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.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Georgia

6-23, 1-15 SEC, #209 KenPom
14-12, 7-11 SEC 2020-21
LOCATION Stegeman Coliseum
Athens, GA
TIME Tuesday, March 1
6:30 PM ET
Dane Bradshaw (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: Tennessee -16
Torvik: Tennessee -12.8

Before this post starts, I wanted to get it on this site that I’m sincerely thankful for everyone who’s reached out in the last week. I read all of your comments and tweets and they really helped me get through what was a pretty rough week. It is good to be back in a normal routine.

Also, it’s not like I was going to miss this one. Sometime in the summer, I went on Chase Thomas’s show and said that Georgia had the worst roster I had seen in the SEC in nearly a decade. I felt pretty good about that, but when Georgia beats Memphis and Alabama in the same season you start to wonder about it. Then again, that Georgia team comes in at 6-23, 1-15 SEC, and you simply realize you were right. For once.

Georgia’s offense

Genuinely, this part of the Tom Crean Experience isn’t bad. Georgia has a top 100 offense that gets a ton of shots blocked and turns it over 24/7, but they have better scorers than I would’ve guessed in preseason and have had the 9th-best offense among SEC teams in conference play. Not bad! Promise! Crean’s reputation rests on the fact that he has a huge offensive playbook, so I guess that’s nice.

There are three players you need to know: Kario Oquendo (15.3 PPG), Braelen Bridges (12.7 PPG), and Aaron Cook (10.1 PPG). First scorers first: Oquendo is a sophomore who’s been the biggest positive surprise on the roster. He plays 2-4 but spends most of his time at the 3. Whenever Oquendo learns to shoot, I think he could be a legitimate All-SEC contender under a better coach; he is 48-for-176 (27.3%) on everything that isn’t within four feet of the rim this year. But man, he is incredible at the rim: 30 dunks, 102-for-151 (67.5%) down low. Don’t let him get loose in transition.

Bridges is the center and is entirely not a threat on jumpers, as he’s attempted two this season. Instead, you have to deal with an array of post moves and work down low, as he’s Georgia’s most consistent threat at the rim in half-court offense. He’s hitting 81.8% of his shots at the rim on non-transition possessions, which is an insane rate that you would expect from, like, Giannis.

Cook will not get a GIF because this post needs to be short, but he was the eighth or so best player on Gonzaga’s runner-up team last year. Here, he’s been fine, but inefficient (91 ORtg) and a pretty middling 28% 3PT% shooter. Cook’s main feature is that he’s Georgia’s only true point guard, and when your point guard is a guy that would probably be Tennessee’s seventh or eighth man…well, it’s not great. He holds a 24% TO% and has a 43.5% eFG% on the season. Not quite Disaster Factory stuff, but because announcers have to find someone on this roster to praise, prepare yourself.

Only two other players average more than 5 PPG: Noah Baumann (8.5 PPG) and Jabri Abdur-Rahim (7.3 PPG). Baumann is the only consistent deep threat on this roster, a guy that’s 41% from deep on the season and 42.5% for his career. He’s absolutely worth running off the line, even if it means Georgia gets an open look at the rim. Abdur-Rahim barely played at Virginia last year and functions as the sixth man of sorts here. He’s the second best shooter (33.7% 3PT%) but is bizarrely awful at Other Twos, going 4-for-30 on the year. Jaxon Etter averages 5 PPG but shoots it not even four times a game.


Yes: “Be afraid.” 😬
Somewhat: “They can hit this but not very efficiently.” 🤔
No: “Either never attempts this shot or is atrocious at making it.” 🥳

Georgia’s defense

I think my public high school experience, even in rural Tennessee, was probably similar to most in two very specific ways: 1. Every high school has a few ‘bands’ that last a year or two; 2. These bands are largely terrible, but you know the people in them, so you root for them to succeed. Anyone who attempts to play music in a public setting, in some sense, deserves applause. It’s not easy to try. This being said, you can absolutely feel second-hand embarrassment for someone else being very, very bad at something.

This is how I feel watching Georgia attempting to play defense in a public setting.

358 teams play Division I college basketball. 358 teams attempt to stop other teams from scoring at the rim. Georgia ranks 358th in FG% allowed at the rim, the very worst mark in college basketball. It does not matter how hard your schedule is. It probably does not matter what year of a tenure your coach is in. Injuries matter, but not this level of matter. Top to bottom, this is the single most embarrassing defense the SEC has had in 20 years.

If you want it hammered in – and why not, I think I’ve earned this – here is a list of fun facts about this Georgia defense, which shares a campus with the greatest football defense of the last decade.

