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.

Show Me My Opponent, 2022 SEC Tournament: Kentucky (III)

OPPONENT #5 Kentucky
26-6, 14-4 SEC, #2 KenPom
9-16, 8-9 SEC, lol lol lol lol 2020-21
LOCATION Amalie Arena
Tampa, FL
TIME Saturday, March 12
3:30 PM ET
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Kentucky -3
KenPom: Kentucky -2

Torvik: Kentucky -1.1

You again. You again!!!!

Both of these teams took care of business yesterday, which is pretty useful at a time where the #1 seed in the SEC Tournament lost and the #11 seed gave Kentucky quite the 40-minute battle. Tennessee enters this game playing for a potential 2-seed, Kentucky possibly for the final 1 seed. This is also a great narrative battle: John Calipari vs. the only coach that’s beaten him with regularity in the SEC. John Fulkerson vs. the team he’s owned in years past but not so much in 2022. Kennedy Chandler vs. a fellow first-round pick. Shooter vs. shooter in Grady vs. Vescovi.

This is a great basketball game played on a day where you have nothing else to do but look at the snow and smile. What’s better than this? Just guys being dudes.

Kentucky’s offense

Well, I’ve previewed this team twice already, and 18 hours is not a great amount of time to write much in the way of new observations. That being said, here are the major changes.

  • Leading scorer and likely Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe (17.1 PPG, 15.2 RPG) has gone to a new level over the last month: 20.6 PPG, 15.6 RPG over a nine-game stretch where six opponents were among KenPom’s top 50 teams. Not bad, that.
  • TyTy Washington (12.6 PPG) and Sahvir Wheeler (10 PPG), the two point guards, both missed a pair of games with injuries, but are back to full health. Washington in particular was terrific against Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals.
  • A player stepping up: Jacob Toppin, who’s averaged 7.6 PPG/4 RPG over the last eight. Toppin still remains less than impactful as a shooter, but he’s unstoppable in the paint when he chooses to go there. His height/agility may be unmatched on UK’s roster.
  • A player stepping down: Keion Brooks, who’s averaged just 8 PPG (#6 on the team) in that same span. Brooks is 13-for-15 at the rim and 12-for-38 everywhere else to go with a team-worst 22% TO% rate.
  • Everything else is the same. Grady hits threes. Mintz does too, just not as much. The rotation is now firmly down to seven players, with Lance Ware being the occasional eighth.


Kentucky’s defense

Same as above. Two previews linked here; updates:

  • The offense has lost no steam whatsoever and has only gotten better; I cannot say the same about the defense. It’s been the 84th-best defense in CBB over Kentucky’s last 10 games, per Torvik, and recently fell outside the KenPom top 25 for the first time since Christmas.
  • This is because of a pair of serious issues: no turnovers being forced and mediocre defensive rebounding. Kentucky’s only forced turnovers on 15% of opponent possessions (300th-best) and has allowed OREBs on 30.6% of missed shots (284th) since February 2. The DREB% is more defensible because these are largely very good rebounding teams, but the complete lack of turnovers forced is a problem.
  • Along with this: the interior/two-point defense is…strangely average? Kentucky ranks 74th in season-long 2PT% allowed, which would be very good for many programs but is the third-worst rate of the Calipari era. Over the last 10, opponents are converting 49.2% of twos, which ranks 148th-best.
  • The key is still that they never foul. Among the seven-man rotation, no player has averaged more than 3.4 fouls per 40 over the last month, and Tshiebwe sits at an astounding 2.4. Tennessee got him in foul trouble on home court, but a neutral court feels like tough sledding.
  • None of the individual Kentucky defenders grade out as obviously bad, but Brooks has the worst Synergy metrics and on/off splits via Hoop-Explorer. His main matchup: Josiah-Jordan James.

How Tennessee matches up

Two consistencies have happened in Tennessee’s two battles with Kentucky:

  1. Tennessee has gotten a surprising amount of open catch-and-shoot threes via drive-and-kick actions;
  2. Tennessee has used off-ball screens to create quality ball movement, which has led to a surprising amount of easy points at the rim.

Considering it’s held true for two, the first should probably work for three. Kentucky’s roster construction lends itself to quality perimeter defense for most opponents, but something about the off-ball motion of Tennessee’s offense has given them a higher shot quality than most. I don’t know that I could fully explain it, but part of this is just that Tennessee’s frontcourt sets a ton of perimeter screens, and Kentucky’s frontcourt (AKA, Tshiebwe) are not often willing to leave the paint. This is how you create sink-and-shoot scenarios as such:

If Kentucky continues to struggle to cover the perimeter against Tennessee specifically, I remain confident that Tennessee can find a points advantage outside of the paint. They’ve outscored Kentucky by nine on threes through two games, which is pretty important for a game projected to be very close.

The other part of this is utilizing some of Tshiebwe’s defensive limitations. As amazing a shot-blocker and rebounder as he is, you can still pull him away from the paint if you pull your frontcourt pairing out of the paint. Tennessee has consistently done this since Nkamhoua went out, which is nice, because I think most people had grown tired of Tennessee’s post-up addiction. They’ll still do it some, but it won’t be that often. This is useful because if you draw Tshiebwe out, that leaves a gap down low that basically no other UK rotation member can replace. Cutting to the basket at this time is how you generate points consistently.

The Kentucky defense is the significantly lesser unit of the two. Can it still choke out an opponent? Of course, because they’re crazy talented. But their struggle in putting away teams with defense as of late is of serious interest. You’ve gotta be able to do that to make the Final Four. I know Tennessee can. What about Kentucky?

Anyway, the defensive side of this is pretty similar to the last two: do whatever you can to wall off the paint and force Kentucky to shoot over the top of it. Kentucky has had games where they’ve shot well, but threes aren’t exactly their forte. Tennessee fixed the ball-screen issue at TBA, but they’re still giving up some good looks from deep to Kentucky. If Tennessee turns these into guarded, tough threes:

They can easily win this game. Then again, the guy shooting that is Kellan Grady, who is absurdly good from anywhere. Tennessee’s gotta hope for positive variance in their favor and a favorable officiating crew that lets some contact go between Tshiebwe and the various centers.

Starters + rotations

Three things to watch for

  • Consider this: hit shots. This is going to be the first bullet of this section until the end of time, or at least until I think of something else. All six of Kentucky’s losses have come when the opponent has posted a 50% eFG%, which Tennessee has managed to do both times out. Likewise, UK is 20-1 when posting 50% or better.
  • How big can you be on the boards? Kentucky’s posted a 40% or better OREB% in five of the last eight games, which is insane considering the competition. Adjusted for competition, Tennessee has been one of the ~25 best defensive rebounding teams this season. If Tennessee can find a way to keep that Kentucky number at 30% or so, it’s a good sign.
  • Is TyTy the guy? Tennessee can reasonably survive a great Tshiebwe game if no one else steps up to help. The TBA win would’ve happened regardless, but it was obviously helped by Washington being hobbled somewhat. Washington was fantastic against Vandy yesterday; a Tennessee win is very reliant on him not following that up.

