It Is What It Is

March 17: (3) Tennessee 88, (14) Longwood 56 (Round of 64) (27-7)
March 19: (11) Michigan 76, (3) Tennessee 68 (Round of 32) (27-8, season over)

Starting off March Madness by hitting 14 threes and dropping 88 points on a vastly overmatched opponent was probably an unfair way to get things rolling. Was it incredibly funny and fun and stress-free? Of course. But there are very few words on that game, because no one remembers the blowouts. Everyone remembers the classics. Everyone remembers the Round of 32 games that meant something, especially when a lot of things are happening and it’s back-and-forth the whole way.

So: you do a lot of things right. You turn it over only seven times, the second-lowest turnover rate of the season.

So that’s good, even if it was somewhat predictable against a Michigan team that never forces turnovers. And then you also put up a 53.1% hit rate on twos, almost 5% above Tennessee’s season-long hit rate. That’s pretty good, too. Teams that do both of those things since 2010-11: 61-12 in the NCAA Tournament. But then you look at who two of those 12 are.

Never matter; the past is the past. You shoot 18 three-point attempts. Tennessee has hit 40% of these over the last two months. They just hit 58.3% of them in a first-round demolition. All you have to do is hit a few of those threes. Most were of the catch-and-shoot variety; the average catch-and-shoot three went down at a 35% rate this year. A 35% shooting game would’ve counted as a below-average performance for Tennessee.

One standard deviation from the mean on 3PT% this season has been about 10%. For the average team on an average night, anything from 23% to 43% is reasonable. For Tennessee, a team that shot 36.5%, anything from 26% to 47% was reasonable.  Anything outside of that range, in some aspect, was an outlier beyond normal explanation. If a team guards every single one of your catch-and-shoot threes somehow, that should lead to you shooting, like, 5-10% worse than normal. Some amount of bad shooting is just bad shooting; a larger amount of it is whether the coin flips in your favor.

A 36% coin flip came up cold 89% of the time. On 18 attempts, 16 of which were catch-and-shoot ones, Tennessee made two. A team full of dudes that were making these 40% of the time made them 11% of the time two days after making them 58% of the time. It is so baffling that even Sports Reference came up empty.

It is what it is.

This Tennessee team spent the better part of the back half of the season subverting expectations and changing their identity game by game. A potential season-destroying injury to the team’s best center resulted in the team getting better for a time. Four Top 15 teams came to Thompson-Boling Arena, three of which came to visit post-injury. None of them left with victories. Tennessee took their show on the road to Tampa, drew the SEC’s supposed toughest team, and led for all but 27 seconds of a semifinal that wasn’t as close as the final score suggested. Winning the program’s first SEC conference tournament title since 1979 the next day was almost an afterthought.

They then spent all of Thursday telling the nation how disrespectful it was for Tennessee to have been given a 3-seed behind multiple teams they had superior resumes to. Longwood came into Indianapolis with some amount of high hopes; all of those hopes were thoroughly dispelled by approximately the 19th three Josiah-Jordan James made that gave Tennessee a 25-point halftime lead. Heading into Saturday, the general vibe even from Michigan fans was that this Tennessee team was going to be too much to handle. It made sense: a legitimate top-6 team in America playing an 11 seed. Why wouldn’t it?

In the game preview I noted that it would take some sort of heavy RNG game in Michigan’s favor to swing the tide fully their way. It barely happened on their threes; aside from Hunter Dickinson having a great day and going 3-for-5, the rest of the roster went 3-for-11. They did not win the game from deep. Tennessee, the superior shooting team with more options and better depth, just couldn’t find it. Some days, it’s not your day. I think we all know this, but fandom obscures it in a manner that makes it a lot harder to accept. It is what it is.

I spent most of Sunday predictably thinking about the difficulties of being on The Other Side of the three-point revolution. Tennessee spent this season completely remaking themselves in a new offensive image. This will stand as the team that set the single-game record for threes in their very first game. They took more three-point attempts than any Barnes team has ever taken, whether here or at Texas or anywhere before. Tennessee had made at least six threes in eight consecutive games and 13 of the previous 14. Tennessee started 0-for-4, then went 2-for-3. Then, they never hit another three again.

Everyone online keeps insisting that the threes can’t be the thing. It has to be Rick Barnes. I guess when the head coach continues to disappoint in March that’s sort of the obvious target. Blame’s gotta go somewhere, after all, and blaming it on bad luck is seen as real dire mental straits to be in. But. Rick Barnes is not the one missing 16 of 18 threes. Rick Barnes is the guy who pushed for more threes and fewer mid-range twos after a career of doing the exact opposite, so I guess you can be mad at him for that. Who would’ve guessed that progressing your offense into a more modern, Tournament-friendly style somehow made you feel worse?

It is what it is. What else can it be but madness? Against the fourth-worst defense Tennessee had played since January 26 (16 games total), upon video review, Tennessee got nine three-point attempts where the nearest defender was 4+ feet away. They hit one of them. The threes are the thing, more than any other thing can be. Such is life; such is madness.

Because everything this blog does is ripped off of MGoBlog in some fashion, this line from the head writer (Brian Cook) after Michigan’s 63-44 loss to Texas Tech in 2019 keeps bouncing around in my head:

A collective mania set in as this was happening as the horrible results overwhelmed anyone’s ability to process what happened before them. Four different threes rimmed out in the first half. . . . Maybe there are reasons you go 25% from three. There are no reasons when you go 13% and 0%. Just frustration, and an offseason a little more sudden than hoped for.

And that’s more or less it. Rick Barnes played Tennessee’s four best non-centers, with zero substitutions, for the entirety of the final 15:03 of this game. Their best center was Uros Plavsic, which would have been a laughable statement in November. Michigan’s point guards combined for four points. Tennessee won the turnover battle by eight and the offensive rebounding battle by four, a +12 advantage in shot volume. They outscored Michigan 20-7 in points off of turnovers. They did a lot of things very well. They just didn’t have a good day with the one thing that decides 80% of coin-flip basketball games now.

