With No Regard For Human Life

Tuesday, February 1: #22 Tennessee 90, Texas A&M 80 (15-6, 6-3 SEC)
Saturday, February 5: #22 Tennessee 81, South Carolina 57 (16-6, 7-3 SEC)

Maybe it was here:

Or here:

Maybe here:

I’m thinking this played a part:

Or, well, here:

Possibly this, too:

Or here:

I mean, frankly, maybe it started when it actually started:

But somewhere along the last three months, Zakai Zeigler went from a New York curiosity that had no serious Division I offers until July to someone who’s on track to be one of the 3-5 all-time most beloved Tennessee players in any major sport the school has to offer. In the mild-to-moderate-to-severe annoyances this season has brought fans of all varieties, there has been one consistent tether to fandom: Zeigler. How a 5’9″ player that committed on August 27 and was initially only taken as an emergency backup for Kennedy Chandler became the fanbase’s favorite player in years is a story we get to live out in real time. What a joy, frankly.


Maybe you have to start where you’re supposed to start. A player who receives little-to-no Division I attention, beyond the Northeast Conference’s Bryant, attends the 2021 Peach Jam in Atlanta. There are probably 300 prospects there more well-known than him if not more. In the News-Sentinel piece, he describes this as his last-ditch attempt at getting a real offer before he takes a prep year. Player has a great week in Atlanta; player receives several committable offers, the most well-known of which would be Minnesota and Wichita State. Player receives a Tennessee offer two weeks after those, visits on August 22, commits on August 27, starts classes on August 31.

In the season preview, potentially the wrongest thing I’ve written online since I began writing about Tennessee basketball publicly five years ago, I listed Zeigler as a possible rotation member (fair). I said he’d play less than 100 minutes of basketball this season. I said his height (5’9″) and weight (167) would put a hard cap on playing time in Year One, because he came in too late to get serious strength training. I figured defense would be an issue. I thought wrong. I am far from the first person Zakai Zeigler has proven wrong; I am simply one of the latest and most public.

Zeigler didn’t top 13 minutes in the first three games, but he broke out in the fourth: 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting against North Carolina. He sort of laid dormant for a while but just…kept coming back. He completely flipped the script of his October scouting report: he struggled to knock down shots, but was ridiculously tenacious on defense. He picked up five steals against Mississippi, then four against South Carolina, then four against Vanderbilt, including a play that essentially sealed the game. Then he started hitting shots again. Watch that CBS video once more:

Listen to Kevin Harlan’s voice levitate. It hangs for a second as the shot drops. You hear what sounds as either “BOOM” or “OOH” but translates to “Zeigler, another three!” Harlan has voiced many beautiful moments of basketball fandom for me; the one most college basketball fans will recall is “Farokmanesh, a three…goooooooooood!” The one the average sports fan will know is this, one of the 3-5 greatest calls by any sports announcer that I know of.

Without the commentary, I don’t think this is one of LeBron’s 25 best dunks of his career. (Noting here that Harlan once used this call for a Kobe dunk that is probably better, but happened in a regular season game and has a worse YouTube video.) LeBron has gone higher, slammed harder, hurt more, defied physics and basic science more beautifully. But it is the commentary that makes me believe this is a physical accomplishment on the level of walking on the Moon. WITH NO REGARD FOR HUMAN LIFE is such a visceral, gut-rattling call. It is what you would say for an act of war, not for someone harshly placing a round ball in a basket. But when you think about it, it makes sense. Basketball is war. It is violent, brutal, and it hurts you, both mentally and physically. We can’t get enough of it and we never will.

Harlan’s voice is meant for something greater than sports. If it were still 2012 and people were still making the Facebook pages titled I Wish Morgan Freeman Narrated My Life, I would make the counter-page for Kevin Harlan. It is an absurd act of luck and grace that Kevin Harlan calls college basketball games with fair regularity. It is even more absurd that Kevin Harlan got to call this particular Zakai Zeigler game. In a just world, as much as I enjoy and love our friends Tom Hart and Dane Bradshaw, it would have been Harlan’s voice soundtracking Zeigler’s own LeBron moment:

In October, the reasonable expectation for Zakai Zeigler, and by everyone that doesn’t have the last name Zeigler, was for him to be a playable ninth or tenth man. On the worst night, you figured the emergency backup point guard would come in for 10 minutes because Kennedy Chandler got into foul trouble or something. All of this fun stuff wasn’t supposed to happen until 2022-23 at the earliest. Really, given how raw Zeigler sounded and how little strength training he’d had, you could’ve said his junior year (2023-24) would be the right time for a breakout.

It is February now. We are six days from the Super Bowl. Zakai Zeigler is, at worst, one of the five best players on Tennessee’s roster. There have been games where he’s outplayed Chandler, a near-certain first-round draft pick, by a significant margin. Zeigler and Chandler have combined for 107 points over Tennessee’s last four games. Zeigler has outscored Jabari Smith, Chandler, and TyTy Washington since January 25th. Again, this is a 5’9″ emergency freshman point guard who had as many SEC offers as I did seven months ago.

This is not supposed to logically happen. Bart Torvik’s player stats include a 0-100 recruiting rating for each player, which essentially corresponds to “how highly was this player rated by the average recruiting website.” Among freshmen at high-major schools, #1 in Box Plus-Minus is Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, who was the #1 overall recruit in last year’s class. #2: A.J. Griffin of Duke, who was 18th. Of this year’s top 22 players by BPM, 12 were ranked no lower than 35th in the class of 2021. All but two were at least ranked in the top 200. Only one of those 22 was, at any point of their senior year, unranked. Take a wild guess which one.

