It Is What It Is

March 17: (3) Tennessee 88, (14) Longwood 56 (Round of 64) (27-7)
March 19: (11) Michigan 76, (3) Tennessee 68 (Round of 32) (27-8, season over)

Starting off March Madness by hitting 14 threes and dropping 88 points on a vastly overmatched opponent was probably an unfair way to get things rolling. Was it incredibly funny and fun and stress-free? Of course. But there are very few words on that game, because no one remembers the blowouts. Everyone remembers the classics. Everyone remembers the Round of 32 games that meant something, especially when a lot of things are happening and it’s back-and-forth the whole way.

So: you do a lot of things right. You turn it over only seven times, the second-lowest turnover rate of the season.

So that’s good, even if it was somewhat predictable against a Michigan team that never forces turnovers. And then you also put up a 53.1% hit rate on twos, almost 5% above Tennessee’s season-long hit rate. That’s pretty good, too. Teams that do both of those things since 2010-11: 61-12 in the NCAA Tournament. But then you look at who two of those 12 are.

Never matter; the past is the past. You shoot 18 three-point attempts. Tennessee has hit 40% of these over the last two months. They just hit 58.3% of them in a first-round demolition. All you have to do is hit a few of those threes. Most were of the catch-and-shoot variety; the average catch-and-shoot three went down at a 35% rate this year. A 35% shooting game would’ve counted as a below-average performance for Tennessee.

One standard deviation from the mean on 3PT% this season has been about 10%. For the average team on an average night, anything from 23% to 43% is reasonable. For Tennessee, a team that shot 36.5%, anything from 26% to 47% was reasonable.  Anything outside of that range, in some aspect, was an outlier beyond normal explanation. If a team guards every single one of your catch-and-shoot threes somehow, that should lead to you shooting, like, 5-10% worse than normal. Some amount of bad shooting is just bad shooting; a larger amount of it is whether the coin flips in your favor.

A 36% coin flip came up cold 89% of the time. On 18 attempts, 16 of which were catch-and-shoot ones, Tennessee made two. A team full of dudes that were making these 40% of the time made them 11% of the time two days after making them 58% of the time. It is so baffling that even Sports Reference came up empty.

It is what it is.

This Tennessee team spent the better part of the back half of the season subverting expectations and changing their identity game by game. A potential season-destroying injury to the team’s best center resulted in the team getting better for a time. Four Top 15 teams came to Thompson-Boling Arena, three of which came to visit post-injury. None of them left with victories. Tennessee took their show on the road to Tampa, drew the SEC’s supposed toughest team, and led for all but 27 seconds of a semifinal that wasn’t as close as the final score suggested. Winning the program’s first SEC conference tournament title since 1979 the next day was almost an afterthought.

They then spent all of Thursday telling the nation how disrespectful it was for Tennessee to have been given a 3-seed behind multiple teams they had superior resumes to. Longwood came into Indianapolis with some amount of high hopes; all of those hopes were thoroughly dispelled by approximately the 19th three Josiah-Jordan James made that gave Tennessee a 25-point halftime lead. Heading into Saturday, the general vibe even from Michigan fans was that this Tennessee team was going to be too much to handle. It made sense: a legitimate top-6 team in America playing an 11 seed. Why wouldn’t it?

In the game preview I noted that it would take some sort of heavy RNG game in Michigan’s favor to swing the tide fully their way. It barely happened on their threes; aside from Hunter Dickinson having a great day and going 3-for-5, the rest of the roster went 3-for-11. They did not win the game from deep. Tennessee, the superior shooting team with more options and better depth, just couldn’t find it. Some days, it’s not your day. I think we all know this, but fandom obscures it in a manner that makes it a lot harder to accept. It is what it is.

I spent most of Sunday predictably thinking about the difficulties of being on The Other Side of the three-point revolution. Tennessee spent this season completely remaking themselves in a new offensive image. This will stand as the team that set the single-game record for threes in their very first game. They took more three-point attempts than any Barnes team has ever taken, whether here or at Texas or anywhere before. Tennessee had made at least six threes in eight consecutive games and 13 of the previous 14. Tennessee started 0-for-4, then went 2-for-3. Then, they never hit another three again.

Everyone online keeps insisting that the threes can’t be the thing. It has to be Rick Barnes. I guess when the head coach continues to disappoint in March that’s sort of the obvious target. Blame’s gotta go somewhere, after all, and blaming it on bad luck is seen as real dire mental straits to be in. But. Rick Barnes is not the one missing 16 of 18 threes. Rick Barnes is the guy who pushed for more threes and fewer mid-range twos after a career of doing the exact opposite, so I guess you can be mad at him for that. Who would’ve guessed that progressing your offense into a more modern, Tournament-friendly style somehow made you feel worse?

