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.


I know how every obituary starts, more or less. When I was a high schooler, I worked at a public radio station – not an NPR affiliate, but an independent operation that played dentist office music. Part of the job was having to read out obituaries from local funeral homes as they came in. You could classify this as a ‘weird flex,’ but when you live in a town of 12,000 I guess this is a necessary service. Some obituaries state the deceased’s employer. Most offer context about the person who passed away. There’s usually a short biography of some sort. Person was in the U.S. Army; person had two kids, who had these kids, who possibly had those kids. Occasionally, you got the sort of viral goodie about a person wanting to be let down one last time by the Chicago Bears or whoever.

In season 2, episode 10 of Joe Pera Talks With You, the titular character is overcoming the death of his grandmother. If you watch the prior episodes, it’s inferred that said grandmother (and deceased grandparents) raised Joe. The episode hinges on Pera’s inability to write an obituary for his dead grandmother. He eventually does for the local paper, but they have to cut his obituary back dramatically. The editor informs him that running the whole thing would’ve meant putting an entire separate issue of the paper out. The obituary ends with “she loved donuts,” which is perfect and shattering.

Attempting to write anything, in the cold light of day after being informed your hero has passed away after struggling for the last few months, is impossible. There is no perfect obituary. They are both impossibly long and far too short. I could use my Excel skills to calculate all of the sporting events we watched together. I could estimate the cups of coffee shared. I could utilize some sort of heartwarming example of time spent together at his computer repair business. Many amazing memories of my life can be traced back to shared experiences with my grandfather. Many things could be written. It would be too long if I included them all.

So all I can say is this:

Warren County, TN resident and native Robert Barry Warren, age 81, was born January 17, 1941 and died February 19, 2022 at St. Thomas River Park Hospital in McMinnville, TN following an extended illness. He is survived by his loved ones. He owned a computer repair business called Computers Plus from 1997 to 2014. He loved Tennessee basketball and the New York Yankees. Over the course of 28 years, he inspired his grandson, Will, every single day. He loved donuts.

If you are a loyal reader, first, thank you. Second, you may be wondering why this post exists on a website mostly meant for basketball coverage. Here is a four-part answer that serves as explanation and expectation.

  1. There’s enough Tweets out there. Still, I thought it better to share this than to leave cold turkey.
  2. For the first time since March 9, 2018, there will be no Show Me My Opponent for the Missouri game. This breaks a 125-game coverage streak, which is fine. Everything ends eventually.
  3. Two posts that were to come out on Wednesday and Thursday – one on bracketology, one on frontcourt combinations – will be delayed.
  4. The next post on here is most likely to be a preview of the Auburn game. Frankly, I cannot promise that right now, but I will try.

Thanks for reading and supporting what I do the last few years. It made me happy, and it made my grandpa happy, because this was/is all for him. I’ll come back when I’m ready.

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

OPPONENT #23 Arkansas
20-6, 10-4 SEC, #22 KenPom
25-7, 13-4 SEC, Elite Eight 2020-21
LOCATION Springfield Mystery Spot
Fayetteville, AR
TIME Saturday, February 19
Dane Bradshaw (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: Tennessee -1
Torvik: Arkansas -0.9

It just feels pretty good man. Tennessee essentially needed to leave this week no worse than 1-1 to keep pace for the SEC 2 seed and for a top-three NCAA Tournament seed. All you had to do was win one. You got the one, and now you can travel into the Fayetteville House of Horrors For Anyone Not Named Arkansas with house money and a relatively clean mindset.

The opponent is Arkansas, who looked dead in the water in mid-January and has instead risen from the ashes to become the consensus fourth-best team in the SEC. All three years under Musselman, they’ve had like a five-game span of suck and the rest is somewhere between good and great. Even better: this year, I’ll actually pick them in a bracket.

Arkansas’ offense

Well, I’m not sure what to tell you? Arkansas’ season is a tale of two not-quite-halves that I’m calling halves: the first 16 games where they rotated through eight different starting lineups thanks to injuries and poor play, followed by the last 10 games where they’ve stuck with a starting lineup and gone 9-1. The problem is that this matters a lot more for defense than offense (numbers via Torvik):

  • First 16 games: 48th overall, 48th offense, 69th defense
  • Last 10 games: 11th overall, 108th offense, 1st defense

So yeah, don’t know what to say other than just ride with the season-long numbers and hope it makes sense.

You can pretty neatly divide the Arkansas offensive attack into two halves as well: the primary break (transition) and the secondary break (half-court). You can also do this for literally every college basketball offense in existence, but bear with me. Arkansas’s aim off of a missed basket or turnover is to push the pace as much as possible. Per Hoop-Math, 31.8% of the Hogs’ first shot attempts in a possession are in the first ten seconds of the shot clock, which ranks 41st-quickest in the nation. Most of Arkansas’ offense is driven in general by J.D. Notae (18.8 PPG, 3.5 APG), but especially in transition, where he’s responsible for 108 shots this year, 42 more than anyone else on the team.

If you just look at the Synergy data, then both parts of this offense look good. Arkansas is in the 76th-percentile of offensive efficiency when pushing the pace; they’re in the 56th-percentile in half-court. That happens. But Hoop-Math is more objective when it comes to transition: either it’s in the first ten seconds of the shot clock or it isn’t. And that’s where the story begins to be told:

  • Transition eFG%: 58.1% (#65 of 358)
  • Half-court eFG%: 46.8% (#276 of 358)

Whenever the pace slows and Arkansas is forced to run their secondary actions, the offense turns to mush. That alone may explain how Arkansas has managed to get hot at the right time despite an offense that’s gotten significantly worse over a 9-1 stretch of play. The shot selection changes as well. Normally, that’s not something to care much about – every team’s shot selection gets worse the deeper the shot clock goes – but Arkansas is a bizarre extreme in this:

  • Transition: 48.2% of FGA at rim, 17.1% mid, 34.8% 3PA
  • All half-court: 33.8% rim, 32.8% mid, 33.4% 3PA
  • 25+ second possessions: 22% rim, 40.7% mid, 37.3% 3PA

Arkansas goes from Gonzaga in transition to Gonzaga 40 years ago deep in the shot clock. It’s bizarre, because Notae is the leader of both breaks, and Notae’s shooting gap on the rest of the roster actually grows in half-court (295 FGAs; next-closest 177). Notae’s problem is that he defaults to a jumper on 58% of his half-court possessions when…well, he’s kind of a below-average shooter.

Notae is 31.6% from deep this year on 177 attempts and a perfectly average 33.3% on 640 attempts for his career; he takes a ton of difficult shots and rarely gets off a clean look. He kind of has to, because as a whole, this Arkansas offense is light on jump shooters. Synergy ranks the Hogs in the 10th-percentile in jump-shooting in half-court offense, which is, you know, putrid. It helps the numbers in the graphic make sense: 31.4% from deep, a terrible hit rate, and 33.6% on two-point jumpers.

Arkansas has three other guys that average between 10.2 and 11.4 points per game: Stanley Umude (11.4), Au’Diese Toney (10.3), and Jaylin Williams (Not Auburn’s Jaylin Williams) (10.2). All three have their own strengths; to highlight the latter two, Toney is a lower-usage guy that’s terrific at scoring down low via basket cuts and some drives, while Williams (NAJW) is a big that posts up some but most frequently features in ball-screens with Notae.

Umude is the most interesting and versatile of the three. The South Dakota transfer has 40 or more makes at the rim, non-rim twos, and on threes. Is he particularly elite at any of them? Uh…not really! But he’s at least good at most forms of offense. Also, he’s annoyingly good at mid-range twos; prepare yourself for a couple that go down at some point.

Others: Chris Lykes (8.7 PPG) transferred in from Miami and is a horrific shooter that nonetheless will somehow get to 8 points. Davonte Davis (8.7 PPG) was the hero of last year’s Elite Eight run, but he’s struggled to follow that up; he’s at 26.4% on threes and has really only added value by driving to the rim. Everyone else, including Slenderman Connor Vanover, is at 4.2 PPG or lower.

CHART! The official Chart Guide is now as follows:

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

Arkansas’ defense

Unfortunately, this is the side of the ball that’s completely turned the Razorbacks’ season around. As mentioned in the offensive section, this has been the best defense in America over the course of the last month of play. Two things have driven this turnaround: a lot of forced turnovers and a terrific two-point defense turning up the heat.

Strangely enough, I don’t think Arkansas has changed that much structurally. It’s just that they seem to be working as a cohesive unit, investing a ton of effort on defense to ensure that the opponent is uncomfortable for all 30 seconds of the shot clock. This is a hyper-aggressive style of play that’s naturally going to commit some fouls, but the rewards are pretty obvious when things work out.

In this 10-game stretch, Arkansas has forced turnovers on 22.4% of opponent possessions, the 22nd-highest rate in that span. Notae is unsurprisingly a hound on that end, but a guy who’s taken a big step forward year-over-year is Jaylin Williams. Williams was promising last year, but he ran hot and cold depending on the night. His defense, particularly his dominance on the boards and in creating havoc plays, has helped turn this Arkansas defense as a unit into something special.

But, yeah: as a whole, this team has only given up a 43.6% hit rate on twos across their last ten games. Part of this is just that effort we’re talking about, but such effort has led to a worse shot selection for opponents. The share of three-point attempts by Arkansas opponents has fallen from 43.5% of all shots in non-conference play to 36.4% in the SEC. They’re running shooters off the line, and as mentioned in the Kentucky preview, this is the defense forcing the highest amount of runners/floaters in the SEC. The actual around-the-basket finishing rate for Razorback competition is around the national average, but they’re doing a great job of forcing shots from 6-9 feet that aren’t going down.

Along with that, the rate of shots at the rim has held steady, and the overall shot quality for Arkansas opponents has dropped dramatically. That’s how you produce a mid-season turnaround that’s turned Arkansas from a bubble team to a legitimate 6 or 7 seed no one hopes to draw come Selection Sunday.

And yet: it’s time to bring our old friend, the Regression Devil, back for another round. We last talked to him before the home battle with LSU, showing that LSU was beyond due for some massive three-point defense regression. The Tigers were holding opponents to about a 27% hit rate from deep; the expected hit rate was 34%. From that game onward, LSU has allowed a 33.5% 3PT% defensively. Regression, positive or negative, will eventually come for everyone.

That’s about the only flaw I can point out with this Arkansas defense: they’re probably due for an opponent heater from three. Over the last ten games, opponents have hit just 28.3% of their threes. To the Razorbacks’ credit, they’ve done a terrific job keeping the ball out of the corners, as just 21% of threes have been there. Still: of 138 catch-and-shoot threes allowed since January 15, 74 (53%) have been deemed Unguarded, per Synergy. The hit rate on these has been just 32.4%, nearly 5% below what would be expected of an average team.

It’s simply hard to see that holding, but the problem is that opponents are only getting off 13.8 catch-and-shoot threes per game over the last month of play. We’re talking about, like, one extra made three per game. This is a legitimately excellent defense now.

How Tennessee matches up

If those Arkansas last-10 numbers worry you, think about it this way: across Tennessee’s last ten games, they’ve had the 8th-best offense in America, adjusted for opponent. What’s strange about it is that they’ve actually struggled to hit twos (46.3%, or 283rd-best), but basically everything else is good: 39.6% from deep, a national-average offensive TO%, 34.1% OREB% (35th-best), and a top-100 free throw rate. Even if they cool off from downtown, which seems fairly likely, they could make up for it by just being more efficient down low.

As noted by the average finishing rate opponents have had against Arkansas, I think there’s some gold to be struck here. It’s not like you’re playing Georgia or whoever, but you can score in the paint with the correct timing against this group. Per Synergy, Arkansas ranks in the 11th-percentile in defending basket cuts. That’s pretty wild for a team that’s so good defensively otherwise, but when you’re as aggressive as they are, you can extend out too far and allow a passing lane to open for two easy points. Case in point:

Likewise, as mentioned, Arkansas has been terrific over the last month-plus at running shooters off the three-point line. I expect they’ll hound Santiago Vescovi throughout this one in an attempt to limit what Tennessee’s best deep shooter can do. The way I would counteract this is with a single-big lineup – four guards/wings, one center. Arkansas can run Vescovi off, but if everybody’s running everybody off, you either have a driving lane to the basket or a wide-open shooter somewhere else. Given the Guarded/Unguarded split Arkansas has posted both in conference play and season-long, I would use this to my advantage to give guys a chance to hit some open shots. Keep the ball moving.

