A personal writing history (of sorts), and a sports investment portfolio

Something longer-term readers of mine may remember is that, for years, I wrote about Tennessee football. I did not actually begin covering Tennessee basketball in a serious/somewhat season-long fashion until the 2017-18 campaign. For a while, this made sense, because of a couple of things:

  1. College football is significantly more popular in Knoxville, TN than college basketball.
  2. Simultaneously, Tennessee football was in a good-enough spot in 2015 and 2016 that writing about them on a weekly basis was, if nothing else, interesting.

This is why if you Google my name and “Knoxville” or “Tennessee”, you’ll see the usual results of this site but you’ll also see that I covered Tennessee football up to midway through the 2018 season, after which I finally accepted two things that reversed the above two observations.

  1. College football is more popular, but college basketball is more interesting to me;
  2. Tennessee football was very much not in a good spot in 2018, while the basketball team was in the best spot it had been in a decade.

So: the Show Me My Opponents that used to be about college football are now about college basketball. Maybe they’ll still exist in five months, maybe they won’t. This post is not really about that. Last year I explained the writing process behind these. This summer, in lieu of a superior essay idea, I’m explaining why I got to where I’m at and how I’d describe my personal investment in the five major sports (baseball, basketball, American football, hockey, and football/soccer) at this point of my life. Spoiler: it’s a lot different than 2015-16.

More or less, I’ve written something in some form for most of my life. I wrote little recaps of NFL games for my grandfather when I was 7; I wrote a college basketball newsletter exclusively for myself at age 13; I wrote for my high school’s newspaper at age 16-17 about a variety of things. But out of boredom after graduating college in 2015, and to escape the monotony and horrors of my first real day job, I started writing little recaps of every Tennessee football game on a personal blog.

These received mild attention in the form of getting offered to be a Staff Writer™ for a local blog that no longer exists, wherein I did the same thing. But I had a curiosity that I wanted to explore: the idea of previewing every game in a fashion that other sites didn’t do at the time. I mention MGoBlog on this site all the time for obvious reasons, but they were really well ahead of the blog competition in terms of covering every Michigan football game from every angle. One thing they did better than anyone was using GIFs and video to explain how the opponent worked. (Here’s a 2021 example by writer Alex Drain.)

Tennessee had nothing like this, and until Austin Burlage did it for a few years (here’s his newsletter, if you’re a college football fan I’d sign up), it hasn’t had anything like it since. These early previews were kind of terrible, but they were honest and offered more information about the opponent than any pay site in existence. This preview of the 2016 Georgia game is probably the best-ish example of it; if you look at it closely, you’ll recognize a lot of hallmarks of the basketball coverage. There’s GIFs. There’s tons of stats examples laid throughout it. There is a menace towards the vague opponent that is hammered into you by way of fandom of our national bloodsport.

So: I did that for two full seasons. I committed to do it in 2018, and even did it on a paid basis for Reed’s Ranch, which is a podcast/media outlet run by my good friend Jon Reed. I’d imagine these previews were still at least fine, but frankly, midway through the season, all passion had departed. I skipped a couple of the late season games and never wrote about the team again.

Part of this is because Tennessee football sucked at the time and frankly furthered a 15+ year tailspin I’m not convinced they’ll fully recover from. (A very cynical read of it would not be Nebraska football but rather Indiana basketball, which has made terrific hires on paper that have simply failed to work out, over and over and over again.) The other part is that, as long as I can remember, I’ve simply preferred basketball as a sport. I played it for a long time, yes, but it’s just more watchable and understandable to me. Unless you played football, it’s honestly pretty hard to understand everything that goes on unless you invest as deeply into it as the MGoBlog writers do or guys like Burlage did.

That’s why those previews no longer exist. I haven’t written a thing about college football since November 2018 (unless you count a personal essay about attending the Big Ten Championship Game) and I don’t plan on writing anything about it again, barring a serious change of heart and mind. I simply find basketball to be the much more interesting and consistently unusual sport to write about. This is not to disdain college football fans or anything; it just doesn’t mean much to me personally anymore. Basketball does, though. However, that’s a complicated story as well.

