Catch Me on the Rebound

November 20: Villanova 71, Tennessee 53 (2-1)
November 21: Tennessee 89, North Carolina 72 (3-1)

This is the second in a weekly-ish series of two-game recaps of the 2021-22 Tennessee men’s basketball season.

Two things happened this weekend. The first is that Tennessee escaped the Mohegan Sun Casino, a place that indirectly killed Howie in Uncut Gems, at 1-1 with a loss to a legitimate top 5 team and a 17-point win over a top 5 blue-blood brand. (More on their quality later.) The realistic expectation for Tennessee in this multi-team event was to get at least one win out of the weekend, and they did just that in the manner that the metrics mostly expected. (Though a net point differential of -1 from the weekend is a hair underwhelming in the sense that +5 or so was the KenPom guess.)

The second is that midway through Tennessee’s second game of the weekend, I realized why it even felt mildly relaxing to sit through a pair of high-profile blowouts, one good, one bad.

The average college football game is outwardly expanding in a way that would make 2004 Morgan Spurlock blush. The most recent figure given is 3 hours, 24 minutes, which is nearly a half-hour longer than NCAA statistics say it was in the 1990s. The initial guess here would be “quarterbacks pass more,” which, yes, true, but the average number of incompletions in a given game in 1996 was 23. It’s 20.9 and dropping in 2021. Every first down stops the clock, but that can’t be all of it.

It’s the ad breaks. Per a 2017 Wall Street Journal study, the NFL offers viewers 63 minutes of commercials per game. That’s for a sport with games 15 minutes faster than college football, with much more regulated and precise TV windows and far fewer four-hour affairs. The average Tennessee football game this year has lasted 3 hours, 38 minutes, and even if you remove the obvious outlier of the Mississippi game that number is still 3 hours, 33 minutes. It’s a looooooong time investment even if you aren’t at the game.

Tennessee basketball has played four games so far, all four of which have been on an ESPN product of some sort. Average game time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. No game has cracked the two-hour mark, though the East Tennessee State affair did hit 1:59. You could almost play two basketball games in the same amount of time it takes to play one football game.

This is not demonizing college football viewers or super-fans; like what you like and love what you love. Me, personally, the sensation of watching a 1 hour, 49 minute sporting event that required zero Liberty Mutual commercials and only one truly egregious ad break on ESPN of all channels was wonderful. This could be yours, college football fans! (Just kidding. I know which sport’s the money maker.) Of the ~30 or so college basketball games I have consumed thus far, they have featured a blissfully low amount of car commercials. Even the Car Fox has only made one appearance. I’m doing the “hope this works” prayer circle meme but for this streak of non-commercialized goodness to continue.

Villanova 71, Tennessee 53

Ya ran into a buzzsaw and it is what it is. There are many overly-breathy monologues one could scribe about Tennessee’s nasty offensive performance on Saturday; I think a key one is “the other team played out of their minds defensively.” Of Tennessee’s 30 catch-and-shoot attempts (as listed by Synergy), 28 had a defender within four feet at the time of the shooting action. Tennessee was still unlucky to not hit more than four threes, but, man. The odds of that happening again, particularly with how Florida of all teams appears to be the only other SEC side with a chance of finishing in KenPom’s top 10 defenses, feels low. Sometimes you just gotta tip your cap and move on.

That being said: there were some encouraging things, all of them on defense. Tennessee kind of quietly forced Villanova – a very, very efficient offense – to go 11-for-25 at the rim and 17-for-43 on twos. That’s really good considering you are playing Villanova and not, y’know, ETSU.

Villanova had to take a bunch of difficult shots and attempted more mid-range twos than Tennessee did. If Tennessee even had a bad offensive game, something like 65 points, it wouldn’t feel as stupid as it does.