So here we are: an unranked, barely recruited 5’9″ freshman has stolen the hearts of the entire Tennessee fanbase with a full month of games left to play in his first season. And that’s Act One. Imagine what Acts Two, Three, and Four will bring. Using Torvik’s same player stats, I attempted to see what happened to freshman with a similar Year One to Zeigler (>1.5 PRPG, >5.5 BPM, high-major player, no taller than 6′). I then had to expand it because the initial list was eight people long over 15 seasons, and one of them was Zeigler’s teammate.

Alright then: 6’3″ or shorter, same PRPG, same BPM, but a 3% or better Steal% and a 20% or higher Usage Rate. This time, let’s see what happened after their freshman year.

One more: the Player Comparison tool on Torvik’s site, which takes all of Zeigler’s stats and throws up a similarity score to other seasons that match it most closely. This is freshman-only, and these are the five closest comparisons.

Please remember that this is a player who was completely unranked by any recruiting service until August 26, the day before he committed to Tennessee. Among the five players that this system feels are his closest comparisons, there are a combined 11 All-Conference First or Second Team selections. There are five players who at least touched the court in an NBA game. Three of them are active. One of them, VanVleet, is an All-Star. Of the five, only Mills failed to play all four years at his school of choice.

Consider all of that, but most importantly consider that you are strongly likely to get three more years plus the next 6-8 weeks of Zakai Zeigler in a Tennessee uniform. The beauty and horror of life is that we cannot tell the future. Anything, both good and bad, can reasonably happen from this point onward. All of what we know to look for going forward is based on past events. Yet those past events are so exciting, so charming, so singularly lovable that the uncertainty of the future is embraced with arms wide open.

Basketball, the beautiful game, has given Zeigler and his family a chance at a new life. It provides, and if there is justice, it will provide for him. I find myself most excited to see the ways the future will provide a career for a player who grew up in the shadows and deserves the spotlight like nothing else.


Various notes from the last two games:

  • Another out-of-nowhere ref show. Tennessee and Texas A&M combined for 42 fouls, a couple of which were late A&M desperation ones but most of which were organic. I was a little surprised by this, mostly because Tennessee is rarely a foul-heavy team and A&M isn’t as extreme as Carolina. Getting a little tired of noting these stats in games where the general expectation should be about 32-34 combined fouls; very much “this could’ve been an email” vibes. Let the players play.
  • On free throw variance. There were a couple weeks where Tennessee fans were in tatters over free throw shooting. That’s fine; it did look bad for a while. Those complaints have now gone quiet after Tennessee went 34-for-41 (82.9%) at the line this week, but the worst Benevolent God of Variance action was letting A&M, a team that entered the game shooting 64% at the line, go 21-for-25 (84%). You could explain five of A&M’s 80 points away right there; a 90-75 scoreline would indeed feel a little better.
  • The Josiah-Jordan James resurgence. Torvik’s site also provides an adjusted Net Rating for each player that rarely goes above, like, +8 or +9. James posted a +7.3 against A&M and +9.6 against South Carolina to go along with his two highest scoring performances of the season. James is now shooting 32.7% from deep in SEC play, which sounds average but is a percentage everyone was begging for when the guy was in the 20-25% range.
  • Positive three-point variance! When I found myself in the depths of exploring seagulls in January, it was in part influenced by Tennessee’s seeming inability to have a normal basketball game. At the time, through 14 games, these were their numbers:
    • 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%)

Part of the frustration was that Tennessee was having significantly more bad games (8 of 29% or worse) than good ones (5 of 40% or better). Fast forward four weeks, and here’s the new numbers:

    • 50% or better: 2 games (9.1%)
    • 40-49%: 7 games (31.8%)
    • 30-39%: 3 games (13.6%)
    • 20-29%: 8 games (36.3%)
    • 19% or worse: 2 games (9.1%)

The problem still exists in that Tennessee is bizarrely incapable of having a normal, boring shooting night. The great news is that the top half of this chart has grown immensely since the LSU loss. Tennessee now has nine games of 40% or better from deep, and the median performance is now a 35.7% outing in a home win over LSU. One month of basketball changes a lot!

  • Four guards/wings at all times. Torvik’s algorithm considers James a ‘stretch 4,’ which is…probably fair, but Tennessee starts him at the 3 in pretty much every game. I’m sort of at the point where I don’t care about starting lineups as long as the closing lineup is the one that makes sense. Tennessee got there in the South Carolina game, unfortunately thanks to the Nkamhoua injury. Per Hoop-Explorer, lineups with any three of Vescovi/Chandler/Zeigler/Powell were +15 in 23 possessions; all other lineups were +9 in 42. Play three of those guys at all important times, and you will be happy.
  • Speaking of which: closing lineup. The data of CBB Analytics shares this: Tennessee’s most frequent lineup with 4 minutes to go this season has been Chandler, Zeigler, Vescovi, James, and Nkamhoua. Second-most frequent: the first four, but with Fulkerson. Maybe everything is fine?
  • Finally: KenPom bump. Tennessee now sits 34th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, which would both be the second-highest offense of the Barnes era and also would fulfill a useful stats thing. This website scanned the NCAA Tournament field in 2018 and found that, since KenPom’s existence, 86% of Final Four teams had an offense that was at least in the top 40 nationally. 73% were in the top 20. I’m not picking Tennessee to go to the Final Four barring a very advantageous draw (more on that later this week), but Tennessee is trending in the right direction at the right time. Last year’s Elite Eight teams and their pre-NCAAT offensive rankings: 1st, 3rd, 6th, 7th, 18th, 28th, 35th, and 63rd. At least being top 35 is positive, especially after a month of being outside the top 50.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: South Carolina, Part Two

