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.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Arkansas, Part One

OPPONENT #23 Arkansas
20-6, 10-4 SEC, #22 KenPom
25-7, 13-4 SEC, Elite Eight 2020-21
LOCATION Springfield Mystery Spot
Fayetteville, AR
TIME Saturday, February 19
Dane Bradshaw (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: Tennessee -1
Torvik: Arkansas -0.9

It just feels pretty good man. Tennessee essentially needed to leave this week no worse than 1-1 to keep pace for the SEC 2 seed and for a top-three NCAA Tournament seed. All you had to do was win one. You got the one, and now you can travel into the Fayetteville House of Horrors For Anyone Not Named Arkansas with house money and a relatively clean mindset.

The opponent is Arkansas, who looked dead in the water in mid-January and has instead risen from the ashes to become the consensus fourth-best team in the SEC. All three years under Musselman, they’ve had like a five-game span of suck and the rest is somewhere between good and great. Even better: this year, I’ll actually pick them in a bracket.

Arkansas’ offense

Well, I’m not sure what to tell you? Arkansas’ season is a tale of two not-quite-halves that I’m calling halves: the first 16 games where they rotated through eight different starting lineups thanks to injuries and poor play, followed by the last 10 games where they’ve stuck with a starting lineup and gone 9-1. The problem is that this matters a lot more for defense than offense (numbers via Torvik):

  • First 16 games: 48th overall, 48th offense, 69th defense
  • Last 10 games: 11th overall, 108th offense, 1st defense

So yeah, don’t know what to say other than just ride with the season-long numbers and hope it makes sense.

You can pretty neatly divide the Arkansas offensive attack into two halves as well: the primary break (transition) and the secondary break (half-court). You can also do this for literally every college basketball offense in existence, but bear with me. Arkansas’s aim off of a missed basket or turnover is to push the pace as much as possible. Per Hoop-Math, 31.8% of the Hogs’ first shot attempts in a possession are in the first ten seconds of the shot clock, which ranks 41st-quickest in the nation. Most of Arkansas’ offense is driven in general by J.D. Notae (18.8 PPG, 3.5 APG), but especially in transition, where he’s responsible for 108 shots this year, 42 more than anyone else on the team.

If you just look at the Synergy data, then both parts of this offense look good. Arkansas is in the 76th-percentile of offensive efficiency when pushing the pace; they’re in the 56th-percentile in half-court. That happens. But Hoop-Math is more objective when it comes to transition: either it’s in the first ten seconds of the shot clock or it isn’t. And that’s where the story begins to be told:

  • Transition eFG%: 58.1% (#65 of 358)
  • Half-court eFG%: 46.8% (#276 of 358)

Whenever the pace slows and Arkansas is forced to run their secondary actions, the offense turns to mush. That alone may explain how Arkansas has managed to get hot at the right time despite an offense that’s gotten significantly worse over a 9-1 stretch of play. The shot selection changes as well. Normally, that’s not something to care much about – every team’s shot selection gets worse the deeper the shot clock goes – but Arkansas is a bizarre extreme in this:

  • Transition: 48.2% of FGA at rim, 17.1% mid, 34.8% 3PA
  • All half-court: 33.8% rim, 32.8% mid, 33.4% 3PA
  • 25+ second possessions: 22% rim, 40.7% mid, 37.3% 3PA

Arkansas goes from Gonzaga in transition to Gonzaga 40 years ago deep in the shot clock. It’s bizarre, because Notae is the leader of both breaks, and Notae’s shooting gap on the rest of the roster actually grows in half-court (295 FGAs; next-closest 177). Notae’s problem is that he defaults to a jumper on 58% of his half-court possessions when…well, he’s kind of a below-average shooter.

Notae is 31.6% from deep this year on 177 attempts and a perfectly average 33.3% on 640 attempts for his career; he takes a ton of difficult shots and rarely gets off a clean look. He kind of has to, because as a whole, this Arkansas offense is light on jump shooters. Synergy ranks the Hogs in the 10th-percentile in jump-shooting in half-court offense, which is, you know, putrid. It helps the numbers in the graphic make sense: 31.4% from deep, a terrible hit rate, and 33.6% on two-point jumpers.

