It Is What It Is

March 17: (3) Tennessee 88, (14) Longwood 56 (Round of 64) (27-7)
March 19: (11) Michigan 76, (3) Tennessee 68 (Round of 32) (27-8, season over)

Starting off March Madness by hitting 14 threes and dropping 88 points on a vastly overmatched opponent was probably an unfair way to get things rolling. Was it incredibly funny and fun and stress-free? Of course. But there are very few words on that game, because no one remembers the blowouts. Everyone remembers the classics. Everyone remembers the Round of 32 games that meant something, especially when a lot of things are happening and it’s back-and-forth the whole way.

So: you do a lot of things right. You turn it over only seven times, the second-lowest turnover rate of the season.

So that’s good, even if it was somewhat predictable against a Michigan team that never forces turnovers. And then you also put up a 53.1% hit rate on twos, almost 5% above Tennessee’s season-long hit rate. That’s pretty good, too. Teams that do both of those things since 2010-11: 61-12 in the NCAA Tournament. But then you look at who two of those 12 are.

Never matter; the past is the past. You shoot 18 three-point attempts. Tennessee has hit 40% of these over the last two months. They just hit 58.3% of them in a first-round demolition. All you have to do is hit a few of those threes. Most were of the catch-and-shoot variety; the average catch-and-shoot three went down at a 35% rate this year. A 35% shooting game would’ve counted as a below-average performance for Tennessee.

One standard deviation from the mean on 3PT% this season has been about 10%. For the average team on an average night, anything from 23% to 43% is reasonable. For Tennessee, a team that shot 36.5%, anything from 26% to 47% was reasonable.  Anything outside of that range, in some aspect, was an outlier beyond normal explanation. If a team guards every single one of your catch-and-shoot threes somehow, that should lead to you shooting, like, 5-10% worse than normal. Some amount of bad shooting is just bad shooting; a larger amount of it is whether the coin flips in your favor.

A 36% coin flip came up cold 89% of the time. On 18 attempts, 16 of which were catch-and-shoot ones, Tennessee made two. A team full of dudes that were making these 40% of the time made them 11% of the time two days after making them 58% of the time. It is so baffling that even Sports Reference came up empty.

It is what it is.

This Tennessee team spent the better part of the back half of the season subverting expectations and changing their identity game by game. A potential season-destroying injury to the team’s best center resulted in the team getting better for a time. Four Top 15 teams came to Thompson-Boling Arena, three of which came to visit post-injury. None of them left with victories. Tennessee took their show on the road to Tampa, drew the SEC’s supposed toughest team, and led for all but 27 seconds of a semifinal that wasn’t as close as the final score suggested. Winning the program’s first SEC conference tournament title since 1979 the next day was almost an afterthought.

They then spent all of Thursday telling the nation how disrespectful it was for Tennessee to have been given a 3-seed behind multiple teams they had superior resumes to. Longwood came into Indianapolis with some amount of high hopes; all of those hopes were thoroughly dispelled by approximately the 19th three Josiah-Jordan James made that gave Tennessee a 25-point halftime lead. Heading into Saturday, the general vibe even from Michigan fans was that this Tennessee team was going to be too much to handle. It made sense: a legitimate top-6 team in America playing an 11 seed. Why wouldn’t it?

In the game preview I noted that it would take some sort of heavy RNG game in Michigan’s favor to swing the tide fully their way. It barely happened on their threes; aside from Hunter Dickinson having a great day and going 3-for-5, the rest of the roster went 3-for-11. They did not win the game from deep. Tennessee, the superior shooting team with more options and better depth, just couldn’t find it. Some days, it’s not your day. I think we all know this, but fandom obscures it in a manner that makes it a lot harder to accept. It is what it is.

I spent most of Sunday predictably thinking about the difficulties of being on The Other Side of the three-point revolution. Tennessee spent this season completely remaking themselves in a new offensive image. This will stand as the team that set the single-game record for threes in their very first game. They took more three-point attempts than any Barnes team has ever taken, whether here or at Texas or anywhere before. Tennessee had made at least six threes in eight consecutive games and 13 of the previous 14. Tennessee started 0-for-4, then went 2-for-3. Then, they never hit another three again.

Everyone online keeps insisting that the threes can’t be the thing. It has to be Rick Barnes. I guess when the head coach continues to disappoint in March that’s sort of the obvious target. Blame’s gotta go somewhere, after all, and blaming it on bad luck is seen as real dire mental straits to be in. But. Rick Barnes is not the one missing 16 of 18 threes. Rick Barnes is the guy who pushed for more threes and fewer mid-range twos after a career of doing the exact opposite, so I guess you can be mad at him for that. Who would’ve guessed that progressing your offense into a more modern, Tournament-friendly style somehow made you feel worse?

It is what it is. What else can it be but madness? Against the fourth-worst defense Tennessee had played since January 26 (16 games total), upon video review, Tennessee got nine three-point attempts where the nearest defender was 4+ feet away. They hit one of them. The threes are the thing, more than any other thing can be. Such is life; such is madness.

Because everything this blog does is ripped off of MGoBlog in some fashion, this line from the head writer (Brian Cook) after Michigan’s 63-44 loss to Texas Tech in 2019 keeps bouncing around in my head:

A collective mania set in as this was happening as the horrible results overwhelmed anyone’s ability to process what happened before them. Four different threes rimmed out in the first half. . . . Maybe there are reasons you go 25% from three. There are no reasons when you go 13% and 0%. Just frustration, and an offseason a little more sudden than hoped for.

And that’s more or less it. Rick Barnes played Tennessee’s four best non-centers, with zero substitutions, for the entirety of the final 15:03 of this game. Their best center was Uros Plavsic, which would have been a laughable statement in November. Michigan’s point guards combined for four points. Tennessee won the turnover battle by eight and the offensive rebounding battle by four, a +12 advantage in shot volume. They outscored Michigan 20-7 in points off of turnovers. They did a lot of things very well. They just didn’t have a good day with the one thing that decides 80% of coin-flip basketball games now.

The offseason has begun at least a week earlier than everyone wanted to. I abstained from going to Saturday’s game for a variety of reasons, which now seems wise because seeing 2-for-18 in person is likely worse than seeing it on TV. Tennessee tied their fourth-worst 3PT% of the last 12 seasons with the second-best 3PT% team they’ve had in that time span. None of this is required to make sense, because March Madness as a concept is not supposed to make sense. To quote Jon Bois, there is only one winner, and it comes at the cost of 63 losers. Tennessee merely joins the pack in a more painful, stupid way than most others.

Frankly, that is not how I’d like to remember this team. Watching Tennessee’s defense pour motor oil down the nostrils of opponents twice a week was a joy. Watching Kennedy Chandler evolve from a fledgling five-star into a legitimate first-round pick was wonderful. Finding a new fan favorite in Zakai Zeigler was a delight. Uros Plavsic evolved from a mascot into an actual useful piece. Santiago Vescovi turned from Just A Shooter into First-Team All-SEC. Josiah-Jordan James went supernova mode in the back half of the season and went from a disliked player by the average fan into a beloved star. John Fulkerson became both mascot and bench piece. Everyone who took the court, at some point, did something memorable and beautiful. I will remember that fondly.

I will also remember that, during a two-month period watching the main inspiration for my writing passing away, I kept looking to a battalion of 18-24 year-olds to keep doing good things, and they kept doing them. As the clock ticked down and Tennessee was leading Texas A&M by 15, I thought about how much my grandfather would have loved to see it. But up there, far away from all of our worry and strife, he had a great view of it. Maybe they toss the Chick-Fil-A cows up in heaven, too.

At the start of March I was listening to the episode of The Square Ball, a Leeds United fan magazine and podcast, immediately after Marcelo Bielsa was fired. (I prefer the English ‘sacked,’ but gotta stick with your audience and such.) Bielsa was a heroic figure to Leeds supporters for two main reasons: 1. He brought the club back to the Premier League for the first time in nearly two decades; 2. He is potentially the only manager in the modern era of the club, and most clubs, to feel bigger than the sport itself.

One of the hosts mentions the relief of Leeds’ midweek and Saturday games during the Bielsa era, with a specific focus on the last two years. Bielsa had a rough end to his tenure. At the time of the show, Leeds were just a hair out of the EPL relegation zone. You lose a lot of money when you fall out of the EPL; it’s not a good time. The prevailing theme of their discussion is just how Bielsa felt like more than a football manager. More than Just A Guy. More than Just A Game. Specifically, there is this sentence from one of the hosts:

Because of what’s going on globally, it oddly matters more. When the world is legitimately falling apart, you cling onto the few things that make you believe and are an escape from all of the bad stuff.

Thinking of this season in those terms three months ago was a laughable concept. I came into this season expecting a Sweet Sixteen run or something similar and to simply have some amount of fun watching basketball again. I wanted to go to games again. Being at home for all of 2020-21…losing the Tournament in 2020, even if Tennessee wouldn’t have been in it…it simply took a toll. I didn’t feel it or notice it at the time. In January, it hit like a delayed adverse effect from bad medicine.

These two years have been hard on a lot of people. Comparatively, I came out of it scot-free. I wasn’t laid off and gained a promotion at my day job. My marriage flourished, even in a harsh economic time. We made good, useful changes to our day-to-day routine. I learned to be happy working from home. I learned to love running. I looked forward to getting out of the house. The 2020-21 season, which might as well be a repeated visual of seeing the Knoxville Catholic running loop four mornings a week, ended up giving me more and greater opportunities in the basketball world than I ever could have imagined.