EDITOR’S NOTE: Tennessee played this team just over three weeks ago and little about them has changed. Most of what’s written here is from the first preview

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT South Carolina (13-8, 4-5 SEC, #100 KenPom)
(6-14, 4-12 SEC, #124 KenPom 2020-21)
LOCATION Colonial Life Arena
Columbia, SC
TIME Saturday, February 5
1 PM ET
CHANNEL CBS (!)
ANNOUNCERS Kevin Harlan (PBP)
Jim Spanarkel (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: Tennessee -8
Torvik: Tennessee -7.1

Tennessee is looking to build off of a surprising shootout win over Texas A&M and has quietly looked better offensively the last couple of weeks outside of a Texas horror show. South Carolina is…just looking, I think. This is typically the time of the year the Gamecocks pull off a variety of College Crap wins over teams that are much better than them, but I don’t know that they’ve got that same juice this year; they enter at 4-5 with about a 65% shot at entering next Saturday 4-7 and are projected to finish 7-11 in SEC play.

For some reason this game is on CBS, which is amazing news because you get Kevin Harlan and Jim Spanarkel on the call, two of the best.


South Carolina’s offense

A little worse than last time out, when they were at least a top-200 unit. All of my complaints about this being a truly unwatchable offense have been amplified as of late. Hooray! Tennessee held this offense to 0.657 PPP in the first meeting in part because the Gamecocks turned it over on 33% of possessions and took tons of awful shots. The best South Carolina offensive performance in SEC play was against Georgia at 1.125 PPP; Georgia gave up 1.21 PPP at home to ETSU. If you think Tennessee is hard to watch, South Carolina is torturous. The funniest thing about it is that CBS knew before the season began that South Carolina’s offense has been terrible for a decade and still picked this game!

Also:

Oof. Carolina hasn’t even played Kentucky or LSU yet.

This year’s leading scorer, by way of being the oldest guy on the team, is Erik Stevenson (11.2 PPG). Stevenson is one of three players on the roster with more than seven made threes this season, which is nice. I wouldn’t call Stevenson good at creating his own shot – he’s currently posting a cool 31.4% eFG% on off-the-dribble jumpers and only has 23 rim makes this year – but he can at least shoot, which is something. Most off-ball screens the Gamecocks run are for Stevenson.

Other guys of interest: Jermaine Couisnard is somehow still here. Couisnard comes off the bench, but is third on the team in scoring at 10.1 PPG and is an efficient three-point shooter at about 36%. That’s useful on a team that doesn’t take or make many threes. The problem is that Couisnard remains a turnover machine, almost touching a 27% TO% as an individual this season. The guy can shoot, but if you ask him to dribble at all, it’s a huge win for your defense.

There are three other players worth noting. Wildens Leveque (7.9 PPG) would be my main reason to watch this team on a nightly basis if I had one. Leveque is very much not a jump shooter and isn’t good at creating his own shot, but he’s been hyper-efficient at the rim (76.9% on 52 attempts) and is really good at knowing when to cut to the basket. One change worth noting: Leveque has been kind of terrible since he first played Tennessee, scoring a total of 25 points in SoCar’s last seven games.

James Reese V (10.9 PPG) should probably be Just a Shooter because he’s sitting at 38% from three, and the danger with him is that he’s equally solid in catch-and-shoot and pull-up situations. He’s South Carolina’s new #2 scorer after being #4 in the first game and has started hitting lots of mid-range twos. Devin Carter (8.3 PPG) uses more possessions than anyone not named Stevenson, but is posting a 43.1% eFG% and is 21-for-73 on everything that’s not a layup or dunk.

CHART! The official Chart Guide is now as follows (and yes, South Carolina plays 12 guys):

Yes: “Be afraid.” 😬
Somewhat: “They can hit this but not very efficiently.” 🤔
No: “Either never attempts this shot or is atrocious at making it.” 🥳

South Carolina’s defense

A little bit better than last time out, in that they’re now a top-30 unit. South Carolina, as a concept, is in a loose group of teams I’m calling the Cringe Posters. To qualify, your offense must rank 200th or worse while your defense must be a top-30 unit. Congrats to South Carolina, San Diego State, and VCU for Cringe Posting.

Like the offense, the patterns are pretty much always the same: a healthy amount of blocked shots, lots of forced turnovers, but little in the way of defensive rebounding and an insane amount of fouling.

Starting down low and working our way out: the rim. Synergy ranks the South Carolina defense in the 93rd-percentile in around-the-basket defense, and play-by-play stats have them 66th-best nationally, now a bit ahead of Tennessee. Carolina has a switch-heavy defense that spends most of its time in man but can bust its way to a 2-3 zone look at times:

I wouldn’t be shocked to see this simply because we already saw it for about 10-15 possessions last year when the two played. Anyway, the rim protection is pretty legitimate. Carolina’s best shot-blocker is Keyshawn Bryant, who comes off the bench, but they play a wide variety of guys at the 4 and 5 (literally nine different guys have logged significant time in the last five games in the frontcourt), all of whom seem fairly capable at making life difficult. The most fearful, by my standards, is Leveque.

The problem is that Leveque, Bryant, and nearly everyone in the frontcourt foul like crazy. The Gamecocks commit more fouls than all but eight teams in college basketball. The odds of you getting to the free throw line increase immensely if you get an offensive rebound, post up any of their bigs, or produce a well-timed basket cut.

