You Merely Adopted the Mud, We Were Born In It

January 18: #24 Tennessee 68, Vanderbilt 60 (12-5, 3-3 SEC)
January 22: #24 Tennessee 64, #13 LSU 50 (13-5, 4-3 SEC)

Sometime during Tennessee’s wire-to-wire beating of top-15 LSU on Saturday – maybe when it was 42-28 and Tennessee had held LSU to three points across the last 10 minutes of play – I had a realization. For all of the complaining, all the whining about how this offense isn’t terribly good and the product on the court is genuinely unwatchable at times, we are discussing a team that ranks in the top 15 nationally in the advanced metric of your choosing. They are very, very good at several things. The thing they are very best at is taking about 90% of their opponents, turning the heat up on defense, watching as the dirt turns to wet, wet mud, and seeing these overmatched opponents flop around, unable to find stable footing in the Knoxville slop.

This is the genesis of good things for Tennessee. Sure, you get the occasional great shooting nights…sure, Tennessee still has the capacity to do a lot of good inside the perimeter…sure, there are other ways to win. But this – dragging other teams into the mud like little pigs, watching them flounder as you laugh at how uncomfortable they are – this is Tennessee’s identity. And at some point, you have to be alright with that.

I’m there. I’m good with it. If Tennessee has to win games 64-50 and 66-46 and 69-54 and 66-60, good. They’re wins. Three of those are butt-kickings. Tennessee is wholly uncharmed by style points. They simply don’t care if you think it’s pretty or watchable or goody-goody two-shoes happy happy joy stuff. They are winning games by stuffing the opponent in a locker for 40 minutes. Only two teams have managed to escape an opponent-adjusted locker-stuffing this season; they are ranked #6 (Villanova) and #7 (Kentucky) on KenPom as I type.

The most fun Tennessee team of all-time is still 2018-19 Tennessee, the only team of the Rick Barnes era to have a truly good offense. I don’t mind speaking that as a truth, because it is a truth. I like watching great offense a lot more than I do great defense, because I like watching the orange ball go in the net and the crowd going bonkers. It is a good thing and it is supposedly why anyone watches this sport in the first place. Then again, attempting to figure out what Tennessee fans want on a weekly basis has proven difficult.

The point of this is that Tennessee basketball has an identity. Tennessee basketball is Mountain Wisconsin. Bo Ryan, outside of about two years where he had a top 10 pick on his roster, was entirely unconcerned with making you happy with lovely offensive play. He did not care about how much you liked watching the ball go in the net. He only cared about winning by any means necessary. (Reportedly, he also cared pretty deeply about quitting midseason because ALLEGEDLY an affair was going on. I do not believe that will ever be a concern with Rick Barnes.)

Bo Ryan-era Wisconsin would drag you into the mud and watch you flail around helplessly as the Badgers cruised to wins of 57-50 and 52-45 and 68-56, all over top 15 opponents. You were not born in the slop. You were not raised in the slop. This Tennessee team seems wholly comfortable pulsing your team in the blender for an uncomfortable amount of time.

Nothing about this is terribly pretty. I also am not sure that ‘pretty’ really matters right now when the team is 13th on both KenPom and Torvik and cruising right along towards being a 3 or 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It is exactly what most of us expected preseason. The route to get there has been choppy, but with Tennessee’s most difficult month out of the way, maybe February is where you get the style points and the capital-F Fun back. Look at this:

And tell me you can’t feel at least a little bit of excitement for the local basketball program. Even taking those games in the 50s as coin-flips, you can pretty easily stare at that and see an 8-2 run in SEC play to the finish with at least two added Quadrant 1 wins. That would be 13-5 in the SEC, or merely tying the second-best SEC effort Tennessee basketball has seen in 14 years. That’s pretty good. The team is pretty good. It’s worth acknowledging, even if they don’t play a style most actively desire.


The other thing that has happened is that Tennessee has sort of kiboshed the idea of Smokey as the team’s mascot. This role is now Uros Plavsic’s to lose.

In the span of three weeks, Plavsic has turned from a guy most fans saw as completely unplayable to arguably the team’s best post player. I’m typing that out now and it still feels unbelievable. I promise you it’s real. These are the conference-only numbers via Bart Torvik’s site:

The last thing we saw prior to SEC play was John Fulkerson dropping 24 points on an Arizona team that looks like, at worst, one of the four or five best college basketball has to offer this year. The last time Uros Plavsic had scored double-digit points was February 1, 2020. His career-high for rebounds in a game: four. This is for a 7-footer who entered college as a low four-star recruit that convinced both Arizona State and Tennessee to take a chance on him.

Plavsic drawing a billion fouls against Alabama is one thing. Plavsic putting up 13 & 7 on the road at Vanderbilt is another thing. But hitting this, the longest shot attempt of his season:

And doing this two minutes later:

Is something entirely new. (I don’t care that the block probably should’ve been goaltending. It looked cool and that counts.)

