September Heisman

November 26: Tennessee 80, Tennessee Tech 69 (4-1)
November 30: Tennessee 86, Presbyterian 44 (5-1)

This is the third in a weekly-ish series of two-game recaps of the 2021-22 Tennessee men’s basketball season.

This could just be My Personal Lived Experience than something that’s actually happened, but I have to imagine at least some of the people who read this website are familiar with the idea of the September Heisman. Every single college football season, a player comes out of nowhere to string together 3-5 amazing games, leading observers to deem this person the Heisman Trophy favorite. Sometimes, these guys actually put it together for a full season, but when was the last time you thought about the names Kenny Hill, Case Keenum, Denard Robinson, or Geno Smith if you weren’t a fan of one of the teams involved?

I think about the September Heisman more than ever these days despite watching less college football than ever before. Every first month of the college basketball season brings some surprises, but none are more potent than the preseason-unranked team that starts the year on fire and threatens to upend everyone’s expectations. This year’s team: Arizona.

I don’t mean this as some sort of obnoxious self-promotion; it’s more just that I posted it and it’s easy to refer to. Anyway, two things are notable here: an average of 6 out of the 10 best November teams actually finish in the top ten each season, and with that, about 1-2 every season finish 30th or worse, i.e. an 8 seed or lower. Plenty a September Heisman has existed in basketball seasons past. Remember how future 7 seed Clemson defeated Purdue, Maryland, and Alabama in the first month of the season last year? Or how Nebraska climbed as high as #13 in KenPom in 2018-19? Of course you don’t, because you aren’t a fan of those teams. They ended the season precisely as unmemorable as most believed they’d begin it.

The track record of the teams that do play great basketball in November is generally pretty good; a 58% correlation to end-of-year success is better than a coin-flip. But it’s still barely better than a coin-flip.

  • All of the last four national champions were top 10 teams in November…
  • …but five of the 16 Final Four teams were outside of the top 10.
  • 18 of the last 25 KenPom top 5 end-of-year teams were top 10 teams in November…
  • …but only 10 of the last 25 KenPom 6th-10th end-of-year teams were in the top 10.
  • 22 of the 40 teams in years where NCAA Tournaments were held got to at least the Sweet Sixteen…
  • …but 18 of the 40 didn’t, with eight not winning a single game and three missing the NCAAT entirely.

Basically: if you’re Final Four good, you can be roughly 69% (nice) confident that you’re that way in November. But that’s why I keep insisting this is a long season. 31% aren’t that good in November. Only 40% of the back-end top 10 is. Even 28% of the end-of-year top five weren’t one of the 10 best teams in America at the start of the season. Through one month of play, with all preseason baselines removed, Tennessee ranks 27th on Torvik’s site. Considering they’re four spots higher overall on KenPom, I would imagine Ken’s no-baseline ratings probably have Tennessee somewhere around 18th-23rd. That’s fine; Tennessee is a very good team who played one objectively bad game, one shaky one, and three great ones.

It’s a long, long journey with a lot left to play for. Gotta live with it and love it.

Tennessee 80, Tennessee Tech 69

Don’t do this again. Please. The energy at halftime was a resounding “oh come ON” from a crowd that simply wanted to go home and either eat leftovers or finally dig their way out of the ham and turkey spiral. Who can blame them? Even if Tennessee had won this game by 20+, I beg of you: never, ever schedule a Black Friday afternoon game again. It was stupid before tipoff, and it only became dumber as the game progressed.

Small sample size! When two teams enter as such:

  • Tennessee Tech: 41% FG% Midrange, 27% FG% Threes
  • Tennessee: 37% FG% Threes

And have a performance as such:

  • Tennessee Tech: 11-19 Midrange (58%), 6-14 Threes (43%); +9.5 points above expected based on shot locations, per Haslametrics’ estimations
  • Tennessee: 6-23 Threes (26%); -4.9 points below expected based on shot locations

Then part of me just wants to say “burn the tape” and move on. You don’t play the game on paper, but if you did, Tennessee wins this by roughly 20-25 points, which was the pregame expectation, if Tennessee Tech has anything other than a total outlier shooting day. The fact Tech immediately followed this by shooting 43% on midrange and 31% on threes against Chattanooga hammers it home. Burn it, move on, whatever.