It is what it is. What else can it be but madness? Against the fourth-worst defense Tennessee had played since January 26 (16 games total), upon video review, Tennessee got nine three-point attempts where the nearest defender was 4+ feet away. They hit one of them. The threes are the thing, more than any other thing can be. Such is life; such is madness.

Because everything this blog does is ripped off of MGoBlog in some fashion, this line from the head writer (Brian Cook) after Michigan’s 63-44 loss to Texas Tech in 2019 keeps bouncing around in my head:

A collective mania set in as this was happening as the horrible results overwhelmed anyone’s ability to process what happened before them. Four different threes rimmed out in the first half. . . . Maybe there are reasons you go 25% from three. There are no reasons when you go 13% and 0%. Just frustration, and an offseason a little more sudden than hoped for.

And that’s more or less it. Rick Barnes played Tennessee’s four best non-centers, with zero substitutions, for the entirety of the final 15:03 of this game. Their best center was Uros Plavsic, which would have been a laughable statement in November. Michigan’s point guards combined for four points. Tennessee won the turnover battle by eight and the offensive rebounding battle by four, a +12 advantage in shot volume. They outscored Michigan 20-7 in points off of turnovers. They did a lot of things very well. They just didn’t have a good day with the one thing that decides 80% of coin-flip basketball games now.

The offseason has begun at least a week earlier than everyone wanted to. I abstained from going to Saturday’s game for a variety of reasons, which now seems wise because seeing 2-for-18 in person is likely worse than seeing it on TV. Tennessee tied their fourth-worst 3PT% of the last 12 seasons with the second-best 3PT% team they’ve had in that time span. None of this is required to make sense, because March Madness as a concept is not supposed to make sense. To quote Jon Bois, there is only one winner, and it comes at the cost of 63 losers. Tennessee merely joins the pack in a more painful, stupid way than most others.

Frankly, that is not how I’d like to remember this team. Watching Tennessee’s defense pour motor oil down the nostrils of opponents twice a week was a joy. Watching Kennedy Chandler evolve from a fledgling five-star into a legitimate first-round pick was wonderful. Finding a new fan favorite in Zakai Zeigler was a delight. Uros Plavsic evolved from a mascot into an actual useful piece. Santiago Vescovi turned from Just A Shooter into First-Team All-SEC. Josiah-Jordan James went supernova mode in the back half of the season and went from a disliked player by the average fan into a beloved star. John Fulkerson became both mascot and bench piece. Everyone who took the court, at some point, did something memorable and beautiful. I will remember that fondly.

I will also remember that, during a two-month period watching the main inspiration for my writing passing away, I kept looking to a battalion of 18-24 year-olds to keep doing good things, and they kept doing them. As the clock ticked down and Tennessee was leading Texas A&M by 15, I thought about how much my grandfather would have loved to see it. But up there, far away from all of our worry and strife, he had a great view of it. Maybe they toss the Chick-Fil-A cows up in heaven, too.

At the start of March I was listening to the episode of The Square Ball, a Leeds United fan magazine and podcast, immediately after Marcelo Bielsa was fired. (I prefer the English ‘sacked,’ but gotta stick with your audience and such.) Bielsa was a heroic figure to Leeds supporters for two main reasons: 1. He brought the club back to the Premier League for the first time in nearly two decades; 2. He is potentially the only manager in the modern era of the club, and most clubs, to feel bigger than the sport itself.

One of the hosts mentions the relief of Leeds’ midweek and Saturday games during the Bielsa era, with a specific focus on the last two years. Bielsa had a rough end to his tenure. At the time of the show, Leeds were just a hair out of the EPL relegation zone. You lose a lot of money when you fall out of the EPL; it’s not a good time. The prevailing theme of their discussion is just how Bielsa felt like more than a football manager. More than Just A Guy. More than Just A Game. Specifically, there is this sentence from one of the hosts:

Because of what’s going on globally, it oddly matters more. When the world is legitimately falling apart, you cling onto the few things that make you believe and are an escape from all of the bad stuff.

Thinking of this season in those terms three months ago was a laughable concept. I came into this season expecting a Sweet Sixteen run or something similar and to simply have some amount of fun watching basketball again. I wanted to go to games again. Being at home for all of 2020-21…losing the Tournament in 2020, even if Tennessee wouldn’t have been in it…it simply took a toll. I didn’t feel it or notice it at the time. In January, it hit like a delayed adverse effect from bad medicine.