Uros Plavsic will probably never be a dominant basketball player. The agility may never be there. I obviously would prefer to never see him attempt a jumper because I’m sure that would look as weird as it does in my head. Also, all of the previous three sentences are entirely meaningless. Right now, Uros Plavsic is doing everything he can to make Tennessee the best basketball team it can be. He’s earned his right to start and finish games ahead of John Fulkerson and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield. Right now, the team is about 1.5 points better per 100 possessions when he’s on the court versus when he’s off.

For this man at this time, I couldn’t be happier. I think of all the tweets and online comments he’s seen about how he’s an embarrassment to basketball. How he shouldn’t be a scholarship player at an SEC university. How he somehow tricked 1.5 coaches (sorry, Bobby Hurley isn’t a real coach) into giving him a scholarship. How Rick Barnes was dumb for continuing to give him a chance. You read a quote like this:

And you read this, from Plavsic’s own writing about his basketball career before last season began:

And you remember entirely what it is that makes you care about college sports in the first place. Uros Plavsic doesn’t have to do any of this. It is entirely of his own volition. Never once has Plavsic complained to the media about not playing, about being a team cheerleader, about being a guy who didn’t really contribute much to the team during his first 2.5 seasons in orange. Every single game, whether the guy is on or off the floor, you see the energy Plavsic has that he tries to transfer to everyone else. After every dunk last season, the first person you’d see cheering from the bench was Plavsic. After every block, Plavsic was yelling at the opponent and letting them know precisely what he thought of them.

At this moment, for this time, Plavsic is the Master of Ceremonies. If you want to further the analogy of the first section of this post, Uros Plavsic is the Master of Mud. He has learned how to drag opponents, whether in the Twitter sense of dragging someone or simply lulling them to sleep with his array of hooks and quietly-improving defense. At perhaps the least-likely time of his entire career, he has emerged as a genuinely important and lovable piece of the puzzle at Tennessee.

Rooting for Uros Plavsic to succeed is almost as easy as breathing air. I look forward to continuing to do it, no matter how the rest of his season plays out. He’s earned his moment in the sun; I sincerely hope that, for him, it lasts a very long time. In a season laden with various frustrations, he and Zakai Zeigler have been tethers to fandom in a way I haven’t experienced in a while. It’s nice to see them repaid for their work.


Some various notes of the last week:

  • Tennessee posted a 38.4% eFG% against Vanderbilt and won. Unfortunately, that happened, but it feeds into our pig-slop narrative so hang on with me. Tennessee’s now won five games in the last three seasons where they posted a 40% or worse eFG%; only Texas A&M, among SEC teams, is able to say the same. Obligatory!
  • Tennessee’s now held 15 of 18 opponents below 1 PPP. So, without context, you probably don’t care much about this stat, but I promise it’s pretty important. KenPom rates Tennessee’s schedule so far as the 8th-toughest in America, with nine games in the Tier A (his equivalent of Quadrant 1) grouping. Only three teams – Villanova, LSU, Kentucky – have topped 1 PPP. Consider that last year’s awesome defense allowed nine teams to go >1 PPP, the 2017-18 killers gave up 15 >1 PPP games, and as far as I could find, no Tennessee team in a non-COVID season has allowed fewer than 12 of these games (2009-10). This is on track to be a historically good defense, and they’re a week away from finishing the meat of their schedule. The final ten games feature six against Quadrant 2 or lower competition, or one more than all of December/January combined.
  • Even the LSU slop was actually pretty successful on offense. Tennessee managed 64 points on 65 possessions (0.985 PPP), which looks bad on its face…but is also the highest PPP surrendered by LSU this season by a good margin. Torvik translates this to about a 1.23 PPP performance against an average defense, which is insane.
  • The Jimmy Dykes thing. He reached out Tuesday morning with a request and, thanks to some features I have via Synergy, I provided an answer Wednesday night. He is a good guy that I find myself constantly thankful for.
  • One bad thing: the Fulkerson/Plavsic lineup. Without fail, it seems like this gets anywhere from 3-10 minutes of run each game. It’s perhaps the one thing Barnes does that drives me the nuttiest, because it’s objectively a terrible combination. I would stop doing this immediately and just play one or the other, because it’s an offensive disaster.

Lastly: Game Scores. Bart Torvik has this awesome metric called Game Scores that are essentially telling you on a scale of 0-100 (average being 50) how good or bad your performance was. Basically, if you put up a 95, you’re playing like a team with a Pythag rating of .9500 (which would be top 5 right now). All of this to say that these are the current 95+ Game Score rankings:

Half of Tennessee’s performances have been really, really good. The other half have been somewhere between ‘still good’ and ‘oh God.’ Anyway, while I do think LSU’s are aided by some insane 3PT% luck, this feels like a mostly-fair representation of how good the very best of the SEC is. Auburn is a step ahead of everyone else; LSU gets there on their best nights; Tennessee is capable of crushing an opponent on any given night. The real surprise is seeing that Kentucky’s only uncorked a few truly dominant outings, one of which was obviously against Tennessee. Also, this should help you understand why Texas A&M isn’t even a top 60 KenPom team despite being 15-4: they have no results of any significance and are almost never dominating.