At the risk of saying this will be…uh, “easier” defensively, it will be easier defensively than having to keep a Player of the Year contender off the boards. Arkansas’s offense is the less fearful unit of the two by a significant margin, and generally, the goal is just to make them hit jumpers. If you can stop or at least limit the transition game as much as you did against Kentucky, the Razorback half-court offense isn’t terribly impressive and goes cold for long stretches of game time.

A key thing I’m looking for: how well can you limit drives to the basket? Arkansas doesn’t do much in the way of post-ups, and the team’s two leaders in attempts at the rim are Notae and Toney, neither of whom play a frontcourt position. Notae in particular is willing to pull up for floaters; again, Tennessee did a great job of encouraging that on Tuesday. If you’re able to hold Arkansas to 20 or fewer attempts at the rim, you’re doing the best you can to ensure a victory.

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

  • Turnovers. Arkansas has only lost the turnover battle in seven games this season; three of those were losses. Tennessee’s won the TO% battle in four in a row and five of six.
  • Who gets more from their bench? Oddly specific, but a potential area of success for Tennessee. In their last two SEC losses, Arkansas got a total of 29 bench points on 7-for-36 shooting.
  • Shooting. Duh! It’s basketball, after all. Arkansas is a perfect 14-0 when their opponent posts a 49% eFG% or worse and 6-6 otherwise; Tennessee is 15-1 when going for 49% or higher.

Key matchups

JD Notae vs. Kennedy Chandler. The deciding matchup. Even in games Arkansas has lost, Notae has shot well and kept the team in it. Chandler must bring it defensively for all 40 minutes.

Jaylin Williams vs. John Fulkerson. Alternately, a huge cluster of centers versus Jaylin Williams. As many as five different guys could get this matchup, and Jonas Aidoo certainly looks promising, but Fulkerson is likely to get the most minutes against the Razorbacks’ second-best player, who is terrific on D.

Au’Diese Toney vs. Santiago Vescovi. Josiah-Jordan James will start out with this matchup, but if Tennessee follows what they’ve followed for two weeks now, Vescovi will close. Toney does not jump out as an especially notable defender; Vescovi, unless double teamed, may shake loose for some open ones.

Three predictions

  1. I get a McDonald’s chicken biscuit, possibly two, on Saturday morning;
  2. Tennessee leads for over half the game before Bud Walton Arena happens;
  3. Arkansas 70, Tennessee 68.

Knockin’ Heads Off

With 13:45 left to go in the first half, John Fulkerson did his wacky tube man thing and flung himself into the Kentucky bench. Fulkerson presumably did not mean any ill will; he is just a goofy basketball player trying to keep a ball in bounds, which is what he did. Fulkerson flung a three-point miss by Zakai Zeigler off the leg of Lance Ware, who had checked in just 12 seconds prior. The score was Kentucky 17, Tennessee 15. To that point, Kentucky had done little wrong: 8-for-13 from the field, getting good looks, and forcing Tennessee to score like crazy to keep up with them.

If nothing had happened once Fulkerson landed in the Kentucky bench, maybe that continues. I don’t really know, because it’s an alternate universe we’ll never find out about. Zakai Zeigler and Santiago Vescovi rush over to pick their teammate up. On the way, they are blocked by Kentucky’s strength and conditioning coach, Robert Harris.

What Harris meant to do by this, I assume we also will never know. Harris has a Twitter, and as of the time of writing, this is his most recent tweet:

If he never tweets again, this is unintentionally a great one to leave Twitter on. (He has no likes related to the game, and frankly, I have to assume Calipari has him under a media gag order for the time being.) Once Harris gets in the face of Vescovi and Zeigler – his real mistake – most of Tennessee’s team rushes over. That’s when the havoc begins.

Harris pushes Zeigler, and the strength coach puts so much force and brute muscle behind his push that Zeigler barely moves at all. Tennessee’s players notice that and surround Harris. Right now, it’s four players against one Harris. Then Kentucky leaves their bench. Then Tennessee does, too. At its peak, the collection of bodies simply looks like either a line for the restroom or a men’s prayer circle, whichever you so choose.

None of what happens in that circle looks of interest on its face. None of what happens at the end of this video is interesting, either. But I can tell you this: after that video cuts off, multiple Tennessee players were jumping up and down, attempting to pump the crowd up and cease the booing. And it worked. They understood the core logic of the stupidest, best song ever created and translated it to the floor.

After this battle, Zakai Zeigler and the Kentucky bench received offsetting technical fouls. The Kentucky bench, as a basketball unit, was almost entirely useless outside of Jacob Toppin and Davion Mintz. The Kentucky bench, as a coaching unit, proved extremely helpful to Tennessee’s fortunes.

The very next shot was a made mid-range two by Kennedy Chandler. Two possessions later, the next shot was a Kennedy Chandler three. Then another on the fast break. Kentucky missed 11 shots in a row, while Tennessee hit seven of nine. A 17-15 Kentucky lead turned into a 32-18 Tennessee one. After halftime, the margin would never get shorter than Tennessee +8. The players immediately involved in that sideline battle – Fulkerson, Vescovi, and Zeigler – put up a combined 46 of Tennessee’s 76 points, 40 of which were after that battle ended.

You can think about it in this lane: those three players alone, who weren’t looking for trouble until trouble found them by way of a strength coach, nearly outscored Kentucky the rest of the way by themselves. That’s what I’d call knockin’ heads off. Tennessee came to fight. Kentucky tried to, then they limped away, bruised and battered and wondering where it all went wrong. I can point you to exactly where you went wrong: 13:45 on the clock, first half, when you thought it was a good idea to give Zakai Zeigler and Tennessee’s entire team an extra boost of energy.

The actual basketball upshot of a game like that is obvious. Tennessee now holds wins over KenPom’s #2 and #3 teams, and even if Tennessee’s students are chanting “overrated” as time winds down, I would invite them not to. Please think about that again: wins over two of the nation’s three best teams, as determined by the nation’s best advanced metrics site. The only other team in Tennessee history to do this since KenPom has existed (2001-pres.) is the 2005-06 Bruce team that became one of the most beloved units in program history.

After all of the gnashing of teeth about the offense for the last few months, it’s now up to 27th in America, the second-best offense of the Barnes era behind the obvious one. The defense is now #4, which would make it the best defense Barnes has had at Tennessee. There’s a very real chance that this particular team, at least by the metrics sites, is the best that Tennessee has had. Not just in the KenPom era, but ever. Think about that for a second. I’d still take the 2018-19 team myself, but this is making a strong case for being no worse than one of the three best Tennessee basketball teams in modern program history.

I say we sit back and enjoy it. Nights like last night are rare; crowds like last night’s are rare as well. Thompson-Boling Arena has 21,678 seats, and on a Tuesday night where tipoff didn’t occur until 9:05 PM and I personally did not hit our home driveway until 12:29 AM, every single one of those seats was packed with a screaming fan. This is the fifth Kentucky-Tennessee game I have attended in Knoxville, and by a wide margin, this one had the lowest amount of blue I’ve ever seen.

Tennessee is now 10-3 in SEC play, tied with Kentucky for second. They’re now favored in all five remaining SEC games. While I personally think it may take a miracle from God above to win at Arkansas, anything feels possible with this team. A month ago, they were 11-5, 2-3 in SEC play, and had just gotten smoked by their rival to the tune of giving up 107 points on the road. It wasn’t an exciting time to be writing about the program, especially when it seemed they were headed towards their usual style of season in March.

Instead, here we are, and Tennessee has by some measures its most well-rounded team (in terms of top-30 offense & defense) since the 2013-14 team that came within two points of an Elite Eight bid. Tennessee is projected to finish 14-4 in SEC play, which would merely tie the second-highest win total posted by Tennessee in SEC play since 1977. I am greatly enjoying the renaissance of this team and, at large, the program. The roster’s stuffed with lovable kids and two old men (one being Fulkerson) that back down from nothing and are ready for a street brawl. Tennessee genuinely hasn’t had a team like that in a long time. I suggest hopping on the bandwagon while there’s still room.

I only have one thing in Various Notes for this game: if you are this person, thank you.

I cannot say much about this for personal reasons, but I would love to experience a moment like that with my grandfather again. Thanks for this wonderful moment and, uh, for making my wife tear up next to me.


Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Kentucky, Part Two

OPPONENT #4 Kentucky
21-4, 10-2 SEC, #3 KenPom
9-16, 8-9 SEC 2020-21
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME Tuesday, February 15
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
Marty Smith (!) (sideline)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -1.5
KenPom: Kentucky -1

Torvik: Kentucky -0.4

I don’t watch the comic book superhero movies you all talk about endlessly online, but based on my very limited understanding, this is like Infinity War, where your hated rival now has a Greek God at center and you need a full team effort to defeat them. Or something.

Kentucky is Kentucky, and they are quite good. Tennessee is also very good and is playing this game at home. Armageddon is back, and you get to watch a little mini-war for two hours.

Kentucky’s offense

One look at those numbers and the Grand Theft Auto GIF immediately pops up in your mind.

It brings me zero pleasure to report that this is the best offense Calipari’s put out since Jamal Murray was on campus and the highest-ranking among its in-season peers since the 2011-12 title team. Some of the same problems from last year that I felt existed during the first game this year against Duke still exist – they take an absurd amount of non-rim twos that don’t go down that often, they probably should take more threes, and I still don’t know that they have a truly consistent three-level scorer – but also, who cares. They’re a top-5 offense for a wide variety of reasons, mostly that they are impossible to stop down low and rebound like crazy.

This naturally leads us to the Thanos in the room: Oscar Tshiebwe (16.4 PPG, 15.2 RPG), who is currently on pace to be the first Division I player to average 15 & 15 in 42 years. Tshiebwe does not feature much in transition when Kentucky wants to run, but the plurality of their half-court offense runs through him. With Tshiebwe on the court, Kentucky scores an opponent-adjusted 1.246 PPP, which would make them nearly the best offense in America. Attempting to stop him in the post has been like attempting to stop a runaway train by throwing a Nerf ball at it.

Aside from post play, Tshiebwe doesn’t stand out that much offensively; his second-most frequent play type is putbacks. The problem is that his putbacks are lethal. Tshiebwe is the best rebounder in America and rebounds 20% of Kentucky’s misses when he’s on the court. If you can hold him off of the offensive boards, your odds of winning greatly increase; Kentucky’s three post-Duke losses all featured Tshiebwe getting four or fewer OREBs. That task is easier said than done; only Mississippi State has a better DREB% than Tennessee among Kentucky’s SEC opponents, and Tshiebwe got 22 boards against them.

Moving on from that fear to the next one! TyTy Washington is the co-point guard and a potential lottery pick; he’s also the #2 option offensively (12.8 PPG, 4.2 APG). Washington’s main feature this year has been a solid assist-to-turnover ratio, but he’s been terrific scoring off of ball-screens (87th-percentile in P&R offense). The scariest thing he offers is his ability to knock down non-rim twos at an absurd hit rate of 51.4%, with mid-range jumpers specifically sitting at 49.4%.

Considering Washington gets almost as many expected points (1.028 per shot) on non-rim twos as he does from threes (1.038), he’s genuinely scary pretty much anywhere on the court. However, here’s something worth noting:

  • Washington on jumpers from 0-15 feet: 26-for-37 (70.3%)
  • Washington, 16-21 feet: 15-for-46 (32.6%)
  • Washington, threes: 27-for-78 (34.6%)

There’s a clear delineation: Washington inside the free-throw line is more dangerous than Washington outside it. If you can restrict him from getting within 15 feet, you’ll feel better. Good luck doing that. HOWEVER: Washington is also questionable to play after picking up an injury against Florida, which would obviously impact Kentucky’s offense in a negative manner.

The other two guys worth highlighting are Kellan Grady (12.1 PPG) and Sahvir Wheeler (9.7 PPG, 7.2 APG). (Keion Brooks averages more than Wheeler, but doesn’t do much self-creation.) Grady is mostly Just A Shooter (75% of all shots from deep), but he’s a truly elite shooter: 73-for-166, or 44%. It is truly mystifying to me that he gets open at all, but he’s elite both in catch-and-shoot scenarios (47.3%) and off the dribble (41%). He floats around the court, but most of Grady’s shooting is generated in the corners and at the low end of the wings.

If you leave him open, well, you get what you deserve.

Wheeler is less known for his shooting/self-creation than what he opens up for everyone else on the team. Wheeler is lightning-fast and makes the offense play way faster; Kentucky spends almost 20% more time in transition when Wheeler’s on the court. Wheeler himself is an openly bad shooter – 9-for-34 from three, 18-for-74 mid-range – but he creates so many opportunities for everyone else that it generally doesn’t matter.

The best chance you have against Kentucky, at least through 25 games of play, is to stop the transition game and force a half-court oriented style. Unfortunately, the half-court offense is elite, too. Good luck and such.

