Show Me My Opponent: Alabama (#2)

Written Tuesday evening:

SEC Tournament season, baby! Are you feeling the fire? Are you feeling the excitement? Do you know that It Just Means More™? With zero teams in KenPom’s top 25 and about four teams you can confidently say are making the NCAA Tournament, I can’t imagine not being full-throated ecstatic over the re-arrival of this thing. SEC basketball is here! 4.5 whole days of it! Man, I’m almost tearing up at the thought of the classics to come. Get ready, y’all.

In all seriousness, I’ve talked about this for a while, but this is the worst SEC in at least seven years and possibly further back. The best team in the pack is pretty clearly Kentucky, a team almost perfectly suited for the 1994 NCAA Tournament, and the teams behind it are all varying shades of gray. 2 seed Auburn spent the first three months of the season exhausting its entire supply of luck before crash-landing over the final three weeks. (Still beat Tennessee twice, of course.) 3 seed LSU had the best offense in conference play and paired it with the 12th-best defense. Mississippi State, South Carolina, Florida, Texas A&M…other than Florida, who amazingly will be in the Field of 68, will you remember anything these teams did in a week?

Anyway, that leads us to our 8 and 9 seeds: Tennessee and Alabama. They’ve already played once, with Tennessee completing a wild and objectively very funny double-digit road comeback to beat the Tide. This Tennessee team is young and hyper-flawed, and yet they’re capable of that. Alabama, likewise, is a very young team that can be as fun as anyone in America some nights, yet simply opted to not participate in the NCAA Tournament after it arrived on the horizon as a serious possibility in late January.

One season is going to end earlier than the fanbase involved would have hoped or really imagined two months back. The other season will be extended until at least Friday, where the most likely outcome is a defeat at the hands of a team that hasn’t cracked the KenPom top 20 in nearly two months. Next year will be quite a bit better for both schools.

Written Thursday morning:

Are we sure we should be playing this game?

NEXT PAGE: Wash your hands

Show Me My Opponent: Auburn (#2)

Here we are: after four-plus months of hot basketball action, we have finally arrived at the very end. Here is how I thought it would go:

And here is how all of those ended up going:

  • Record prediction: most likely 18-13, 10-8 SEC play
  • Team MVP: All-SEC John Fulkerson
  • NCAAT? check back next Sunday
  • Record vs. Florida/Kentucky: 2-1!
  • Pick 2 Click: I think we have to go Fulk here, yeah? Maybe Yves Pons?
  • Most Important Non-SEC Game: It actually ended up being the home Memphis game, but not for the reasons anyone expected. This is now a Quadrant 2 loss because Memphis has politely decided to suck in the 2020 half of 2019-20. The most important win is…probably still Washington? Somehow? Either that or VCU.

So those projections ended up going about 2.5 for 6, I’ll say. We’ll monitor the ones still in play. It’s quite amazing that we’re here even wanting to look at preseason projections, honestly. Seven days ago, when I posted the preview of the Florida game, I included the Press F to Pay Respects meme as the featured image on the article. (I legitimately cannot thank the boomer that asked me “what exactly am I looking at? Do I have to press F to access the article?” You brought so much joy to my Friday.) I, along with most others, figured the season was basically over. This team might beat Florida, it might beat a rapidly declining star in Auburn, but it wasn’t going to win at Rupp.

Until it did.

Now, here we are, entertain us, these Tennessee Volunteers can get themselves back onto the NCAA bubble – not even the NIT one, y’all – with a win over an Auburn team that was 22-2 three weeks ago. What a world.

NEXT PAGE: I can’t link it because my grandparents read these but I very nearly made the @dril “Holy Mackerel” tweet the featured image.

Show Me My Opponent: Kentucky (#2)

Go ahead and prepare yourself for what will be an onslaught of pieces over the next two weeks, assuming Kentucky wins the SEC Tournament. Kentucky has turned the corner. Kentucky is once again a national championship contender. Kentucky has the most John Calipari team to date. In this new article from Kyle Tucker of the Athletic, we explore why this Kentucky team is more prepared for March than you think. Every single one of these pieces will exist, and every single one of them will ignore a key fact: barring a serious overachiever run from Kentucky, this will be Calipari’s second-lowest-ranked KenPom team, aside from the aborted Nerlens Noel year.

But Will, you may clamor, isn’t this because KenPom factors in non-conference results too heavily? I mean, that’s obviously possible. It’s happened with other teams in the past. But let’s check out Bart Torvik’s site, which can separate results by non-conference and conference play in a system very similar to Ken’s.

