November 20: Villanova 71, Tennessee 53 (2-1)
November 21: Tennessee 89, North Carolina 72 (3-1)
This is the second in a weekly-ish series of two-game recaps of the 2021-22 Tennessee men’s basketball season.
Two things happened this weekend. The first is that Tennessee escaped the Mohegan Sun Casino, a place that indirectly killed Howie in Uncut Gems, at 1-1 with a loss to a legitimate top 5 team and a 17-point win over a top 5 blue-blood brand. (More on their quality later.) The realistic expectation for Tennessee in this multi-team event was to get at least one win out of the weekend, and they did just that in the manner that the metrics mostly expected. (Though a net point differential of -1 from the weekend is a hair underwhelming in the sense that +5 or so was the KenPom guess.)
The second is that midway through Tennessee’s second game of the weekend, I realized why it even felt mildly relaxing to sit through a pair of high-profile blowouts, one good, one bad.
The average college football game is outwardly expanding in a way that would make 2004 Morgan Spurlock blush. The most recent figure given is 3 hours, 24 minutes, which is nearly a half-hour longer than NCAA statistics say it was in the 1990s. The initial guess here would be “quarterbacks pass more,” which, yes, true, but the average number of incompletions in a given game in 1996 was 23. It’s 20.9 and dropping in 2021. Every first down stops the clock, but that can’t be all of it.
It’s the ad breaks. Per a 2017 Wall Street Journal study, the NFL offers viewers 63 minutes of commercials per game. That’s for a sport with games 15 minutes faster than college football, with much more regulated and precise TV windows and far fewer four-hour affairs. The average Tennessee football game this year has lasted 3 hours, 38 minutes, and even if you remove the obvious outlier of the Mississippi game that number is still 3 hours, 33 minutes. It’s a looooooong time investment even if you aren’t at the game.
Tennessee basketball has played four games so far, all four of which have been on an ESPN product of some sort. Average game time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. No game has cracked the two-hour mark, though the East Tennessee State affair did hit 1:59. You could almost play two basketball games in the same amount of time it takes to play one football game.
This is not demonizing college football viewers or super-fans; like what you like and love what you love. Me, personally, the sensation of watching a 1 hour, 49 minute sporting event that required zero Liberty Mutual commercials and only one truly egregious ad break on ESPN of all channels was wonderful. This could be yours, college football fans! (Just kidding. I know which sport’s the money maker.) Of the ~30 or so college basketball games I have consumed thus far, they have featured a blissfully low amount of car commercials. Even the Car Fox has only made one appearance. I’m doing the “hope this works” prayer circle meme but for this streak of non-commercialized goodness to continue.
Villanova 71, Tennessee 53
Ya ran into a buzzsaw and it is what it is. There are many overly-breathy monologues one could scribe about Tennessee’s nasty offensive performance on Saturday; I think a key one is “the other team played out of their minds defensively.” Of Tennessee’s 30 catch-and-shoot attempts (as listed by Synergy), 28 had a defender within four feet at the time of the shooting action. Tennessee was still unlucky to not hit more than four threes, but, man. The odds of that happening again, particularly with how Florida of all teams appears to be the only other SEC side with a chance of finishing in KenPom’s top 10 defenses, feels low. Sometimes you just gotta tip your cap and move on.
That being said: there were some encouraging things, all of them on defense. Tennessee kind of quietly forced Villanova – a very, very efficient offense – to go 11-for-25 at the rim and 17-for-43 on twos. That’s really good considering you are playing Villanova and not, y’know, ETSU.
Villanova had to take a bunch of difficult shots and attempted more mid-range twos than Tennessee did. If Tennessee even had a bad offensive game, something like 65 points, it wouldn’t feel as stupid as it does.
We have to talk about turnovers again. To Tennessee’s credit, they rebounded well the next day and didn’t have such issues, and along with that, they hadn’t turned it over on more than 16% of possessions in a game before or since. But this has become an oddly annoying Tennessee thing: against the first Actually Good team you play, you lose your brain for stretches of time offensively. These are Tennessee’s PPPs and TO%s against the first Top 40 opponent of the last three seasons:
- 2021-22: 0.799 PPP, 26.3% TO% versus Villanova
- 2020-21: 0.869 PPP, 23.3% TO% versus Colorado
- 2019-20: 0.8 PPP, 29.5% TO% versus Florida State
Considering this didn’t really happen that often prior to 2019-20, I can chalk it up as a blip, but when you’ve built up anticipation for these games and your offense rates out as Violently Clogged Toilet it’s really frustrating.