Thanks for reading. For more Tennessee basketball content and whatever else, head to @statsbywill on Twitter. If you would like to reach out privately: statsbywill at gmail.

College Basketball Watchability Above Replacement (CBBWAR): A new-old way to find the NCAA’s most entertaining teams

I think anyone who’s read my writing on Tennessee basketball can tell that over the course of the last month, the writing itself has grown more…negative? Cynical? Downward-looking? Over it? I’m not sure what the phrase is, but I’ve had a couple of people reach out with suggestions like “watch other teams.” I appreciate said suggestion, as I already do watch other teams, but that idea became rooted in my head as something I’d like to explore.

Long ago on Fangraphs, a baseball statistics site, writer Carson Cistulli created NERD, “an attempt to summarize in one number (on a scale of 0-10) the likely aesthetic appeal or watchability, for the learned fan, of a player or team or game.” I like baseball, but I realized about ten years ago that what I really love is postseason baseball. Regular season baseball…it’s 162 games, man. But instead of giving up on 162 games entirely, I loved reading Cistulli’s NERD reports every day, pinpointing the most interesting games of the week.

Cistulli left NERD (and Fangraphs) behind a few years ago, but the formula remains out there. I copied it to run my own sort of NERD for MLB this season, with a few tweaks (higher emphasis on homers, because homers) and new calculations. It selected the Los Angeles Dodgers, Toronto Blue Jays, and Tampa Bay Rays as the three most watchable baseball teams of 2021, which, yeah. (Braves fans: you were fifth. I imagine that if Weighted NERD existed, you would probably be top four or top three.)

Anyway, this is a long way of getting to the point: I’ve workshopped a similar idea for college basketball. Ensuring that all 359 team ratings are 100% accurate is borderline impossible, because 1) I have a day job and 2) As such, I’m unable to watch a lot of teams until they either play the team I cover or they’re on a network that everyone can agree on. I watch a lot of college hoops, but Sean Paul (not the singer) and others are whooping me in this regard.

To make up for this, I’ve devised a metric I’m loosely calling College BasketBall Watchability Above Replacement (CBBWAR). The name could be changed, but it’s a name that describes the point of the project and the acronym makes it sound like something that will get $41 billion dollars in military funding somehow. Here are the components involved, all sourced from either KenPom or Hoop-Math:

  • Tempo (alternately possessions per game)
  • KenPom Adjusted Offensive Efficiency (Adj. OE)
  • Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%)
  • Percentage of Shots That Are Long Twos (Mid%)
  • FG% at the Rim (Rim%)
  • Three-Point Efficiency (3PT%)
  • Defensive Block Rate (Block%)
  • Defensive Steal Rate (Steal%)
  • Three-Point Attempt Rate (3PA%)

Here’s how these components are currently weighted in my Excel sheet:

Tempo*0.5 + OE + eFG*1.5 – Mid*0.5 + Rim*0.5 + 3PT%*.75 + Block*0.5 + Steal*0.5 + 3PA*0.25 + Constant (currently 2.2, a completely arbitrary number to provide us with higher-rated teams)

What this roughly comes out to is an equation that values offense at 75%, defense about 18%, and tempo 7%. I like fast games, but I like seeing shots go in the net more. I do not like watching a bunch of mid-range twos by teams that generally cannot hit them. (Consider that the NBA average on a mid-range shot this season is 40.3%; in college basketball, it’s 36.9%, and only 21% of teams in America shoot at 40.3% or better. Thanks, but no thanks.) I like when teams hit threes. Also, I like when teams create havoc on defense by blocking a bunch of shots and forcing turnovers.

Unsurprisingly, eFG% and Adj. OE have the strongest correlation to a higher CBBWAR score at +0.94 and +0.86. Of the defensive stats, blocks (+0.30) have a higher correlation to watchability than steals (+0.10), which makes sense, because really good blocks are freaking cool. Tempo makes very little of a difference, which is ideal.

Your personal formula is probably different, which is fine. No two watchability metrics would ever be the same. But for me, this makes sense, and maybe it will for you, too. This metric is a work in progress, so don’t be surprised if/when it changes. For now, CBBWAR is what I’m using going forward to figure out which games and which teams are the ones I want to watch the most.