So yeah, no wonder they play a billion guys down low. South Carolina’s been excellent at stuffing twos, but when you foul as often as they do, the risk/reward of this gets a little fuzzy. Frank Martin’s defense is hyper-aggressive for 40 minutes every single night. This produces a ton of turnovers, particularly in ball-screens and in isolation, but it leads to a lot of reaching, jumping, overexcitement, etc.

This is why they should build a Mike Schwartz statue at Thompson-Boling Arena. Tennessee is also hyper-aggressive, but they foul half as often. South Carolina is a whirling dervish of feast-or-famine. When it works, great; when it doesn’t, well, you’ll be pleased to know they have a poor Guarded/Unguarded rate (51/49) and have gotten torched from three by a few teams.

This is a defense that wants to produce variance. Whether or not this is upsetting to you probably depends on whether you’ve watched this season of Tennessee basketball.

How Tennessee matches up

The last time Tennessee played South Carolina, I noted that I was pretty annoyed by who Tennessee was letting take catch-and-shoot threes and begged for Josiah-Jordan James to find a different shot he might like more. Since that game, Josiah-Jordan James is 8-for-15 from three, so please note that you should not listen to anything I do or say.

In the first game between these two, Tennessee found most of its offensive success inside the perimeter, whether it was guards running off of screens or John Fulkerson wobbling about in the post. Tennessee’s rotational shifts since then could complicate the latter, but the former is still a pretty reasonable ask. In particular, Zakai Zeigler was the best player on the court in the first battle these two had. Zeigler seems to improve every week; asking him to continue attacking the rim like his hair is on fire makes for a very fun viewing experience.

The other thing: you’ll have to create open threes, which I think Tennessee is reasonably good at against teams that are not coached by Chris Beard or Chris Beard’s right-hand man. Tennessee went 7-for-21 from deep in the first meeting but frankly got pretty unlucky; 14 of their 16 catch-and-shoot attempts didn’t have a defender within four feet of the shooter. Tennessee did go 6-for-16 on these, and it gives me confidence that even if South Carolina adjusts their coverage Tennessee could still exploit it pretty well. So: why not feed your hottest three-point shooter in Josiah-Jordan James? (Or a variety of other options.)

Defensively, Tennessee forced a very even shot split in the first game: 16 rim, 14 mid-range, 19 threes. South Carolina couldn’t even hit 50% of their attempts at the rim and were fairly hopeless everywhere else, but the fear of game-to-game variance is always going to be there. To their credit, the Gamecocks did just shoot 9-for-19 against a top-40 Texas A&M defense. I think Tennessee’s a lot better on defense, obviously, but it’s not crazy to imagine a scenario where South Carolina hangs around for long enough to annoy you.

I would be surprised if Tennessee forces quite as many turnovers as they did in the first game simply because Carolina hasn’t topped 24% TO% in a game since. So: you have to play quality shot defense and rebound. My honest first thought with the Gamecocks is “let them shoot” because they’re in the 11th-percentile in America in half-court jumper efficiency. Let them shoot. Guard it, obviously, but I’m not gonna sweat if they’re taking guarded threes or long twos.

This could very easily turn itself into a game where neither side touches 70, but I thought that about the A&M game, too. Let’s see what happens.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: Role is algorithmically-determined by Bart Torvik. MPG is minutes per game. PPG/RPG/APG/Fouls/Twos/Threes are what you’d guess. USG% is the percentage of possessions a player uses on the court. OREB%/DREB% are your available rebounds usurped. Finally, PRPG! is Bart Torvik’s Points Over Replacement metric; the higher the better. If you’re on mobile, zoom in; if on desktop, right click -> Open Image in New Tab.

Three things to watch for

  • Threes. Threes! Tennessee made 11 against Texas A&M, and quietly, it seems like they’re making a resurgence. In the last six games, Tennessee has made 10+ threes in four. The positive regression everyone’s been begging for seems to be here; if Tennessee makes 11 in this one I’m not sure what Carolina’s path to an upset is.
  • Who wins the shot volume battle? This is #6 at #30 in defensive TO%, #35 at #26 in OREB%. The path to a Carolina win involves them having at least a 4-5 possession edge in TO + OREB margin.
  • Do we get an explanation why this is on CBS? It’s very strange that they picked this one for CBS distribution back in August and not…you know, Tennessee vs. An NCAA Tournament Team. Excited to hear Harlan’s voice, though.

Key matchups

James Reese V vs. Santiago Vescovi. Reese has become South Carolina’s most reliable player in the last month; Vescovi has done the same for the Vols. Reese was the difference-maker in the Texas A&M + Vandy wins, as those are the only games this year he’s gone for more than 15 points. Keep him under 15 and limit his impact.

Erik Stevenson vs. Three Players. Stevenson will get covered by a lot of guys because Tennessee gives all of Powell/JJJ/Vescovi serious time at the 3, but also because Stevenson spends a lot of on-court time flying around off-ball screens. I’d prefer to not let him get loose.

Wildens Leveque vs. Uros Plavsic. I guess Plavsic is still starting, but this is probably Nkamhoua’s matchup by game’s end. Either way, Leveque has stopped providing much of an impact on O but is still really good on D. Leveque has finished seven games this year with 4 or 5 fouls, and when he’s off the court, Carolina doesn’t force as many TOs and fouls more frequently.

Three predictions

  1. Both teams block 4 or more shots;
  2. South Carolina has a possession with multiple offensive rebounds that results in zero points and feels incredibly deflating;
  3. Tennessee 71, South Carolina 63.