Key matchups

Oscar Tshiebwe vs. Center Roulette. Typing that out is anxiety-inducing. Tshiebwe is the POY front-runner; Tennessee’s best frontcourt player is entirely up to debate on any given night. If Tennessee holds Tshiebwe to similar numbers as posted in TBA (13 & 15 on 5-15 shooting) it’s a massive win.

TyTy Washington Jr. vs. Santiago Vescovi. Washington will end up being matched with a few different guys, but Vescovi should get the lion’s share of minutes and could potentially go a full 40 if not in foul trouble. Washington is a terrific mid-range shooter but is vulnerable to variance from deep; Vescovi may be the single best deep shooter in the league. Exciting matchup!

Sahvir Wheeler vs. Kennedy Chandler. Wheeler’s best attribute is his speed, which can blind opponents on his best nights. The unfortunate part of it for Wheeler is that his shooting is not often matching his agility. If Chandler can force Wheeler into a lot of pull-ups or runners, I will be with all of the people who say he should be on the All-Defense team. (He probably should’ve been on a 10-man All-Defense team.)

Three predictions

  1. Tshiebwe puts up another double-double (17 & 13 or so) but requires 15 shots to get there;
  2. Josiah-Jordan James leads Tennessee in scoring;
  3. Kentucky 69, Tennessee 68.

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.


Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Kentucky, Part Two

OPPONENT #4 Kentucky
21-4, 10-2 SEC, #3 KenPom
9-16, 8-9 SEC 2020-21
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME Tuesday, February 15
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
Marty Smith (!) (sideline)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -1.5
KenPom: Kentucky -1

Torvik: Kentucky -0.4

I don’t watch the comic book superhero movies you all talk about endlessly online, but based on my very limited understanding, this is like Infinity War, where your hated rival now has a Greek God at center and you need a full team effort to defeat them. Or something.

Kentucky is Kentucky, and they are quite good. Tennessee is also very good and is playing this game at home. Armageddon is back, and you get to watch a little mini-war for two hours.

Kentucky’s offense

One look at those numbers and the Grand Theft Auto GIF immediately pops up in your mind.

It brings me zero pleasure to report that this is the best offense Calipari’s put out since Jamal Murray was on campus and the highest-ranking among its in-season peers since the 2011-12 title team. Some of the same problems from last year that I felt existed during the first game this year against Duke still exist – they take an absurd amount of non-rim twos that don’t go down that often, they probably should take more threes, and I still don’t know that they have a truly consistent three-level scorer – but also, who cares. They’re a top-5 offense for a wide variety of reasons, mostly that they are impossible to stop down low and rebound like crazy.

This naturally leads us to the Thanos in the room: Oscar Tshiebwe (16.4 PPG, 15.2 RPG), who is currently on pace to be the first Division I player to average 15 & 15 in 42 years. Tshiebwe does not feature much in transition when Kentucky wants to run, but the plurality of their half-court offense runs through him. With Tshiebwe on the court, Kentucky scores an opponent-adjusted 1.246 PPP, which would make them nearly the best offense in America. Attempting to stop him in the post has been like attempting to stop a runaway train by throwing a Nerf ball at it.

Aside from post play, Tshiebwe doesn’t stand out that much offensively; his second-most frequent play type is putbacks. The problem is that his putbacks are lethal. Tshiebwe is the best rebounder in America and rebounds 20% of Kentucky’s misses when he’s on the court. If you can hold him off of the offensive boards, your odds of winning greatly increase; Kentucky’s three post-Duke losses all featured Tshiebwe getting four or fewer OREBs. That task is easier said than done; only Mississippi State has a better DREB% than Tennessee among Kentucky’s SEC opponents, and Tshiebwe got 22 boards against them.

Moving on from that fear to the next one! TyTy Washington is the co-point guard and a potential lottery pick; he’s also the #2 option offensively (12.8 PPG, 4.2 APG). Washington’s main feature this year has been a solid assist-to-turnover ratio, but he’s been terrific scoring off of ball-screens (87th-percentile in P&R offense). The scariest thing he offers is his ability to knock down non-rim twos at an absurd hit rate of 51.4%, with mid-range jumpers specifically sitting at 49.4%.

Considering Washington gets almost as many expected points (1.028 per shot) on non-rim twos as he does from threes (1.038), he’s genuinely scary pretty much anywhere on the court. However, here’s something worth noting:

  • Washington on jumpers from 0-15 feet: 26-for-37 (70.3%)
  • Washington, 16-21 feet: 15-for-46 (32.6%)
  • Washington, threes: 27-for-78 (34.6%)

There’s a clear delineation: Washington inside the free-throw line is more dangerous than Washington outside it. If you can restrict him from getting within 15 feet, you’ll feel better. Good luck doing that. HOWEVER: Washington is also questionable to play after picking up an injury against Florida, which would obviously impact Kentucky’s offense in a negative manner.

The other two guys worth highlighting are Kellan Grady (12.1 PPG) and Sahvir Wheeler (9.7 PPG, 7.2 APG). (Keion Brooks averages more than Wheeler, but doesn’t do much self-creation.) Grady is mostly Just A Shooter (75% of all shots from deep), but he’s a truly elite shooter: 73-for-166, or 44%. It is truly mystifying to me that he gets open at all, but he’s elite both in catch-and-shoot scenarios (47.3%) and off the dribble (41%). He floats around the court, but most of Grady’s shooting is generated in the corners and at the low end of the wings.

If you leave him open, well, you get what you deserve.

Wheeler is less known for his shooting/self-creation than what he opens up for everyone else on the team. Wheeler is lightning-fast and makes the offense play way faster; Kentucky spends almost 20% more time in transition when Wheeler’s on the court. Wheeler himself is an openly bad shooter – 9-for-34 from three, 18-for-74 mid-range – but he creates so many opportunities for everyone else that it generally doesn’t matter.

The best chance you have against Kentucky, at least through 25 games of play, is to stop the transition game and force a half-court oriented style. Unfortunately, the half-court offense is elite, too. Good luck and such.

Others of note: Keion Brooks, Jr. (11.2 PPG) is the fourth-leading scorer. Not much of a shooter (5-for-22 on threes), but he’s excellent for his size on the boards and is dangerous in transition. Davion Mintz (8.9 PPG) was Just A Shooter last year and is still hitting 37% of his threes this season, but has evolved to be at least competent at the rim and in mid-range. Jacob Toppin (5.8 PPG) is 10-for-31 on everything that isn’t a rim attempt, but is hitting 73% of shots down low.