The initial CBBWAR rankings can be scrolled at the sheet below. A version where you can see the individual Z-scores is linked here:

As seen above, here’s the initial top 10 teams:

  1. Gonzaga (+14.19)
  2. Purdue (+12.5)
  3. Arizona (+11.48)
  4. Kansas (+10.56)
  5. South Dakota State (+10.15)
  6. Auburn (+10.08)
  7. Duke (+9.83)
  8. Iowa (+9.68)
  9. Davidson (+9.62)
  10. Colorado State (+9.46)

I genuinely like and would approve of this initial draft. To my eyes, I don’t see many teams missing from this top 10 (or top 20, to extend) that would be huge misses. Some of the selections will certainly appear strange, such as a 9-7 Memphis team being 18th overall or Santa Clara, the fifth-best WCC team, being in the top 12. What I would offer is this: no metric is perfect, and these two are early outliers. Still: as someone who isn’t a Memphis fan, this Memphis team is hilarious and amazing to watch. Santa Clara plays fast, scores efficiently, and is one of the best shooting teams in America. I kind of get it.

There are improvements to be made, certainly. I’ll expand on CBBWAR in coming weeks, with more changes after further testing and additional analysis with fair frequency. Hopefully, this gets us closer as a college basketball community to some sort of tool that combines team quality and subjective enjoyment. It will never be perfect or fully satisfactory, but I think it’s a decent start to expand upon.

Lastly, here’s a sheet that will be updated daily with the day’s most watchable games, per CBBWAR.

Revisiting Tennessee’s remaining schedule, from an NCAA Tournament resume perspective

Look: it is January 2 as I type this. I have not much to do at this point in time. I am watching my beloved, stupid Detroit Lions blissfully keep pace for the #1 overall pick. I am sitting through the longest break in Tennessee basketball’s schedule that they’ll have all season. So, naturally, this leads to me checking in on Twitter and seeing a truly terrific tweet from an online buddy:

Content! Content! Thank you for the content.

This is merely a quasi-symptom of what I’ve thought about doing for a few days: providing everyone an update of what Tennessee’s schedule is likely going to look like the rest of the season. I did this in the preseason for the season preview, but it’s been two months, so an update seems useful. Tennessee has 18 games left; 17 of those are SEC opponents, one of those is Texas in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. My guess is that people would like to know how Tennessee measures up here in all likelihood.

I’ve decided to measure this in a two-step method:

  1. First, I’m just using the projected Quadrant 1/2/etc. games as given by Bart Torvik’s website. Torvik actually does projected NET ratings using the available formula, which is really cool. We’ll also use his rankings, which are slightly different from Ken Pomeroy’s but use the same general idea.
  2. Also, I’m using hoop-explorer.com’s Build Your Own Top 25. I’ve weighted it as such: efficiency matters more than W-L, but only by a hair; there’s a mild bonus given to more dominant teams; there’s also a slight boost by weighting the last 30 days 10% more than the resume as a whole. These ratings, to my understanding, use KenPom as a source.

What this is going to do: provide you with two ratings. The first rating is their current rating on Bart Torvik’s website; the second is the BYOT25 rating. How useful is this? No clue, but it beats doing nothing.

The breakdown here is going to follow the NCAA Teamsheet format of Quadrants 1, 2, 3, and 4. Explanation(s) below. All numbers are NET rankings, which we obviously do not have but will be replaced with the Bart Torvik/KenPom/Haslametrics combined numbers for breakdown purposes.

  • Quadrant 1: Home 1-30; Neutral 1-50; Away 1-75.
  • Quadrant 2: Home 31-75; Neutral 51-100; Away 76-135.
  • Quadrant 3: Home 76-160; Neutral 101-200; Away 136-240.
  • Quadrant 4: Home 161-plus; Neutral 201-plus; Away 241-plus.

I’ll list out any differences between the two methods as they exist. Right now, Tennessee ranks #13 on Torvik, #12 on KenPom, and #16 in the BYOT25 thing because the non-conference schedule did…not exactly come together as planned. (Recall that Colorado and Memphis were preseason Quadrant 1 games.) Onward.

Quadrant 1

Previously, this also included Quadrant 1-A, but there’s no difference this time out, so…yeah.

Scheduled games:

  • January 8 at LSU (#12/#13)
  • January 15 at Kentucky (#16/#17)
  • January 22 vs. LSU (#12/#13)
  • January 29 at Texas (#7/#19)
  • February 9 at Mississippi State (#35/#44)
  • February 15 vs. Kentucky (#16/#17)
  • February 19 at Arkansas (#67/#57)
  • February 26 vs. Auburn (#8/#5)

Expected wins: 4.1 out of 8 (Torvik); 4.2 (KenPom)

I guess if you like stability, it’s worth knowing that seven of these eight are the same as they were two months ago. The only new game is home LSU on January 22, a suddenly-pivotal affair for SEC title race purposes. Tennessee projects as an underdog in three of seven, all on the road (LSU, Kentucky, Texas). Regardless of what numbers you’re using, these seven games represent the toughest, most ruthless chunk of Tennessee’s remaining schedule. The most likely outcome for each is a close, tight affair that you’re rooting for the coin flip to land in your favor.