Circa 2016, all of six years ago, I would’ve ranked the major American-ish sports for me as such:

  1. College basketball
  2. College football
  3. NFL
  4. NBA
  5. NHL
  6. Vague, loose soccer interest
  7. MLB
  8. Other loose ends (auto racing, whatnot)

And this likely would’ve been rational for each one. College basketball had just finished popping out what some consider the best national title game in the sport’s history. College football had a terrific national championship game and new blood in the playoff with exciting teams popping in and out of the upper echelon. The NFL was…well, the NFL: interesting. The NBA had a terrific rivalry with the Warriors and Cavaliers. The rest, minus my Nashville Predators fandom, were on a separate level to themselves, but they did exist.

The problem is that these rankings are no longer accurate and haven’t been for a long time. That’s explained above somewhat, I guess, but the best way to explain it further is to do something very self-indulgent. Below are how I personally feel about the five major sports in America, with separate breakdowns for college vs. professional where necessary. I don’t expect agreement, obviously, but I think for someone who writes in the public sphere, this is a useful exercise to explain to you where I’m coming from and why the writing on this site is done the way it’s done. Also, it’s June, and I’m not writing about the transfer portal if I don’t have to.

These are done in alphabetical order.


A pretty frustrating, yet rewarding sport to follow.

For the following reasons:

  1. Baseball’s star players are the most interesting they’ve been to me, the viewer, in 20 years. Shohei Ohtani is the most singularly captivating player the sport has had since Barry Bonds. Juan Soto is crazy entertaining. Both Juniors, Tatis and Guerrero, are amazing. It’s the richest group of upper-echelon talent in a long time…
  2. …so why is it somehow harder than ever before to actually watch the games? MLB already makes you pay $160 or so for the rights to MLB.TV, admittedly a terrific service, but you’re out of luck if you live basically anywhere in America, because at least one or two teams will be blacked out in your market. (If I didn’t have access to our family’s cable login, I could not watch Braves or Reds games, for instance.) This is all while they parade games around on Apple TV+, Peacock, YouTube, and a variety of services.
  3. For every good move the sport makes, it seems to find an equally bad one to pair with it. A pitch clock? Terrific and sorely needed to speed up the game. The runner on second still in existence? Horrible, not real baseball. Universal DH? Probably a good thing because there have been extremely few pitchers that should be hitters in my lifetime. Deadened baseball that neutralizes any impact a universal DH brings? Awful for watchability.
  4. Rob Manfred is probably the single worst sports commissioner since I’ve been alive, which is an incredible accomplishment when you consider his competition.

Despite all of this, I absolutely adore listening to baseball games and could listen to a quality radio broadcast all day. (The Phillies crew has been my favorite of late for running purposes.) MLB could rank pretty high on someone’s list if they gave it time, but the people that run the sport make it remarkably hard for anyone to want to give it the necessary time.


Shockingly, I still feel pretty rosy about basketball as a whole. I play at a local gym once or twice a week; I watch most NBA Playoff games; I watch most NCAA Tournament games. This website covers the college basketball season in-depth, typically. So yeah, this is my favorite sport. But I’ll go deeper with that, starting with


Where I think we’re at an inflection point of sorts, not just transfer-wise. Statistically, this was the most efficient season of offense (at 1.02 ORtg) since the three-point line was moved back prior to the 2019-20 season. This is because we’re seeing fewer turnovers than ever, which I’d call a good thing considering some of the slop I grew up watching. There are still a lot of three-point attempts, improving free throw shooting, improving shot selection on the whole, and the lowest Free Throw Rate in the sport’s history.

…but at the same time, did anyone else feel like this most recent season was pretty underwhelming? The second-best team this year was Houston, a 5 seed who was indeed really good but would’ve ranked sixth-best in 2020-21 and seventh-best in 2018-19. The champion (Kansas) ranks 21st of 24 champions in KenPom’s database. The sport also posted its lowest Assist Rate since that stat has been measured. One-on-one scoring is obviously a good and exciting thing, but it’s weird to see college basketball trending in a less team-friendly direction while the NBA is going the opposite way, posting its second-highest Assist Rate as a league ever.

