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, 2021-22: Mississippi State (II)

OPPONENT Mississippi State
18-14, 8-10 SEC, #44 KenPom
18-15, 8-10 SEC, NIT runner-up 2020-21
LOCATION Amalie Arena
Tampa, FL
TIME Friday, March 11
Dane Bradshaw (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -8
KenPom: Tennessee -6

Torvik: Tennessee -6.2

One of the nice things about basketball is that you can just point at a calculator and say 3 > 2 sometimes. This doesn’t always work, because it is better to be good at both than to be good at one or the other. However, if you’re blatantly bad at one or if you’re living out 1984 and telling your team that 2 + 2 = 5, this turns into a problem. As such, I think this explains Mississippi State basketball, a team that is 0-10 as an underdog (18-4 as favorite) in part because they do not understand that threes are a part of modern basketball.

Tennessee enters this game on a heater, having won 12 of 14 despite losing a starter to season-ending injury. Mississippi State did blow out South Carolina last night, but this may be window-dressing on a season that began 13-5, 4-2 SEC and is now 18-14, 8-10. Ben Howland’s job is in serious limbo, with buzz growing on ESPN+ articles that his time is drawing to a close in Starkville. If only he had the TI-83 to add 2 and 3 together.

Mississippi State’s offense

Tennessee played this team barely a month ago, so you can read a full overview of the offense from the first post. These are the updates:

  • After losing a must-win game, Ben Howland panicked his way into trying three new starting lineups before eventually arriving back at the one they started against Tennessee. Nothing has changed, but I figured you might smile at that.
  • As State’s season has turned into desperation mode, the best player hasn’t been the guy everyone would expect, but rather Tolu Smith (13.8 PPG/6.2 RPG season-long, 15.5 PPG/6.1 RPG last 8 games). Smith is attempting nearly 6 FTs a game, has put up a 72.7% FG% on 55 rim attempts, and has become the co-#1 option offensively.
  • The other is the obvious: Iverson Molinar (17.8 PPG). Molinar had a great season, but since the Tennessee game he’s taken a significant hit: 44% on twos and 14% (!) on threes, both of which are 9% and 12% decreases from season-long numbers. A 39.9% eFG% in the month your team needs you most is egregious.
  • Beyond that, no one has averaged more than 8.1 PPG since the Tennessee game. Next up on the scoring list is D.J. Jeffries at 9.4 PPG season-long, but his usage rate is barely above that of Justin Powell’s.
  • The most efficient guy right now is Andersson Garcia (6.5 PPG/5.8 RPG since February 9), but his impact is more felt on defense and his main source of scoring income is an incredible ability to draw fouls.
  • Here’s the stat that I feel sums up why Ben Howland will be either retired or coaching somewhere else in a year: over the last nine games, no Mississippi State player has made more than five three-pointers. The team as a whole since February 9: 17.8% from deep on 112 attempts.

CHART! Small updates from the first time. Rocket Watts was DFA’d picked up a practice injury and seems done for the year.

Mississippi State’s defense

First preview is linked here. Updates:

  • State’s defense has surprisingly strengthened a tad since last time out; Torvik ranks them as 40th-best over the last 10 games.
  • The problem is that this is largely driven by an opponent 28.2% hit rate on threes, which I would be more inclined to believe in if State wasn’t posting a 52/48 Guarded/Unguarded rate. That’s about average, which is fine, but 28.2% is significantly below average. Regression coming.
  • Everything else is more or less the same. Context-free stats would indicate a defensive rebounding flaw, as opponents have rebounded 30% of their misses over the last month-plus (#265 nationally). However, that’s 2.5% below expectation, as the opponents have averaged 32.5% this season. Still good.
  • The scariest guy on defense right now is Garcia, who has posted 12 steals in the last six games. State’s defense is 8.2 points better per 100 possessions when he’s on the court.
  • Nothing else new to report. State still doesn’t press unless it’s desperation time and never runs a zone defense. Something interesting is that of State’s five lowest 3PA% allowed this season, four have come in the last eleven games. State doesn’t have much in the way of rim protection and has consistently sat in the 200s in 2PT% allowed, so opponents don’t see much of a reason to bomb away all that often.

