten LSU on the road, it was an Arkansas team that had just lost five of six with the only win being over KenPom #244 Elon. They were…not exactly on track to make the NCAA Tournament.

Fast-forward seven weeks. Tennessee and Arkansas are both 13-4. Tennessee’s only loss is to top-20 Arkansas on the road; Arkansas’s only loss is to top-25ish Alabama on the road. Both have beaten Kentucky and Auburn, the conference’s two best (per KenPom) teams, at home. Both have lovable players. Both have grown to adore their flawed, frenetic, defensively-dominant basketball teams. The winner of this game is guaranteed no worse than the 2 seed in the SEC Tournament, and with just one (admittedly very unlikely) Auburn loss, the winner would be the 1 seed.

Look at us. Who would’ve thought? Not me.


Arkansas offense

The nice thing about Tennessee having played this team all of two weeks ago is that, largely, I have already written everything I felt was worth researching on the offense. Plus, the amount of free time I have to work on these at the moment is…very small. If you missed the first game’s preview, here’s the link. Here’s what’s changed about Arkansas in two weeks:

  • Remember when I mentioned they were the 108th-best offense nationally from January 12th onward? They’re better now – Torvik has them as the 55th-best offense over the last ten games – but all of the same shooting concerns still exist. Razorbacks over last 10: 47% on twos, 33% from deep, one spot ahead of A&M in offensive efficiency. When you’re being mentioned alongside A&M in an offensive sentence, that’s a bad thing.
  • Torvik has a sort of Points Above Replacement stat called PORPAGATU! I reference every time in the Starters + Rotations section. #1 on the team over the last month has been Stanley Umude (11.6 PPG/4.7 RPG season-long), who is 24-for-55 on threes since February commenced. Guard him.
  • J.D. Notae (18.8 PPG/4.4 RPG/3.6 APG)’s usage has actually increased to nearly 30% of all Arkansas possessions in February. The same Chaotic Good about him exists – 62.5% at the rim on the season, 37% on threes in February, quality passer – while all of the same Just Plain Chaotic stuff is becoming quite visible (42% on twos in February, fouled out against Tennessee).
  • Jaylin Williams (10.9 PPG/9.7 RPG) has taken more charges than anyone else in America, so, uh, hope you get some good home officiating? Anyway, this is an offensive section, and Williams has become the clear #2 option offensively. Since February 1: 15 PPG on a 48.5% eFG%, which undersells the impact somewhat. Williams draws a bunch of fouls and is crazy good at midrange twos (18-for-32 in February) but crazy bad at threes (19% in February, 26% for his career). I would let him shoot, but strangely, I would not let him shoot the 15-footers.
  • Davonte Davis (7.6 PPG in Feb) and Au’Diese Toney (8.7 PPG in Feb) are the only other 4+ PPG scorers over the last month. Davis remains a curious case: terrific at the rim, below-average at shooting despite a recent hot streak. I’ve noticed he commits frustration fouls when things don’t go well. Toney, meanwhile, is 1-for-15 since February 1 on everything that isn’t a layup or dunk.
  • Only other guys that get real minutes are Chris Lykes and Trey Wade. Lykes is a genuine Disaster Factory (h/t MGoBlog) and posted a 28% FG% last month while committing 4.7 fouls per 40. Wade is almost invisible offensively, but can shoot a little.

CHART!

Arkansas defense

Similar to the offensive section, here’s the first game’s preview on the defense. Here’s what’s changed since then:

  • This is the #4 defense nationally over the last month, but I would caution this because of one specific thing: teams are shooting 26.7% from three against them in that span. That is…unsustainable. Tennessee got a lot of good looks from deep in the first game and just didn’t hit them. Considering Missouri (a true Disaster Factory of a program) made more threes than Tennessee, I am withholding judgment.
  • Still not blocking a ton of shots, but the general gist of “this defense forces a very bad shot quality from the average opponent” still holds. Opponents are taking about 29% of their shots from non-rim two-point territory and hitting just 30.8% of them.
  • An alarming thing right now, however, is that they’ve become very leaky on the defensive boards. Kentucky/LSU/Auburn are all really good on the boards, but to surrender 40% or worse DREB% to each of them is a bad sign. Jaylin Williams is playing 33-34 minutes a night right now because he’s very good, but also because Arkansas goes from an okay DREB team to a disaster (28.8% vs. 37.5%) when he leaves the court, per Hoop-Explorer.
  • The turnovers. Arkansas has forced almost a 20% TO% rate over their last ten, which is very good when you consider the competition. Notae obviously is a hound on defense, but Chris Lykes, all of 5’7″, is creating a ton of havoc. Only Tari Eason has a better per-minute steal rate in February among SEC players.
  • Catch-and-shoots from the first time out: still a potential flaw. Arkansas sits at an Actually Bad 49/51 Guarded/Unguarded rate.

How Tennessee matches up

I’m still fairly concerned about Tennessee’s inability to hit twos now that Olivier Nkamhoua is out of the lineup, and this may or may not be the game that gets you back on the right track. Still: you have to hit some twos eventually. 43% 2PT% over the last ten games is…brutal. The competition is what it is, but if you shoot 43% from two against a good opponent in March, you better have the threes to bail yourself out.

Tennessee is playing an opponent who is good at most things but very bad at two specific play types: basket cuts (14th-percentile) and hand-offs (15th-percentile). Tennessee is much more well-versed in the first of these, but in the first game, they got zero points from five cuts, per Synergy. That’s inexcusable; considering Arkansas got 12 on 13 cuts, that pretty much explains the scoring differential and the loss. If Tennessee wants to turn things around on Senior Day, Uros Plavsic and John Fulkerson have to finish at the rim. Alternately, the back-cut with Chandler has worked very well as of late. My thought is that if a team over-commits to stop Chandler, Fulkerson or someone’s going to be open inside. Be prepared for a variety of scenarios.

Hand-offs are a hair trickier, because Tennessee doesn’t run these as often; it’s roughly 3-4 times in the average game. The first time out, they ran five and went 0-4 FG on them. (Again, a potential reason for the poor offensive performance.) The general idea of all four shots were fine, and two of the threes were pretty open, but they didn’t go down. Santiago Vescovi has been the main recipient of hand-offs, but if you want a similar feature from a different set, just keep running the same off-ball sets you’ve ran for Vescovi (and others) all season.

Defensively: make Notae take jumpers, make…everyone take jumpers? That’s obviously a little reductive but this is a team that’s shooting well at the rim and shooting poorly everywhere else. When you’re 301st in 3PT% I’m probably gonna recommend you let them shoot the ball. The only guys you truly have to run off the line are Umude (who’s white-hot right now) and Notae if he gets a catch-and-shoot. Everyone else, whatever, beats Jaylin Williams running roughshod on you down low. I know Tennessee got hit on this a little by two random Davonte Davis (career 27% 3PT%) makes but still.

