Tennessee’s tricky December is likely going to result in a loss or two, which is fine

I joke about two things online very often: 1. The nuthouse fervor of any and all online communities based around college athletics; 2. The fact that said nuthouse communities apply Football Mindset to other sports. When you are stuck in Football Mindset, every loss is a Big Event. Every loss that happens has the potential to change a narrative for a coach for years to come. (Unless you root for Indiana or Duke football, I guess.) It makes sense for a sport that has 12-game seasons and very few data points to apply to.

It doesn’t make sense to apply Football Mindset to college basketball, a sport with greater variance, 30+ game seasons, and a significantly higher amount of parity. Only one program (Florida) has posted back-to-back championships in the same year. No team has finished a season undefeated in 45 years. The best program over the last decade of the sport is in freaking Spokane, Washington. And yet:

I feel like this perhaps applies especially well to fan bases where football is the dominant sport. There’s nothing inherently wrong with football being the dominant sport at a school! It’s just a bit of a strange way to look at basketball, a sport where literally everyone loses at least once and in almost every season, every high-major basketball team loses 3 or more times. Heck, Tennessee’s most recent SEC basketball title came in a year where they lost five regular season conference games. The arc of history is a long one, and not everything is linear; off nights happen.

I bring all of this up because this December is Tennessee’s trickiest month of pre-January affairs they’ve had to navigate since November 2010 if not further back:

That’s an astounding five opponents ranked 57th or better in the span of four weeks. As far as I can tell, Tennessee hasn’t had a December this busy in over two decades. They’ll be favored in six of these seven games, and two are fairly obvious gimmes, but that leaves five games with a spread within three points, i.e. Literally One Possession in a Basketball Game. That’s five somewhat-weighted coin flips. Apologies to UNC Greensboro (who’s dropped 11 spots since the start of the season, FWIW, and has a new coach) and USC Upstate, but this month should be remembered by the Tier A games.

I ran the numbers on what fans can reasonably expect after remembering how you’re supposed to calculate probabilities. Here’s the rough odds of each record in this five-game stretch, based on KenPom’s numbers:

  • 0-5: 1.6%
  • 1-4: 10.4%
  • 2-3: 26.7%
  • 3-2: 34%
  • 4-1: 21.8%
  • 5-0: 5.5%

The point of this exercise is that it’s going to be very, very hard to get through this month unscathed. Bart Torvik’s TeamCast notes that even a team playing at the level of the current #1 team in metrics systems (Gonzaga) would only be expected to go 5-0 about 31% of the time. When you’re Tennessee – very good, very interesting Tennessee, but a flawed and imperfect Tennessee – your odds are understandably quite a bit shorter. Even the very best team would fail to go 5-0 against this fivesome in 69% of scenarios.

The good news here is that, 83% of the time – AKA, five out of every six – Tennessee is going to win between 2 and 4 games against this tough slate. Unless an outlier performance happens, you can count on Tennessee finding at least two wins. Even in the very worst-case scenario for an NCAA Tournament resume – one where the Volunteers only take the two ‘easiest’ wins – Tennessee would walk away with a road win over Colorado (who is 20-5 at home against Top 100 teams since 2017) and either a home win over Arizona (who looks like a legitimate Top 15 team) or a neutral site win over Texas Tech.

Consider the possibilities of the potential win triplets in the scenarios where Tennessee goes 3-2 (what a top 10-20 team would be expected to do):

  • Road win over #57 Colorado, neutral win over #29 Memphis, home win over #19 Arizona: 24.2% chance of winning all three; most likely three-team pairing
  • Road win over #57 Colorado, neutral win over #16 Texas Tech, home win over #19 Arizona: 20.2%
  • Road win over #57 Colorado, neutral win over #16 Texas Tech, neutral win over #29 Memphis: 19.8%

Or the most chaotic, most annoying, also most satisfying, and therefore funniest tri-win scenario:

  • Neutral win over #16 Texas Tech, neutral win over #29 Memphis, road win over #11 Alabama: 12.1%

I am no psychic; I do not know what will happen this month. What I do know is that if you allow yourself to understand that a two-loss month for Tennessee is Actually Good and genuinely very beneficial to the team’s fortunes in March, you’ll be a much more satisfied and well-adjusted person if that comes to fruition. (If they go 2-3 or worse, depending on the losses being close, you’re more than welcome to get a little upset.) If they go 4-1? Well, buddy, that’s icing on the cake. Any scenario where Tennessee gets four wins out of five would genuinely move them up an entire seed line and possibly two come Selection Sunday while (likely) temporarily placing them in the AP Top 10.

I have two goals in mind:

  1. Win three of the first four games (Colorado, Texas Tech, Memphis, Arizona). Any collection of wins here is great for a March resume, and it allows Tennessee (in my head, but not in reality) to go into the Alabama game with less stress.
  2. Get at least two wins away from home. Winning in front of a home crowd is nice, but you don’t play in front of home crowds in March.

Months like this are horrible and wonderful. Gone are the stress-free blowouts of Quadrant 4 teams (minus the obvious one on Tennessee’s schedule); now, you get to find out just how good Tennessee actually is. To be honest, it’s better to find out something now than to find out something at the worst possible time three months from now. This is going to be a December to remember in some aspect, but hopefully, you don’t have to sit through 500 car commercials to see it unfold.

And hey, if you like applying Football Mindset, think of it this way: you’ve only gotta go .500 to make a bowl. Tennessee only has to go .600 (roughly 7-5, which they did this season) to make this month a successful one. “Vols with two losses or fewer!” doesn’t have the same ring as “Vols by 100”, though, so do what you gotta do.

My 2021-22 SEC basketball projections, tier-by-tier

So: I attended a college football game for the first time since August 2019 this past Saturday. Memphis played SMU at the Historic Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis. (My future brother-in-law is the Memphis punter and kicker. Humblebrag!) The Tigers won, it was a fine and nice day, 62 degrees, all that. There were even points! 53 of ’em!

There were also commercials. Lots of ’em. Every time I watched the little man in the red hat take the field with a digitized sign that either read 3:05 or 3:25 depending on which car company needs to shove their newest $39,399 MSRP vehicle in my face, I felt just a little more internal groaning turn external. By halftime, I’d seen the Red Hat six different times, each for a commercial break that lasts longer than most songs on the radio do. If I remember correctly, there were 14 full commercial breaks, which means for a solid 45ish minutes of a gorgeous fall Saturday, you’re sitting there watching the Overseer of Advertising.