A profoundly stupid game with two frontcourt takeaways. Olivier Nkamhoua and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield brought this one home, combining for 30 points and 8 rebounds. Normally, I am not getting over the moon about anything when you’re playing Tennessee Tech, but you watch some of the stuff Nkamhoua did in this one:

And you’re like, oh yeah, that’s why he got all the preseason hype.

A word about rebounds. Tennessee allowed Tennessee Tech to rebound 35.5% of their missed attempts, which is moderately annoying and representative of something that’s bugged Tennessee in the past. I would be less perturbed by this if it wasn’t a historical pattern for Tennessee and Kentucky wasn’t a team they played every single season.

Parking praise. My fears about how difficult it’s become to park for Tennessee games – based on my most recent experience of the 2019-20 season – have seemingly been assuaged. This will undoubtedly change when Tennessee plays a good team at home, but all four home games I’ve attended (including the exhibition) have resulted in zero trouble finding a spot within half-a-mile of the arena. All for free, too!

Tennessee 86, Presbyterian 44

A pattern emerges. It’s all of six games in, but see if you can notice an odd/even pattern by way of Bart Torvik’s Game Score metric:

I would prefer that this goes away and Tennessee begins ransacking bad teams with regularity as they did in this one.

Ransacking. The first eight or so minutes of this one brought a legitimate fear that we were in for another obnoxious over-shooting performance by a bad opponent; the 32 minutes that followed proved it was not the case.

  • Presbyterian’s first seven possessions: 8 points (1.14 PPP)
  • Presbyterian’s next 55 possessions: 36 points (0.65 PPP)

Presbyterian took a lead to make it 10-8 six minutes in; Tennessee finished the half on a 37-11 run and slowly sucked the life out of a Quadrant 4 opponent for really the first time all season. (ETSU is Quadrant 3.)

Why do this? Presbyterian’s offense was precisely as excruciating to watch as the scouting report suggested. Numerous times in the first half, they failed to get any offensive actions started until 15-18 seconds had elapsed from the shot clock. Tennessee had something to do with that because they were denying a lot of off-ball movement, but the Blue Hose seemed totally unhurried. In some aspect, I respect that they’re willing to show up, make the game go by as quickly as possible, and collect their $90,000 or so check.

In another, I mean, you gotta play decent basketball. Presbyterian’s entire philosophy appears to be “in the last 10 seconds of the shot clock, we either feed the post or run a ball screen to get up a late-clock low-efficiency shot.” I am sure this team will win some games in Big South play because everyone does, but this is the single most inept offense I have seen in Thompson-Boling Arena since poor Alabama State came to town in 2019.

1 hour, 42 minutes. Per KenPom: the fastest Tennessee game since at least 2018-19 by a full five minutes, and possibly the fastest Tennessee has played in a decade. I reached out to Tennessee SID Tom Satkowiak to see if he has anything on this front and will edit the post if so.

I would like to propose a starting five. The great news for Rick Barnes is that four of these five players already start! Let’s make one little tweak for everyone: Chandler/Vescovi/Powell/Nkamhoua/Fulkerson. Right now, per Bart Torvik, these are the five best players on the team. Would anyone disagree with that statement? I certainly don’t. When Josiah-Jordan James returns, you can figure out if he should start over Powell or Nkamhoua, but for now, that’s my favorite five. Per Hoop-Explorer.com, this lineup somehow only has 15 possessions together. I’d like to make that at least 15 possessions a game.

If you like the format of these or want to see changes, let me know at statsbywill@gmail.com.

Catch Me on the Rebound

November 20: Villanova 71, Tennessee 53 (2-1)
November 21: Tennessee 89, North Carolina 72 (3-1)

This is the second in a weekly-ish series of two-game recaps of the 2021-22 Tennessee men’s basketball season.