Local Basketball Team Plays Game, Does Thing

January 11: #22 Tennessee 66, South Carolina 46 (11-4, 2-2 SEC)
January 15: #18 Kentucky 107, #22 Tennessee 79 (11-5, 2-3 SEC)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Normally these come out on Mondays, but my weekend became a lot more free because a family member has COVID (with mild symptoms) and I am quarantining in a bedroom watching my cat stare at birds. So, here’s the recap.

Well, here you go.


The great thing about somehow managing to produce the program’s best-ever defensive performance against an SEC opponent in the KenPom era (2001-pres.) followed hilariously by the literal worst defensive performance against any opponent is that it pretty much blows up whatever narrative you want to run with. Tennessee’s only hope to go far in March is defense? Defense just got Hamburger Hilled by a team that had zero wins over top 25 teams. Tennessee puts up 11 threes on a Kentucky defense that only gave up 10+ once prior to that game? Doesn’t matter because you lost by 28. Kentucky hit a billion jumpers after years of not doing so? Feeds into the narrative of one head coach being willing to make changes.

When everything is nice and tidy and narrative-friendly, you get something easy to write about, like…I don’t know, last weekend. Or most weekends. Tennessee has gotten pretty good at running out the same narratives, the same supposed “issues,” the same public criticism of basketball players. The only fun twist on this one is that they did at least cover the KenPom spread against South Carolina, so that was nice. I guess. They also had some bench players have good offensive moments against Kentucky, and that’s always cool. I like when guys who don’t get much shine get an opportunity to do so and take advantage. Maybe this leads to a Brandon Huntley-Hatfield renaissance, which would be really exciting. I mean, I doubt it, but it would be exciting.

I don’t know. People seem to like my writing on Tennessee basketball, so consider this a post about Tennessee basketball. Might as well keep doing it.


The positive side of this is that Tennessee’s February still looks relatively tidy. Sure, they just got carpet-bombed by a ruthless man who saw that he was tired of losing last year and did something to fix it, but that doesn’t change the fact they’re currently going to be favored in nine, and possibly ten, of their final 10 games. The prospect for a great run to the finish to rescue what’s been kind of a sad start to SEC play is certainly there.

And, along with that, Tennessee does have some upside to play out the back half of this month with. They’ll get LSU and Florida at home and should be favored in both, while a road win at Vanderbilt suddenly will count as a Quadrant 1 victory if they make it happen. The road Texas game is more a luxury than a necessity (though Chris Beard seems to be struggling in a similar fashion to Tennessee), but if they finish this month going 3-1 over the next two weeks with any three wins of the possible four, they’ll add no less than two Quadrant 1 victories to their resume.

And as annoying as I’m sure it is to hear this, Tennessee’s most likely outcome is indeed 3-1. 2-2 is slightly behind that, but 3-1 is the expectation. Tennessee, as of the time of writing, still sits inside the KenPom top 15. They’re still a pretty good team. Even pretty good teams receive a destruction or two from time to time for the simple reason that they’re closer to the 40th-best team than they are the 5th. That’s kind of the nature of college basketball: on your best nights, everyone loves you; on the worst, you look like road kill that keeps getting hit by various distracted dads driving home from the CVS.

So, sure, lots of season to go. That’s nice. Tennessee will probably still finish this season as either the 4 or 5 seed in the SEC Tournament. I would personally prefer to be the 4 because playing either Missouri or South Carolina to make the quarterfinals is pretty much completely pointless, but I guess it’s not a huge deal. You beat one or the other by 18 and you move on to the next round.

And then you can get to March, where Tennessee is probably a 4 or 5 seed (yes, I’m being serious). You’re probably favored to win one game, then the second is a coin-flip. Maybe you make the Sweet Sixteen and maybe you don’t. We’ll see. That’s a couple of months away. All you can control is the present.

The present is this: Tennessee is 11-5, below .500 in the SEC, and just got ran off the court by their only real basketball rival. They are objectively a good basketball team, but when you lose by 28 to Kentucky and couldn’t pull off a single great road win when you had three huge road opportunities, fans are gonna skip right past the first seven words of this sentence and revisit “11-5, below .500 in the SEC.” I am writing this on Saturday; Tennessee probably won’t be ranked on Monday. Whatever, who cares, it’s the AP Poll. Tennessee can do the thing they usually do where they leave Vandy devastated after a close win on Tuesday and attempt to make things right on Saturday.

There’s still two months left of basketball to fix how this feels. The problem is that a healthy amount of people who follow me online see “there’s still two months left of basketball” and are feeling their eyeballs roll back in their heads, because it means you still have to watch this very-flawed team play basketball. I guess I’m still in the “wait until March” camp, but when the head coach has literally the third-most underwhelming NCAA Tournament resume of any active HC, I’m not sure what there is to wait for.


In October, my imagination was that this Tennessee men’s basketball team was one of the 15 or so best in college basketball and would probably make the Sweet Sixteen. At the same time, I imagined the Nashville Predators were no more than either the worst playoff team or the best non-playoff team in the NHL.

The Predators spent this offseason tearing up a good bit of the fabric that made up the 2017 Stanley Cup Final participant, easily the most successful team in franchise history. Ryan Ellis, very good defenseman they’d invested millions of dollars in, was shipped to Philadelphia for scraps. Viktor Arvidsson, Energizer Bunny, went to LA for a couple of picks. Franchise cornerstone Pekka Rinne retired. Calle Jarnkrok was extracted via an expansion draft. Nashville’s big offseason investments were a new backup goaltender and a couple of depth pieces.

