Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Auburn

Last year in February, before the world ended and we all realized we live in something entirely different now, I wrote a spirit-of-the-moment article about how 22-2 Auburn was an incredibly lucky team heading for a downturn. It was written after thinking early that morning about how much people don’t seem to think about luck in close games. In a season where Auburn was 10-0 at the time in games decided by six points or less, it seemed worth exploring.

Since I published that article, Auburn is 4-7 in games decided by six or fewer and, unfortunately for them, 14-17 overall. I think this is at least partially my fault and definitely no one else’s for cheating or anything.

Game information:

  • THE OPPONENT: Auburn (11-13, 5-10).
  • THE TIME: 12 PM ET.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: Beth Mowins (PBP) and Dalen Cuff (color).
  • THE SPREAD: Not up yet. KenPom has Tennessee -4, Torvik Tennessee -3.3. Obviously, this is riding on Sharife Cooper’s status.

Click below to get ahead to a certain section:

NEXT PAGE: Please win

Show Me My Opponent: Auburn (#2)

Here we are: after four-plus months of hot basketball action, we have finally arrived at the very end. Here is how I thought it would go:

And here is how all of those ended up going:

  • Record prediction: most likely 18-13, 10-8 SEC play
  • Team MVP: All-SEC John Fulkerson
  • NCAAT? check back next Sunday
  • Record vs. Florida/Kentucky: 2-1!
  • Pick 2 Click: I think we have to go Fulk here, yeah? Maybe Yves Pons?
  • Most Important Non-SEC Game: It actually ended up being the home Memphis game, but not for the reasons anyone expected. This is now a Quadrant 2 loss because Memphis has politely decided to suck in the 2020 half of 2019-20. The most important win is…probably still Washington? Somehow? Either that or VCU.

So those projections ended up going about 2.5 for 6, I’ll say. We’ll monitor the ones still in play. It’s quite amazing that we’re here even wanting to look at preseason projections, honestly. Seven days ago, when I posted the preview of the Florida game, I included the Press F to Pay Respects meme as the featured image on the article. (I legitimately cannot thank the boomer that asked me “what exactly am I looking at? Do I have to press F to access the article?” You brought so much joy to my Friday.) I, along with most others, figured the season was basically over. This team might beat Florida, it might beat a rapidly declining star in Auburn, but it wasn’t going to win at Rupp.

Until it did.

Now, here we are, entertain us, these Tennessee Volunteers can get themselves back onto the NCAA bubble – not even the NIT one, y’all – with a win over an Auburn team that was 22-2 three weeks ago. What a world.

NEXT PAGE: I can’t link it because my grandparents read these but I very nearly made the @dril “Holy Mackerel” tweet the featured image.

Show Me My Opponent: Auburn (#1)

Since the schedule was first announced, this is the part of the season I think pretty much everyone’s been anxious about: The Stretch. At one point of the offseason, The Stretch looked like it might contain four games against KenPom Top 25 teams, with the easy game being a road trip to Arkansas, a place Tennessee never wins at. I advocated that Tennessee really needed to rack up as many conference wins as possible to feel okay about making the NCAA Tournament prior to this stretch.

Here we are, at the start of The Stretch, and in a way, it’s both better and worse. Better because, for Tennessee, almost every non-Arkansas opponent turned out to be either marginally or seriously worse than expected. Auburn may be 22-4, but they rank #35 in KenPom because they’ve been hilariously lucky in close games. Arkansas is the only surprisingly good team, and yet they’re still the slightest opponent left at #48. Florida…genuinely, if you can help me figure out what they are, I’d appreciate it. Kentucky is the best team in the SEC, which is good enough to be #28 overall.

There are no KenPom Top 25 teams in The Stretch. That’s excellent. What’s not excellent is that Tennessee has only racked up seven conference wins to this point in a season where they really needed eight or more to feel good about this. Two games in particular will sit poorly with the players and staff if they can’t turn it around in these five games: the 63-58 home loss to a terrible Texas A&M squad and last weekend’s two-point road loss to South Carolina. The second of those is far less offensive to me than dropping a home decision to a team that has lost to Harvard, Temple, and Fairfield.

It’s all in the past now. Tennessee can rectify those games by winning one more game than they’re expected to. Both KenPom and Torvik anticipate Tennessee finishing the season 2-3 in these five games. That would add at least one Quadrant 1 win, which brings Tennessee to three on the season…or the same number as 21-6 Saint Mary’s, which is not good when you’ll end up playing six more Q1 opponents than they will. If Tennessee can get to four, that gets them onto the bubble. It’s that simple. Can Tennessee actually Do It? We’ll see.