This season started well, too. The season began barely two weeks after I finished a massive work project. We were going to games again. COVID wasn’t over, but it was on its way out. Things seemed better. Winter came. We kept going to games, and it felt like diminishing excitement every time. Mid-January, after Tennessee had gotten carpet-bombed by Kentucky and my wife sat in different bedrooms in COVID quarantine, I wondered what the point was. February came about and made it that much tougher. In the midst of all this, all you can do is to lean onto those strong ties, the ones you believe in, and see them as escapism.

This team slowly turned into a bizarre form of escapism as the season went on. They were flawed, just like every other collection of 18-24 year old men in human history. They were frustrating. But twice a week, they would open up the mud pit, pull an opponent in, and watch them flail around for two hours helplessly. This group’s run ended earlier than expected, but the memories they provided will last a long time. I will miss them quite a bit.

No more analysis. Just two notes.

  • Thanks for everything. The amount of people to thank for this year’s coverage is immense. I have decided to thank most individuals privately, but there are some that I want to share public thanks for. Carly Warren, my wife, who somehow feels okay letting me invest 15 hours a week into this on top of a 40-hour job and a housing search. You are my hero. Andrea, my mom, who understands me in a way no one else can and is a hero. Scott, my dad, for all you do. Andy, my brother, who did attend his first game this year. Matthew, my best friend, legal advisor, and trusted agent. Jon Reed, the person who is more responsible for my “readership base” than anyone else. Seth Hughes, who never fails to give me good advice and is one of the smartest people I know. Grant Ramey, Mike Wilson, Wes Rucker, Ryan Schumpert, Ethan Stone, and everyone else that I know and talk to on the local beat. Chase Thomas, who continues to talk to me weekly somehow. Jimmy Dykes, who has changed my life in many ways. Tom Hart and Dane Bradshaw. Reed Carringer. There are many, many more, and this post is already very long.
  • 2022-23 coverage. Is undecided. I’ll be up front and say that I’m exploring how to continue to make this work; whether it will work is not yet determined. For now, I am taking a break that I think I’ve earned.

When You Got Feelings and Guitar, You Wanna Trade It For Cash

SEC Quarterfinals, March 11: (2) Tennessee 72, (10) Mississippi State 59 (24-7)
SEC Semifinals, March 12: (2) Tennessee 69, (3) Kentucky 62 (25-7)
SEC Finals, March 13: (2) Tennessee 65, (8) Texas A&M 50 (26-7)

Perhaps the kindest thing Tennessee did was remove an immense amount of anxiety and drama from the SEC title game not even five minutes in. The game started at 0-0, obviously; it was 14-0 in essentially no time at all. Texas A&M never led, and the game was never within five points after early in the second half. It was rarely in double digits. But you’d be forgiven if you were a Tennessee fan and you were still waiting for the other shoe to drop with Tennessee up by 13 and 90 seconds still to play.

That is how things generally work here. The impossible is always possible at Tennessee. Purdue, one of the greatest shooting teams I have ever seen Tennessee play, can miss half their free throws, but a future insurance agent hits seven threes to win the game. Loyola Chicago can blow a 10-point lead, but win anyway because of a double-bounce mid-range pull-up. Tennessee can make their first Elite Eight, then have to fire that coach a year later. Tennessee is up on an 8 seed by six with four minutes to play, then never scores again. Tennessee can go 30+ years without a single coach lasting longer than six seasons.

Almost anything ends up on the table at this school. One of the only things that truly felt impossible was being able to lift the trophy on Sunday. Tennessee made it to Sunday one time in my life prior to 2018, played a significantly worse Mississippi State team, and lost. Tennessee was the higher-ranked seed in 2018 and 2019 and lost both of those, too. When the year counter increases by one every time out and touches 43, hope feels like a foreign concept.

As with everything written over the last month, this all starts after losing by 28 to Kentucky. I complained after the game that the Tennessee Treadmill had restarted and this team was well on its way to another annoying, forgettable run as either a 4 or 5 seed in the NCAAs. Maybe they make it to SEC Saturday, blow a late lead to Kentucky or Auburn, and this time I just laugh instead of feeling annoyed. 11-5 and 2-3 SEC, regardless of competition, is a record you look at and sigh towards. You beat Arizona at home, cool. Where’s the other wins?

The ratings on January 16 are a fun time warp of sorts. Every team in the top 16 finished 19th or better, which is remarkably steady for a season with two full months left, but the order of those teams became jumbled. At the time, though, you could argue opportunity was nowhere.

Fourth in the SEC with a loss to the fifth-place team below you that seems to have your number under their analytics darling head coach. An offense that, aside from that random Rupp explosion, resembled Iowa football. A sixth-year senior that scored zero points against the conference’s best team. No truly rootable players. Zakai Zeigler had not yet forced a stranglehold on the hearts of Tennesseans. 14th in KenPom is nice until you remember the 2020-21 team was 12th at that time the year prior. It can always get worse. Why wouldn’t it?

So, sure, Tennessee goes on a run that’s at least partially influenced by a lighter schedule. You get some really great home wins that you remember happily, but they’re all at home. The best non-home win remains a North Carolina team that just got an 8 seed.

You head to Tampa, which isn’t even Nashville, playing what’s best described as a fairly potent brand of feelingsball. You will remember this team; will anyone else? Tennessee gets teams stuck in the mud and whatnot, and you like their March odds, but you see Kentucky at second in KenPom and Auburn drawing a mid-50s Texas A&M team and figure you’re in for yet another SEC Tournament kick to the nuts. It never goes well. Why would it now?

Texas A&M wins and you get a little excited. Tennessee takes care of business; Kentucky struggles, but does the same. You head to Saturday with the same feeling of not wanting to be Charlie Brown running at Lucy holding the football for the 43rd year in a row. Tennessee beat Kentucky at home, but again, that’s at home. Amalie Arena was decidedly decked out in blue, almost like it would be for your standard Lightning home game. Tennessee has to overcome not just this, but the officiating pairing of Pat Adams and Doug Shows, the only officiating combo that can manage to unite Tennessee and Kentucky fans in anger.

Tennessee trails for all of 27 seconds in a game that’s rarely within eight points until the final couple of minutes. Kentucky makes their run, and then you remember the critical tenet of Feelingsball: Act like every high point in the game is simply Sisyphus reaching the top of the hill. The rock will roll down. Back up you will go. This should be impossible, but impossible always happens here. Kentucky will do their usual, as will Tennessee.

The most cathartic, signature moment of a game is not a made shot, or a block, or anything normal at all, but a hard-hat lunch pail rebound by a 6’3″ Uruguayan shooting specialist despite being boxed out by a pair of Kentucky players that are 6’7″ and 6’9″. If you could name a stronger, more perfect signature moment of the Rick Barnes era, I would like to hear it. It is absurd, and it is real, and it is beautiful, and it is Tennessee.

And then they win, and then you briefly allow yourself to think that This Is Real. Tennessee got to sit and watch the previously-assumed conference title favorite Arkansas go down to that mid-50s Texas A&M team, who gets to build their NCAA Tournament case on a national scale. The odds, more or less, have never been better. But then 2009 pops back into your head. It can’t actually be real, because it’s never been real in my life. The Feelingsball Team, the one that was born of the mud and drags all opponents into the mud with them, may be incredibly fun. After 43 years, or 28ish for me, you just have to see it to believe it.

All this team had to do was see it and believe it for 40 minutes on a Sunday in March. They were able to when mere peons like me could not. They saw 11-5, 2-3 SEC and laughed in its face. The SEC kept sending its best and brightest to Knoxville to attempt to pull off road victories, and every challenger failed. Then when Tennessee got to head south for a weekend, they took on the conference’s assumed best team and stuffed their top-10 offense in a locker for the entire game. They drew Texas A&M, a team that had played at the level of the 8th-best in America (per Torvik) over its last ten games, and blended their offense into a fine paste with burgundy tones. At game’s end, I thought about wishing my grandfather could’ve made it another month to see it, but his afterlife broadcast of the game was not interrupted by Xfinity and did not include the wire camera angle. Even better.

This Tennessee team has been telling anyone who will listen for two, three, even four months that they are legitimate. That they can do things no team has ever done in the history of the program. That they are capable of creating memories fans and followers believed impossible. Tennessee is two seed upsets away from the Final Four, and only one KenPom upset out of it potentially against a team they’ve already beaten. The prospects of something unforeseen no longer feel like attempting to see clearly through a kaleidoscope. The metrics are there to tell you that it’s okay to feel these feelings:

That’s since January 16, one day after the Rupp blowout, one day after it all felt meaningless. These kids believed it was far from meaningless; it was merely the start of a new season to them. They deserve it all. They gave us the good feelings, and turned it into something people have been waiting over four decades for. It’s worth letting America in on the secret.

