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