CHART! The official Chart Guide is now as follows:

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

Kentucky’s defense

Not quite as displeasing to look at as the offensive chart is, but it’s pretty close. Kentucky has an excellent defense that kind of got taken apart by Tennessee at times in the first game, but they haven’t allowed an opponent to top 1 PPP since Auburn on January 22. The most similar defense Cal’s had is probably the 2018-19 version with P.J. Washington: not elite at blocking shots, but great at forcing one-on-one scoring and very tough to score on in general.

Indeed, this is a great unit. Still: what about that absence of blocks? Kentucky ranks 77th in Block% right now, which is good for most teams but terrible for a Kentucky program that’s ranked 32nd or better in every Calipari season and no worse than 39th since the Tubby Smith era. Kentucky ranks out well in a lot of things, but even Synergy, who’s pretty charitable to the ‘Kats, ranks this around-the-basket defense as in the 78th-percentile. Hoop-Math’s play-by-play data ranks them 198th as of the time of writing. This isn’t quite as fearful a unit down low as they used to be.

The problem is that, well, it’s still a great overall unit. The key of each Calipari team is its ability to force and block non-rim twos, and this one is no different. Kentucky forces more non-rim twos than all but 26 teams in the nation and blocks more of these shots than all but ten, so that part is legitimate once again. The structure of Kentucky’s defense sinks inward to prevent you from getting all the way to the rim on a typical possession. I imagine it’ll come as no surprise that Kentucky forces more runners and floaters than everyone but Arkansas in the SEC.

Still, the path to scoring is there. Tennessee found it in the first meeting, if you’re able to remember the actual positives of that day. In the first meeting, Tennessee went 14-for-19 at the rim and 20-for-35 (57.1%) on twos as a whole, which is tied for Tennessee’s best 2PT% against Kentucky in the Calipari era. As I’d expected before the game, Tennessee found a lot of success attacking the paint by way of ball-screens and basket cuts, with Kennedy Chandler having an immense amount of success in making Kentucky sweat.

For all of the great that comes with your standard Kentucky defense – and there is a lot – there’s still holes. Kentucky ranks in the 68th-percentile in ball-screen defense after a switch occurs, per Synergy. They’re in the 56th-percentile at defending cuts to the basket and the 53rd-percentile in defending the roll man on ball-screens. We’ve already talked about the rim issues, but also recall that Tennessee had a lot of success from deep in the first matchup.

The problem is that Kentucky seems to have gotten better at defending the perimeter since that game, now posting a 64/36 Guarded/Unguarded rate compared to the 57/43 they had entering the game. They funnel a lot of opponent attempts to the top of the key, which (by about 0.2-0.5%) is generally the least-efficient of the five three-point areas on the court. Opponents are hitting 40.4% of these catch-and-shoot attempts from deep, but everywhere else is tough: 25% 3PT% allowed in the corners, 26% at the wings. I’d simply argue they’ve been a little lucky in those two while unlucky up top, because most of these are good guards.

My preference would be for Tennessee to attack the wings of the court, where they’ve been most efficient this year, and see how real that 26% is. (Also the corners, obviously.) If they get suckered into a bunch of top-of-the-key threes, you obviously hope they hit them, but the process doesn’t feel quite as agreeable as that of a wing/corner three.

How Tennessee matches up

Honest to God, my first thought was “do the exact same thing you did last time.” Tennessee had a genuinely excellent offensive performance against what’s now a top-15 defense in going for 1.081 PPP, putting up a 62.9% eFG%, and rebounding a third of their misses. If you simply cut down on the turnovers, they could’ve put up 85. The problem is that the opponent put up 107 on the worst shooting day the program has ever surrendered.

The first time out, Tennessee seemed to identify Kentucky’s defensive flaws and did a really good job of exploiting them. As a summary:

  • 20 points on 19 P&R possessions (Tennessee’s normal averages: 12 on 14)
  • 11 points on 8 cut possessions (Normal: 9 on 7)
  • 33 points on 23 catch-and-shoot threes (Normal: 21 on 20)

Kentucky will undoubtedly adjust, but this reminds me a lot of the 2018-19 series. That year, I thought Tennessee did a pretty good job offensively in the first game and got a lot of quality looks. It simply happened to come the same night as Kentucky’s best offensive performance of the season. In the return game, Tennessee pushed their ball-screen usage to a season-high and diced apart Kentucky’s defense to the tune of a 71-52 win. I doubt Tennessee will do the same and win by 28 tonight, but a similar exploration of Chandler/Zeigler in the pick-and-roll could really pay dividends, whether that’s with their own scoring or with passing.

Similarly, Tennessee has to exploit the three-point line to win this game. Like it or not, there’s no better path to a victory that I can imagine. Of Kentucky’s six worst defensive performances this season, five have seen the opponent shoot 32% or better from three, and four of those were 38% or higher. Kentucky’s done a great job of limiting some of the issues they had last time out, but you look at that catch-and-shoot number and it’s hard to ignore.

It’s also as if that first Kentucky game led Tennessee to discover what actually makes them tick offensively. To boot:

  • Pre-Kentucky (15 games): 32.2% 3PT% on 27 attempts a game
  • Kentucky and after (9 games): 39% 3PT% on 23.3 attempts a game

Tennessee’s three-point attempt rate is only about 2% lower, but they’ve been able to use that three-point gravity to draw opponents out and allow for better looks inside the perimeter. If Tennessee came out against Kentucky and took their first five shots from three (assuming those shots were given to the appropriate players), would anyone blame them? You’ve got to find the extra points you need in a space you feel confident in. I think that as it is in many basketball games, deep balls can be the difference-making havoc Tennessee needs.

Defensively…well, frankly, Tennessee played poorly last time out. That much is obvious. I don’t think they played “give up the worst defensive efficiency the program has ever seen” bad, but whatever, Kentucky hit a bunch of shots and it was very much Their Day. Even if Tennessee played their exact same style of defense this game, Kentucky almost certainly would not score 107 points on 73 possessions.

Still, changes need to be made. If we’re going to show how Tennessee exploited Kentucky in the first game, we should obviously do the reverse:

  • 28 points on 19 P&R possessions (Kentucky’s normal averages: 16 on 18)
  • 31 points on 18 transition possessions (Normal: 21 on 20)
  • 30 points on 14 catch-and-shoot threes (Normal: 15 on 14)

That’s a ton of points above expectation. In the first game, Kentucky exploited Tennessee in two different ways: single coverage, where Sahvir Wheeler sped past Kennedy Chandler on several occasions, and hedges (mostly the second half), where Kentucky exploited some of the poor agility the Tennessee frontcourt features. Neither was what I’d call a pleasure to watch.