Two things happened this weekend. The first is that Tennessee escaped the Mohegan Sun Casino, a place that indirectly killed Howie in Uncut Gems, at 1-1 with a loss to a legitimate top 5 team and a 17-point win over a top 5 blue-blood brand. (More on their quality later.) The realistic expectation for Tennessee in this multi-team event was to get at least one win out of the weekend, and they did just that in the manner that the metrics mostly expected. (Though a net point differential of -1 from the weekend is a hair underwhelming in the sense that +5 or so was the KenPom guess.)

The second is that midway through Tennessee’s second game of the weekend, I realized why it even felt mildly relaxing to sit through a pair of high-profile blowouts, one good, one bad.

The average college football game is outwardly expanding in a way that would make 2004 Morgan Spurlock blush. The most recent figure given is 3 hours, 24 minutes, which is nearly a half-hour longer than NCAA statistics say it was in the 1990s. The initial guess here would be “quarterbacks pass more,” which, yes, true, but the average number of incompletions in a given game in 1996 was 23. It’s 20.9 and dropping in 2021. Every first down stops the clock, but that can’t be all of it.

It’s the ad breaks. Per a 2017 Wall Street Journal study, the NFL offers viewers 63 minutes of commercials per game. That’s for a sport with games 15 minutes faster than college football, with much more regulated and precise TV windows and far fewer four-hour affairs. The average Tennessee football game this year has lasted 3 hours, 38 minutes, and even if you remove the obvious outlier of the Mississippi game that number is still 3 hours, 33 minutes. It’s a looooooong time investment even if you aren’t at the game.

Tennessee basketball has played four games so far, all four of which have been on an ESPN product of some sort. Average game time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. No game has cracked the two-hour mark, though the East Tennessee State affair did hit 1:59. You could almost play two basketball games in the same amount of time it takes to play one football game.

This is not demonizing college football viewers or super-fans; like what you like and love what you love. Me, personally, the sensation of watching a 1 hour, 49 minute sporting event that required zero Liberty Mutual commercials and only one truly egregious ad break on ESPN of all channels was wonderful. This could be yours, college football fans! (Just kidding. I know which sport’s the money maker.) Of the ~30 or so college basketball games I have consumed thus far, they have featured a blissfully low amount of car commercials. Even the Car Fox has only made one appearance. I’m doing the “hope this works” prayer circle meme but for this streak of non-commercialized goodness to continue.

Villanova 71, Tennessee 53

Ya ran into a buzzsaw and it is what it is. There are many overly-breathy monologues one could scribe about Tennessee’s nasty offensive performance on Saturday; I think a key one is “the other team played out of their minds defensively.” Of Tennessee’s 30 catch-and-shoot attempts (as listed by Synergy), 28 had a defender within four feet at the time of the shooting action. Tennessee was still unlucky to not hit more than four threes, but, man. The odds of that happening again, particularly with how Florida of all teams appears to be the only other SEC side with a chance of finishing in KenPom’s top 10 defenses, feels low. Sometimes you just gotta tip your cap and move on.

That being said: there were some encouraging things, all of them on defense. Tennessee kind of quietly forced Villanova – a very, very efficient offense – to go 11-for-25 at the rim and 17-for-43 on twos. That’s really good considering you are playing Villanova and not, y’know, ETSU.

Villanova had to take a bunch of difficult shots and attempted more mid-range twos than Tennessee did. If Tennessee even had a bad offensive game, something like 65 points, it wouldn’t feel as stupid as it does.

We have to talk about turnovers again. To Tennessee’s credit, they rebounded well the next day and didn’t have such issues, and along with that, they hadn’t turned it over on more than 16% of possessions in a game before or since. But this has become an oddly annoying Tennessee thing: against the first Actually Good team you play, you lose your brain for stretches of time offensively. These are Tennessee’s PPPs and TO%s against the first Top 40 opponent of the last three seasons:

  • 2021-22: 0.799 PPP, 26.3% TO% versus Villanova
  • 2020-21: 0.869 PPP, 23.3% TO% versus Colorado
  • 2019-20: 0.8 PPP, 29.5% TO% versus Florida State

Considering this didn’t really happen that often prior to 2019-20, I can chalk it up as a blip, but when you’ve built up anticipation for these games and your offense rates out as Violently Clogged Toilet it’s really frustrating.