The offseason has begun at least a week earlier than everyone wanted to. I abstained from going to Saturday’s game for a variety of reasons, which now seems wise because seeing 2-for-18 in person is likely worse than seeing it on TV. Tennessee tied their fourth-worst 3PT% of the last 12 seasons with the second-best 3PT% team they’ve had in that time span. None of this is required to make sense, because March Madness as a concept is not supposed to make sense. To quote Jon Bois, there is only one winner, and it comes at the cost of 63 losers. Tennessee merely joins the pack in a more painful, stupid way than most others.

Frankly, that is not how I’d like to remember this team. Watching Tennessee’s defense pour motor oil down the nostrils of opponents twice a week was a joy. Watching Kennedy Chandler evolve from a fledgling five-star into a legitimate first-round pick was wonderful. Finding a new fan favorite in Zakai Zeigler was a delight. Uros Plavsic evolved from a mascot into an actual useful piece. Santiago Vescovi turned from Just A Shooter into First-Team All-SEC. Josiah-Jordan James went supernova mode in the back half of the season and went from a disliked player by the average fan into a beloved star. John Fulkerson became both mascot and bench piece. Everyone who took the court, at some point, did something memorable and beautiful. I will remember that fondly.

I will also remember that, during a two-month period watching the main inspiration for my writing passing away, I kept looking to a battalion of 18-24 year-olds to keep doing good things, and they kept doing them. As the clock ticked down and Tennessee was leading Texas A&M by 15, I thought about how much my grandfather would have loved to see it. But up there, far away from all of our worry and strife, he had a great view of it. Maybe they toss the Chick-Fil-A cows up in heaven, too.

At the start of March I was listening to the episode of The Square Ball, a Leeds United fan magazine and podcast, immediately after Marcelo Bielsa was fired. (I prefer the English ‘sacked,’ but gotta stick with your audience and such.) Bielsa was a heroic figure to Leeds supporters for two main reasons: 1. He brought the club back to the Premier League for the first time in nearly two decades; 2. He is potentially the only manager in the modern era of the club, and most clubs, to feel bigger than the sport itself.

One of the hosts mentions the relief of Leeds’ midweek and Saturday games during the Bielsa era, with a specific focus on the last two years. Bielsa had a rough end to his tenure. At the time of the show, Leeds were just a hair out of the EPL relegation zone. You lose a lot of money when you fall out of the EPL; it’s not a good time. The prevailing theme of their discussion is just how Bielsa felt like more than a football manager. More than Just A Guy. More than Just A Game. Specifically, there is this sentence from one of the hosts:

Because of what’s going on globally, it oddly matters more. When the world is legitimately falling apart, you cling onto the few things that make you believe and are an escape from all of the bad stuff.

Thinking of this season in those terms three months ago was a laughable concept. I came into this season expecting a Sweet Sixteen run or something similar and to simply have some amount of fun watching basketball again. I wanted to go to games again. Being at home for all of 2020-21…losing the Tournament in 2020, even if Tennessee wouldn’t have been in it…it simply took a toll. I didn’t feel it or notice it at the time. In January, it hit like a delayed adverse effect from bad medicine.

These two years have been hard on a lot of people. Comparatively, I came out of it scot-free. I wasn’t laid off and gained a promotion at my day job. My marriage flourished, even in a harsh economic time. We made good, useful changes to our day-to-day routine. I learned to be happy working from home. I learned to love running. I looked forward to getting out of the house. The 2020-21 season, which might as well be a repeated visual of seeing the Knoxville Catholic running loop four mornings a week, ended up giving me more and greater opportunities in the basketball world than I ever could have imagined.

This season started well, too. The season began barely two weeks after I finished a massive work project. We were going to games again. COVID wasn’t over, but it was on its way out. Things seemed better. Winter came. We kept going to games, and it felt like diminishing excitement every time. Mid-January, after Tennessee had gotten carpet-bombed by Kentucky and my wife sat in different bedrooms in COVID quarantine, I wondered what the point was. February came about and made it that much tougher. In the midst of all this, all you can do is to lean onto those strong ties, the ones you believe in, and see them as escapism.

This team slowly turned into a bizarre form of escapism as the season went on. They were flawed, just like every other collection of 18-24 year old men in human history. They were frustrating. But twice a week, they would open up the mud pit, pull an opponent in, and watch them flail around for two hours helplessly. This group’s run ended earlier than expected, but the memories they provided will last a long time. I will miss them quite a bit.

No more analysis. Just two notes.

  • Thanks for everything. The amount of people to thank for this year’s coverage is immense. I have decided to thank most individuals privately, but there are some that I want to share public thanks for. Carly Warren, my wife, who somehow feels okay letting me invest 15 hours a week into this on top of a 40-hour job and a housing search. You are my hero. Andrea, my mom, who understands me in a way no one else can and is a hero. Scott, my dad, for all you do. Andy, my brother, who did attend his first game this year. Matthew, my best friend, legal advisor, and trusted agent. Jon Reed, the person who is more responsible for my “readership base” than anyone else. Seth Hughes, who never fails to give me good advice and is one of the smartest people I know. Grant Ramey, Mike Wilson, Wes Rucker, Ryan Schumpert, Ethan Stone, and everyone else that I know and talk to on the local beat. Chase Thomas, who continues to talk to me weekly somehow. Jimmy Dykes, who has changed my life in many ways. Tom Hart and Dane Bradshaw. Reed Carringer. There are many, many more, and this post is already very long.
  • 2022-23 coverage. Is undecided. I’ll be up front and say that I’m exploring how to continue to make this work; whether it will work is not yet determined. For now, I am taking a break that I think I’ve earned.

Show Me My Opponent, 2022 NCAA Tournament: Michigan

OPPONENT (11) Michigan
18-14, 11-9 Big Ten, #30 KenPom
LOCATION Conseco Fieldhouse
Indianapolis, IN
TIME Saturday, March 19
5:15 PM ET
Jim Spanarkel (analyst)
Jamie Erdahl (sideline)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -6
KenPom: Tennessee -6

Torvik: Tennessee -5.4

I have to admit that I was surprised by people responding to my post about how stress-free Tennessee’s game was yesterday by saying Michigan was next and they’re already stressed. Okay? I mean it’s March: after a certain point, generally the first round, you are going to have to play and beat really good teams. Sometimes you have to do that in the Round of 64. Tennessee didn’t, so they do now.