The fix for this is complicated, but some of it is just hedging stronger and forcing Kentucky to shoot over the top of Tennessee rather than speeding to the rim. If Tennessee can craft something that enables Chandler to stay with Wheeler while not committing 1.5 defenders and giving Kentucky an offensive power play, the odds of a victory go up immensely. Outside of Grady and Mintz, I genuinely do not believe in this Kentucky roster’s game-to-game ability to shoot their way to a win. If Washington is really out – and I don’t know that as of now, but it seems like it may happen – that’s Kentucky’s one knock-down mid-range shooter gone. Make them shoot early and often.

Secondly, I have a bizarre-but-possibly-not-stupid theory for encouraging the threes: run a zone. I don’t want the zone for the full game, just a few possessions here and there. Before I am murdered, let me explain: Kentucky’s barely faced much in the way of zone defense this year. Synergy pegs it at about 4.8 possessions per game, and in that small sample size, Kentucky’s been significantly worse (to the tune of 3.7% lower eFG%) than they have against a man-to-man defense.

The crux of it is this: against zones, Kentucky hasn’t been as effective at the rim (56% FG% versus 65% in man, per Synergy) and they’ve struggled greatly to hit threes, going just 13-for-45 from deep. Here’s the most interesting part of that: Kellan Grady is 6-for-14 against a zone from deep. The rest of the Kentucky roster combined: 7-for-31. Grady only hits the bench about 4 minutes per night in SEC play, but even trying the zone for a couple minutes with him on the court could be of serious interest.

Tennessee’s zone defense this year has been good enough; it doesn’t force turnovers at all, but opponents are shooting 41% at the rim against it and Tennessee’s forced an above-average amount of guarded threes with it. This is something they didn’t try at all in the first game, but they’ve gone to it for 31 possessions over the last six games. Clearly, Rick Barnes and Mike Schwartz see something in it. This kind of seems like the game you’d try it in, no?

Lastly: Tshiebwe. He’s going to get at least a few rebounds in this one; the goal is just to not let him overwhelm you. There’s a few paths worth exploring, but one I would like to see from time to time is a hard double in the post. If Tennessee’s going to keep running out these double-big lineups, which I frankly don’t love but understand the purpose of, using one of those bigs and either the other or a wing to double Tshiebwe seems reasonable. Tshiebwe scores 55% of the time in single-coverage, but Kentucky as a whole only scores on 45.6% of possessions where he’s either doubled or is forced to pass the ball. He’s not a great passer, so make him make hard decisions. It’s all you can really do; I would rather bet on Wheeler or Brooks beating me than let Tshiebwe run roughshod.

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

  • The boards. Well, duh. It may not feel this way, but this is the #1 defensive rebounding team in the SEC (Kentucky) playing #2 (Tennessee). Even funnier: it’s Tennessee that’s been superior on the offensive boards in conference play. If Tennessee can hold Kentucky to a 30% OREB% or lower, which they did the first time around, it’ll help shift the odds in their direction.
  • Threes, again. I mean, eFG% determines anywhere from 50-55% of an average team’s offensive efficiency. If Tennessee gets 10+ threes like they did the first time out they’ll win, barring Kentucky having another insane shooting day. Even 9 would possibly suffice.
  • Can you find any way to get Tshiebwe in foul trouble? Oscar’s only at 3.3 fouls per 40, but he’s finished seven games this year with four fouls. If Fulkerson can do the wacky tube man thing that the new movie NOPE clearly found inspiration in and you get the usual SEC home calls, well, hey.

Key matchups

Oscar Tshiebwe vs. Literally Four Guys. All of Plavsic, Fulkerson, Huntley-Hatfield, and Aidoo will probably get time at the 5. Of those four, I probably rank them Fulkerson > Huntley-Hatfield > Plavsic > Aidoo in terms of how I feel about the rebounding impact of each, but the real key here is that you have 20 fouls to use. Huntley-Hatfield in particular could get some serious offensive run in this one, given how well he performed in the first game.

Kellan Grady vs. Santiago Vescovi. Weird to highlight a guy like Grady with a miniscule usage rate, but he’s such a devastating shooter that if you forget about him you pay for your sins immediately. Vescovi had 20 in the first game and could reasonably get to 20 again if he’s on.

Either TyTy Washington (if available) or Sahvir Wheeler vs. Kennedy Chandler. If Washington is out, it’s Davion Mintz, who doesn’t have the same impact yet has been hot as of late. Wheeler burned Chandler alive off of ball screens in the first one, but Chandler’s defense has improved seemingly every week since.

Three predictions

  1. Both teams go on a run of 10-0 or greater;
  2. Tennessee wins the foul battle by 3 or so, sparking a controversy on Matt Jones’ Twitter account;
  3. Tennessee 71, Kentucky 70.

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.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Kentucky, Part One

OPPONENT #18 Kentucky (13-3, 3-1 SEC, #9 KenPom)
(9-16, 8-9 SEC 2020-21)
LOCATION I-75 Exit 108 Meijer
Lexington, KY
TIME Saturday, January 15
Jay Bilas (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: Kentucky -5
Torvik: Kentucky -3.6

In a just world, this game would come on, like, February 5. Some sort of scenario where Tennessee is given an extra three weeks to learn how to play collegiate offense; some sort of thing where Kentucky loses to Auburn and Kansas and enters a game against Tennessee with quality numbers but relatively underwhelming results. Even as of the time of this game, Kentucky will only be a 4-5 point favorite once the odds are released, so you could pretty much call this a weighted coin-flip that lands in Tennessee’s favor 3-4 times out of 10. If this game were on February 5, or February 12, or February Whatever, you could talk yourself into those odds being 4-5 times out of 10.

That is not the case, because the games are played when the games are played. Tennessee has to find enough offense to win at Rupp Arena for the fourth time in five years while simultaneously sustaining excellent defense against a top-10 offensive unit. God help ’em.

Kentucky’s offense

I’m of two minds about this unit. On one hand, watching Kentucky upsets me irrationally because their on-paper shot selection is horrific. They take more non-rim twos than all but seven teams in America; only 61.7% of their shots are at the rim or from three. I hate it very much, especially when you’re converting an insane 76.1% of your attempts at the rim. On the other hand: they are converting 76.1% of their attempts at the rim, and even LSU and Duke (the two best rim-protection units they’ve played, both losses) only managed to hold UK to a 57% conversion rate down low.

