When the Seagulls Follow the Trawler, It Is Because They Think Sardines Will Be Thrown Into the Sea

This is the eighth in a series of weekly recaps surrounding the 2021-22 Tennessee men’s basketball season.

January 5: #18 Tennessee 66, Mississippi 60 (OT) (10-3, 1-1 SEC)
January 9: #21 LSU 79, #18 Tennessee 67 (10-4, 1-2 SEC)

I. Cantona/LaBeouf

In 1995, Eric Cantona, Manchester United striker, entered possibly the most consequential press conference of his career to-date. Two months earlier, Cantona was sent off for a harsh foul on a Crystal Palace player. On his way to the tunnel, a Palace supporter flew down the stairs to yell all sorts of obscenities and, by some interpretations, racial slurs against Cantona. The striker reacted how those of us who were not popular in middle school dreamed of reacting: driving his boot through the guy’s chest.

Cantona would be taken to court by the fan, and for a brief moment, it appeared that Cantona would have to go to jail for the crime of doing what I’d imagine 99.9% of people who’ve played higher-level sports dream of doing to certain fans. Alas, Cantona got out of it mostly scot-free. In his first press conference after the ordeal was finished, Cantona settled in to give his thoughts on the last two months of his life. In 15 seconds, he achieved something beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. 18 words, 15 seconds, one infamous sentence. Cantona left, because he had nothing left to say. Why would he?

18 years later, in a completely different setting, American actor Shia LaBeouf settled in for a press conference in Germany surrounding the film he was in, Nymphomaniac. (It is not a good movie.) Everyone my age or slightly older knows LaBeouf as a former child actor that starred in Holes, Even Stevens, or even Disturbia, a variety of teen-friendly things that made sense at the time. No one really knew much of LaBeouf’s backstory; they just knew him as the guy from Holes and whatnot.

LaBeouf’s appearance in this movie, and at this festival, was during a strange time. LaBeouf was too old to be in the teen-friendly movies he’d grown up in, but perhaps too young in some aspect to tackle lead roles in the Academy Awards bait we collectively pretend is superior. He’d been forced into taking some weirder roles to keep his career going. LaBeouf fidgets in his seat, but has the glass of water nearby. 18 years apart, in a different country, LaBeouf offers the same 18-word statement.

I bring this up because the moments for Cantona and LaBeouf were different before and very different after. Cantona received a ban for the rest of the 1994-95 season, but he finished his career out with United by winning Premier League titles in 1995-96 and 1996-97, scoring a combined 34 goals along the way. He received the Footballer of the Year Award in 1995-96, the same year United won the FA Cup. Cantona used his Seagulls Moment, which could’ve ended his career entirely, to instead turn his twilight years into a grace note.

LaBeouf didn’t get banned from Berlin’s film festival. What happened after was, at best, a lot of uncomfortable gawking. The next day, LaBeouf showed up with this outfit to the premiere of Nymphomaniac.

What followed that was one of the most public patterns of bizarre behavior a famous person has uncorked. LaBeouf turned the paper bag into an art exhibition titled #IAMSORRY, where you could visit him in a room for the right to watch him cry silently behind the bag. LaBeouf would go to a Broadway play and get kicked out. LaBeouf leaves jail and heads to an audition for the movie War Dogs, alongside war criminal James Corden. He watched all of the movies he’d been in and streamed it for all to see. LaBeouf protests the inauguration of Donald Trump by setting up a livestream of a wall that says HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US. Finally, that livestream ended in LaBeouf taking the flag on the road to, of all places, Greeneville, Tennessee.

That was merely three years of LaBeouf’s life, and it’s a lifetime of bizarre stuff. He’s recovered somewhat in the public eye now, but, well, he’s always finding ways to screw it up.

I am not insane enough to draw a 1:1 comparison to Tennessee men’s basketball and Shia LaBeouf. It is merely a somewhat-interesting metaphor to keep myself going as things never change and I wonder what the point of this is. What I would offer is this: the 2021-22 Tennessee basketball team sits at a Seagulls Moment. They have offered it up to fans out of pure frustration and the idea that things will somehow change by doing the exact same thing, over and over. Whether this season goes the way of Heroic Cantona or Villainous LaBeouf, well, we’ll see.