Arkansas has three other guys that average between 10.2 and 11.4 points per game: Stanley Umude (11.4), Au’Diese Toney (10.3), and Jaylin Williams (Not Auburn’s Jaylin Williams) (10.2). All three have their own strengths; to highlight the latter two, Toney is a lower-usage guy that’s terrific at scoring down low via basket cuts and some drives, while Williams (NAJW) is a big that posts up some but most frequently features in ball-screens with Notae.

Umude is the most interesting and versatile of the three. The South Dakota transfer has 40 or more makes at the rim, non-rim twos, and on threes. Is he particularly elite at any of them? Uh…not really! But he’s at least good at most forms of offense. Also, he’s annoyingly good at mid-range twos; prepare yourself for a couple that go down at some point.

Others: Chris Lykes (8.7 PPG) transferred in from Miami and is a horrific shooter that nonetheless will somehow get to 8 points. Davonte Davis (8.7 PPG) was the hero of last year’s Elite Eight run, but he’s struggled to follow that up; he’s at 26.4% on threes and has really only added value by driving to the rim. Everyone else, including Slenderman Connor Vanover, is at 4.2 PPG or lower.

CHART! The official Chart Guide is now as follows:

Yes: “Be afraid.” 😬
Somewhat: “They can hit this but not very efficiently.” 🤔
No: “Either never attempts this shot or is atrocious at making it.” 🥳

Arkansas’ defense

Unfortunately, this is the side of the ball that’s completely turned the Razorbacks’ season around. As mentioned in the offensive section, this has been the best defense in America over the course of the last month of play. Two things have driven this turnaround: a lot of forced turnovers and a terrific two-point defense turning up the heat.

Strangely enough, I don’t think Arkansas has changed that much structurally. It’s just that they seem to be working as a cohesive unit, investing a ton of effort on defense to ensure that the opponent is uncomfortable for all 30 seconds of the shot clock. This is a hyper-aggressive style of play that’s naturally going to commit some fouls, but the rewards are pretty obvious when things work out.

In this 10-game stretch, Arkansas has forced turnovers on 22.4% of opponent possessions, the 22nd-highest rate in that span. Notae is unsurprisingly a hound on that end, but a guy who’s taken a big step forward year-over-year is Jaylin Williams. Williams was promising last year, but he ran hot and cold depending on the night. His defense, particularly his dominance on the boards and in creating havoc plays, has helped turn this Arkansas defense as a unit into something special.

But, yeah: as a whole, this team has only given up a 43.6% hit rate on twos across their last ten games. Part of this is just that effort we’re talking about, but such effort has led to a worse shot selection for opponents. The share of three-point attempts by Arkansas opponents has fallen from 43.5% of all shots in non-conference play to 36.4% in the SEC. They’re running shooters off the line, and as mentioned in the Kentucky preview, this is the defense forcing the highest amount of runners/floaters in the SEC. The actual around-the-basket finishing rate for Razorback competition is around the national average, but they’re doing a great job of forcing shots from 6-9 feet that aren’t going down.

Along with that, the rate of shots at the rim has held steady, and the overall shot quality for Arkansas opponents has dropped dramatically. That’s how you produce a mid-season turnaround that’s turned Arkansas from a bubble team to a legitimate 6 or 7 seed no one hopes to draw come Selection Sunday.

And yet: it’s time to bring our old friend, the Regression Devil, back for another round. We last talked to him before the home battle with LSU, showing that LSU was beyond due for some massive three-point defense regression. The Tigers were holding opponents to about a 27% hit rate from deep; the expected hit rate was 34%. From that game onward, LSU has allowed a 33.5% 3PT% defensively. Regression, positive or negative, will eventually come for everyone.

That’s about the only flaw I can point out with this Arkansas defense: they’re probably due for an opponent heater from three. Over the last ten games, opponents have hit just 28.3% of their threes. To the Razorbacks’ credit, they’ve done a terrific job keeping the ball out of the corners, as just 21% of threes have been there. Still: of 138 catch-and-shoot threes allowed since January 15, 74 (53%) have been deemed Unguarded, per Synergy. The hit rate on these has been just 32.4%, nearly 5% below what would be expected of an average team.