These two years have been hard on a lot of people. Comparatively, I came out of it scot-free. I wasn’t laid off and gained a promotion at my day job. My marriage flourished, even in a harsh economic time. We made good, useful changes to our day-to-day routine. I learned to be happy working from home. I learned to love running. I looked forward to getting out of the house. The 2020-21 season, which might as well be a repeated visual of seeing the Knoxville Catholic running loop four mornings a week, ended up giving me more and greater opportunities in the basketball world than I ever could have imagined.

This season started well, too. The season began barely two weeks after I finished a massive work project. We were going to games again. COVID wasn’t over, but it was on its way out. Things seemed better. Winter came. We kept going to games, and it felt like diminishing excitement every time. Mid-January, after Tennessee had gotten carpet-bombed by Kentucky and my wife sat in different bedrooms in COVID quarantine, I wondered what the point was. February came about and made it that much tougher. In the midst of all this, all you can do is to lean onto those strong ties, the ones you believe in, and see them as escapism.

This team slowly turned into a bizarre form of escapism as the season went on. They were flawed, just like every other collection of 18-24 year old men in human history. They were frustrating. But twice a week, they would open up the mud pit, pull an opponent in, and watch them flail around for two hours helplessly. This group’s run ended earlier than expected, but the memories they provided will last a long time. I will miss them quite a bit.

No more analysis. Just two notes.

  • Thanks for everything. The amount of people to thank for this year’s coverage is immense. I have decided to thank most individuals privately, but there are some that I want to share public thanks for. Carly Warren, my wife, who somehow feels okay letting me invest 15 hours a week into this on top of a 40-hour job and a housing search. You are my hero. Andrea, my mom, who understands me in a way no one else can and is a hero. Scott, my dad, for all you do. Andy, my brother, who did attend his first game this year. Matthew, my best friend, legal advisor, and trusted agent. Jon Reed, the person who is more responsible for my “readership base” than anyone else. Seth Hughes, who never fails to give me good advice and is one of the smartest people I know. Grant Ramey, Mike Wilson, Wes Rucker, Ryan Schumpert, Ethan Stone, and everyone else that I know and talk to on the local beat. Chase Thomas, who continues to talk to me weekly somehow. Jimmy Dykes, who has changed my life in many ways. Tom Hart and Dane Bradshaw. Reed Carringer. There are many, many more, and this post is already very long.
  • 2022-23 coverage. Is undecided. I’ll be up front and say that I’m exploring how to continue to make this work; whether it will work is not yet determined. For now, I am taking a break that I think I’ve earned.

Obligatory Post About How Losing Shorthanded to Alabama is Okay But It Raises the Exact Same Questions Yet Again

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

December 29: #19 Alabama 73, #14 Tennessee 68 (9-3, 0-1 SEC)

Ah, this is how I know it’s basketball season. Not the first loss; not the second; not even the big wins. Not the upsets. Not the amazing buzzer-beaters that make up year-end YouTube videos. Nope: it’s the close, crushing loss when your team is shorthanded that somehow finds the only way imaginable to leave you annoyed and angry.

The staring into the middle distance, the “why didn’t Rick Barnes do this? Why did he do that?” feeling, the wondering why you stayed up until 11:20 PM when you have a 6:45 AM alarm. It’s all back, baby! College basketball! Didn’t you miss it? Didn’t it give you the life you thought you were missing? Or am I simply late to the party on realizing that, in some way, I also have developed Football Mindset?

Objectively speaking, losing by five points to the #19 team on the road when you’re down two of the team’s three best players is not a bad result. Even though neither site adjusts for absences, even the metrics sites are fairly impressed by Tennessee’s efforts; Bart Torvik’s Game Score metric gave Tennessee an 88, which is a good result even before you consider Tennessee led for 28 of a possible 40 minutes. For large portions of this affair, Tennessee controlled the flow of the game, dominated defensively, and forced Alabama into difficult threes that sort of exposed the Alabama Problem: if you stop the flow of points in the paint, you slow down the offense as a whole.

All of that is good and fine. Tennessee held its ninth-straight opponent under one point per possession, which is a streak that’s now a game short of the KenPom-era program record of 10 consecutive sub-1 PPP games (2013-14). They won the turnover battle again. They got to the free throw line a lot. In the absence of Kennedy Chandler and John Fulkerson, Santiago Vescovi and Olivier Nkamhoua stepped up and played very good, very useful games. (Honorable mention to Zakai Zeigler, who wasn’t great on offense but held up much better than I would’ve anticipated on D.)