Some of this is also just intangible stuff: stay focused, don’t give up backdoor cuts, hope you win referee roulette. I’ve reached a minor point of season-long tranquility where I’m very pleased with how this season has unfolded no matter what, but, uh…just win, baby.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: Role is algorithmically-determined by Bart Torvik. 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

  • Please make the threes. I mean flip literally two threes from the first game and it feels entirely different in that final minute. And that would’ve meant a 6-for-24 performance. If Tennessee can manage even 32-33% or better I think they’re in business.
  • Can Tennessee find a path to the rim? Arkansas forced 19 non-rim twos against 16 rim attempts in the first game. Part of this was influenced by insane officiating, sure, but Jaylin Williams is just that good. Gotta find some backdoor cuts and screens to open things up and keep the ball moving.
  • Senior Day John. Fulkerson put together one of his best performances of the 2020-21 season on his initial Senior Day last year. Does he do it again in his final TBA game? Even at 14 & 7 or so it’s a massive difference-maker.

Key matchups

J.D. Notae vs. Kennedy Chandler. Despite the insane foul calls I thought Chandler won this battle the first time out. (Notae obviously picked up 2-3 terrible calls, too.) The key this time is continuing to push the ball to the rim and, well, making open threes. Holding Notae to 15 or less again would be a win.

Jaylin Williams vs. Center Roulette. Again, Tennessee plays four different guys so whatever. Williams cannot be allowed to go for 13 & 16 again and draw six charges. Can you get a guy who’s at 3.8 fouls/40 for his career in foul trouble? If so: profit.

Stanley Umude vs. Josiah-Jordan James. These are two guys who are hot at the perfect time. James just got done having the best scoring performance of his career, while Umude is the one Arkansas player I’d be worried about for all 40 minutes from deep.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee wins the foul battle (yes, seriously);
  2. Santiago Vescovi hits four threes;
  3. Tennessee 72, Arkansas 65.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Georgia

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT Georgia
6-23, 1-15 SEC, #209 KenPom
14-12, 7-11 SEC 2020-21
LOCATION Stegeman Coliseum
Athens, GA
TIME Tuesday, March 1
6:30 PM ET
CHANNEL SEC Network
ANNOUNCERS Tom Hart (PBP)
Dane Bradshaw (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: Tennessee -16
Torvik: Tennessee -12.8

Before this post starts, I wanted to get it on this site that I’m sincerely thankful for everyone who’s reached out in the last week. I read all of your comments and tweets and they really helped me get through what was a pretty rough week. It is good to be back in a normal routine.

Also, it’s not like I was going to miss this one. Sometime in the summer, I went on Chase Thomas’s show and said that Georgia had the worst roster I had seen in the SEC in nearly a decade. I felt pretty good about that, but when Georgia beats Memphis and Alabama in the same season you start to wonder about it. Then again, that Georgia team comes in at 6-23, 1-15 SEC, and you simply realize you were right. For once.


Georgia’s offense

Genuinely, this part of the Tom Crean Experience isn’t bad. Georgia has a top 100 offense that gets a ton of shots blocked and turns it over 24/7, but they have better scorers than I would’ve guessed in preseason and have had the 9th-best offense among SEC teams in conference play. Not bad! Promise! Crean’s reputation rests on the fact that he has a huge offensive playbook, so I guess that’s nice.

There are three players you need to know: Kario Oquendo (15.3 PPG), Braelen Bridges (12.7 PPG), and Aaron Cook (10.1 PPG). First scorers first: Oquendo is a sophomore who’s been the biggest positive surprise on the roster. He plays 2-4 but spends most of his time at the 3. Whenever Oquendo learns to shoot, I think he could be a legitimate All-SEC contender under a better coach; he is 48-for-176 (27.3%) on everything that isn’t within four feet of the rim this year. But man, he is incredible at the rim: 30 dunks, 102-for-151 (67.5%) down low. Don’t let him get loose in transition.

Bridges is the center and is entirely not a threat on jumpers, as he’s attempted two this season. Instead, you have to deal with an array of post moves and work down low, as he’s Georgia’s most consistent threat at the rim in half-court offense. He’s hitting 81.8% of his shots at the rim on non-transition possessions, which is an insane rate that you would expect from, like, Giannis.

Cook will not get a GIF because this post needs to be short, but he was the eighth or so best player on Gonzaga’s runner-up team last year. Here, he’s been fine, but inefficient (91 ORtg) and a pretty middling 28% 3PT% shooter. Cook’s main feature is that he’s Georgia’s only true point guard, and when your point guard is a guy that would probably be Tennessee’s seventh or eighth man…well, it’s not great. He holds a 24% TO% and has a 43.5% eFG% on the season. Not quite Disaster Factory stuff, but because announcers have to find someone on this roster to praise, prepare yourself.

Only two other players average more than 5 PPG: Noah Baumann (8.5 PPG) and Jabri Abdur-Rahim (7.3 PPG). Baumann is the only consistent deep threat on this roster, a guy that’s 41% from deep on the season and 42.5% for his career. He’s absolutely worth running off the line, even if it means Georgia gets an open look at the rim. Abdur-Rahim barely played at Virginia last year and functions as the sixth man of sorts here. He’s the second best shooter (33.7% 3PT%) but is bizarrely awful at Other Twos, going 4-for-30 on the year. Jaxon Etter averages 5 PPG but shoots it not even four times a game.

CHART!

Yes: “Be afraid.” 😬
Somewhat: “They can hit this but not very efficiently.” 🤔
No: “Either never attempts this shot or is atrocious at making it.” 🥳

Georgia’s defense

I think my public high school experience, even in rural Tennessee, was probably similar to most in two very specific ways: 1. Every high school has a few ‘bands’ that last a year or two; 2. These bands are largely terrible, but you know the people in them, so you root for them to succeed. Anyone who attempts to play music in a public setting, in some sense, deserves applause. It’s not easy to try. This being said, you can absolutely feel second-hand embarrassment for someone else being very, very bad at something.

This is how I feel watching Georgia attempting to play defense in a public setting.

358 teams play Division I college basketball. 358 teams attempt to stop other teams from scoring at the rim. Georgia ranks 358th in FG% allowed at the rim, the very worst mark in college basketball. It does not matter how hard your schedule is. It probably does not matter what year of a tenure your coach is in. Injuries matter, but not this level of matter. Top to bottom, this is the single most embarrassing defense the SEC has had in 20 years.