As of now, Tennessee is 2-3 against Quadrant 1 opponents, and if they can find a way to somehow get over .500 across 13 total games (7-6, or 5-3 here), that would be quite a big win. Torvik’s numbers currently project just nine teams in all of college basketball to finish above .500 (min. 10 games) against Quadrant 1 competition. Even six Quadrant 1 wins would be pretty useful, because only 15 other teams are projected to get that many. (In the last full season of 2019-20, 18 teams did this.)

A top ten team would be expected to go either 4-4 or 5-3 against this eight-game slate; it would behoove Tennessee to get to one of the two.

Odds of various records:

  • 0-8: 0.3%
  • 1-7: 2.5%
  • 2-6: 9.3%
  • 3-5: 20.2% (5-8 overall)
  • 4-4: 27.2% (6-7 overall)
  • 5-3: 23.5% (7-6 overall)
  • 6-2: 12.5%
  • 7-1: 3.9%
  • 8-0: 0.5%

Quadrant 2

Scheduled games:

  • January 18 at Vanderbilt (#84/#89)
  • January 26 vs. Florida (#25/#38)
  • February 1 vs. Texas A&M (#81/#56)
  • February 5 at South Carolina (#121/#82)
  • March 5 vs. Arkansas (#67/#57)

Expected wins: 4.01 out of 5 (Torvik); 3.92 (KenPom)

Tennessee will be favored to win all five of these, and in the case of a couple of them (Texas A&M and South Carolina), they’re likely going to be favored by double-digits. Yet none of these five are super-sure things. They’d only be a five-point favorite at Vanderbilt right now, for example. Colorado is a Quadrant 2 game now, and remember how wobbly that felt going in. Even home Arkansas isn’t a cinch.

It’s once again worth noting the rarity of going undefeated against the second Quadrant. As of now, only one team with a minimum of four games against Q2 is projected to go undefeated (Houston). Last year, that number was also one (Baylor); in 2019-20, it was six; in 2018-19, 11. The trend is decidedly not moving in the right direction, which probably makes sense with 2021-22 possessing the highest amount of returning roster talent in the sport’s history. It will be pretty tough to go 5-0 against this group; let’s just hope that if there is a loss, it’s an understandable one.

Odds of various records:

  • 0-5: 0.03%
  • 1-4: 0.6%
  • 2-3: 5%
  • 3-2: 20.2%
  • 4-1: 41%
  • 5-0: 33.2%

Quadrant 3

Scheduled games:

  • January 5 vs. Ole Miss (#112/#112)
  • January 11 vs. South Carolina (#121/#82)
  • February 12 vs. Vanderbilt (#84/#89)
  • February 22 at Missouri (#252/#147)
  • March 1 at Georgia (#217/#239)

Expected wins: 4.57 out of 5 (Torvik); 4.5 (KenPom)

Well, all five of these teams stink in various fashion. All five have terrible losses; all five would be terrible losses if they happened. Tennessee will be double-digit favorites in all of these. As a reminder, the top 22 teams in NET in 2019-20 combined to go 135-2 against Quadrant 3 competition, which is probably a small overachievement but still gives you an idea of how bad it would feel to lose any of these games. Missouri and Georgia are actually Quadrant 4 as of now, but Torvik forecasts them to barely scrape above 240 in NET by year’s end; the less Quad 4 games you play, the better. It seems like it would be hard for either to fall below 240 simply by virtue of playing in an agreed-upon top-four conference.

The most likely outcome here is Tennessee going 5-0, and it better be. Any of these losses would be so singularly embarrassing that it would have the power to cancel out a win over, like, Kentucky. You would beat Kentucky at Rupp and still be thinking about losing to Ole Miss. Don’t do it.

Odds of various records:

  • 0-5: well, imagine a bunch of zeroes followed by a one
  • 1-4: 0.03%
  • 2-3: 0.6%
  • 3-2: 6.3%
  • 4-1: 31.3%
  • 5-0: 61.7%

So: let’s talk most likely overall records, then. Right now, Tennessee sits at 9-3, 0-1 in the SEC. Bart Torvik’s numbers project a 12-6 finish in the SEC for Tennessee, which would put them in a four-way tie for second. KenPom: 12-6, tied for third with Alabama. (They would lose this tiebreaker and be the 4 seed, which still gives you a double-bye.) ESPN’s BPI: 13-5, three-way tie for first with Kentucky and Auburn.

If you’re looking for probabilities, Bart Torvik’s numbers give Tennessee an 85.4% chance of finishing somewhere between 10-8 and 14-4 in the SEC. My opinion here is that, if you’re looking for a regular season title, it’s going to take a minimum of 14 conference wins to at least get a share of the championship. In every metric system I use, at least one team is projected for 14 right now; maybe you get some late-season luck (2017-18, as an example) and it ends up being 13. But: 14 wins is probably the goal.