On paper, the team they assembled was marginally worse than the one that just barely squeaked into the playoffs in a 56-game season. I personally expected very little; even a playoff bid was likely to result in a whooping at the hands of Colorado or whoever. I have watched this team for 20 years now and feel like I’ve got a decent bead on which way the wind is blowing. Nashville was firmly committed to making sure there was no wind of any kind. They were simply hoping to keep being a fringe playoff team when a lot of people (me included) simply wanted a rebuild.

Three months later, I am quite pleased that their ultimate decision was “let’s keep going.”

The Predators are on pace for 107 points. Whether that holds remains to be seen – I’m personally expecting 100-102 – but even a 101-point season would be enough to be a top-three divisional finish in every year and a top-two divisional finish in many. The NHL’s shift to the first two rounds being almost entirely inter-divisional (with wild card series being the variable in this mix) means that Nashville, as long as they finish in the top three, receive the pleasure of facing someone they’ve already faced a bunch in the regular season.

Juuse Saros is an every-night watch, stopping approximately 87 shots every time he takes the ice. Tanner Jeannot leads all rookies in goals and fights won. Filip Forsberg is at a crossroads in his career with regards to his time with Nashville, but he’s scoring like crazy. Matt Duchene appears to care. Roman Josi remains amazing. Alexandre Carrier is a delight. Mikael Granlund is enjoying his second wind. Most players on this team are players I feel positively about; even Luke Kunin, who hasn’t played up to expectations, had a couple of goals against Colorado. I look forward to watching every Predators game like a teacher looks forward to summer. It’s 2.5 hours of comfort, win or lose, and the wins feel better and better every time.

This is a long way of saying that I checked my sports calendar for the week ahead and saw this on Tuesday:

And my first thought was “alright, Bally Sports it is.”

Both of these seasons are very long. Right now, Nashville is overperforming wildly according to my own expectations. Technically, Tennessee is essentially right in line with what I expected in October, but the path they’ve taken to get there has caused more frustration than relaxation. These two narratives could completely flip come April, and considering Tennessee basketball has led to more monetary income than the Nashville Predators have, I guess I would be fine with that.

But maybe, just maybe, Tennessee uses that 9 PM tip on a Tuesday in a nightmarish arena to make things right. Maybe the Predators beat a mediocre Canucks side, too. That would be nice, because I would like to keep pace with the Avalanche and Wild. They’ve got a bunch of COVID games to make up, while Nashville doesn’t. Plus, Bridgestone Arena has normal dimensions that don’t rile me up every time I look at it.


The good news about that list of the most underperforming NCAA Tournament coaches in college basketball is that Tony Bennett is on it. Bennett’s appearance is aided by a few different early exits, but everyone knows the most famous one to a 16 seed. The cool thing about Bennett and Virginia is that they saw what happened, fixed several things about their offense, then turned into a machine that utilized all of their built-up good luck to bring home a national championship for the first time in 35 years.

Jamie Dixon is the other. Undoubtedly, Dixon underachieved at Pittsburgh given what he could’ve done in March, but he made an Elite Eight and was one layup away from Pittsburgh’s first and only Final Four since 1941. He had a long, sustained run of excellence at Pittsburgh, and the best argument for his continued employment as their coach despite the March issues is that Pittsburgh’s been utterly horrid since he left.

March is a very strange month where a lot can happen. To get to March, you have to complete January and February first. What’s happened so far can both be in line with expectations and a little disappointing because you know this roster could’ve beaten either Alabama or LSU. (No one was beating Kentucky if Kentucky is shooting that well on mid-range twos and threes. Tennessee had a bad defensive day, but it wasn’t that horrible; Kentucky really did get lucky on several shots.)

Tennessee has a huge week ahead. Vanderbilt is one thing; LSU is another. If the next recap is about a team that went 2-0, I imagine it will be happier and you might have fewer deviations from the topic at hand. If it isn’t, get ready for a 2,000-word article where 1,400 are about the 50+1 ownership model in German football, because writing about that is pretty interesting and fun. The Seagulls Moment has passed; Tennessee now has to put up or shut up. For the sake of this blog, it would be nice if they did the former, not the latter.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: South Carolina, Part One

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT South Carolina (10-4, 1-1 SEC, #101 KenPom)
(6-15, 4-12 SEC 2020-21)
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME Tuesday, January 11
6:30 PM ET
CHANNEL SEC Network
ANNOUNCERS Tom Hart (PBP)
Dane Bradshaw (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -15
KenPom: Tennessee -14

Torvik: Tennessee -13.9

Well, at least this one is an early-ish tip at home. South Carolina has done the thing they always do every single year: produce fragrant garbage in non-conference play (losses to Coastal Carolina, Princeton, blown out by Clemson) to go with one decent win (UAB) before rounding into form in SEC play to somehow scrape to .500 while you attempt to figure out if they’re good or just playing a trick on you. Or at least I’m assuming that’s the case.

In non-COVID times, South Carolina has gone 10-8, 11-7, 7-11, 12-6, and 11-7 in their last five SEC seasons. That’s pretty good! Exactly one of those teams ranked inside the KenPom Top 50 at season’s end: the one that somehow became a good offense for four games in March. This is the exact type of program that you know isn’t a serious threat but you also know will provide you 35 minutes of frustration regardless of how good you are. Hopefully, that isn’t the case this year.

South Carolina’s offense

The nicest thing you can say about the South Carolina offense under Frank Martin is that they’re trying. What it is they’re trying for is completely lost on me, but the effort is certainly there. South Carolina Basketball: We Are Trying, I Think.