If you want it hammered in – and why not, I think I’ve earned this – here is a list of fun facts about this Georgia defense, which shares a campus with the greatest football defense of the last decade.

  • The 13th-best SEC defense has allowed 1.081 PPP in conference play. Georgia has allowed 1.178.
  • Georgia has held three opponents below 1 PPP this season. Three.
  • The last time Georgia held an opponent below 1 PPP was December 7 against Jacksonville.
  • Georgia has not held an opponent below 50% on twos since December 7.
  • Georgia is undefeated (4-0) in games where the opponent turns it over on 23% or more of possessions. Unfortunately for Georgia, they have played 25 other games.

I cannot identify a single positive individual defender on this defense. It would be genuinely depressing to score below 1.1 PPP; only four SEC teams have fallen below that mark. It’s to the point that the fact they don’t foul is entirely an afterthought. Opponents take a lot of threes, too, and Georgia doesn’t guard those well either (52/48 Guarded/Unguarded).

This is a bad roster. This is worse effort. I’d imagine this starts at the top, because their coach last oversaw a Top 100 KenPom defense when Obama was in office.

How Tennessee matches up

I mean, just go to the rim. This is overly simplistic, but whatever. You are playing the worst rim defense in the SEC, and possibly the worst rim defense in modern SEC history. I cannot believe a team would be this bad at it, but hey, do your thing. None of their guards can consistently stop a drive to the rim. None of their frontcourt guys can stop a basket cut. Shots are blocked by accident if at all. The best defender on the roster commits 3.8 fouls per 40. Just go to the rim, whether by Chandler or by cut.

The rim is the point. Everything else is secondary. Sure, Tennessee should hit some threes in this one, because Georgia gives up a lot of open ones. But the first priority has to be exploiting this atrocious rim defense, forcing them to pack the paint, and then shooting over the top of them with ease. If Tennessee plays this correctly, they should score 80+ with little sweat.

Defensively, it is also mostly about the rim, but in the sense that you can’t let Oquendo get loose in transition and you have to get the ball out of Bridges’ hands in the half-court. The worst-case scenario involves Georgia hitting a few more threes than expected, but it also means Bridges and/or Oquendo getting a lot of buckets in the paint. It happened to Memphis, it happened to Alabama, it could…well, maybe happen to Tennessee. But even so: just cut it off. If Tennessee slows this game down, the path to points for Georgia is hard to envision beyond an outlier shooting day.

This is a great game to continue doing all the little things Tennessee normally does well: shrink passing lanes, stuff the gaps, make Georgia take a lot of bad two-pointers, let everyone not named Baumann take threes. Tennessee has a very smart roster with lots of quality defenders on it. It would be nice to see them do what we’ve grown used to them doing.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: Role is algorithmically-determined by Bart Torvik. 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

  • Focus. Does Tennessee come out looking ahead to Saturday’s Arkansas game? Does Tennessee build an early lead, then let Georgia back into it because they’re focusing on Arkansas? This goes for Georgia as well, whose head coach may get fired for cause. If Georgia goes down by 10, does that turn into 20 in a four-minute span?
  • Shootin’. Georgia has actually shot fairly well in SEC play; they’re the 5th-best 3PT% team at 34.4%. Tennessee enters at 35.7%, or second-best. If Tennessee outshoots Georgia from deep I am genuinely unsure of how or why this game would be within ~12 points in the final minutes.
  • How much of a blowout is turnover margin? This is #18 vs. #340 in turnover margin. Tennessee winning this stat by less than 6 would be kind of disappointing.

Key matchups

Kario Oquendo vs. Santiago Vescovi. The games where Georgia’s played above expectation have largely been ones where Oquendo goes for 25+, excluding the Alabama win. Just don’t let him go off. Also would be nice for Vescovi to generate some offense inside the 3PT line.

Braelen Bridges vs. Center Roulette. Bridges has been insane at the rim and is one of the few nice things Georgia has. It would be ideal to hold him to his average of 12 or less.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee wins turnover margin by 7+;
  2. John Fulkerson is the game’s KenPom MVP;
  3. Tennessee 82, Georgia 67.

2021-22 Bracketology, Vol. 2: where Tennessee stands, remaining scenarios, and possible draws

Well, no introduction needed here: it’s all summed up in the title. This post serves as a summary of where Tennessee is, what they could do, where they could go, and everything in between. Let’s get rolling.

Where does Tennessee stand at this moment?

Pretty well, I’d say. Tennessee came in as the 11th team in the Bracket Matrix consensus on Sunday (February 27), which was when I wrote this. Their average seed is 3.16, right behind Villanova and right ahead of Wisconsin. Bart Torvik’s TourneyCast gives them an 98% chance of at least a 4 seed and an 83% shot at a 3 or higher. You could be in a far worse position.

At the time of writing, Tennessee was 7-7 against Quadrant 1 opponents and a combined 14-0 against everyone else. For an idea of how this ranks, only 11 teams have 7 or more Quadrant 1 wins this year, and nine of those (Iowa State/Alabama excluded) are projected as 3 seeds or better. Tennessee has 12 combined Q1+Q2 wins, which is among the 12 best. They’re one of just seven teams in America that has not lost to a Quadrant 2, 3, or 4 opponent. That’s a heck of a resume that screams 3 seed or better.

I would agree with the general Torvik/analytics thought that Tennessee’s most likely seed, barring anything unusual, is a 3. I would rank the likelihood of each seed line as such: 3 > 2 >>> 1 >> 4.

Where do various scenarios have Tennessee seeded?

I’m keeping these really simple. There are only two scenarios worth discussing heading into the SEC Tournament: 2-0 or 1-1. 2-0 means you beat Arkansas; 1-1 means you don’t. Here’s what this would look like as of now. The S-curve rankings are the same, because as of this morning, Tennessee ranked 11th on both Torvik’s site and the general consensus.

2-0, 23-7, 14-4 SEC

Projected S-curve rank: 8th
Projected seed: 2

I struggle to believe this a little bit – I personally think Tennessee would still be a 3 seed, albeit higher than 11th. Still: you’re looking at a position where you enter the SEC Tournament no worse than a 3 seed and in a serious battle for the 2-line. Considering where everyone believed this season was going in January, that’s quite nice. Remind yourself that a 2-0 finish is the most likely scenario (68% odds of happening, per KenPom) and feel happy.

1-1, 22-8, 13-5 SEC

Projected S-curve rank: 11th
Projected seed: 3

Less ideal, but not destructive. The key thing here is that Tennessee would cede ground to Arkansas, but they have a significant resume gap between them and, say, Providence or UCLA. I think Tennessee would certainly be at risk of falling to a 4 depending on SEC Tournament output, though.

