Obligatory Post About How Losing Shorthanded to Alabama is Okay But It Raises the Exact Same Questions Yet Again

This is the seventh in a series of weekly recaps surrounding the 2021-22 Tennessee men’s basketball season.

December 29: #19 Alabama 73, #14 Tennessee 68 (9-3, 0-1 SEC)

Ah, this is how I know it’s basketball season. Not the first loss; not the second; not even the big wins. Not the upsets. Not the amazing buzzer-beaters that make up year-end YouTube videos. Nope: it’s the close, crushing loss when your team is shorthanded that somehow finds the only way imaginable to leave you annoyed and angry.

The staring into the middle distance, the “why didn’t Rick Barnes do this? Why did he do that?” feeling, the wondering why you stayed up until 11:20 PM when you have a 6:45 AM alarm. It’s all back, baby! College basketball! Didn’t you miss it? Didn’t it give you the life you thought you were missing? Or am I simply late to the party on realizing that, in some way, I also have developed Football Mindset?

Objectively speaking, losing by five points to the #19 team on the road when you’re down two of the team’s three best players is not a bad result. Even though neither site adjusts for absences, even the metrics sites are fairly impressed by Tennessee’s efforts; Bart Torvik’s Game Score metric gave Tennessee an 88, which is a good result even before you consider Tennessee led for 28 of a possible 40 minutes. For large portions of this affair, Tennessee controlled the flow of the game, dominated defensively, and forced Alabama into difficult threes that sort of exposed the Alabama Problem: if you stop the flow of points in the paint, you slow down the offense as a whole.

All of that is good and fine. Tennessee held its ninth-straight opponent under one point per possession, which is a streak that’s now a game short of the KenPom-era program record of 10 consecutive sub-1 PPP games (2013-14). They won the turnover battle again. They got to the free throw line a lot. In the absence of Kennedy Chandler and John Fulkerson, Santiago Vescovi and Olivier Nkamhoua stepped up and played very good, very useful games. (Honorable mention to Zakai Zeigler, who wasn’t great on offense but held up much better than I would’ve anticipated on D.)

Again, objectively speaking, Tennessee put up a really good effort against what I anticipate is one of the 20 or so best teams in America in Alabama. Tennessee had multiple chances in the final minute of this game to tie or take the lead and simply didn’t come through; you can imagine that a full-strength Tennessee gets better shots throughout the game and potentially comes home with a surprise road W. We’ll never know, because I guess COVID will never end.

The problem is that it’s hard to be objective when the game unfolds in two particular ways:

  1. Tennessee leads by six points with four minutes to go;
  2. Tennessee spends the vast majority of the final 20% of this game with Victor Bailey, Jr. on the court instead of Justin Powell.

The first point here is a catch-22. At the start of the game, I would have adored any scenario that ended in “Tennessee leads by six points with four minutes to go” because that felt pretty unlikely even with a full-strength roster. Tennessee was certainly aided by what was an outlier of a poor shooting night from Alabama, sure, but they were winning the shot volume battle and seemed to win many of the 50/50 plays. You could easily talk yourself into the ‘toughness’ cliche.

The second is the one that’s going to be talked about the rest of the season. The first image here is Victor Bailey’s 2021-22 On/Off numbers:

The second is Justin Powell’s.

For reasons that I cannot entirely parse, Bailey was the player who got the majority of the run down the stretch of this game as Tennessee’s offense seized up and Powell sat on the bench, quietly watching. To the credit of local media, Rick Barnes was asked to rationalize his choice. I can’t say I’m pleased by the answer.

Justin Powell is not a good on-ball defender. I have half a season of Auburn data and half a season of Tennessee data to say that’s almost certainly the truth. The defense is inarguably worse with him on the court; even though I do not think much of this is Victor Bailey’s doing, the defense is basically break-even with Bailey out there. Whatever, fine, you get your little nitpick win.

