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

Show Me My Opponent: Kentucky (#1)

Well, it’s Kentucky. I could go through all the reasons that the reader, certainly a Tennessee fan, should despise this program. I could go through the laundry list of overlooked recruiting violations that likely exist. I could go through all the reasons to truly despise John Calipari, one of the sport’s greatest slime-based characters. Even recognizing Tennessee’s own NCAA Tournament failures, I could talk about how truly funny it is that Kentucky’s still only got one title under Calipari and hasn’t reached the Final Four since the 38-1 year.

But that would be a waste of time, honestly. You know who Tennessee’s dealing with. You know all the history. You know all the pageantry. You know how many of their fans come to Thompson-Boling, attempting to turn the arena blue. There’s no point in rehashing things you already know about. So let’s explore something you may have forgotten about: the time Tennessee defeated Kentucky 47-46 in Rupp Arena under Jerry Green.

Recently, I’ve been deploying a variety of YouTube searches in an attempt to sort of relive the Jerry Green era as it happened. I’m 26 years old and didn’t start watching Tennessee basketball until the first Buzz Peterson season in 2001-02; before that, my limited basketball viewing experience was entirely NBA, as I truly adored Allen Iverson and how he dragged the abysmal supporting cast of his 76ers through opponents every single night. As such, I genuinely had no idea Tennessee basketball was supposed to be any good until Bruce Pearl came to town in 2005.

If you have 73 minutes of free time today, you could do worse than watch the game with me. Just like Tennessee’s win in Rupp in 2018, it was the release of a lifetime’s worth of emotions. Tennessee hadn’t won in Lexington since Jimmy Carter was President. The broadcast itself feels like a beautiful, lost relic of the late-1990s/early-2000s; if you can remember when ESPN broadcasted hockey, it’s a similar blast of nostalgia.

Tennessee did not defeat Kentucky in the prettiest of fashions. They shot 30%, committed 17 turnovers, and, again, scored 47 points. But all that mattered was that they scored one more point than Kentucky, who shot 31% themselves. It’s one of the ugliest wins in Tennessee history, and I cannot promise you that watching it again will give you any other opinions than “is this Wisconsin basketball.” But: Tennessee won. If Tennessee ran this exact game and structure back tomorrow, no one will complain, and they shouldn’t.

NEXT PAGE: Did you know that zero SEC teams rank in the top 25 of KenPom right now? Being serious: please name me any SEC team that feels like a real Final Four threat.