How Tennessee matches up

No GIFs today, sorry. Free time has been very limited this week. Back tomorrow, if applicable.

The fundamental yes/no question in every Mississippi State game this year has been if the opponent hit enough shots or not. I guess that holds for literally every team ever constructed, but it feels especially pertinent for State. The Bulldogs are a perfect 15-0 when winning the eFG% battle this season; they are 3-14 otherwise. It’s pretty stark, but it helps making preview a game on short notice very easy: hit your shots, win the game.

Tennessee’s largest and most consistent source of points this season has been simple: a guard drives the ball to the paint, then kicks out to an open shooter. Generally, this has been Santiago Vescovi or Josiah-Jordan James, but it could be anybody on the right night. If Tennessee gets quality paint penetration in this game, it’s going to open up a lot of looks from deep against one of the least-positive perimeter defenses the league has to offer. Tennessee’s main issue in this game, to me, is avoiding settling for mid-range jumpers like they did in the first battle. You’ve got to look for threes first; threes will be what drives the separation factor.

Along with this, State has done a poor job of defending ball screens this year. Synergy places them as 30th-percentile in P&R defense over the course of the season. Tennessee doesn’t usually run many ball screens, but in the first game, they posted more P&R possessions (21) than they had in all but two other SEC regular season games. Clearly, Barnes and company see this as an area of opportunity.

The key is to utilize the passing ability of the ball-handler. Chandler and Zeigler can pressure the rim very well, but it’s their passing ability that could really open this game up for Tennessee. A well-timed pass to the roll man can both provide two points and help sink State inward to open more looks from deep.

The defensive side of this is a curious and weird case. For once, you don’t really have much fear of the opponent out-shooting you from deep. No high-major basketball team gets a lower percentage of its points from three than Mississippi State; just once since the Tennessee game have they hit more than three threes. Instead, this is all about protecting the rim. State will take a bunch of mid-range twos and you’ve got to live with that, but making sure the shots at the rim are well-contested and hard to convert is of utmost importance.

State’s biggest drivers of points down low have unsurprisingly been Molinar and Smith, but in half-court play, it’s Smith’s basket cuts that have shredded opponents. Tennessee has to toe the delicate line between committing too much to a driving Molinar and overplaying to allow Smith open while also not undercommitting to Molinar. The good news I can share is that Tennessee remains an excellent basket cut defense. In the first game, State only scored four points on seven cuts. It took a significant shooting overperformance for them to stay in the game. Absent that, Tennessee needs to control this game within five feet of the rim.

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

  • Make shots. Again, the stat: State is 15-0 when they win eFG%, 3-14 when they lose. If Tennessee hits 8-9 threes in this one I’m not really sure how State would overcome that beyond either turnovers or a foul parade.
  • Frontcourt production. Mississippi State obviously has the best player of either frontcourt in Smith, but can Tennessee find someone that’s better than Garrison Brooks at the 4? This is a game I’d expect Josiah-Jordan James to show out.
  • Protect the boards. Mississippi State is 2-6 this year when held to a 30% OREB% or lower; Tennessee, in their first post-Nkamhoua game, held State to 28% the first time out. I guess people are allowed to live in fear after the Arkansas rebounding issues, but that’s the only time Tennessee’s gotten got on the boards in a surprising manner since the injury.

Key matchups

Iverson Molinar vs. Kennedy Chandler. And also Zakai Zeigler. Molinar may play all 40 in this one and has regularly taken on 35-36 minutes a night as of late. His shooting post-Vols (38.8% eFG%) has been atrocious, but I would prefer to not let this be the game he reheats.

Tolu Smith vs. Center Roulette. So, as of now, Center Roulette’s main minutes-getter is Jonas Aidoo…which would be fine if he wasn’t almost tied with Uros Plavsic for center minutes. Roulette it remains. Anyway, Smith has been State’s best player over the last month and can change the game with how frequently he draws fouls.

Garrison Brooks vs. Josiah-Jordan James. This will be BHH to start, but James will most commonly draw the matchup. Brooks is 14-for-50 on everything that’s not a layup/dunk over the last month and frankly may be State’s worst defender; this is why I think James could have a big game.

Three predictions

  1. This is the final game Ben Howland coaches at Mississippi State, but NOT because he is fired;
  2. Chandler and Vescovi combine for 10 assists;
  3. Tennessee 69, Mississippi State 61.