And this wasn’t even one of the bad games, because it only took about 3 hours and 15 minutes. The FOX Game of the Week seems to take four full hours every time out. This is where the beauty of college basketball, in all of its profound ugliness, lies: the longest regulation games basically never run longer than 2 hours and 20 minutes. Tennessee played an exhibition game against a Division II opponent with eight full media timeouts last weekend and it didn’t even crack the 1:50 mark. The average in-season game runs right at two hours. It’s one of the most economical viewing experiences a time-conscious viewer can have outside of European football/soccer.

This is a very weird and roundabout way of saying that I am looking forward to a capital-N Normal college basketball season like nothing else. Four months of interesting storylines, statistics, and coverage; the most perfect and ludicrous postseason format in existence; a profound lack of in-game Buick ads or the Kenny Chesney Tailgater of the Week when you’re in the arena. For all of this sport’s problems, it holds excitement and wire-to-wire intrigue for me unlike basically anything else. I recognize this probably says more about me than it does the actual sport, and I accept that. But I’m still pretty darn excited about all of this. It’s nice for normalcy to be back on a national stage.

Without further bloviating, the SEC is broken up into five tiers, with an explanation of each tier below its designation. There are 14 teams in all; at the bottom, there is a short list of awards and weird superlatives and whatnot. All rankings in (parentheses) are from the metrics composite I’ve been using for other posts.

Tier 1

Nothing surprising if one (or multiple) of these teams win the SEC regular season title or the SEC Tournament.

T-1. Tennessee (#14)
T-1. Kentucky (#15)
T-1. Alabama (#17)
4. Arkansas (#21)

Yes, this is a copout and whatnot; I also do not care. I genuinely think that all three of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama are pretty much dead even to the point that if you graded them on KenPom’s Adjusted Efficiency Metric I don’t think there would be even half a point of separation between the three. It’s fine. We can have a tie.

Tennessee has been consistently ranked somewhere between second and fourth by media members and ended up fourth in the SEC preseason poll, so it may be a surprise that I would rank them in a three-way tie for first. The media members that make up these polls do generally know their stuff and try pretty hard. That said, I’m simply siding with the computer numbers here; Tennessee has a tantalizing combo of returning talent (John Fulkerson, Josiah-Jordan James, Santiago Vescovi, etc.), high-end freshmen (Kennedy Chandler, Brandon Huntley-Hatfield), and a key transfer (Justin Powell via Auburn) that feels like the best regular-season mix for wins if I had to pick one.

The case against Tennessee is that none of the returning talent is an ideal #1 option offensively and that the best defensive player the program has had in a long time just left for the NBA. If Tennessee can’t figure out how to appropriately replace Pons defensively, it could be an unusual Barnes-era situation in that the team is relying on the offense to provide key wins. (Sort of a Pearl-era situation?) The interesting thing with Tennessee is that, of these four teams, you could make the argument that their floor is higher than everyone else’s…but the ceiling may be lower than both of the teams they’re tied with. Time will tell.

Kentucky is a curious case: they have the most proven coach of anyone in the SEC, of course, and John Calipari largely ditched his usual blue-chip recruiting strategy to go hard in the transfer market after a variety of fixes. (They also may get to add the #1 recruit in the 2022 class midway through the season, but that seems both up in the air and unlikely to actually help them all that much.) They’re the preseason SEC pick by most, and I totally get it; I think that of the four teams in Tier One here they’re kind of the obvious upside pick because if it all comes together correctly, they’ll be one of the 10 or so best teams when things actually matter, i.e. March.

However: this is Kentucky. That means several things. One of them is that “this is Kentucky” means that John Calipari, barring a 38-1 style level of talent, will probably lose a couple more games than expected from November-January only to properly round into form by mid-March. I feel somewhat backed up by this argument because Kentucky just got done defeating a middling Division II side by NINE POINTS in their exhibition game where everyone was available. Also, “this is Kentucky” means that objectively, Kentucky’s average star rating on this team (per 247’s Composite) only ranks 16th-best, the lowest that Calipari has offered since…well, probably 2012-13? That’s still a very good roster, of course, but both Tennessee and LSU rank ahead of the ‘Cats in this metric that is usually dominated by Calipari and crew. I’m very intrigued because this is the most un-Kentucky team of the Calipari era.

Alabama was en route to be a somewhat-clear #1 until Josh Primo left for the Draft and they had a couple unfortunate injuries (Nimari Bennett and James Rojas) that have done serious damage to their rotation. The factors in Alabama’s corner, however, are quite nice. One of them is that Nate Oats has done the massive, revolutionary thing of bringing Moreyball to the SEC and instantly turning a dormant Alabama program into a dominant force. (Yes, it is very funny that all Oats had to do was run the Houston Rockets offense to become a top ten team in college basketball. And his offense wasn’t even elite!) The other is that they got to bring back Jaden Shackelford and Jahvon Quinerly while adding five-star JD Davison to the mix. It’s a really good roster.

The “but why they won’t do it” section is a little more hypothetical here but stick with it. Alabama’s amazing defense last season covered up the fact that the offense was…kind of not great? All of the Ball & Oates headlines ignored that it was the defense that finished the year in the KenPom top five. The offense barely cracked the top 30, and of the team’s eight best offensive outings, only two came after January 19. The team’s two best defenders (Herbert Jones and Primo) both left for the NBA; while I think the offense is probably a hair more well-rounded, the defense seems unlikely to repeat its amazing 2020-21. Can the offense’s progression make up for that in a manner that’s better than “well, we’re a 5 seed?”

Arkansas has the Sweating Screaming Energizer Bunny at head coach and a revolving-door of transfer market talent every year, so you generally know that every season is likely to follow a similar storyline. This year’s big addition is Chris Lykes, a 5’7” point guard from Miami who can score in bunches and has a surprisingly low turnover rate for a ball-dominant guard. There’s also Au’Diese Toney (Pittsburgh) and Stanley Umude (South Dakota), both of whom were quite excellent at their previous stops in lower-profile roles. Add J.D. Notae (also a ball-dominant guard) and Davonte Davis (hero of the Sweet Sixteen last year) back to the mix and you’ve got a team that everyone seems reasonably high on in the manner of Arkansas being back to yearly Top 25 status.

The downside to this is two-fold: eventually, you’re not gonna hit on all your transfers, and also, unless Jaylin Williams (not Auburn’s Jaylin Williams) or Connor Vanover (Slenderman video series) is able to step into an extended role late in the season, this is going to be a really small basketball team. Arkansas’s current lineup, per Torvik, projects at 5’7”/6’1”/6’3”/6’6”/6’6”. That’s kind of fine if you’re Arkansas State; it’s less great when you have Oscar Tshiebwe and Walker Kessler and Darius Days and the Mississippi State bigs and even John Fulkerson on your schedule. Vanover was played out of the rotation last March because he’s not mobile enough at all to handle ball-screen heavy offenses; Williams is much better in this regard but committed 4.8 fouls per 40 last year and was a turnover machine offensively. Can one of those two players become reliable enough to be playable for 20+ minutes a night in March, or will Arkansas simply have to find a way to win with a super small-ball center?

