Revisiting Tennessee’s remaining schedule, from an NCAA Tournament resume perspective

Look: it is January 2 as I type this. I have not much to do at this point in time. I am watching my beloved, stupid Detroit Lions blissfully keep pace for the #1 overall pick. I am sitting through the longest break in Tennessee basketball’s schedule that they’ll have all season. So, naturally, this leads to me checking in on Twitter and seeing a truly terrific tweet from an online buddy:

Content! Content! Thank you for the content.

This is merely a quasi-symptom of what I’ve thought about doing for a few days: providing everyone an update of what Tennessee’s schedule is likely going to look like the rest of the season. I did this in the preseason for the season preview, but it’s been two months, so an update seems useful. Tennessee has 18 games left; 17 of those are SEC opponents, one of those is Texas in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. My guess is that people would like to know how Tennessee measures up here in all likelihood.

I’ve decided to measure this in a two-step method:

  1. First, I’m just using the projected Quadrant 1/2/etc. games as given by Bart Torvik’s website. Torvik actually does projected NET ratings using the available formula, which is really cool. We’ll also use his rankings, which are slightly different from Ken Pomeroy’s but use the same general idea.
  2. Also, I’m using hoop-explorer.com’s Build Your Own Top 25. I’ve weighted it as such: efficiency matters more than W-L, but only by a hair; there’s a mild bonus given to more dominant teams; there’s also a slight boost by weighting the last 30 days 10% more than the resume as a whole. These ratings, to my understanding, use KenPom as a source.

What this is going to do: provide you with two ratings. The first rating is their current rating on Bart Torvik’s website; the second is the BYOT25 rating. How useful is this? No clue, but it beats doing nothing.

The breakdown here is going to follow the NCAA Teamsheet format of Quadrants 1, 2, 3, and 4. Explanation(s) below. All numbers are NET rankings, which we obviously do not have but will be replaced with the Bart Torvik/KenPom/Haslametrics combined numbers for breakdown purposes.

  • Quadrant 1: Home 1-30; Neutral 1-50; Away 1-75.
  • Quadrant 2: Home 31-75; Neutral 51-100; Away 76-135.
  • Quadrant 3: Home 76-160; Neutral 101-200; Away 136-240.
  • Quadrant 4: Home 161-plus; Neutral 201-plus; Away 241-plus.

I’ll list out any differences between the two methods as they exist. Right now, Tennessee ranks #13 on Torvik, #12 on KenPom, and #16 in the BYOT25 thing because the non-conference schedule did…not exactly come together as planned. (Recall that Colorado and Memphis were preseason Quadrant 1 games.) Onward.

Quadrant 1

Previously, this also included Quadrant 1-A, but there’s no difference this time out, so…yeah.

Scheduled games:

  • January 8 at LSU (#12/#13)
  • January 15 at Kentucky (#16/#17)
  • January 22 vs. LSU (#12/#13)
  • January 29 at Texas (#7/#19)
  • February 9 at Mississippi State (#35/#44)
  • February 15 vs. Kentucky (#16/#17)
  • February 19 at Arkansas (#67/#57)
  • February 26 vs. Auburn (#8/#5)

Expected wins: 4.1 out of 8 (Torvik); 4.2 (KenPom)

I guess if you like stability, it’s worth knowing that seven of these eight are the same as they were two months ago. The only new game is home LSU on January 22, a suddenly-pivotal affair for SEC title race purposes. Tennessee projects as an underdog in three of seven, all on the road (LSU, Kentucky, Texas). Regardless of what numbers you’re using, these seven games represent the toughest, most ruthless chunk of Tennessee’s remaining schedule. The most likely outcome for each is a close, tight affair that you’re rooting for the coin flip to land in your favor.

As of now, Tennessee is 2-3 against Quadrant 1 opponents, and if they can find a way to somehow get over .500 across 13 total games (7-6, or 5-3 here), that would be quite a big win. Torvik’s numbers currently project just nine teams in all of college basketball to finish above .500 (min. 10 games) against Quadrant 1 competition. Even six Quadrant 1 wins would be pretty useful, because only 15 other teams are projected to get that many. (In the last full season of 2019-20, 18 teams did this.)

A top ten team would be expected to go either 4-4 or 5-3 against this eight-game slate; it would behoove Tennessee to get to one of the two.

Odds of various records:

  • 0-8: 0.3%
  • 1-7: 2.5%
  • 2-6: 9.3%
  • 3-5: 20.2% (5-8 overall)
  • 4-4: 27.2% (6-7 overall)
  • 5-3: 23.5% (7-6 overall)
  • 6-2: 12.5%
  • 7-1: 3.9%
  • 8-0: 0.5%

Quadrant 2

Scheduled games:

  • January 18 at Vanderbilt (#84/#89)
  • January 26 vs. Florida (#25/#38)
  • February 1 vs. Texas A&M (#81/#56)
  • February 5 at South Carolina (#121/#82)
  • March 5 vs. Arkansas (#67/#57)

Expected wins: 4.01 out of 5 (Torvik); 3.92 (KenPom)

Tennessee will be favored to win all five of these, and in the case of a couple of them (Texas A&M and South Carolina), they’re likely going to be favored by double-digits. Yet none of these five are super-sure things. They’d only be a five-point favorite at Vanderbilt right now, for example. Colorado is a Quadrant 2 game now, and remember how wobbly that felt going in. Even home Arkansas isn’t a cinch.