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

Drive-By Truckers, “Feb. 14”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Mississippi State

OPPONENT Mississippi State
14-8, 5-4 SEC, #43 KenPom
(18-15, 8-10 SEC, NIT runner-up 2020-21)
Starkville, MS
TIME Wednesday, February 9
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -1.5
KenPom: Tennessee -3

Torvik: Tennessee -0.9

Tennessee was poised to enter this pretty tough road game on a heater – they’ve won five of six since the Kentucky debacle – then Olivier Nkamhoua blew out his ankle on an unfortunate play and now The Fear has returned. Still, they have quite a bit of talent and seem to be learning how to use it. Mississippi State, meanwhile, has solid metrics and a good-looking overall record but is 1-5 against Quadrant 1 opponents and has yet to win a road game. (Seriously!)

Winning at Humphrey Coliseum, which is regrettably nicknamed the Hump, is not an easy task; State is 35-9 at home from 2019-20 onward while 17-25 elsewhere. I think Tennessee is reasonably up for it, but the context of Nkamhoua’s injury is key.

Mississippi State’s offense

By a solid margin, this is the better of the two State units. It’s interesting, though, because you could reasonably consider it a clash of styles with Tennessee. Which SEC team gets the greatest percentage of points scored from threes? Tennessee, at 36.8% of all points (48th). Which team gets the least? State: 22.6% of all points (346th). One team is looking to shoot a lot; the other loves playing inside the perimeter. This may explain why State is 14-3 as a pregame KenPom favorite, yet 0-5 as an underdog: a safe style that beats lesser teams with regularity but doesn’t give you much variance for an upset.

Just like the last few years under Ben Howland, State runs an offense predicated on off-ball motion, ball-dominant guards, quality post play, and a billion mid-range jumpers. State averages about 10.4 true mid-range jumpers a game, but that doesn’t include the variety of runners (4.5 per game), post hooks (1.9), and mysterious ‘other twos’ that the Bulldogs take. You look at that chart and think “that’s a pretty average amount of rim pressure,” but 43.2% of all State shots come within five feet of the rim, per Synergy.

The leader of this team, and the only legitimate All-SEC level guy on the roster, is Iverson Molinar (18.2 PPG). Most of what State does on offense runs through him, both in transition (infrequent, but a thing) and in half-court. Molinar’s first goal offensively will be to attack the paint, and being a 6’3″ guy that’s a 65% finisher at the rim is a legitimately excellent skill. Torvik/PBP data makes Molinar look like a mid-range specialist, and he can score from there, but his main attribute is a devastating floater. Molinar’s are going down at a 51.9% rate on 54 attempts; it’s one of the best floaters out there.

Molinar will also attack the rim off of a ball-screen; he’s the only guard on the roster that can really do that with any regularity. The best-case scenario is to make Molinar shoot; he’s at 38.3% on mid-range jumpers this year and 27.6% on threes. He was a lot better at these in 2020-21 (46.8%/42.6%), but my wild guess is that this comes with the territory of being the co-#1 option on last year’s team with D.J. Stewart, whereas he’s now the runaway #1 in 2021-22.

Molinar’s supporting cast consists of North Carolina transfer Garrison Brooks (11.4 PPG), Shakeel Moore (9.9 PPG), and frequently-injured Tolu Smith (12.9 PPG in nine games). Because of Smith’s injury, Brooks has been the main option at center for Mississippi State this year and deservingly so, as he provides a positive impact defensively. Brooks is unusual for State: normally, they play back-to-the-basket 5s who are never a serious threat to take a jumper, but Brooks has nearly taken as many jumpers as Molinar and is the team’s main mid-range specialist (40.8%, 71 attempts).

Moore is a decent threat at the rim, but his main value is from shooting; he’s 34-for-94 (36.2%) from deep, pacing the team in both makes and attempts by some distance. Moore is significantly less effective off the dribble (33%) than in a catch-and-shoot situation (39%), so a defense should do everything they can to make sure his shot attempts are difficult ones.