Who do you think Tennessee is most likely to draw?

I’m restricting this to the top 4 seeds surrounding Tennessee in a given bracket, because when you get down to 9 and 10 seeds it’s a little fraught. (I’ll still get to this shortly, just not in bracket format.) There are two main scenarios here that are covered, because Tennessee has two paths that encompass roughly 70% of possible outcomes: a 2 seed or a 3 seed. (Plus, this is already going to be a very long post.) Before we get into it, there are some key restrictions you must know.

  1. There’s a specific wording that is worth keeping in mind: “The committee will not compromise the principle of keeping the top four teams from the same conference in separate regions.” What this means is that Tennessee cannot draw Kentucky or Auburn within their region. They cannot draw Arkansas, either. Any SEC team Tennessee gets would be a 5 seed or lower, and even then, there are further restrictions. As such:
  2. You can’t draw a one-time opponent prior to the Round of 32, a two-time opponent prior to the Sweet Sixteen, or a three-time opponent prior to the Elite Eight. Unless they play them in the SEC Tournament, this indeed means Tennessee could draw Alabama in the second round, but it’s only if the committee cannot find a way to avoid that, which would be unlikely. For instance, Tennessee could end up a 3 seed and draw LSU as a 7 or something. Maybe they get Alabama as a 5, whatever. The point is that you likely won’t re-draw an SEC opponent unless multiple upsets happen.
  3. Non-conference rematches are to be avoided in the Round of 64. Meaning: Tennessee isn’t that likely to get any of their opponents as a 13/14/15/16 seed, but if UNC Greensboro or someone wins their conference, the committee would work hard to ensure that’s not Tennessee’s opponent.

So! Now you know.

If Tennessee is a 2 seed…

Potential seed line opponents, per the latest Bracket Matrix consensus:

  • 1 line: Gonzaga, Arizona, Kansas
  • 3 line: Duke, Texas Tech, Villanova, Wisconsin
  • 4 line: Providence, UCLA, Illinois, Connecticut

A path does exist where Tennessee has to go through multiple previous opponents to make the Final Four. I would imagine the Committee probably tries to avoid that wherever possible. For the purpose of our guesswork here, we’re placing Tennessee as the final 2 seed and bumping Duke (the current final 2 seed) to a 3. Seeing as there’s no direct S-curve conflicts, Tennessee would then likely draw Gonzaga as their 1 seed. Not great! But it’s there.

Tennessee would then most likely draw Duke as their 3 seed, as they’re next on the seed list. After that, the current final 4 seed (16th overall) is Connecticut, who would be the 4. That was deceptively easy. As a whole, this scenario would only require a couple of seed list switches. This would be your top four and their respective regions:

  • West: Gonzaga, Tennessee, Duke, UConn
  • South: Arizona, Purdue, Texas Tech, Providence
  • Midwest: Kansas, Kentucky, Villanova, Illinois
  • East: Auburn, Baylor, Wisconsin, UCLA

If Tennessee is a 3 seed…

Potential seed line opponents, per the latest Bracket Matrix consensus:

  • 1 line: Gonzaga, Arizona, Kansas
  • 2 line: Baylor, Purdue, Duke
  • 4 line: Providence, UCLA, Illinois, Connecticut

Not much really changes here, but let’s say that Tennessee stays precisely where they’re at: the 11th-team on the seed list, the third-highest three seed. You still can’t play Auburn or Kentucky at any seed line, so disregard both.

We’re assuming this goes in order of what it currently says: Gonzaga-Arizona-Kansas-Auburn/Baylor for your 1 seeds. If you want Baylor ahead of Auburn, sure, doesn’t really change much. It then goes (in order of opponent associated with above) Duke-Purdue-Kentucky-Baylor/Auburn. What this means is:

  • Texas Tech cannot be in the Auburn/Baylor region or the Kansas region.
  • Wisconsin (the final three seed) cannot be in the Arizona region.
  • Tennessee cannot be in the Auburn/Baylor region or the Kansas region (due to Kentucky as the 2).

This leaves two options for Tennessee: either Gonzaga’s region or Arizona’s. It does the same for Texas Tech. (Villanova has no restrictions and can go wherever.) By following the seeding order, Texas Tech would go to Gonzaga’s region, as they have no conflicts with either Gonzaga or Duke. Tennessee would then only have one possibility left: the Arizona region, where they would have to beat Purdue to make the Elite Eight. (Villanova would then filter into the Kansas/Kentucky region, followed by Wisconsin to Auburn/Baylor.)

Here’s your respective regions:

  • West: Gonzaga, Duke, Texas Tech, Connecticut
  • South: Arizona, Purdue, Tennessee, Providence
  • Midwest: Kansas, Kentucky, Villanova, Illinois
  • East: Auburn, Baylor, Wisconsin, UCLA

What are the seeds you most want in your bracket?

Instead of doing the usual good/bad draw thing, just use this as a general basis for Selection Sunday. I’ll re-edit it on that particular Sunday, but I guess you can take this as a loose guide to monitor over the next 13 days. I’m waiting to do the back half of this (AKA, the 12-16 seeds and all 9-11s) until conference tournament season ends.

  • 1 seeds: I’m loosely taking the top six Matrix teams as potential 1 seeds. Purdue or Duke could reasonably rise to a 1, but it seems unlikely. Anyway, of the teams you actually can draw, Tennessee wants Kansas (#6 overall in KenPom) as their 1. By a hair, they’re the lowest-rated 1. Really, as long as it isn’t Gonzaga (#1 overall by five full points), it’s not a bad draw.
  • 2 seeds: Wide range of potential draws here: anyone from Kansas to Villanova could potentially be your pick. Either way, there is an obvious desire here: Purdue (#13 overall), who has the nation’s best offense but its 106th-best defense.
  • 3 seeds: From here on, we’re just going with “has an average seed from 3.0-4.0” or similar. That gives you exactly two options to pick from for a 3, and the one you clearly want is Wisconsin (#26 overall), who would be the lowest-rated KenPom 3 seed since #28 Utah in 2015-16, a team that lost in the Round of 32.
  • 4 seeds: Providence (#38 overall). Obviously.
  • 5 seeds: No great options here, as two of them are SEC schools and the other two are ranked 14th and 21st by KenPom. If you have to pick one, Ohio State (#21 overall) has an 87th-ranked defense.
  • 6 seeds: If you want a bad one because you’re the 3, USC (#33 overall) is the obvious pick, a team that is 25-4 but has awful metrics to go with it and plays in a mediocre conference. If you want a good one because you’re the 2, Saint Mary’s (#16 overall), is going to almost certainly be underseeded.
  • 7 seeds: If you’re the 3 and you want a good one, Iowa (#15 overall) is…well, your pick. I don’t actually like it, because Tennessee is just four spots ahead of Iowa, but if you get to the Sweet Sixteen and it’s a 7 seed standing between you and the Elite Eight, you take what you can get. If you’re the 2 and you want a lesser 7: Marquette (#37 overall) is playing more like a 9/10.
  • 8 seeds: If you’re a 2 or 3 and you want the best possible 8 seed to knock out your 1, you can’t go wrong with either Boise State (#25 overall) or Murray State (#27 overall), two mid-majors who are white-hot and probably deserve better seeds. If you’re the 1 seed, you want an easier path, so you’d want…uh, Iowa State (#31 overall)? No truly bad options here at the moment, but Iowa State is #119 in offense.