Anyway, Michigan was a preseason top 5 team that was extremely disappointing for a couple of months, then just became normal disappointing after recovering to make the NCAA Tournament and win a game. This is not 9-16 Kentucky, just a roster with serious construction flaws that took a while to gel. They’re now top 30 in KenPom for a reason, which is that they are pretty talented and pretty good, particularly on offense. Still, Michigan has an insane run of play going: for 11 games, they’ve alternated wins and losses. That means this is due to be a loss, which would send Tennessee to the Sweet Sixteen. Maybe it will be that simple. Maybe I am Sisyphus. There is simply just one way to find out: playing the game.

Michigan’s offense

Let it be known that this is the significantly more fearsome unit on the average night. Michigan ranks in the top 20 offenses per KenPom for a reason: they consistently get good twos, they have guys that make tough shots, and they possess a certain level of crazy. That crazy can get them in trouble (an 11-minute stretch against Indiana with no made field goals), but more frequently, it gives them life (such as coming back from 15 down against a 6 seed). The other thing is that Juwan Howard is genuinely a terrific offensive coach:

The problem is that Juwan the Coach may be ahead of Juwan the Roster Construction Guy. Michigan’s main problem, which shows up more on defense, is that there are a grand total of zero wings among rotation members. Caleb Houstan is a 4; Terrence Williams is a stretch 4; Kobe Bufkin is a 2. Therefore: no real wings, nothing resembling a JJJ type. Now you know.

The obvious #1 guy is Hunter Dickinson (18.4 PPG, 8.3 RPG), one of the best bigs in America. You may see this and think “but Tennessee shut down the best big in America, Oscar Tshiebwe, three different times. Also, Kentucky lost to Saint Peter’s, which is the funniest thing to ever happen.” All of that is true. But Dickinson is a bit more than Just Big: a terrific post scorer who is also an excellent jump-shooter. Synergy rates him in the 82nd-percentile in jump shooting among all players, not just bigs. This is why Dickinson is an elite player: there’s all the usual stuff in the post, but he can just as easily pop off for a mid-range jumper or, worse, a three. This is a guy who’s shooting 58% on mid-range twos right now and it feels unusual when he misses.

So: Dickinson is a bucket and a problem, and I didn’t even get to him being a good passer for a big. The problem is that Dickinson can be all Michigan has on certain nights, and even then, it isn’t always enough. Dickinson went for 20+ in 14 Michigan games this season; M only went 9-5 in those, including 6-4 against Big Ten competition. That’s still >.500, but generally, when your best player has a great game, you’d expect a better win rate. This is because the rest of Michigan’s team is largely coin-flips that either come up golden or goose-egg depending on the night.

Michigan’s #2 in scoring, but #4 in terms of on-court usage, is the efficient guard Eli Brooks (12.4 PPG). Brooks isn’t Michigan’s most talented player or shooter, but he’s their most consistent one at 38.6% on threes and, per Synergy, 38% on mid-range twos. Brooks also has a pretty silky floater he unloads that he’s converting 46.5% of the time, so watch out for that. Unless Michigan really needs him to take over, which doesn’t happen often, Brooks can be generally expected to take 8-12 shots a game and occasionally get to the paint. Just don’t let him get off an open catch-and-shoot three.

The other main shooter is Caleb Houstan (10.6 PPG), the closest thing Michigan has to a wing that’s actually a stretch 4. Houstan is hitting 36.6% of his 161 three-point attempts, but that doesn’t tell the story. Here is one hilarious split:

  • Caleb Houstan, home games: 47.7% 3PT%
  • Caleb Houstan, everywhere else: 29.2% 3PT%

Here is another.

  • Caleb Houstan, 59% eFG% or better (13 games): 12-1 record for Michigan
  • Caleb Houstan, <59% eFG% (21 games): 6-13 record for Michigan

Wait! One more.

  • Caleb Houstan, open catch-and-shoot threes (per Synergy): 47.1% 3PT% on 68 attempts
  • Caleb Houstan, every other three-point attempt: 29% on 93 attempts

How a freshman shooter who only shoots well at home is this predictive for Michigan I don’t know, but that’s the case. If Tennessee forces Houstan into threes where he’s off-balance or literally has to move at all, it’s a win. If you leave him open, it’s bad news.

Lastly: Devante’ Jones (10.7 PPG/4.6 RPG/4.6 APG). Jones is the true point guard on this Michigan roster and has developed into a very good Big Ten starter after having a very slow start to the season. Jones is a relatively infrequent jump-shooter; he took 90 across 31 games, and most of them were threes (33.8% 3PT%). Jones’ main value add is as a passer and paint scorer. The problem for Michigan is that Jones may not play; he missed the Round of 64 Colorado State win due to a concussion. Howard seems optimistic Jones could be back for this game, but at the time of writing, nothing had been confirmed in one direction or the other.

The swing piece here is Moussa Diabate (9 PPG/6 RPG), a hilariously athletic center and poor shooter (8-for-31, per Synergy) who nonetheless will do 1-3 things a game where you’re like “that’s a first-round pick.” Diabate is 79-for-100 at the rim and 30-for-99 everywhere else; you cannot let him get open off of Michigan’s numerous pick-and-rolls. Others: Terrance Williams III shot 38% on threes and Tom Izzo got mad about it. Brandon Johns Jr. began the season as a starter but now plays 10 MPG or so. Kobe Bufkin: 16-for-26 at the rim, 14-for-53 everywhere else. Frankie Collins started in place of Jones against Colorado State and was fantastic, but prior to that, his season high was 8 points and he still has more turnovers than assists.


Michigan’s defense

Here’s where I’d argue the lack of a true wing is most impactful. Last year’s Michigan roster had top-10 pick Franz Wagner, Isaiah Livers, and Chaundee Brown, three terrific players who could guard numerous positions and stay with guards. This year’s roster has Houstan, who was atrocious the first two months of the year on D, and…uh…well…

Here is the problem. At shooting guard is Eli Brooks, a 6’1″ player. Brooks is a gritty little dude who makes a ton of fun plays and hustles hard every time out. Brooks is also 6’1″ and regularly guarding 6’3″-6’6″ guys. This is a problem when you are playing 6’3″-6’6″ guys that can shoot well. This is a key reason why Michigan ranked in the 6th-percentile in defending off-the-dribble jumpers and 21st-percentile overall. Some of this is obviously luck-based, but some of this is just “your personnel cannot defend our personnel.”