Others of note: Keion Brooks, Jr. (11.2 PPG) is the fourth-leading scorer. Not much of a shooter (5-for-22 on threes), but he’s excellent for his size on the boards and is dangerous in transition. Davion Mintz (8.9 PPG) was Just A Shooter last year and is still hitting 37% of his threes this season, but has evolved to be at least competent at the rim and in mid-range. Jacob Toppin (5.8 PPG) is 10-for-31 on everything that isn’t a rim attempt, but is hitting 73% of shots down low.

CHART! The official Chart Guide is now as follows:

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

Kentucky’s defense

Not quite as displeasing to look at as the offensive chart is, but it’s pretty close. Kentucky has an excellent defense that kind of got taken apart by Tennessee at times in the first game, but they haven’t allowed an opponent to top 1 PPP since Auburn on January 22. The most similar defense Cal’s had is probably the 2018-19 version with P.J. Washington: not elite at blocking shots, but great at forcing one-on-one scoring and very tough to score on in general.

Indeed, this is a great unit. Still: what about that absence of blocks? Kentucky ranks 77th in Block% right now, which is good for most teams but terrible for a Kentucky program that’s ranked 32nd or better in every Calipari season and no worse than 39th since the Tubby Smith era. Kentucky ranks out well in a lot of things, but even Synergy, who’s pretty charitable to the ‘Kats, ranks this around-the-basket defense as in the 78th-percentile. Hoop-Math’s play-by-play data ranks them 198th as of the time of writing. This isn’t quite as fearful a unit down low as they used to be.

The problem is that, well, it’s still a great overall unit. The key of each Calipari team is its ability to force and block non-rim twos, and this one is no different. Kentucky forces more non-rim twos than all but 26 teams in the nation and blocks more of these shots than all but ten, so that part is legitimate once again. The structure of Kentucky’s defense sinks inward to prevent you from getting all the way to the rim on a typical possession. I imagine it’ll come as no surprise that Kentucky forces more runners and floaters than everyone but Arkansas in the SEC.

Still, the path to scoring is there. Tennessee found it in the first meeting, if you’re able to remember the actual positives of that day. In the first meeting, Tennessee went 14-for-19 at the rim and 20-for-35 (57.1%) on twos as a whole, which is tied for Tennessee’s best 2PT% against Kentucky in the Calipari era. As I’d expected before the game, Tennessee found a lot of success attacking the paint by way of ball-screens and basket cuts, with Kennedy Chandler having an immense amount of success in making Kentucky sweat.

For all of the great that comes with your standard Kentucky defense – and there is a lot – there’s still holes. Kentucky ranks in the 68th-percentile in ball-screen defense after a switch occurs, per Synergy. They’re in the 56th-percentile at defending cuts to the basket and the 53rd-percentile in defending the roll man on ball-screens. We’ve already talked about the rim issues, but also recall that Tennessee had a lot of success from deep in the first matchup.

The problem is that Kentucky seems to have gotten better at defending the perimeter since that game, now posting a 64/36 Guarded/Unguarded rate compared to the 57/43 they had entering the game. They funnel a lot of opponent attempts to the top of the key, which (by about 0.2-0.5%) is generally the least-efficient of the five three-point areas on the court. Opponents are hitting 40.4% of these catch-and-shoot attempts from deep, but everywhere else is tough: 25% 3PT% allowed in the corners, 26% at the wings. I’d simply argue they’ve been a little lucky in those two while unlucky up top, because most of these are good guards.

My preference would be for Tennessee to attack the wings of the court, where they’ve been most efficient this year, and see how real that 26% is. (Also the corners, obviously.) If they get suckered into a bunch of top-of-the-key threes, you obviously hope they hit them, but the process doesn’t feel quite as agreeable as that of a wing/corner three.

How Tennessee matches up

Honest to God, my first thought was “do the exact same thing you did last time.” Tennessee had a genuinely excellent offensive performance against what’s now a top-15 defense in going for 1.081 PPP, putting up a 62.9% eFG%, and rebounding a third of their misses. If you simply cut down on the turnovers, they could’ve put up 85. The problem is that the opponent put up 107 on the worst shooting day the program has ever surrendered.

The first time out, Tennessee seemed to identify Kentucky’s defensive flaws and did a really good job of exploiting them. As a summary:

  • 20 points on 19 P&R possessions (Tennessee’s normal averages: 12 on 14)
  • 11 points on 8 cut possessions (Normal: 9 on 7)
  • 33 points on 23 catch-and-shoot threes (Normal: 21 on 20)

Kentucky will undoubtedly adjust, but this reminds me a lot of the 2018-19 series. That year, I thought Tennessee did a pretty good job offensively in the first game and got a lot of quality looks. It simply happened to come the same night as Kentucky’s best offensive performance of the season. In the return game, Tennessee pushed their ball-screen usage to a season-high and diced apart Kentucky’s defense to the tune of a 71-52 win. I doubt Tennessee will do the same and win by 28 tonight, but a similar exploration of Chandler/Zeigler in the pick-and-roll could really pay dividends, whether that’s with their own scoring or with passing.

Similarly, Tennessee has to exploit the three-point line to win this game. Like it or not, there’s no better path to a victory that I can imagine. Of Kentucky’s six worst defensive performances this season, five have seen the opponent shoot 32% or better from three, and four of those were 38% or higher. Kentucky’s done a great job of limiting some of the issues they had last time out, but you look at that catch-and-shoot number and it’s hard to ignore.

It’s also as if that first Kentucky game led Tennessee to discover what actually makes them tick offensively. To boot:

  • Pre-Kentucky (15 games): 32.2% 3PT% on 27 attempts a game
  • Kentucky and after (9 games): 39% 3PT% on 23.3 attempts a game

Tennessee’s three-point attempt rate is only about 2% lower, but they’ve been able to use that three-point gravity to draw opponents out and allow for better looks inside the perimeter. If Tennessee came out against Kentucky and took their first five shots from three (assuming those shots were given to the appropriate players), would anyone blame them? You’ve got to find the extra points you need in a space you feel confident in. I think that as it is in many basketball games, deep balls can be the difference-making havoc Tennessee needs.

Defensively…well, frankly, Tennessee played poorly last time out. That much is obvious. I don’t think they played “give up the worst defensive efficiency the program has ever seen” bad, but whatever, Kentucky hit a bunch of shots and it was very much Their Day. Even if Tennessee played their exact same style of defense this game, Kentucky almost certainly would not score 107 points on 73 possessions.

Still, changes need to be made. If we’re going to show how Tennessee exploited Kentucky in the first game, we should obviously do the reverse:

  • 28 points on 19 P&R possessions (Kentucky’s normal averages: 16 on 18)
  • 31 points on 18 transition possessions (Normal: 21 on 20)
  • 30 points on 14 catch-and-shoot threes (Normal: 15 on 14)

That’s a ton of points above expectation. In the first game, Kentucky exploited Tennessee in two different ways: single coverage, where Sahvir Wheeler sped past Kennedy Chandler on several occasions, and hedges (mostly the second half), where Kentucky exploited some of the poor agility the Tennessee frontcourt features. Neither was what I’d call a pleasure to watch.

The fix for this is complicated, but some of it is just hedging stronger and forcing Kentucky to shoot over the top of Tennessee rather than speeding to the rim. If Tennessee can craft something that enables Chandler to stay with Wheeler while not committing 1.5 defenders and giving Kentucky an offensive power play, the odds of a victory go up immensely. Outside of Grady and Mintz, I genuinely do not believe in this Kentucky roster’s game-to-game ability to shoot their way to a win. If Washington is really out – and I don’t know that as of now, but it seems like it may happen – that’s Kentucky’s one knock-down mid-range shooter gone. Make them shoot early and often.

Secondly, I have a bizarre-but-possibly-not-stupid theory for encouraging the threes: run a zone. I don’t want the zone for the full game, just a few possessions here and there. Before I am murdered, let me explain: Kentucky’s barely faced much in the way of zone defense this year. Synergy pegs it at about 4.8 possessions per game, and in that small sample size, Kentucky’s been significantly worse (to the tune of 3.7% lower eFG%) than they have against a man-to-man defense.

The crux of it is this: against zones, Kentucky hasn’t been as effective at the rim (56% FG% versus 65% in man, per Synergy) and they’ve struggled greatly to hit threes, going just 13-for-45 from deep. Here’s the most interesting part of that: Kellan Grady is 6-for-14 against a zone from deep. The rest of the Kentucky roster combined: 7-for-31. Grady only hits the bench about 4 minutes per night in SEC play, but even trying the zone for a couple minutes with him on the court could be of serious interest.

Tennessee’s zone defense this year has been good enough; it doesn’t force turnovers at all, but opponents are shooting 41% at the rim against it and Tennessee’s forced an above-average amount of guarded threes with it. This is something they didn’t try at all in the first game, but they’ve gone to it for 31 possessions over the last six games. Clearly, Rick Barnes and Mike Schwartz see something in it. This kind of seems like the game you’d try it in, no?

Lastly: Tshiebwe. He’s going to get at least a few rebounds in this one; the goal is just to not let him overwhelm you. There’s a few paths worth exploring, but one I would like to see from time to time is a hard double in the post. If Tennessee’s going to keep running out these double-big lineups, which I frankly don’t love but understand the purpose of, using one of those bigs and either the other or a wing to double Tshiebwe seems reasonable. Tshiebwe scores 55% of the time in single-coverage, but Kentucky as a whole only scores on 45.6% of possessions where he’s either doubled or is forced to pass the ball. He’s not a great passer, so make him make hard decisions. It’s all you can really do; I would rather bet on Wheeler or Brooks beating me than let Tshiebwe run roughshod.

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

  • The boards. Well, duh. It may not feel this way, but this is the #1 defensive rebounding team in the SEC (Kentucky) playing #2 (Tennessee). Even funnier: it’s Tennessee that’s been superior on the offensive boards in conference play. If Tennessee can hold Kentucky to a 30% OREB% or lower, which they did the first time around, it’ll help shift the odds in their direction.
  • Threes, again. I mean, eFG% determines anywhere from 50-55% of an average team’s offensive efficiency. If Tennessee gets 10+ threes like they did the first time out they’ll win, barring Kentucky having another insane shooting day. Even 9 would possibly suffice.
  • Can you find any way to get Tshiebwe in foul trouble? Oscar’s only at 3.3 fouls per 40, but he’s finished seven games this year with four fouls. If Fulkerson can do the wacky tube man thing that the new movie NOPE clearly found inspiration in and you get the usual SEC home calls, well, hey.

Key matchups

Oscar Tshiebwe vs. Literally Four Guys. All of Plavsic, Fulkerson, Huntley-Hatfield, and Aidoo will probably get time at the 5. Of those four, I probably rank them Fulkerson > Huntley-Hatfield > Plavsic > Aidoo in terms of how I feel about the rebounding impact of each, but the real key here is that you have 20 fouls to use. Huntley-Hatfield in particular could get some serious offensive run in this one, given how well he performed in the first game.

Kellan Grady vs. Santiago Vescovi. Weird to highlight a guy like Grady with a miniscule usage rate, but he’s such a devastating shooter that if you forget about him you pay for your sins immediately. Vescovi had 20 in the first game and could reasonably get to 20 again if he’s on.

Either TyTy Washington (if available) or Sahvir Wheeler vs. Kennedy Chandler. If Washington is out, it’s Davion Mintz, who doesn’t have the same impact yet has been hot as of late. Wheeler burned Chandler alive off of ball screens in the first one, but Chandler’s defense has improved seemingly every week since.

Three predictions

  1. Both teams go on a run of 10-0 or greater;
  2. Tennessee wins the foul battle by 3 or so, sparking a controversy on Matt Jones’ Twitter account;
  3. Tennessee 71, Kentucky 70.

I Just Called to Tell You That I Hope You’re Doin’ Fine

Drive-By Truckers, “Feb. 14”

Four weeks ago I wrote a very depressed, whiny post about how I was no longer enjoying this specific season in Tennessee history. I would say this is the pull quote of choice:

There’s still two months left of basketball to fix how this feels. The problem is that a healthy amount of people who follow me online see “there’s still two months left of basketball” and are feeling their eyeballs roll back in their heads, because it means you still have to watch this very-flawed team play basketball. I guess I’m still in the “wait until March” camp, but when the head coach has literally the third-most underwhelming NCAA Tournament resume of any active HC, I’m not sure what there is to wait for.