Where will Tennessee be headed for the first two rounds?

Bear with me here, as it’s a complicated affair. This one was requested by a message board user, and to be frank, I can more easily explain this than I can regional possibilities. (Because Tennessee likely won’t be a 1 seed, there’s a lot of factors that go into which of the four regions they’ll eventually call home.) This year, for teams in Southeastern states, the pickings are slim: only Greenville, South Carolina offers a site that’s close to any SEC school. Indianapolis, a 5.5-hour drive from Knoxville, is second-closest.

The best way of explaining this is to offer a description of all eight sites, along with which teams are closest to them. What I’m doing is taking the top 24 teams in Bracket Matrix as of this morning and simply seeing which schools are within 500 miles of each site. (It’s just a big round number, don’t read too deeply into it.) Of the eight first and second-round sites, this is what we’re looking at. An important note for someone, surely: these are point-to-point miles, not driving distance. Why? Well, you try doing this in Google Maps 200 times.

Teams Within 500 Miles of a Site, Per a Website My Brother Sent Me

  • Buffalo, NY (Thu/Sat): Kentucky (440 miles), Purdue (447), Duke (476), Villanova (280), Providence (388), Connecticut (193), Ohio State (290)
  • Fort Worth, TX (Thu/Sat): Kansas (445), Baylor (83), Texas Tech (269), Houston (236), Texas (174), Arkansas (292)
  • Indianapolis, IN (Thu/Sat): Kansas (488), Auburn (496), Kentucky (148), Purdue (62), Duke (474), Tennessee (290), Wisconsin (286), Illinois (113), Ohio State (168), Alabama (435)
  • Portland, OR (Thu/Sat): Gonzaga (294)
  • Greenville, SC (Fri/Sun): Auburn (235), Kentucky (251), Purdue (459), Duke (213), Tennessee (115), Ohio State (355), Alabama (271)
  • Milwaukee, WI (Fri/Sun): Kansas (474), Kentucky (386), Purdue (186), Wisconsin (76), Illinois (203), Ohio State (327)
  • Pittsburgh, PA (Fri/Sun): Kentucky (289), Purdue (364), Duke (330), Villanova (256), Tennessee (376), Illinois (435), Providence (457), Connecticut (236), Ohio State (161)
  • San Diego, CA (Fri/Sun): Arizona (361), UCLA (112), USC (112), Saint Mary’s (CA) (451)

Here’s why all of this information is at least mildly useful.

  1. As of now, Gonzaga is 98% likely to be a 1 seed, per Torvik. We can lock them in for Portland, the only location with 300 miles of Spokane.
  2. You can fill in the blanks for a few of these locations by way of small packs to pick from. Each location gets two top 16 teams each. Without a single controversial decision, you could make the following set before we endure some tougher picks. This sets seven of the top 16 without much sweat.
    • Buffalo: Villanova
    • Fort Worth: Baylor, Kansas (their closest possible destination)
    • Indianapolis:
    • Portland: Gonzaga
    • Greenville:
    • Milwaukee: Wisconsin
    • Pittsburgh:
    • San Diego: Arizona, UCLA
  3. Process of elimination can fill in the rest. Here’s what I’ve arrived at, if literally nothing changes:
  • Buffalo: Villanova, Providence
  • Fort Worth: Baylor, Kansas
  • Indianapolis: Kentucky, Purdue
  • Portland: Gonzaga, Texas Tech
  • Greenville: Auburn, Duke
  • Milwaukee: Wisconsin, Illinois
  • Pittsburgh: Tennessee, Connecticut
  • San Diego: Arizona, UCLA

Many things will change. Here’s my rationale for each location:

  • Buffalo: Of the likely top-16 seeds (I’d argue everyone from 11th-place Tennessee on up is no worse than a 4 seed at season’s end), only Villanova is within 400 miles of this location. They’re an obvious pick. The ticket office is likely hoping UConn (193 miles away, big fanbase) is here, too, but Providence was ahead of them on the seed list.
  • Fort Worth: Baylor is 83 miles away. Kansas is not within 400 miles of any location this year, but this is the closest one and in Big 12 country. Unfortunately, this locks out Texas Tech of its only sub-500 mile location that’s available. If they finish ahead of either team in the seed curve or if Kansas elects to take Indianapolis or Milwaukee, they could very well be here instead.
  • Indianapolis: This is no worse than a three-hour drive for Kentucky fans, who travel in droves. Technically, Illinois is only 113 miles away, and Tennessee and Wisconsin are close too. However: Wisconsin has a closer site that they’ll be a top pick for. Tennessee’s only realistic path to Indianapolis is if Purdue is, uh, “selected” (AKA, the AD asks for it) to go to Milwaukee instead.
  • Portland: Gonzaga is the only team close at all to this location. I could reasonably see UCLA being shuffled here to make room for Texas Tech in Los Angeles, which is closer than Portland, but someone is going to get screwed. Happens every year.
  • Greenville: Assuming Kentucky picks Indianapolis, this is basically a two-out-of-three battle between Auburn, Duke, and Tennessee. If Tennessee is ahead of any one of those three teams, they will be in Greenville. Someone has to lose out, though. The most likely combination with Tennessee in it is Auburn/Tennessee, because this is Auburn’s closest location by some distance and Duke can pivot to Pittsburgh, which is two extra hours away.
  • Milwaukee: Again, Wisconsin (76 miles away) seems like a lock as long as they don’t blow a top-4 seed in the next two weeks. The next pick is more interesting. If Kansas pivots to Milwaukee to make room for Texas Tech in Fort Worth (which I wouldn’t really understand), that means Illinois gets sent to the West Coast. Alternately, if Purdue picks Milwaukee over Indianapolis, that sets off a chain of events that would also end up with Illinois on the West Coast.
  • Pittsburgh: This one is a mess. Seven of the Matrix’s top 19 teams are within a 400-mile drive of this city. You have to make a few assumptions to make it work: Kentucky’s out, Villanova’s out, Purdue’s out, and UConn/Ohio State may get there but possibly not as top-4 seeds. That leaves Duke and Tennessee, one of whom would be in Greenville already. Unless UConn stays at the 4 line, the other team here is a 4 seed that has nowhere else to go.
  • San Diego: Blissfully simple: Arizona’s closest location, as is UCLA’s. The only potential drama here is if UCLA gets shuffled up to Portland (826 miles) to make room for Texas Tech in San Diego (887), which may happen anyway if UCLA falls to a 5 or 6 seed.

