Show Me My Opponent: Arkansas (#1)

Here is what I wrote about Arkansas basketball in January 2019:

“This stupid friggin’ team again. Prior to last year’s blessed 84-66 SEC Tournament destruction of the swine, Tennessee had lost six straight games to Arkansas. You will remember some of these fairly well: losing a second-half lead to Arkansas in Fayetteville in the last days of 2017, losing a second-half lead to Arkansas in Knoxville in the first days of 2017, losing a (three-point) second-half lead to Arkansas in Knoxville in 2016, losing a second-half lead to Arkansas in Fayetteville in 2016. You get the point.

This team never dies, as much as you want them to. I have watched Tennessee lose NINE DAMN GAMES to this team by five points or less in my lifetime, six of them from the Bruce era onward. The Vols are 4-4 against Arkansas when they’re ranked and the Hogs aren’t. Arkansas has not been a serious national threat since I was in kindergarten and haven’t even been a serious regional threat for more than a few years out of the last 20, but they always beat Tennessee, and God am I sick of it.”

All that changed is Tennessee demolished Arkansas, the Hogs have a new coach, and they look similarly frustrating. Onward.

NEXT PAGE: I’ll admit it: I only hated the Hog Call because I could never figure out how long you hold the “WOO” part of it. I get it I think

Show Me My Opponent: Kentucky (#1)

Well, it’s Kentucky. I could go through all the reasons that the reader, certainly a Tennessee fan, should despise this program. I could go through the laundry list of overlooked recruiting violations that likely exist. I could go through all the reasons to truly despise John Calipari, one of the sport’s greatest slime-based characters. Even recognizing Tennessee’s own NCAA Tournament failures, I could talk about how truly funny it is that Kentucky’s still only got one title under Calipari and hasn’t reached the Final Four since the 38-1 year.

But that would be a waste of time, honestly. You know who Tennessee’s dealing with. You know all the history. You know all the pageantry. You know how many of their fans come to Thompson-Boling, attempting to turn the arena blue. There’s no point in rehashing things you already know about. So let’s explore something you may have forgotten about: the time Tennessee defeated Kentucky 47-46 in Rupp Arena under Jerry Green.

Recently, I’ve been deploying a variety of YouTube searches in an attempt to sort of relive the Jerry Green era as it happened. I’m 26 years old and didn’t start watching Tennessee basketball until the first Buzz Peterson season in 2001-02; before that, my limited basketball viewing experience was entirely NBA, as I truly adored Allen Iverson and how he dragged the abysmal supporting cast of his 76ers through opponents every single night. As such, I genuinely had no idea Tennessee basketball was supposed to be any good until Bruce Pearl came to town in 2005.

If you have 73 minutes of free time today, you could do worse than watch the game with me. Just like Tennessee’s win in Rupp in 2018, it was the release of a lifetime’s worth of emotions. Tennessee hadn’t won in Lexington since Jimmy Carter was President. The broadcast itself feels like a beautiful, lost relic of the late-1990s/early-2000s; if you can remember when ESPN broadcasted hockey, it’s a similar blast of nostalgia.

Tennessee did not defeat Kentucky in the prettiest of fashions. They shot 30%, committed 17 turnovers, and, again, scored 47 points. But all that mattered was that they scored one more point than Kentucky, who shot 31% themselves. It’s one of the ugliest wins in Tennessee history, and I cannot promise you that watching it again will give you any other opinions than “is this Wisconsin basketball.” But: Tennessee won. If Tennessee ran this exact game and structure back tomorrow, no one will complain, and they shouldn’t.

NEXT PAGE: Did you know that zero SEC teams rank in the top 25 of KenPom right now? Being serious: please name me any SEC team that feels like a real Final Four threat.

Show Me My Opponent: Alabama

The failure of the 2019-20 Tennessee basketball season started with Jordan Bone’s departure. This is of no dissent on Jordan; he made a business decision and it is one that any fan, rich or poor, should respect. If you have the opportunity to turn your craft into a professional career, you should take it. However, said departure left Tennessee with one returning starter: Lamonte Turner. Even Turner’s status as a “starter” wasn’t all that entrenched until late January 2019. Sixth man Jordan Bowden would return, as would bench players John Fulkerson, Yves Pons, and Jalen Johnson, of which fans had various takes on.