I just don’t have much new to say about an offense that’s the exact same slop it’s been for all 9.5 of Frank Martin’s seasons in Columbia. It’s the least-watchable offense in the SEC by miles, which is a remarkable achievement when you share a conference with Texas A&M, Georgia, and Mississippi. Every year, South Carolina finishes somewhere in the 200s in eFG%, somewhere among the bottom 100 in 3PT%, and never above-average in 2PT%. Martin started to push the pace offensively a few years ago, which has led to more points because there’s more possessions, which is not efficient offense. The new plot twist this year is that they’re turning it over on 22.3% of all possessions, which is a hilariously bad matchup for a Tennessee defense that forces turnovers in bunches.

This year’s leading scorer, by way of being the oldest guy on the team, is Erik Stevenson (11.8 PPG). Stevenson is one of three players on the roster with more than seven made threes this season, which is nice. I wouldn’t call Stevenson good at creating his own shot – he’s currently posting a cool 28.1% eFG% on off-the-dribble jumpers and only has 17 rim makes this year – but he can at least shoot, which is something. Most off-ball screens the Gamecocks run are for Stevenson.

Other guys of interest: Jermaine Couisnard is somehow still here. Couisnard comes off the bench, but is second on the team in scoring at 10.8 PPG and is the most efficient three-point shooter at about 38%. That’s useful on a team that doesn’t take or make many threes. The problem is that Couisnard remains a turnover machine, almost touching a 29% TO% as an individual this season. The guy can shoot, but if you ask him to dribble at all, it’s a huge win for your defense.

There are three other players worth noting. Wildens Leveque (10.5 PPG) would be my main reason to watch this team on a nightly basis if I had one. Leveque is very much not a jump shooter and isn’t good at creating his own shot, but he’s been hyper-efficient at the rim (83.7% on 43 attempts) and is really good at knowing when to cut to the basket. James Reese V (9.8 PPG) should probably be Just a Shooter because he’s sitting at 38% from three, and the danger with him is that he’s equally solid in catch-and-shoot and pull-up situations. Devin Carter (8.6 PPG) uses more possessions than anyone not named Stevenson, but is posting a 41.4% eFG% and is 11-for-46 on everything that’s not a layup or dunk.

Allowing anything more than 0.9 points per possession/65 total points to this offense would be genuinely disappointing. They take more midrange twos than any SEC team that isn’t Kentucky, do not shoot particularly well on anything that’s not a layup…get them out of there. Enough. No more.

CHART! “Yes” means “is efficient at doing so”; “somewhat” means “can, but not efficiently”; “no” means you can be mad. SPECIAL NOTE: I’ve included free throw percentages here upon request. The numbers used are a player’s career FT%, not 2021-22.

South Carolina’s defense

Unfortunately, this unit appears to be very good. South Carolina kind of took a year off of playing their usual hard-nosed defense a year ago due to COVID, but this year, it’s back in full force. Like the offense, the patterns are pretty much always the same: a healthy amount of blocked shots, lots of forced turnovers, but little in the way of defensive rebounding and an insane amount of fouling.

Starting down low and working our way out: the rim. Synergy ranks the South Carolina defense in the 98th-percentile in around-the-basket defense, and play-by-play stats have them 32nd-best nationally, precisely one spot behind Tennessee. Carolina has a somewhat-swap-heavy defense that spends most of its time in man but can bust its way to a 2-3 zone look at times:

I wouldn’t be shocked to see this simply because we already saw it for about 10-15 possessions last year when the two played. Anyway, the rim protection is pretty legitimate. Carolina’s best shot-blocker is Keyshawn Bryant, who comes off the bench, but they play a wide variety of guys at the 4 and 5 (literally nine different guys have logged significant time in the last five games in the frontcourt), all of whom seem fairly capable at making life difficult. The most fearful, by my standards, is Leveque.

The problem is that Leveque, Bryant, and nearly everyone in the frontcourt foul like crazy. The Gamecocks commit more fouls than all but nine teams in college basketball. The odds of you getting to the free throw line increase immensely if you get an offensive rebound, post up any of their bigs, or produce a well-timed basket cut.

So yeah, no wonder they play a billion guys down low. South Carolina’s been excellent at stuffing twos, but when you foul as often as they do, the risk/reward of this gets a little fuzzy. Frank Martin’s defense is hyper-aggressive for 40 minutes every single night. This produces a ton of turnovers, particularly in ball-screens and in isolation, but it leads to a lot of reaching, jumping, overexcitement, etc.

This is why they should build a Mike Schwartz statue at Thompson-Boling Arena. Tennessee is also hyper-aggressive, but they foul half as often. South Carolina is a whirling dervish of feast-or-famine. When it works, great; when it doesn’t, well, you’ll be pleased to know they have a poor Guarded/Unguarded rate (51/49) and have gotten torched from three by a few teams.

This is a defense that wants to produce variance. Whether or not this is upsetting to you probably depends on whether you’ve watched the last three Tennessee basketball games.

How Tennessee matches up

Well, it’s an offense predicated on generating open threes that does seem to generate them well but is doing a poor job of hitting them. Tennessee is shooting just 33.1% on Unguarded catch-and-shoot threes, per Synergy; the national average is generally anywhere from 36% to 38% depending on the season. Tennessee is going to get a lot of chances to take them in this game. Here is my proposal: start giving the right players the right shots.