II. Variance

I feel that we’re at this Seagulls Moment because I, personally, have turned into one of the crypto people that keeps spamming “Buy the Dip.” I do not spend my money on cryptocurrency because I think Matt Damon should be jailed for his same-commercial-airs-14-times-every-day crimes, but whatever. I keep wanting to Buy the Dip on Tennessee basketball because, as we’ll cover later, the team appears to be more or less precisely what we thought it would be two months ago. They opened the season 13th in KenPom; today, they sit 14th in KenPom. They’ve yet to lose a game they were not favored to lose and have yet to win a game they were not favored to win.

It is all going according to plan, but I’d argue we all have a very real reason to be frustrated. Here’s how Tennessee’s three-point shooting breaks down this season:

  • 50% or better: 1 game (7.1%)
  • 40-49%: 4 games (28.6%)
  • 30-39%: 1 game (7.1%)
  • 20-29%: 6 games (42.9%)
  • 19% or worse: 2 games (14.3%)

If Tennessee basketball were following a natural bell curve, you would see this break down as something more like 1/3/5/4/2 or whatever. They’ve probably been unlucky to have as many poor shooting exhibitions as they’ve had, but in general, they’ve been unlucky to not have more average performances. I mentioned the goal recently of even being the 40th-best offense in college basketball; here’s what the 40th-best offense (Ohio) did in 2020-21.

  • 50% or better: 3 games (12%)
  • 40-49%: 5 games (20%)
  • 30-39%: 11 games (44%)
  • 20-29%: 5 games (20%)
  • 19% or worse: 1 game (4%)

Look how normal that is. That’s a perfectly normal bell curve! Ah, how nice it must be to achieve such things. I guess this is me entering the Black Pit of Negative Expectations somewhat, but, well, could you blame anyone? It’s season 7 of Rick Barnes, who I genuinely like and would recommend as a head coach, and Tennessee is staring down their sixth season of failing to finish in the top 100 of effective field goal percentage (eFG%). Only twice have they finished in the top 200 in 3PT%. So, yeah, the variance we’re feeling is unusual and it’ll probably fix itself in due time…but I cannot blame the person who says “so what?”

III. Fear

That nothing will change and everything will remain the same. It’s rational, no?

I voiced my desire for Tennessee to finally shorten their rotation against LSU on Saturday because teams simply do not play 10 guys in March; Tennessee responded by giving 10 players (none of them Brandon Huntley-Hatfield) at least six minutes of on-court action. Maybe that’s unfair, because against Ole Miss only eight players got 6+ minutes, but it lends its hand quite nicely to the continued frustration I’ve felt. Why is Justin Powell, an objectively superior player to Victor Bailey, not taking all of Victor Bailey’s minutes? Why doesn’t Powell have the same mental green light from three as Bailey despite being a superior shooter? If it’s not Powell, why not Jahmai Mashack, whose per-minute stats are far above Bailey’s? Why is Josiah-Jordan James still starting when his offensive numbers are the worst on the entire team? Why can’t John Fulkerson string two good games together? Why does Brandon Huntley-Hatfield appear to give about 13% effort on defense? Where is Quentin Diboundje, who cannot possibly be worse than a couple of the guys getting playing time?

We’re 14 games in and many of the questions I’d had preseason are either still unanswered or the answers haven’t left me very satisfied. That’s where the fear comes in: what if this is it? What if this, a basketball team that oscillates wildly between Actually Good and Completely Unwatchable, is what we’re left with? What if the answers they’re giving us are the best they really can provide? And that is a scary thing to consider.

IV. Expectations

Two months ago to the day, Tennessee sat 13th on KenPom to open the season. They were projected to have the sixth-best defense and the 25th-best offense. Right now, they’re 14th, with the defense being a bit better than anticipated and the offense being worse. So why does this feel as unusually bad as it does? Is it because Saturday’s loss to LSU wasn’t nearly as competitive (prior to the final couple of minutes) as everyone had hoped? Is it because Tennessee is failing to hit threes yet again? I mean, I don’t know, I guess everyone has a different answer…but everyone wants an answer.