Kentucky’s solution to what’s plagued them offensively in years past – a poor half-court offense driven by stagnant shot selection – has been to simply play much faster than you remember. 35.7% of Kentucky’s initial shot attempts are in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, per Hoop-Math, which is faster than any other year on record under Calipari. (2016-17 technically has a faster average possession, but they avoided late-clock possessions more frequently.) Kentucky’s revamped backcourt is driving this Daytona method, led by star guard TyTy Washington (13.7 PPG, 4.8 APG).

Washington is on pace to be a low-end lottery pick in the next Draft, and I’d call it fairly deserved. He doesn’t lift up a ton of threes (52 in 16 games), but he makes enough to make you respect him (40.5%). The real Washington killer, though, is his mid-range game; he’s currently hitting over 50% of his mid-range attempts. This is the rare player where any sort of shot he puts up is probably a reasonable one.

The other guy who you’ll see lead a ton of offense, if he’s able to play, is Sahvir Wheeler (9.6 PPG, 7.3 APG). Wheeler suffered an injury early in the LSU game last week and he’s missed Kentucky’s last two outings. Calipari is non-committal on his ability to play in this one, and as of publication, I haven’t seen anything one way or the other. (EDIT: He’s playing.) If he plays: the basic scout here is that Wheeler is absurdly fast and a far better player overall than he showed at Georgia. He has a bunch of wonderful passes…and some poor turnovers to go with it. Wheeler is not a serious threat from three or the mid-range, but is a terror at the rim for a 5’9″ guard.

The best shooter this roster has to offer by miles is Davidson transfer Kellan Grady (11.6 PPG), a guy who doesn’t actually shoot often (8.5 times per game) but is knocking down an insane 45.4% of his three-point attempts.

Grady is the one hyper-reliable deep shooter on the Kentucky roster. Washington is good but doesn’t take a ton of them; Davion Mintz (last year’s only quality shooter on the roster) is good but very streaky; no other player on the roster outside of those three has made more than six deep attempts this season. If Grady gets the ball, clasp your hands together and pray, because he’s shooting 50% on both guarded and unguarded catch-and-shoot attempts. Hopefully, for Tennessee’s sake, he doesn’t get more than 5-6 attempts total in this one.

The elephant in the room – literally – is Oscar Tshiebwe. This is the behemoth who is averaging 17 & 15 and is the best rebounder college basketball has seen since Kenneth Faried.

It would be one thing if a 6’9″ college basketball player averaged 9.8 rebounds per game. That would be very good. That would be Tshiebwe’s number if you removed all offensive rebounds he’s getting, AKA 5.2 per game. That’s quite obviously the best rate by any player in America.

While the guards are what runs Kentucky’s transition/primary break offense, the plurality of half-court and secondary actions flow through Tshiebwe in the post. Washington, Grady, and Keion Brooks, Jr. all get theirs in the half-court, but it’s Tshiebwe who’s the main focus. He’s heavily involved in Kentucky’s ball-screen sets and is quite agile for someone his size. The real killer, beyond everything else, is his work down low.

Tennessee has to find a way to both contain Kentucky in transition and keep Tshiebwe from murdering them either down low or on the boards. That’s a tough task, and while Kentucky only has one Quadrant 1 win to date (North Carolina), it explains why they’ve gone undefeated against the weaker beings of the schedule.

CHART! “Yes” means “is efficient at doing so”; “somewhat” means “can, but not efficiently”; “no” means “rarely or never.” SPECIAL NOTE: I’ve included free throw percentages here upon request. The numbers used are a player’s career FT%, not 2021-22.

Kentucky’s defense

Most seasons, John Calipari has had to scheme his way around his personnel to find the best-fitting defense Kentucky can have. The 2017-18 team Tennessee swept had to go with a 2-3 zone for significant stretches of the season to help mask their deficiencies in rebounding and isolation defense; the 2018-19 and 2019-20 sides went all in on half-court defense and blitzed pick-and-rolls; 2021-22 has been forced (?) into running a full-court press 10-12 times a game. It’s a basic full-court man-to-man press that Tennessee runs a similar version of. You’ll see some traps from time to time, but to be honest, it’s not terribly effective.

The real concern here is that, while it’s still very good, this is the least block-heavy (51st in Block%, lowest ranking of Calipari’s tenure) and leakiest overall rim defense the ‘Kats have shown in a really long time. In some aspects, it’s like should you consider a zone?, but in others, I think I understand what’s going on here. This is the first year in forever Kentucky doesn’t employ some sort of mammoth 6’11” center with arms longer than God and the vertical of a rocket. What they have at center is Tshiebwe (elite rebounder, average shot-blocker for his size), Lance Ware (7.5 fouls per 40), and occasionally Daimion Collins (6’9″ freshman, 6.5 fouls per 40). Unlike most Kentucky teams, the path to scoring at the rim enough to make you happy really does exist.

The problem is that, well, it’s still a great overall unit. The key of each Calipari team is its ability to force and block non-rim twos, and this one is no different. Kentucky forces more non-rim twos than all but 11 teams in the nation and blocks more of these shots than all but eight, so that part is legitimate once again. The structure of Kentucky’s defense sinks inward to prevent you from getting all the way to the rim on a typical possession. I imagine it’ll come as no surprise that Kentucky forces more runners and floaters than any other SEC defense.

Add that to Kentucky’s usual ability to run shooters off of the three-point line and into nasty long twos and you have what would be a nightmare matchup for…well, a lot of schools. Again, though: the path to points exists, and it’s more realistic than you’d imagine. Synergy ranks Kentucky’s around-the-basket defense in the 83rd-percentile nationally, which is excellent but not elite; whoever’s tracking their games in StatBroadcast is also heavily underestimating the actual amount of attempts at the rim (35.3% of all shots per Synergy, 29.7% per Hoop-Math). You can score down low against them.

More important for Tennessee fans, of course, is that while Kentucky is above-average at forcing Guarded threes (57/43; nat’l average 55/45), they’re not perfect. Kentucky has played four games against Top 100 opponents so far; outside of two total outliers from Duke and North Carolina (both 1-for-13), the other three teams (Notre Dame, LSU, Vanderbilt) have all taken 22 or more threes and made between 32-40% of their attempts. In particular, I’ve noticed that Kentucky’s had some issues guarding the left corner; out of 29 catch-and-shoot threes, 16 have been left wide open.

They’ve been very lucky that of those 16, opponents have hit two.

Lastly, we’ll discuss ball-screen defense. Kentucky’s had to defend a bunch of these this year, so we have a good base to measure. Unsurprisingly, on the majority of possessions he’s been asked to defend, Tshiebwe sticks in drop coverage to force the guard to finish over the top of his huge frame. However, it’s not an all-or-nothing situation; Vanderbilt caught the ‘Kats in a sort of hedge coverage several times, and Tshiebwe often wasn’t able to recover in time. Here’s an example:

The problem here is that you’ve gotta have a guard worth respecting who handles the ball. If Kennedy Chandler can be that, Tennessee can win this game. If he disappears for long stretches as he has over the last month, well, 2-3 in the SEC is on the horizon.