Tier 2

Either team could reasonably outperform preseason expectations and contend for the SEC title(s)…but either team also has the potential to underperform and end up near the NCAA bubble as a mid-pack squad.

5. Auburn (#28)
6. Florida (#26)

Auburn is ahead of Florida for three reasons:

  1. Their head coach is Bruce Pearl;
  2. Florida is coached by Mike White;
  3. Auburn’s schedule actually lines up very nicely for them to finish in the top four with a couple breaks.

But that’s being maybe a hair unfair to both sides. Let’s tackle the Auburn case first. The Tigers are exiting a rebuilding year where the team basically never played at full strength and you only got 12 games of Sharife Cooper thanks to a postseason ban. Auburn finished 60th in KenPom, their worst season since 2016-17 and essentially the first time since that year they haven’t been a serious SEC factor. But: their coach is Bruce Pearl, and that kind of makes up for a lot. There’s no direct 1-to-1 comparison between 2021-22 Auburn and any of Pearl’s Tennessee teams, but this group is straight-up more talented. Cooper is gone, but five-star freshman Jabari Smith enters, as does Georgia transfer K.D. Johnson (who was excellent in his first season) and Walker Kessler (you know who this is).

The Auburn Problem, as much as there’s an obvious one, is their lack of a standout defense under Pearl. When Pearl was at Tennessee, the Volunteers did post three Top 20 offenses, but it wasn’t until Tennessee finished the 2009-10 season 11th-best defensively that they touched the Elite Eight. Auburn’s been to a Final Four, obviously, but they haven’t topped being the 36th-best defense nationally under Pearl. The defensive rankings of the best KenPom SEC team over the last five years: 3rd, 52nd, 8th, 6th, 7th. Excluding the 2019-20 season when there were no excellent SEC teams, it’s pretty obvious that to be the best of the best, Auburn’s just gotta get better defensively.

Florida, meanwhile, is a way stranger case. Under Mike White, the Gators haven’t finished worse than 41st on KenPom, have made four consecutive NCAA Tournaments, own an Elite Eight bid, and have yet to finish sub-.500 in conference play. The problem is that Mike White is not Billy Donovan, and the Mike White Basketball Experience might be best summed up with a tweet I posted this summer.

Only Penn State offers a greater gap over the last five seasons between their expected record and their actual record. Objectively, Florida has played high-quality basketball over the full sample size of an average 30-40 game season. They win seven games a season against the toughest competition they play; only Kentucky has more Quad 1 wins. Yet Florida always finds a way to do one of three things: blow a close game, lose to an opponent they’re significantly better than, or blow a close game to an opponent they’re significantly better than. If you flip the result of, like, five games in the Mike White tenure, things might feel different than they do. But they don’t, and such is life.

This particular Florida roster is a pretty fascinating one. At a surface level, it’s roughly as talented as White’s 2018-19 squad that made the Round of 32 and was probably 2-3 wins better than its actual record. Myreon Jones transferred over from Penn State, where he averaged 15.3 PPG and seems to be the kind of scoring guard Florida desperately needs. All-SEC Colin Castleton is back. Tyree Appleby is back. The eight-man rotation projects to have six seniors in it. If you measured this team by objective talent, you’d say it’s a Top 25 roster. All it would take is one season where Mike White and crew catch a few lucky breaks and they’re suddenly in the thick of the SEC race. But…don’t you kind of have to see it to believe it at this point?

Tier 3

One, possibly two, of these teams will make the NCAA Tournament. Which ones? I’ll know in a few months.

7. LSU (#40)
8. Mississippi State (#52)
9. Mississippi (#65)

LSU is once again going to have an excellent offense (three straight in the top 15) and an awful defense (three of four years in the 100s in KenPom). The difference here is that this might be Will Wade’s most talented starting lineup ever. Xavier Pinson transfers over from Missouri and could easily hit 15-18 PPG; Darius Days is fabulously efficient; freshman Efton Reid seems awesome. If they could find even one or two decent bench players, they could easily outperform this ranking. But: until they have a good defense, I’m not gonna believe in them, and on a surface level, this looks to me like a team that will have about 6.5 playable guys in March.

Mississippi State got a strangely high amount of Top 25-adjacent buzz this offseason and ended up fairly high in Others Receiving Votes. Most seem to believe that this is the team Ben Howland has been building towards. Fair enough, whatever, I’ll hear it out. And when I saw Iverson Molinar, Tolu Smith, and Garrison Brooks all on the same roster, it seemed somewhat reasonable. Unfortunately, this is not 3-on-3 basketball, and I remain both unimpressed and confused by the rest of the team. I have three serious questions:

  1. Do people think Tolu Smith and Garrison Brooks, both 6’10”, both non-factors in the shooting department, can play together? This seems like a futile hope that basketball somehow returns to 2010, but then again, that’s how every Howland-era MSU team has looked to me.
  2. Do you think Rocket Watts and D.J. Jeffries will suddenly live up to recruiting expectations? Watts was a horrendous shooter in two years with one of the best coaches in America; Jeffries posted a 96 Offensive Rating with Memphis last season on a team that badly needed offense.
  3. Can you name the bench players? State’s likely bench options are Derek Fountain (okay-enough stretch 4), Shakeel Moore (NC State transfer with a 93 Offensive Rating), Cameron Matthews (bench player last year), and…uh…yeah.

If State answers these questions appropriately, then it seems reasonable that they end the season in the top 30-35 or so and maybe win a Tournament game. If they can’t, as I anticipate, this is an NCAA bubble team that will spend the entire year being talented enough to win some interesting games, yet frustrating enough to make you wonder why they just lost a can’t-lose game to South Carolina.

Mississippi is in another transition year under Kermit Davis, which is fine. They have a solid amount of talent and some intriguing players: Jarkel Joiner, Luis Rodriguez, Matthew Murrell. They run the most unique defense the SEC has to offer, a weird 1-3-1 that extends into a full-court zone press and can turn a generally-fine opponent into absolute sludge on the right night. The problem for Ole Miss, just like it was the last two seasons, is that I can’t tell you with any real feeling who their second scoring option is going to be. Joiner feels likely to get them somewhere between 13-16 a night, but who’s the #2? Do they have any #2? Torvik projects this offense 147th; KenPom has it 110th. Both feel pretty much spot-on. For Ole Miss to overachieve, either the defense has to be a top-five unit all year long or the offense needs to be at least in the top 75. Both seem a little lofty.

Tier 4

This ranges from “could reasonably make NIT” to “is bad, but not bad enough to avoid stumbling backwards into multiple upset wins.”