Lastly: Smith. I don’t know what to tell you. Smith is supposedly available, but his season has truly been week-to-week with an injury: 4 off, 4 on, 4 off, 1 on, 2 off, 3 on, 3 off, now 1 on. I think he will play, but I genuinely can’t tell you with 100% certainty he will. If he does, he’s a 6’11”, 245 pound bowling ball that takes one mid-range jumper a game and spends the rest of his time bullying his way to buckets down low. Also a terrific offensive rebounder, so watch out for that.

The only other guy that scores more than five a game is D.J. Jeffries, a Memphis transfer that takes a lot of jumpers (slightly more from three than two) and is a fine-not-great shooter.

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.” 🥳

Mississippi State’s defense

The script has flipped somewhat from last year, when State’s offense was built around Abdul Ado blocking lots of shots down low. Ado left for Cincinnati, State has only infrequently had Smith available, and so it’s only natural State’s defense would take a hit. Still: they’re blocking a lot of shots (70th-most), forcing lots of steals (32nd-most), and cleaning up the defensive boards while not fouling much. What gives?

  • 2020-21 Mississippi State: 63.1% FG% allowed at rim, 30.1% on non-rim twos
  • 2021-22 Mississippi State: 62.2% FG% rim, 39% non-rim twos

How much of this is real and how much of it is simple variance is up for debate. Still, not much else has really changed: this is the same man-to-man defense that will let you take all the jumpers your heart desires and does a good job of blocking shots both at the rim and on shorter mid-range twos. My guess is that this can be explained to some extent by the fact that 2020-21 Mississippi State had a 6’11” shot-blocking center backed up by a 7’0″ shot-blocking center, while 2021-22 is a mix of an out-of-position 4 that’s just okay at shot blocking who splits time with either Smith (a terrible shot-blocker) or Javian Davis (also bad at blocking shots). Translation: it’s easier to score inside the perimeter now.

Two things instantly jump out at me from State’s Synergy page: opponents are running a ton of ball screens against them (32% of all half-court possessions ending in one) and State, who’s played the 68th-toughest schedule, ranking in the 39th-percentile in ball-screen defense. If you separate it out to ball-handler and roll man possessions, State ranks in the 82nd-percentile in the former and the 37th-percentile in the latter.

My take is that this makes sense given where their roster talent lies. Molinar and especially Moore do a pretty good job of forcing turnovers, but none of the frontcourt options are particularly good at either blocking shots or forcing turnovers. If the pass gets through, it’s likely to result in some easy points.

Still: the turnovers are a thing, and State has gotten better at forcing them, particularly from ball-handlers. Tennessee hasn’t been the cleanest in ball security, particularly Kennedy Chandler, so a fan would probably like to see him not be exploited by those guards.

The most common shot against State, though, is a three-pointer. Almost 43% of all shots are from deep, and data from CBB Analytics notes that State is forcing a pretty high rate of threes from 25 feet or further out. State has actually guarded these pretty well (Guarded/Unguarded of 60/40, per Synergy), and they’ve deserved the national-average results they’ve received.

However, State’s got a moderately uncommon problem with their defense: of the 23.6 threes they force per game, 10.4 (a bit over 44% of all attempts) are from three. In particular, opponents get 3.7 left corner threes per game. This wouldn’t be worth noting if State forced just 2.1 right corner threes per game. Perhaps unsurprisingly, teams have been able to exploit this shot in conference play, though the success (28% FG%) is still to come. State isn’t guarding these corner threes particularly well, as they’re listed at a 47/53 Guarded/Unguarded rate. I would look to get the usual suspects – Vescovi, James, Zeigler – some shots from the left corner.

How Tennessee matches up

At first glance, this is an improving offense playing an NIT-level defense that hasn’t changed much up over the years and has taken a significant hit in two-point defense. Still: road SEC game, good-ish opponent, and if it were that easy to score on them Arkansas would’ve dropped more than 63 and Kentucky wouldn’t have had to go to overtime to win.

A pretty obvious thing from that scout is State’s serious struggles to play quality inside-the-perimeter defense this year. They don’t foul and they rebound well, but opponents’ initial shot quality is fairly good. I think State’s backcourt defense is at least fine, but nothing about the frontcourt options feel all that scary. Prior to Arkansas, five of six State opponents had gone for 51% or better on twos, and Texas Tech went 24-for-34. There’s just not much in the way of elite rim protection or bad shot enforcers.