Notes section and whatnot:

  • Tshiebwe handled. Tshiebwe against Tennessee, including the Rupp demolition: 9 & 12, 15 & 15, 13 & 11. For a guy who averaged 20 & 15 over the final month-plus of the season, Tennessee was able to figure out how to slow down the National Player of the Year consistently across all three matches. Along with that, Tennessee is the only team to foul out Tshiebwe this season. God bless Mike Schwartz.
  • Star status. Kennedy Chandler this weekend: 14.7 PPG, 5 APG, four steals, and six threes. That’s the closest thing Tennessee has had to a #1 option since Grant Williams departed.
  • THE HOTTEST SHOOTING TEAM IN AMERICA. Or something like it: Tennessee is shooting 39.2% from three over the last two months. The only team among the top four seed lines that’s outshot them in that time is Gonzaga, who is at 39.3%. This is legitimately one of the scariest deep-shooting teams out there. Tennessee!
  • Another team turned to wet mud. Tennessee played this Texas A&M team on February 1 and gave up 1.121 PPP; give Mike Schwartz and Rick Barnes a second-chance and they will twist the knife. A&M went for 0.798 PPP and that was a significant improvement over their halftime pace of 0.667 PPP.
  • Shooting variance goes your way. Teams shot 12-for-56 (21.4%) against Tennessee from deep in Tampa, which is fine. I think it’s good to cash in your luck when you need it most. I don’t think teams (especially Longwood, who is bizarrely efficient from deep on relatively few shots) will be quite that consistently bad against Tennessee, but against a potential second round opponent like Michigan, whose entire season has been “did you hit shots or didn’t you,” seems like it plays in Tennessee’s favor.
  • That being said… Almost none of the shots Kellan Grady or Davion Mintz attempted Saturday had any space at all; I find it no real surprise that they combined to go 0-for-8 from deep. They were off-balance the entire game.
  • Potential new rotation. Rick Barnes mostly went with seven guys on Sunday, eschewing Aidoo for all but three minutes. I ran a study for a D-1 staffer last summer that showed the average rotation size (8+ MPG) of Sweet 16 or further teams was 7.64 players. If Tennessee can be comfortable at eight, I think that’s optimal; you can extend to nine if you have foul trouble or something.
  • Longwood. Preview up Thursday morning. I think a podcast with Jon Reed and Seth Hughes is being scheduled. Not sure about other duties, but they could happen depending on variables.
  • Bracket stuff. Tuesday.
  • The thread title comes from “Donna Said” by Pardoner, a pleasant and pretty good rock song of no great consequence other than the fact the main riff is excellent. I would describe it as a toe-tapper.

Thanks for reading along this season; I hope March never ends. More coming, and if you would like me to be on your podcast or website or something, email statsbywill at gmail dot com.

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.

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.

Knockin’ Heads Off

With 13:45 left to go in the first half, John Fulkerson did his wacky tube man thing and flung himself into the Kentucky bench. Fulkerson presumably did not mean any ill will; he is just a goofy basketball player trying to keep a ball in bounds, which is what he did. Fulkerson flung a three-point miss by Zakai Zeigler off the leg of Lance Ware, who had checked in just 12 seconds prior. The score was Kentucky 17, Tennessee 15. To that point, Kentucky had done little wrong: 8-for-13 from the field, getting good looks, and forcing Tennessee to score like crazy to keep up with them.

If nothing had happened once Fulkerson landed in the Kentucky bench, maybe that continues. I don’t really know, because it’s an alternate universe we’ll never find out about. Zakai Zeigler and Santiago Vescovi rush over to pick their teammate up. On the way, they are blocked by Kentucky’s strength and conditioning coach, Robert Harris.

What Harris meant to do by this, I assume we also will never know. Harris has a Twitter, and as of the time of writing, this is his most recent tweet:

If he never tweets again, this is unintentionally a great one to leave Twitter on. (He has no likes related to the game, and frankly, I have to assume Calipari has him under a media gag order for the time being.) Once Harris gets in the face of Vescovi and Zeigler – his real mistake – most of Tennessee’s team rushes over. That’s when the havoc begins.

Harris pushes Zeigler, and the strength coach puts so much force and brute muscle behind his push that Zeigler barely moves at all. Tennessee’s players notice that and surround Harris. Right now, it’s four players against one Harris. Then Kentucky leaves their bench. Then Tennessee does, too. At its peak, the collection of bodies simply looks like either a line for the restroom or a men’s prayer circle, whichever you so choose.

None of what happens in that circle looks of interest on its face. None of what happens at the end of this video is interesting, either. But I can tell you this: after that video cuts off, multiple Tennessee players were jumping up and down, attempting to pump the crowd up and cease the booing. And it worked. They understood the core logic of the stupidest, best song ever created and translated it to the floor.

After this battle, Zakai Zeigler and the Kentucky bench received offsetting technical fouls. The Kentucky bench, as a basketball unit, was almost entirely useless outside of Jacob Toppin and Davion Mintz. The Kentucky bench, as a coaching unit, proved extremely helpful to Tennessee’s fortunes.

The very next shot was a made mid-range two by Kennedy Chandler. Two possessions later, the next shot was a Kennedy Chandler three. Then another on the fast break. Kentucky missed 11 shots in a row, while Tennessee hit seven of nine. A 17-15 Kentucky lead turned into a 32-18 Tennessee one. After halftime, the margin would never get shorter than Tennessee +8. The players immediately involved in that sideline battle – Fulkerson, Vescovi, and Zeigler – put up a combined 46 of Tennessee’s 76 points, 40 of which were after that battle ended.

You can think about it in this lane: those three players alone, who weren’t looking for trouble until trouble found them by way of a strength coach, nearly outscored Kentucky the rest of the way by themselves. That’s what I’d call knockin’ heads off. Tennessee came to fight. Kentucky tried to, then they limped away, bruised and battered and wondering where it all went wrong. I can point you to exactly where you went wrong: 13:45 on the clock, first half, when you thought it was a good idea to give Zakai Zeigler and Tennessee’s entire team an extra boost of energy.

The actual basketball upshot of a game like that is obvious. Tennessee now holds wins over KenPom’s #2 and #3 teams, and even if Tennessee’s students are chanting “overrated” as time winds down, I would invite them not to. Please think about that again: wins over two of the nation’s three best teams, as determined by the nation’s best advanced metrics site. The only other team in Tennessee history to do this since KenPom has existed (2001-pres.) is the 2005-06 Bruce team that became one of the most beloved units in program history.

After all of the gnashing of teeth about the offense for the last few months, it’s now up to 27th in America, the second-best offense of the Barnes era behind the obvious one. The defense is now #4, which would make it the best defense Barnes has had at Tennessee. There’s a very real chance that this particular team, at least by the metrics sites, is the best that Tennessee has had. Not just in the KenPom era, but ever. Think about that for a second. I’d still take the 2018-19 team myself, but this is making a strong case for being no worse than one of the three best Tennessee basketball teams in modern program history.

I say we sit back and enjoy it. Nights like last night are rare; crowds like last night’s are rare as well. Thompson-Boling Arena has 21,678 seats, and on a Tuesday night where tipoff didn’t occur until 9:05 PM and I personally did not hit our home driveway until 12:29 AM, every single one of those seats was packed with a screaming fan. This is the fifth Kentucky-Tennessee game I have attended in Knoxville, and by a wide margin, this one had the lowest amount of blue I’ve ever seen.

Tennessee is now 10-3 in SEC play, tied with Kentucky for second. They’re now favored in all five remaining SEC games. While I personally think it may take a miracle from God above to win at Arkansas, anything feels possible with this team. A month ago, they were 11-5, 2-3 in SEC play, and had just gotten smoked by their rival to the tune of giving up 107 points on the road. It wasn’t an exciting time to be writing about the program, especially when it seemed they were headed towards their usual style of season in March.

Instead, here we are, and Tennessee has by some measures its most well-rounded team (in terms of top-30 offense & defense) since the 2013-14 team that came within two points of an Elite Eight bid. Tennessee is projected to finish 14-4 in SEC play, which would merely tie the second-highest win total posted by Tennessee in SEC play since 1977. I am greatly enjoying the renaissance of this team and, at large, the program. The roster’s stuffed with lovable kids and two old men (one being Fulkerson) that back down from nothing and are ready for a street brawl. Tennessee genuinely hasn’t had a team like that in a long time. I suggest hopping on the bandwagon while there’s still room.

I only have one thing in Various Notes for this game: if you are this person, thank you.

I cannot say much about this for personal reasons, but I would love to experience a moment like that with my grandfather again. Thanks for this wonderful moment and, uh, for making my wife tear up next to me.


I Just Called to Tell You That I Hope You’re Doin’ Fine

Drive-By Truckers, “Feb. 14”

Four weeks ago I wrote a very depressed, whiny post about how I was no longer enjoying this specific season in Tennessee history. I would say this is the pull quote of choice:

There’s still two months left of basketball to fix how this feels. The problem is that a healthy amount of people who follow me online see “there’s still two months left of basketball” and are feeling their eyeballs roll back in their heads, because it means you still have to watch this very-flawed team play basketball. I guess I’m still in the “wait until March” camp, but when the head coach has literally the third-most underwhelming NCAA Tournament resume of any active HC, I’m not sure what there is to wait for.

This was indeed whiny. There were indeed two months left in the season, and when you play what looked like the three toughest SEC opponents all in your first five SEC games, it’s not fun to cover loss after loss. But I promise there’s some sort of defense for this. After the Kentucky debacle, Tennessee was still in the KenPom top 15, but their offensive/defensive imbalance felt like its own ravine. Tennessee had the 51st-best offense and the 5th-best defense. Teams with that sort of split have gone far before, but when you have Pomeroy’s own research about how offense matters a bit more in March, some of your own research, and the admitted Barnes March problem…well, it sort of puts a cap on how excited you can get.

That’s how it felt at the time. A month later, things are different. Tennessee has won seven straight SEC games; the only loss is a one-point road loss to Texas, who is no worse than a top 20 team by any metric available. The offense has jumped from 51st to 29th; nearly 75% of Elite Eight teams in the last decade have ranked in the top 30 offensively. The defense, despite Vanderbilt hitting what I would politely call Garbage Shots, is still ranked 6th-best. Tennessee had a pretty bad shooting night on Saturday and rose in the advanced rankings because they got fouled so much and rebounded so well.