We have to talk about turnovers again. To Tennessee’s credit, they rebounded well the next day and didn’t have such issues, and along with that, they hadn’t turned it over on more than 16% of possessions in a game before or since. But this has become an oddly annoying Tennessee thing: against the first Actually Good team you play, you lose your brain for stretches of time offensively. These are Tennessee’s PPPs and TO%s against the first Top 40 opponent of the last three seasons:

  • 2021-22: 0.799 PPP, 26.3% TO% versus Villanova
  • 2020-21: 0.869 PPP, 23.3% TO% versus Colorado
  • 2019-20: 0.8 PPP, 29.5% TO% versus Florida State

Considering this didn’t really happen that often prior to 2019-20, I can chalk it up as a blip, but when you’ve built up anticipation for these games and your offense rates out as Violently Clogged Toilet it’s really frustrating.

More drives, more aggression. Tennessee’s offense briefly got out of the mud in the second half when Kennedy Chandler and Santiago Vescovi became notably more aggressive. Vescovi displayed more driving aggression than he had since early in his freshman year; Chandler got unlucky on some rollout layups that made his performance look worse than it was.

Tennessee drove way more the next day against a worse North Carolina defense and they looked unstoppable. I’d also like to note here that Tennessee, excluding the Villanova game, has gone 1.272/1.244/1.204 PPP so far. I’ll freak out about this if it happens against Texas Tech or someone.

Long season! Long season. This is reductive, so whatever, but it does feel like there’s a significant carryover of Football Mindset to basketball season. Every game matters; every loss is bad; (insert team) no longer looks like a Final Four contender, etc. I think every game matters some but no regular season loss is really that important as long as you get something useful out of it. Even this Villanova blowout proved to be somewhat useful because Barnes and staff saw the benefits of more guards on the court. 12 games =/= 30+ games.

Tennessee 89, North Carolina 72

Zakai Zeigler is the Vibes Guy. To the point that I have finally committed to memory it’s Zeigler and not Ziegler. In terms of random emergency late-stage recruits you can grab before a season starts, it’s really hard to beat a hyper-aggressive point guard who is tiny but fast and shoots the ball well out to 30 feet. Visions of Auburn’s Jared Harper have flashed in my brain and I can no longer resist them.

Good Powell, bad Powell. Justin Powell got his first start thanks to Josiah-Jordan James receiving the flu, which is somewhat better than the fate Howie met in Uncut Gems but not by much. I think Powell has to play 20-25 minutes a night but you’ve just gotta get used to the drawbacks: 8 points and a generally good offensive day, but not much a difference-maker defensively and frequently picked on. Through four games, once adjusted for luck, Tennessee is precisely as good when Powell is on as when he’s off, because while the offense is five points better per 100 possessions with him out there the defense is five points worse. This is annoyingly right in line with last year at Auburn; I think that should probably explain why he won’t get 30 minutes a night.

Tennessee Tri-Guard Terror. For the first real stretch of time all season, Tennessee went to a three point guard lineup with Chandler/Zeigler/Vescovi; it was pretty wonderful. Tennessee scored 1.148 PPP over 29 possessions and outscored North Carolina by 4 with the lineup; the reason that wasn’t more is North Carolina went 4-for-9 on threes with them in the game despite most of those being well-guarded.

I would like to see Tennessee continue to try this lineup, and even instituting Powell as one of the 4 would be nice. So far, lineups with three of KC/ZZ/SV/JP have outscored opponents by 27 points over 95 possessions; this weekend, that number was 14 points over 67 possessions. (All other lineups: -15 across 75 possessions.)

If something is all holes, can it still be described as porous? Watching the North Carolina interior defense was a mix of humor and baffle, because I cannot believe a preseason top 20 team is this bad at figuring stuff out.

Tennessee finished 23-for-31 on attempts within 4 feet of the rim, per Synergy, and no opponent since Loyola (MD) has had any issue at all scoring on these guys. I don’t get it.

Pronunciation concerns. Fran Fraschilla elected to be this week’s Main Character for Tennessee fans after claiming he was on the end of mean tweets re: his pronunciation of Santiago Vescovi’s last name. To be fair to Fran, apparently after two full years of Vescovi being with Tennessee, he just now decided that vess-CO-vi isn’t right and it’s actually VESS-co-vi. Fine by me, whatever.