The Michigan season can be defined by its hilarious 11-game win-loss-win-loss flips, sure, but it’s also more or less about a lack of wings that means having to panic into a zone mid-season (roughly 9% of the time, per Synergy, but more like 15-20% since January) to save the tournament streak. This worked out, and I credit Howard for doing it. Michigan did a terrific job of getting away with zone defenses against quality offenses by simply guarding them very well during the season; it is weird to see a 71/29 Guarded/Unguarded split in a zone but 67/33 in man. The point is that Michigan often has guys in place to force tougher shots. It just hasn’t always worked out.

Just like anyone else, Michigan has been wide-open to variance. The Wolverines are 4-8 when a team shoots 35% or better from deep against them and 14-6 when they don’t. Michigan is pretty good at running shooters off the line, and the fact that they’ve forced 20 games where opponents have shot worse than 35% is nice to see. Still: there will be some openings.

The problem with running shooters off the line with this roster is that it opens up a lot of driving lanes. Refer back to the lack of a consistent ball-stopper; refer back to how their two best defenders are a 7’1″ center that isn’t very fast and a 6’1″ point guard that may or may not play. If you get this Michigan team rushing at you on the perimeter, there will be lanes to the rim. That’s how a team with Dickinson can be giving up a 64.1% FG% at the rim, per Torvik, which is tied for fourth-worst among the 68 Tournament teams.

Michigan is also a very poor post defense team, but I think Tennessee’s odds of exploiting that are a lot better by drawing Dickinson/Diabate out of the paint than by playing bully-ball. Colorado State tried bully-ball and it worked when David Roddy was hitting crazy fadeaways; everything else was torture chamber stuff. I mean, watch this play: an extremely similar one to one Tennessee ran for John Fulkerson yesterday. Feels like basket cuts, once again, could come into play here.

Again: 78th-ranked defense in the nation that never forces turnovers, ranks 206th in 2PT% allowed, and has just the one somewhat-consistent rim protector who isn’t a foul machine. (Diabate is very promising, but 4.5 fouls per 40 leads him to play less minutes than you’d like.) Michigan went 0-12 in games where they gave up 1.09 PPP or greater, 4-13 when the opponent posted an eFG% better than 50%, and 4-8 when the opponent made 8+ threes.

How Tennessee matches up

The first instinct here is that Michigan ranks in the 23rd-percentile in ball-screen defense, Tennessee has Kennedy Chandler/Zakai Zeigler, and you think “okay, do that.” And that would probably work out just fine. Michigan has deployed a variety of coverages to try and make things work this year, but they’ve most often settled on putting Dickinson in drop coverage because of the mobility concerns. (I would also mention that Dickinson has played with nagging injuries over the back half of the season and still looks awesome despite it.)

Tennessee has not run a ton of ball screens this year or really ever under Rick Barnes, but it’s been effective when they have. Synergy has Tennessee’s ball-screen offense in the 68th-percentile; that number is obviously not adjusted for schedule, but take that number with the Michigan one and you can see the potential advantage. If Dickinson comes out to hedge or double, Tennessee will be playing 4-on-3; if Dickinson plays drop coverage, a good shooter like Chandler will have an open shot.

Along with that: gotta get stuff going at the rim, simple as. Michigan’s rim FG% allowed is horrible, of course, but being 8th-percentile in post-up defense is alarming no matter what type of schedule you’re playing. That being said, Tennessee’s post-up efficiency is similarly brutal, so I’d prefer to not see many of them. Instead, utilize Michigan’s perimeter aggressiveness to your advantage: when they rush to close out a shooter, drive to the basket instead. There, you can either go up for a layup or continue the power-play by finding someone open in the dunker spot. Either can work.

Defensively, this is first and foremost about slowing down Dickinson. You can’t shut him down – only three times this year did he fail to at least 11 points – but you can slow him down somewhat. Tennessee has to find a way to force Dickinson to his left, where he’s less comfortable. Per Synergy, Dickinson had 162 single-coverage post-up possessions this season. The 23 times he faced up were pretty obvious: most were jumpers. The other 139 are pretty interesting: 112 times turning to his right (his strong side), just 27 to his left. Dickinson was still very effective going to his left, but he’s not nearly as confident in it. If you can force him left, maybe you force a worse game? It’s not purely like last year where Dickinson could only go right but he’s still learning.

Beyond that, you’ve just got to force the toughest threes you can and hope the shooting variance gods smile on you Saturday. I did a study in late January of the Big Six teams to see just how much variance a team had in 3PT% from game to game; Michigan led the field with ease. At the time, anything from 19% to 54% from deep was within reason. That trend has more or less held for them: 10-3 when they shoot 35% or better from deep, 7-11 when they don’t. Or, if you prefer: 8-2 when shooting 40% or better, 6-4 when shooting 30-39%, 4-8 when shooting worse than 30%. I think Tennessee can survive Michigan shooting 35% or something. You have to do whatever you can to ensure that’s not 40% or better.

Starters + rotations

Three things to watch for

  • Which averages hold? Tennessee versus top 40 offenses: 69.8 PPG allowed. Tennessee versus defenses ranked 40th-100th: 74.7 PPG scored. Michigan versus top 40 offenses: 74.4 PPG allowed. Michigan versus top 40 defenses: 68.6 PPG. Taken all together, that would suggest a 75-69 Tennessee win. But I know better than to trust anything at all in March.
  • Shooting percentages. I mean if Tennessee posts their season average of 36.5% or better from deep, this should be a win. Tennessee is 18-1 when they shoot 35% or better from three. Of course, this is reliant on Michigan – a team averaging a 33-34% hit rate – not having an RNG game in their favor.
  • Turnover margin. This may be where the game swings Tennessee’s way. Michigan ranks 336th in defensive TO%; Tennessee ranks 15th. Tennessee projects to have a +5 advantage in TOs, which would be tough to overcome for a Michigan team in need of every shot they can get.