Again, objectively speaking, Tennessee put up a really good effort against what I anticipate is one of the 20 or so best teams in America in Alabama. Tennessee had multiple chances in the final minute of this game to tie or take the lead and simply didn’t come through; you can imagine that a full-strength Tennessee gets better shots throughout the game and potentially comes home with a surprise road W. We’ll never know, because I guess COVID will never end.

The problem is that it’s hard to be objective when the game unfolds in two particular ways:

  1. Tennessee leads by six points with four minutes to go;
  2. Tennessee spends the vast majority of the final 20% of this game with Victor Bailey, Jr. on the court instead of Justin Powell.

The first point here is a catch-22. At the start of the game, I would have adored any scenario that ended in “Tennessee leads by six points with four minutes to go” because that felt pretty unlikely even with a full-strength roster. Tennessee was certainly aided by what was an outlier of a poor shooting night from Alabama, sure, but they were winning the shot volume battle and seemed to win many of the 50/50 plays. You could easily talk yourself into the ‘toughness’ cliche.

The second is the one that’s going to be talked about the rest of the season. The first image here is Victor Bailey’s 2021-22 On/Off numbers:

The second is Justin Powell’s.

For reasons that I cannot entirely parse, Bailey was the player who got the majority of the run down the stretch of this game as Tennessee’s offense seized up and Powell sat on the bench, quietly watching. To the credit of local media, Rick Barnes was asked to rationalize his choice. I can’t say I’m pleased by the answer.

Justin Powell is not a good on-ball defender. I have half a season of Auburn data and half a season of Tennessee data to say that’s almost certainly the truth. The defense is inarguably worse with him on the court; even though I do not think much of this is Victor Bailey’s doing, the defense is basically break-even with Bailey out there. Whatever, fine, you get your little nitpick win.

But when it comes to the actual effect on the team on the court, Justin Powell is, by any objective measure, the superior option to Victor Bailey. Want to use Net Rating? The team is 15 points better with him on the court over 100 possessions than it is with Bailey. Want to talk offense? The offense is 21 points better with Powell. Three-point shooting? Powell 42% (43% for his career), Bailey 23% (35% career). Individual defensive impact? Bailey and Powell are almost the exact same: a 2.9% Stock% (steals + blocks) for Bailey, 2.6% for Powell. Player that literally just played 26 minutes against the #8 team in America in a win? Justin Powell.

I think this is what sticks. Tennessee played better than I anticipated. They held down Alabama’s offense more than almost any other team has. They forced some surprising guys (Jahvon Quinerly being the main example) into foul trouble. They led for almost three quarters of the game. But you’re sitting there with a 63-57 lead, four or five minutes on the clock, and somehow it never seems to cross anyone’s mind that the lone available guy on the roster who can hit a dagger three to actually bring home the win isn’t on the court.

(Sidebar: I think I’ve had my fill of Tweeting negative things about individual players online. I cannot imagine Victor Bailey, Jr. feels very good today; there is literally zero reason whatsoever for me or anyone else to pile on relentlessly. I say something about Bailey (or Plavsic) (or JJJ) (or anyone at this point) and the replies are a mess of pure garbage. No más. I should’ve remembered the golden rule: Never Tweet.)

So here we are: Tennessee blows a winnable game in a situation where I’m objectively supposed to feel okay but subjectively feel annoyed yet again. Bart Torvik tracks the average lead of every game in America; per his website, this is the 18th time in the Rick Barnes tenure Tennessee has lost a game they led the majority of, with ten of those coming since the start of 2018. Bruce Pearl, the guy everyone will not let go of, has done that just three times in the last four seasons. Every single season, somewhere between two and four times, Tennessee will lose a game that most agree they really should’ve won.

On the flip side, Tennessee has won fourteen games since 2015-16 where they’ve trailed the majority of the way. (Perhaps you remember the 2020 win at Rupp Arena before the world ended.) When that happens a couple of times this year, it will feel nice. Until Tennessee figures out a way to stop losing these winnable games, these affairs will continue to feel uniquely unsatisfying even when they shouldn’t.

I feel like I’m repeating myself but this is a loss that really doesn’t mean all that much because it is one game in a 35ish-game season and Tennessee literally just beat a top ten team at home. I wrote a whole thing about how Tennessee should be pleased to get out of December with just two losses in the month; they did exactly that. Both losses were close, coin-flip things. They did exactly what the average top 10-15 team should have doneYet, somehow, like always, I find myself frustrated and wondering why X decision didn’t happen or why Z decision did.

In retrospect, I should have remembered one of my favorite images:

Whatever happens, happens. I can’t control it, therefore it is what it is. On to the next one.