The failure continued with the quiet departures of both Derrick Walker (Nebraska) and D.J. Burns (Winthrop). Would either have been a serious factor for the 2019-20 Vols? No one’s sure. Walker’s sitting out this year, but Burns and Winthrop are undefeated at 10-0 in the Big South. Burns, at the very least, would be in the Tennessee rotation, likely giving Olivier Nkamhoua and possibly Euro Plastics another year of development.

The failure grew with the inability to attract a quality graduate transfer option as a year-to-year stopgap. Given Rick Barnes’ new contract, he knows and understands the pressure that comes with being a highly-paid coach in a town where college athletics is the #1, #2, #3, and #4 attraction. Being unable to land Kerry Blackshear over Florida is one thing; being unable to replace the Blackshear option with a quality, ready-to-go grad transfer behind him was another. I may be the biggest Euro Plastics fan in Knoxville, but even I would’ve been fine ditching the Blackshear idea early on for a quality mid-major option.

The failure now ends here. Tennessee sits at 12-9, 4-4 in the SEC, with the easy part of the schedule over. You can now say the quiet part loud: it should be better than this. Can Rick Barnes control any of the following?

  • Lamonte Turner career-ending injury
  • Euro Plastics NCAA tomfoolery
  • Zach Kent’s sudden departure

No, not really. Any one of those things happening is hard for a coach; three of them happening in the same two-month span is admittedly a brutal hand dealt. None of those three items should be blamed on Rick Barnes or his staff. However:

  • The inability to land a grad transfer stopgap
  • Waiting to find a point guard until Santiago Vescovi popped up in Uruguay
  • Jordan Bowden’s baffling downturn
  • Confusing lineups
  • Poor shot selection

Can, and should, be blamed on Rick Barnes and his staff. If Missouri can land Dru Smith from Evansville, who’s not a star but would be Tennessee’s second-best player, Tennessee should have been able to do something similar. I think we all love the potential Vescovi brings, but Barnes was probably right that he could’ve used a few months of additional seasoning before hitting the court. (He has the worst Offensive Rating of any player still on the team.) Jordan Bowden…honestly, who knows. But the number of insane two-big lineups (this destroys offensive spacing) and the number of awful mid-range twos (Tennessee is second-best in the SEC at making them, but they take far too few at-the-rim twos) is something a coaching staff should’ve been able to fix. And they didn’t.

It is what it is. The main option here, and the one I’m choosing, is to trust Rick Barnes can still learn a few lessons even as a coaching veteran. It certainly helps that next year’s team will be far superior to this one.

NEXT PAGE: I mean it is pretty crazy that Alabama’s only made two NCAA Tournaments since 2006. But I didn’t feel like doing 500 words on it

Show Me My Opponent: Mississippi State

(checking Bracket Matrix to see how high my interest is for this game)

Alright, looks like Mississippi State’s settled in right on the bubble. A win in this game and they’ll be right in the mix, as of early February, anyway. I don’t know how people do the whole bracketology thing before the day after the Super Bowl, but I also watch basketball every single day of my life, so, I get it. Anyway, let’s check in on Tennessee…

…alright, pivoting to Back-Up Topic #2.

If you’re my age – 26 – the earliest realistic season of basketball you probably remember is around the year 2000. If you’re older or younger by a few years, shift it in either direction. For the longest part of my life, outside of a random pair of years in the early 2000s – 2002 and 2004, to be exact – Mississippi State basketball has been a pure afterthought. From 2002 to 2005, they made the NCAA Tournament four straight years, with the first three of those resulting in 3, 5, and 2 seeds. On average, getting said seeds would result in about 5.4 wins. Line those wins up right, and you should be looking at a Sweet Sixteen or even an Elite Eight run.