Kentucky in non-conference play: +15.8 Adj. EM; 36th
Kentucky in SEC play: +18.6 Adj. EM; 23rd

Wow, look at that title contender! If you’re curious, the last five Kentucky teams all ranked higher in SEC play than this one has. It’s obviously pretty nice that Kentucky is 14-2 in SEC play, and that’s worth talking about. However: have you considered the fact that this is the least-good SEC since 2012-13 when it produced three NCAA Tournament teams? The SEC ranks dead last among Big Six conferences in Ken’s ratings, with Kentucky being the only team in the top 30. Heck, Florida – the team Tennessee took a near-20 point lead on – is the second-best team in these ratings. There’s as many teams ranked 140th or worse as there are teams in the top 35.

Here’s what I’m trying to get at: before giving in once again to the Kentucky machine, consider the context. This is a terrible SEC in a down year for college basketball as a whole. Even if you exclude the Evansville loss entirely, Kentucky’s played at the level of the 26th-best team since, per Bart Torvik. (Want to go from post-Ohio State loss onward? 19th.) All of the college basketball tastemakers will be crowning this team as being an “under the radar title contender.” Given a perfect draw, even I might squeeze them in further than I’d expect. All I’m asking you to do is not get swallowed up in the hype yet again, lest your bracket get busted in the Sweet Sixteen.

They’ll still beat Tennessee, I’m afraid.

NEXT PAGE: Kentucky: a basketball team

Show Me My Opponent: Florida

From last week:

There are no KenPom Top 25 teams in The Stretch. That’s excellent. What’s not excellent is that Tennessee has only racked up seven conference wins to this point in a season where they really needed eight or more to feel good about this. Two games in particular will sit poorly with the players and staff if they can’t turn it around in these five games: the 63-58 home loss to a terrible Texas A&M squad and last weekend’s two-point road loss to South Carolina. The second of those is far less offensive to me than dropping a home decision to a team that has lost to Harvard, Temple, and Fairfield.

It’s all in the past now. Tennessee can rectify those games by winning one more game than they’re expected to. Both KenPom and Torvik anticipate Tennessee finishing the season 2-3 in these five games. That would add at least one Quadrant 1 win, which brings Tennessee to three on the season…or the same number as 21-6 Saint Mary’s, which is not good when you’ll end up playing six more Q1 opponents than they will. If Tennessee can get to four, that gets them onto the bubble. It’s that simple. Can Tennessee actually Do It? We’ll see.

Reader, they did not Do It. They were about 10 minutes away from Doing It, blew the game, and then got demolished by a team with more to play for on Wednesday. If all you care about is the NCAA Tournament, the season is over and you can begin planning your spring break travels without factoring in a potential Tennessee Thursday/Friday game. (Personally, I suggest that this is a great time to jump on the ETSU bandwagon if you haven’t yet.) This is an NIT team, assuming they can fart out 1-2 more wins this year, and that’s pretty much it.

If Tennessee somehow goes 2-1 over these final three, that would be nice. But no one trusts this team to do so, and no one should, really. Thinking about next year does make it better, though.

NEXT PAGE: A discussion on apple orchards

Show Me My Opponent: Arkansas (#2)

Man, whatever. It happened. Who cares.

This Tennessee team was never going to be as good as the top 20 KenPom ranking it received in preseason. It was never going to be on the level some thought it may be after the blowout win over Washington. There was no point in time in which I thought Tennessee would be any better than, like, a 7-9 seed. A lot of this is based on the roster Rick Barnes constructed, but whatever.

I’m sort of done talking about this season, to be honest. It is what it is, and next season is going to be much, much better. Rick Barnes is not Mike White, and I really have confidence that he is not going to blow a top 10 roster in the same fashion. Watching Florida has been a serious chore this year, though that’s for Saturday’s preview to discuss. Anyway, we are here, here is Arkansas.

For two months, this Arkansas team was the story of the SEC. A 12-1 start with wins over Georgia Tech and Indiana wasn’t perfect, obviously, but this looked like a group destined for an 8/9 seed in March, which would have been serious improvement over the 2018-19 NIT squad. For year one of Eric Musselman’s tenure to end like that…well, everyone would’ve been thrilled. This squad isn’t deep at all, and there’s tons of flaws, but you can’t ever fault their effort.

Unfortunately, #grit doesn’t always win out. In fact, #grit has taken lots of Ls lately. Arkansas is 5-9 since that 12-1 start, with the best win being a road squeaker over Alabama. They’ve fallen out of the NCAA Tournament field entirely, now being listed on Bracket Matrix as one of the First Four Out. (Oh, to be in such a luxurious position! It must feel nice.) Nothing is trending right for Arkansas – welcome to the club! – and all the goodwill of November and December feels lost. Did I mention that Tennessee and Arkansas fans should be best friends at this point?