It’s once again worth noting the rarity of going undefeated against the second Quadrant. As of now, only one team with a minimum of four games against Q2 is projected to go undefeated (Houston). Last year, that number was also one (Baylor); in 2019-20, it was six; in 2018-19, 11. The trend is decidedly not moving in the right direction, which probably makes sense with 2021-22 possessing the highest amount of returning roster talent in the sport’s history. It will be pretty tough to go 5-0 against this group; let’s just hope that if there is a loss, it’s an understandable one.

Odds of various records:

  • 0-5: 0.03%
  • 1-4: 0.6%
  • 2-3: 5%
  • 3-2: 20.2%
  • 4-1: 41%
  • 5-0: 33.2%

Quadrant 3

Scheduled games:

  • January 5 vs. Ole Miss (#112/#112)
  • January 11 vs. South Carolina (#121/#82)
  • February 12 vs. Vanderbilt (#84/#89)
  • February 22 at Missouri (#252/#147)
  • March 1 at Georgia (#217/#239)

Expected wins: 4.57 out of 5 (Torvik); 4.5 (KenPom)

Well, all five of these teams stink in various fashion. All five have terrible losses; all five would be terrible losses if they happened. Tennessee will be double-digit favorites in all of these. As a reminder, the top 22 teams in NET in 2019-20 combined to go 135-2 against Quadrant 3 competition, which is probably a small overachievement but still gives you an idea of how bad it would feel to lose any of these games. Missouri and Georgia are actually Quadrant 4 as of now, but Torvik forecasts them to barely scrape above 240 in NET by year’s end; the less Quad 4 games you play, the better. It seems like it would be hard for either to fall below 240 simply by virtue of playing in an agreed-upon top-four conference.

The most likely outcome here is Tennessee going 5-0, and it better be. Any of these losses would be so singularly embarrassing that it would have the power to cancel out a win over, like, Kentucky. You would beat Kentucky at Rupp and still be thinking about losing to Ole Miss. Don’t do it.

Odds of various records:

  • 0-5: well, imagine a bunch of zeroes followed by a one
  • 1-4: 0.03%
  • 2-3: 0.6%
  • 3-2: 6.3%
  • 4-1: 31.3%
  • 5-0: 61.7%

So: let’s talk most likely overall records, then. Right now, Tennessee sits at 9-3, 0-1 in the SEC. Bart Torvik’s numbers project a 12-6 finish in the SEC for Tennessee, which would put them in a four-way tie for second. KenPom: 12-6, tied for third with Alabama. (They would lose this tiebreaker and be the 4 seed, which still gives you a double-bye.) ESPN’s BPI: 13-5, three-way tie for first with Kentucky and Auburn.

If you’re looking for probabilities, Bart Torvik’s numbers give Tennessee an 85.4% chance of finishing somewhere between 10-8 and 14-4 in the SEC. My opinion here is that, if you’re looking for a regular season title, it’s going to take a minimum of 14 conference wins to at least get a share of the championship. In every metric system I use, at least one team is projected for 14 right now; maybe you get some late-season luck (2017-18, as an example) and it ends up being 13. But: 14 wins is probably the goal.

The only way Tennessee can realistically get to 14 or better is by playing like a top ten team the rest of the season with essentially no serious interruptions. If they go 4-3 in their remaining games against SEC Quadrant 1 competition (losing to Texas in this scenario), they’d have to go perfect against Quadrants 2 and 3. Is that possible? Certainly; it happens in a hair under 21% of all scenarios. But that’s not probable. It merely means it can happen. Tennessee’s gotta be really, really good to make that happen. If they do indeed play like one of the ten best teams in existence, that 21% figure rises to a little under 26%.

Even so, Tennessee will find it pretty hard to find more than 13 SEC wins this year. That’s fine; it’s what I had penned in the preseason. 13-5 in an SEC with five Top 20 teams and an expectation of 7-8 NCAA Tournament teams is a very good record and would likely be enough to lock Tennessee in as no worse than a 3 seed in the NCAAs entering SEC Tournament weekend. (It also probably locks Tennessee in as no worse than a 3 seed in the SEC Tournament, for the record.)

So: that’s the situation Tennessee is in. If Auburn can find a way to be less than expected…if Kentucky keeps having hiccup games…if Alabama can simply have enough off-nights…even if LSU simply isn’t the best defense in America, Tennessee stands to benefit from it. 12 games worth of data with all preseason baselines removed have Tennessee slotted as the 12th-best team in America, per Torvik. Even including preseason, they’re 12th on KenPom. Nearly every metrics system in existence has Tennessee as somewhere between the 8th and 15th-best team in America. I promise you there’s worse positions to be in.