How does the mess you typed out affect Tennessee?

Assuming no major outliers or overly weird events, I would rank Tennessee’s most likely locations as follows:

  1. Pittsburgh (45%)
  2. Greenville (30%)
  3. Indianapolis (15%)
  4. Randomizer (somehow losing out on all three, because Selection Committee) (10%)

The top two of those are Friday/Sunday locations, so I guess I’m saying Tennessee is looking at an ~80% shot of playing Friday/Sunday. Plan accordingly.

What time of day is Tennessee going to play?

Can’t really help you here. There’s a lot of different things that would go into this: which location you’re at, who else is in your ‘pod’, what crowd you’re expected to bring, if you’re paired with a West Coast team, etc. Not much really ends up being surprising about a tip time, really. The only thing you can expect is that games with 11/12-seed First Four teams are generally (but not always) later games on their given days due to the extra travel from Dayton. If Tennessee ends up a 3 seed in a pod where an 11 seed is headed from the First Four, that 6/11 game would be played no earlier than 3 PM Eastern and more likely would be something like a 9:30 PM tip, giving Tennessee the 7 PM ET game.

But yeah, other than that, not much I can tell you. Here’s Tennessee’s tip times since the field expanded to 68:

  • 4:30 PM ET (2021)
  • 3 PM ET (2019)
  • 12:40 PM ET (2018)
  • 2:45 PM ET (2014)
  • 12:40 PM ET (2011)

That’s five consecutive daytime tips in a row. A fair(ish) Selection Committee and TV crew would give Tennessee an evening slot, but they could’ve done that after three or four in a row, too. My recommendation is to not be surprised by anything that happens.

More questions? Concerns? Email statsbywill@gmail.com with the subject line “Ham Sanitizer”.

Tennessee’s remaining SEC Tournament scenarios, from a 1 seed to a 4

Well, the fun part of being out of office for a week is that you end up in a manic writing mode the very first day you come back. This is a good thing, I think. Tennessee’s regular season is just two games away from ending, and things have set up quite well for them. How well? I can help you explore that.

There are three Tennessee-specific scenarios singled out here. I’m not including the one where Tennessee drops a stunner to Georgia because…well, let’s just not go there. (It would almost certainly result in a 4 seed, so just keep that in mind.) These are what I’d consider to be three pretty obvious ones, all of which directly play a role in Tennessee’s seeding outcomes. You can flip games around if you choose (use the tool I used!), but if Tennessee wins out, only one other game actually matters this week for determining where they’d finish.

  1. Go 2-0, all the KenPom favorites win.

Result: 2 seed (tipoff 6 PM ET, Friday)
Projected Opponent: winner of (10) Mississippi State/(7) LSU

Here is the most likely scenario, but in the sense that in a pack of nearly 200 possible outcomes, the most likely 14-game pack of events has a 1% chance of happening. ANYWAY, this is assuming a moderately obvious string of events: Auburn goes 2-0 and wins the conference, Kentucky goes 2-0 and finishes third, Arkansas goes 1-1, no sort of upset happens. This is what that bracket would look like.

You’re looking at a potential road that sees Tennessee having to defeat KenPom #17, #2, and #10 for a conference title. Not ideal. These would be the odds, using Bart Torvik’s Tournament Simulator tool but with KenPom’s February 27 numbers:

Considering Tennessee’s base title odds right now are 19.4%, I guess that’s technically an improvement, but it’s certainly not your happiest path to Sunday. Either way: 14-4 gives you the SEC 2 seed and a real win-and-2-seed opportunity with Kentucky that Saturday.

2. Go 2-0, Auburn loses to Mississippi State on Wednesday, all other KenPom favorites win.

Result: 1 seed (!!!) (tipoff 12 PM ET, Friday)
Projected Opponent: winner of (9) Texas A&M/(8) Mississippi State

Oh yeah. This is what I was referencing: as long as Tennessee goes 2-0 this week, only one game actually matters for them that they aren’t involved in. Auburn plays twice this week, but the second of those is Senior Day at home against South Carolina (92% win likelihood), so no need. What we really care about here is that Wednesday tip with Mississippi State. If Auburn loses this game, which they have a 35% chance of doing, Tennessee will be the 1 seed by defeating Arkansas. The last time Tennessee was the SEC Tournament 1 seed, I was 14. I am 28 now.

This, frankly, would be a gigantic swing for Tennessee. Auburn would fall to second and Kentucky third, meaning Tennessee would play neither team until championship Sunday. This is what such a bracket would look like:

And these would be the odds:

As a spoiler, Kentucky is going to be the SEC Tournament favorite, barring some sort of insane draw. (As in them getting LSU > Auburn > Tennessee or similar.) There are two main points here: Tennessee’s title odds would jump 8%, and they’d have a >50% chance to be playing in the championship game on Sunday. That exact scenario – beat Mississippi State, beat Arkansas – would currently place Tennessee as the final 2 seed in the field heading into Sunday, per Torvik’s TeamCast tool. What more could you ask for?

3. Go 1-1, all other KenPom favorites win.

Result: 4 seed (tipoff ~2:30 PM ET, Friday)
Projected Opponent: winner of (5) Alabama vs. (12) Missouri or (13) Ole Miss

Ugh. Arkansas beats Tennessee, everything else holds. Don’t feel like discussing this extremely annoying scenario much, so hopefully it doesn’t happen. Anyway, here’s that bracket:

And here’s the odds.