NEXT PAGE: Musselman’s approval rating is still very high, though

Show Me My Opponent: Auburn (#1)

Since the schedule was first announced, this is the part of the season I think pretty much everyone’s been anxious about: The Stretch. At one point of the offseason, The Stretch looked like it might contain four games against KenPom Top 25 teams, with the easy game being a road trip to Arkansas, a place Tennessee never wins at. I advocated that Tennessee really needed to rack up as many conference wins as possible to feel okay about making the NCAA Tournament prior to this stretch.

Here we are, at the start of The Stretch, and in a way, it’s both better and worse. Better because, for Tennessee, almost every non-Arkansas opponent turned out to be either marginally or seriously worse than expected. Auburn may be 22-4, but they rank #35 in KenPom because they’ve been hilariously lucky in close games. Arkansas is the only surprisingly good team, and yet they’re still the slightest opponent left at #48. Florida…genuinely, if you can help me figure out what they are, I’d appreciate it. Kentucky is the best team in the SEC, which is good enough to be #28 overall.

There are no KenPom Top 25 teams in The Stretch. That’s excellent. What’s not excellent is that Tennessee has only racked up seven conference wins to this point in a season where they really needed eight or more to feel good about this. Two games in particular will sit poorly with the players and staff if they can’t turn it around in these five games: the 63-58 home loss to a terrible Texas A&M squad and last weekend’s two-point road loss to South Carolina. The second of those is far less offensive to me than dropping a home decision to a team that has lost to Harvard, Temple, and Fairfield.

It’s all in the past now. Tennessee can rectify those games by winning one more game than they’re expected to. Both KenPom and Torvik anticipate Tennessee finishing the season 2-3 in these five games. That would add at least one Quadrant 1 win, which brings Tennessee to three on the season…or the same number as 21-6 Saint Mary’s, which is not good when you’ll end up playing six more Q1 opponents than they will. If Tennessee can get to four, that gets them onto the bubble. It’s that simple. Can Tennessee actually Do It? We’ll see.

NEXT PAGE: Taking Tiger mountain (by strategy)

Show Me My Opponent: Vanderbilt (#2)

Look: when a team like Tennessee, whose NCAA Tournament prospects are quite slim, plays a team like Vanderbilt, who is 1-30 over their last 31 games against SEC competition, it is very, very hard to get excited for the game. Couple this with a 6:30 PM Eastern start time and, well, yeah. I’m already bored. Why don’t we talk about the history of Vanderbilt basketball?

For a significant portion of my life, it has felt like Vanderbilt was ahead of Tennessee in the sport of college basketball. This probably was reinforced by one specific run to the Sweet Sixteen in 2004, right in the midst of Tennessee’s Buzz Peterson error. The ‘Dores weren’t particularly great that year – they’d get demolished in the Sweet Sixteen by eventual champions Connecticut – but getting there in the first place is a good accomplishment. I think about how exciting it was at the time that a team from Tennessee could make it quite far in the sport’s biggest tournament and I get a little nostalgic.

This was before I learned to despise Vandy, obviously. At the same time as the peak Bruce Pearl years, Kevin Stallings took Vandy to relatively new heights: five NCAA Tournaments in six years, though none of their runs progressed past the Sweet Sixteen. I would estimate that my peak of despising Vanderbilt University wasn’t reached until a couple of years after this peak, but I did relish in picking against Vanderbilt in the 2008, 2010, and 2011 NCAA Tournaments. It was an aggressively mundane, nice experience.

I think there are different experiences you can have with Vanderbilt based on your age. For instance, maybe you have particularly strong feelings about the Eddie Fogler era, which ended after four seasons at Vanderbilt with a 28-6 team that lost in the Sweet Sixteen. Maybe you are a C.M. Newton truther. Perhaps you remember Roy Skinner. Now, none of those memories feel quite so close; all that’s left is the worst program in the SEC playing very bad basketball that’s more reminiscent of a mid-level SoCon squad.

NEXT PAGE: Ranking the hot chicken places I have been to. 1. Prince’s 2. Hattie B’s 3. Bolton’s 4. Pepperfire 5. Firecracker 6. Hot Stuff

Show Me My Opponent: South Carolina (#2)

I guess at this point we’ve got to accept that South Carolina is just going to tank November/December in order to play well against SEC opponents. Tell me I’m wrong.

  • November/December: 8-5, losses to Boston U and Stetson; #107 on Torvik
  • January-present: 7-4, two wins over KenPom Top 50 teams; #31 on Torvik

The exact same thing happened last year, where South Carolina looked like the second-worst team in the SEC for two months and then turned it on for conference play only. This leads to some confusion among the generic SEC basketball fan, who sees “South Carolina, 15-9 (7-4)” and thinks “NCAA Tournament, yeah?” No! Nay, I will not let you fall for this again! South Carolina currently has as many losses against Quadrant 4 teams (two) as it does wins against Quadrant 2. Torvik gives them about a 10% chance of eventually making the Field of 68. None of the 79 bracketeers making up the current edition of the Bracket Matrix are brave enough to list South Carolina among their 68 teams.