How Tennessee matches up

I’m guilty of attempting to make basketball sound like the most complicated game on the planet sometimes. To be fair, it kind of is if you’re looking at it on a play-to-play basis. However, a hefty amount of games hinge on two questions:

  1. Did you hit enough threes?
  2. If not, did you make up for it by either converting at a high rate on twos or getting to the free throw line?

If you fail to answer these questions correctly, you’re gonna lose more often than not. The same questions apply defensively, obviously, but these sections always start with offense. If Tennessee wants to win this game, the strategy is very clear: you have to hit enough threes or you need to be really, really good on twos. It all comes together to needing at least an eFG% of 50% or better to win; Kentucky is just 16-16 in the last four non-COVID seasons (last year seems like an obvious fluke) when opponents crack that 50% mark.

Let’s talk threes. I talked on Monday about Tennessee’s Seagulls Moment of figuring out if they were to be a serious offense or not, and the first data point of a 66-46 win over South Carolina was…not optimal. However, there was some amount of improvement in a particularly noteworthy area: corner threes. Not only did Tennessee go 3-for-6, they changed who got those shots.

Corner three-point attempts, first 14 games (makes in parentheses):

  1. Victor Bailey, Jr.: 24 (3)
  2. Josiah-Jordan James: 20 (4)
  3. Justin Powell: 12 (5)
  4. Santiago Vescovi: 11 (1)
  5. Zakai Zeigler: 9 (4)

Corner three-point attempts, South Carolina:

  1. Santiago Vescovi: 3 (2)
  2. Victor Bailey, Jr.: 2 (0)
  3. Zakai Zeigler: 1 (1)

See how much better that looks? Unsurprisingly, when you give your actual best shooters the best shots, it works out pretty well. As covered in the defensive section, I think Kentucky has a very good defense that isn’t great because it’s not quite as scary inside as it typically is and the backcourt doesn’t have a singular, shutdown defender that covers up the gaps. You can get open in the corner on this team with fair regularity. Please put the right shooters there when it happens.

The other part of this is that Tennessee’s going to have to get creative to score points in the paint. I mean, you and I both can sit around hoping that the Ram Everything Through the Post strategy works to the tune of Fulkerson or Nkamhoua dropping 20+, but I think we all know that’s not the most logical of scenarios. I would get Tshiebwe involved in ball screens early and often to drag him out of the paint. If he hedges, Kennedy Chandler (or Zakai Zeigler) have to be ready to hit cutters to the rim.

Defensively…well, the best-case scenario really is that Tshiebwe somehow gets in foul trouble and you can remove that albatross from the floor. If he manages 30+ minutes, this is going to be a hard game to win. If he’s out there, Tennessee has to be strong in half-court post defense. Tshiebwe will move around and set screens, but at the end of the day, he’s more willing to post up than to do anything else. Single coverage on Tshiebwe is something Tennessee could do, but considering Tshiebwe is the most efficient single-coverage post player the SEC offers, I would consider doubling him early and often.

Tshiebwe isn’t a terrible passer, but he’s not much of a passer, period. He’s posted more than one assist in just three of Kentucky’s 16 games. Double him in the post, because the alternative is likely worse. Tennessee rarely doubles in the post, but Tshiebwe is a rare beast.

The secondary thing here, and one that’s unusual, is that Kentucky both attempts more non-rim twos than threes and gets to the free throw line even less than Tennessee. (How about that for a sea change?) You can probably expect 30 jumpers from various depths from Kentucky in this game, along with six or seven floaters/runners. The guys who I wouldn’t allow to get off clean looks in the mid-range are Washington and Brooks (and Grady, I guess); everyone else is free to go. If they make it, whatever, beats Tshiebwe killing you.

This is going to be a battle for 40 minutes. Your best shot is that you make enough threes, hold Kentucky to a good-not-great hit rate on twos, and stay out of foul trouble. Let’s see if that unfolds.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: 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

  • Can Tennessee utilize a turnover advantage to overcome other deficiencies? Tennessee and Kentucky are similar turnover-avoidant offenses, but Tennessee’s defense is much, much better at forcing TOs. Tennessee really should finish with 3-4 fewer turnovers, even considering the home/away dynamic.
  • Can Kentucky make up for the TOs with OREBs? Kentucky ranks as the #2 offensive rebounding team in America; I’d say it’s deserved. That being said, Tennessee has quietly had its best season by far under Rick Barnes in terms of defensive rebounding against a pretty tough schedule.
  • Threes? Threes. Threes. Tennessee probably needs at least eight or nine to win this game, barring a Kentucky over/underperformance from deep.

Key matchups

Oscar Tshiebwe vs. Every Available Option at Center. Well, when you’re playing a Boards Behemoth who’s KenPom’s Player of the Year at this moment in time, you need everyone on board. Here’s various contributions I could see as useful: Olivier Nkamhoua features in ball-screens and various sets that draw Tshiebwe away from the boards. John Fulkerson does the Wacky Tube Man thing and draws a few fouls. Uros Plavsic…gets a tip-in? Maybe?

TyTy Washington vs. Kennedy Chandler. I’m very interested in this one because it seems like a matchup that should draw the best attributes of both players. Washington is a more skilled shooter, but Chandler’s much better at driving to the basket and grades out as the better defender.

Kellan Grady vs. Justin Powell. Technically, this is Josiah-Jordan James’ starting spot, but over the last five games (per KenPom), Powell’s gotten the plurality of minutes at the 3. I agree with the general staff consensus that Powell’s not great defensively which is why I’d totally understand the JJJ matchup here, but…I mean, Grady has similar defensive issues, too. Just shoot a basketball, dude.

Three predictions

  1. We find out how Justin Powell handles public criticism as he either takes 8 shots or 1 in 17 minutes of play;
  2. At some point late in the first half I regret not picking Tennessee even though the metrics favor Kentucky;
  3. Kentucky 72, Tennessee 68.

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Kentucky (#2)

Some fun stats for your Friday/Saturday enjoyment:

  • As of Saturday, it will have been 378 days since the Kentucky Wildcats last defeated the Tennessee Volunteers.
  • There were 11 total cases of COVID-19 in the United States when Kentucky last defeated Tennessee.
  • Absolutely nothing about the world has changed since that game happened. Nothin’!

Game information:

  • THE OPPONENT: Kentucky (7-13, 6-7).
  • THE TIME: 1 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: CBS. Yes, seriously.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: Not sure as of this time, but last week it was Ian Eagle (PBP) and Jim Spanarkel (color).
  • THE SPREAD: Not up yet; both KenPom and Torvik have Tennessee -7.