This is all adjusted for schedule, by the way. Tennessee now has five wins over Tier A (Pomeroy’s equivalent of Quadrant 1) this season; they had six at this time in the magical 2018-19 season and five in 2017-18. This is a very, very good basketball team that is poised to stand with some of Tennessee’s best in the history of the program. It’s alright if you allow yourself to like them. Forgiveness is a good thing, as is grace. The Tennessee of January 15 doesn’t seem to be the Tennessee of February 13. They have two huge opportunities in the week ahead: home Kentucky, road Arkansas. If they even go 1-1 in those, that’s a success. That’s what one of the 10-15 best teams in the sport would likely do.

I feel like it’s coming. The difference between the squad of a year ago and this particular edition is that even on nights where things aren’t firing on all cylinders, there are hustle plays. There are millions of deflections. There are more rebounds than at any point since the Cuonzo/Tyndall eras. There’s players willing to step up and take key shots at key moments.

Putting all objectivity aside, which I think I lost the capacity to possess a while ago, this is on pace to be no worse than one of the three most lovable Tennessee teams of my lifetime. In March, the only strength of schedule you can control is the very first game you play; everything after is up to the hands of fate. I’m ready for the dice roll.

The immediate devastation of the Olivier Nkamhoua injury was more human than athlete to me. Nkamhoua is here from Finland; as an international athlete, the NCAA has found one last piggish act in preventing Nkamhoua, Santiago Vescovi, and other international athletes from profiting off their name, image, and likeness. As we all know, because I hear it every day online and offline, the greatest crime you can commit is being born in a country that is not the United States of America.

So Nkamhoua already has that going against him, and that’s pretty bad. Think about everything else that goes with it. This is a young man that moved from Finland to the United States in his teens to attempt to follow his basketball dreams. Said dreams lead him to Maryland, where he becomes a late-blooming prospect that appears on Tennessee’s radar. Tennessee takes him in, and a local writer makes a Grant Williams comparison that gets brought up every week for the next two-plus years.

Nkamhoua struggles his first year and second; frankly, watching him play basketball most resembled the SpongeBob episode where the titular character is being blindly informed over a radio how to drive a car. But this offseason, seemingly all of those complaints disappeared. If you read the tea leaves, all you heard about was how Nkamhoua was the most improved player on the roster. I would ask around about it and hear back “sure, but we need to see it in real games,” which was entirely fair. I mean, you hear a player get compared to a first-round draft pick, come out and very much look not like that, and you become wary of any and all praise.

The season starts. Nkamhoua looks much improved indeed, but he still disappears for games, even weeks, at a time. From January 8 (LSU) to January 29 (Texas), he fails to crack double-digits even once. He begins losing playing time, and it feels like you’re not really back at Square One but you’re starting to see it in the distance after you thought you’d driven far away.

Then he reappears. The Texas A&M game presents a 15 point, 7 rebound, 3 block performance that is his best against anyone in a month and seems to restart his season and his drive. He starts well against South Carolina, too: in 17 minutes of play, he puts up 7 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 blocks. I guess that doesn’t look great when written out, but if you extrapolate that to his 27 minutes against A&M, that’s the equivalent of 11/8/3 in an SEC road game. Pretty darn good.

Nkamhoua goes up for a layup that looks normal until it doesn’t. Play continues without him on the other end. He can’t put any pressure on the ankle; the last we see of him in a Tennessee uniform in 2021-22 is him throwing his headband against a wall in frustration. He comes back to the bench by the end of that game, and briefly, you think “alright, maybe he just misses a few games and comes back.” That’s not the case. Rick Barnes announces the season-ending injury two days later, conveniently right after you hit publish on a weekly recap.

Right then and there, it would’ve been reasonable for this season to begin a small spiral. Nkamhoua is no greater than Tennessee’s fourth option offensively, but he was the centerpiece for what I had begun to write about as the March Lineup: Chandler, Zeigler, Vescovi, James, and Nkamhoua. Four legitimate shooters and a fifth that can shoot when needed and protects the rim extremely well. Over the course of the season, it had been Nkamhoua who had assumed the vacant Pons role, which none of us really saw coming. Without him, Tennessee’s defense would suffer, and I simply guessed that the offensive gains might not make up for it.

We have all of two games of data to work with. Both of them are nine-point wins. One felt better than the other, but frankly, the other in this data set could’ve easily been a 15-20 point win on a normal shooting night. Both games provided a few lineup frustrations, but all you can ask for is this: Tennessee was expected to win about 1.3-1.4 games this week and went 2-0. That’s a successful week. It makes writing the recaps easier.

What makes things actually enjoyable is seeing images like Grant Ramey shared, presumably from a team video, where the team is calling Nkamhoua to check in:

Or this one, also via Grant, but from a very different scenario:

I have no clue how travel works with regards to injured players. At least in the NBA, there’s a set limit on how many bodies you’re allowed to have on the bench, and injured players sometimes makes the numbers not work, so they stay home. That being said, I hope we keep seeing Nkamhoua. I hope he feels supported in this time. I look at that image of Barnes FaceTiming Nkamhoua – which, raise your hand if you’re at least a little surprised Rick Barnes knows how to use FaceTime – and feel like you simply have to embrace this team, flaws and warts and all. They are becoming a joy to watch. They’re bringing those who can’t travel with them in person along with them in spirit.

The love these players have for each other feels very real. That image from 2020-21 about “culture,” when the four standing Tennessee players picked up the one from the floor, simply seems a lot more accurate for the 2021-22 edition. Whether you want to credit Zakai Zeigler, Kennedy Chandler, Nkamhoua, Barnes, Mike Schwartz, Smokey, or Kellen Hiser for that, it’s up to you. I just know that I like watching this team and I like them as people and I like them as players. It’s a nice feeling to watch a basketball team and realize that even the lineups you don’t like have players you like as people.

This is the notes section of Other Stuff That Didn’t Fit:

  • The midseason turnover issue seems to have ebbed. Well, it’s three games, but Tennessee’s won the turnover battle in three straight games. At one point, they’d turned it over on 20% or more of possessions in seven of nine games. I actually think the key part of this isn’t the backcourt but rather the big guys. Fulkerson and Plavsic have a combined two TOs since the A&M game.
  • The Chandler/Zeigler combo is questionably Tennessee’s secret sauce. I’m saying “questionably” because there are other factors. BUT: Tennessee’s offense, over the course of the season, is 5 points better per 100 when both are on the court versus one/neither. The biggest impact isn’t shooting but rather shot quality; Tennessee has a better rim-and-threes ratio, more assists, and is slightly better on twos.
  • You got both sides of the officiating coin. Tennessee had 16 fouls to State’s 14. Vanderbilt had 23 to Tennessee’s 16. But the two games felt way different: State had 23 FTAs to Tennessee’s 9 despite Tennessee having the higher two-point attempt rate, while Vanderbilt barely attempted any twos at all yet still managed to get up 20 FTAs. Tennessee got 31 and frankly got a couple of favorable calls. I’m not sure what the message is here, other than I have no idea how anyone could manage to be a professional coach and not want to bite a ref’s head off at least once a game.
  • Speaking of which: The Pippen Problem. I understand that college officiating is fundamentally different than the NBA because they’re fundamentally different games. That’s fine. But to be honest, I’ve felt a little warmer towards the NBA this season because they’ve tried to eliminate what I would charitably call 40% of Scotty Pippen, Jr.’s game: shot-faking, then blindly tossing your body like a grenade into the nearest defender. It works. It gets points. It clearly is something officials will call, unless you’re Kennedy Chandler, I guess. But does anyone actually like this?
  • Keep shooting. Tennessee went 11-for-37 on everything that wasn’t a layup or dunk against Vanderbilt. Whatever. Keep shooting. Considering Tennessee went 19-for-72 on non-layup/dunks against Vandy this year and has a much better percentage against basically every other opponent (including the one they’ll play Tuesday), forget about it and move on.

With No Regard For Human Life

Tuesday, February 1: #22 Tennessee 90, Texas A&M 80 (15-6, 6-3 SEC)
Saturday, February 5: #22 Tennessee 81, South Carolina 57 (16-6, 7-3 SEC)

Maybe it was here:

Or here:

Maybe here:

I’m thinking this played a part:

Or, well, here:

Possibly this, too:

Or here:

I mean, frankly, maybe it started when it actually started:

But somewhere along the last three months, Zakai Zeigler went from a New York curiosity that had no serious Division I offers until July to someone who’s on track to be one of the 3-5 all-time most beloved Tennessee players in any major sport the school has to offer. In the mild-to-moderate-to-severe annoyances this season has brought fans of all varieties, there has been one consistent tether to fandom: Zeigler. How a 5’9″ player that committed on August 27 and was initially only taken as an emergency backup for Kennedy Chandler became the fanbase’s favorite player in years is a story we get to live out in real time. What a joy, frankly.

Maybe you have to start where you’re supposed to start. A player who receives little-to-no Division I attention, beyond the Northeast Conference’s Bryant, attends the 2021 Peach Jam in Atlanta. There are probably 300 prospects there more well-known than him if not more. In the News-Sentinel piece, he describes this as his last-ditch attempt at getting a real offer before he takes a prep year. Player has a great week in Atlanta; player receives several committable offers, the most well-known of which would be Minnesota and Wichita State. Player receives a Tennessee offer two weeks after those, visits on August 22, commits on August 27, starts classes on August 31.

In the season preview, potentially the wrongest thing I’ve written online since I began writing about Tennessee basketball publicly five years ago, I listed Zeigler as a possible rotation member (fair). I said he’d play less than 100 minutes of basketball this season. I said his height (5’9″) and weight (167) would put a hard cap on playing time in Year One, because he came in too late to get serious strength training. I figured defense would be an issue. I thought wrong. I am far from the first person Zakai Zeigler has proven wrong; I am simply one of the latest and most public.