10. Vanderbilt (#88)
11. Texas A&M (#101)

12. South Carolina (#108)
13. Missouri (#111)

More quick-hitters here because, well, none of these teams project to be of ultra-serious importance. One or even two could become Tier 3 with a couple good breaks, but none seem possible to breach Tier 2.

Vanderbilt returns one of the nation’s most exciting players in Scotty Pippen, Jr. and juuuuuust enough interesting pieces (Rodney Chatman via Dayton, Liam Robbins via Minnesota) that you can talk yourself into Vanderbilt no longer being in Sickos Territory. They’ve been awful defensively in both Stackhouse seasons and I don’t see why that will change this year, but they’re no longer going to be the obvious doormat. They’ll have several reasonable shots to pull off a Top 25 win or two. Texas A&M has been excruciating to watch under Buzz Williams, which is The Point. Williams just hasn’t been able to find an offensive option that can get things going for his squad; through two seasons this is why they’ve ranked 203rd and 175th in offense nationally. Tyrece Radford (Virginia Tech) is their best hope yet in this regard, but the odds of Buzz running a smoke-and-mirrors campaign like he did in 2019-20 to get A&M to 10-8 in the SEC are not high.

South Carolina retained Frank Martin, and he repaid them by making precisely one significant addition in the transfer market: Erik Stevenson, a Washington guard who averaged 9.3 PPG for a 5-21 team. If I had to place a bet on which team in the SEC will have the lowest-ranked offense at season’s end, I would still choose Georgia, but South Carolina makes a depressingly strong argument. Missouri had a hot 2020-21 start, crashed to the ground, and lost over 80% of minutes and scoring while not really doing much recruiting-wise to replace it. Cuonzo Martin seems fine treating this as a transition/rebuilding year; finishing higher than 11th in the SEC with this roster would genuinely be the best accomplishment of his tenure.

Tier 5

This tier is reserved for one team: the worst roster on paper that I’ve seen from an SEC squad since 2012-13 Mississippi State.

14. Georgia (#185)

When the Bulldogs hired Tom Crean prior to the 2018-19 season, it was met with a lot of generic excitement. Here is a mostly-anonymous basketball program that hadn’t made headlines in almost two decades hiring a guy with a Final Four on his resume and a couple genuinely very good seasons at Indiana. Nothing to sneeze at, particularly when you consider what Georgia’s had in the past for coaches. Sure, they go 2-16 in the SEC in Crean’s first season; sure, they go 5-13 in the SEC with the #1 draft pick on their roster. It takes time.

Whatever time it’s taken has resulted in one of the worst high-major rosters I have seen in the time that I’ve been deeply following college basketball. It was already bad before Georgia’s lone notable returner, P.J. Horne, was announced as being out for the season with a torn ACL. That injury dropped Georgia to #237 on Bart Torvik’s site; no team has breached the 210+ range in the SEC in eight full seasons. It would be insane for any team to get that low.

This Georgia roster is stunning in all the wrong ways. Its leading scorer from any roster is Jailyn Ingram, a sixth-year super-senior who averaged 10.4 PPG at Florida Atlantic despite not starting in nearly half the team’s games. That’s the only double-digit scorer the roster has. The team’s next-best player is probably Jabri Abdur-Rahim, who failed to crack the rotation at Virginia. It’s extraordinarily dire.

Because it is really, really hard to lose every game in a conference season, Georgia should be able to stumble their way to 2-4 SEC wins. They may even end up in a position that isn’t last place, depending on how 10-13 shake out. But it is very, very hard to imagine Georgia playing a close game against any of the SEC’s top six, and it is almost as hard imagining them finding a win against an opponent higher than Tier 4. Torvik projects their final record as 9-21, 3-15 SEC; if that comes true, it would be beyond me how you’d give Tom Crean another chance at turning this thing around. 3-15 SEC would mean 17-55 SEC through four years. How would a fifth year fix that?

Some other various dumb predictions

SEC Player of the Year: Jahvon Quinerly (Alabama). Two things generally hold true with this award: it’s given to a higher-usage player (24% USG% or higher) and you have to at least be on one of the SEC’s four or five best teams to get it. That’s why I wouldn’t guess Pippen Jr. gets it, even if he is the actual best player in the conference. Quinerly projects to be the highest-usage player on a top-three SEC side and the one who will likely get the ball the most in late-game situations. Others receiving votes: Kennedy Chandler (Tennessee), Myreon Jones (Florida), uh…one of like four Kentucky players?

SEC Freshman of the Year: Kennedy Chandler (Tennessee). I think Jabari Smith at Auburn is a perfectly fine pick, too, and would not be surprised for him to win it. I just anticipate that Chandler probably will be a bigger focus of his team’s offense and, as projected, Tennessee figures to be a slightly better SEC team on the whole. That would be the tiebreaker if there is one. Others receiving votes: Jabari Smith (Auburn), J.D. Davison (Alabama).

Leading scorer: Scotty Pippen Jr. (Vanderbilt). Unless there’s a Cam Thomas waiting out there this would be Pippen’s ‘award’ to lose; it’s hard to find another player on the Vandy roster willing to take as many possessions as Pippen does and he’s going to be the main path to possible upsets. I’ll guess somewhere around 21-22 PPG.

Leading rebounder: Oscar Tshiebwe (Kentucky). If he can stay on the court consistently, Tshiebwe genuinely should average 10+ rebounds a night. Few were as dominant as he was on the boards at West Virginia.

Leading assist-er(?): Scotty Pippen Jr. I mean it all runs through him.

Sickos Game of the Season: South Carolina at Georgia, February 12, 2022. You could pick a non-conference game, but I restricted this award to SEC only. Georgia, obviously, is the worst team in the SEC. However: this ranks as their very best shot at an SEC win this season. They’re likely to be a slim underdog to a directionless South Carolina program. The loser of this game may fire their coach. The winner might also fire their coach.

Actual Best Game of the Season: uh…I actually think it’s Tennessee at Alabama, December 29, 2021? This is the very first SEC game for both of these teams, but with a 77.8 FanMatch rating, this is KenPom’s highest SEC vs. SEC rating given to a game all season. Clear your schedule!

Number of NCAA Tournament teams: 7. As you can guess, I think LSU is the seventh; whatever holes they have will be erased for long enough to get them in the field as a 9 or 10 seed.

Number of 1 & 2 seeds: 0. ZERO!!!! You get what you deserve! I’m kidding. The problem with having four legitimate Tier One teams and six teams that could win 12+ SEC games is that they’re all going to beat up on each other over the course of two months. Unless one of those four/six teams is considerably better than expected, every team in the SEC is going to end the season with at least four and probably five conference losses; if they don’t make up for those in November and December, it may collectively be too much to produce a top-eight side.