Key matchups

Hunter Dickinson vs. Center Roulette. Tennessee has narrowed down their center rotation to Plavsic/Fulkerson/Huntley-Hatfield but frankly, this could be an Aidoo game. Dickinson will need someone to challenge him vertically as best as humanly possible. You’re also rooting for Dickinson to be relatively inefficient on his jumpers.

Eli Brooks vs. Santiago Vescovi. Brooks is the Gritty Gritstein (h/t MGoBlog) of Michigan: a guy who makes all the little plays and seemingly never stops moving. Brooks can reasonably keep up with Vescovi for a while, so it’s on Tennessee to set good screens to get Vescovi open.

If Devante’ Jones is playing: Devante’ Jones vs. Kennedy Chandler.

If Devante’ Jones is out: Caleb Houstan vs. Josiah-Jordan James. My guess is that Jones plays. In that case, Chandler has to be prepared to be hounded by Jones for all 40 minutes. You can fool Jones into touch fouls from time to time, but mostly, he’s just a pest. Any time you can force him into taking jumpers you have to. Houstan, meanwhile, is somewhat simpler: just make him move.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee records a +5 or better advantage in the turnover department;
  2. Michigan has a run of 2-3 made threes followed by six straight misses;
  3. Tennessee 73, Michigan 67.

Show Me My Opponent, 2022 NCAA Tournament: Longwood

OPPONENT (14) Longwood
26-6, 15-1 Big South, #139 KenPom
LOCATION Conseco Fieldhouse
Indianapolis, IN
TIME Thursday, March 17
2:45ish PM ET
Jim Spanarkel (analyst)
Jamie Erdahl (sideline)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -18
KenPom: Tennessee -15

Torvik: Tennessee -14.4

Yes I’ve seen all of your Longwood jokes and they are very funny. So original! Ha Ha!

Anyway, the first thing that will jump out about the Longwood Lancers is that they are from Farmville, Virginia. Secondly, they’re 19-1 in their last 20. This is their first NCAA Tournament, and they romped through the Big South pretty well. They had the best in-conference offensive efficiency by a fair margin. That’s all good. This is also a 14-seed that has not beaten a team ranked higher than 159th in KenPom and has played one game against a top 100 team, Iowa. That game ended in a 33-point defeat where they trailed 73-34 with 16 minutes left.

Tennessee, meanwhile, is coming off a conference tournament championship of their own. Both feel like massive rarities to each school’s respective fans. Of course, Tennessee’s expectations for March are quite a bit higher than Longwood’s. You don’t want to get bitten by the 14-seed bug in the first round, but you don’t want to lower the expectations much, either. This is the best 3-seed in the field, ranked like a 2-seed, taking on a team that ranks 139th and is the third-lowest 14. If anything went wrong, it would be one of the most stunning upsets ever. Then again, crazier stuff has happened.

Longwood’s offense

This is the superior unit of the two. You look at those basic numbers and admittedly, some of the sweat starts to build: 5th in 3PT%. 19th in OREB%. 50th in Free Throw Rate. It all feels like your classic Giant Killer coming home to roost one final time to kill off any optimism or hope you have left as a basketball viewer. I promise there is good news coming; we’ll get the tough stuff out first.

Basic offensive structural scout: Longwood runs a good amount of ball screens on the perimeter meant to open up dribble penetration for the guard, who can either take it to the basket or dish it to an open shooter. As shown in the above graphic, Longwood is more willing to get to the rim than take a three, but when they do shoot, they’re pretty efficient. Unsurprisingly, when the tallest player in the rotation is three different 6’7″ guys, you aren’t going to see much posting up. Onto the show.

The best, highest-usage, and highest-scoring player is Justin Hill (14.2 PPG/4.9 RPG/4.2 APG), a 6’0″ guard who is the closest thing the team has to a true point guard. The unusual thing about Hill is his willingness to attack the rim at all costs. You can squint and see Hill as Longwood’s Kennedy Chandler: a guy who takes more layups than threes and is one of the best rebounding point guards in America. Longwood doesn’t push the pace often, but when they do, Hill is the ringleader who attacks the basket like crazy. In half-court, he’s more likely to use ball screens to get what he wants.

Hill is the #1 option; Isaiah Wilkins (12.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG) is the #2. Wilkins is a 6’4″ wing that serves as the 3 in this small-ball offense. The thing you’ll immediately notice and fear about Wilkins is obvious: 40.9% from three on 137 attempts. Wilkins is also the best rebounder on the team and is simply a good shooter in general, but it’s worth noting that Wilkins doesn’t take threes off the dribble. Per Synergy, Wilkins has taken 39 off-the-dribble jumpers this year; 33 were mid-range twos. Wilkins is reliant on Hill and backup Jordan Perkins to create his shots for him, but he moves well off the ball and gets open fairly often.

Lastly: the scariest shooter. DeShaun Wade (12 PPG) is the third option; with a 50% FG% at the rim and more three-point attempts than twos, he’s the second-closest thing to Just A Shooter Longwood has. Wade hit 46.6% of his 148 three-point attempts this year, which is legitimately terrifying. You do not want to let Wade shake loose on the perimeter for any reason. You can’t really run him off the line, either; Wade is 26-for-57 on mid-range jumpers. Still, that beats threes. If Wade gets loose:

It’s not good. You can think of him as Longwood’s Vescovi, in a way.

The rest of the offense is various spare parts of mild interest. Center Zac Watson (7.8 PPG, 3.7 RPG) is fifth in the team in scoring and serves as a ball screen/basket cuts specialist. Leslie Nkereuwem (8.9 PPG, 4.8 RPG) is a defensive turnstile that is the main user of post-ups. Nate Lliteras hit 38.6% of his 83 three-point attempts. Starter Jesper Granlund (4.1 PPG) attempts a shot once every blue moon and mostly stays out of the way.

To sum it up: if Wilkins and Wade aren’t hitting 50% of their threes, they don’t generate much in the way of easy twos. That seems troublesome against the nation’s third-best defense.