NEXT PAGE: Taking Tiger mountain (by strategy)

Close games, luck vs. skill, and why Auburn and Washington are closer than you’d think

In between missing several corner threes at the gym Thursday morning, I posted this on Twitter:

While sitting on the toilet at my day job about three hours later, I posted this:

These results are similar, yet different. It leads me to three separate conclusions:

  1. I would consider this one of the more successful and useful uses of my personally-limited iPhone Screen Time.
  2. That said, the word “decree” is pretty melodramatic. Who thought of this word? Why do we need it?
  3. We treat winning and losing close games a bit differently. If we win, there appears to be slightly more luck involved; if we lose, we did not have enough skill to get us over the top. Also, there was luck involved.

The two test cases for this were Auburn and Washington. By a pure W-L standard, the two teams are having fairly similar seasons in games decided by 7+ points. Auburn is 12-3; Washington is 11-5. In these games, Auburn is averaging a +12.7 point differential; Washington, +8.3. Generally, we would draw from this that Auburn is a better team than Washington, though it’s only about a four-point gap. That’s almost exactly what KenPom says, as they have Auburn as about 4.5 points better on a neutral court before you factor in tempo.

Given that we also know that Auburn and Washington have each played 10 games decided by 6 points or fewer, we would guess that their final W-L records are fairly close. Since Auburn’s point differential in 7+ point games is higher, they would most likely go 6-4 in their close games. Washington, meanwhile, would go about 5-5 with a nearly equal chance at 4-6. If these were true, you would expect Auburn’s overall record to be 18-7, with Washington at either 17-9 or 16-10. Auburn’s better, of course, but the gap is very small.

Of course, that’s not why you’re here. Auburn is 10-0 in games decided by six points or fewer; Washington is 1-9. Overall, this lends the two teams very disparate records: Auburn is 22-3, Washington 12-14. Clearly, Auburn has the Clutch Factor, the all-important Experience (4 seniors in their main lineup, along with a senior sixth man), the Vince Young “he just wins games” argument on their side. If you ask any SEC-based talking head, Auburn Plays the Right Way. They Make the Plays That Matter. They are LeBron, except for all the times LeBron has missed a game-winning shot.

Washington, meanwhile, clearly does things wrong. How else do you explain a 1-9 record in close games? Clearly, their rotation full of freshmen and sophomores just isn’t ready to win. They have no clutch players. Their skill level, despite having three possible first round NBA Draft picks, is just not high enough to win. Luck? What’s luck when you can’t trust anyone on your roster to make shots that matter?

If we’re taking those poll results honestly, we’ve thankfully moved past the stage where the majority of viewers are fully Team Luck or Team Skill. There is an inherent skill in winning close games in certain sports – ask Dabo Swinney or Urban Meyer about their gaudy records in one-score games in college football. Heck, the names you would expect to lead a “records in close games list” lead said list: Bill Self, Mark Few, Jim Boeheim, Dana Altman, Steve Fisher, etc. These are objectively great coaches.

But how do we settle the fact that coaches we also greatly respect, like Billy Donovan, Bob Huggins, Frank Martin, Gregg Marshall, and others, are either right at or below .500 in close games for their career? Were they simply outcoached and outclassed in those losses? Maybe. But that can’t be the excuse every time; otherwise, we would begin to convince ourselves that Andrew Toole – 72-48 in close games at Robert Morris, the highest WP% in basketball – is the most underrated coaching prospect in America. Clearly, Mr. Toole – who I don’t doubt is pretty good at what he does – learned something from going 12-15 in close games from 2015-17 to go 5-2 this year.

The answer to the initial question I proposed, I think, is probably “a bit of both.” Just like in most sports, the better team in a game is probably slightly more likely to win a one- or two-possession game. However, that isn’t always the case. The better team doesn’t win every game, regardless of final margin. Sometimes, weird stuff happens. That’s where luck comes in. It can come in for both the losing and winning team, just like luck could propel a lesser team to defeat a better one.

Anyway, this isn’t meant to be an end-all, be-all answer. I obviously believe Auburn’s a better team than Washington. I obviously think they’ve got greater upside. However: I think we look at close games, particularly in terms of wins and losses, in a very odd manner. I don’t think Auburn possesses some sort of magical clutch gene, just like I don’t think Washington possesses an evil voodoo doll gene. To be honest, I value games like Auburn’s blowout loss to KenPom #103 Missouri on Saturday the exact same as I do their one-point double-overtime win against Ole Miss. If we all agree to stop giving outsized importance to one or two-possession games and agree to value a team as a whole, I think we’ll be well on our way to a much better, smarter coverage of basketball.