State ranks in the 37th-percentile in Roll Man defense, 21st-percentile in Cuts, 25th-percentile in Spot-Ups (a good percentage of which end at the rim), and 41st-in post-up D. The guards have to be involved early and often, sure, but so does Tennessee’s new-look frontcourt. This will certainly look and feel different without Nkamhoua, but John Fulkerson remains pretty good at knowing when to cut to the rim.

I’d also use ball-screens or some sort of dribble-drive impact that brings multiple defenders Kennedy Chandler or Zakai Zeigler’s way, therefore freeing up the corner threes mentioned in the defensive section. At most, Tennessee can only expect to get, like, eight of these off in this game…but if Tennessee goes 4-for-8 on those shots, it could be the difference-maker in what’s being treated as a weighted coin-flip. Use this clip as the example of a great corner shot: Chandler draws multiple defenders and has all ten Texas A&M eyes on him as he locates Vescovi for one of the most open threes of the season.

Defensively, Tennessee must first find a way to make Molinar take jumpers. While last year’s numbers do scare me, I think he’s simply taking different types of shots this year. Attention isn’t as easily drawn away from him by his teammates, so he’s having to take on a more difficult scoring load for all 40 minutes. Molinar will find his way to the rim without Nkamhoua on the floor, but Tennessee will have to find a way to build a wall and accept whatever results they get.

Right now, Molinar is shooting just 29% off-the-dribble this year no matter where he’s at on the court. Even if Tennessee forces him to take a dribble or two before pulling up, it beats a true catch-and-shoot attempt. Again: if he hits, he hits, but the actual process of letting him shoot is superior to that of letting him get within eight feet of the rim.

The other thing: you gotta protect the boards and not commit a bunch of fouls in the process. There is a human element to Nkamhoua’s injury, obviously, but a key basketball piece is that Tennessee now has five fewer fouls to use in a game. If Fulkerson gets in foul trouble, that either means more Plavsic minutes or it means Barnes will have to give a much worse defender (Huntley-Hatfield or Aidoo) serious minutes. That’s not a winning strategy.

Tennessee will have to defend the post very well in this game to come out on top. State will take some threes, sure, but they haven’t put up even 20 in a game since before Christmas. They’d much rather bully you from two than increase the variance of the game. If Tennessee can find a way to defend Smith, Brooks, and Javian Davis without fouling an extreme amount, they’ll have a good shot. In particular, Brooks – who posts up more than anyone else – looks to take a jumper first before a hook shot or a layup. Force as many jumpers as you can, and live with the consequences.

This won’t be easy, but with or without Nkamhoua, it’s a winnable basketball game. We’ll see if Tennessee brings it home.

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

  • Well, what’s your post-Nkamhoua lineup of choice? Tennessee has barely played Fulkerson and Plavsic together at all over the last few weeks, which is a good thing, because it’s the worst frontcourt pairing Tennessee may have. Hopefully, this injury doesn’t give them a reason to go double-big. Tennessee’s most common non-Nkamhoua lineup has been Chandler/Zeigler/Vescovi/James/Fulkerson, and barring either a Plavsic over-performance or a great Justin Powell game, I imagine that will be the closing five.
  • What’s Tennessee’s rim protection strategy? Lineups with Nkamhoua on the court were holding opponents to a 51.2% conversion rate at the rim, which would be the 18th-best rate in the country. It’s hard to replicate that, but it’s worth noting that the James/Fulkerson combo has been the best from a 2PT% defense perspective.
  • Threes. Also, twos. State when opponents shoot 32% or better from deep: 5-6, including 1-4 against Top 100 teams. State when shooting worse than 50% on twos: 0-5.

Key matchups

Iverson Molinar vs. Kennedy Chandler. Iverson is going to take the equivalent of 16-18 shots in this one (counting every two FTs as one shooting possession); if Chandler holds him to 18 or fewer points on all those possessions it’s a success. Meanwhile, Chandler simply must avoid turnovers. Two or fewer is the goal.

Tolu Smith (if playing) vs. Uros Plavsic or John Fulkerson. Smith seems likely to play, but I’m leaving the qualifier in just in case. Either way, this is an instant test for how well Tennessee protects the rim post-Nkamhoua.