Longwood’s defense

This is the more relieving half of the preview. Some of the Longwood numbers are good, of course; they’re top 100 in three of the Four Factors. I would remind you that those numbers are not adjusted for competition and they came against a schedule KenPom ranks as the 340th-hardest out of 358. This is an aggressive man-to-man defense that forces turnovers and doesn’t commit a lot of fouls, which is nice, but this is also a defense where the tallest player is 6’7″ and they allowed the 274th-best FG% at the rim against said #340 SOS. This is just the seventh defense Tennessee has played this year ranked worse than 150th by KenPom; they averaged 86.8 PPG in the other six games. Even if you want to lower the average by moving that to 100th or worse, it’s still 82.6 PPG across ten games. You get where I’m going.

The first thing I noticed when researching Longwood, other than everything, is that hilarious 2PT% ranking: 319th. Sometimes, teams will have unusually high 2PT% allowed in part because opponents are randomly very hot on mid-range twos against them. This can happen against smaller teams sometimes, but Longwood is allowing a 36.8% hit rate on mid-range jumpers, so no need. This is all about the rim and an alarmingly bad stop rate down low.

Remember that SOS ranking of #340? Synergy, which does not adjust for SOS, ranks Longwood’s around the basket defense in the 4th-percentile nationally. I would not imagine this is a surprise; the leading shot-blocker is Zac Watson, who is 6’7″ and has all of 17 blocks on the season. Longwood only played two offenses ranked in the top 125 this season: Iowa and Winthrop. Across three games, those two teams converted 59% of two-point attempts. Longwood ranks in the 3rd-percentile defending basket cuts, one of Tennessee’s most successful plays. 10 of Longwood’s last 11 opponents have converted over 50% of their two-point attempts. Again, I think you get the point.

However, the one super-positive thing everyone’s going to look at is the 3PT% allowed. Longwood does rank 46th at 31%, which does indeed save their eFG% from being purely in the crapper. That’s about 1.4% below the expected hit rate of 32.4%, which is solid. To go with that, Longwood’s Guarded/Unguarded split of 57/43 is a hair better than the national average, so I could reasonably say this is a solid-enough defense at forcing guarded threes. Then again, this is a Tennessee team that’s hit 39% of threes over the last two months and ranks among the nation’s 70 best 3PT% teams. Longwood played six games against members of the top 70 this year. Those six games: 17-for-72 (23.6%) on guarded threes.

If Longwood has figured out how to turn great three-point shooting teams into dust, I think that’s great. I also think that, considering those same teams shot 24-for-46 on open threes, it’s probably just your average perimeter defense.

How Tennessee matches up

Most of why I think Tennessee has a significant advantage in this game can be boiled down to two things:

  1. The height differential in the frontcourt, as Longwood’s starters are 6’4″ and 6’7″;
  2. The fact that Tennessee has Kennedy Chandler and Longwood does not.

I guess these can somewhat go together. Chandler was one of just seven players in America 6’1″ or shorter to attempt 160+ shots at the rim this season. He converted these at a 60% rate, which is good for someone his size. If you want another list, try this: 6’1″ or shorter players that took 150+ shots at the rim and 100% threes. Chandler and Darius McGhee of Liberty were the only small guys this year to meet those numbers and post percentages of 58%/37% or better at both spots. The point is that, on first glance, there is no point guard on the Longwood roster that can check Chandler consistently when he’s driving to the rim. Once he gets there, there’s no big man to really stop him, either. The only team Tennessee really played like this in regular season with a similar height deficit was USC Upstate; Chandler scored 17 points on 11 shots.

The other aspect of this is also pretty obvious: while Longwood has two utterly terrific shooters that held up very well against their best competition, Longwood doesn’t have the ability on the other end to dictate the game on the perimeter. I guess they believe they can, but it’s frankly hard to visualize. If Tennessee’s frontcourt gets going, Longwood will have to sink in to compensate, which will open up a lot of threes for Vescovi and friends.

Defensively, the first task is going to be making Hill take the toughest shots possible in the paint. Hill will get to the paint several times in this game no matter what Tennessee does, and frankly, the idea of him being forced to pass to one of the two S-tier shooters is not really something I’m looking for. Instead, I actually think Tennessee can dare Hill into taking some really bad shots in this game. For such an effective slasher, Hill hit just 54% of his attempts at the rim and 31% of his 84 non-rim two-pointers. Force him into a half-court set and his shot quality drops that much further. The more you can force Hill into shots from 5-10 feet away as opposed to those that are true layups, the better off you’ll be.

Then…the shooters. I would simply title this section “allow as few open catch-and-shoots as humanly possible” because that’s all this really is. If there’s any way possible to force the ball out of the hands of Wilkins and/or Wade, Tennessee may win this game by 20+. Those two are shooting 43.9% from deep; the rest of the team, combined, is at 35.4%. I would take a three-point attempt by literally anyone else on the roster before I let Wilkins or Wade get a clean catch-and-shoot look off. Make these guys finish over the top of long-armed defenders.

Just win.

Starters + rotations

Three things to watch for

  • Well, the shooting. Of course. If Tennessee has a normal (read: 34% or better) 3PT% night, I’m not sure what the path for Longwood to a win would be, exactly. I think they’d have to shoot >50% from deep, which is not a thing you can exactly rely on.
  • Can Longwood slow Tennessee down in the paint at all? This would appear to be Tennessee’s most obvious advantage, both in terms of their tallest guy being 6’7″ and because Longwood ranks 319th in 2PT%. (Frankly, considering the schedule they played, this would be like drawing Georgia on a night where you’re not looking ahead to Arkansas.) If Tennessee isn’t at 55% or better on twos it would be a surprise.
  • Rebounding? Maybe? I mean I’m hunting everywhere for potential Longwood advantages and aside from their two main shooters, this might be it, as they rank in the top 50 in both OREB% and DREB%. That being said, average opponent OREB% faced: 27.4%. Tennessee: 33.2%. Not to be all “they haven’t seen anything like this,” but, uh, have they?

Key matchups

Justin Hill vs. Kennedy Chandler. Hill’s the top dog and will attack the rim like crazy. Chandler will do the same and is a superior shooter. This comes down to how often Tennessee forces Hill into 5-10 foot shots instead of <5 footers.