This was indeed whiny. There were indeed two months left in the season, and when you play what looked like the three toughest SEC opponents all in your first five SEC games, it’s not fun to cover loss after loss. But I promise there’s some sort of defense for this. After the Kentucky debacle, Tennessee was still in the KenPom top 15, but their offensive/defensive imbalance felt like its own ravine. Tennessee had the 51st-best offense and the 5th-best defense. Teams with that sort of split have gone far before, but when you have Pomeroy’s own research about how offense matters a bit more in March, some of your own research, and the admitted Barnes March problem…well, it sort of puts a cap on how excited you can get.

That’s how it felt at the time. A month later, things are different. Tennessee has won seven straight SEC games; the only loss is a one-point road loss to Texas, who is no worse than a top 20 team by any metric available. The offense has jumped from 51st to 29th; nearly 75% of Elite Eight teams in the last decade have ranked in the top 30 offensively. The defense, despite Vanderbilt hitting what I would politely call Garbage Shots, is still ranked 6th-best. Tennessee had a pretty bad shooting night on Saturday and rose in the advanced rankings because they got fouled so much and rebounded so well.

This is all adjusted for schedule, by the way. Tennessee now has five wins over Tier A (Pomeroy’s equivalent of Quadrant 1) this season; they had six at this time in the magical 2018-19 season and five in 2017-18. This is a very, very good basketball team that is poised to stand with some of Tennessee’s best in the history of the program. It’s alright if you allow yourself to like them. Forgiveness is a good thing, as is grace. The Tennessee of January 15 doesn’t seem to be the Tennessee of February 13. They have two huge opportunities in the week ahead: home Kentucky, road Arkansas. If they even go 1-1 in those, that’s a success. That’s what one of the 10-15 best teams in the sport would likely do.

I feel like it’s coming. The difference between the squad of a year ago and this particular edition is that even on nights where things aren’t firing on all cylinders, there are hustle plays. There are millions of deflections. There are more rebounds than at any point since the Cuonzo/Tyndall eras. There’s players willing to step up and take key shots at key moments.

Putting all objectivity aside, which I think I lost the capacity to possess a while ago, this is on pace to be no worse than one of the three most lovable Tennessee teams of my lifetime. In March, the only strength of schedule you can control is the very first game you play; everything after is up to the hands of fate. I’m ready for the dice roll.

The immediate devastation of the Olivier Nkamhoua injury was more human than athlete to me. Nkamhoua is here from Finland; as an international athlete, the NCAA has found one last piggish act in preventing Nkamhoua, Santiago Vescovi, and other international athletes from profiting off their name, image, and likeness. As we all know, because I hear it every day online and offline, the greatest crime you can commit is being born in a country that is not the United States of America.

So Nkamhoua already has that going against him, and that’s pretty bad. Think about everything else that goes with it. This is a young man that moved from Finland to the United States in his teens to attempt to follow his basketball dreams. Said dreams lead him to Maryland, where he becomes a late-blooming prospect that appears on Tennessee’s radar. Tennessee takes him in, and a local writer makes a Grant Williams comparison that gets brought up every week for the next two-plus years.

Nkamhoua struggles his first year and second; frankly, watching him play basketball most resembled the SpongeBob episode where the titular character is being blindly informed over a radio how to drive a car. But this offseason, seemingly all of those complaints disappeared. If you read the tea leaves, all you heard about was how Nkamhoua was the most improved player on the roster. I would ask around about it and hear back “sure, but we need to see it in real games,” which was entirely fair. I mean, you hear a player get compared to a first-round draft pick, come out and very much look not like that, and you become wary of any and all praise.

The season starts. Nkamhoua looks much improved indeed, but he still disappears for games, even weeks, at a time. From January 8 (LSU) to January 29 (Texas), he fails to crack double-digits even once. He begins losing playing time, and it feels like you’re not really back at Square One but you’re starting to see it in the distance after you thought you’d driven far away.

Then he reappears. The Texas A&M game presents a 15 point, 7 rebound, 3 block performance that is his best against anyone in a month and seems to restart his season and his drive. He starts well against South Carolina, too: in 17 minutes of play, he puts up 7 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 blocks. I guess that doesn’t look great when written out, but if you extrapolate that to his 27 minutes against A&M, that’s the equivalent of 11/8/3 in an SEC road game. Pretty darn good.

Nkamhoua goes up for a layup that looks normal until it doesn’t. Play continues without him on the other end. He can’t put any pressure on the ankle; the last we see of him in a Tennessee uniform in 2021-22 is him throwing his headband against a wall in frustration. He comes back to the bench by the end of that game, and briefly, you think “alright, maybe he just misses a few games and comes back.” That’s not the case. Rick Barnes announces the season-ending injury two days later, conveniently right after you hit publish on a weekly recap.

Right then and there, it would’ve been reasonable for this season to begin a small spiral. Nkamhoua is no greater than Tennessee’s fourth option offensively, but he was the centerpiece for what I had begun to write about as the March Lineup: Chandler, Zeigler, Vescovi, James, and Nkamhoua. Four legitimate shooters and a fifth that can shoot when needed and protects the rim extremely well. Over the course of the season, it had been Nkamhoua who had assumed the vacant Pons role, which none of us really saw coming. Without him, Tennessee’s defense would suffer, and I simply guessed that the offensive gains might not make up for it.

We have all of two games of data to work with. Both of them are nine-point wins. One felt better than the other, but frankly, the other in this data set could’ve easily been a 15-20 point win on a normal shooting night. Both games provided a few lineup frustrations, but all you can ask for is this: Tennessee was expected to win about 1.3-1.4 games this week and went 2-0. That’s a successful week. It makes writing the recaps easier.

What makes things actually enjoyable is seeing images like Grant Ramey shared, presumably from a team video, where the team is calling Nkamhoua to check in:

Or this one, also via Grant, but from a very different scenario:

I have no clue how travel works with regards to injured players. At least in the NBA, there’s a set limit on how many bodies you’re allowed to have on the bench, and injured players sometimes makes the numbers not work, so they stay home. That being said, I hope we keep seeing Nkamhoua. I hope he feels supported in this time. I look at that image of Barnes FaceTiming Nkamhoua – which, raise your hand if you’re at least a little surprised Rick Barnes knows how to use FaceTime – and feel like you simply have to embrace this team, flaws and warts and all. They are becoming a joy to watch. They’re bringing those who can’t travel with them in person along with them in spirit.

The love these players have for each other feels very real. That image from 2020-21 about “culture,” when the four standing Tennessee players picked up the one from the floor, simply seems a lot more accurate for the 2021-22 edition. Whether you want to credit Zakai Zeigler, Kennedy Chandler, Nkamhoua, Barnes, Mike Schwartz, Smokey, or Kellen Hiser for that, it’s up to you. I just know that I like watching this team and I like them as people and I like them as players. It’s a nice feeling to watch a basketball team and realize that even the lineups you don’t like have players you like as people.

This is the notes section of Other Stuff That Didn’t Fit:

  • The midseason turnover issue seems to have ebbed. Well, it’s three games, but Tennessee’s won the turnover battle in three straight games. At one point, they’d turned it over on 20% or more of possessions in seven of nine games. I actually think the key part of this isn’t the backcourt but rather the big guys. Fulkerson and Plavsic have a combined two TOs since the A&M game.
  • The Chandler/Zeigler combo is questionably Tennessee’s secret sauce. I’m saying “questionably” because there are other factors. BUT: Tennessee’s offense, over the course of the season, is 5 points better per 100 when both are on the court versus one/neither. The biggest impact isn’t shooting but rather shot quality; Tennessee has a better rim-and-threes ratio, more assists, and is slightly better on twos.
  • You got both sides of the officiating coin. Tennessee had 16 fouls to State’s 14. Vanderbilt had 23 to Tennessee’s 16. But the two games felt way different: State had 23 FTAs to Tennessee’s 9 despite Tennessee having the higher two-point attempt rate, while Vanderbilt barely attempted any twos at all yet still managed to get up 20 FTAs. Tennessee got 31 and frankly got a couple of favorable calls. I’m not sure what the message is here, other than I have no idea how anyone could manage to be a professional coach and not want to bite a ref’s head off at least once a game.
  • Speaking of which: The Pippen Problem. I understand that college officiating is fundamentally different than the NBA because they’re fundamentally different games. That’s fine. But to be honest, I’ve felt a little warmer towards the NBA this season because they’ve tried to eliminate what I would charitably call 40% of Scotty Pippen, Jr.’s game: shot-faking, then blindly tossing your body like a grenade into the nearest defender. It works. It gets points. It clearly is something officials will call, unless you’re Kennedy Chandler, I guess. But does anyone actually like this?
  • Keep shooting. Tennessee went 11-for-37 on everything that wasn’t a layup or dunk against Vanderbilt. Whatever. Keep shooting. Considering Tennessee went 19-for-72 on non-layup/dunks against Vandy this year and has a much better percentage against basically every other opponent (including the one they’ll play Tuesday), forget about it and move on.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Vanderbilt, Part Two

OPPONENT Vanderbilt
13-10, 5-6 SEC, #81 KenPom
9-16, 3-13 SEC 2020-21
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME Saturday, February 12
ANNOUNCERS Not listed at the time of publishing. (shrug)
SPREAD KenPom: Tennessee -13
Torvik: Tennessee -11

At home this time! Tennessee has now won six of seven since the Kentucky debacle and pulled off a genuinely impressive road win – their first Quadrant 1 road win, mind you – on Wednesday at Mississippi State. They’re now up to 10th in NET and look to be on pace for somewhere between a 3 and 5 seed. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, is better in Year 3 of Jerry Stackhouse but still has a ways to go to be Tournament-level competitive. If they can squeak out a .500 record (7-11 in SEC play), that’s probably an NIT bid.

I am legally required to mention that they have lost nine in a row to Tennessee, which is pretty funny.

Vanderbilt’s offense

Tennessee played this team all of 25 days ago, so shockingly, not a lot has changed. The main difference right now is Rodney Chatman suddenly being available more often than not. (Minnesota transfer Liam Robbins has finally begun to play as well, but he’s only touched the court for 11 and 13 minutes so far.) Chatman provides more of interest on defense than offense, so we’ll get to him in that section. The rest of this is mostly repurposed from the first preview.

One of the few general positives of the Jerry Stackhouse Era has been Scotty Pippen, Jr. This year is no different; Pippen is responsible for 39% of Vandy’s points this season through both his shots and his assists, per Synergy.

For a guy who gets the headlines as a ball-dominant guard, Pippen’s passing acumen is genuinely fairly good.

The problem comes when Pippen has to pass the basketball. Pippen still draws fouls like crazy (7.4 fouls drawn per 40, 6th-most nationally), but no one else comes close. Pippen is the only guard on the team that can get to the rim. Pippen is the only guy that can regularly create his own shot from deep. That’s why this Vandy offense has genuinely been pretty disappointing. Pippen is capable of spectacular things when the ball is in his hands.

Unfortunately, you can’t spend the entire game with the ball in your hands. Pippen leaves the floor for about a 3-minute break in each half, usually near the midway point. When that happens, Vanderbilt’s already just-okay offense becomes dust. Vandy’s offense goes from performing like a top-90 unit with Pippen on to a top-320 unit when he’s off. Pippen is only really allowed to take about five minutes off in a close game; any more and Vandy’s simply accepting a loss.

Pippen’s only main help is Jordan Wright, a 6’6″ wing that can drive to the basket but isn’t as efficient a scorer at the rim (53.1% vs. 57.4%) or in mid-range (30.9% vs. 38%). Wright is an alright deep shooter, but he’s reliant on Pippen to help create opportunities. (Lineups with Wright on and Pippen off are scoring just 0.858 PPP.) Still, Wright is a pretty dangerous catch-and-shoot scorer, and he’s hitting 52% on unguarded threes. (He did go 0-for-2 against Tennessee on these, at least.) Don’t let him get loose.

There’s a few other intriguing parts if you squint. Myles Stute is mostly Just A Shooter (8.5 PPG, 77% of all shots threes) who’s been terrific from deep (42%). Trey Thomas is Pippen’s backup PG and also mostly Just A Shooter (78% of all shots from deep), but less efficient. Chatman is mostly a role guy that takes more threes than twos (42% on 31 attempts), yet has turnover issues. Liam Robbins has barely any data to speak of, but three years of Minnesota data show a below-average jump shooter that’s good on twos. Excellent beat writer Aria Gerson claims that Vanderbilt is a lot better with Quentin Millora-Brown on the court and I completely believe it; even with luck-adjusted numbers, Vanderbilt is an astounding 25.3 points better per 100 with him on the court. (He mostly just hangs out in the post and sets screens.)

Still: when your entire system is built around one guy and you fail to give him much to work with, I guess it’s not a mystery that the offense is a disappointment. If they were as good as projected in preseason (#61 nationally, per KenPom), this team would be ranked in the top 50 nationally and be on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Unlucky.