Your SEC standings projections: are below. There are a total of 126 wins to be collected among the 14 teams; whether they live up to these idiotic guesses is up to them.

T-1. Tennessee (13-5)
T-1. Alabama (13-5)
T-1. Kentucky (13-5)
4. Arkansas (12-6)
T-5. Auburn (11-7)
T-5. Florida (11-7)
T-7. LSU (9-9)
T-7. Mississippi State (9-9)
9. Mississippi (8-10)
10. Vanderbilt (7-11)
T-11. Texas A&M (6-12)
T-11. South Carolina (6-12)
13. Missouri (5-13)
14. Georgia (3-15)

Predictions for the 2021-22 college basketball season

After the longest, strangest, dumbest season in college basketball history, we’re mere days away from a Mostly Normal Season for the first time since 2018-19. 2019-20 may have appeared normal, but we found out later that it simply wasn’t meant to be. Finally, we get our beloved sport back. It’s time for normalcy.

Which means it’s time to go on the record and make some predictions based off of probably-flimsy metrics that will look silly several months from now. What, you don’t do these things?

Here’s a loose overview of what I’m doing here:

  1. Picking winners for all 32 participating conferences in college basketball.
  2. Selecting some teams I am ‘in’ or ‘out’ on, relative to the national consensus.
  3. A list of superlatives based on recent history, mostly for overachievers and underachievers.

I beg of you to not take this too seriously. I came up with this idea just to flesh out some thoughts I had about the season recently that others may or may not want to read about. All of what I’m doing here is based on my research, along with help from the preseason ratings from KenPom, Torvik, EvanMiya, and Haslametrics. There’s short reasoning provided for each pick, along with where each team ranks in my mini-consensus.

AFTER THE READ MORE TAG: bunch o’ stuff

Continue reading “Predictions for the 2021-22 college basketball season”

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

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

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

AFTER THE JUMP: The Discourse begins anew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best men’s college basketball offenses of 2020-21

This is a simple post. It’s the most efficient men’s college basketball offenses of the 2020-21 season, a continuation of a project I’ve done in years prior

First up, the Synergy Sports section. This one is pretty simple: it’s the 20 best offenses of the season, as determined by a minimum number of possessions (1100 or more). Normally, I don’t really have to filter out many teams, but there was a huge variety in how many games teams were able to play this season thanks to COVID-19. Two of the teams in the top 20 here only played 13 games, while one played 35. We’ve never had that much of a disparity in games played, and hopefully, we’ll never have it again.

Something unusual also happened: there was a four-way tie for 19th, which means this list is 22 teams long instead of 20. I’ve included the extra two, because they shouldn’t be excluded arbitrarily.

The difference between this section and the next is a simple one. Synergy includes offensive rebounds as separate possessions; most other places out there count them as part of the same possession. I’ve included both calculations.

Honorable Mentions: Fairmont State (1.015 PPP), Virginia (1.017), Bellarmine (1.018).

T-19. William Penn University Statesmen (Oskaloosa, IA)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.019
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): P&R Ball Handler (93rd-percentile)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 49.7% Rim, 11.6% Non-Rim Twos, 38.7% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 68.3% Rim, 45.5% Non-Rim Twos, 32.2% 3PT
  • Tempo: 84.29 possessions (would rank 1st of 347 teams in D-1)

T-19. St. Edward’s Hilltoppers (Austin, TX)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.019
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Isolation (95th), Spot-Up (92nd)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 31.3% Rim, 20.4% Non-Rim Twos, 48.3% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 65.4% Rim, 42.3% Non-Rim Twos, 36.9% 3PT
  • Tempo: 72.76 possessions (37th of 347)

T-19. Marietta Pioneers (Marietta, OH)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.019
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (97th), Off-Screen (93rd)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 38.4% Rim, 25.9% Non-Rim Twos, 35.7% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 60.9% Rim, 40.7% Non-Rim Twos, 39.5% 3PT
  • Tempo: 74.98 possessions (8th of 347)

T-19. Iowa Hawkeyes (Iowa City, IA)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.019
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (97th), Post-Up (97th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 35.9% Rim, 24.3% Non-Rim Twos, 39.8% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 62% Rim, 38.8% Non-Rim Twos, 38.6% 3PT
  • Tempo: 70.8 possessions (98th of 347)

T-17. Marian Knights (Indianapolis, IN)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.021
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (100th), Post-Up (92nd)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 40% Rim, 26.5% Non-Rim Twos, 33.5% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 61.3% Rim, 43.4% Non-Rim Twos, 35.6% 3PT
  • Tempo: 68.9 possessions (183rd of 347)

T-17. Hillsdale Chargers (Hillsdale, MI)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.021
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): P&R Ball Handler (98th), Post-Up (97th), Cut (95th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 44.2% Rim, 20.7% Non-Rim Twos, 35.1% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 66.7% Rim, 39.1% Non-Rim Twos, 35.6% 3PT
  • Tempo: 67.8 possessions (233rd of 347)

16. Colgate Raiders (Hamilton, NY)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.033
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (100th), Transition (97th), Cut (90th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 47.2% Rim, 16.5% Non-Rim Twos, 36.4% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 61.3% Rim, 34.5% Non-Rim Twos, 40.5% 3PT
  • Tempo: 72.6 possessions (44th of 347)

T-14. Weber State Wildcats (Ogden, UT)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.035
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (100th), Cut (97th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 36% Rim, 25.8% Non-Rim Twos, 38.2% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 67.3% Rim, 44% Non-Rim Twos, 38.9% 3PT
  • Tempo: 71.5 possessions (78th of 347)

T-14. Dubuque Spartans (Dubuque, IA)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.035
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (97th), Transition (95th), P&R Ball Handler (92nd)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 33.6% Rim, 30.6% Non-Rim Twos, 35.8% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 55.2% Rim, 45.8% Non-Rim Twos, 44.6% 3PT
  • Tempo: 74.23 possessions (18th of 347)

13. West Texas A&M Buffaloes (Canyon, TX)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.036
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (94th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 33.7% Rim, 21.9% Non-Rim Twos, 44.4% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 65.2% Rim, 41.3% Non-Rim Twos, 36.6% 3PT
  • Tempo: 75.21 possessions (8th of 347)

12. West Liberty Hilltoppers (West Liberty, WV)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.038
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): none; highest Off-Screen (89th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 45.3% Rim, 14.5% Non-Rim Twos, 40.2% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 60.8% Rim, 46% Non-Rim Twos, 36% 3PT
  • Tempo: 82.44 possessions (1st of 347)