Isaiah Wilkins vs. Josiah-Jordan James. This is the most common matchup, at least. In seven games against Top 200 teams (yes, I know), Wilkins was Longwood’s best and most consistent player. I kind of think he leads them in scoring here. I would like to see James use his size advantage here: take Wilkins, a player with zero blocks in said seven games, to the rim. Or just shoot over him.

DeShaun Wade vs. Santiago Vescovi. Shooter versus shooter. Wilkins and Wade shot 45.7% from deep on 70 attempts in the seven Top 200 games; everyone else, 30.1% on 93. My thought is that Tennessee has the perimeter athleticism to force one or the other into a bad shooting night if not both.

Three predictions

  1. Chandler/James/Vescovi combine for 7+ made threes;
  2. Tennessee converts at a 65% or better rate at the rim;
  3. Tennessee 79, Longwood 60.

When You Got Feelings and Guitar, You Wanna Trade It For Cash

SEC Quarterfinals, March 11: (2) Tennessee 72, (10) Mississippi State 59 (24-7)
SEC Semifinals, March 12: (2) Tennessee 69, (3) Kentucky 62 (25-7)
SEC Finals, March 13: (2) Tennessee 65, (8) Texas A&M 50 (26-7)

Perhaps the kindest thing Tennessee did was remove an immense amount of anxiety and drama from the SEC title game not even five minutes in. The game started at 0-0, obviously; it was 14-0 in essentially no time at all. Texas A&M never led, and the game was never within five points after early in the second half. It was rarely in double digits. But you’d be forgiven if you were a Tennessee fan and you were still waiting for the other shoe to drop with Tennessee up by 13 and 90 seconds still to play.

That is how things generally work here. The impossible is always possible at Tennessee. Purdue, one of the greatest shooting teams I have ever seen Tennessee play, can miss half their free throws, but a future insurance agent hits seven threes to win the game. Loyola Chicago can blow a 10-point lead, but win anyway because of a double-bounce mid-range pull-up. Tennessee can make their first Elite Eight, then have to fire that coach a year later. Tennessee is up on an 8 seed by six with four minutes to play, then never scores again. Tennessee can go 30+ years without a single coach lasting longer than six seasons.

Almost anything ends up on the table at this school. One of the only things that truly felt impossible was being able to lift the trophy on Sunday. Tennessee made it to Sunday one time in my life prior to 2018, played a significantly worse Mississippi State team, and lost. Tennessee was the higher-ranked seed in 2018 and 2019 and lost both of those, too. When the year counter increases by one every time out and touches 43, hope feels like a foreign concept.

As with everything written over the last month, this all starts after losing by 28 to Kentucky. I complained after the game that the Tennessee Treadmill had restarted and this team was well on its way to another annoying, forgettable run as either a 4 or 5 seed in the NCAAs. Maybe they make it to SEC Saturday, blow a late lead to Kentucky or Auburn, and this time I just laugh instead of feeling annoyed. 11-5 and 2-3 SEC, regardless of competition, is a record you look at and sigh towards. You beat Arizona at home, cool. Where’s the other wins?

The ratings on January 16 are a fun time warp of sorts. Every team in the top 16 finished 19th or better, which is remarkably steady for a season with two full months left, but the order of those teams became jumbled. At the time, though, you could argue opportunity was nowhere.

Fourth in the SEC with a loss to the fifth-place team below you that seems to have your number under their analytics darling head coach. An offense that, aside from that random Rupp explosion, resembled Iowa football. A sixth-year senior that scored zero points against the conference’s best team. No truly rootable players. Zakai Zeigler had not yet forced a stranglehold on the hearts of Tennesseans. 14th in KenPom is nice until you remember the 2020-21 team was 12th at that time the year prior. It can always get worse. Why wouldn’t it?

So, sure, Tennessee goes on a run that’s at least partially influenced by a lighter schedule. You get some really great home wins that you remember happily, but they’re all at home. The best non-home win remains a North Carolina team that just got an 8 seed.

You head to Tampa, which isn’t even Nashville, playing what’s best described as a fairly potent brand of feelingsball. You will remember this team; will anyone else? Tennessee gets teams stuck in the mud and whatnot, and you like their March odds, but you see Kentucky at second in KenPom and Auburn drawing a mid-50s Texas A&M team and figure you’re in for yet another SEC Tournament kick to the nuts. It never goes well. Why would it now?

Texas A&M wins and you get a little excited. Tennessee takes care of business; Kentucky struggles, but does the same. You head to Saturday with the same feeling of not wanting to be Charlie Brown running at Lucy holding the football for the 43rd year in a row. Tennessee beat Kentucky at home, but again, that’s at home. Amalie Arena was decidedly decked out in blue, almost like it would be for your standard Lightning home game. Tennessee has to overcome not just this, but the officiating pairing of Pat Adams and Doug Shows, the only officiating combo that can manage to unite Tennessee and Kentucky fans in anger.

Tennessee trails for all of 27 seconds in a game that’s rarely within eight points until the final couple of minutes. Kentucky makes their run, and then you remember the critical tenet of Feelingsball: Act like every high point in the game is simply Sisyphus reaching the top of the hill. The rock will roll down. Back up you will go. This should be impossible, but impossible always happens here. Kentucky will do their usual, as will Tennessee.

The most cathartic, signature moment of a game is not a made shot, or a block, or anything normal at all, but a hard-hat lunch pail rebound by a 6’3″ Uruguayan shooting specialist despite being boxed out by a pair of Kentucky players that are 6’7″ and 6’9″. If you could name a stronger, more perfect signature moment of the Rick Barnes era, I would like to hear it. It is absurd, and it is real, and it is beautiful, and it is Tennessee.

And then they win, and then you briefly allow yourself to think that This Is Real. Tennessee got to sit and watch the previously-assumed conference title favorite Arkansas go down to that mid-50s Texas A&M team, who gets to build their NCAA Tournament case on a national scale. The odds, more or less, have never been better. But then 2009 pops back into your head. It can’t actually be real, because it’s never been real in my life. The Feelingsball Team, the one that was born of the mud and drags all opponents into the mud with them, may be incredibly fun. After 43 years, or 28ish for me, you just have to see it to believe it.