  • The 13th-best SEC defense has allowed 1.081 PPP in conference play. Georgia has allowed 1.178.
  • Georgia has held three opponents below 1 PPP this season. Three.
  • The last time Georgia held an opponent below 1 PPP was December 7 against Jacksonville.
  • Georgia has not held an opponent below 50% on twos since December 7.
  • Georgia is undefeated (4-0) in games where the opponent turns it over on 23% or more of possessions. Unfortunately for Georgia, they have played 25 other games.

I cannot identify a single positive individual defender on this defense. It would be genuinely depressing to score below 1.1 PPP; only four SEC teams have fallen below that mark. It’s to the point that the fact they don’t foul is entirely an afterthought. Opponents take a lot of threes, too, and Georgia doesn’t guard those well either (52/48 Guarded/Unguarded).

This is a bad roster. This is worse effort. I’d imagine this starts at the top, because their coach last oversaw a Top 100 KenPom defense when Obama was in office.

How Tennessee matches up

I mean, just go to the rim. This is overly simplistic, but whatever. You are playing the worst rim defense in the SEC, and possibly the worst rim defense in modern SEC history. I cannot believe a team would be this bad at it, but hey, do your thing. None of their guards can consistently stop a drive to the rim. None of their frontcourt guys can stop a basket cut. Shots are blocked by accident if at all. The best defender on the roster commits 3.8 fouls per 40. Just go to the rim, whether by Chandler or by cut.

The rim is the point. Everything else is secondary. Sure, Tennessee should hit some threes in this one, because Georgia gives up a lot of open ones. But the first priority has to be exploiting this atrocious rim defense, forcing them to pack the paint, and then shooting over the top of them with ease. If Tennessee plays this correctly, they should score 80+ with little sweat.

Defensively, it is also mostly about the rim, but in the sense that you can’t let Oquendo get loose in transition and you have to get the ball out of Bridges’ hands in the half-court. The worst-case scenario involves Georgia hitting a few more threes than expected, but it also means Bridges and/or Oquendo getting a lot of buckets in the paint. It happened to Memphis, it happened to Alabama, it could…well, maybe happen to Tennessee. But even so: just cut it off. If Tennessee slows this game down, the path to points for Georgia is hard to envision beyond an outlier shooting day.

This is a great game to continue doing all the little things Tennessee normally does well: shrink passing lanes, stuff the gaps, make Georgia take a lot of bad two-pointers, let everyone not named Baumann take threes. Tennessee has a very smart roster with lots of quality defenders on it. It would be nice to see them do what we’ve grown used to them doing.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: Role is algorithmically-determined by Bart Torvik. MPG is minutes per game. PPG/RPG/APG/Fouls/Twos/Threes are what you’d guess. USG% is the percentage of possessions a player uses on the court. OREB%/DREB% are your available rebounds usurped. Finally, PRPG! is Bart Torvik’s Points Over Replacement metric; the higher the better. If you’re on mobile, zoom in; if on desktop, right click -> Open Image in New Tab.

Three things to watch for

  • Focus. Does Tennessee come out looking ahead to Saturday’s Arkansas game? Does Tennessee build an early lead, then let Georgia back into it because they’re focusing on Arkansas? This goes for Georgia as well, whose head coach may get fired for cause. If Georgia goes down by 10, does that turn into 20 in a four-minute span?
  • Shootin’. Georgia has actually shot fairly well in SEC play; they’re the 5th-best 3PT% team at 34.4%. Tennessee enters at 35.7%, or second-best. If Tennessee outshoots Georgia from deep I am genuinely unsure of how or why this game would be within ~12 points in the final minutes.
  • How much of a blowout is turnover margin? This is #18 vs. #340 in turnover margin. Tennessee winning this stat by less than 6 would be kind of disappointing.

Key matchups

Kario Oquendo vs. Santiago Vescovi. The games where Georgia’s played above expectation have largely been ones where Oquendo goes for 25+, excluding the Alabama win. Just don’t let him go off. Also would be nice for Vescovi to generate some offense inside the 3PT line.

Braelen Bridges vs. Center Roulette. Bridges has been insane at the rim and is one of the few nice things Georgia has. It would be ideal to hold him to his average of 12 or less.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee wins turnover margin by 7+;
  2. John Fulkerson is the game’s KenPom MVP;
  3. Tennessee 82, Georgia 67.

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Georgia

Well I guess we’re doing this one instead. Tennessee was supposed to play Florida as part of a revenge game of sorts at 7 PM tonight, but instead, they draw a Georgia program that currently saddles up at 90th at KenPom. This is not to say that Georgia can’t have an unusually good performance, obviously! It’s just to say that going from playing #28 in a legitimately important game to playing a team with zero wins against Top 50 competition is quite the bummer.