I also thought this NCAA Tournament was one of the three worst since I started watching in 2002. This Tournament ranked 35th of 35 (in the 64/68-team era) in 3PT%, 34th in FG%, and 32nd in efficiency. A 15 seed made the Elite Eight, which was interesting until they immediately turned back into a 15 seed in the Elite Eight. The two best teams in the field got bounced because of unusually poor shooting nights. To top it off, the low Free Throw Rate did lead to less fouling and shorter games, but a genuinely useful argument can be made that this was a negative. Teams are getting away with fouls they would’ve been called on just a few years ago, which is leading to poorer offense.

So: I think that college basketball, on the whole, is in a good spot. NIL has given teams the chance to compete with second-round (and some late first-round) NBA contracts, which is allowing players who may have otherwise gone to the NBA Draft to return for a well-deserved payday. Most of the top 20 picks in this upcoming NBA Draft opted to play college basketball instead of the G-League or international play, which is a positive trend. Only one (Leonard Miller) of the top 50 2022 recruits elected to skip college. That’s good for the quality of the game.

Still, changes must be made. Officiating probably needs to be stricter in the sense that teams shouldn’t be allowed to get away with hyper-physical play. The block/charge call requires a full rewrite and frankly should result in more block calls. Most of all, the sport must have a fully standardized basketball for all teams. The fact that even high-major basketball teams can realistically play with six different basketball brands in one college season is truly insane. I’d still rank college basketball first, but either due to age or focus I’m more aware of its shortcomings and flaws than ever.


The inflection point passed here a while ago. Players have more freedom than ever before, which is a great thing, but as a fan of a non-elite team (the Pistons) who generally watches the Playoffs as a neutral, I do wish there were more rivalries. I’m honestly not sure what you’d call the best rivalry the NBA has right now, which is a real drawback when there are several excellent college rivalries where both sides have genuine hatred for the other. Rivalries make sports more interesting. The best one in the NBA at the moment is either Bucks/Heat (which is a ‘rivalry’ in the sense that they had two playoff matchups) or Mavericks/Clippers. (Hawks/Knicks could be it if either team ever discovers a real general manager.)

The quality of the play itself is fine and I think 1990s basketball fans greatly overstate how much more ‘fun’ it was to watch at that time. At the time I wrote this section, Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Finals had just happened. I had a great time watching Boston come back from 17 down to win by 12 thanks to a pretty shocking fourth quarter, all of which would’ve been much more difficult to imagine in the 1990s when the three-pointer wasn’t that popular. I greatly enjoy the fact that there are four two-time MVP holders actively playing and that the young talent in the league is as exciting as I can recall.

All of the standard complaints apply: the regular season is too long and the final 25% of it is almost entirely meaningless. The diversity of styles between teams is not as great as it used to be. Player freedom is terrific, but I do selfishly miss players building up rivalries with teams or even coaches over the course of several years. Too many players like NFTs. The Pistons probably won’t get Jaden Ivey in the upcoming Draft. None of these complaints are that great, I guess, but they feel obvious and real.

Football (the American variety)

Well, here we go.


I think it was 2018 when it first hit me: it’s the exact same teams every year.

It’s the exact same ones.

Oh yeah, sure, they might let LSU steal one from time to time. Maybe they’ll let Notre Dame in, as a bit. Maybe Michigan State slides in once on the good fortune of having the world’s largest horseshoe jammed firmly up Mark Dantonio’s rear end. But for the most part, it became pretty clear by summer 2021 that this is a six-team sport, and really more of a three-team one. There have been eight Playoffs now and 32 total bids; Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma are responsible for 21 of them. It probably says a lot that when the 2021 Playoff happened it felt like a miracle that only one of those four actually made the field.