The first question is this: do we adjust our expectations for March downward? As usual on the NCAA Tournament, I’d prefer to punt here. Barely nine months ago, a UCLA team that had lost four games in a row and entered the field of 68 outside the top 40 in KenPom proceeded to get red-hot from mid-range and make the Final Four. In 2019, an Auburn team that ranked 14th in KenPom entering the Tournament nearly lost to a 12 seed, then proceeded to get hot from three and make the Final Four. In 2018, well, you already know.

So I’d prefer to not make some sort of overarching statement on March odds yet without seeing who’s in Tennessee’s bracket. All you can control in terms of strength of schedule is your Round of 64 opponent; everything after that is whether you get a lucky break or not. The Loyola team that made the Final Four in 2017-18 had the 68th-best offense in America, while the Kansas State team they beat in the Elite Eight to get there was 60th-best. It really, genuinely doesn’t matter right now.

The second question: do we adjust our expectations for the season downward? Well, I’d argue this one could be more fair. Before the season began, Tennessee ranked as the #1 team in the SEC by KenPom because they were simply the least-questionable, sitting at 13th overall. Today, there are three SEC teams in the top 10 while Tennessee is basically what everyone imagined they’d be. Tennessee can’t control that, but you’re certainly staring down a scenario where 12-6 is a good-enough regular season that nonetheless gives you a 4 seed in the SEC Tournament. The February schedule is far more favorable (Tennessee will be favored in all of their final 10 SEC games), but the odds of a regular season title are dwindling with each frustrating road loss.

If you like regular season championships, Kentucky on Saturday is a must-win game. That’s as nicely as I can put it.

V. Obligation

Before, during, and after Saturday’s game, I felt a mixture of dread and obligation to keep going. This is my fourth full season doing these previews. When I started doing these previews full-time for the 2018-19 season, it was not something I anticipated doing in perpetuity. Tennessee had an excellent basketball team that year; it seemed natural to provide the local market with previews of every game. That team turned out to be the most fun Tennessee basketball team of my lifetime. I didn’t necessarily see that coming entering the season, but it made me want to keep going.

You can deal with weak or underwhelming seasons, I guess. But it’s becoming harder to deal with what feels like the exact same storylines and game flows every time out. You could design a decent-enough Mad Libs replica with it. Tennessee is [UNDERWHELMING] because they need to [MAKE MORE SHOTS] and stop [LOSING FOCUS OFFENSIVELY]. That joke sentence could have been shared in 2016-17, 2019-20, 2020-21, and now 2021-22.

To be frank, I feel like the people who were hoping Trump would press the Iraqi Dinar revaluation button. It’s me and Donna295728194, both hoping for something to happen, both probably knowing it won’t, and both eventually being asked by media members to understand why we think this way.

The point here is that I’m going to be completely honest with you all: I’m getting a little tired of writing about the local basketball program. When you write the same article a hundred times over, it gets old. At the same time, though, I feel extremely lucky that I have a following that cares about this stuff, enjoys the breakdowns, and (mostly) seems interested in learning more about how to view basketball through a statistical lens. Plus, at the end of the day, it’s just a game. It’s just college sports. In theory, it should be the least-serious thing I could possibly write about, and it probably is.

So: that’s where I’m at. I’m going to keep going. To quote Courtney Barnett, I’m writing; it’s the only thing that I know how to do. Let’s collectively hope it gets better.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Mississippi

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT Mississippi (8-4, #107 KenPom)
(16-12, first round NIT in 2020-21)
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME 7 PM ET
CHANNEL SEC Network
ANNOUNCERS Mike Morgan (PBP)
Jon Sundvold (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -16.5
KenPom: Tennessee -15

Torvik: Tennessee -13.7

EDITOR’S NOTE (WHICH IS ALSO ME): Kermit Davis (Mississippi HC) said to the media yesterday that Ole Miss has a pair of COVID-positive players and that top scorer Jarkel Joiner is questionable to play. If anything happens, I’ll update the preview.

UPDATE: Jarkel Joiner (14.8 PPG) is out, per Kermit Davis. Disregard what’s written about him.