Zeigler didn’t top 13 minutes in the first three games, but he broke out in the fourth: 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting against North Carolina. He sort of laid dormant for a while but just…kept coming back. He completely flipped the script of his October scouting report: he struggled to knock down shots, but was ridiculously tenacious on defense. He picked up five steals against Mississippi, then four against South Carolina, then four against Vanderbilt, including a play that essentially sealed the game. Then he started hitting shots again. Watch that CBS video once more:

Listen to Kevin Harlan’s voice levitate. It hangs for a second as the shot drops. You hear what sounds as either “BOOM” or “OOH” but translates to “Zeigler, another three!” Harlan has voiced many beautiful moments of basketball fandom for me; the one most college basketball fans will recall is “Farokmanesh, a three…goooooooooood!” The one the average sports fan will know is this, one of the 3-5 greatest calls by any sports announcer that I know of.

Without the commentary, I don’t think this is one of LeBron’s 25 best dunks of his career. (Noting here that Harlan once used this call for a Kobe dunk that is probably better, but happened in a regular season game and has a worse YouTube video.) LeBron has gone higher, slammed harder, hurt more, defied physics and basic science more beautifully. But it is the commentary that makes me believe this is a physical accomplishment on the level of walking on the Moon. WITH NO REGARD FOR HUMAN LIFE is such a visceral, gut-rattling call. It is what you would say for an act of war, not for someone harshly placing a round ball in a basket. But when you think about it, it makes sense. Basketball is war. It is violent, brutal, and it hurts you, both mentally and physically. We can’t get enough of it and we never will.

Harlan’s voice is meant for something greater than sports. If it were still 2012 and people were still making the Facebook pages titled I Wish Morgan Freeman Narrated My Life, I would make the counter-page for Kevin Harlan. It is an absurd act of luck and grace that Kevin Harlan calls college basketball games with fair regularity. It is even more absurd that Kevin Harlan got to call this particular Zakai Zeigler game. In a just world, as much as I enjoy and love our friends Tom Hart and Dane Bradshaw, it would have been Harlan’s voice soundtracking Zeigler’s own LeBron moment:

In October, the reasonable expectation for Zakai Zeigler, and by everyone that doesn’t have the last name Zeigler, was for him to be a playable ninth or tenth man. On the worst night, you figured the emergency backup point guard would come in for 10 minutes because Kennedy Chandler got into foul trouble or something. All of this fun stuff wasn’t supposed to happen until 2022-23 at the earliest. Really, given how raw Zeigler sounded and how little strength training he’d had, you could’ve said his junior year (2023-24) would be the right time for a breakout.

It is February now. We are six days from the Super Bowl. Zakai Zeigler is, at worst, one of the five best players on Tennessee’s roster. There have been games where he’s outplayed Chandler, a near-certain first-round draft pick, by a significant margin. Zeigler and Chandler have combined for 107 points over Tennessee’s last four games. Zeigler has outscored Jabari Smith, Chandler, and TyTy Washington since January 25th. Again, this is a 5’9″ emergency freshman point guard who had as many SEC offers as I did seven months ago.

This is not supposed to logically happen. Bart Torvik’s player stats include a 0-100 recruiting rating for each player, which essentially corresponds to “how highly was this player rated by the average recruiting website.” Among freshmen at high-major schools, #1 in Box Plus-Minus is Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, who was the #1 overall recruit in last year’s class. #2: A.J. Griffin of Duke, who was 18th. Of this year’s top 22 players by BPM, 12 were ranked no lower than 35th in the class of 2021. All but two were at least ranked in the top 200. Only one of those 22 was, at any point of their senior year, unranked. Take a wild guess which one.

So here we are: an unranked, barely recruited 5’9″ freshman has stolen the hearts of the entire Tennessee fanbase with a full month of games left to play in his first season. And that’s Act One. Imagine what Acts Two, Three, and Four will bring. Using Torvik’s same player stats, I attempted to see what happened to freshman with a similar Year One to Zeigler (>1.5 PRPG, >5.5 BPM, high-major player, no taller than 6′). I then had to expand it because the initial list was eight people long over 15 seasons, and one of them was Zeigler’s teammate.

Alright then: 6’3″ or shorter, same PRPG, same BPM, but a 3% or better Steal% and a 20% or higher Usage Rate. This time, let’s see what happened after their freshman year.

One more: the Player Comparison tool on Torvik’s site, which takes all of Zeigler’s stats and throws up a similarity score to other seasons that match it most closely. This is freshman-only, and these are the five closest comparisons.

Please remember that this is a player who was completely unranked by any recruiting service until August 26, the day before he committed to Tennessee. Among the five players that this system feels are his closest comparisons, there are a combined 11 All-Conference First or Second Team selections. There are five players who at least touched the court in an NBA game. Three of them are active. One of them, VanVleet, is an All-Star. Of the five, only Mills failed to play all four years at his school of choice.

Consider all of that, but most importantly consider that you are strongly likely to get three more years plus the next 6-8 weeks of Zakai Zeigler in a Tennessee uniform. The beauty and horror of life is that we cannot tell the future. Anything, both good and bad, can reasonably happen from this point onward. All of what we know to look for going forward is based on past events. Yet those past events are so exciting, so charming, so singularly lovable that the uncertainty of the future is embraced with arms wide open.

Basketball, the beautiful game, has given Zeigler and his family a chance at a new life. It provides, and if there is justice, it will provide for him. I find myself most excited to see the ways the future will provide a career for a player who grew up in the shadows and deserves the spotlight like nothing else.

Various notes from the last two games:

  • Another out-of-nowhere ref show. Tennessee and Texas A&M combined for 42 fouls, a couple of which were late A&M desperation ones but most of which were organic. I was a little surprised by this, mostly because Tennessee is rarely a foul-heavy team and A&M isn’t as extreme as Carolina. Getting a little tired of noting these stats in games where the general expectation should be about 32-34 combined fouls; very much “this could’ve been an email” vibes. Let the players play.
  • On free throw variance. There were a couple weeks where Tennessee fans were in tatters over free throw shooting. That’s fine; it did look bad for a while. Those complaints have now gone quiet after Tennessee went 34-for-41 (82.9%) at the line this week, but the worst Benevolent God of Variance action was letting A&M, a team that entered the game shooting 64% at the line, go 21-for-25 (84%). You could explain five of A&M’s 80 points away right there; a 90-75 scoreline would indeed feel a little better.
  • The Josiah-Jordan James resurgence. Torvik’s site also provides an adjusted Net Rating for each player that rarely goes above, like, +8 or +9. James posted a +7.3 against A&M and +9.6 against South Carolina to go along with his two highest scoring performances of the season. James is now shooting 32.7% from deep in SEC play, which sounds average but is a percentage everyone was begging for when the guy was in the 20-25% range.
  • Positive three-point variance! When I found myself in the depths of exploring seagulls in January, it was in part influenced by Tennessee’s seeming inability to have a normal basketball game. At the time, through 14 games, these were their numbers:
    • 50% or better: 1 game (7.1%)
    • 40-49%: 4 games (28.6%)
    • 30-39%: 1 game (7.1%)
    • 20-29%: 6 games (42.9%)
    • 19% or worse: 2 games (14.3%)

Part of the frustration was that Tennessee was having significantly more bad games (8 of 29% or worse) than good ones (5 of 40% or better). Fast forward four weeks, and here’s the new numbers:

    • 50% or better: 2 games (9.1%)
    • 40-49%: 7 games (31.8%)
    • 30-39%: 3 games (13.6%)
    • 20-29%: 8 games (36.3%)
    • 19% or worse: 2 games (9.1%)

The problem still exists in that Tennessee is bizarrely incapable of having a normal, boring shooting night. The great news is that the top half of this chart has grown immensely since the LSU loss. Tennessee now has nine games of 40% or better from deep, and the median performance is now a 35.7% outing in a home win over LSU. One month of basketball changes a lot!

  • Four guards/wings at all times. Torvik’s algorithm considers James a ‘stretch 4,’ which is…probably fair, but Tennessee starts him at the 3 in pretty much every game. I’m sort of at the point where I don’t care about starting lineups as long as the closing lineup is the one that makes sense. Tennessee got there in the South Carolina game, unfortunately thanks to the Nkamhoua injury. Per Hoop-Explorer, lineups with any three of Vescovi/Chandler/Zeigler/Powell were +15 in 23 possessions; all other lineups were +9 in 42. Play three of those guys at all important times, and you will be happy.
  • Speaking of which: closing lineup. The data of CBB Analytics shares this: Tennessee’s most frequent lineup with 4 minutes to go this season has been Chandler, Zeigler, Vescovi, James, and Nkamhoua. Second-most frequent: the first four, but with Fulkerson. Maybe everything is fine?
  • Finally: KenPom bump. Tennessee now sits 34th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, which would both be the second-highest offense of the Barnes era and also would fulfill a useful stats thing. This website scanned the NCAA Tournament field in 2018 and found that, since KenPom’s existence, 86% of Final Four teams had an offense that was at least in the top 40 nationally. 73% were in the top 20. I’m not picking Tennessee to go to the Final Four barring a very advantageous draw (more on that later this week), but Tennessee is trending in the right direction at the right time. Last year’s Elite Eight teams and their pre-NCAAT offensive rankings: 1st, 3rd, 6th, 7th, 18th, 28th, 35th, and 63rd. At least being top 35 is positive, especially after a month of being outside the top 50.


January 26: #18 Tennessee 78, Florida 71 (14-5, 5-3 SEC)
January 29: Texas 52, #18 Tennessee 51 (14-6)

And I saw Sisyphus at his endless task raising his prodigious stone with both his hands. With hands and feet he tried to roll it up to the top of the hill, but always, just before he could roll it over on to the other side, its weight would be too much for him, and the pitiless stone would come thundering down again on to the plain.