CHART! The official Chart Guide is now as follows:

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

Vanderbilt’s defense

THE GRAPHIC IS WRONG IN ONE SPECIFIC SENSE: Vandy ranks 308th in Rim FG% allowed, not 51st. I obviously mis-sorted that in an Excel sheet, so that’s on me.

The most interesting thing here isn’t that Vandy has suddenly started in working in some zone defense (though they do include a zone about 5-8 times per game) or that they’re forcing more jumpers than ever before. We’ll get to that. First, it’s worth noting that Vandy has changed up its ball-screen coverage. This year, the Commodores are doing a little of what Arizona did: different coverages based on different personnel.

If Quentin Millora-Brown is the big involved in the pick-and-roll, you can expect him to drop and force a shot or a floater over the top of the defense:

If it’s…well, just about anyone else, you’ll see more of a hedge/double coverage that runs the ball-handler out of the screen and forces him to give the ball up.

Providing multiple things to watch for on defense rather than just one or the other has led Vandy’s ball-screen defense to improve quite a bit, up to the 94th-percentile this year from the 70th-percentile in 2020-21. It’s not that different from what Stackhouse and company did before, but working in more quirks like this have forced jumpers on 56.4% of Vandy half-court defensive possessions, one of the highest rates among Big Six teams in America. Adding in Liam Robbins to this mix is also of genuine interest. Again: barely any Vandy data at all to speak of, but across three seasons at Minnesota, he blocked 12% of opponent two-point attempts when he was on the court, an absurdly good rate.

Like any defense, though, it has holes. The main ones Vandy has are deep and two-fold:

  1. A defense that forces lots of jumpers doesn’t force many off-the-dribble ones, instead giving up a shocking amount of open threes (Guarded/Unguarded of 41/59, worst in the SEC);
  2. The actual rim protection scheme still doesn’t have a true rim protector; the best they have is either the fledgling Millora-Brown, who only plays 24 minutes a game, or possibly Robbins, who has committed 6 fouls in 24 total minutes played.

The first is easier to decipher. Vandy does a lot of good in forcing opponents to shoot over the top of them, but they’ve had a hard time actually guarding said shots. They’ve been remarkably lucky that opponents are shooting just 28% on those unguarded threes; I would be surprised if that number isn’t worse by March. You can’t give up 10-11 wide-open threes a game and expect to survive it every time out.

In that clip, Vandy simply sinks way too deeply on Jaylin Williams of Arkansas; when he throws the ball to the corner, he’s being triple-teamed. The aggression has helped Vanderbilt immensely in forcing buckets of turnovers (22.1% TO%, 30th-best) and in ending possessions prematurely for the opponent. The new twist here is that, when Chatman is on the court, Vanderbilt has seemed to fix this issue somewhat. Lineups with Chatman on force 8% more non-rim twos than those without him, per Hoop-Explorer. Chatman had a reputation at Dayton as a significantly better defender than offensive player, so that’s not a surprise. 

Unfortunately, even with Chatman, the aggression leaves Vanderbilt open to loads of basket cuts. The average Division 1 team gives up a cut to the basket on about 7.4% of possessions; Vandy is almost at 9%, fourth-worst in the SEC and second-worst among teams that aren’t majority-zone on defense. Opponents are scoring 1.248 PPP on cuts, too, which is horrific.

Last time out, Tennessee shot an astounding 8-for-35 on everything that wasn’t a layup, dunk, or tip. Even on those, they shot 11-for-21; it was a minor miracle they hit 25 of 29 free throw attempts. Considering Tennessee shot 23% on actual shot attempts at Hell Arena, I would be pretty surprised if that didn’t rise by playing in TBA.

How Tennessee matches up

Things will obviously be different in the rematch. Olivier Nkamhoua occupied the court for 22 minutes at Memorial and was responsible for 7 points/7 rebounds, which isn’t much but is indeed a deficit of sorts. The nice(?) thing about the first matchup is that Tennessee actually did a great job of getting the shots they wanted; they simply didn’t go down. If Tennessee wanted to run out a pretty similar gameplan for the rematch, I’d be willing to bet they’d see a significant increase in offensive efficiency. The shots they got are that of a team on pace to score 80, not 68 with help from tons of free throws.

So: keep doing your thing. In the first matchup, Tennessee got off 22 catch-and-shoot threes. 15 were unguarded (i.e., no defender within four feet of the shooter), per Synergy. Would you like to guess Tennessee’s hit rate on those? A nice 3-for-15. The national average on unguarded threes is 37%, and as a team this season, Tennessee’s just a hair under that rate at 36.3%. Even an average day from deep adds ~7 points of expected value to those 15 shots; if Tennessee just had a normal day from downtown at Memorial (admittedly a tall task) we’d be talking about, like, a 15-point beatdown. Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler did a great job of getting the ball to the right guys in the first game. Verdict: just make shots, bro.

The other thing is that Tennessee was credited with eight basket cuts in the first game, per Synergy. Again: as a season-long average, Tennessee gets 1.153 PPP off of these, which is right at the national average. I wish that were better, but even so, this is a fine cut offense who’s played a lot of great defenses going against a defense that’s had a terrible time defending cuts. Tennessee only got eight points off of their cuts in the first one; again, if they ran it back, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them score more.

Here’s where I think Tennessee should use a four-guard lineup to create havoc. I have more coming on this in a story in a couple of weeks, but here’s the gist of what you need to know. All numbers adjusted for schedule and 3PT% variance:

  • Lineups with one big on the court: +41.2 Net Rating; 121.6 Offensive Rating, 80.4 Defensive Rating
  • Lineups with two or more bigs: +19.6 Net Rating; 108.6 Offensive Rating, 89.0 Defensive Rating

So: I think the defensive rating for the single-big lineups is a little noisy, because those lineups are giving up a 3% worse hit rate on twos and are nearly entirely dependent on forcing tons of turnovers. But the offensive boost is very real, promise. 83% of Tennessee’s shots in those single-big lineups are either at the rim or from three. It’s the closest thing Tennessee has to a cheat code. Use it early, especially with your speed at guard, to create some havoc on cuts to the rim.

Defensively: stop Pippen. Well, stop Pippen without fouling. In the first game, Pippen only got off 10 shot attempts and ranked third on the team in FGA, but this was because he got to the line 13 times. Considering only one other player on Tennessee’s schedule got more than eight FTAs in a game (Arizona’s Bennedict Mathurin), I think Tennessee probably gets a more beneficial whistle in this one. If that’s the case, the path is sort of easy to chart: just make Pippen take a bunch of jumpers.

In half-court offense this year, only 27% of his shots have come at the basket; the rest are jumpers (59%), runners (8%), or post-ups (6%). He’s done well in the post, but he only posts up about once a game, so no real need to fret on it. Instead, focus on the jumpers:

  • Off-the-dribble: 17-for-50 on twos (34%), 18-for-54 on threes (33%)
  • Guarded catch-and-shoot: 8-for-42 on threes (19%)
  • Unguarded catch-and-shoot: 13-for-29 on threes (45%)

Pippen is a good shooter, but a lot of it is context-dependent. If you’re forcing him to take tough shots, he hasn’t shown a consistent ability to hit those this year. Basically: avoid anything that isn’t an open three (this goes team-wide, really) and things will likely feel pretty good come 8:10 PM ET or so.

Onward and upward.

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

  • Rim points. Tennessee’s in-theory largest advantage in this game is that they’re an above-average efficient offense at scoring at the rim and they’re playing the 308th-best rim defense. Score score score.
  • Foul trouble, both ways. Vanderbilt’s one of the 15 best teams in America at getting to the line; unsurprisingly, most of that is Pippen. If Pippen draws eight fouls or whatever in this one, it’s a bigger issue than last time because you’re down a key body in Nkamhoua.
  • Open threes. Hit them. Tennessee has actually been terrific at this since the Vanderbilt game, but it would be nice to include Vanderbilt in such a sample.

Key matchups

Scotty Pippen Jr. vs. Kennedy Chandler. Same goals as last time: eight or fewer FTAs, ten or more jumpers. If you take away Pippen’s easiest points, Vandy’s path to a victory becomes a lot slimmer. Noting here that I have seen Chandler’s That Dog Rating (TDR) increase the last couple of weeks.

Jordan Wright vs. Santiago Vescovi/Josiah-Jordan James. These two essentially split time at the 3 along with Justin Powell now. Wright can score at all three levels, but I want him taking mid-range jumpers or heavily guarded threes. No need to let him get loose with any frequency.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee trails at the under-12 timeout in the first half and there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth in online chat spaces;
  2. Tennessee wins all Four Factors;
  3. Tennessee 73, Vanderbilt 61.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Mississippi State

OPPONENT Mississippi State
14-8, 5-4 SEC, #43 KenPom
(18-15, 8-10 SEC, NIT runner-up 2020-21)
Starkville, MS
TIME Wednesday, February 9
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -1.5
KenPom: Tennessee -3

Torvik: Tennessee -0.9

Tennessee was poised to enter this pretty tough road game on a heater – they’ve won five of six since the Kentucky debacle – then Olivier Nkamhoua blew out his ankle on an unfortunate play and now The Fear has returned. Still, they have quite a bit of talent and seem to be learning how to use it. Mississippi State, meanwhile, has solid metrics and a good-looking overall record but is 1-5 against Quadrant 1 opponents and has yet to win a road game. (Seriously!)

Winning at Humphrey Coliseum, which is regrettably nicknamed the Hump, is not an easy task; State is 35-9 at home from 2019-20 onward while 17-25 elsewhere. I think Tennessee is reasonably up for it, but the context of Nkamhoua’s injury is key.

Mississippi State’s offense

By a solid margin, this is the better of the two State units. It’s interesting, though, because you could reasonably consider it a clash of styles with Tennessee. Which SEC team gets the greatest percentage of points scored from threes? Tennessee, at 36.8% of all points (48th). Which team gets the least? State: 22.6% of all points (346th). One team is looking to shoot a lot; the other loves playing inside the perimeter. This may explain why State is 14-3 as a pregame KenPom favorite, yet 0-5 as an underdog: a safe style that beats lesser teams with regularity but doesn’t give you much variance for an upset.

Just like the last few years under Ben Howland, State runs an offense predicated on off-ball motion, ball-dominant guards, quality post play, and a billion mid-range jumpers. State averages about 10.4 true mid-range jumpers a game, but that doesn’t include the variety of runners (4.5 per game), post hooks (1.9), and mysterious ‘other twos’ that the Bulldogs take. You look at that chart and think “that’s a pretty average amount of rim pressure,” but 43.2% of all State shots come within five feet of the rim, per Synergy.

The leader of this team, and the only legitimate All-SEC level guy on the roster, is Iverson Molinar (18.2 PPG). Most of what State does on offense runs through him, both in transition (infrequent, but a thing) and in half-court. Molinar’s first goal offensively will be to attack the paint, and being a 6’3″ guy that’s a 65% finisher at the rim is a legitimately excellent skill. Torvik/PBP data makes Molinar look like a mid-range specialist, and he can score from there, but his main attribute is a devastating floater. Molinar’s are going down at a 51.9% rate on 54 attempts; it’s one of the best floaters out there.

Molinar will also attack the rim off of a ball-screen; he’s the only guard on the roster that can really do that with any regularity. The best-case scenario is to make Molinar shoot; he’s at 38.3% on mid-range jumpers this year and 27.6% on threes. He was a lot better at these in 2020-21 (46.8%/42.6%), but my wild guess is that this comes with the territory of being the co-#1 option on last year’s team with D.J. Stewart, whereas he’s now the runaway #1 in 2021-22.

Molinar’s supporting cast consists of North Carolina transfer Garrison Brooks (11.4 PPG), Shakeel Moore (9.9 PPG), and frequently-injured Tolu Smith (12.9 PPG in nine games). Because of Smith’s injury, Brooks has been the main option at center for Mississippi State this year and deservingly so, as he provides a positive impact defensively. Brooks is unusual for State: normally, they play back-to-the-basket 5s who are never a serious threat to take a jumper, but Brooks has nearly taken as many jumpers as Molinar and is the team’s main mid-range specialist (40.8%, 71 attempts).

Moore is a decent threat at the rim, but his main value is from shooting; he’s 34-for-94 (36.2%) from deep, pacing the team in both makes and attempts by some distance. Moore is significantly less effective off the dribble (33%) than in a catch-and-shoot situation (39%), so a defense should do everything they can to make sure his shot attempts are difficult ones.