This is why I’ve more or less stopped watching games I have little-to-no emotional attachment in. (That’s a nice way of saying I watch every Michigan game to talk to my dad about them and watched five or six of Tennessee’s games last season.) For the most part, 124 of the 130 (I think?) top-flight FBS teams have no better than a 2% shot at making the playoff year over year. This past season felt like a huge breath of fresh air because famed historical underdogs Michigan and Georgia made the field of four. And even then, we still ended up with approximately the Same Old Crap: an all-SEC title game that was profusely boring for 75% of the allotted time.

Sure, there are interesting stories every year. There are ones like Coastal Carolina coming out of nowhere to go undefeated; Cincinnati sneaking into the College Football Playoff and acquitting itself about as well as any other 4 seed; people tell me Wake Forest was entertaining. That’s all good and nice. What chance did they have to win the actual national championship after the sixth week of the season?

This is why I’ve gravitated more to college basketball being the premier college sport. For better or for worse, all of the top 15 teams in the sport enter the season-ending tournament with at least some chance of winning the title. You hang banners and hold town-wide celebrations for simply being one of the last four standing in a tournament that resembles more meat grinder than fair setup. If you make the last four in college football and aren’t named Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, or Ohio State, your reward is getting to play a team with much more money and much more resources and much more stars than yours. Michigan/Georgia looked entertaining on paper but revealed itself to be more like a 1 vs. 8 than the supposed 2 vs. 3.

Therein lies the problem: until the powers that run college football can figure out most people don’t want a 4-6 team sport, this will continue staying the same and likely getting worse. The most likely four-team Playoff combination for 2022, per oddsmakers, is…Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, and Ohio State. The exciting thing about the basketball Final Four is that, in the same time span of eight years and 32 total bids, 22 different teams have survived to see the final weekend of the season. In college football, that number is 13, and over the last five Playoffs (20 total bids), it’s nine. One sport sees real variety; the other produces more of the same on repeat. It’s like the Premier League, but the Premier League has real rivalries built on 100+ years of hatred. With teams changing conferences constantly and long-standing rivalries simply dying you don’t even get that anymore.

The other major problem: attending games kind of sucks now. College football’s game time has continued to balloon, with the most recent average number sitting at 3 hours, 24 minutes, the longest in the sport’s history. Any fan of a team that appears on FOX/CBS/ABC during the season will notice the relentless waves of awful advertisements (anyone want to estimate how often they saw the Matt Damon crypto ad this year?) that interrupt otherwise potentially interesting games. Commercial-kickoff-commercial is becoming more normalized, which is horrifying. I attended two college football games in 2019 and one of them, a 42-3 blowout, lasted 3 hours, 42 minutes with the kickoff coming nearly 15 minutes past scheduled start time.

This should not happen, and neither should the absurd, ballooning ticket prices that are a scourge. I live 20 minutes from one of the most historic stadiums the sport has to offer. I have not attended a game since 2019 and haven’t paid for a ticket since 2017. Why? Because even against garbage opponents, it’s no less than a seven-hour time investment in frequently uncomfortable weather and cheek-to-cheek seating to watch football that isn’t very high-quality. If I actually have to pay for tickets for my wife and I, that’s no less than an $80 investment (including parking) to sit in the nosebleeds or around a $110 investment if I’d like to sit in the worst lower bowl seats. Again, this is against bad teams, not even interesting opponents. When you can watch the same game from a better angle in 70-degree comfort at home and the crowd numbers themselves are lower than they’ve been in 40 years, why attend?

Couple all of this with how easily people seem to dismiss largely underpaid athletes bashing their brains in for our collective entertainment and it’s become easier to simply do something else rather than stay attached.


The problem is that the NFL is the most interesting it’s been in a long time thanks to great quarterback play and quality rivalries that are developing at hyper-speed. Every time the Bills and the Chiefs play each other, I actively desire to clear my schedule to watch it. Every time the Packers and Bucs get to face off, I want to see it happen. Sunday Night Football, as an entertainment product, is (and maybe was, depending on new announcers) the single most well-oiled machine sports has going right now.