Here is the final play of Saturday’s game with precisely 3.4 seconds on the clock. Zakai Zeigler takes the inbound, uses his Jared Harper-like speed to get down the court extremely quickly, and goes into the final play. Right here, right now, Zeigler is stopped as he touches the top of the key. With Nkamhoua trailing by way of receiving the final inbounds pass, Tennessee is playing 4-on-5, but look at the attention Zeigler draws. This turns the play into a 3-on-2.


Two players are covered up: Victor Bailey, Jr. in one corner, Santiago Vescovi in the other. Would I have had Bailey on the court? Probably not, because Justin Powell is objectively better. But Justin Powell did not tie the game with a genuinely spectacular rebound and putback, so I get why Bailey is there. When Zeigler pulls up at 3.4 seconds to pass the ball, the highest-quality option on this play, as this screencap suggests, is Josiah-Jordan James for an open three on the right wing.

For his career on this shot – a three-pointer of any kind on the wing – James is a 31% shooter. For his career in general, James is a 31% three-point shooter. For his career on catch-and-shoot threes of any kind, James is 31% from the field. He is remarkably consistent, if nothing else. Yet some context is needed. When James receives the ball, he has scored eight of Tennessee’s 16 points as part of a 16-0 run that turned the game from a 51-35 ball of pathetic annoyance to a 51-51 ball of I Am Actually Laughing. He is 3-for-6 from three; every other player on the team combined is 2-for-11, including partner Vescovi, who is 0-for-5 from deep and 1-for-8 from the field.

James receives the ball. Here’s how it looks with 2.7 seconds to go.


When James starts his shooting motion, I would charitably say that the closest Texas defender is five feet away. In the study Jimmy Dykes showed during last week’s LSU game, Tennessee had been shooting roughly 38% on any three where the defender was four feet or further away. James could have passed this to Vescovi, which I would’ve been fine with, but at that time, the Texas defender (Devin Askew) is closer to Vescovi than James.

The final play, which Rick Barnes drew up out of a timeout, gave Tennessee’s best three-point shooter on the night a pretty open look. People online keep screaming “YOU DON’T NEED A THREE!” or whatever. I suppose they are factually correct. Zakai Zeigler could have taken his little body, plowed directly ahead into three players of oncoming traffic, and either attempted to draw a foul that may or may not have been called or tossed up a floater over triple coverage. Considering that Zeigler has attempted all of four floaters this season, maybe you’re right. Maybe that is the right call: a shot that Tennessee’s roster as a whole hits 41% of the time, or 0.82 points-per-shot.

Or maybe the process of the play provided the best outcome it reasonably could have. If James gets the ball to Vescovi, great. Take off a second for the pass, take off an additional 0.5-1 seconds for Vescovi to get into his shooting motion. Vescovi reasonably gets that shot off with 0.7 or so seconds left, and maybe it goes in. Fine, luckfarts happen, whatever. But Tennessee did that exact same thing in this exact same game two months ago and everyone pretended they hated it then because “YOU DON’T NEED A THREE!”

That was on a night where the entire team shot at the rate the non-James players shot against Texas.

Because neither of these shots went in, everyone hates them, and everyone wants Rick Barnes jailed for some sort of crime against humanity. (Let it be known that Chris Beard should be held equally accountable for an offense that turned it over on a third of their possessions.) Because no one can seem to understand that the process is fundamentally different than the result, and the process can be good even if and when the result is bad, and the process can be bad even when the result is good (remember when a certain beloved player who shot 30% from three his final two seasons somehow made a fadeaway three to beat VCU?) we are here yet again. And boy, what an absolute joy it is to write about it.

Karl Havoc / "I Don't Even Want To Be Around Anymore" | Know Your Meme

The good news is that Tennessee overcome what felt a little like a luckfart game in midweek against Florida. It’s the exact kind of annoying slop you have to get through to achieve an SEC Tournament double-bye. I no longer have delusions of grandeur that Auburn is somehow going to blow the 1 seed; that seems very well locked up. The more interesting thing is that Tennessee still remains on track to battle Kentucky for the 2 seed. While neither side would admit it, it benefits both to simply avoid Auburn as long as they have to.

The process of Tennessee’s midweek game against Florida was pretty fantastic. In that one, Tennessee got off 21 catch-and-shoot attempts; 12 were deemed unguarded by Synergy, which was genuinely surprising and positive against a Florida defense that hadn’t allowed that many open three-point attempts in months. Tennessee deservingly had their best day from deep in some time.

That Vescovi open three was the result of Justin Powell, of all people, driving to the lane and dishing it to the corner to the best shooter on the team. Florida and Texas have fundamentally different defensive structures that result in much different outcomes, but in this game, Tennessee’s roster simply knew where to strike to create good processes that resulted in good, happy outcomes.

The funny thing about all of what’s happening with Tennessee basketball right now is that immediately after I described them as the kings of slop, they went out and produced the most watchable SEC game they’ve played in since 2018-19. Florida/Tennessee would’ve been a blast to watch if you were a neutral fan, or if you simply were unaware that Pat Adams was in existence. All sorts of great shot-making; all sorts of quality individual play. Tennessee played really good defense for most of this game and still got a test they probably needed after shutting down LSU. I liked it!

I think I would like it more, though, if Tennessee simply never receives Pat Adams for a basketball game again. For the first time ever Wednesday, my little brother (a freshman at Tennessee) and I attended a Tennessee basketball game ‘together.’ Well, he’s in the student section and I’m in the upper deck where I hear what I assume to be an otherwise-sweet child yelling “BOO VOLS! GO GATORS!” in the middle of every free throw attempt, but whatever.

I bring this up because with two minutes left, I made plans to meet up with him after the game to say hello. That was at 7:56 PM Eastern. The game ended 26 minutes later. This is not a sustainable thing. If the SEC wants to get calls right, that’s fine, I get it. But the SEC must find a way to both 1) Get calls right; while 2) Doing it in 30 seconds or less. We do not need full two-minute timeouts for every review. We do not need to hand both teams a chance to get a breather. We can surely officiate a game correctly – which Pat Adams did not do – and surely get in and out of an arena in a reasonable span of time. Maybe next year, when I’m reminded again that being a member of this conference Just Means More.

Here are the last 32 Elite Eight teams and how they ranked on KenPom on January 30.

That is a long image. Here is the point: of the last 32 teams to make the Elite Eight, 12 ranked outside of the KenPom top 15 on January 30. 10 had either an offense or defense that ranked outside of the top 50 nationally. The #1 team made it every year – hello, 2021-22 Gonzaga – but #2 had a 50% success rate. #5 made it once. #6 and #7, supposedly both on track for the Elite Eight, went a combined 0-for-8.

It is a long season that culminates in a tournament where you have zero control of your strength of schedule after the first round. Weird stuff happens every single year. Upsets happen every single year. I would advise not pulling the ripcord until the ripcord has been pulled for you, especially when the operators of the ripcord are currently 13th on KenPom.

Various notes and stuff that didn’t make it in:

  • Ban 6 PM weekday tips. On a normal day with no game, my wife and I live 20 minutes from the University campus. We left home at 4:57 PM ET, the earliest we could leave. We did not park for the Florida game until 6:07 PM ET; we did not enter the arena until 6:18. I understand that television decides everything now. I understand that money is money. I also understand that doing this horse[REDACTED] to fans for another decade is going to lead to a whole new wave of articles about Why Fans Have Stopped Attending College Sports Events in 2032.
  • All that said about Pat Adams, Tennessee did get the normal home whistle. Everyone has seen Josiah-Jordan James obviously fouling a three-point shooter and somehow not getting called for it, but there were a few other things Tennessee got away with. The foul differential settled at Florida +3, which is pretty much average for a game involving Pat Adams.
  • Plavsic minutes, we hardly knew you. Fulkerson played his way into the game-closing lineup against Florida in a deserving manner. Tennessee went with James/Nkamhoua as the closing frontcourt against Texas, which is something I’ve only been asking for since November. Uros will have good games here and there, but I think I overreacted last week. That’s on me.
  • Texas shot extremely well and still only scored 52. That is wild! Texas posted a 63.5% eFG%. They still somehow only managed 0.918 PPP. That’s the lowest offensive efficiency of any team in 2021-22 with a minimum of a 63% eFG%. Tennessee had to deal with an outlier shooting night from three for Texas and still nearly won.
  • A team finally forced Tennessee back to 2020-21. Part of why the Texas game was frustrating as it was: the play-by-play stats credit Tennessee as taking 18 non-rim twos. I think these were more of the hook shot/floater variety than anything with mid-range jumpers, but it helps explain why Tennessee had such a hard time finding points. Texas really did play a terrific defensive game for 35 minutes.
  • Zakai Zeigler has earned a starter-level role. After last night, Zeigler now sits in a virtual tie with Justin Powell for fifth on the team in PRPG!, Bart Torvik’s all-encompassing Points Above Replacement stat. He’s third in box plus-minus. The team is 6.8 points better with him on the court than off, per Hoop-Explorer. The closing lineup should be Chandler/Zeigler/Vescovi/James/Nkamhoua until further notice.