Lastly: Smith. I don’t know what to tell you. Smith is supposedly available, but his season has truly been week-to-week with an injury: 4 off, 4 on, 4 off, 1 on, 2 off, 3 on, 3 off, now 1 on. I think he will play, but I genuinely can’t tell you with 100% certainty he will. If he does, he’s a 6’11”, 245 pound bowling ball that takes one mid-range jumper a game and spends the rest of his time bullying his way to buckets down low. Also a terrific offensive rebounder, so watch out for that.

The only other guy that scores more than five a game is D.J. Jeffries, a Memphis transfer that takes a lot of jumpers (slightly more from three than two) and is a fine-not-great shooter.

CHART! The official Chart Guide is now as follows:

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

Mississippi State’s defense

The script has flipped somewhat from last year, when State’s offense was built around Abdul Ado blocking lots of shots down low. Ado left for Cincinnati, State has only infrequently had Smith available, and so it’s only natural State’s defense would take a hit. Still: they’re blocking a lot of shots (70th-most), forcing lots of steals (32nd-most), and cleaning up the defensive boards while not fouling much. What gives?

  • 2020-21 Mississippi State: 63.1% FG% allowed at rim, 30.1% on non-rim twos
  • 2021-22 Mississippi State: 62.2% FG% rim, 39% non-rim twos

How much of this is real and how much of it is simple variance is up for debate. Still, not much else has really changed: this is the same man-to-man defense that will let you take all the jumpers your heart desires and does a good job of blocking shots both at the rim and on shorter mid-range twos. My guess is that this can be explained to some extent by the fact that 2020-21 Mississippi State had a 6’11” shot-blocking center backed up by a 7’0″ shot-blocking center, while 2021-22 is a mix of an out-of-position 4 that’s just okay at shot blocking who splits time with either Smith (a terrible shot-blocker) or Javian Davis (also bad at blocking shots). Translation: it’s easier to score inside the perimeter now.

Two things instantly jump out at me from State’s Synergy page: opponents are running a ton of ball screens against them (32% of all half-court possessions ending in one) and State, who’s played the 68th-toughest schedule, ranking in the 39th-percentile in ball-screen defense. If you separate it out to ball-handler and roll man possessions, State ranks in the 82nd-percentile in the former and the 37th-percentile in the latter.

My take is that this makes sense given where their roster talent lies. Molinar and especially Moore do a pretty good job of forcing turnovers, but none of the frontcourt options are particularly good at either blocking shots or forcing turnovers. If the pass gets through, it’s likely to result in some easy points.

Still: the turnovers are a thing, and State has gotten better at forcing them, particularly from ball-handlers. Tennessee hasn’t been the cleanest in ball security, particularly Kennedy Chandler, so a fan would probably like to see him not be exploited by those guards.

The most common shot against State, though, is a three-pointer. Almost 43% of all shots are from deep, and data from CBB Analytics notes that State is forcing a pretty high rate of threes from 25 feet or further out. State has actually guarded these pretty well (Guarded/Unguarded of 60/40, per Synergy), and they’ve deserved the national-average results they’ve received.

However, State’s got a moderately uncommon problem with their defense: of the 23.6 threes they force per game, 10.4 (a bit over 44% of all attempts) are from three. In particular, opponents get 3.7 left corner threes per game. This wouldn’t be worth noting if State forced just 2.1 right corner threes per game. Perhaps unsurprisingly, teams have been able to exploit this shot in conference play, though the success (28% FG%) is still to come. State isn’t guarding these corner threes particularly well, as they’re listed at a 47/53 Guarded/Unguarded rate. I would look to get the usual suspects – Vescovi, James, Zeigler – some shots from the left corner.

How Tennessee matches up

At first glance, this is an improving offense playing an NIT-level defense that hasn’t changed much up over the years and has taken a significant hit in two-point defense. Still: road SEC game, good-ish opponent, and if it were that easy to score on them Arkansas would’ve dropped more than 63 and Kentucky wouldn’t have had to go to overtime to win.

A pretty obvious thing from that scout is State’s serious struggles to play quality inside-the-perimeter defense this year. They don’t foul and they rebound well, but opponents’ initial shot quality is fairly good. I think State’s backcourt defense is at least fine, but nothing about the frontcourt options feel all that scary. Prior to Arkansas, five of six State opponents had gone for 51% or better on twos, and Texas Tech went 24-for-34. There’s just not much in the way of elite rim protection or bad shot enforcers.

State ranks in the 37th-percentile in Roll Man defense, 21st-percentile in Cuts, 25th-percentile in Spot-Ups (a good percentage of which end at the rim), and 41st-in post-up D. The guards have to be involved early and often, sure, but so does Tennessee’s new-look frontcourt. This will certainly look and feel different without Nkamhoua, but John Fulkerson remains pretty good at knowing when to cut to the rim.

I’d also use ball-screens or some sort of dribble-drive impact that brings multiple defenders Kennedy Chandler or Zakai Zeigler’s way, therefore freeing up the corner threes mentioned in the defensive section. At most, Tennessee can only expect to get, like, eight of these off in this game…but if Tennessee goes 4-for-8 on those shots, it could be the difference-maker in what’s being treated as a weighted coin-flip. Use this clip as the example of a great corner shot: Chandler draws multiple defenders and has all ten Texas A&M eyes on him as he locates Vescovi for one of the most open threes of the season.

Defensively, Tennessee must first find a way to make Molinar take jumpers. While last year’s numbers do scare me, I think he’s simply taking different types of shots this year. Attention isn’t as easily drawn away from him by his teammates, so he’s having to take on a more difficult scoring load for all 40 minutes. Molinar will find his way to the rim without Nkamhoua on the floor, but Tennessee will have to find a way to build a wall and accept whatever results they get.

Right now, Molinar is shooting just 29% off-the-dribble this year no matter where he’s at on the court. Even if Tennessee forces him to take a dribble or two before pulling up, it beats a true catch-and-shoot attempt. Again: if he hits, he hits, but the actual process of letting him shoot is superior to that of letting him get within eight feet of the rim.

The other thing: you gotta protect the boards and not commit a bunch of fouls in the process. There is a human element to Nkamhoua’s injury, obviously, but a key basketball piece is that Tennessee now has five fewer fouls to use in a game. If Fulkerson gets in foul trouble, that either means more Plavsic minutes or it means Barnes will have to give a much worse defender (Huntley-Hatfield or Aidoo) serious minutes. That’s not a winning strategy.

Tennessee will have to defend the post very well in this game to come out on top. State will take some threes, sure, but they haven’t put up even 20 in a game since before Christmas. They’d much rather bully you from two than increase the variance of the game. If Tennessee can find a way to defend Smith, Brooks, and Javian Davis without fouling an extreme amount, they’ll have a good shot. In particular, Brooks – who posts up more than anyone else – looks to take a jumper first before a hook shot or a layup. Force as many jumpers as you can, and live with the consequences.

This won’t be easy, but with or without Nkamhoua, it’s a winnable basketball game. We’ll see if Tennessee brings it home.

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

  • Well, what’s your post-Nkamhoua lineup of choice? Tennessee has barely played Fulkerson and Plavsic together at all over the last few weeks, which is a good thing, because it’s the worst frontcourt pairing Tennessee may have. Hopefully, this injury doesn’t give them a reason to go double-big. Tennessee’s most common non-Nkamhoua lineup has been Chandler/Zeigler/Vescovi/James/Fulkerson, and barring either a Plavsic over-performance or a great Justin Powell game, I imagine that will be the closing five.
  • What’s Tennessee’s rim protection strategy? Lineups with Nkamhoua on the court were holding opponents to a 51.2% conversion rate at the rim, which would be the 18th-best rate in the country. It’s hard to replicate that, but it’s worth noting that the James/Fulkerson combo has been the best from a 2PT% defense perspective.
  • Threes. Also, twos. State when opponents shoot 32% or better from deep: 5-6, including 1-4 against Top 100 teams. State when shooting worse than 50% on twos: 0-5.

Key matchups

Iverson Molinar vs. Kennedy Chandler. Iverson is going to take the equivalent of 16-18 shots in this one (counting every two FTs as one shooting possession); if Chandler holds him to 18 or fewer points on all those possessions it’s a success. Meanwhile, Chandler simply must avoid turnovers. Two or fewer is the goal.

Tolu Smith (if playing) vs. Uros Plavsic or John Fulkerson. Smith seems likely to play, but I’m leaving the qualifier in just in case. Either way, this is an instant test for how well Tennessee protects the rim post-Nkamhoua.

Garrison Brooks vs. Josiah-Jordan James. Consider this the X-factor matchup. Brooks takes an insane amount of jumpers for a guy who plays all his minutes at the 4 & 5, but he’s willing to post up all the same. This is a good test of how well James can hold up when playing most of his on-court time at the 4.

Three predictions

  1. Justin Powell starts the game but isn’t in the closing lineup;
  2. Tennessee wins the turnover battle by 4 or more;
  3. Tennessee 69, Mississippi State 68.

2021-22 Bracketology, Vol. 1: where Tennessee stands, how they could rise/fall, and best/worst NCAA Tournament draws

Normally, I don’t do any NCAA Tournament or bracket-related posts until the Monday after the Super Bowl. Most readers generally can’t get into it until that date, and neither can I. However, 2022 presents a new challenge: the NFL has turned their season into 18 weeks, and therefore, the Super Bowl is now the second Sunday of February, not the first. This is fine, because I respect and worship The Shield™, but it’s not great for content planning or breaking a long-standing routine.

So: a compromise. This is a post that serves as an introduction to Tennessee’s 2022 bracket concerns. There will be two more posts – one February 22, one March 8 – that go into further detail, answer certain questions, and explore some ideas of what works and what doesn’t in March. For now, think of this as a post that answers three concerns:

  1. Where does Tennessee stand right now from a seeding perspective?
  2. With eight games left, how will various finishes and final records leave Tennessee looking, both in SEC standings and in Tournament seeding?
  3. What are Tennessee’s best and worst possible draws?

This is a post that comes just shy of 3,000 words, so we’ll dive right in.

1. Where does Tennessee stand as of February 8?

Pretty well! Thanks for asking.

…anyway, Tennessee sets up pretty nicely for a run to the finish. Bracket Matrix, the bracket consensus site, has not updated since February 4 at the time this piece was typed. As of last Friday, they had Tennessee as the highest 5 seed, which is confusing because they have the same number of good wins and two fewer bad losses than 4 seed Michigan State, but if it’s surprising that Michigan State gets more love than Tennessee I have a beach house in Idaho for you.

More reliable, at least for the purposes of what we’re discussing, is Bart Torvik’s TourneyCast tool. It’s the only tool out there I trust that accurately represents the instability being a month-plus away from the NCAA Tournament possesses. When you’re in Tennessee’s position – good enough to be widely considered no worse than a top-20 team, not good enough to be considered a top-10 one – you have quite the amount of uncertainty. Factor in Tennessee’s 3-6 record against Quadrant 1 teams and you can see where a bracketologist might be a little lower on Tennessee than a metrics guy.

Still, things look pretty good. Here’s what the TourneyCast has to say about Tennessee’s seeding odds the remainder of the way. I only used those with at least a 5% chance of happening, because otherwise, I will get a reply to this article asking me about the possibility of being an 8 seed.

  • 1 seed: 5.2% chance
  • 2 seed: 17.6%
  • 3 seed: 21%
  • 4 seed: 21.3%
  • 5 seed: 19.6%
  • 6 seed: 11.2%

Tennessee’s average seed on TourneyCast is a 3.8, which would translate to them being roughly the 14th-ranked team in the field on Bracket Matrix. Again, seems like a fair guess for a team ranked 13th on KenPom and 18th in Wins Above Bubble.

Prefer something you think sounds more reliable? Say, a little tool from the Worldwide Leader? Well, wouldn’t you know it, ESPN now has a seed projection tool that has Tennessee at…

…oh dear. Well, forget you saw that. As a reminder, BPI believed Tennessee was the best team in the SEC last year entering the SEC Tournament, which was mighty hard to defend if you look at any metrics site in existence. I can’t figure out how they weigh certain games; if I find out I’ll let you know.

Here’s two more that I feel less confident in, but exist and are worth taking a look at. First, has a bracketology tool that places Tennessee as the 16th-ranked team in the field. They don’t provide an average seed, but their graph is less friendly to Tennessee, giving them no real shot at a 1 seed (fine) and a >5% shot at an 8 seed (wait a minute).

Lastly, there’s this mysterious website called INCC Stats. Its first function appears to be as some sort of cross-country running site for Indiana high school athletes, but its secondary function is that of a college basketball ratings site that offers a remarkably strong resemblance to a blend of Sports-Reference and KenPom. Tennessee ranks 14th in their field as well, with an average seed of 4.3. (If Tennessee beats Mississippi State, they’re expected to improve to 3.9.) This is a little harder to read because this goes along with a chart of various SEC records, but just follow the basic outline at the bottom.