11. Liberty Flames (Lynchburg, VA)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.042
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (99th), Transition (96th), P&R Ball Handler (92nd)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 39.2% Rim, 13.3% Non-Rim Twos, 47.4% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 61.7% Rim, 45.3% Non-Rim Twos, 39% 3PT
  • Tempo: 64.7 possessions (334th of 347)

10. Charleston Golden Eagles (Charleston, WV)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.048
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Cut (100th), Spot-Up (98th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 43% Rim, 15.8% Non-Rim Twos, 41.2% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 69% Rim, 40.5% Non-Rim Twos, 37.4% 3PT
  • Tempo: 70.7 possessions (102nd of 347)

T-8. Westmont Warriors (Santa Barbara, CA)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.052
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (100th), Transition (98th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 41.2% Rim, 16.6% Non-Rim Twos, 42.2% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 64.4% Rim, 47.6% Non-Rim Twos, 38.4% 3PT
  • Tempo: 78.71 possessions (2nd of 347)

T-8. Huntington University Foresters (Huntington, IN)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.052
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): P&R Ball Handler (9th), Transition (97th), Spot-Up (94th), Post-Up (93rd)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 37.9% Rim, 17.8% Non-Rim Twos, 44.3% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 63.1% Rim, 52% Non-Rim Twos, 37.1% 3PT
  • Tempo: 74.16 possessions (18th of 347)

7. Dallas Baptist Patriots (Dallas, TX)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.07
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (100th), Post-Up (98th), Transition (91st), P&R Ball Handler (90th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 39.2% Rim, 16.1% Non-Rim Twos, 44.7% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 66.4% Rim, 50.5% Non-Rim Twos, 39.9% 3PT
  • Tempo: 73.84 possessions (22nd of 347)

6. Northwestern College Red Raiders (Orange City, IA)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.071
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (99th), Transition (99th), Post-Up (97th), Isolation (95th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 40.9% Rim, 21% Non-Rim Twos, 38.1% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 69% Rim, 45.3% Non-Rim Twos, 39.2% 3PT
  • Tempo: 72.77 possessions (36th of 347)

5. Lincoln Memorial Railsplitters (Harrogate, TN)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.075
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (97th), Transition (95th), Cut (91st), Hand-Off (91st)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 45.8% Rim, 8.8% Non-Rim Twos, 45.4% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 67% Rim, 35.9% Non-Rim Twos, 40.9% 3PT
  • Tempo: 77.35 possessions (2nd of 347)

4. Indiana Wesleyan Wildcats (Marion, IN)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.084
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Cut (98th), Post-Up (98th), Transition (91st)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 48.1% Rim, 19.2% Non-Rim Twos, 32.7% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 68% Rim, 43.5% Non-Rim Twos, 37.9% 3PT
  • Tempo: 78.75 possessions (2nd of 347)

3. Gonzaga Bulldogs (Spokane, WA)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.085
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Post-Up (100th), Cut (99th), Transition (97th), P&R Ball Handler (97th), P&R Roll Man (97th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 48.2% Rim, 18.5% Non-Rim Twos, 33.2% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 72.6% Rim, 41.5% Non-Rim Twos, 36.8% 3PT
  • Tempo: 74.3 possessions (14th of 347)

2. Lubbock Christian Chaps (Lubbock, TX)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.114
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Everything except P&R Ball Handler and P&R Roll Man were in the 92nd-percentile or higher.
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 37.2% Rim, 21.4% Non-Rim Twos, 41.4% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 65.9% Rim, 46.8% Non-Rim Twos, 43% 3PT
  • Tempo: 66.7 possessions (#285 of 347)

1. Northwest Missouri State Bearcats (Maryville, MO)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.12
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Literally every single play type that isn’t putbacks.
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 42.1% Rim, 11.5% Non-Rim Twos, 46.4% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 67.6% Rim, 41.9% Non-Rim Twos, 42.2% 3PT
  • Tempo: 65.7 possessions (#317 of 347)

NEXT PAGE: Top 20 via traditional possession calculations

The best women’s college basketball offenses of 2020-21

This is a very simple post. It’s a list of the most efficient women’s college basketball offenses this season, and it’s a list I’ve made in years prior. This year, I cut the list from 25 down to 20 for one simple reason: COVID-19 and a lower number of games than normal.

There will be two calculations included here. The first, and the one I note in tweets, is from Synergy Sports, which accumulates stats from every single college basketball program in America. Their points per possession numbers will look smaller than most for one specific reason: Synergy notes offensive rebounds as separate possessions. Most others (i.e. KenPom, StatBroadcast, etc.) do not.

First up, Synergy. This one is pretty simple: it’s the 20 best offenses of the season, as determined by a minimum number of possessions (1100 or more). Normally, I don’t really have to filter out many teams, but there was a huge variety in how many games teams were able to play this season thanks to COVID-19. Hopefully, this is the only season we’ll ever have to filter out teams again.

20. Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (Duluth, MN)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.93
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): P&R Ball Handler (99th-percentile), Spot-Up (97th), Post-Up (93rd)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 39.5% Rim (0-4 feet from the rim), 28% Non-Rim Twos, 32.5% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 55.9% Rim, 38.2% Non-Rim Twos, 36% 3PT
  • Tempo: 66.03 possessions

19. Taylor University Trojans (Upland, IN)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.932
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (100th), Post-Up (94th), P&R Ball Handler (92nd)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 31.5% Rim, 14.8% Non-Rim Twos, 53.7% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 61% Rim, 36.7% Non-Rim Twos, 37.1% 3PT
  • Tempo: 72.39 possessions

18. Colorado State Rams (Fort Collins, CO)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.933
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (99th), P&R Ball Handler (96th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 31.5% Rim, 35.5% Non-Rim Twos, 33% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 59.3% Rim, 37.7% Non-Rim Twos, 37.7% 3PT
  • Tempo: 73.83 possessions

17. Central Michigan Chippewas (Mount Pleasant, MI)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.934
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (100th), P&R Ball Handler (99th), Spot-Up (92nd)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 33.2% Rim, 21.1% Non-Rim Twos, 45.7% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 62.4% Rim, 39.2% Non-Rim Twos, 35.1% 3PT
  • Tempo: 72.55 possessions

16. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (New Brunswick, NJ)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.936
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (99th), P&R Ball Handler (99th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 37.2% Rim, 30.7% Non-Rim Twos, 32.1% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 63.4% Rim, 37.2% Non-Rim Twos, 36.1% 3PT
  • Tempo: 68.27 possessions

T-14. Stanford Cardinal (Palo Alto, CA)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.937
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (97th), P&R Ball Handler (97th), Cut (94th), Spot-Up (91st)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 40.3% Rim, 23.7% Non-Rim Twos, 36% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 57.6% Rim, 39.2% Non-Rim Twos, 37.6% 3PT
  • Tempo: 69.81 possessions