You Merely Adopted the Mud, We Were Born In It

January 18: #24 Tennessee 68, Vanderbilt 60 (12-5, 3-3 SEC)
January 22: #24 Tennessee 64, #13 LSU 50 (13-5, 4-3 SEC)

Sometime during Tennessee’s wire-to-wire beating of top-15 LSU on Saturday – maybe when it was 42-28 and Tennessee had held LSU to three points across the last 10 minutes of play – I had a realization. For all of the complaining, all the whining about how this offense isn’t terribly good and the product on the court is genuinely unwatchable at times, we are discussing a team that ranks in the top 15 nationally in the advanced metric of your choosing. They are very, very good at several things. The thing they are very best at is taking about 90% of their opponents, turning the heat up on defense, watching as the dirt turns to wet, wet mud, and seeing these overmatched opponents flop around, unable to find stable footing in the Knoxville slop.

This is the genesis of good things for Tennessee. Sure, you get the occasional great shooting nights…sure, Tennessee still has the capacity to do a lot of good inside the perimeter…sure, there are other ways to win. But this – dragging other teams into the mud like little pigs, watching them flounder as you laugh at how uncomfortable they are – this is Tennessee’s identity. And at some point, you have to be alright with that.

I’m there. I’m good with it. If Tennessee has to win games 64-50 and 66-46 and 69-54 and 66-60, good. They’re wins. Three of those are butt-kickings. Tennessee is wholly uncharmed by style points. They simply don’t care if you think it’s pretty or watchable or goody-goody two-shoes happy happy joy stuff. They are winning games by stuffing the opponent in a locker for 40 minutes. Only two teams have managed to escape an opponent-adjusted locker-stuffing this season; they are ranked #6 (Villanova) and #7 (Kentucky) on KenPom as I type.

The most fun Tennessee team of all-time is still 2018-19 Tennessee, the only team of the Rick Barnes era to have a truly good offense. I don’t mind speaking that as a truth, because it is a truth. I like watching great offense a lot more than I do great defense, because I like watching the orange ball go in the net and the crowd going bonkers. It is a good thing and it is supposedly why anyone watches this sport in the first place. Then again, attempting to figure out what Tennessee fans want on a weekly basis has proven difficult.

The point of this is that Tennessee basketball has an identity. Tennessee basketball is Mountain Wisconsin. Bo Ryan, outside of about two years where he had a top 10 pick on his roster, was entirely unconcerned with making you happy with lovely offensive play. He did not care about how much you liked watching the ball go in the net. He only cared about winning by any means necessary. (Reportedly, he also cared pretty deeply about quitting midseason because ALLEGEDLY an affair was going on. I do not believe that will ever be a concern with Rick Barnes.)

Bo Ryan-era Wisconsin would drag you into the mud and watch you flail around helplessly as the Badgers cruised to wins of 57-50 and 52-45 and 68-56, all over top 15 opponents. You were not born in the slop. You were not raised in the slop. This Tennessee team seems wholly comfortable pulsing your team in the blender for an uncomfortable amount of time.

Nothing about this is terribly pretty. I also am not sure that ‘pretty’ really matters right now when the team is 13th on both KenPom and Torvik and cruising right along towards being a 3 or 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It is exactly what most of us expected preseason. The route to get there has been choppy, but with Tennessee’s most difficult month out of the way, maybe February is where you get the style points and the capital-F Fun back. Look at this:

And tell me you can’t feel at least a little bit of excitement for the local basketball program. Even taking those games in the 50s as coin-flips, you can pretty easily stare at that and see an 8-2 run in SEC play to the finish with at least two added Quadrant 1 wins. That would be 13-5 in the SEC, or merely tying the second-best SEC effort Tennessee basketball has seen in 14 years. That’s pretty good. The team is pretty good. It’s worth acknowledging, even if they don’t play a style most actively desire.

The other thing that has happened is that Tennessee has sort of kiboshed the idea of Smokey as the team’s mascot. This role is now Uros Plavsic’s to lose.

In the span of three weeks, Plavsic has turned from a guy most fans saw as completely unplayable to arguably the team’s best post player. I’m typing that out now and it still feels unbelievable. I promise you it’s real. These are the conference-only numbers via Bart Torvik’s site:

The last thing we saw prior to SEC play was John Fulkerson dropping 24 points on an Arizona team that looks like, at worst, one of the four or five best college basketball has to offer this year. The last time Uros Plavsic had scored double-digit points was February 1, 2020. His career-high for rebounds in a game: four. This is for a 7-footer who entered college as a low four-star recruit that convinced both Arizona State and Tennessee to take a chance on him.

Plavsic drawing a billion fouls against Alabama is one thing. Plavsic putting up 13 & 7 on the road at Vanderbilt is another thing. But hitting this, the longest shot attempt of his season:

And doing this two minutes later:

Is something entirely new. (I don’t care that the block probably should’ve been goaltending. It looked cool and that counts.)

Uros Plavsic will probably never be a dominant basketball player. The agility may never be there. I obviously would prefer to never see him attempt a jumper because I’m sure that would look as weird as it does in my head. Also, all of the previous three sentences are entirely meaningless. Right now, Uros Plavsic is doing everything he can to make Tennessee the best basketball team it can be. He’s earned his right to start and finish games ahead of John Fulkerson and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield. Right now, the team is about 1.5 points better per 100 possessions when he’s on the court versus when he’s off.

For this man at this time, I couldn’t be happier. I think of all the tweets and online comments he’s seen about how he’s an embarrassment to basketball. How he shouldn’t be a scholarship player at an SEC university. How he somehow tricked 1.5 coaches (sorry, Bobby Hurley isn’t a real coach) into giving him a scholarship. How Rick Barnes was dumb for continuing to give him a chance. You read a quote like this:

And you read this, from Plavsic’s own writing about his basketball career before last season began:

And you remember entirely what it is that makes you care about college sports in the first place. Uros Plavsic doesn’t have to do any of this. It is entirely of his own volition. Never once has Plavsic complained to the media about not playing, about being a team cheerleader, about being a guy who didn’t really contribute much to the team during his first 2.5 seasons in orange. Every single game, whether the guy is on or off the floor, you see the energy Plavsic has that he tries to transfer to everyone else. After every dunk last season, the first person you’d see cheering from the bench was Plavsic. After every block, Plavsic was yelling at the opponent and letting them know precisely what he thought of them.

At this moment, for this time, Plavsic is the Master of Ceremonies. If you want to further the analogy of the first section of this post, Uros Plavsic is the Master of Mud. He has learned how to drag opponents, whether in the Twitter sense of dragging someone or simply lulling them to sleep with his array of hooks and quietly-improving defense. At perhaps the least-likely time of his entire career, he has emerged as a genuinely important and lovable piece of the puzzle at Tennessee.

Rooting for Uros Plavsic to succeed is almost as easy as breathing air. I look forward to continuing to do it, no matter how the rest of his season plays out. He’s earned his moment in the sun; I sincerely hope that, for him, it lasts a very long time. In a season laden with various frustrations, he and Zakai Zeigler have been tethers to fandom in a way I haven’t experienced in a while. It’s nice to see them repaid for their work.

Some various notes of the last week:

  • Tennessee posted a 38.4% eFG% against Vanderbilt and won. Unfortunately, that happened, but it feeds into our pig-slop narrative so hang on with me. Tennessee’s now won five games in the last three seasons where they posted a 40% or worse eFG%; only Texas A&M, among SEC teams, is able to say the same. Obligatory!
  • Tennessee’s now held 15 of 18 opponents below 1 PPP. So, without context, you probably don’t care much about this stat, but I promise it’s pretty important. KenPom rates Tennessee’s schedule so far as the 8th-toughest in America, with nine games in the Tier A (his equivalent of Quadrant 1) grouping. Only three teams – Villanova, LSU, Kentucky – have topped 1 PPP. Consider that last year’s awesome defense allowed nine teams to go >1 PPP, the 2017-18 killers gave up 15 >1 PPP games, and as far as I could find, no Tennessee team in a non-COVID season has allowed fewer than 12 of these games (2009-10). This is on track to be a historically good defense, and they’re a week away from finishing the meat of their schedule. The final ten games feature six against Quadrant 2 or lower competition, or one more than all of December/January combined.
  • Even the LSU slop was actually pretty successful on offense. Tennessee managed 64 points on 65 possessions (0.985 PPP), which looks bad on its face…but is also the highest PPP surrendered by LSU this season by a good margin. Torvik translates this to about a 1.23 PPP performance against an average defense, which is insane.
  • The Jimmy Dykes thing. He reached out Tuesday morning with a request and, thanks to some features I have via Synergy, I provided an answer Wednesday night. He is a good guy that I find myself constantly thankful for.
  • One bad thing: the Fulkerson/Plavsic lineup. Without fail, it seems like this gets anywhere from 3-10 minutes of run each game. It’s perhaps the one thing Barnes does that drives me the nuttiest, because it’s objectively a terrible combination. I would stop doing this immediately and just play one or the other, because it’s an offensive disaster.

Lastly: Game Scores. Bart Torvik has this awesome metric called Game Scores that are essentially telling you on a scale of 0-100 (average being 50) how good or bad your performance was. Basically, if you put up a 95, you’re playing like a team with a Pythag rating of .9500 (which would be top 5 right now). All of this to say that these are the current 95+ Game Score rankings:

Half of Tennessee’s performances have been really, really good. The other half have been somewhere between ‘still good’ and ‘oh God.’ Anyway, while I do think LSU’s are aided by some insane 3PT% luck, this feels like a mostly-fair representation of how good the very best of the SEC is. Auburn is a step ahead of everyone else; LSU gets there on their best nights; Tennessee is capable of crushing an opponent on any given night. The real surprise is seeing that Kentucky’s only uncorked a few truly dominant outings, one of which was obviously against Tennessee. Also, this should help you understand why Texas A&M isn’t even a top 60 KenPom team despite being 15-4: they have no results of any significance and are almost never dominating.

Thanks for reading. For more Tennessee basketball content and whatever else, head to @statsbywill on Twitter. If you would like to reach out privately: statsbywill at gmail.