Instead, Mississippi State went 2-3 across those three runs. A 3 seed in 2002 resulted in a Round of 32 crash-out against 6 seed Texas; 2003’s 5 seed became a 47-46 upset loss to 12 seed Butler; most notably, 2004’s 2 seed resulted in a second round demolition by the hands of 7 seed Xavier. Since then, State hasn’t sniffed serious, consistent success, the closest being last year’s run to a 5 seed that resulted in an infuriating (if you’re a State fan, or if you are the writer of this post and have Thoughts on Liberty University) loss to 12 seed Liberty. The most recent State Sweet Sixteen run is still in 1996, which is also the most recent and only Elite Eight run, which is also the most recent and only Final Four run in school history.

Seriously: Mississippi State, once upon a time, made a Final Four as a 5 seed. They had to beat the 1 and 2 seeds in their region to get there. They had a pair of future pros on their roster in Erick Dampier and Dontae Jones, but the team’s best player was Darryl Wilson, an Alabama native that wore #00 and shot 41% from three. Amazingly, they are not the 1996 Final Four participant that would be the most confusing to imagine making a Final Four today; that would be John Calipari-coached Massachusetts.

I have nothing more to share on this topic, other than I would greatly enjoy talking to someone about how baffling the 1996 Mississippi State Final Four run must have been.

NEXT PAGE: I mean if they get in I guess anything can happen, sure

Show Me My Opponent: Texas A&M

Writing about Texas A&M basketball as a 2019-20 entity is not very exciting, guys. I’ll be honest! You like honesty! Writing about Texas A&M basketball from a historical perspective, however, gets me a little more interested. You can somewhat neatly break down Texas A&M’s last 40ish years of basketball into three distinct parts:

  • Wilderness. From 1981 to 2005, Texas A&M made the NCAA Tournament oncewhich is…kind of wild to think about. In fact, from 1987 to 2005, they finished above .500 in conference play just once, in 1993-94. Shelby Metcalf, Kermit Davis, Tony Barone, and Melvin Watkins combined for one 12 seed appearance and zero conference titles.
  • Success. Then they made the NCAA Tournament six years in a row under two different coaches: Billy Clyde Gillispie (peaked with a 3 seed and a Sweet Sixteen run in 2006-07) and Mark Turgeon (5 seed, Round of 32 three times). For a very brief, specific six-year run in history, you could very reasonably say Texas A&M was one of the 20-25 best programs in college basketball.
  • Wilderness and Success and also Wilderness again. After Turgeon came Billy Kennedy, and with Kennedy’s second season came SEC basketball. Over an unexpectedly slow five-year rise, A&M went from the dungeon of the Big 12 to being a legitimate top two SEC team in 2015-16 alongside Kentucky. They’d get a 3 seed, complete maybe the most insane comeback in college basketball history in the Round of 32, then get demolished by eventual champion Villanova in the Sweet Sixteen. Two years later, they’d make another run at the Sweet Sixteen in one of the strangest seasons ever: an 11-1 start shot them to #5 in America, followed by a 2-7 stretch, followed by a 9-3 run that completed itself with a 21-point blowout of 2-seed North Carolina. After a disappointing 2018-19, Billy Kennedy got fired. They hired Buzz Williams…

…and here we are. Texas A&M enters this game just barely above the KenPom national average, which is to say that they’re better than Vanderbilt but no one else. They’ve managed a road win at Mizzou (mildly impressive?) and home wins over other sub-KP #100 teams Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, but that’s it. In one of the more astounding accomplishments of the season, they managed to go 0-3 in a Thanksgiving weekend tournament where they played Harvard (lost 62-51), Temple (65-42), and Fairfield (67-62). They barely hit a quarter of their threes. They could’ve lost to UL-Monroe (won 63-57, trailed for 19 minutes), Troy (56-52, 33 minutes), Texas A&M Corpus Christi (63-60, 20 minutes), and Texas Southern (58-55, never led by more than eight).