T-14. New Mexico Lobos (Albuquerque, NM)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.937
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Off-Screen (99th), Cut (93rd), Spot-Up (90th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 33.5% Rim, 20.8% Non-Rim Twos, 45.7% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 61.5% Rim, 42.5% Non-Rim Twos, 32.9% 3PT
  • Tempo: 76.06 possessions

13. Louisville Cardinals (Louisville, KY)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.939
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (97th), P&R Ball Handler (97th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 35.9% Rim, 30.4% Non-Rim Twos, 33.7% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 61.6% Rim, 39.6% Non-Rim Twos, 34.7% 3PT
  • Tempo: 70.16 possessions

12. Westminster College Lady Griffins (Salt Lake City, UT)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.944
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Post-Up (99th), Cut (99th), Spot-Up (95th), P&R Ball Handler (92nd)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 41.3% Rim, 26.3% Non-Rim Twos, 32.4% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 58.8% Rim, 43% Non-Rim Twos, 36.4% 3PT
  • Tempo: 66.31 possessions

11. North Carolina State Wolfpack (Raleigh, NC)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.946
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): P&R Ball Handler (98th), Spot-Up (96th), Transition (94th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 39.8% Rim, 28.3% Non-Rim Twos, 31.9% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 61.4% Rim, 39.2% Non-Rim Twos, 36.3% 3PT
  • Tempo: 71.61 possessions

10. Sterling College Warriors (Sterling, KS)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.948
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (98th), P&R Ball Handler (97th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 40.6% Rim, 35% Non-Rim Twos, 24.4% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 57.5% Rim, 43.2% Non-Rim Twos, 39.2% 3PT
  • Tempo: 78.23 possessions

9. Drury Panthers (Springfield, MO)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.956
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (100th), Hand-Off (94th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 36.8% Rim, 35.6% Non-Rim Twos, 27.6% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 63.4% Rim, 41.7% Non-Rim Twos, 34.7% 3PT
  • Tempo: 74.97 possessions

8. Lubbock Christian Chaps (Lubbock, TX)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.963
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (100th), Transition (97th), Post-Up (95th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 41.9% Rim, 18.3% Non-Rim Twos, 39.8% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 58.2% Rim, 40.7% Non-Rim Twos, 36.7% 3PT
  • Tempo: 70.13 possessions

7. Bryan College Lions (Dayton, TN)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.964
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (100th), Spot-Up (96th), P&R Ball Handler (94th), Cut (92nd)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 46.7% Rim, 13.1% Non-Rim Twos, 40.2% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 56.9% Rim, 39.2% Non-Rim Twos, 37.2% 3PT
  • Tempo: 79.71 possessions

6. Arkansas Razorbacks (Fayetteville, AR)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.975
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (100th), Hand-Off (96th), P&R Ball Handler (94th), Transition (91st)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 34.7% Rim, 26.5% Non-Rim Twos, 38.8% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 57.5% Rim, 33.8% Non-Rim Twos, 38.4% 3PT
  • Tempo: 76.64 possessions

5. Connecticut Huskies (Storrs, CT)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.986
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (98th), Cut (97th), Post-Up (95th), P&R Ball Handler (95th), Spot-Up (90th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 46.3% Rim, 22% Non-Rim Twos, 31.7% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 67.3% Rim, 51.7% Non-Rim Twos, 35.4% 3PT
  • Tempo: 71.4 possessions

4. Florida Gulf Coast Eagles (Fort Myers, FL)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.988
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): P&R Ball Handler (100th), Off-Screen (97th), Cut (96th), Spot-Up (94th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 37.3% Rim, 7.8% Non-Rim Twos, 54.9% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 63.6% Rim, 49.3% Non-Rim Twos, 32.9% 3PT
  • Tempo: 75.56 possessions

3. Cedarville Yellow Jackets (Cedarville, OH)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.993
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (100th), P&R Ball Handler (93rd), Hand-Off (93rd), Transition (90th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 36.4% Rim, 20.8% Non-Rim Twos, 42.8% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 57.4% Rim, 36.7% Non-Rim Twos, 38.8% 3PT
  • Tempo: 75.7 possessions

2. Maryland Terrapins (College Park, MD)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.023
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (99th), Spot-Up (98th), P&R Ball Handler (97th), Cut (97th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 41.9% Rim, 28.2% Non-Rim Twos, 29.9% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 61.4% Rim, 41.2% Non-Rim Twos, 40.2% 3PT
  • Tempo: 74.25 possessions

1. Iowa Hawkeyes (Iowa City, IA)

  • Points Per Possession: 1.034
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Everything but Isolation, Hand-Off, and P&R Roll Man.
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 38.1% Rim, 23.4% Non-Rim Twos, 38.5% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 65.5% Rim, 45.5% Non-Rim Twos, 40.3% 3PT
  • Tempo: 75.28 possessions

NEXT PAGE: Top 20 teams by traditional possession calculations

Final Four Preview: (1) Baylor vs. (2) Houston

No long-winded introduction here; this is merely the game I’ve been hoping to see since the Field of 68 was announced. (Though I’m still a little sore over Ohio State blowing it in the first round. I root for you people once and that’s how you repay me?) These are two shot volume machines, with Houston being the very best team in America in terms of generating shots per 100 possessions. Baylor hits a ton of threes; Houston brutalizes you for 40 minutes. It’s the most enjoyable matchup of styles we’ll get until the title game.

When Houston has the ball

No proper Houston preview can start without heading directly to their prime strength (and Baylor’s main team weakness): rebounding. Or, if you prefer, shot volume versus shot efficiency. I started noticing a very specific trend that I decided to call The Houston because no other team does it so frequently and so brutally. To achieve The Houston, you need to rebound 35% or more of your misses and turn it over on 16% or less of your possessions. Houston did it 15 times this season. No other team in America got past eight.

It’s why the Cougars’ struggles in actually hitting shots has been the B-story of sorts. In the NCAA Tournament alone, Houston has posted 63, 62, and 67 points in their last three games, with an eFG% of 44.1%, 44.2%, and 41.1% along the way. They went 9-for-30 on two-pointers against Oregon State and 14-for-37 against Rutgers. By all means, teams that post those numbers generally shouldn’t be anywhere near the Final Four. And yet: here’s the Houston Cougars, who have only posted a sub-1 PPP five times this year and keep getting there because of an absolutely bonkers amount of offensive rebounds.