On Ken Pomeroy’s wonderful website, there are little (A) and (B) buttons next to each game that signify Tier A (a top 50 opponent, location-adjusted) and Tier B (top 100, same thing) opponents. He used to call them Tiers of Joy, but after they got usurped by the NCAA for the NET’s Quadrants 1 and 2, they’re now just Tiers A and B. They’re still quite useful because they tell you which games to get most excited about.

Of Tennessee’s 18 remaining games, this is one of only six without the little (A) or (B) next to it. Ken has Tennessee favored by 15 here; they were favored by 16 against ETSU. That’s the level of opponent you’re drawing. Ole Miss beat Memphis, sure, but that looks less rosy by the day; Ole Miss lost by 23 to 106th-ranked Western Kentucky on a neutral in Atlanta and gave up a 25-4 run in a home loss to a Samford team that just lost by 32 to Furman. Your main goal: do nothing embarrassing.

Mississippi’s offense

The graphic above spells it out fairly well, but it’s worth hammering in some of the details. 280th in 3PT%. 223rd in eFG%. Below the national average in OREB%, FT Rate, and FT%. The only thing they really do well is not turn the ball over, but you could argue that missing shot after shot without much threat of a second-chance opportunity is as good as a turnover. Ole Miss hasn’t made more than 31% of its threes in a game since November 18. Adjusted for opponent strength, Bart Torvik credits Ole Miss with going sub-1 PPP in seven consecutive games. It’s made even worse by just how atrocious their shot selection is.

We’ll get to that. First, it is useful knowing that OM does offer one guy (and a potential second) that is generally able to get his points. Jarkel Joiner (14.8 PPG) is a senior combo guard who’s had to play out of position for much of the season as the main ball-handler. By no means is Joiner bad at that; he has one of the lowest TO% (8.2%) for a moderate-usage player in America and he uses those ball-screens to spring himself free for a wide variety of jumpers. Joiner takes almost as many mid-range twos (50) as he does threes (62), so you’ve got to pick and choose which one you’re more comfortable with. Me: the twos. He’s hitting 42% (0.84 points per shot) on those versus 35.5% (1.065 points per shot) on threes; let him take the 18-footer and move on.

Joiner is a pretty good player who is very clearly the best option Ole Miss has offensively. The second-best is a guy who’s played four games: miniscule (5’9″) freshman Daeshun Ruffin, who’s scored 52 points in the four games he’s played. The Ruffin thing is interesting because he’s the only other guy who’s averaged double-digit points in any fashion while also using the OM ball-screens in a much more intriguing way. Ruffin’s just as likely to reject the pick and barrel his way to the rim as he is to actually use it. Ruffin is a much more natural point guard, and Kermit seems to see this; he ran him for 25 minutes against Samford after not letting him top 16 in any other game.

Beyond Joiner and maybe Ruffin, there is no Ole Miss player that can consistently create their own shot. Tye Fagan and Austin Crowley can do it, but the consistency factor is simply not there. Fagan is a bad shooter (28.4% on 88 career threes) who can score at the rim but do little else; Crowley is a bad-and-streaky shooter (29.2% on 96 career threes, but 6-7 in the first two games this season) who can’t score much of anywhere. Ole Miss can score at the rim, but Ruffin is the only guard on the team that reliably creates the space necessary for the offense to operate. Even then, they spend an alarming amount of time taking awful mid-range twos that make no one happy. Even 7-footer Nysier Brooks, who may be the third-best offensive player, isn’t even cracking 9 PPG because he attempts barely 5.8 shots per game. He has a mildly-intriguing jumper, but rarely uses it.

At least when Tennessee took a billion mid-range jumpers last year, the vast majority were within 15 feet of the basket. Ole Miss laughs at this and has taken a truly remarkable 82 shots from 17 feet to the 3-point line this season. 2020-21 Tennessee: 69 for the entire season. Shameful, this.

CHART! When a Mississippi player makes a shot, refer to this to understand if you should be upset. “Yes” means “is efficient at doing so”; “somewhat” means “does so, but not efficiently”; “no” means you can be very mad. SPECIAL NOTE: I’ve included free throw percentages here upon request. The numbers used are a player’s career FT%, not 2021-22.