But when it comes to the actual effect on the team on the court, Justin Powell is, by any objective measure, the superior option to Victor Bailey. Want to use Net Rating? The team is 15 points better with him on the court over 100 possessions than it is with Bailey. Want to talk offense? The offense is 21 points better with Powell. Three-point shooting? Powell 42% (43% for his career), Bailey 23% (35% career). Individual defensive impact? Bailey and Powell are almost the exact same: a 2.9% Stock% (steals + blocks) for Bailey, 2.6% for Powell. Player that literally just played 26 minutes against the #8 team in America in a win? Justin Powell.

I think this is what sticks. Tennessee played better than I anticipated. They held down Alabama’s offense more than almost any other team has. They forced some surprising guys (Jahvon Quinerly being the main example) into foul trouble. They led for almost three quarters of the game. But you’re sitting there with a 63-57 lead, four or five minutes on the clock, and somehow it never seems to cross anyone’s mind that the lone available guy on the roster who can hit a dagger three to actually bring home the win isn’t on the court.

(Sidebar: I think I’ve had my fill of Tweeting negative things about individual players online. I cannot imagine Victor Bailey, Jr. feels very good today; there is literally zero reason whatsoever for me or anyone else to pile on relentlessly. I say something about Bailey (or Plavsic) (or JJJ) (or anyone at this point) and the replies are a mess of pure garbage. No más. I should’ve remembered the golden rule: Never Tweet.)

So here we are: Tennessee blows a winnable game in a situation where I’m objectively supposed to feel okay but subjectively feel annoyed yet again. Bart Torvik tracks the average lead of every game in America; per his website, this is the 18th time in the Rick Barnes tenure Tennessee has lost a game they led the majority of, with ten of those coming since the start of 2018. Bruce Pearl, the guy everyone will not let go of, has done that just three times in the last four seasons. Every single season, somewhere between two and four times, Tennessee will lose a game that most agree they really should’ve won.

On the flip side, Tennessee has won fourteen games since 2015-16 where they’ve trailed the majority of the way. (Perhaps you remember the 2020 win at Rupp Arena before the world ended.) When that happens a couple of times this year, it will feel nice. Until Tennessee figures out a way to stop losing these winnable games, these affairs will continue to feel uniquely unsatisfying even when they shouldn’t.

I feel like I’m repeating myself but this is a loss that really doesn’t mean all that much because it is one game in a 35ish-game season and Tennessee literally just beat a top ten team at home. I wrote a whole thing about how Tennessee should be pleased to get out of December with just two losses in the month; they did exactly that. Both losses were close, coin-flip things. They did exactly what the average top 10-15 team should have doneYet, somehow, like always, I find myself frustrated and wondering why X decision didn’t happen or why Z decision did.

In retrospect, I should have remembered one of my favorite images:

Whatever happens, happens. I can’t control it, therefore it is what it is. On to the next one.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Alabama

OPPONENT #19 Alabama (9-3)
(26-7, Sweet 16 in 2020-21)
LOCATION Coleman Coliseum
Tuscaloosa Torture House, AL
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Alabama -2.5
KenPom: Alabama -2

Torvik: Alabama -3.4

On the surface, Tennessee is drawing an Alabama team heading in the opposite direction as itself. Alabama pulled off two of the best wins anyone has had this season by beating Gonzaga and Houston, then proceeded to get blown off the court by a Memphis team no one thinks is great, almost lost to Jacksonville State at home, then did lose to Davidson at home. Tennessee, meanwhile, led a top 10 Arizona team wire-to-wire and is literally an Act of God away from going undefeated over the last month of basketball.

And yet: this is a road game at a top 20 KenPom team that has beaten Gonzaga and Houston and is coached by possibly the brightest young star in college basketball, all while Tennessee has had COVID rumors swirling around it for the last 24-36 hours. Pardon me if I am alarmist.

Continue reading “Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Alabama”

Show Me My SEC Tournament Opponent, 2020-21: Alabama

Well it’s these guys again. I think you may have heard about them over the past two months, perhaps?

It’s worth breaking down just how much has changed since the first and only time Tennessee faced this Alabama team. Heading into January 2, Tennessee sat as the #6 team in KenPom, undefeated and coming off of an absolute destruction of what we thought would be the second-best team in the SEC, Missouri. Alabama was #45, had lost at home to Western Kentucky two weeks prior, and came very close to dropping a mid-December home game to Furman. The Tide had potential, but they didn’t seem to be quite in the same stratosphere as Tennessee at the time.