And yet: while watching South Carolina take advantage of a horrifying offensive start by Georgia to defeat the Bulldogs (can we talk about Tom Crean?), I noticed something. For the first time all season, the SEC Network coverage team has started to list South Carolina’s NCAA Tournament resume in-game.

Good for the Gamecocks; generally, I think every single fan base should get excited about potentially making the Field of 68, even those who have made it for several seasons in a row and have greater expectations. I think their players should be excited, too! I just gotta see more, you know? You don’t erase a home loss to KenPom #285 Stetson with a pair of one-possession wins over Kentucky and Arkansas, especially in this particularly paltry edition of SEC basketball.

NEXT PAGE: Thinking about “Can’t Hardly Wait” by the Replacements, as in I Can’t Hardly Wait for SEC basketball to rid itself of boring squads like the 2019-20 Gamecocks

Show Me My Opponent: Arkansas (#1)

Here is what I wrote about Arkansas basketball in January 2019:

“This stupid friggin’ team again. Prior to last year’s blessed 84-66 SEC Tournament destruction of the swine, Tennessee had lost six straight games to Arkansas. You will remember some of these fairly well: losing a second-half lead to Arkansas in Fayetteville in the last days of 2017, losing a second-half lead to Arkansas in Knoxville in the first days of 2017, losing a (three-point) second-half lead to Arkansas in Knoxville in 2016, losing a second-half lead to Arkansas in Fayetteville in 2016. You get the point.

This team never dies, as much as you want them to. I have watched Tennessee lose NINE DAMN GAMES to this team by five points or less in my lifetime, six of them from the Bruce era onward. The Vols are 4-4 against Arkansas when they’re ranked and the Hogs aren’t. Arkansas has not been a serious national threat since I was in kindergarten and haven’t even been a serious regional threat for more than a few years out of the last 20, but they always beat Tennessee, and God am I sick of it.”

All that changed is Tennessee demolished Arkansas, the Hogs have a new coach, and they look similarly frustrating. Onward.

NEXT PAGE: I’ll admit it: I only hated the Hog Call because I could never figure out how long you hold the “WOO” part of it. I get it I think

Show Me My Opponent: Kentucky (#1)

Well, it’s Kentucky. I could go through all the reasons that the reader, certainly a Tennessee fan, should despise this program. I could go through the laundry list of overlooked recruiting violations that likely exist. I could go through all the reasons to truly despise John Calipari, one of the sport’s greatest slime-based characters. Even recognizing Tennessee’s own NCAA Tournament failures, I could talk about how truly funny it is that Kentucky’s still only got one title under Calipari and hasn’t reached the Final Four since the 38-1 year.

But that would be a waste of time, honestly. You know who Tennessee’s dealing with. You know all the history. You know all the pageantry. You know how many of their fans come to Thompson-Boling, attempting to turn the arena blue. There’s no point in rehashing things you already know about. So let’s explore something you may have forgotten about: the time Tennessee defeated Kentucky 47-46 in Rupp Arena under Jerry Green.

Recently, I’ve been deploying a variety of YouTube searches in an attempt to sort of relive the Jerry Green era as it happened. I’m 26 years old and didn’t start watching Tennessee basketball until the first Buzz Peterson season in 2001-02; before that, my limited basketball viewing experience was entirely NBA, as I truly adored Allen Iverson and how he dragged the abysmal supporting cast of his 76ers through opponents every single night. As such, I genuinely had no idea Tennessee basketball was supposed to be any good until Bruce Pearl came to town in 2005.

If you have 73 minutes of free time today, you could do worse than watch the game with me. Just like Tennessee’s win in Rupp in 2018, it was the release of a lifetime’s worth of emotions. Tennessee hadn’t won in Lexington since Jimmy Carter was President. The broadcast itself feels like a beautiful, lost relic of the late-1990s/early-2000s; if you can remember when ESPN broadcasted hockey, it’s a similar blast of nostalgia.

Tennessee did not defeat Kentucky in the prettiest of fashions. They shot 30%, committed 17 turnovers, and, again, scored 47 points. But all that mattered was that they scored one more point than Kentucky, who shot 31% themselves. It’s one of the ugliest wins in Tennessee history, and I cannot promise you that watching it again will give you any other opinions than “is this Wisconsin basketball.” But: Tennessee won. If Tennessee ran this exact game and structure back tomorrow, no one will complain, and they shouldn’t.

NEXT PAGE: Did you know that zero SEC teams rank in the top 25 of KenPom right now? Being serious: please name me any SEC team that feels like a real Final Four threat.