The only way Tennessee can realistically get to 14 or better is by playing like a top ten team the rest of the season with essentially no serious interruptions. If they go 4-3 in their remaining games against SEC Quadrant 1 competition (losing to Texas in this scenario), they’d have to go perfect against Quadrants 2 and 3. Is that possible? Certainly; it happens in a hair under 21% of all scenarios. But that’s not probable. It merely means it can happen. Tennessee’s gotta be really, really good to make that happen. If they do indeed play like one of the ten best teams in existence, that 21% figure rises to a little under 26%.

Even so, Tennessee will find it pretty hard to find more than 13 SEC wins this year. That’s fine; it’s what I had penned in the preseason. 13-5 in an SEC with five Top 20 teams and an expectation of 7-8 NCAA Tournament teams is a very good record and would likely be enough to lock Tennessee in as no worse than a 3 seed in the NCAAs entering SEC Tournament weekend. (It also probably locks Tennessee in as no worse than a 3 seed in the SEC Tournament, for the record.)

So: that’s the situation Tennessee is in. If Auburn can find a way to be less than expected…if Kentucky keeps having hiccup games…if Alabama can simply have enough off-nights…even if LSU simply isn’t the best defense in America, Tennessee stands to benefit from it. 12 games worth of data with all preseason baselines removed have Tennessee slotted as the 12th-best team in America, per Torvik. Even including preseason, they’re 12th on KenPom. Nearly every metrics system in existence has Tennessee as somewhere between the 8th and 15th-best team in America. I promise you there’s worse positions to be in.

Tennessee’s tricky December is likely going to result in a loss or two, which is fine

I joke about two things online very often: 1. The nuthouse fervor of any and all online communities based around college athletics; 2. The fact that said nuthouse communities apply Football Mindset to other sports. When you are stuck in Football Mindset, every loss is a Big Event. Every loss that happens has the potential to change a narrative for a coach for years to come. (Unless you root for Indiana or Duke football, I guess.) It makes sense for a sport that has 12-game seasons and very few data points to apply to.

It doesn’t make sense to apply Football Mindset to college basketball, a sport with greater variance, 30+ game seasons, and a significantly higher amount of parity. Only one program (Florida) has posted back-to-back championships in the same year. No team has finished a season undefeated in 45 years. The best program over the last decade of the sport is in freaking Spokane, Washington. And yet:

I feel like this perhaps applies especially well to fan bases where football is the dominant sport. There’s nothing inherently wrong with football being the dominant sport at a school! It’s just a bit of a strange way to look at basketball, a sport where literally everyone loses at least once and in almost every season, every high-major basketball team loses 3 or more times. Heck, Tennessee’s most recent SEC basketball title came in a year where they lost five regular season conference games. The arc of history is a long one, and not everything is linear; off nights happen.

I bring all of this up because this December is Tennessee’s trickiest month of pre-January affairs they’ve had to navigate since November 2010 if not further back:

That’s an astounding five opponents ranked 57th or better in the span of four weeks. As far as I can tell, Tennessee hasn’t had a December this busy in over two decades. They’ll be favored in six of these seven games, and two are fairly obvious gimmes, but that leaves five games with a spread within three points, i.e. Literally One Possession in a Basketball Game. That’s five somewhat-weighted coin flips. Apologies to UNC Greensboro (who’s dropped 11 spots since the start of the season, FWIW, and has a new coach) and USC Upstate, but this month should be remembered by the Tier A games.

I ran the numbers on what fans can reasonably expect after remembering how you’re supposed to calculate probabilities. Here’s the rough odds of each record in this five-game stretch, based on KenPom’s numbers:

  • 0-5: 1.6%
  • 1-4: 10.4%
  • 2-3: 26.7%
  • 3-2: 34%
  • 4-1: 21.8%
  • 5-0: 5.5%

The point of this exercise is that it’s going to be very, very hard to get through this month unscathed. Bart Torvik’s TeamCast notes that even a team playing at the level of the current #1 team in metrics systems (Gonzaga) would only be expected to go 5-0 about 31% of the time. When you’re Tennessee – very good, very interesting Tennessee, but a flawed and imperfect Tennessee – your odds are understandably quite a bit shorter. Even the very best team would fail to go 5-0 against this fivesome in 69% of scenarios.

The good news here is that, 83% of the time – AKA, five out of every six – Tennessee is going to win between 2 and 4 games against this tough slate. Unless an outlier performance happens, you can count on Tennessee finding at least two wins. Even in the very worst-case scenario for an NCAA Tournament resume – one where the Volunteers only take the two ‘easiest’ wins – Tennessee would walk away with a road win over Colorado (who is 20-5 at home against Top 100 teams since 2017) and either a home win over Arizona (who looks like a legitimate Top 15 team) or a neutral site win over Texas Tech.