Click below to skip ahead to the section of your dreams.

NEXT PAGE: Loretta Lynn’s three best albums, in order: Coal Miner’s Daughter (1970); Writes ‘Em and Sings ‘Em (1970); I Remember Patsy (1977). Not the Jack White collaboration, which is okay.

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Kentucky (#1)

As with any game at Rupp Arena, this one has a lot going for it. It’s incredibly important for both teams, and both could really use a win. For Tennessee, this is a chance for several firsts. Rick Barnes can become the only active coach in basketball to win three games at Rupp Arena. Tennessee’s seniors (Fulkerson and Pons) can become the first duo to ever win three games at Rupp Arena. While Kentucky is down this year, Tennessee needs to win as many games as possible to restore national relevance after a rough patch in SEC play.

With a win here, Tennessee can add a second Quad 2 win (yes, Quad 2), which may not seem all that important but is much better than a loss. Bart Torvik’s DayCast tool has the following to say: if Tennessee wins, they become much more likely to get back into 3 seed territory. With a loss, you’re still looking at a 4 or 5 seed. This is important, because 4 and 5 seeds are not quite as bulletproof in the Round of 64 as 3 seeds are. Plus, it increases the chance that you draw an 11 seed in the Round of 32. Considering 6 seeds are just 19-21 across the last 10 Tournaments versus their 11 seed counterparts, you have to love the idea of becoming a 3 seed again.

With a win here, Kentucky moves to 6-11 instead of 5-12 in their worst season in a century.

The below game information section is provided as a courtesy of Google and Tennessee’s game notes.

  • THE OPPONENT: Kentucky (5-11, 4-5).
  • THE TIME: 8 PM Eastern.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: Bob Wischusen (PBP) and Dick Vitale (color).
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -4. I don’t bet so I don’t normally pay attention to this, but someone on Twitter said this is the second time in three decades Tennessee has been favored at Rupp, so I’m rolling with it.

Click ahead to the section of your dreams. Or if you’re tired of reading, which is understandable.

NEXT PAGE: Musicians from Kentucky, ranked: 1. Bill Monroe 2. Loretta Lynn 3. Osborne Brothers 4. Tom T. Hall 5. Everly Brothers (who are also from Knoxville, sort of)

Show Me Future Opponents: Kentucky vs. Richmond/Kansas

Hi! This is, hopefully, the final installment for a little while in this short series titled Show Me Future Opponents. Beginning next week, with any luck, I’ll be back to the traditional schedule of previewing Tennessee basketball games. Until then, please enjoy this piece on Kentucky basketball and its successes/failures.

In the preseason, I felt of two minds about Kentucky’s #10 AP Poll ranking, two spots higher than Tennessee’s. On one hand, every post-2015 Kentucky team has started somewhat poorly, but by March, they’ve rounded into the form of roughly an Elite Eight-level team. Consider the following, as run on Bart Torvik’s fantastic site:

  • 2015-16: #25 overall in games played from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31; #3 in games played from Jan. 1 to end of season
  • 2016-17: #3; #8
  • 2017-18: #29; #21
  • 2018-19: #25; #6
  • 2019-20: #42; #26

In four of the last five seasons, they’ve gotten noticeably better once conference play has started; the only outlier was the 2016-17 squad that was consistently excellent pretty much the whole way through. (Also a reminder that every 2019-20 SEC team was worse than you remember.) It stands to reason that a team that barely returned 7% of its minutes from 2019-20 won’t be very good to start the season, yes?

However, I’d like to posit the other hand of my argument: has Kentucky’s recent second-half play actually been enough to make up for their first-half issues? Look at those numbers over the last five years and you’ll see Kentucky failing to elevate their play in time for March in both 2017-18 and 2019-20. In four of those five years, they were barely, if at all, a top 25-level team entering conference play. Shouldn’t Kentucky automatically be given, like, the 19th spot in the preseason Top 25 until they show they can figure it out for a full season?

When Kentucky had the ball

Anyway, that’s a long way of saying I wasn’t terribly surprised this Kentucky roster lost to Richmond or Kansas, though it was kind of surprising they lost to both. A Richmond team that returned 80% of its minutes from a year ago was going to be much more prepared for a November battle; same goes for Kansas, even if they returned just under half of their minutes. What shouldn’t be excusable about Kentucky’s play thus far, even against two exceptional opponents, is just how bad their shot selection has been.

It’s one thing for Kentucky to be shooting 9-for-47 from three this season, as we’ll cover shortly. (They went 3-for-31 against Richmond and Kansas combined.) However, it would be another thing if Kentucky were simply missing shots you know they can hit while taking good, worthy shots otherwise. They decidedly aren’t doing that. Per Simon Gerszberg’s Shot Quality metric, Kentucky’s offense ranks in the 34th-percentile nationally through three games in terms of offensive shot quality. They’re two spots behind Howard, a team that got demolished by Division II Queens (NC) last week. Things are not good!

Through three games, Kentucky has some truly alarming shooting splits, in terms of where their shots are being taken. An astounding 39.1% of Kentucky’s field goal attempts thus far are non-rim twos, which, as we’ve discussed frequently, offers the lowest return on investment in college basketball. Players do have the capacity to hit these shots, obviously, and Kentucky is making about 41% of their non-rim twos thus far. Brandon Boston, Jr., Olivier Sarr, and Terrence Clarke have all flashed a propensity and a desire to get to 14 feet.

However, you’ve also got to get some amount of good shots to go with your bad ones that you’re currently making. Kentucky…is not doing that. Frequently throughout both of these games, the Wildcats appeared terribly disinterested in moving off the ball, running off-ball screens to get a shooter loose, or performing any relatively basic offensive task in general. Here’s a possession where three of five players don’t move a pixel after the ball crosses half-court:

Here’s a possession where Kentucky clears out with 16 seconds left on the shot clock for Brandon Boston, Jr. to commit a charge (not called) and brick a 14-footer worthy of the Reed’s Ranch Basketball League:

And here’s one where Kentucky’s lineup farts around for 29 seconds with little-to-no-movement, resulting in Terrence Clarke plowing a guy over while tossing the ball into the fourth row.

All of this is awful, and somehow, I’ve barely touched on the fact that Kentucky is shooting 19.1% from three through three games. Of course, that won’t last, and I don’t doubt that John Calipari is telling some version of the truth when he says that guys like Brandon Boston, Jr. (0-for-11) and Terrence Clarke (0-for-8) are clearly better shooters than they appear to be right now. However, I’d also argue that a good chunk of this is on Calipari. Davion Mintz (4-for-10) and Dontaie Allen (2-for-5) are the main shooters mentioned in essentially every Kentucky basketball article. For a team that needs shooting, you’d imagine guys who can hit shots like this would be playing big minutes right now, yes?