Mississippi’s defense

As usual, here is the far more interesting and watchable side of Kermit Davis basketball. Ole Miss is once again running that weird, unlike-anyone-else-in-the-conference hybrid of a man-to-man defense mashed up with a 1-3-1 zone that morphs into one or the other mid-possession. Considering that this is the least-talented Kermit-era Ole Miss roster on paper, it’s still a little impressive in some aspect that KenPom rates this out as a borderline top-50 unit. (Last year’s ranked 25th.) The scout is still basically the same: hit a good amount of the myriad of open threes you receive and you’ll win; toss up a 7-for-29 outing and you’re going home sad.

The difference between 2021-22 Ole Miss and 2020-21, which was a lot better on defense, is pretty easy to sum up:

  • 2020-21 Ole Miss: 31.8% of all opponent shots at the rim, 58.2% FG% allowed (158th nationally)
  • 2021-22 Ole Miss: 36.6% of all opponent shots at the rim, 62.8% FG% allowed (301st nationally)

Can we spot the difference? Ah, I think I’ve found it:

  • 2020-21 Ole Miss: had Romello White
  • 2021-22 Ole Miss: does not have Romello White

That’s somewhat reductive, but it gets the point across. With White on the court last year, per Hoop-Explorer.com, Ole Miss played at the level of the 10th-best defense in America (AKA, Arkansas). Without White: 50th-best. You may remember such dire times as Tennessee managing an 8-for-26 hit rate on twos against White and company in one of the dumbest, worst games ever played. The good news, if you’re a Tennessee supporter, is that White is gone. Replacement Nysier Brooks is taller, but not as effective at blocking shots and less good at foul avoidance. The zone itself is effective as keeping the ball out of the paint, but there’s no individual standout defender (Luis Rodriguez comes closest). As such, they’ve had some serious issues containing ball-screen actions, ranking in the 26th-percentile in P&R defense nationally.

With the rim issues have come a reduction in how many mid-range twos they’ve forced. Again, recall Tennessee only getting six shots at the rim last season out of 49 total; this year, only Mississippi Valley State, the literal worst team in college basketball, has managed fewer than 17. The length of Nysier Brooks is occasionally enough to force a runner/floater:

But it’s still not enough to make up for the shift in shot selection. Right now, among the 14 SEC teams, Ole Miss is actually forcing the second-lowest amount of jumpers per 100 half-court possessions. (Only Florida has forced less.) The amount of runners/floaters they’ve forced are tied for the best in the conference, but again, how much of a difference does it make when your opponent’s shot quality is objectively better this year versus last? Also, all of this is against a 12-game offensive slate that KenPom ranks as the 330th-toughest in America, meaning Ole Miss has basically played a SWAC schedule and managed to allow that hit rate. Imagine what’ll happen when they play Alabama or Kentucky.

As stated up top, the Ole Miss goal is going to be to make you shoot over the top of them. Their zone/man hybrid has produced a hilarious reverse split where opponents are hitting 37% of guarded threes, but 28% of wide-open ones. They’re below-average at forcing guarded threes, but they’ve been lucky the 3PT% allowed isn’t worse. The trend has been fairly obvious: in the nine games Ole Miss has held opponents below 1 PPP, only one opponent has shot better than 33.3% from deep (Mississippi Valley State, of all teams); in the three they haven’t, all three have shot 37% or better.

The bet you’re placing here is that allowing this type of shot to constantly be open isn’t sustainable.

Considering opponents have shot about 2.3% worse than expected given their shot quality, I don’t think that’ll hold.

The last thing to watch for: turnovers. Ole Miss forces them in bunches, and one of their best qualities as a team is their ability to have active hands on the perimeter. Don’t let them get hot, so they say.

Avoid turnovers, take the open threes, hammer the rim.

How Tennessee matches up

The good news: Tennessee supposedly should have their full roster available for this one, which certainly beats having two of your three best players unavailable when playing #19. Anyway, one of the main issues with Tennessee’s battle against Ole Miss last year, other than the obvious, was that no guard, wing, or forward appeared confident whatsoever in their ability to get to the rim. Fast forward precisely one year, and Tennessee now has two guards (Chandler/Zeigler) and three frontcourt players (Fulkerson/Nkamhoua/Huntley-Hatfield) who appear pretty darn confident that they can bully-ball you. If Justin Powell (19.3% of all attempts at the rim) or Santiago Vescovi (20%) can push just a little more, we’ll include them, too.