More drives, more aggression. Tennessee’s offense briefly got out of the mud in the second half when Kennedy Chandler and Santiago Vescovi became notably more aggressive. Vescovi displayed more driving aggression than he had since early in his freshman year; Chandler got unlucky on some rollout layups that made his performance look worse than it was.

Tennessee drove way more the next day against a worse North Carolina defense and they looked unstoppable. I’d also like to note here that Tennessee, excluding the Villanova game, has gone 1.272/1.244/1.204 PPP so far. I’ll freak out about this if it happens against Texas Tech or someone.

Long season! Long season. This is reductive, so whatever, but it does feel like there’s a significant carryover of Football Mindset to basketball season. Every game matters; every loss is bad; (insert team) no longer looks like a Final Four contender, etc. I think every game matters some but no regular season loss is really that important as long as you get something useful out of it. Even this Villanova blowout proved to be somewhat useful because Barnes and staff saw the benefits of more guards on the court. 12 games =/= 30+ games.

Tennessee 89, North Carolina 72

Zakai Zeigler is the Vibes Guy. To the point that I have finally committed to memory it’s Zeigler and not Ziegler. In terms of random emergency late-stage recruits you can grab before a season starts, it’s really hard to beat a hyper-aggressive point guard who is tiny but fast and shoots the ball well out to 30 feet. Visions of Auburn’s Jared Harper have flashed in my brain and I can no longer resist them.

Good Powell, bad Powell. Justin Powell got his first start thanks to Josiah-Jordan James receiving the flu, which is somewhat better than the fate Howie met in Uncut Gems but not by much. I think Powell has to play 20-25 minutes a night but you’ve just gotta get used to the drawbacks: 8 points and a generally good offensive day, but not much a difference-maker defensively and frequently picked on. Through four games, once adjusted for luck, Tennessee is precisely as good when Powell is on as when he’s off, because while the offense is five points better per 100 possessions with him out there the defense is five points worse. This is annoyingly right in line with last year at Auburn; I think that should probably explain why he won’t get 30 minutes a night.

Tennessee Tri-Guard Terror. For the first real stretch of time all season, Tennessee went to a three point guard lineup with Chandler/Zeigler/Vescovi; it was pretty wonderful. Tennessee scored 1.148 PPP over 29 possessions and outscored North Carolina by 4 with the lineup; the reason that wasn’t more is North Carolina went 4-for-9 on threes with them in the game despite most of those being well-guarded.

I would like to see Tennessee continue to try this lineup, and even instituting Powell as one of the 4 would be nice. So far, lineups with three of KC/ZZ/SV/JP have outscored opponents by 27 points over 95 possessions; this weekend, that number was 14 points over 67 possessions. (All other lineups: -15 across 75 possessions.)

If something is all holes, can it still be described as porous? Watching the North Carolina interior defense was a mix of humor and baffle, because I cannot believe a preseason top 20 team is this bad at figuring stuff out.

Tennessee finished 23-for-31 on attempts within 4 feet of the rim, per Synergy, and no opponent since Loyola (MD) has had any issue at all scoring on these guys. I don’t get it.

Pronunciation concerns. Fran Fraschilla elected to be this week’s Main Character for Tennessee fans after claiming he was on the end of mean tweets re: his pronunciation of Santiago Vescovi’s last name. To be fair to Fran, apparently after two full years of Vescovi being with Tennessee, he just now decided that vess-CO-vi isn’t right and it’s actually VESS-co-vi. Fine by me, whatever.

But I kind of couldn’t believe how hung up Fran got on this? He first called Tennessee fans “idiots” for arguing with him as play-by-play guy Jon Sciambi audibly grew uncomfortable, then proceeded to use the second half over-pronouncing VESS-co-vi to the point that he started messing up his own pronunciation of the name, eventually landing on Vess-Kew-Vi a couple of times and some sort of hybrid vescavee that sounded as rushed as it looks once. I would prefer if this is not a feature of Tennessee’s future games because, shockingly, I like when they talk about the game.