Ahhhhhh not really, sorry. Mintz played a combined 32 minutes against Richmond and Kansas despite Kentucky’s net rating being nearly 15 points better per 100 possessions with him in the game. Allen is trickier because he didn’t play a minute against Richmond and only got eight against Kansas, but Kentucky’s offense appeared to have way better spacing with him simply being on the court:

This could be a thing where Allen’s defense is so bad that it doesn’t allow him to play many minutes, but…kinda hard to judge that when he plays eight total minutes across two games, no?

Lastly, I don’t want to be all negative, so we’ll end on Kentucky’s lone positive. The Wildcats are simply dominant on the offensive boards against all competition, which obviously makes sense when four members of the starting lineup are 6’7” or taller. Richmond won by 12 despite giving up 21 offensive boards to these Wildcats, and Kansas allowed 13 of them. In particular, Isaiah Jackson appears to be a fantastic rebounder at 6’10”:

Jackson had seven offensive rebounds against Richmond and already has 12 total in his first four college games. That is, uh, good. It’s about all the positives you can give Kentucky thus far.

Kentucky’s got a ton of offensive problems. Some of them will resolve themselves just fine; obviously, I don’t think Boston and Clarke will go a combined 0-for-19 over every three-game stretch forever. However, when you look at the type of shots the Wildcats are getting, along with how many bad possessions are being used in isolation and fruitless 2006 post-ups, it gets much harder to figure out how this team’s going to perform a miraculous post-New Year turnaround to go from looking like a 10 seed to fulfilling being the preseason #10 team in the country.

When Kentucky’s opponents had the ball

If that section read like 800 words of disgust, this one will read like a polar opposite. Three games in, Kentucky’s defense has looked better than some of even the highest expectations their fans had. None of Morehead State, Richmond, or Kansas cracked a point per possession, and Richmond cracked 50% on two-pointers by just a hair. The only player who has consistently cracked the Kentucky code inside the perimeter was Richmond forward Nathan Cayo, who went 7-for-10 at the rim thanks to some quality designs by the Richmond staff:

Richmond went 18-for-24 at the rim against Kentucky largely because Olivier Sarr couldn’t get any long-term help. Sarr was forced to play 38 minutes, and as the game wore on, he was running out of steam fast:

As upsetting as that Richmond loss probably was, it came with a few positives. Notably, the Spiders shot just 11-for-43 on everything that wasn’t at the rim. When Kentucky was able to keep the Spiders away from the rim – something they weren’t nearly as successful at in the second half – things generally went much better for the Wildcats. Richmond was forced to take a lot of uncomfortable jumpers early in the game, which led to their poor halftime shooting percentage:

While Chris Mooney was right that Richmond wouldn’t shoot as poorly in the second half, most of the gains came at the rim. Against Kansas, Sarr wouldn’t have the same problem of overplay. Instead, he swung hard to the other end of the spectrum, playing just 14 minutes due to constant foul trouble. Without Sarr in the game, Kentucky figured to have rim protection issues…until Isaiah Jackson popped up out of nowhere and started blocking every shot known to man.

Jackson’s presence on the court forced Kansas to endure a 14-for-33 outing at the rim, and unlike the Gonzaga game, they didn’t make up that difference from the mid-range, converting just 1-of-13 non-rim two-pointers. With Jackson’s long arms out there, the odds of getting anything up over him seemed quite tall. I’d be fascinated to see how Kentucky can build this defense around him as the season goes on.

It also appears as if no threes will be made by either team participating in a Kentucky game this year. Through these first three games, Wildcat opponents are 15-for-67 (22.4%) from three, around 10% below the national average so far. Synergy judges Kentucky’s catch-and-shoot defense as needing some work, for what it’s worth – 24 unguarded threes have been allowed, compared to 22 guarded ones. Still, Kentucky has seemed to somewhat master three-point defense, as much as it can be mastered in college basketball. Only one Calipari team (2018-19) has ranked outside of the top 100 in opposing 3PT%, and all but two have ranked 63rd or higher. There’s a real skill to it:

Also, it helps when all you’ve recruited for years now is the same exact 6’6”-6’10” guard/forward archetype that’s all arms and can jump out of a gym. Kentucky basketball: the perfect team for those who hate threes for some reason.

Show Me My Opponent: Kentucky (#2)

Go ahead and prepare yourself for what will be an onslaught of pieces over the next two weeks, assuming Kentucky wins the SEC Tournament. Kentucky has turned the corner. Kentucky is once again a national championship contender. Kentucky has the most John Calipari team to date. In this new article from Kyle Tucker of the Athletic, we explore why this Kentucky team is more prepared for March than you think. Every single one of these pieces will exist, and every single one of them will ignore a key fact: barring a serious overachiever run from Kentucky, this will be Calipari’s second-lowest-ranked KenPom team, aside from the aborted Nerlens Noel year.

But Will, you may clamor, isn’t this because KenPom factors in non-conference results too heavily? I mean, that’s obviously possible. It’s happened with other teams in the past. But let’s check out Bart Torvik’s site, which can separate results by non-conference and conference play in a system very similar to Ken’s.

Kentucky in non-conference play: +15.8 Adj. EM; 36th
Kentucky in SEC play: +18.6 Adj. EM; 23rd

Wow, look at that title contender! If you’re curious, the last five Kentucky teams all ranked higher in SEC play than this one has. It’s obviously pretty nice that Kentucky is 14-2 in SEC play, and that’s worth talking about. However: have you considered the fact that this is the least-good SEC since 2012-13 when it produced three NCAA Tournament teams? The SEC ranks dead last among Big Six conferences in Ken’s ratings, with Kentucky being the only team in the top 30. Heck, Florida – the team Tennessee took a near-20 point lead on – is the second-best team in these ratings. There’s as many teams ranked 140th or worse as there are teams in the top 35.

Here’s what I’m trying to get at: before giving in once again to the Kentucky machine, consider the context. This is a terrible SEC in a down year for college basketball as a whole. Even if you exclude the Evansville loss entirely, Kentucky’s played at the level of the 26th-best team since, per Bart Torvik. (Want to go from post-Ohio State loss onward? 19th.) All of the college basketball tastemakers will be crowning this team as being an “under the radar title contender.” Given a perfect draw, even I might squeeze them in further than I’d expect. All I’m asking you to do is not get swallowed up in the hype yet again, lest your bracket get busted in the Sweet Sixteen.

They’ll still beat Tennessee, I’m afraid.

NEXT PAGE: Kentucky: a basketball team