Here’s a big grab-bag of various possible outcomes that don’t necessarily involve Tennessee, but we’ll toss Tennessee in at the end of each for context:

  • The higher-ranked KenPom team wins each game. This does not mean the favorite wins each; for example, Florida is rated higher than Vanderbilt, but Vanderbilt being at home gives them the projected edge. Flipping that result as well as two others (State > A&M, Vandy > Ole Miss) would create a sixth-place four-way tie at 9-9. In this scenario, 2 seed Tennessee would play the winner of (7) Florida/(10) Vanderbilt.
  • Every home team wins…except Georgia. Plausible! The SEC home win rate this year is 64.3%, the highest of any college basketball conference. If home teams go 13-1 (including a Tennessee 2-0 run), Tennessee would be the 1 seed and would play the winner of (8) South Carolina/(9) Mississippi State. Wildest of all: the 4 seed would be Kentucky.
  • The scenario where all KenPom favorites win. AKA, the most likely scenario, but not necessarily the one that will happen. This is what such a bracket would look like:
    • (1) Auburn vs. (8) Texas A&M/(9) Florida
    • (2) Tennessee vs. (7) LSU/(10) Mississippi State
    • (3) Kentucky vs. (6) South Carolina/(11) Vanderbilt/(14) Georgia
    • (4) Arkansas vs. (5) Alabama/(12) Missouri/(13) Mississippi
  • The projected KenPom standings themselves. Which have Auburn at 15-3, UK/UT at 14-4, Arkansas 13-5, and a mess behind it.
  • This exact standings order cannot exist, because of some of the remaining matchups. However, a force-fit of an arrangement like this produces:
    • (1) Auburn vs. (8) South Carolina/(9) Mississippi State
    • (2) Tennessee vs. (7) Florida/(10) Vanderbilt
    • (3) Kentucky vs. (6) LSU/(11) Texas A&M/(14) Georgia
    • (4) Arkansas vs. (5) Alabama/(12) Missouri/(13) Ole Miss
  • The Schadenfreude Scenario. The one where your mortal enemies go to die. Bask in the glory of this one: Florida goes 0-2. Will Wade goes 0-2. Auburn drops a game. Vandy goes 2-0 and extends Stackhouse. Alabama loses at home to Texas A&M. Kentucky…well, bear with me. But think about that: a ruthlessly funny batch of results that simply makes you bask in hatred. This results in three extremely wonderful things: a three-way tie for the 1 seed that Tennessee wins, Tennessee avoids Auburn AND Kentucky until the final, and it produces a four-way tie at 8-10 that would give Florida the 11 seed and LSU the 9. That’s right: Florida and Mike White, depending on other results, can still potentially play on Wednesday. Here’s what that bracket looks like:
    • (1) Tennessee vs. (8) Vanderbilt/(9) LSU
    • (2) Auburn vs. (7) South Carolina/(10) Texas A&M
    • (3) Kentucky vs. (6) Mississippi State/(11) Florida/(14) Georgia
    • (4) Arkansas vs. (5) Alabama/(12) Missouri/(13) Mississippi
  • The Maximize Your Resume Scenario. This one was a request and a fairly simple one: what’s the three-game path that gives Tennessee the highest possible amount of Quadrant 1 wins? As a reminder, anyone in the NET Top 50 on a neutral floor is a Quadrant 1 opponent. As of time of publishing, only six SEC teams rank in the top 50, but two teams – Florida and Mississippi State – are 51st and 52nd. It’s reasonable to say that either could slide into the top 50 based on other results. So: you’d prefer Florida or MSU as your quarterfinals opponent and no major upsets elsewhere. Something like this would be acceptable. In fact, the scenario above where every KenPom favorite wins leads to exactly this, and if State beats LSU, they could very well be in the top 50.
  • The 3 Seed Scenario. Say you’re a guy…perhaps one named Will Warren…and two months ago, you signed up for a half-marathon on March 12. This is a virtual half, but for two months, you’ve planned to run this at sunrise, which is 6:03 AM Central that day. And say that the SEC Tournament has its 3 seed play at 7:30 PM Central, which doesn’t seem that late but is not ideal for a cramped schedule. Say that, like every other conference tournament basketball game, it starts 15 minutes later than expected and ends at 10. Technically, Tennessee can still be the 3 seed, but it requires a string of independent events to go precisely this way:
    • Arkansas beats LSU (60% chance)
    • Arkansas beats Tennessee (27% chance)
    • Kentucky beats Ole Miss (94% chance)
    • Kentucky loses to Florida (29% chance)
    • Tennessee beats Georgia (93% chance)
  • I guess it’s troubling that only two upsets is required to get there, but that’s still two upsets, neither of which are that likely. I would place the order of seeding likelihood at 2 > 1 >> 4 >>>> 3.
  • Chaos Mode Scenario, Tennessee Edition. Everyone implodes. Tennessee loses to Arkansas. Kentucky loses twice, somehow. So does Auburn. Arkansas loses to LSU. Will this happen? Of course not. But in the very rare event of a four-way tie at 13-5, it resolves like this:
    • 1. Arkansas (4-0 against other three)
    • 2. Tennessee (2-3)
    • 3. Auburn (1-2)
    • 4. Kentucky (1-3)
  • Chaos Mode Scenario, Mid-Pack Edition. Basically: how many teams can possibly tie for any given spot? As of now, six teams can tie at 9-9, which would involve everything from the 5 seed to the 10. This specific scenario predictably requires an unusual string of results, which is as follows.
    • Florida goes 1-1, losing to Vanderbilt but beating Kentucky.
    • Alabama goes 0-2.
    • LSU goes 1-1, losing to Arkansas but beating Alabama.
    • Mississippi State goes 1-1, beating Auburn and losing to Texas A&M.
    • South Carolina goes 1-1.
    • Texas A&M goes 1-1.
  • This combines to create the following hilarious standings order, which I am now rooting for. It would also obviously result in 1 seed Tennessee due to the Auburn loss.
    • 5. LSU (5-2 against this six-team pack)
    • 6. Alabama (4-3)
    • 7. South Carolina (3-3, but 1-0 against A&M)
    • 8. Texas A&M (3-3, but 0-1 against Carolina)
    • 9. Florida (2-3)
    • 10. Mississippi State (2-3)

If you have other questions or scenarios you want explored, email statsbywill@gmail.com and I’ll get back to you.

Neon Swag Surf Evangelion

I can’t pinpoint when I first noticed it; maybe it’s one of those things that just suddenly existed one day. The type of thing that has only existed for a little while but feels like it’s been around for my entire life. I was completely baffled by this at first because, well, it shouldn’t make much sense on its face. It’s sort of like how Michigan (and Cincinnati before them) adopted a 2019 remix of a 2004 club song, or maybe the St. Louis Blues having their Stanley Cup Final run soundtracked by, of all things, “Gloria”.

I am, of course, referencing the fad known as Swag Surfin’.

That video is from January 2016, which is an HBCU-led rendition of a song from 2009 by a group called the Fast Life Yungstaz. (Please know and understand that I have rarely felt more aware of my whiteness than this exact moment.) At the time, this was a semi-hit: peaking at #62 on the Hot 100, I think I remember hearing it on the radio a time or two. I graduated high school in 2011, college in 2015, and do not remember this song being a part of any sporting event I attended. It’s to the point that until finally giving in and Googling “Swag Surfin'” two weeks ago, I realized that for nearly 13 years I thought this song was by Soulja Boy.