It’s simply hard to see that holding, but the problem is that opponents are only getting off 13.8 catch-and-shoot threes per game over the last month of play. We’re talking about, like, one extra made three per game. This is a legitimately excellent defense now.

How Tennessee matches up

If those Arkansas last-10 numbers worry you, think about it this way: across Tennessee’s last ten games, they’ve had the 8th-best offense in America, adjusted for opponent. What’s strange about it is that they’ve actually struggled to hit twos (46.3%, or 283rd-best), but basically everything else is good: 39.6% from deep, a national-average offensive TO%, 34.1% OREB% (35th-best), and a top-100 free throw rate. Even if they cool off from downtown, which seems fairly likely, they could make up for it by just being more efficient down low.

As noted by the average finishing rate opponents have had against Arkansas, I think there’s some gold to be struck here. It’s not like you’re playing Georgia or whoever, but you can score in the paint with the correct timing against this group. Per Synergy, Arkansas ranks in the 11th-percentile in defending basket cuts. That’s pretty wild for a team that’s so good defensively otherwise, but when you’re as aggressive as they are, you can extend out too far and allow a passing lane to open for two easy points. Case in point:

Likewise, as mentioned, Arkansas has been terrific over the last month-plus at running shooters off the three-point line. I expect they’ll hound Santiago Vescovi throughout this one in an attempt to limit what Tennessee’s best deep shooter can do. The way I would counteract this is with a single-big lineup – four guards/wings, one center. Arkansas can run Vescovi off, but if everybody’s running everybody off, you either have a driving lane to the basket or a wide-open shooter somewhere else. Given the Guarded/Unguarded split Arkansas has posted both in conference play and season-long, I would use this to my advantage to give guys a chance to hit some open shots. Keep the ball moving.

At the risk of saying this will be…uh, “easier” defensively, it will be easier defensively than having to keep a Player of the Year contender off the boards. Arkansas’s offense is the less fearful unit of the two by a significant margin, and generally, the goal is just to make them hit jumpers. If you can stop or at least limit the transition game as much as you did against Kentucky, the Razorback half-court offense isn’t terribly impressive and goes cold for long stretches of game time.

A key thing I’m looking for: how well can you limit drives to the basket? Arkansas doesn’t do much in the way of post-ups, and the team’s two leaders in attempts at the rim are Notae and Toney, neither of whom play a frontcourt position. Notae in particular is willing to pull up for floaters; again, Tennessee did a great job of encouraging that on Tuesday. If you’re able to hold Arkansas to 20 or fewer attempts at the rim, you’re doing the best you can to ensure a victory.

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

  • Turnovers. Arkansas has only lost the turnover battle in seven games this season; three of those were losses. Tennessee’s won the TO% battle in four in a row and five of six.
  • Who gets more from their bench? Oddly specific, but a potential area of success for Tennessee. In their last two SEC losses, Arkansas got a total of 29 bench points on 7-for-36 shooting.
  • Shooting. Duh! It’s basketball, after all. Arkansas is a perfect 14-0 when their opponent posts a 49% eFG% or worse and 6-6 otherwise; Tennessee is 15-1 when going for 49% or higher.

Key matchups

JD Notae vs. Kennedy Chandler. The deciding matchup. Even in games Arkansas has lost, Notae has shot well and kept the team in it. Chandler must bring it defensively for all 40 minutes.

Jaylin Williams vs. John Fulkerson. Alternately, a huge cluster of centers versus Jaylin Williams. As many as five different guys could get this matchup, and Jonas Aidoo certainly looks promising, but Fulkerson is likely to get the most minutes against the Razorbacks’ second-best player, who is terrific on D.

Au’Diese Toney vs. Santiago Vescovi. Josiah-Jordan James will start out with this matchup, but if Tennessee follows what they’ve followed for two weeks now, Vescovi will close. Toney does not jump out as an especially notable defender; Vescovi, unless double teamed, may shake loose for some open ones.

Three predictions

  1. I get a McDonald’s chicken biscuit, possibly two, on Saturday morning;
  2. Tennessee leads for over half the game before Bud Walton Arena happens;
  3. Arkansas 70, Tennessee 68.

