Neon Swag Surf Evangelion

I can’t pinpoint when I first noticed it; maybe it’s one of those things that just suddenly existed one day. The type of thing that has only existed for a little while but feels like it’s been around for my entire life. I was completely baffled by this at first because, well, it shouldn’t make much sense on its face. It’s sort of like how Michigan (and Cincinnati before them) adopted a 2019 remix of a 2004 club song, or maybe the St. Louis Blues having their Stanley Cup Final run soundtracked by, of all things, “Gloria”.

I am, of course, referencing the fad known as Swag Surfin’.

That video is from January 2016, which is an HBCU-led rendition of a song from 2009 by a group called the Fast Life Yungstaz. (Please know and understand that I have rarely felt more aware of my whiteness than this exact moment.) At the time, this was a semi-hit: peaking at #62 on the Hot 100, I think I remember hearing it on the radio a time or two. I graduated high school in 2011, college in 2015, and do not remember this song being a part of any sporting event I attended. It’s to the point that until finally giving in and Googling “Swag Surfin'” two weeks ago, I realized that for nearly 13 years I thought this song was by Soulja Boy.

The HBCU portion of this research seems important. All of the earliest videos I’m able to find of this are at HBCUs: Clark Atlanta/Morehouse/Spelman in 2013; Howard University in 2015; Winston-Salem State in 2016. Some on Twitter swear that this is an Atlanta thing first, which makes sense because F.L.Y. were Atlantans. Whatever it may be, at some point, this made the jump from HBCUs and Black culture to American culture as a whole.

Willie Taggart, a Black man who coached Oregon’s football team for precisely one season, brought Swag Surfin’ to Oregon in 2017. Then it made it to Michigan State, then Auburn, and a variety of other football stadiums. I cannot find proof of it making it to a basketball arena until March 2018, when, unsurprisingly, Auburn adopted it. I suppose that over a four-year span, only interrupted by a global pandemic, Swag Surfin’ has ensconced itself as its own pandemic: a happy accident to a 13-year-old song previously only treasured by Atlantans and those who made the song what it is in the first place.

All of this to say that I didn’t get it for the longest time. Admittedly, part of this is because I really did think it was a Soulja Boy song. (I would like to offer a defense for myself here. Soulja Boy has songs titled “Pretty Boy Swag” and “Turn My Swag On”, along with four different mixtapes that have Swag in the title. Call it an accidental hybrid?) But also, this is just age. I am 28 and not 21 anymore. I sit far away from the student section. I am closing in on becoming An Old. I think I know a lot about music, but this entire paragraph is about me mis-remembering a really popular song as being by a different artist.

Crowd participation is a tale as old as time. There is the wave, obviously, but there is “All I Do Is Win”. There is “Let It Be”. There is “Hey Jude”. There is “Sweet Caroline”. Then there is “Swag Surfin'”. At first, I found it a mild curiosity that was more baffling than useful. Tennessee’s in-arena music director, whoever they may be, started playing this steadily in the 2021-22 season. Up to a month or so ago, I would’ve put the student participation for Swag Surfin’ at maybe 40%. I get it. It’s enough effort to stand for two hours; it is more effort to sway on beat to a song from 2009.

Maybe this is me projecting my own feelings and life onto the newfound East Tennessee staple. I did not feel any type of way about it until I watched the young man and his grandfather sway to the song days before my own grandfather passed. Even then, it’s just a unique thing that happened towards the end of a uniquely stressful and depressing multi-month stretch for my brain. The Kentucky game was the first time I can remember it appearing as a somewhat-cohesive unit in the student section.

I was planning on investing a very low amount of emotion into yesterday’s game; it’s just been a hard week and a hard two months. At some point, you just feel really tired. This held pretty well until two specific moments: first, when Zakai Zeigler nailed a shot-clock-beating three to tie the game at 39 in the midst of an 11-0 run. Secondly, when I heard “Swag Surfin'” come through the speakers and watched as the student section put together its strongest performance to date.

I do wish there was a video that included the upper deck, but you get what you get when you’re out of space on your iPhone and refuse to delete old messages. Something about this particular Swag Surf got to me. Something about it just feels right. Fundamentally different. Unusual in a good way. Being well on the way to Old status and on the opposite side of the arena, I did not participate, but I felt it projected onto people like me in a positive manner. Maybe you can project it all onto this team, too.

This is a team that started out hot and cold. I didn’t know how to feel about them for a long time, then in January, I was pretty ready to simulate this season to the finish. You watch them get dressed down by 28 in Lexington and it feels like any number of football beatdowns Knoxville has seen in the last 15 years. You figure the best-case scenario is a Sweet Sixteen. The offense is a mess that puts up a game you call the Act of God then manages to replicate something like it multiple times over. There isn’t much to like. There are no leaders.

This is all Battered Vol Syndrome speaking. It would be easy to keep speaking through that; to say that none of this really matters and that Rick Barnes underperforms in March and that it’s pointless to actually invest in this. There’s plenty of painful losses and annoying evidence to back that side of fandom up, I guess. The lasting postseason memories of the last 11 years have been a brutal overtime loss in an instant classic Sweet Sixteen game and a brutal buzzer-beating loss to a Catholic wizard in the middle of Lent.

But in the same way that Swag Surfin’ is the thing, so is Zakai Zeigler nailing that three and Kennedy Chandler winning (!) a post-up matchup with Jabari Smith. So is holding Walker Kessler to 8 & 5. So is a season where you’ve now defeated #2, #3, and #10 in KenPom all in front of sellout home crowds. The two losses since January 15 are a one-point road loss to a top 20 Texas team and a freak outlier shooting night against Arkansas, a top 20 team in their own right.

Everything else has been good and right and working. It feels different from a year ago, when Tennessee had the top-five defense but three home games and crash-landed with a 5 seed. It feels different from most of the Barnes era in general, where the fans actually grow to love the team more over the course of the season and point out the flaws less.

The players have spent the entire back half of this season saying that this is different. Saying that it doesn’t have to be the same old thing over and over. They’ve gone on the road and handled tricky grounders and line drives. They own three wins over teams that will be among the top 2 seed lines. This is a group that, for basically the entire season, has turned opposing offenses into wet sludge. Multiple players have stepped up to be capital-G Guys who are unafraid of the moment, not scared of the stress. A team full of people born after 2000 has completely changed the image of Tennessee basketball in my head.

A team that was leaderless a month ago now has Uros Plavsic goading Jabari Freaking Smith into a technical foul and Zakai Zeigler dancing through defenses. Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, who looked completely listless for three months, suddenly appears to be a legitimately good defender. The entire team pumps up the crowd during timeouts, understanding how crucial the home-court heat is after a year without it.

I think that’s the ultimate crux of why the Swag Surf finally wormed its way into my brain beyond repair. A year without crowds; a year without attending basketball games; two years of national and global despair. This is real Protagonist of History stuff, yes, but it is my lived experience that I am reporting on. It is of no small embarrassment that it has taken a crowd largely of youthful whites in orange to get me to understand it, but this is unfortunately common among people like me. I guess if nothing else, 13 years belatedly, it connects.

While very late to the party, I finally get the Swag Surf. I already got most of the Tennessee experience this year – I wrote about how it was all mud, all the time a month ago and that’s only partially changed – but now it’s sort of transcended the original boundaries. The mud is inescapable for opponents in the same way that Swag Surfin’ has become inescapable in SEC basketball. It travels everywhere and infects everyone. If mud can travel to March, this surprising fount of joy could provide some lifetime memories that you look back on fondly. Maybe you can sway to them.

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 CHANNEL: ESPN.
  • 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.