So, what have we learned? What can you learn?

  • Tennessee, on the majority of sites with an NCAA Tournament forecasting tool, has roughly a 60% chance of finishing somewhere on the 3-5 seed lines. That doesn’t mean Tennessee will do this; it just means that as of February 8, it’s what they’re most likely gonna do.
  • Tennessee’s most likely outcome is a 4 seed. Again, this isn’t a guarantee; it’s just what’s most likely. On the three sites that list their odds in full, Tennessee has between a 21-27% shot of being a 4 seed.
  • There are scenarios, some more realistic than others, where Tennessee could end up a 7 seed, 6 seed, 2 seed, or even a 1. I don’t think any of them sound super realistic, but ESPN sure seems like a believer.
  • To ensure Tennessee’s status as a 4 seed or better, they’ve gotta win some big games. Which leads us to the next question.

2. What records get you what seeds heading into the SEC Tournament?

With the help of both Torvik and INCC Stats, I’m just going with remaining records that at least have a puncher’s chance of happening. Even KenPom, which is a little rosier than Torvik on Tennessee, only gives the Volunteers a 4.8% chance at going 8-0 to finish the season. Could that happen? Sure. Will it? Probably not. Likewise, Tennessee going 0-8, 1-7, or even 2-6 is extremely unlikely – none of those scenarios have more than a 2% chance of coming to fruition. So we’ll focus in on five specific runs to the finish, all of which have at least a 7% chance of happening: 3-5, 4-4, 5-3, 6-2, and 7-1.

The average seeds by record are via INCC Stats; considering Torvik is a little more positive on their seeding outcomes, you can bump up the seed listed by 0.1-0.2 if you want his numbers instead.

19-11, 10-8 SEC (3-5 finish)

  • Losses to no fewer than one Quadrant 2/3/4 opponent
  • Assuming 0-1 wins over Quadrant 1
  • Expected SEC finish: 4th or 5th
  • Average seed: 6.9
  • Chances of happening: 6.9% INCC, 6.4% Torvik, 4.4% KenPom

This would be a disastrous run to the finish, of course. Tennessee currently sits in a position where they’re >75% likely to finish in the top 3 in the SEC and >90% likely to finish top 4; this is the only realistic outcome that would put a top-four finish in very real doubt, and if you’re going 3-5 to the finish against this schedule, anything is possible in the SEC Tournament in a bad way.

Tennessee would have done enough to likely be a 7 seed, but if Tennessee gets here, it means they’ve lost all four of their coin-flip games (Mississippi State, Kentucky, Arkansas, Auburn) and suffered a real upset at the hands of, say, Missouri. It’s the type of finish that makes you an obvious fade bet in the first weekend. Let’s pretend we didn’t see this.

20-10, 11-7 SEC (4-4 finish)

  • Assuming 0-4 or 1-3 Quadrant 1 record
  • Expected SEC finish: likely 4th, but a decent shot at 3rd
  • Average seed: 5.5
  • Chances of happening: 16.8% INCC, 18.3% Torvik, 13.1% KenPom

It says a lot about the quality of the SEC beyond the top three that even a 4-4, 11-7 SEC finish would still probably keep Tennessee at an SEC Tournament double-bye and maybe even the third overall seed. Still, this would be disappointing, even with Olivier Nkamhoua’s injury.

As of now, the 5.5 average seed would actually make Tennessee the highest-rated 6 seed, but the 6 seed line must be avoided at all costs. Since the field was expanded to 68 in 2011, 6 seeds are 19-21 in the first round and have just a 15% success rate in making the Sweet Sixteen

21-9, 12-6 SEC (5-3 finish)

  • Assuming no worse than one additional Quadrant 1 win, or two Quadrant 1 wins but one Quadrant 2-4 loss
  • Expected SEC finish: 3rd
  • Average seed: 4.6
  • Chances of happening: 20.5% INCC, 29.6% Torvik, 25.5% KenPom

This is where I make a special note than KenPom’s numbers give Tennessee a better shot at finishing 13-5 than 12-6, but the difference on both Torvik and KenPom is small. You’re looking at a coin-flip to either finish with 12 or 13 SEC wins, essentially. Given the Nkamhoua news, maybe that coin flip goes against you now. Who knows?

Anyway, this means you have defeated at least one and possibly two of State/Kentucky/Arkansas away/Auburn while either losing the rest of losing to one of Missouri/Arkansas home. It’s a decent outcome, but you’d essentially go into the SEC Tournament needing a win over likely 2-seed Kentucky to move from the 5 line to the 4. Once again, this is important; 5 seeds are 24-16 in the first round since the field expanded, while 4 seeds are 31-9 and have made the Sweet Sixteen twice as often (23 to 11).

22-8, 13-5 SEC (6-2 finish)

  • Assuming a 2-2 record against Quadrant 1 opponents or a 3-1 record with one Q2-Q4 loss
  • Expected SEC finish: likely 3rd, outside shot at 2nd
  • Average seed: 3.8
  • Chances of happening: 27.1% INCC, 27.7% Torvik, 29.9% KenPom

If you combine the odds of these two sites + KenPom, this is Tennessee’s most likely outcome. What an outcome it would be: multiple wins over the State/Kentucky/Arkansas away/Auburn grouping, which would push you to five Quadrant 1 wins. As long as you draw any of Arkansas/Florida/Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals, you have an opportunity to add a sixth. That’s important.

In this scenario, assuming an SEC Tournament semifinal loss, Tennessee would close the season with an 11-9 record against Quadrant 1 + 2 opponents combined. Only 23 teams in 2018-19 played at least 20 games against Q1+2 competition and finished with a winning record. That, combined with Tennessee’s flawless record against Quadrant 3 & 4 opponents, would likely lock up no worse than a 4 seed.

There is one moderately realistic outcome that’s better, though.

23-7, 14-4 SEC (7-1 finish)

  • No worse than a 3-1 record against Quadrant 1 opponents
  • No losses to Q2-Q4 teams
  • Expected SEC finish: no worse than 3rd, with a tiebreaker with Kentucky determining 2nd
  • Average seed: 2.9
  • Chances of happening: 16.6% INCC, 13.7% Torvik, 20.4% (!) KenPom

Well, it’s not out of the question, but it’s less likely than 13-5, 12-6, and 11-7. Still, it’s worth exploring. Here’s the path I would deem most likely:

  1. Tennessee holds serve in three should-be-easy games: home Vanderbilt (88% to win, per KenPom), road Missouri (83%), road Georgia (91%). The odds of these three events happening are 66.5%.
  2. Tennessee beats Arkansas (78%) on Senior Day. Arkansas is good and getting better, but it’s a home game at a place Arkansas rarely wins. This plus the three gimmes: 51.9%. Still looking good.
  3. Tennessee beats Mississippi State (60%) tomorrow. 31.1%, which I swear to you is pretty good for a series of five independent events.
  4. Tennessee wins two of three against the following: Arkansas on the road (57%), #1 Auburn (55%), or #5 Kentucky (49%). If you treat these three as independent events, which they are, Tennessee has a 90% shot at getting one win. Against this trio specifically, Tennessee’s most likely outcome is 2-1. That’s if they proceed through the 31% likelihood of going against the other five teams unscathed.

You can see why this is unlikely, even though Tennessee is technically favored in seven of their final eight. (Because I am sure I’ll be asked, their average seed if they win out is 2.0, but again, that’s a 6% event. Can happen, very likely won’t.) Still: the path is there, and you don’t have to squint much at all to see it. If Tennessee can get a few lucky bounces here or there, 7-1 is 7-1.

3. As of today, what are Tennessee’s best and worst NCAA Tournament draws?

All seedings are based on two things:

  1. Where they are on the Bracket Matrix consensus as of right now;
  2. For seeds 12-16, if they have a >15% chance of making the NCAA Tournament, per Bart Torvik’s TourneyCast. Upsets happen in conference tournaments, and this is our way of getting them in a projected field. (I needed a cutoff point and 15% sounded like an accurate midpoint between 10-20%.)

Also, for the purposes of our…”study,” I guess, we’re assuming that Tennessee makes the NCAA Tournament as a 4 seed. It’s their most likely outcome on pretty much every site I read, and we can adjust that projection in a couple of weeks if needed. All numbers in the projections are via KenPom.

The GOAT Draw

  1. Auburn (SEC)
  2. Duke (ACC)
  3. Wisconsin (B1G)
  4. Tennessee (SEC)
  5. Ohio State (B1G)
  6. Texas (B12)
  7. Saint Mary’s (WCC)
  8. Boise State (MWC)
  9. Loyola Chicago (MVC)
  10. Seton Hall (BE)
  11. North Carolina (ACC)
  12. North Texas (CUSA)
  13. Hofstra (CAA)
  14. Liberty (A-Sun)
  15. Colgate (Patriot)
  16. Penn (Ivy)

“But Will,” you holler, “you put the #1 team in Tennessee’s bracket. Surely, this must be a mistake.” Shirley, I can be serious. Of the current #1 seeds – Auburn, Gonzaga, Purdue, and Kansas – it is Auburn who ranks lowest in a metrics average of the four, settling in around the eighth-best team in America. If you want to replace Auburn with Kansas, who is a spot or two ahead of them in some places, go for it. But I’m standing by this.

Auburn has very much earned their status as #1 in the AP Poll through a variety of great wins and timely cash-ins of luck. But the very best teams in college basketball rarely have to escape the bottom two teams in their conference by a combined three points. Sure, Auburn won both games…but did it actually make you feel better about their odds of somehow going undefeated in SEC play? I’m banking on two things here: a moderate reversal of fortune (i.e., Auburn loses 2-3 SEC games, loses in the SEC Tournament) and a genuine belief that even a really, really good team is capable of a bad night at the wrong time in March. This is the same team that’s nearly lost to South Florida, Saint Louis, Missouri, and Georgia. They’re not perfect.

This draw is complicated because, on one hand, it would be perfect if Tennessee drew literally the worst possible 1-16 seeds at every line. However, I have an alternate plan: what if Tennessee’s potential Round of 64, Round of 32, and Sweet Sixteen higher seeds are all below-average, but their bottom-bracket adversaries (seeds 6, 7, 10, 11) are all really good? If Tennessee made the Elite Eight and all they had to do was beat a 6, 7, 10, or 11 seed, you would take that gamble every single time, even if it didn’t work out. Therefore, you want really, really good lower seeds on the bottom half to knock out the 2 and 3 seeds.

Along with that, we’re making the 14, 15, and 16 seeds super-powered, or at least as much as I realistically can. (I debated doing the same with the 8/9 seeds, but it’s probably in Tennessee’s advantage to just draw an average 8 or 9 seed, not 2020-21 Loyola Chicago or something.) (Also, I would prefer a 12 seed that is good enough to be threatening but not scary enough to knock Tennessee out themselves. Learned my lesson last year.) The goal is this: Tennessee makes the Elite Eight while facing a 13, a 12, and a 9 seed. Worst case scenario: you draw the worst 13, worst 5, and worst 1 seed in the field.

What this produces is the following:

  • Baseline Tennessee NCAA Tournament odds, per Torvik: 80.7% to make Round of 32; 47.8% to make Sweet 16; 22.9% to make Elite Eight; 10.6% to make Final Four
  • GOAT Draw: 90.4% Round of 32; 64.7% Sweet 16; 33.6% Elite Eight; 18.2% Final Four

This draw almost doubles Tennessee’s odds of the first-ever Final Four run in school history. Not only is that nice, but check out the rest of this bracket. The 3 seed is only 27% likely to make the Sweet Sixteen. The 2 seed has just a 44% shot to see the Elite Eight. Your second and third most-likely draws from the bottom half of the bracket are the 6 and 7 seeds. If I, today, told you Tennessee could have a one-in-three chance to make the Elite Eight…you’d take that, right? That’s why this is the GOAT Draw.

The Poop Draw

  1. Gonzaga (WCC)
  2. Arizona (Pac-12)
  3. Houston (American)
  4. Tennessee (SEC)
  5. Texas (Big 12)
  6. Iowa State (Big 12)
  7. Indiana (B1G)
  8. Boise State (MWC)
  9. Davidson (Atlantic 10)
  10. Miami (FL) (ACC)
  11. Wake Forest (ACC)
  12. UAB (Conference USA)
  13. Furman (Southern)
  14. Navy (Patriot)
  15. Cleveland State (Horizon)
  16. Nicholls State (Southland)

A truly funny and terrible thing is that this draw actually gives you a better shot to exit the first round and an equal shot to make the Sweet Sixteen as the baseline. This is because the baseline has a lot of uncertainty involved and considers pretty much anything from a 2 to 6 seed for Tennessee to at least be mildly possible.