The HBCU portion of this research seems important. All of the earliest videos I’m able to find of this are at HBCUs: Clark Atlanta/Morehouse/Spelman in 2013; Howard University in 2015; Winston-Salem State in 2016. Some on Twitter swear that this is an Atlanta thing first, which makes sense because F.L.Y. were Atlantans. Whatever it may be, at some point, this made the jump from HBCUs and Black culture to American culture as a whole.

Willie Taggart, a Black man who coached Oregon’s football team for precisely one season, brought Swag Surfin’ to Oregon in 2017. Then it made it to Michigan State, then Auburn, and a variety of other football stadiums. I cannot find proof of it making it to a basketball arena until March 2018, when, unsurprisingly, Auburn adopted it. I suppose that over a four-year span, only interrupted by a global pandemic, Swag Surfin’ has ensconced itself as its own pandemic: a happy accident to a 13-year-old song previously only treasured by Atlantans and those who made the song what it is in the first place.

All of this to say that I didn’t get it for the longest time. Admittedly, part of this is because I really did think it was a Soulja Boy song. (I would like to offer a defense for myself here. Soulja Boy has songs titled “Pretty Boy Swag” and “Turn My Swag On”, along with four different mixtapes that have Swag in the title. Call it an accidental hybrid?) But also, this is just age. I am 28 and not 21 anymore. I sit far away from the student section. I am closing in on becoming An Old. I think I know a lot about music, but this entire paragraph is about me mis-remembering a really popular song as being by a different artist.

Crowd participation is a tale as old as time. There is the wave, obviously, but there is “All I Do Is Win”. There is “Let It Be”. There is “Hey Jude”. There is “Sweet Caroline”. Then there is “Swag Surfin'”. At first, I found it a mild curiosity that was more baffling than useful. Tennessee’s in-arena music director, whoever they may be, started playing this steadily in the 2021-22 season. Up to a month or so ago, I would’ve put the student participation for Swag Surfin’ at maybe 40%. I get it. It’s enough effort to stand for two hours; it is more effort to sway on beat to a song from 2009.

Maybe this is me projecting my own feelings and life onto the newfound East Tennessee staple. I did not feel any type of way about it until I watched the young man and his grandfather sway to the song days before my own grandfather passed. Even then, it’s just a unique thing that happened towards the end of a uniquely stressful and depressing multi-month stretch for my brain. The Kentucky game was the first time I can remember it appearing as a somewhat-cohesive unit in the student section.

I was planning on investing a very low amount of emotion into yesterday’s game; it’s just been a hard week and a hard two months. At some point, you just feel really tired. This held pretty well until two specific moments: first, when Zakai Zeigler nailed a shot-clock-beating three to tie the game at 39 in the midst of an 11-0 run. Secondly, when I heard “Swag Surfin'” come through the speakers and watched as the student section put together its strongest performance to date.

I do wish there was a video that included the upper deck, but you get what you get when you’re out of space on your iPhone and refuse to delete old messages. Something about this particular Swag Surf got to me. Something about it just feels right. Fundamentally different. Unusual in a good way. Being well on the way to Old status and on the opposite side of the arena, I did not participate, but I felt it projected onto people like me in a positive manner. Maybe you can project it all onto this team, too.

This is a team that started out hot and cold. I didn’t know how to feel about them for a long time, then in January, I was pretty ready to simulate this season to the finish. You watch them get dressed down by 28 in Lexington and it feels like any number of football beatdowns Knoxville has seen in the last 15 years. You figure the best-case scenario is a Sweet Sixteen. The offense is a mess that puts up a game you call the Act of God then manages to replicate something like it multiple times over. There isn’t much to like. There are no leaders.

This is all Battered Vol Syndrome speaking. It would be easy to keep speaking through that; to say that none of this really matters and that Rick Barnes underperforms in March and that it’s pointless to actually invest in this. There’s plenty of painful losses and annoying evidence to back that side of fandom up, I guess. The lasting postseason memories of the last 11 years have been a brutal overtime loss in an instant classic Sweet Sixteen game and a brutal buzzer-beating loss to a Catholic wizard in the middle of Lent.

But in the same way that Swag Surfin’ is the thing, so is Zakai Zeigler nailing that three and Kennedy Chandler winning (!) a post-up matchup with Jabari Smith. So is holding Walker Kessler to 8 & 5. So is a season where you’ve now defeated #2, #3, and #10 in KenPom all in front of sellout home crowds. The two losses since January 15 are a one-point road loss to a top 20 Texas team and a freak outlier shooting night against Arkansas, a top 20 team in their own right.

Everything else has been good and right and working. It feels different from a year ago, when Tennessee had the top-five defense but three home games and crash-landed with a 5 seed. It feels different from most of the Barnes era in general, where the fans actually grow to love the team more over the course of the season and point out the flaws less.

The players have spent the entire back half of this season saying that this is different. Saying that it doesn’t have to be the same old thing over and over. They’ve gone on the road and handled tricky grounders and line drives. They own three wins over teams that will be among the top 2 seed lines. This is a group that, for basically the entire season, has turned opposing offenses into wet sludge. Multiple players have stepped up to be capital-G Guys who are unafraid of the moment, not scared of the stress. A team full of people born after 2000 has completely changed the image of Tennessee basketball in my head.

A team that was leaderless a month ago now has Uros Plavsic goading Jabari Freaking Smith into a technical foul and Zakai Zeigler dancing through defenses. Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, who looked completely listless for three months, suddenly appears to be a legitimately good defender. The entire team pumps up the crowd during timeouts, understanding how crucial the home-court heat is after a year without it.

I think that’s the ultimate crux of why the Swag Surf finally wormed its way into my brain beyond repair. A year without crowds; a year without attending basketball games; two years of national and global despair. This is real Protagonist of History stuff, yes, but it is my lived experience that I am reporting on. It is of no small embarrassment that it has taken a crowd largely of youthful whites in orange to get me to understand it, but this is unfortunately common among people like me. I guess if nothing else, 13 years belatedly, it connects.

While very late to the party, I finally get the Swag Surf. I already got most of the Tennessee experience this year – I wrote about how it was all mud, all the time a month ago and that’s only partially changed – but now it’s sort of transcended the original boundaries. The mud is inescapable for opponents in the same way that Swag Surfin’ has become inescapable in SEC basketball. It travels everywhere and infects everyone. If mud can travel to March, this surprising fount of joy could provide some lifetime memories that you look back on fondly. Maybe you can sway to them.