Torvik’s average lead/deficit, which is exactly what it sounds like, says that Texas A&M has, on average, been the team trailing in 14 of their 18 games. Their point differential is more suggestive of a 6-12 or 7-11 team. They’re already bad, but Buzz Williams’ first A&M team really should be staring down this Tennessee game with additional losses to Troy and Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Think about that: these Aggies are lucky to be 9-9. It always, always, always could be worse.

NEXT PAGE: Thank you, Kobe.

Show Me My Opponent: Ole Miss

Working hard to come up with an intro here….ah, I can’t. This program’s too boring, too forgettable. Ole Miss basketball, from 2006-07 to 2016-17, never finished with fewer than six SEC losses or more than nine. It was a remarkably there program. They haven’t had an NCAA Tournament seed higher than 8 since 2001; they haven’t progressed past the Sweet Sixteen ever. They made the NCAA Tournament five times in six years from 1997 to 2002. There have been all of three NCAAT runs since.

Kermit Davis is a good guy and a good coach, I think.

WHAT THEY BRING

A pretty disappointing offense

Interestingly enough, Year 2 of the Kermit Davis Experience at Ole Miss started off pretty swimmingly: four straight wins over mediocre opponents, a one-point loss, and then a neutral-site win over the best Penn State team in nearly 25 years. All in all, no one would’ve been faulted for thinking these Rebels could make their second straight NCAA Tournament – small potatoes to some, certainly, but their first back-to-back NCAAT runs since 2001-2002. The day after Penn State, they took the Barclays Center court against Oklahoma State, ready to keep their hot start rolling.

Instead, the train crashed through the floor like a bad animation and seemingly cannot reach the bottom. Ole Miss lost that game 78-37 and has gone 4-6 since; their best win since Penn State is over KP #219 Cal State Bakersfield. Against anything other than crap opponents, they’ve been an offensive disaster. Eight games against Top 100 or SEC competition have resulted in two 1 PPP+ outings, with just one 2PT% outing above 50%. (A 71-55 loss to Florida, if you’re curious.) Davis’ offense, which relies heavily on ball screens and basket cuts, has malfunctioned more than most would’ve anticipated. Devoid of great shooters of teams past (Terence Davis) and of a decent shooting big man (Bruce Stevens), Ole Miss has defaulted to a depressing diet of lots of non-rim twos and missed threes.

Breein Tyree, still the main focus

Breein Tyree is the guy you’ll remember from said previous teams; he’s still the best player and best scorer Ole Miss has. Tyree’s the only player that really forces his way to the rim without others’ help, and he’s converted 63.5% of his attempts.

Tyree loves getting into the paint off of a ball screen, whether that’s coming off of the screen or denying it entirely. Same deal with his mid-range pullups, which he’s taken an unfortunate amount of.

Tyree leads Ole Miss in made threes with 36, and Tennessee has to make him their defensive focus. He’s not an elite shooter (35.6% for his career, never higher than 37.5% in any season), but he’s a good one and the best Ole Miss has got.

Devontae Shuler’s struggles

Behind him is Devontae Shuler. Shuler’s had a lot of issues this year, whether it’s struggling with turnovers or missing a lot of ill-advised jumpers.

Synergy has him in the 30th-percentile of offensive efficiency nationally, which is brutal for a guy that was a 40% three-point shooter a year ago. Shuler started slumping in late November against Memphis and Penn State and never really recovered; his last five games have resulted in 45 points on 60 shots. Shuler’s a big fan of pulling up off of ball screens like Tyree, but he’s not as efficient. They’ll try to get him plenty of open looks from three to get him going, and it may work; he really should be hitting more than 29.5% of his catch-and-shoot threes.

Others to know

Third guy you’ll need to know: Blake Hinson. Hinson missed the first four games of the year, so if you’re a pessimist, you’d say Ole Miss is 5-8 with him playing. Same deal as last year: he’s an undersized 4 playing at the 3 that hits threes at around a 35% rate and only goes to the rim a couple of times per game. Why he doesn’t go more often, I’ll never know or understand.

Others to know: the two starters surrounding these three, KJ Buffen and Khadim Sy. Buffen is the starting 4 and cannot shot well from three at all; he’s 8-for-30 from deep through 1.5 seasons. He gets tons of actions off of cuts.