Consider the possibilities of the potential win triplets in the scenarios where Tennessee goes 3-2 (what a top 10-20 team would be expected to do):

  • Road win over #57 Colorado, neutral win over #29 Memphis, home win over #19 Arizona: 24.2% chance of winning all three; most likely three-team pairing
  • Road win over #57 Colorado, neutral win over #16 Texas Tech, home win over #19 Arizona: 20.2%
  • Road win over #57 Colorado, neutral win over #16 Texas Tech, neutral win over #29 Memphis: 19.8%

Or the most chaotic, most annoying, also most satisfying, and therefore funniest tri-win scenario:

  • Neutral win over #16 Texas Tech, neutral win over #29 Memphis, road win over #11 Alabama: 12.1%

I am no psychic; I do not know what will happen this month. What I do know is that if you allow yourself to understand that a two-loss month for Tennessee is Actually Good and genuinely very beneficial to the team’s fortunes in March, you’ll be a much more satisfied and well-adjusted person if that comes to fruition. (If they go 2-3 or worse, depending on the losses being close, you’re more than welcome to get a little upset.) If they go 4-1? Well, buddy, that’s icing on the cake. Any scenario where Tennessee gets four wins out of five would genuinely move them up an entire seed line and possibly two come Selection Sunday while (likely) temporarily placing them in the AP Top 10.

I have two goals in mind:

  1. Win three of the first four games (Colorado, Texas Tech, Memphis, Arizona). Any collection of wins here is great for a March resume, and it allows Tennessee (in my head, but not in reality) to go into the Alabama game with less stress.
  2. Get at least two wins away from home. Winning in front of a home crowd is nice, but you don’t play in front of home crowds in March.

Months like this are horrible and wonderful. Gone are the stress-free blowouts of Quadrant 4 teams (minus the obvious one on Tennessee’s schedule); now, you get to find out just how good Tennessee actually is. To be honest, it’s better to find out something now than to find out something at the worst possible time three months from now. This is going to be a December to remember in some aspect, but hopefully, you don’t have to sit through 500 car commercials to see it unfold.

And hey, if you like applying Football Mindset, think of it this way: you’ve only gotta go .500 to make a bowl. Tennessee only has to go .600 (roughly 7-5, which they did this season) to make this month a successful one. “Vols with two losses or fewer!” doesn’t have the same ring as “Vols by 100”, though, so do what you gotta do.

How much mid-range is too much mid-range?

Hello out there. I hope you’re trying to enjoy the dog days of summer. Every day is exactly the same; an 88-to-93 degree high, a 69-to-73 degree low. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes it doesn’t. Much like basketball, something either goes down or it stays out. This is perhaps the peak time of boredom, something we rarely get anymore with our collective addiction to social media and online life. You can zone out for minutes, even hours and realize that nothing around you has changed all that much. In its own way, it is quite nice.

More than any other time this could possibly be written, mid-August in the middle of Sludge Weather seems like the ideal time to continue the Mid-Range Discourse.

AFTER THE JUMP: The Discourse begins anew

Continue reading “How much mid-range is too much mid-range?”

Exploring somewhat-sane proposals for the 346-team NCAA Tournament

Like a bolt of lightning in the dead late-summer air came this tweet across my timeline:

Content! Beautiful content. The ACC has achieved what the most daydream-prone among us have hoped for: pure, uncontrollable chaos. Nothing about a 346-team NCAA Tournament (11 of Division I’s 357 programs are ineligible for this year’s Tournament for various reasons) is normal at all, and all it can bring is something wild. Imagine the takes if 1 seed Villanova loses to 346 seed Mississippi Valley State in the shocker of a lifetime!

Of course, that exact scenario takes numerous leaps of logic to achieve. A straight 346-team tournament isn’t possible without either a laundry list of byes or play-in rounds. Everyone knows the NCAA Tournament loves money, and such a massive loss to a star team would be a monetary dent in terms of viewership and advertising dollars, both of which the NCAA needs in droves (apparently!) after the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament. That’s why I’d offer The Will Warren Somewhat Sane Solution. It is not the Everyone’s Easy Solution That Just Adds a Couple Extra Games.

(Quick aside: you can just turn the Field of 64 into the Field of 256 by having one play-in round for teams seeded 167 through 346, protecting the top 166. It’s not a bad idea, but forcing the top teams to win eight straight games instead of six both seems a little nuts and seems like it could massively overwhelm host cities. We’re assuming no/limited crowds for the purpose of this experiment, and having even 16 teams podded up in one city probably means at least a couple of hotels at full capacity. I went to school for English, not Hotel Management, so maybe this is actually fine, but who knows.)

Here is the Official guide to a plan I cooked up yesterday afternoon, along with questions I still have to answer:

1. A ladder system that protects the top 32 teams.

In order to ensure that proper respect is paid to teams that have a lot of success during the conference-only regular season (another assumption that I’m running with), I’ve instituted a system that gives the 32 best* teams a free run to the Field of 64. It’s how it would work in a normal season, so it seems fair to keep this part. What this means is that 32 teams out of the remaining 314 will have to play their way into the Field of 64 by way of our 1-to-346 seeded ladder system.

What’s a ladder system? Think of it the way they run it in the Korean Baseball League.