All this team had to do was see it and believe it for 40 minutes on a Sunday in March. They were able to when mere peons like me could not. They saw 11-5, 2-3 SEC and laughed in its face. The SEC kept sending its best and brightest to Knoxville to attempt to pull off road victories, and every challenger failed. Then when Tennessee got to head south for a weekend, they took on the conference’s assumed best team and stuffed their top-10 offense in a locker for the entire game. They drew Texas A&M, a team that had played at the level of the 8th-best in America (per Torvik) over its last ten games, and blended their offense into a fine paste with burgundy tones. At game’s end, I thought about wishing my grandfather could’ve made it another month to see it, but his afterlife broadcast of the game was not interrupted by Xfinity and did not include the wire camera angle. Even better.

This Tennessee team has been telling anyone who will listen for two, three, even four months that they are legitimate. That they can do things no team has ever done in the history of the program. That they are capable of creating memories fans and followers believed impossible. Tennessee is two seed upsets away from the Final Four, and only one KenPom upset out of it potentially against a team they’ve already beaten. The prospects of something unforeseen no longer feel like attempting to see clearly through a kaleidoscope. The metrics are there to tell you that it’s okay to feel these feelings:

That’s since January 16, one day after the Rupp blowout, one day after it all felt meaningless. These kids believed it was far from meaningless; it was merely the start of a new season to them. They deserve it all. They gave us the good feelings, and turned it into something people have been waiting over four decades for. It’s worth letting America in on the secret.

Notes section and whatnot:

  • Tshiebwe handled. Tshiebwe against Tennessee, including the Rupp demolition: 9 & 12, 15 & 15, 13 & 11. For a guy who averaged 20 & 15 over the final month-plus of the season, Tennessee was able to figure out how to slow down the National Player of the Year consistently across all three matches. Along with that, Tennessee is the only team to foul out Tshiebwe this season. God bless Mike Schwartz.
  • Star status. Kennedy Chandler this weekend: 14.7 PPG, 5 APG, four steals, and six threes. That’s the closest thing Tennessee has had to a #1 option since Grant Williams departed.
  • THE HOTTEST SHOOTING TEAM IN AMERICA. Or something like it: Tennessee is shooting 39.2% from three over the last two months. The only team among the top four seed lines that’s outshot them in that time is Gonzaga, who is at 39.3%. This is legitimately one of the scariest deep-shooting teams out there. Tennessee!
  • Another team turned to wet mud. Tennessee played this Texas A&M team on February 1 and gave up 1.121 PPP; give Mike Schwartz and Rick Barnes a second-chance and they will twist the knife. A&M went for 0.798 PPP and that was a significant improvement over their halftime pace of 0.667 PPP.
  • Shooting variance goes your way. Teams shot 12-for-56 (21.4%) against Tennessee from deep in Tampa, which is fine. I think it’s good to cash in your luck when you need it most. I don’t think teams (especially Longwood, who is bizarrely efficient from deep on relatively few shots) will be quite that consistently bad against Tennessee, but against a potential second round opponent like Michigan, whose entire season has been “did you hit shots or didn’t you,” seems like it plays in Tennessee’s favor.
  • That being said… Almost none of the shots Kellan Grady or Davion Mintz attempted Saturday had any space at all; I find it no real surprise that they combined to go 0-for-8 from deep. They were off-balance the entire game.
  • Potential new rotation. Rick Barnes mostly went with seven guys on Sunday, eschewing Aidoo for all but three minutes. I ran a study for a D-1 staffer last summer that showed the average rotation size (8+ MPG) of Sweet 16 or further teams was 7.64 players. If Tennessee can be comfortable at eight, I think that’s optimal; you can extend to nine if you have foul trouble or something.
  • Longwood. Preview up Thursday morning. I think a podcast with Jon Reed and Seth Hughes is being scheduled. Not sure about other duties, but they could happen depending on variables.
  • Bracket stuff. Tuesday.
  • The thread title comes from “Donna Said” by Pardoner, a pleasant and pretty good rock song of no great consequence other than the fact the main riff is excellent. I would describe it as a toe-tapper.

Thanks for reading along this season; I hope March never ends. More coming, and if you would like me to be on your podcast or website or something, email statsbywill at gmail dot com.

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

23-11, 9-9 SEC, #42 KenPom
LOCATION Amalie Arena
Tampa, FL
TIME Sunday, March 13
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -6.5
KenPom: Tennessee -7

Torvik: Tennessee -5.5


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

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

Texas A&M offense

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

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


Texas A&M defense

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

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

How Tennessee matches up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starters + rotations

Three things to watch for

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

Key matchups

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

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

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

Three predictions

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

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

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

Torvik: Kentucky -1.1

You again. You again!!!!

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

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

Kentucky’s offense

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

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


Kentucky’s defense

Same as above. Two previews linked here; updates:

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

How Tennessee matches up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starters + rotations

Three things to watch for

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

Key matchups

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

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

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

Three predictions

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

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

OPPONENT Mississippi State
18-14, 8-10 SEC, #44 KenPom
18-15, 8-10 SEC, NIT runner-up 2020-21
LOCATION Amalie Arena
Tampa, FL
TIME Friday, March 11
Dane Bradshaw (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -8
KenPom: Tennessee -6

Torvik: Tennessee -6.2

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

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

Mississippi State’s offense

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

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

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

Mississippi State’s defense

First preview is linked here. Updates:

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

How Tennessee matches up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starters + rotations

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

Three things to watch for

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

Key matchups

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

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

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

Three predictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where does Tennessee stand at this moment?

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

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

How does the SEC Tournament affect this?

We’ll cover a variety of different scenarios here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Tennessee goes 1-1, losing to Kentucky

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

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

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

3. Tennessee goes 1-1, losing to Alabama

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Tennessee wins the SEC Tournament.

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

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

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

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

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

Who do you think Tennessee is most likely to draw?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Region (34)

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

South Region (34)

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

Midwest (lol) Region (34)

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

East Region (34)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where will Tennessee be headed for the first two rounds?

I’ll repost the chart I did last time.

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

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

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

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

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

Some brief comments:

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

How does the mess you typed out affect Tennessee?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything else?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arkansas offense

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

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


Arkansas defense

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

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

How Tennessee matches up

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

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

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

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

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

Starters + rotations

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

Three things to watch for

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

Key matchups

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

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

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

Three predictions

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