On March 13, 2021, it’s like everything has flipped. Alabama obviously won that first game, then simply went on to smoke the rest of the SEC (minus Missouri, strangely, and Arkansas) and finished 16-2 in conference play. They’re now #8 on KenPom. Tennessee began to wobble with the Alabama game, fully fell off the table at times, and squeaked out a 10-7 SEC record in one of the most frustrating seasons in program history.

We thought we know a lot in January. We didn’t. The question remaining is this: how much have both teams learned about themselves and each other since then?

Game information:

  • THE OPPONENT: 1 seed Alabama (22-6, 16-2). They defeated 9 seed Mississippi State 85-48 yesterday.
  • THE TIME: 1 PM ET.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: Karl Ravech (PBP) and, yes, Dick Vitale (color).
  • THE SPREAD: Alabama -3.5.

If you’d like to skip ahead to a certain section, click below.

NEXT PAGE: When I have more time, please remind me to write something about how smaller conferences in college basketball mostly do a terrible job of protecting their best teams in the conference tournament. Been on my mind this week!

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Alabama

Look: this university gets literally anything and everything it wants in the football world. Isn’t it nice that they aren’t also elite at basketball?

Five things you need to know:

  • Alabama’s 0-2 against Tier 1 opponents, but 3-1 against Tier 2 opposition.
  • When Alabama tops 1 PPP offensively, they’re 6-0. When they don’t? 0-3.
  • Nate Oats is entering his second year as head coach at Alabama after a nice four-year run as Buffalo’s head coach, which followed an 11-year run as Romulus High School (Michigan)’s head coach.
  • Oats owns three of Buffalo’s four NCAAT appearances, along with their only two NCAAT wins.
  • They are Alabama, and Tennessee is Tennessee.

The below game information section is used to alleviate pressure from Grant Ramey’s mentions.

  • THE OPPONENT: Alabama (6-3).
  • THE TIME: 6 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: ESPN2! Finally!
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -9.5.

If you’d like to click ahead to a certain section, use this menu:

NEXT PAGE: Does Alabama basketball have extremely online fans in the same way Alabama football does?

Show Me My Opponent: Alabama (#2)

Written Tuesday evening:

SEC Tournament season, baby! Are you feeling the fire? Are you feeling the excitement? Do you know that It Just Means More™? With zero teams in KenPom’s top 25 and about four teams you can confidently say are making the NCAA Tournament, I can’t imagine not being full-throated ecstatic over the re-arrival of this thing. SEC basketball is here! 4.5 whole days of it! Man, I’m almost tearing up at the thought of the classics to come. Get ready, y’all.

In all seriousness, I’ve talked about this for a while, but this is the worst SEC in at least seven years and possibly further back. The best team in the pack is pretty clearly Kentucky, a team almost perfectly suited for the 1994 NCAA Tournament, and the teams behind it are all varying shades of gray. 2 seed Auburn spent the first three months of the season exhausting its entire supply of luck before crash-landing over the final three weeks. (Still beat Tennessee twice, of course.) 3 seed LSU had the best offense in conference play and paired it with the 12th-best defense. Mississippi State, South Carolina, Florida, Texas A&M…other than Florida, who amazingly will be in the Field of 68, will you remember anything these teams did in a week?

Anyway, that leads us to our 8 and 9 seeds: Tennessee and Alabama. They’ve already played once, with Tennessee completing a wild and objectively very funny double-digit road comeback to beat the Tide. This Tennessee team is young and hyper-flawed, and yet they’re capable of that. Alabama, likewise, is a very young team that can be as fun as anyone in America some nights, yet simply opted to not participate in the NCAA Tournament after it arrived on the horizon as a serious possibility in late January.

One season is going to end earlier than the fanbase involved would have hoped or really imagined two months back. The other season will be extended until at least Friday, where the most likely outcome is a defeat at the hands of a team that hasn’t cracked the KenPom top 20 in nearly two months. Next year will be quite a bit better for both schools.

Written Thursday morning:

Are we sure we should be playing this game?

NEXT PAGE: Wash your hands

Show Me My Opponent: Alabama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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