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Arkansas

Hogs hogs hogs hogs hogs. Hogs!

As disappointing as Tennessee’s Saturday was, you could make the case Arkansas had an equally disappointing outing. The Razorbacks entered their second SEC game 9-0, having beaten Auburn by double-digits on the road earlier in the week, and drew a Missouri team Tennessee had just demolished days prior. It was all setting up for Arkansas to make their case as, at worst, the second-best team in the SEC.

Then the game started, Arkansas could barely buy a bucket despite being dominant in terms of shot volume, Missouri hit just enough shots to stay in front the whole way, and a golden opportunity for Eric Musselman’s team was blown, 81-68. Now, the SEC race is as muddled as it can possibly be (as long as you still assume Tennessee is the favorite, of course). As many as five teams have a legitimate shot to be the 2 seed, which means a team like Arkansas will probably finish anywhere from 2nd to 6th in the conference and it’ll be entirely dependent on how many close games they can steal. I’m excited to see how that goes; hopefully Tennessee stays above the fray.

Five things to know about the Arkansas Razorbacks:

  • They have played just one KenPom Top 50 team; that was Missouri, who they lost to.
  • Like last year, Arkansas ran roughshod over a very weak non-conference schedule, with the toughest opponent either being #102 North Texas (69-54 win) or #113 Abilene Christian (85-72 win). There’s nothing wrong with demolishing bad teams, of course, and that’s generally a good sign. But considering Arkansas did the same thing last year only to crap out in SEC play, it’s worth holding out.
  • Arkansas only has one player in their rotation who was on the team last year: Desi Sills.
  • Four freshmen play for Arkansas, as do five transfers. Literally the rotation is 90% new, which both speaks volumes about the fact Musselman has them in the KenPom Top 40 and also makes me wonder if that’s a sustainable system at all. (He did something very similar with his final two teams at Nevada.)
  • Arkansas and Tennessee are two of just three teams in America to rank in the top 25 in both offensive TO% and OREB%. (Iowa is the third.)

Below is a game information section, which should relieve some pressure from various beat writers’ mentions:

  • THE OPPONENT: Arkansas (9-1, 1-1).
  • THE TIME: 7 PM ET.
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -7.

Click below to skip ahead to a certain section:

NEXT PAGE: (withholding comment about famous Arkansas alumni)

Show Me My Opponent: Arkansas (#2)

Man, whatever. It happened. Who cares.

This Tennessee team was never going to be as good as the top 20 KenPom ranking it received in preseason. It was never going to be on the level some thought it may be after the blowout win over Washington. There was no point in time in which I thought Tennessee would be any better than, like, a 7-9 seed. A lot of this is based on the roster Rick Barnes constructed, but whatever.

I’m sort of done talking about this season, to be honest. It is what it is, and next season is going to be much, much better. Rick Barnes is not Mike White, and I really have confidence that he is not going to blow a top 10 roster in the same fashion. Watching Florida has been a serious chore this year, though that’s for Saturday’s preview to discuss. Anyway, we are here, here is Arkansas.

For two months, this Arkansas team was the story of the SEC. A 12-1 start with wins over Georgia Tech and Indiana wasn’t perfect, obviously, but this looked like a group destined for an 8/9 seed in March, which would have been serious improvement over the 2018-19 NIT squad. For year one of Eric Musselman’s tenure to end like that…well, everyone would’ve been thrilled. This squad isn’t deep at all, and there’s tons of flaws, but you can’t ever fault their effort.

Unfortunately, #grit doesn’t always win out. In fact, #grit has taken lots of Ls lately. Arkansas is 5-9 since that 12-1 start, with the best win being a road squeaker over Alabama. They’ve fallen out of the NCAA Tournament field entirely, now being listed on Bracket Matrix as one of the First Four Out. (Oh, to be in such a luxurious position! It must feel nice.) Nothing is trending right for Arkansas – welcome to the club! – and all the goodwill of November and December feels lost. Did I mention that Tennessee and Arkansas fans should be best friends at this point?

NEXT PAGE: Musselman’s approval rating is still very high, though

Show Me My Opponent: Arkansas (#1)

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

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

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

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

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