Garrison Brooks vs. Josiah-Jordan James. Consider this the X-factor matchup. Brooks takes an insane amount of jumpers for a guy who plays all his minutes at the 4 & 5, but he’s willing to post up all the same. This is a good test of how well James can hold up when playing most of his on-court time at the 4.

Three predictions

  1. Justin Powell starts the game but isn’t in the closing lineup;
  2. Tennessee wins the turnover battle by 4 or more;
  3. Tennessee 69, Mississippi State 68.

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Mississippi State

Back during the 2014 and/or 2015 coaching searches, I remember there being a fairly strong desire from online Tennessee fans for Ben Howland. After all, Howland had just been let go by UCLA after the 2013 season, and it isn’t every day there’s a coach on the market with three consecutive Final Four appearances, especially when they’re as recent as 2006-2008. (At the time, this was recent.) Perhaps what we didn’t know – or chose to not see – was that after the final of those Final Four appearances, the UCLA program cratered. They went 117th-52nd-58th-46th on KenPom over his final four seasons, didn’t escape the second round, and were instantly better under new HC Steve Alford.

Howland got scooped up by Mississippi State, who needed literally anything they could get after the Rick Ray error. Again, at the time, it felt like the Bulldogs were seen as making the better hire between them and Tennessee heading into the 2015-16 season. Over 5.5 seasons, Mississippi State has finished inside the KenPom top 40 once, has made one NCAA Tournament, and bombed out to Liberty in the first round. Rick Barnes, whether you like him or not, is headed towards posting his third top-20 finish at Tennessee and has the third-best defense in the country. Funny how these things work out.

Game Information:

  • THE OPPONENT: Mississippi State (9-7, 4-4).
  • THE TIME: 7 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: SEC Network.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS (by request): Tom Hart PBP, Jimmy Dykes color.
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -9.5.

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Show Me My Opponent: Mississippi State

(checking Bracket Matrix to see how high my interest is for this game)

Alright, looks like Mississippi State’s settled in right on the bubble. A win in this game and they’ll be right in the mix, as of early February, anyway. I don’t know how people do the whole bracketology thing before the day after the Super Bowl, but I also watch basketball every single day of my life, so, I get it. Anyway, let’s check in on Tennessee…

…alright, pivoting to Back-Up Topic #2.

If you’re my age – 26 – the earliest realistic season of basketball you probably remember is around the year 2000. If you’re older or younger by a few years, shift it in either direction. For the longest part of my life, outside of a random pair of years in the early 2000s – 2002 and 2004, to be exact – Mississippi State basketball has been a pure afterthought. From 2002 to 2005, they made the NCAA Tournament four straight years, with the first three of those resulting in 3, 5, and 2 seeds. On average, getting said seeds would result in about 5.4 wins. Line those wins up right, and you should be looking at a Sweet Sixteen or even an Elite Eight run.

Instead, Mississippi State went 2-3 across those three runs. A 3 seed in 2002 resulted in a Round of 32 crash-out against 6 seed Texas; 2003’s 5 seed became a 47-46 upset loss to 12 seed Butler; most notably, 2004’s 2 seed resulted in a second round demolition by the hands of 7 seed Xavier. Since then, State hasn’t sniffed serious, consistent success, the closest being last year’s run to a 5 seed that resulted in an infuriating (if you’re a State fan, or if you are the writer of this post and have Thoughts on Liberty University) loss to 12 seed Liberty. The most recent State Sweet Sixteen run is still in 1996, which is also the most recent and only Elite Eight run, which is also the most recent and only Final Four run in school history.

Seriously: Mississippi State, once upon a time, made a Final Four as a 5 seed. They had to beat the 1 and 2 seeds in their region to get there. They had a pair of future pros on their roster in Erick Dampier and Dontae Jones, but the team’s best player was Darryl Wilson, an Alabama native that wore #00 and shot 41% from three. Amazingly, they are not the 1996 Final Four participant that would be the most confusing to imagine making a Final Four today; that would be John Calipari-coached Massachusetts.

I have nothing more to share on this topic, other than I would greatly enjoy talking to someone about how baffling the 1996 Mississippi State Final Four run must have been.

NEXT PAGE: I mean if they get in I guess anything can happen, sure