Sy, like Buffen, cannot shoot; this puts Ole Miss in the unfortunate bind of basically having two guys in their starting lineup you won’t defend past 15 feet. Sy is Ole Miss’s go-to guy in both ball screen sets and post-ups; he’ll get a lot of action as the roll man and in the post.

Interior defense has struggled a lot more than I’d expect

As noted earlier, this has traditionally been Kermit’s stronger side of the ball…and yet it just isn’t so far at Ole Miss. This year’s edition ranks 123rd in KenPom; while last year’s should’ve been better than 80th if not for bad 3PT% luck, this one is openly not good. The Rebels’ rim defense is utterly horrid, allowing opponents to convert 64.3% of attempts. They’re doing a fine job on perimeter defense if you refuse to look at the underlying stats, which would tell you their opponents are shooting a truly amazing 23.4% on wide-open threes. Indeed, I could do that.

The interior defense issues can pretty well be hammered down to a couple of key points: their starting center, Khadim Sy, is a foul machine, and the guys behind him are either inexperienced, bad, or both.

KJ Buffen’s one of those backups, and he’s a solid-enough defender, but you can boil down his shortcomings to only being 6’7”. Ole Miss’s best shot blocker transferred to Florida State, so this is what you’ve got: a defense that doesn’t block many shots, allows a lot of drives to the basket, and is utterly horrid at defending post-ups.

Over their last few games, Ole Miss got smoked at the rim by opponents you’d expect (Arkansas, 67% hit rate) and opponents you wouldn’t (Florida, 73.9%). It’s not good, man.

The mid-range defense is a little better, but it’s still nothing special. The Rebels don’t block many shots away from the basket, just like they don’t at the basket. It’s not a surprise, then, that you’re looking at the 214th-ranked two-point defense in America. Amazingly – and this is true – this number represents the worst non-Vanderbilt defense left on the schedule. 214th really isn’t that terrible! I mean, it’s bad, but it’s not UNC Asheville (332nd). And yet: this is the least-acceptable defense left that’s won an SEC game in the last year.

Perimeter defense due for regression, IMO

I touched on the perimeter defense earlier, but we’ll dive in a little deeper. Kermit switches between man-to-man defense and a 1-3-1 zone that’s probably better than the normal defense. Either way, it’s allowing several open threes, which oddly do not go in. Again, perspective: Ole Miss’s opponents this season have shot 31.8% from three.

That’s well below the already-low national average of 33.2%. Obviously, Tennessee’s not a lovely shooting team, but someone’s going to take advantage of this in the very near future. (Alabama minus whatever on February 22 looks good to me.)

Anything else?

Uhhh…they’re very good at defensive rebounding, like most of Kermit’s last several teams. Fairly good at stealing the ball from you; Shuler and Buffen in particular seem to be above-average on-ball defenders.

NEXT PAGE: Don’t ask for the supercut

Show Me My Opponent: Vanderbilt I

If you squint just enough and lose all built-in filters to your brain, you can pinpoint the day that both Tennessee and Vanderbilt’s seasons to a massive swing to the negative:

The difference here is that Vandy was pretty much always going to be this bad. Since their somewhat miraculous NCAA Tournament run in 2016-17 – which wasn’t all that impressive, considering they finished with a 19-16 record – the ‘Dores are 29-51 since, 6-33 in conference play. They’re in the midst of a 21-game conference losing streak, which is the longest streak in SEC basketball history by six full games. It’s a terrible time to be a Vanderbilt basketball fan, and this was before All-SEC lock Aaron Nesmith went down with a foot injury.

Per KenPom, this Vandy program is an underdog in all 15 of their remaining games. Given that teams rarely win every game they’re favored in or lose every game they’re not, the likelihood of a second-straight winless SEC season is just 1.2%. Pomeroy says they’ll win about 3.67 of these games; undoubtedly, 3-15 or 4-14 in the SEC would represent improvement of some sort.