If you like the format of these or want to see changes, let me know at statsbywill@gmail.com.

Revolution Rock

November 9, 2021: Tennessee 90 – 62 Tennessee-Martin (1-0)
November 14, 2021: Tennessee 94 – 62 East Tennessee State (2-0)

This is the first in a weekly-ish series of two-game recaps of the 2021-22 Tennessee men’s basketball season.

I’m still working out how to do these in a manner that makes sense; the goal with these recaps is to essentially replace how I’ve been starting out the How Tennessee Matches Up section in game previews in recent years. Those had sort of become half-recaps half-previews, which achieves 0% satisfaction and doesn’t fulfill the needs of either a recap or a preview. This is an attempt to keep those as separate as possible. I can acknowledge the past without obsessing upon it.

In some ways, that’s how it felt to be in Thompson-Boling Arena last Tuesday. I hadn’t been there for a non-exhibition game since March 2020; I’d attended two public sporting events (Hurricanes-Predators Game 6, as well as a Memphis football game) in the 18 months since. Being near others again in an environment that was promoting joy and excitement felt as wonderful as I’d hoped. Tennessee’s less-than-perfect performance was excusable, simply because it’s like seeing an old friend after a long time apart. One or both of you is gonna stumble a few times; that’s where forgiveness comes in.

Maybe that’s where this starts: happiness with a little bit of forgiveness mixed in. I can forgive the first game jitters, I can forgive some of the fan behavior, I can even forgive it taking longer than normal to produce a popcorn-and-hot-dogs order because it was just a happy place to be. At its best, this is basketball, and basketball is generally always where I’m hoping to be.

Right, yes, the recaps, which start with

Tennessee 90, Tennessee-Martin 62

This felt…fine? Like, think about it this way: Tennessee-Martin hit some shots they normally don’t, shot about what you’d expect from everywhere else, and those shots happened at the same time as Tennessee’s one true cold streak of the game. Was it annoying? Sure. It also meant absolutely nothing by game’s end; if Tennessee had kept the starters in until 0:00 they would’ve won by 35 or more. Speaking of which…

Fan Complaint #1 of 2021-22. You can be too negative online. I would know. Many years of Sports Frustrations have led me to realize I talk about the stuff I dislike more than my likes; I’ve been attempting to combat that lately, but it’s a process. Attending games in-person again helps. Seeing people I know helps. Being able to write these previews and reviews in anything other than COVID times helps. It all feels a lot better than it did in 2020 and it’s nice to report that.

But at some point I think I’m gonna break, and last Tuesday threatened that quite harshly. I attended Tennessee’s home opener and sat in the lower level one section over from the students; probably 15 different times during the night I heard this one guy scream “THIRTY FIVE AND A HALF”. 35.5 is how many points Tennessee was favored by over Tennessee-Martin; I know this because you can’t not know the spread of seemingly any sporting event these days. That’s fine, because it’s useful context. What is decidedly not fine is hearing THIRTY FIVE AND A HALF belched from the gullet of red-faced brain matter into the 71-degree circulated air.

Who wants this? Who needs this? Maybe this is because I haven’t attended a full-capacity sporting event that you can legally bet on in Tennessee since it became legal but it felt kind of overwhelming. THIRTY FIVE AND A HALF screams. Two guys high-fiving because the two teams met an arbitrary number of combined points that represented the over. THIRTY FIVE AND A HALF guy again, because apparently his entire row bet on it as well but blessedly weren’t vocal about it. Maybe I am too old at the ripe age of 28, but I swear there was a time where you just…attended games? And rooted for your team? And generally didn’t care too much about the final margin, unless you love KenPom Time? Maybe this is just something that I, Will Warren, must get used to. It’s plausible that I am the problem here because I don’t bet for reasons I’d prefer to keep private, but…am I?

SEC Freshman of the Year Kennedy Chandler. In some ways, Chandler’s real college debut was nothing surprising; he was basically as excellent as he was against Lenoir-Rhyne in the scrimmage. Maybe writers who cover schools that have done the one-and-done thing for a while are simply used to this. But man: 20 points and 4 assists right out of the gate against anyone just does not compute for me. I don’t have a scale for true freshmen at Tennessee that matches this.