But I kind of couldn’t believe how hung up Fran got on this? He first called Tennessee fans “idiots” for arguing with him as play-by-play guy Jon Sciambi audibly grew uncomfortable, then proceeded to use the second half over-pronouncing VESS-co-vi to the point that he started messing up his own pronunciation of the name, eventually landing on Vess-Kew-Vi a couple of times and some sort of hybrid vescavee that sounded as rushed as it looks once. I would prefer if this is not a feature of Tennessee’s future games because, shockingly, I like when they talk about the game.

If you like the format of these or want to see changes, let me know at statsbywill@gmail.com.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Villanova

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT #5 Villanova (18-7 in 2020-21, Sweet 16 appearance)
LOCATION Mohegan Sun Barstool WynnBET MGM Caesars Made an App Yall Arena
Uncasville, CT
TIME 1:00 PM ET
CHANNEL ESPN News (yes, seriously)
ANNOUNCERS Jon Sciambi (PBP)
Fran Fraschilla (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: pick ’em
Torvik: Villanova -0.1

After a year mostly bereft of preseason tournaments due to COVID-19, they have returned in full force for the most part. Tennessee is participating in the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament, which is confusingly not being held where the Basketball Hall of Fame is (Springfield, MA) or the College Basketball Hall of Fame is (Kansas City, MO) or even where the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame is (Knoxville) but in a casino in Connecticut for…reasons.

To the credit of the tournament organizers, this is the strongest field the BHoFTOT has ever produced. All four participants are ranked among the nation’s top 18 teams in the AP Poll, and pretty much any possible game you could think of is a good one. Tennessee/Villanova is the marquee game of the semifinals: two of the most consistently good programs of the last five years, but with teams that are getting it done in different ways. This is Tennessee’s highest-profile non-conference game since 2018 Kansas; fans are quite reasonably excited about this matchup.

The results produced by both so far are fairly good. Tennessee has two blowout wins over overmatched opponents; Villanova blew out one overmatched opponent, struggled with the other for 30 minutes before winning by 20, and lost to the #2 team in America in overtime, which is one of the most acceptable losses you could have. It’s going to be an excellent basketball game.

Continue reading “Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Villanova”

Revolution Rock

November 9, 2021: Tennessee 90 – 62 Tennessee-Martin (1-0)
November 14, 2021: Tennessee 94 – 62 East Tennessee State (2-0)

This is the first in a weekly-ish series of two-game recaps of the 2021-22 Tennessee men’s basketball season.

I’m still working out how to do these in a manner that makes sense; the goal with these recaps is to essentially replace how I’ve been starting out the How Tennessee Matches Up section in game previews in recent years. Those had sort of become half-recaps half-previews, which achieves 0% satisfaction and doesn’t fulfill the needs of either a recap or a preview. This is an attempt to keep those as separate as possible. I can acknowledge the past without obsessing upon it.

In some ways, that’s how it felt to be in Thompson-Boling Arena last Tuesday. I hadn’t been there for a non-exhibition game since March 2020; I’d attended two public sporting events (Hurricanes-Predators Game 6, as well as a Memphis football game) in the 18 months since. Being near others again in an environment that was promoting joy and excitement felt as wonderful as I’d hoped. Tennessee’s less-than-perfect performance was excusable, simply because it’s like seeing an old friend after a long time apart. One or both of you is gonna stumble a few times; that’s where forgiveness comes in.

Maybe that’s where this starts: happiness with a little bit of forgiveness mixed in. I can forgive the first game jitters, I can forgive some of the fan behavior, I can even forgive it taking longer than normal to produce a popcorn-and-hot-dogs order because it was just a happy place to be. At its best, this is basketball, and basketball is generally always where I’m hoping to be.