More drives, more aggression. Tennessee’s offense briefly got out of the mud in the second half when Kennedy Chandler and Santiago Vescovi became notably more aggressive. Vescovi displayed more driving aggression than he had since early in his freshman year; Chandler got unlucky on some rollout layups that made his performance look worse than it was.
Tennessee drove way more the next day against a worse North Carolina defense and they looked unstoppable. I’d also like to note here that Tennessee, excluding the Villanova game, has gone 1.272/1.244/1.204 PPP so far. I’ll freak out about this if it happens against Texas Tech or someone.
Long season! Long season. This is reductive, so whatever, but it does feel like there’s a significant carryover of Football Mindset to basketball season. Every game matters; every loss is bad; (insert team) no longer looks like a Final Four contender, etc. I think every game matters some but no regular season loss is really that important as long as you get something useful out of it. Even this Villanova blowout proved to be somewhat useful because Barnes and staff saw the benefits of more guards on the court. 12 games =/= 30+ games.
Tennessee 89, North Carolina 72
Zakai Zeigler is the Vibes Guy. To the point that I have finally committed to memory it’s Zeigler and not Ziegler. In terms of random emergency late-stage recruits you can grab before a season starts, it’s really hard to beat a hyper-aggressive point guard who is tiny but fast and shoots the ball well out to 30 feet. Visions of Auburn’s Jared Harper have flashed in my brain and I can no longer resist them.
Good Powell, bad Powell. Justin Powell got his first start thanks to Josiah-Jordan James receiving the flu, which is somewhat better than the fate Howie met in Uncut Gems but not by much. I think Powell has to play 20-25 minutes a night but you’ve just gotta get used to the drawbacks: 8 points and a generally good offensive day, but not much a difference-maker defensively and frequently picked on. Through four games, once adjusted for luck, Tennessee is precisely as good when Powell is on as when he’s off, because while the offense is five points better per 100 possessions with him out there the defense is five points worse. This is annoyingly right in line with last year at Auburn; I think that should probably explain why he won’t get 30 minutes a night.
Tennessee Tri-Guard Terror. For the first real stretch of time all season, Tennessee went to a three point guard lineup with Chandler/Zeigler/Vescovi; it was pretty wonderful. Tennessee scored 1.148 PPP over 29 possessions and outscored North Carolina by 4 with the lineup; the reason that wasn’t more is North Carolina went 4-for-9 on threes with them in the game despite most of those being well-guarded.
I would like to see Tennessee continue to try this lineup, and even instituting Powell as one of the 4 would be nice. So far, lineups with three of KC/ZZ/SV/JP have outscored opponents by 27 points over 95 possessions; this weekend, that number was 14 points over 67 possessions. (All other lineups: -15 across 75 possessions.)
If something is all holes, can it still be described as porous? Watching the North Carolina interior defense was a mix of humor and baffle, because I cannot believe a preseason top 20 team is this bad at figuring stuff out.
Tennessee finished 23-for-31 on attempts within 4 feet of the rim, per Synergy, and no opponent since Loyola (MD) has had any issue at all scoring on these guys. I don’t get it.
Pronunciation concerns. Fran Fraschilla elected to be this week’s Main Character for Tennessee fans after claiming he was on the end of mean tweets re: his pronunciation of Santiago Vescovi’s last name. To be fair to Fran, apparently after two full years of Vescovi being with Tennessee, he just now decided that vess-CO-vi isn’t right and it’s actually VESS-co-vi. Fine by me, whatever.
But I kind of couldn’t believe how hung up Fran got on this? He first called Tennessee fans “idiots” for arguing with him as play-by-play guy Jon Sciambi audibly grew uncomfortable, then proceeded to use the second half over-pronouncing VESS-co-vi to the point that he started messing up his own pronunciation of the name, eventually landing on Vess-Kew-Vi a couple of times and some sort of hybrid vescavee that sounded as rushed as it looks once. I would prefer if this is not a feature of Tennessee’s future games because, shockingly, I like when they talk about the game.
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