The easiest way to get points down low against Ole Miss has been…well, quite simple: cuts to the basket. I feel like I mention this in every preview, but basket cuts have been the most efficient play type in college basketball for a full decade now. Tennessee’s been very good at making them a big part of their offense. Tennessee’s guards can push the issue with driving to the paint, but it’s on the frontcourt to likely finish through contact. I’d like to see more than, you know, one made basket at the rim this time around.

Likewise, Tennessee is going to get some interesting experience in dealing with this weird zone. As outlined in the defensive section, I’m not sure I would call it terribly successful at forcing tough threes, and it doesn’t even force that many jumpers in the first place. Still, Tennessee takes an above-average amount of jumpers in the first place, and you want these to be three-point jumpers and not ones from 17 feet. The best way to crack this style of zone/man hybrid is to go inside-out and work your way to open threes on the wing and in the corner. This one’s at the top of the key, but you get the point; keep Ole Miss on their toes.

Defensively, you basically have to funnel Jarkel Joiner into the mid-range attempts he loves so much. Even a night where Joiner hits 50% of those is still better than him hitting 40% of his threes. There is no true go-to guy on this Ole Miss roster; Daeshun Ruffin could reasonably be that but is a 5’9″ freshman who has played four games. Force Joiner into these mid-range pull-ups off the dribble; he is skilled at hitting them, but it’s better than the alternative of giving up a shot at the rim or from deep.

The Ruffin thing is fascinating because he’s drawing fouls like crazy and is better at getting to the rim than anyone else on the Ole Miss roster, yet he’s made one three in four games (worth noting he was a 37% three-point shooter in Nike EYBL in 2019, though). He also has yet to face a frontcourt as stout as Tennessee’s at defending the rim. This is the exact type of game where walling off the paint is the first and second goal and you can give up the jump shots happily, because with 12 games of data to use, Ole Miss appears to be a terrible jump-shooting team.

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

  • How early and often does Tennessee attack the rim? Mississippi has allowed a 62.8% hit rate at the rim this season, despite playing what KenPom judges as one of the worst non-conference slates in America. I genuinely believe Tennessee should convert no worse than, like, 65% of theirs in this game.
  • Can Tennessee win the boards somewhat handily? It’s not this predictive for everyone, but Ole Miss in four games where they’ve failed to crack a 23% OREB%: 0.724 PPP, 1.123 (against #302 New Orleans), 0.742, 0.877 (against #201 MTSU). You already know that the nights OM is actually on are pretty rare, so don’t give them more shots than they deserve.
  • Can Ole Miss reach a combined number of made threes + forced turnovers that’s…I don’t know, 27 or higher? I mean I can’t think of a serious path to victory for Ole Miss that doesn’t involve “out-of-nowhere three-point explosion” or “Tennessee turtles offensively the entire game.”

Key matchups

Jarkel Joiner vs. Santiago Vescovi. Well, when he’s the only guy who’s played five or more games that averages 10+ PPG, he has to be a key matchup. Joiner is the best shooter on the team, both off-the-dribble and catch-and-shoot; Vescovi and company can’t let him shake free. I’d like to see Tennessee force five or more Joiner mid-range jumpers.

Daeshun Ruffin vs. Kennedy Chandler. Ruffin has yet to start a game, but he looks like easily the best option Ole Miss has at point. Ruffin is a foul-drawing terror but hasn’t really played anyone with serious frontcourt length and stamina yet; he also has not played anyone nearly as good as Chandler. Good news is that Ruffin grades out as a just-okay defender.

Nysier Brooks vs. John Fulkerson. Brooks commits 4.5 fouls per 40 and is facing one of the SEC’s GOATs in foul-drawing. Do your thing.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee converts 15 or more shots within four feet of the rim;
  2. Tennessee ties a KenPom-era (2001-02 to present) program record by holding its 10th-consecutive opponent below 1 PPP;
  3. Tennessee 73, Mississippi 56.