Your minutes leader: Olivier Nkamhoua. On most nights I think this will be Josiah-Jordan James, but on a night where JJJ was simply off, Nkamhoua was pretty great on the boards (14 of ’em) and posted a two steal/two block outing for the first time in his career.

40 threes. 40 threes! Imagine saying that even a month ago: a Rick Barnes basketball team attempting 40 threes. I’m not sure that if the 2020-21 team had played a four-overtime game, they would’ve topped 30.

Tennessee 94, East Tennessee State 62

A little wobble, then hammering down the accelerator. Tennessee jumped out to an early lead, held onto it for most of the way, but did briefly allow ETSU back into it with a 9-2 run that turned a 24-11 lead into 26-20. Tennessee was only (only) a 16-point favorite per KenPom; 26-20 about a third of the way in converts to an 18-point win, but like all rational people, I prefer not sweating to sweating. Apparently, so does Tennessee; 26-20 was 50-23 in record time.

Olivier Nkamhoua Rating: I’m Allowing a Little Bit of Trust But I Need Some Time. You and me, buddy, we go way back to when Rob Lewis at VolQuest said you were the next Grant Williams. This game certainly looked like Grant Williams to me. But I need more than one game against an overwhelmed ETSU team, even if I and most thought said ETSU team would provide a good test. It’s going to take several weeks to get used to Olivier Nkamhoua, Shooter.

The Fulkerson/Nkamhoua lineup is…agreeable. Until it isn’t. Hoop-Explorer says that the shooting splits with both on the court (27 possessions) against ETSU went 36 Rim/20 Mid/44 3PT; all other lineups against ETSU and UT-Martin are 42/17/41. I’m fine with it for now and it obviously worked, but 1) I’m gonna guess that a 50% OREB% is not sustainable; 2) Nkamhoua will need to average over 2 threes per 40 minutes for the spacing in this lineup to work correctly against SEC competition.

5-out basketball has arrived. I’m not totally convinced Huntley-Hatfield has been given a green light on threes yet; he did hit his only attempt against Tennessee-Martin but other than that, jumpers have been basically non-existent. Fulkerson’s not gonna shoot a three. Neither is Plavsic. So it gave me a little spark of joy to see this, even if this possession ended in a turnover:

All ten feet are outside the three-point line. I feel like you could count the number of possessions this happened on in 2020-21 where Pons wasn’t at the 5 on one hand, maybe two. I don’t believe it to be a coincidence at all that, of the 19 possessions so far where Nkamhoua is at the 5, Tennessee’s taken 14 shots and precisely one was a mid-range attempt.

Doberman defense, again. I mentioned in the preview for this game that I was a little underwhelmed by Tennessee’s defensive performance against UT-Martin. This was a nice reminder of the potential they’ve got. ETSU posted 0.82 PPP and spent almost the entire game taking well-guarded threes; 10-for-32 feels pretty fair for the shot quality they generated. The general desire for an offense from a stats viewpoint is for >80% of your three-point attempts to require zero dribbles and >50% of your catch-and-shoots to be deemed Open by Synergy; ETSU’s numbers were 69% and 45% and I thought the latter was pretty generous. It’s a good way to turn a potentially stressful affair into a surprising laugher.

BONUS: Early returns promising. Rick Barnes talked a big game this offseason about how much Tennessee was going to take threes this year. This game was less special in this regard (23 attempts), but I guess it’s a sign of how quickly narratives can shift that 23 three-point attempts felt disappointing. Tennessee only took 23+ threes in six of 25 games last season; for 23 to feel a little light is nice. This is also nice, but very early (look at #17):

I hope we’re seeing a sudden late-career philosophy shift here and would like to believe it. I also have watched Rick Barnes have the same shooting splits at Tennessee consistently for six seasons, so forgive me if my current feelings here are “let’s see it in January.”

If you like the format of these or want to see changes, let me know at statsbywill@gmail.com.