For this, we’re giving Tennessee a true murderer’s row to get through. If you can escape Furman – the highest rated potential 13 seed in KenPom at #67 – you’re either rewarded with a Texas team you just lost to a week ago or a UAB team that’s 38th in KenPom. Escape that grueling weekend? Congrats. Your reward, in 87% of simulations, is #1 Gonzaga. If you somehow pull off the upset of a lifetime, your next reward is either #2 Arizona or #4 Houston.

My hope with this draw is to illustrate what a true Selection Hell looks like: Tennessee gets the worst possible 1-3 and 5 seeds, gets zero help from the 6-11 seeds, then proceeds to draw the toughest 12 and 13. It’s an absolute nightmare…and yet: that absolute nightmare still results in a Sweet Sixteen almost half the time. I guess it could be worse!

A summary of what has been learned so far:

  • Tennessee will most likely be a 3, 4, or 5 seed.
  • Their most likely final SEC record (per KenPom) is 13-5, closely followed by 12-6, 14-4, then 11-7.
  • Hope you don’t draw Furman or UAB.
  • Hope your enemy seed draws Furman or UAB.
  • Hope you get a bad 1 seed or your 1 seed draws Dream Killer Loyola Chicago.

More to come soon.

With No Regard For Human Life

Tuesday, February 1: #22 Tennessee 90, Texas A&M 80 (15-6, 6-3 SEC)
Saturday, February 5: #22 Tennessee 81, South Carolina 57 (16-6, 7-3 SEC)

Maybe it was here:

Or here:

Maybe here:

I’m thinking this played a part:

Or, well, here:

Possibly this, too:

Or here:

I mean, frankly, maybe it started when it actually started:

But somewhere along the last three months, Zakai Zeigler went from a New York curiosity that had no serious Division I offers until July to someone who’s on track to be one of the 3-5 all-time most beloved Tennessee players in any major sport the school has to offer. In the mild-to-moderate-to-severe annoyances this season has brought fans of all varieties, there has been one consistent tether to fandom: Zeigler. How a 5’9″ player that committed on August 27 and was initially only taken as an emergency backup for Kennedy Chandler became the fanbase’s favorite player in years is a story we get to live out in real time. What a joy, frankly.

Maybe you have to start where you’re supposed to start. A player who receives little-to-no Division I attention, beyond the Northeast Conference’s Bryant, attends the 2021 Peach Jam in Atlanta. There are probably 300 prospects there more well-known than him if not more. In the News-Sentinel piece, he describes this as his last-ditch attempt at getting a real offer before he takes a prep year. Player has a great week in Atlanta; player receives several committable offers, the most well-known of which would be Minnesota and Wichita State. Player receives a Tennessee offer two weeks after those, visits on August 22, commits on August 27, starts classes on August 31.

In the season preview, potentially the wrongest thing I’ve written online since I began writing about Tennessee basketball publicly five years ago, I listed Zeigler as a possible rotation member (fair). I said he’d play less than 100 minutes of basketball this season. I said his height (5’9″) and weight (167) would put a hard cap on playing time in Year One, because he came in too late to get serious strength training. I figured defense would be an issue. I thought wrong. I am far from the first person Zakai Zeigler has proven wrong; I am simply one of the latest and most public.

Zeigler didn’t top 13 minutes in the first three games, but he broke out in the fourth: 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting against North Carolina. He sort of laid dormant for a while but just…kept coming back. He completely flipped the script of his October scouting report: he struggled to knock down shots, but was ridiculously tenacious on defense. He picked up five steals against Mississippi, then four against South Carolina, then four against Vanderbilt, including a play that essentially sealed the game. Then he started hitting shots again. Watch that CBS video once more:

Listen to Kevin Harlan’s voice levitate. It hangs for a second as the shot drops. You hear what sounds as either “BOOM” or “OOH” but translates to “Zeigler, another three!” Harlan has voiced many beautiful moments of basketball fandom for me; the one most college basketball fans will recall is “Farokmanesh, a three…goooooooooood!” The one the average sports fan will know is this, one of the 3-5 greatest calls by any sports announcer that I know of.

Without the commentary, I don’t think this is one of LeBron’s 25 best dunks of his career. (Noting here that Harlan once used this call for a Kobe dunk that is probably better, but happened in a regular season game and has a worse YouTube video.) LeBron has gone higher, slammed harder, hurt more, defied physics and basic science more beautifully. But it is the commentary that makes me believe this is a physical accomplishment on the level of walking on the Moon. WITH NO REGARD FOR HUMAN LIFE is such a visceral, gut-rattling call. It is what you would say for an act of war, not for someone harshly placing a round ball in a basket. But when you think about it, it makes sense. Basketball is war. It is violent, brutal, and it hurts you, both mentally and physically. We can’t get enough of it and we never will.

Harlan’s voice is meant for something greater than sports. If it were still 2012 and people were still making the Facebook pages titled I Wish Morgan Freeman Narrated My Life, I would make the counter-page for Kevin Harlan. It is an absurd act of luck and grace that Kevin Harlan calls college basketball games with fair regularity. It is even more absurd that Kevin Harlan got to call this particular Zakai Zeigler game. In a just world, as much as I enjoy and love our friends Tom Hart and Dane Bradshaw, it would have been Harlan’s voice soundtracking Zeigler’s own LeBron moment:

In October, the reasonable expectation for Zakai Zeigler, and by everyone that doesn’t have the last name Zeigler, was for him to be a playable ninth or tenth man. On the worst night, you figured the emergency backup point guard would come in for 10 minutes because Kennedy Chandler got into foul trouble or something. All of this fun stuff wasn’t supposed to happen until 2022-23 at the earliest. Really, given how raw Zeigler sounded and how little strength training he’d had, you could’ve said his junior year (2023-24) would be the right time for a breakout.

It is February now. We are six days from the Super Bowl. Zakai Zeigler is, at worst, one of the five best players on Tennessee’s roster. There have been games where he’s outplayed Chandler, a near-certain first-round draft pick, by a significant margin. Zeigler and Chandler have combined for 107 points over Tennessee’s last four games. Zeigler has outscored Jabari Smith, Chandler, and TyTy Washington since January 25th. Again, this is a 5’9″ emergency freshman point guard who had as many SEC offers as I did seven months ago.

This is not supposed to logically happen. Bart Torvik’s player stats include a 0-100 recruiting rating for each player, which essentially corresponds to “how highly was this player rated by the average recruiting website.” Among freshmen at high-major schools, #1 in Box Plus-Minus is Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, who was the #1 overall recruit in last year’s class. #2: A.J. Griffin of Duke, who was 18th. Of this year’s top 22 players by BPM, 12 were ranked no lower than 35th in the class of 2021. All but two were at least ranked in the top 200. Only one of those 22 was, at any point of their senior year, unranked. Take a wild guess which one.

So here we are: an unranked, barely recruited 5’9″ freshman has stolen the hearts of the entire Tennessee fanbase with a full month of games left to play in his first season. And that’s Act One. Imagine what Acts Two, Three, and Four will bring. Using Torvik’s same player stats, I attempted to see what happened to freshman with a similar Year One to Zeigler (>1.5 PRPG, >5.5 BPM, high-major player, no taller than 6′). I then had to expand it because the initial list was eight people long over 15 seasons, and one of them was Zeigler’s teammate.

Alright then: 6’3″ or shorter, same PRPG, same BPM, but a 3% or better Steal% and a 20% or higher Usage Rate. This time, let’s see what happened after their freshman year.

One more: the Player Comparison tool on Torvik’s site, which takes all of Zeigler’s stats and throws up a similarity score to other seasons that match it most closely. This is freshman-only, and these are the five closest comparisons.

Please remember that this is a player who was completely unranked by any recruiting service until August 26, the day before he committed to Tennessee. Among the five players that this system feels are his closest comparisons, there are a combined 11 All-Conference First or Second Team selections. There are five players who at least touched the court in an NBA game. Three of them are active. One of them, VanVleet, is an All-Star. Of the five, only Mills failed to play all four years at his school of choice.

Consider all of that, but most importantly consider that you are strongly likely to get three more years plus the next 6-8 weeks of Zakai Zeigler in a Tennessee uniform. The beauty and horror of life is that we cannot tell the future. Anything, both good and bad, can reasonably happen from this point onward. All of what we know to look for going forward is based on past events. Yet those past events are so exciting, so charming, so singularly lovable that the uncertainty of the future is embraced with arms wide open.

Basketball, the beautiful game, has given Zeigler and his family a chance at a new life. It provides, and if there is justice, it will provide for him. I find myself most excited to see the ways the future will provide a career for a player who grew up in the shadows and deserves the spotlight like nothing else.

Various notes from the last two games:

  • Another out-of-nowhere ref show. Tennessee and Texas A&M combined for 42 fouls, a couple of which were late A&M desperation ones but most of which were organic. I was a little surprised by this, mostly because Tennessee is rarely a foul-heavy team and A&M isn’t as extreme as Carolina. Getting a little tired of noting these stats in games where the general expectation should be about 32-34 combined fouls; very much “this could’ve been an email” vibes. Let the players play.
  • On free throw variance. There were a couple weeks where Tennessee fans were in tatters over free throw shooting. That’s fine; it did look bad for a while. Those complaints have now gone quiet after Tennessee went 34-for-41 (82.9%) at the line this week, but the worst Benevolent God of Variance action was letting A&M, a team that entered the game shooting 64% at the line, go 21-for-25 (84%). You could explain five of A&M’s 80 points away right there; a 90-75 scoreline would indeed feel a little better.
  • The Josiah-Jordan James resurgence. Torvik’s site also provides an adjusted Net Rating for each player that rarely goes above, like, +8 or +9. James posted a +7.3 against A&M and +9.6 against South Carolina to go along with his two highest scoring performances of the season. James is now shooting 32.7% from deep in SEC play, which sounds average but is a percentage everyone was begging for when the guy was in the 20-25% range.
  • Positive three-point variance! When I found myself in the depths of exploring seagulls in January, it was in part influenced by Tennessee’s seeming inability to have a normal basketball game. At the time, through 14 games, these were their numbers:
    • 50% or better: 1 game (7.1%)
    • 40-49%: 4 games (28.6%)
    • 30-39%: 1 game (7.1%)
    • 20-29%: 6 games (42.9%)
    • 19% or worse: 2 games (14.3%)

Part of the frustration was that Tennessee was having significantly more bad games (8 of 29% or worse) than good ones (5 of 40% or better). Fast forward four weeks, and here’s the new numbers:

    • 50% or better: 2 games (9.1%)
    • 40-49%: 7 games (31.8%)
    • 30-39%: 3 games (13.6%)
    • 20-29%: 8 games (36.3%)
    • 19% or worse: 2 games (9.1%)

The problem still exists in that Tennessee is bizarrely incapable of having a normal, boring shooting night. The great news is that the top half of this chart has grown immensely since the LSU loss. Tennessee now has nine games of 40% or better from deep, and the median performance is now a 35.7% outing in a home win over LSU. One month of basketball changes a lot!

  • Four guards/wings at all times. Torvik’s algorithm considers James a ‘stretch 4,’ which is…probably fair, but Tennessee starts him at the 3 in pretty much every game. I’m sort of at the point where I don’t care about starting lineups as long as the closing lineup is the one that makes sense. Tennessee got there in the South Carolina game, unfortunately thanks to the Nkamhoua injury. Per Hoop-Explorer, lineups with any three of Vescovi/Chandler/Zeigler/Powell were +15 in 23 possessions; all other lineups were +9 in 42. Play three of those guys at all important times, and you will be happy.
  • Speaking of which: closing lineup. The data of CBB Analytics shares this: Tennessee’s most frequent lineup with 4 minutes to go this season has been Chandler, Zeigler, Vescovi, James, and Nkamhoua. Second-most frequent: the first four, but with Fulkerson. Maybe everything is fine?
  • Finally: KenPom bump. Tennessee now sits 34th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, which would both be the second-highest offense of the Barnes era and also would fulfill a useful stats thing. This website scanned the NCAA Tournament field in 2018 and found that, since KenPom’s existence, 86% of Final Four teams had an offense that was at least in the top 40 nationally. 73% were in the top 20. I’m not picking Tennessee to go to the Final Four barring a very advantageous draw (more on that later this week), but Tennessee is trending in the right direction at the right time. Last year’s Elite Eight teams and their pre-NCAAT offensive rankings: 1st, 3rd, 6th, 7th, 18th, 28th, 35th, and 63rd. At least being top 35 is positive, especially after a month of being outside the top 50.