The Cougars have rebounded 39.8% of their misses, the second-highest rate in college basketball and the highest by any Final Four team not named North Carolina since 2014. This is important, because we should note that offensive rebounding percentage has slowly dwindled over the last 15 years and tied for an all-time low this season at just 28%. Offensive rebounds will always be important, but they don’t hold the same level of importance that they did in, say, 2006. You can’t tell Kelvin Sampson and the Houston Cougars that, though. You certainly can’t tell their opponents this March, either. Houston has attempted 51 more field goals and 13 more free throws than their NCAA Tournament opposition because they are demolishing the glass:

Houston has been held below a 30% OREB% twice all season, the last of which was over two months ago against Temple. It really hasn’t mattered as to who the opposition is, either. Houston has played teams ranked 25th (Boise State), 31st (Memphis, twice), and 38th (Western Kentucky) in defensive rebounding; the Cougars went for 41.7%, 36.6%, 37.9%, and 35.3% OREB%, respectively. They’ve gone 43% or better in three of four NCAA Tournament games.

This is a serious problem for Baylor before we even get to actual attacks/counterattacks strategy. The Bears rank 273rd in defensive rebounding percentage, easily the lowest ranking of the remaining Final Four teams. In the team’s first loss to Kansas in late February, the Bears allowed the Jayhawks to rebound an astounding 48.3% of their misses, which helped Kansas overcome a 3-for-16 day from deep and Baylor winning the turnover battle 14-3.

If that level of poor defensive rebounding shows up, the Bears may be done before the game even starts. Even if their normal levels attend, it’s going to be very tough. Of Baylor’s four NCAA Tournament opponents, only one (Arkansas) ranked above the national average in offensive rebounding. They haven’t really faced a tough test on this front since playing West Virginia in early March, but even Arkansas and Villanova easily beat their season averages in terms of offensive rebounding. Villanova, a team that averaged rebounding 27.8% of their misses this year and is not exactly tall, got back a third of their missed shots. Arkansas: 37.9%.

If Baylor can’t clean this up, the game really could swing Houston’s way to an extent a lot of people may not expect.

Beyond the rebounding battle, there’s two clear areas where Houston has to succeed: finding open shots from deep and avoiding getting themselves into a mid-range chuck-fest. Houston would be a fairly ideal underdog in a different setting for two reasons: they keep the tempo very slow (64.9 possessions per game, 319th of 347 teams) and they jack up lots of threes. 42.5% of all Houston shots are from downtown, and their 34.9% hit rate is a bit above the national average.

The primary shooter is Quentin Grimes, the Kansas transfer who entered late-bloomer status this year and quietly became one of the best players in college basketball. Grimes is shooting 41.2% from deep on 240 attempts, and as evidenced by Houston’s run so far, he’s very unafraid to shoot. Grimes has taken a hilarious 39 three-point attempts in four games, but he’s backing it up by having hit 17 of these so far (43.6%). In fact, Grimes has hit at least four threes in seven straight games and nine of the last ten despite being the primary offensive focus for opponents to gameplan against, which is very impressive.

Grimes has been lethal this year in the Cougars’ rare transition runs: 30-for-59 in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock and 69-for-181 on all other attempts. It’s not natural for Houston to run and gun, but when you have a shooter as good as Grimes, you’re kind of obligated to do it occasionally. Watch for Houston to push the pace off of steals and, every now and then, off of a particularly bad Baylor miss.

Baylor’s defense has been excellent this season, and aside from a blip in February/March due to their three-week COVID pause, they’ve been hard to score on. The most successful team to do so in this Tournament was easily Arkansas, who didn’t shoot particularly well from deep but worked to push the pace off of misses + rare steals. By doing so, it earned the Razorbacks several open layups when Baylor wasn’t settled, as well as forcing some key Bear defenders into foul trouble. Still, this is a Baylor defense that’s excellent at guarding threes and even better at forcing the right people to take them.

Lastly: ball screens. We haven’t seen Houston run a massive amount of these over their last couple of games, as both Syracuse and Oregon State went heavy with zone defense in an attempt to force the Cougars to shoot over the top of them. Houston has a good zone offense, but zones take away Houston’s two most efficient play types: transition ball and the pick-and-roll. Houston’s ball-screen offense ranks in the 80th-percentile, per Synergy, with the ball handler having a ton of success. The main ball handlers this season have been DeJon Jarreau, Marcus Sasser, and Grimes, with Grimes/Sasser being more likely to pull up for threes and Jarreau being more likely to take a mid-range jumper.

Baylor’s goal in this game should be taking away these jumpers from Jarreau and forcing him/Sasser to shoot over the top of them instead. Neither Jarreau (35.2% 3PT%) nor Sasser (32.6%) are quite as automatic from deep as you’d hope, but both are solid rim scorers, and everyone in Houston’s main rotation converts at least 57% of their attempts at the rim. The problem: they don’t get to the rim all that often (25.8% of all attempts). If Baylor can drag Houston’s possessions out and force them to take 25-footers deep in the shot clock, it’s an optimal outcome for Scott Drew and company.

They just have to remember to rebound. Good luck!

NEXT PAGE: When Baylor has the ball

Final Four Preview: (1) Gonzaga vs. (11) UCLA

Amazingly, of all possible games Gonzaga could’ve been involved in to make the national title game, this is the opponent they drew. The team responsible for what was the definitive Gonzaga loss for a generation. The team that went all the way to the title game that year. A program with so much history, so many championships, and so much success…and a program that we are now simultaneously treating as a massive underdog against the team that championed being the underdog.

This is a weird game to preview, but I can’t help but love it. It’s been a weird year. We deserved at least one out-of-nowhere Final Four game, and I’m sure Gonzaga fans are probably happy that they’re the likely beneficiary of such a draw. But: you cannot underestimate this UCLA team. No one has for weeks now, not after they knocked off analytics darling Alabama and sentimental favorite Michigan. (Do you realize how cool Juwan Howard has to be to make Michigan a sentimental favorite?) They’re coming into this one with nothing to lose against the one team that hasn’t experienced a loss to date. I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

NEXT PAGE: When UCLA has the ball

Game Preview: (12) Oregon State vs. (8) Loyola Chicago

Here comes a Sweet Sixteen fixture that roughly 0.36% of people appear to have projected, per ESPN. It was one thing for Loyola Chicago to be a top 10 KenPom team, to be underrated the entire season, to get an 8 seed they deserved better than…but it was honestly an entire other thing for an Oregon State team that entered the Pac-12 Tournament outside the KenPom top 100 to be here, too.

To put it in perspective, think of it this way: every other 12 seed, two 13 seeds, and a 14 seed all were picked by more people to make the Sweet Sixteen than the Beavers. Who could blame them? The Beavers have gone from an afterthought that hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game in 39 years to 40 minutes away from their second Elite Eight appearance in the last 55 years. For Loyola, it’s a chance to show everyone that 2018 wasn’t a one-hit wonder. While this isn’t the game anyone saw coming, it’s perhaps the game with the richest possible storylines.

NEXT PAGE: When Oregon State has the ball