Local Basketball Team Plays Game, Does Thing

January 11: #22 Tennessee 66, South Carolina 46 (11-4, 2-2 SEC)
January 15: #18 Kentucky 107, #22 Tennessee 79 (11-5, 2-3 SEC)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Normally these come out on Mondays, but my weekend became a lot more free because a family member has COVID (with mild symptoms) and I am quarantining in a bedroom watching my cat stare at birds. So, here’s the recap.

Well, here you go.

The great thing about somehow managing to produce the program’s best-ever defensive performance against an SEC opponent in the KenPom era (2001-pres.) followed hilariously by the literal worst defensive performance against any opponent is that it pretty much blows up whatever narrative you want to run with. Tennessee’s only hope to go far in March is defense? Defense just got Hamburger Hilled by a team that had zero wins over top 25 teams. Tennessee puts up 11 threes on a Kentucky defense that only gave up 10+ once prior to that game? Doesn’t matter because you lost by 28. Kentucky hit a billion jumpers after years of not doing so? Feeds into the narrative of one head coach being willing to make changes.

When everything is nice and tidy and narrative-friendly, you get something easy to write about, like…I don’t know, last weekend. Or most weekends. Tennessee has gotten pretty good at running out the same narratives, the same supposed “issues,” the same public criticism of basketball players. The only fun twist on this one is that they did at least cover the KenPom spread against South Carolina, so that was nice. I guess. They also had some bench players have good offensive moments against Kentucky, and that’s always cool. I like when guys who don’t get much shine get an opportunity to do so and take advantage. Maybe this leads to a Brandon Huntley-Hatfield renaissance, which would be really exciting. I mean, I doubt it, but it would be exciting.

I don’t know. People seem to like my writing on Tennessee basketball, so consider this a post about Tennessee basketball. Might as well keep doing it.

The positive side of this is that Tennessee’s February still looks relatively tidy. Sure, they just got carpet-bombed by a ruthless man who saw that he was tired of losing last year and did something to fix it, but that doesn’t change the fact they’re currently going to be favored in nine, and possibly ten, of their final 10 games. The prospect for a great run to the finish to rescue what’s been kind of a sad start to SEC play is certainly there.

And, along with that, Tennessee does have some upside to play out the back half of this month with. They’ll get LSU and Florida at home and should be favored in both, while a road win at Vanderbilt suddenly will count as a Quadrant 1 victory if they make it happen. The road Texas game is more a luxury than a necessity (though Chris Beard seems to be struggling in a similar fashion to Tennessee), but if they finish this month going 3-1 over the next two weeks with any three wins of the possible four, they’ll add no less than two Quadrant 1 victories to their resume.

And as annoying as I’m sure it is to hear this, Tennessee’s most likely outcome is indeed 3-1. 2-2 is slightly behind that, but 3-1 is the expectation. Tennessee, as of the time of writing, still sits inside the KenPom top 15. They’re still a pretty good team. Even pretty good teams receive a destruction or two from time to time for the simple reason that they’re closer to the 40th-best team than they are the 5th. That’s kind of the nature of college basketball: on your best nights, everyone loves you; on the worst, you look like road kill that keeps getting hit by various distracted dads driving home from the CVS.

So, sure, lots of season to go. That’s nice. Tennessee will probably still finish this season as either the 4 or 5 seed in the SEC Tournament. I would personally prefer to be the 4 because playing either Missouri or South Carolina to make the quarterfinals is pretty much completely pointless, but I guess it’s not a huge deal. You beat one or the other by 18 and you move on to the next round.

And then you can get to March, where Tennessee is probably a 4 or 5 seed (yes, I’m being serious). You’re probably favored to win one game, then the second is a coin-flip. Maybe you make the Sweet Sixteen and maybe you don’t. We’ll see. That’s a couple of months away. All you can control is the present.

The present is this: Tennessee is 11-5, below .500 in the SEC, and just got ran off the court by their only real basketball rival. They are objectively a good basketball team, but when you lose by 28 to Kentucky and couldn’t pull off a single great road win when you had three huge road opportunities, fans are gonna skip right past the first seven words of this sentence and revisit “11-5, below .500 in the SEC.” I am writing this on Saturday; Tennessee probably won’t be ranked on Monday. Whatever, who cares, it’s the AP Poll. Tennessee can do the thing they usually do where they leave Vandy devastated after a close win on Tuesday and attempt to make things right on Saturday.

There’s still two months left of basketball to fix how this feels. The problem is that a healthy amount of people who follow me online see “there’s still two months left of basketball” and are feeling their eyeballs roll back in their heads, because it means you still have to watch this very-flawed team play basketball. I guess I’m still in the “wait until March” camp, but when the head coach has literally the third-most underwhelming NCAA Tournament resume of any active HC, I’m not sure what there is to wait for.

In October, my imagination was that this Tennessee men’s basketball team was one of the 15 or so best in college basketball and would probably make the Sweet Sixteen. At the same time, I imagined the Nashville Predators were no more than either the worst playoff team or the best non-playoff team in the NHL.

The Predators spent this offseason tearing up a good bit of the fabric that made up the 2017 Stanley Cup Final participant, easily the most successful team in franchise history. Ryan Ellis, very good defenseman they’d invested millions of dollars in, was shipped to Philadelphia for scraps. Viktor Arvidsson, Energizer Bunny, went to LA for a couple of picks. Franchise cornerstone Pekka Rinne retired. Calle Jarnkrok was extracted via an expansion draft. Nashville’s big offseason investments were a new backup goaltender and a couple of depth pieces.

On paper, the team they assembled was marginally worse than the one that just barely squeaked into the playoffs in a 56-game season. I personally expected very little; even a playoff bid was likely to result in a whooping at the hands of Colorado or whoever. I have watched this team for 20 years now and feel like I’ve got a decent bead on which way the wind is blowing. Nashville was firmly committed to making sure there was no wind of any kind. They were simply hoping to keep being a fringe playoff team when a lot of people (me included) simply wanted a rebuild.

Three months later, I am quite pleased that their ultimate decision was “let’s keep going.”

The Predators are on pace for 107 points. Whether that holds remains to be seen – I’m personally expecting 100-102 – but even a 101-point season would be enough to be a top-three divisional finish in every year and a top-two divisional finish in many. The NHL’s shift to the first two rounds being almost entirely inter-divisional (with wild card series being the variable in this mix) means that Nashville, as long as they finish in the top three, receive the pleasure of facing someone they’ve already faced a bunch in the regular season.

Juuse Saros is an every-night watch, stopping approximately 87 shots every time he takes the ice. Tanner Jeannot leads all rookies in goals and fights won. Filip Forsberg is at a crossroads in his career with regards to his time with Nashville, but he’s scoring like crazy. Matt Duchene appears to care. Roman Josi remains amazing. Alexandre Carrier is a delight. Mikael Granlund is enjoying his second wind. Most players on this team are players I feel positively about; even Luke Kunin, who hasn’t played up to expectations, had a couple of goals against Colorado. I look forward to watching every Predators game like a teacher looks forward to summer. It’s 2.5 hours of comfort, win or lose, and the wins feel better and better every time.

This is a long way of saying that I checked my sports calendar for the week ahead and saw this on Tuesday:

And my first thought was “alright, Bally Sports it is.”

Both of these seasons are very long. Right now, Nashville is overperforming wildly according to my own expectations. Technically, Tennessee is essentially right in line with what I expected in October, but the path they’ve taken to get there has caused more frustration than relaxation. These two narratives could completely flip come April, and considering Tennessee basketball has led to more monetary income than the Nashville Predators have, I guess I would be fine with that.

But maybe, just maybe, Tennessee uses that 9 PM tip on a Tuesday in a nightmarish arena to make things right. Maybe the Predators beat a mediocre Canucks side, too. That would be nice, because I would like to keep pace with the Avalanche and Wild. They’ve got a bunch of COVID games to make up, while Nashville doesn’t. Plus, Bridgestone Arena has normal dimensions that don’t rile me up every time I look at it.

The good news about that list of the most underperforming NCAA Tournament coaches in college basketball is that Tony Bennett is on it. Bennett’s appearance is aided by a few different early exits, but everyone knows the most famous one to a 16 seed. The cool thing about Bennett and Virginia is that they saw what happened, fixed several things about their offense, then turned into a machine that utilized all of their built-up good luck to bring home a national championship for the first time in 35 years.

Jamie Dixon is the other. Undoubtedly, Dixon underachieved at Pittsburgh given what he could’ve done in March, but he made an Elite Eight and was one layup away from Pittsburgh’s first and only Final Four since 1941. He had a long, sustained run of excellence at Pittsburgh, and the best argument for his continued employment as their coach despite the March issues is that Pittsburgh’s been utterly horrid since he left.

March is a very strange month where a lot can happen. To get to March, you have to complete January and February first. What’s happened so far can both be in line with expectations and a little disappointing because you know this roster could’ve beaten either Alabama or LSU. (No one was beating Kentucky if Kentucky is shooting that well on mid-range twos and threes. Tennessee had a bad defensive day, but it wasn’t that horrible; Kentucky really did get lucky on several shots.)

Tennessee has a huge week ahead. Vanderbilt is one thing; LSU is another. If the next recap is about a team that went 2-0, I imagine it will be happier and you might have fewer deviations from the topic at hand. If it isn’t, get ready for a 2,000-word article where 1,400 are about the 50+1 ownership model in German football, because writing about that is pretty interesting and fun. The Seagulls Moment has passed; Tennessee now has to put up or shut up. For the sake of this blog, it would be nice if they did the former, not the latter.