My point is this: rarely, if ever, do we see programs stay this bad for multiple seasons in the SEC. It’s easier to dig out of the bottom in basketball than football, and I like thinking of LSU, who ranked 172nd in KenPom in 2016-17 but 66th the next season. It’s not all that hard to at least get out of the basement. And yet: this is like watching Kim Anderson Missouri teams all over again. In that sense, Vanderbilt basketball is probably worth your time.

NEXT PAGEPlease

Show Me My Opponent: Georgia

Athens, The City

As someone who’s never been to Athens, I spend an awful lot of time thinking about the city. It appears to be a mid-sized Southern city purely made for someone like me, a music obsessive that happens to love basketball (and, secondarily, football) a lot. The city is home to an excellent university, a wildly diverse art scene, and, most importantly, food. But it is also home to three musical acts incredibly important to my youth: The B-52s, R.E.M., and Pylon.

All three emerged out of the same University of Georgia-adjacent scene in the late-70s/early-80s. Two of these bands you know very well; two of these bands have pitch-perfect debut albums that everyone should own. Somehow, the third of these – a significantly less perfect debut – is of utmost importance to me. Pylon’s Gyratea 1980 release, is a pretty excellent new wave-ish album from the Athens group. The idea itself is surprisingly simple – what if we made a punk album you could dance to? – and a basically perfect record for my scatterbrain.

However, there’s a follow-up edition of this album released in 2007, long after the group had ceased its existence: Gyrate Plus. 16 songs long instead of 11, it adds a few songs on both ends. Most bonus track releases are money-grabs that don’t catch my eye. AND YET: this does, because of the first two songs. “Cool” was featured in a Lexus commercial a few years back and sounds, well, like the coolest thing ever. “Dub” is basically the only reason I still play guitar, because it is the absolute perfect song for someone with a 12-year-old’s brain. Amazingly, Pylon released these two songs as a little-known single a year prior to the album coming out.

I like thinking about this band, because I like thinking about any unfairly-ignored group and I like thinking about the fact it took them 27 years to realize the two best songs they ever recorded probably should’ve led off their debut album. I guess they arrived at thinking they should lead the re-release of the album with them somehow, but it’s nice to think of it as a happy accident. Accidental greatness – the name of what I’d probably like to achieve one day.

Athens, The Sports Town

Everyone rightfully thinks about Georgia football when it comes to the University of Georgia. BUT: did you know their basketball team has a seriously odd history? A quick deep dive starts below.

  • 11 times in a 22-season span, Georgia basketball spent at least some time in the AP top 20…yet never peaked higher than 10th for a week in 1983-84, a season they did not make the NCAA Tournament.
  • Just three times in the 64/68-team era has Georgia lost single-digit games…but until last season, they’d never topped 20 losses, either.
  • Georgia has finished within one game of .500 in conference play either way 14 different times in the last 29 seasons.
  • In the modern era of basketball – we’re saying about 1970-present here – Mark Fox is easily #2 in Georgia’s history in wins at 163. Mark Fox never won an NCAA Tournament game at Georgia, spent one week ranked at #24, and never had a W-L% better than 63.6%. And yet!

Ken Pomeroy’s program ratings place Georgia as the 61st-best program in college basketball, which seems pretty much perfect. Georgia’s only finished in the KP Top 50 six times in its 23-year database, hasn’t made the Sweet Sixteen, has never finished higher than 16th (2002-03)…and yet, they are never outright terrible, last season excepted. In the post-Jim Harrick era, Georgia’s only made three NCAA Tournaments in 16 seasons, with zero wins. However, they are ridiculously consistent: they’ve finished in the KP Top 50 once and have finished outside of it six times, which means they’ve ranked 51-100 nine times.

In some fashion, it’s remarkable. Georgia may be the most fine program out there. You never spend a second worrying about them, but they’re always there…waiting on the periphery…thinking about getting better…never actually getting better. If .500 were in the dictionary, you would see this program. I think I’ve arrived at considering this commendable in some way; fans of the program itself will think of it as a relentless frustration.

NEXT PAGE: The second Pylon album is also good, complete with all-time cover art