The NFL has a ton of problems. It’s far too easy at forgiving domestic abusers. The commissioner is an annoyance. They seemingly have a new disaster occur within the league every year. The Super Bowl is generally an underwhelming affair. BUT. The NFL Playoffs have been excellent as of late, the league is great at developing season-long storylines, and your team is never that far away from jumping out of irrelevance. All it takes is one great quarterback, which I find inherently more interesting than college simply being “who has the most five-stars?”.


Credit to Gary Bettman, I guess. After the worst Playoffs the sport had seen in over a decade, they decided to make goalie pads a little smaller and let offense run the show. All it’s done is make the 2022 NHL Playoffs the best that I can recall seeing in forever. The first game of the Western Conference Finals the other night finished with an 8-6 score. The stars have largely shined at various points. Goalies have a tougher job than they have in two decades, which has made it much more exciting when a goalie steals the show. Crowds are back in full force. The Carolina Hurricanes ate it at home in a Game 7. This is all after a pretty entertaining regular season in which the league saw the most goals scored in 26 years.

I still have a hard time fully attaching myself to hockey that isn’t the Nashville Predators, simply because national TV coverage remains a little spotty in the States and I’m not willing to interrupt everything I’m doing to watch, say, Boston versus Florida on a Tuesday night. But that’s more of a me problem than a league problem. Now to wait and see how the NHL inevitably screws this up.

Soccer (or football)

Up to two years ago, I would’ve considered the idea of soccer fandom kind of laughable. I never fully bought in to the new waves of fandom that hit the States during/after the 2010 and 2014 World Cups; I loosely followed soccer abroad but didn’t find it that interesting. MLS didn’t really appeal to me because the closest team was in Atlanta. The USMNT was at its lowest point in decades.

And then I watched this game.

On a tip, I was told by two friends with very different rooting interests to check out this Leeds United squad. They were in the Premier League for the first time in 16 years and played a pretty intense style of soccer. I didn’t think much of it – I’d previously failed to become a Crystal Palace, Swansea City, and even AS Monaco fan – but I gave it a try. Watching these clearly undermanned guys throw themselves at the defending champions with such pace and ferocity was the single most exciting thing I’d seen in a sports affair since COVID hit.

I started to watch more Leeds United games. They’d escape battles with Fulham and Sheffield United and Aston Villa and other teams I vaguely knew about. Suddenly, in December, I realized something that would’ve shocked me months prior. Tennessee was playing Florida in a college football game at 3:30 on CBS just like old times. I barely cared to even look up at the screen it was on. On my laptop, I had Leeds, who were playing Chelsea on NBC at the same time. Despite a loss that wasn’t very close, it was simply more entertaining start-to-finish by far. Something unfathomable had happened: European football had passed American football for me in the span of a few months.

It honestly hasn’t been close since. I watch most of the important English affairs, but I’ve taken an interest in soccer as a whole. The USMNT is back in my life and I actively look forward to their matches. I try and keep up with Nashville’s new squad. I’m invested in and actively following Knoxville’s new semi-professional team. I’m hoping to attend as many matches as I can, both local and regional, this year. I can’t say the same for pretty much any other sport.

The sport of the future has finally hooked me. As for what state it’s in, I’m not sure I really know; the English will tell you it’s the worst it’s been in decades, while other Europeans will say it’s in a good spot. Americans seem pretty happy with the quality of it. All I know is this: I’m still learning and finding new reasons seemingly every day to love it more. Could this one day become my favorite sport? Possibly, even though I never played it. I just know it’s become #2 on my board in a stunningly light amount of time, and I’m quite thankful for it.

After all of this self-indulgence, I figure it’s only fair to close with this: how would I rank my personal investments in each sport now versus six years ago? After thinking about it for a few weeks, this is what I’ve got:

  1. College basketball
  2. Soccer
  3. NFL
  4. NBA
  5. NHL
  6. MLB
  7. College football
  8. Other loose ends (auto racing, etc.)

Really, the only things that have changed that much are soccer’s rise and college football’s fall. I’d still rank the four major sports more or less the same, though they’re closer rather than further apart. If anything, maybe this is a useful learning exercise: why do I like these sports? Why do I watch them? Maybe it’ll stoke some curiosity for you, too.

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.