Anyway, Georgia is anchored by Tom Crean, the former Indiana coach who made all the goofy faces you see on your timeline every time he wins or loses an important fixture. To Crean’s credit, twice in his coaching career he’s done a full-on program turnaround. His Indiana one was more impressive, but don’t forget about a double-turnaround at Marquette. The Golden Eagles had Dwyane Wade, of course, but what you may not remember is Crean’s final Marquette team finishing up at #14 in KenPom and making the Round of 32.

At Georgia, things have…not really turned around yet. Georgia has gotten incrementally better through 2.5 seasons (132nd, 96th, 90th) but has yet to take the grand leap that recruiting Anthony Edwards suggested or having four Top 100 recruits on this year’s roster would’ve theoretically suggested. Tom Crean’s next miracle is taking a while.

Game information section:

  • THE OPPONENT: Georgia (12-6, 5-6).
  • THE TIME: 8 PM ET.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: Tom Hart (PBP) and Jimmy Dykes (color).
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -12.

Click below to go to a different section.

NEXT PAGE: We do not have enough time to rank the best musicians from Georgia. That would take a while!

Show Me My Opponent: Georgia

Athens, The City

As someone who’s never been to Athens, I spend an awful lot of time thinking about the city. It appears to be a mid-sized Southern city purely made for someone like me, a music obsessive that happens to love basketball (and, secondarily, football) a lot. The city is home to an excellent university, a wildly diverse art scene, and, most importantly, food. But it is also home to three musical acts incredibly important to my youth: The B-52s, R.E.M., and Pylon.

All three emerged out of the same University of Georgia-adjacent scene in the late-70s/early-80s. Two of these bands you know very well; two of these bands have pitch-perfect debut albums that everyone should own. Somehow, the third of these – a significantly less perfect debut – is of utmost importance to me. Pylon’s Gyratea 1980 release, is a pretty excellent new wave-ish album from the Athens group. The idea itself is surprisingly simple – what if we made a punk album you could dance to? – and a basically perfect record for my scatterbrain.

However, there’s a follow-up edition of this album released in 2007, long after the group had ceased its existence: Gyrate Plus. 16 songs long instead of 11, it adds a few songs on both ends. Most bonus track releases are money-grabs that don’t catch my eye. AND YET: this does, because of the first two songs. “Cool” was featured in a Lexus commercial a few years back and sounds, well, like the coolest thing ever. “Dub” is basically the only reason I still play guitar, because it is the absolute perfect song for someone with a 12-year-old’s brain. Amazingly, Pylon released these two songs as a little-known single a year prior to the album coming out.

I like thinking about this band, because I like thinking about any unfairly-ignored group and I like thinking about the fact it took them 27 years to realize the two best songs they ever recorded probably should’ve led off their debut album. I guess they arrived at thinking they should lead the re-release of the album with them somehow, but it’s nice to think of it as a happy accident. Accidental greatness – the name of what I’d probably like to achieve one day.

Athens, The Sports Town

Everyone rightfully thinks about Georgia football when it comes to the University of Georgia. BUT: did you know their basketball team has a seriously odd history? A quick deep dive starts below.

  • 11 times in a 22-season span, Georgia basketball spent at least some time in the AP top 20…yet never peaked higher than 10th for a week in 1983-84, a season they did not make the NCAA Tournament.
  • Just three times in the 64/68-team era has Georgia lost single-digit games…but until last season, they’d never topped 20 losses, either.
  • Georgia has finished within one game of .500 in conference play either way 14 different times in the last 29 seasons.
  • In the modern era of basketball – we’re saying about 1970-present here – Mark Fox is easily #2 in Georgia’s history in wins at 163. Mark Fox never won an NCAA Tournament game at Georgia, spent one week ranked at #24, and never had a W-L% better than 63.6%. And yet!

Ken Pomeroy’s program ratings place Georgia as the 61st-best program in college basketball, which seems pretty much perfect. Georgia’s only finished in the KP Top 50 six times in its 23-year database, hasn’t made the Sweet Sixteen, has never finished higher than 16th (2002-03)…and yet, they are never outright terrible, last season excepted. In the post-Jim Harrick era, Georgia’s only made three NCAA Tournaments in 16 seasons, with zero wins. However, they are ridiculously consistent: they’ve finished in the KP Top 50 once and have finished outside of it six times, which means they’ve ranked 51-100 nine times.

In some fashion, it’s remarkable. Georgia may be the most fine program out there. You never spend a second worrying about them, but they’re always there…waiting on the periphery…thinking about getting better…never actually getting better. If .500 were in the dictionary, you would see this program. I think I’ve arrived at considering this commendable in some way; fans of the program itself will think of it as a relentless frustration.

NEXT PAGE: The second Pylon album is also good, complete with all-time cover art