  • The fifth-seeded team plays the fourth-seeded team.
  • The winner plays the third-seeded team.
  • That winner plays the second seed…
  • And finally, that winner gets to play the first seed.

It’s a testament to how well you can sustain your success if you make it all the way up the ladder, and it rewards those who’ve had full-season success as opposed to those who get hot for a few games. How does our ladder system work?

2. Six play-in rounds, spread out over 10-14 days at neutral sites, that slowly whittle the field from 346 to 64 teams.

Bear with me here. This is pretty nuts, I’ll admit, but so’s the idea of a 346-team college basketball tournament in a sport ripe with variance. Anything can happen in any one game, which is why we’re introducing this ladder system as opposed to the 166-team protection. This enables full-season success to matter, while allowing a team to run their way from the bottom to the big time if they’re hot. It attempts to simulate Conference Championship Week in some form, though with more rounds than any individual conference championship.

Here’s how it works. Teams are reseeded by round; i.e., if the #334 team wins in the first round but no team below them wins, they will play the #212 seed in the second, and so on.

  • Teams seeded 257-346 (90 teams total) will play each other from top to bottom – 257 vs. 346, 258 vs. 345, 259 vs. 344, etc. – in order to eliminate 45 teams. This leaves us with 301 teams after one round.
  • Teams seeded 212-256 (45 teams) will play the first round winners to eliminate another 45 teams, giving us 256 teams after two rounds.
  • Now, we could go right into a 256-team field and stop here. If we don’t, we have a third play-in round that gets the field to 192 teams by way of teams seeded 129-211 playing the second-round winners.
  • For the fourth round, teams seeded 65-128 will play the third-round winners, pushing the field to 128 teams.
  • The fifth round features the teams seeded 33-64 and the fourth-round winners for a total of 48 games being played, eliminating 48 teams to get to 80.
  • Now – finally – our final play-in round allows for teams seeded 49-80 to play each other for the right to be in the field of 64.

This is very much silly, but it also works. Teams are forced to climb their way up the ladder system to earn their spot in the NCAA Tournament in a system that somewhat simulates conference tournaments with much less structure and more chaos. You like chaos, right?

3. Alternately, the same plan, but with four play-in rounds and a 128-team field.

This allows for a shorter time period and is less complicated. Again, teams are reseeded after reach relevant round; if #340 beats #263 but no other team below them wins, they would play #212 in the next round.

  • Teams seeded 257-346 (90 teams total) will play each other from top to bottom – 257 vs. 346, 258 vs. 345, 259 vs. 344, etc. – in order to eliminate 45 teams. This leaves us with 301 teams after one round.
  • Teams seeded 212-256 (45 teams) will play the first round winners to eliminate another 45 teams, giving us 256 teams after two rounds.
  • A third play-in round that gets the field to 192 teams by way of teams seeded 129-211 playing the second-round winners.
  • For the fourth round, teams seeded 65-128 will play the third-round winners, pushing the field to 128 teams.
  • The Tournament is then seeded where 1 plays 128, 2 plays 127, and so on, with aims at ensuring region vs. region play.

Question: What about automatic qualifiers from non-Big Six conferences? We’ll have to work that out. Ostensibly, we could turn the Top 32 into the 32 conference champions/standings leaders at season’s end and it would work out just as well. Then, the final 32 spots are made up of the 32 teams that survive our ladder/play-in system. However…doesn’t it feel kind of weird to have a field where, say, 272nd-ranked-in-KenPom North Carolina Central is guaranteed a spot but 3rd-ranked Baylor isn’t? To be determined, folks. Though if you’re the third-best team in college basketball, you should be able to win against whoever you draw no matter what.

Question: How do we ensure smaller, lower-seeded schools can actually play each other? There’s a clear issue here, and I’m not totally sure how to resolve it under this format. For instance, what if Albany (in New York) draws Florida A&M (very much not in New York) in the first round? That’s a lot of travel costs we’d have to work out, and it likely isn’t worth it for Florida A&M. The best thing we can do is have one city be the host to as many games as possible, similar to the actual Field of 64. Perhaps for this specific example, the two teams could play in Washington D.C. at a neutral site. Someone smarter than me probably has an idea on how to do pods for this, and obviously, the 256-team field is much easier to work out. But it’s also not nearly as protective of those who’ve earned the right to be there.

Question: How long would both plans take? For the six play-in round structure, I think it could be accomplished over the course of 10-14 days – AKA, how long conference championship “week” usually takes – at multiple neutral court sites. We’d have to stuff 314 teams in no more than four cities, but I’d say it’s at least somewhat doable. For the four-round structure, we could realistically accomplish this in anywhere from 6-10 days. Again, this stuffs a lot of teams in no more than four bubble cities, but it also cuts the number of play-in teams from 314 to 218. However, it creates much more variance.

Question: Maybe a 96-team field? Sure! The in-between plan, which the NCAA almost implemented ten years ago. Just take the four-round plan listed above and add a fifth-round between teams seeded 65-128.