As of now, here’s how Tennessee’s players rank in catch-and-shoot attempts this season, per Synergy:

  • Santiago Vescovi: 89 attempts
  • Josiah-Jordan James: 61
  • Zakai Zeigler & Victor Bailey, Jr.: 48
  • Justin Powell: 39
  • Kennedy Chandler: 33

So: 109 of Tennessee’s catch-and-shoot attempts have gone to three guys. Those three guys have combined to convert all of 23 of those, or 21.1%. Stop giving Bailey and James chances to take these shots. Instead, why not feed Powell, Chandler, or even Olivier Nkamhoua? Heck, I’d hear out Zeigler, who’s at least 15-for-48. This, more than anything else, would seem to keep the games from being quite as frustrating.

Tennessee will also have to score at the rim this game, and while I’m fine with post-ups against this team, it would be useful to just keep accumulating drives and cuts. Get the experience now, worry about other stuff later. This should theoretically serve as a get-right game. Maybe I’m being too hopeful, but hey, it’s all I can do at this point. In particular, I would get Chandler rolling downhill as frequently as possible in this game. It worked to open up the offense against Ole Miss, and I think it could do similar work here. Plus, with how foul-happy Carolina is, it could serve as a chance for Chandler to rack up easy points.

Defensively…I mean, let South Carolina take any and all of the mid-range jumpers they want to take. That should just be it: run them off the three-point line, ice them before they get to the paint. They’ll take shots at the rim and from three because literally everyone does, but as long as you limit the easy attempts, this really shouldn’t be a difficult job.

The more exciting part of this: the turnovers. No one left on Tennessee’s schedule is anywhere close to South Carolina in terms of how many turnovers they commit on a per-possession basis. Tennessee forces a ton of turnovers in isolation and in ball-screens; South Carolina turns it over a lot in those same situations. I’ve already mentioned Chandler on offense, but this seems like a great chance for him to show out defensively. I’d personally be quite disappointed if Chandler couldn’t find his way to at least two steals in this one. Really, three or four could be on the table.

Get right, get back on track, get out alive.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: MPG is minutes per game. PPG/RPG/APG/Fouls/Twos/Threes are what you’d guess. USG% is the percentage of possessions a player uses on the court. OREB%/DREB% are your available rebounds usurped. Finally, PRPG! is Bart Torvik’s Points Over Replacement metric; the higher the better. If you’re on mobile, zoom in; if on desktop, right click -> Open Image in New Tab.

Three things to watch for

  • Can Tennessee own this game in the first ten minutes? Tennessee, per Synergy, is shooting a disgusting 27% from three in the first ten minutes of games this season. They’ve lost the theoretical first quarter seven times in 14 games. They’ve outscored opponents by just 2.2 PPG in the first 10 minutes of games while beating them by 12 PPG in the final three quarters. Enough. Show up and play like you want to be there.
  • Can South Carolina win a Four Factor? Tennessee is superior in all four: eFG%, TO%, OREB%, and even FT Rate. If Tennessee doesn’t win TOs + OREBs by 7 or more, I’ll be surprised.
  • Who are Leeds signing in the January transfer market? I would like Nico Dominguez from Bologna or similar. Whatever it takes to stay up and keep the PL money coming.

Key matchups

Wildens Leveque vs. either Olivier Nkamhoua or John Fulkerson. I would not be shocked to see Fulkerson on the bench to start this one, frankly. Nkamhoua is a better strength matchup, but Fulkerson will be better at forcing Leveque to the bench with foul trouble. Either way, this is a guy that won’t take up many possessions but will post a few dunks. You can’t let him scare you at the rim on the other end, either.

Erik Stevenson vs. … uhhh…someone at the 3? Tennessee’s starting spot also seems unsettled here, and again, I would rather see Justin Powell get minutes than Josiah-Jordan James right now. Regardless of who gets the nod, Stevenson is SoCar’s main driver of possessions and Tennessee cannot let the guy get loose from three.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee adds to The Discourse™ by attempting 25+ three-pointers;
  2. Tennessee and South Carolina combine for 35+ free throw attempts;
  3. Tennessee 76, South Carolina 60.

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: South Carolina

Firstly, a very happy Ash Wednesday and Lent season to all who celebrate. I can’t wait for the first fish fry.

Secondly, there is a game tonight that was supposed to be played last night. I’m going ahead and letting you all know that, as of now, I have no idea if anyone will be out on Tennessee’s end. I have an idea via some local media hints, but the actual on-the-record announcement will not come until about an hour before tonight’s fixture. Be patient if I refer to a player that isn’t actually playing tonight; I have as much of a clue as you do as to their availability.

Anyway, it really is amazing how much one Final Four run can cover up. Frank Martin has still only made one NCAA Tournament in eight seasons at South Carolina, with this number very likely to grow to one in nine. To Martin’s credit, that’s the same number of NCAAT bids as the Gamecocks had from 1999 to 2012 prior to him becoming head coach, but I think pretty much everyone believed this would be a more successful pairing. Through 8.5 seasons, Martin has fewer 20+ win seasons (two) than Dave Odom (three), hasn’t had an offense rank better than 91st, and, again, has just the one NCAA Tournament run.

But that one run resulted in a Final Four the school will remember forever. It’s amazing how one small sample size can cover up a lot of forgettable moments in the much larger sample size. Fandom is a strange thing.

Game Information:

  • THE OPPONENT: South Carolina (5-9, 3-7).
  • THE TIME: 9 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: SEC Network.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: Tom Hart (PBP) and JON SUNDVOLD!!! (color). The most relaxing voice in the game.
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -11.5.

To move ahead to a different section, click below.

NEXT PAGE: Cities in South Carolina, ranked: 1. Charleston 2. Greenville 3. (void)

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