Right, yes, the recaps, which start with

Tennessee 90, Tennessee-Martin 62

This felt…fine? Like, think about it this way: Tennessee-Martin hit some shots they normally don’t, shot about what you’d expect from everywhere else, and those shots happened at the same time as Tennessee’s one true cold streak of the game. Was it annoying? Sure. It also meant absolutely nothing by game’s end; if Tennessee had kept the starters in until 0:00 they would’ve won by 35 or more. Speaking of which…

Fan Complaint #1 of 2021-22. You can be too negative online. I would know. Many years of Sports Frustrations have led me to realize I talk about the stuff I dislike more than my likes; I’ve been attempting to combat that lately, but it’s a process. Attending games in-person again helps. Seeing people I know helps. Being able to write these previews and reviews in anything other than COVID times helps. It all feels a lot better than it did in 2020 and it’s nice to report that.

But at some point I think I’m gonna break, and last Tuesday threatened that quite harshly. I attended Tennessee’s home opener and sat in the lower level one section over from the students; probably 15 different times during the night I heard this one guy scream “THIRTY FIVE AND A HALF”. 35.5 is how many points Tennessee was favored by over Tennessee-Martin; I know this because you can’t not know the spread of seemingly any sporting event these days. That’s fine, because it’s useful context. What is decidedly not fine is hearing THIRTY FIVE AND A HALF belched from the gullet of red-faced brain matter into the 71-degree circulated air.

Who wants this? Who needs this? Maybe this is because I haven’t attended a full-capacity sporting event that you can legally bet on in Tennessee since it became legal but it felt kind of overwhelming. THIRTY FIVE AND A HALF screams. Two guys high-fiving because the two teams met an arbitrary number of combined points that represented the over. THIRTY FIVE AND A HALF guy again, because apparently his entire row bet on it as well but blessedly weren’t vocal about it. Maybe I am too old at the ripe age of 28, but I swear there was a time where you just…attended games? And rooted for your team? And generally didn’t care too much about the final margin, unless you love KenPom Time? Maybe this is just something that I, Will Warren, must get used to. It’s plausible that I am the problem here because I don’t bet for reasons I’d prefer to keep private, but…am I?

SEC Freshman of the Year Kennedy Chandler. In some ways, Chandler’s real college debut was nothing surprising; he was basically as excellent as he was against Lenoir-Rhyne in the scrimmage. Maybe writers who cover schools that have done the one-and-done thing for a while are simply used to this. But man: 20 points and 4 assists right out of the gate against anyone just does not compute for me. I don’t have a scale for true freshmen at Tennessee that matches this.

Your minutes leader: Olivier Nkamhoua. On most nights I think this will be Josiah-Jordan James, but on a night where JJJ was simply off, Nkamhoua was pretty great on the boards (14 of ’em) and posted a two steal/two block outing for the first time in his career.

40 threes. 40 threes! Imagine saying that even a month ago: a Rick Barnes basketball team attempting 40 threes. I’m not sure that if the 2020-21 team had played a four-overtime game, they would’ve topped 30.

Tennessee 94, East Tennessee State 62

A little wobble, then hammering down the accelerator. Tennessee jumped out to an early lead, held onto it for most of the way, but did briefly allow ETSU back into it with a 9-2 run that turned a 24-11 lead into 26-20. Tennessee was only (only) a 16-point favorite per KenPom; 26-20 about a third of the way in converts to an 18-point win, but like all rational people, I prefer not sweating to sweating. Apparently, so does Tennessee; 26-20 was 50-23 in record time.

Olivier Nkamhoua Rating: I’m Allowing a Little Bit of Trust But I Need Some Time. You and me, buddy, we go way back to when Rob Lewis at VolQuest said you were the next Grant Williams. This game certainly looked like Grant Williams to me. But I need more than one game against an overwhelmed ETSU team, even if I and most thought said ETSU team would provide a good test. It’s going to take several weeks to get used to Olivier Nkamhoua, Shooter.

The Fulkerson/Nkamhoua lineup is…agreeable. Until it isn’t. Hoop-Explorer says that the shooting splits with both on the court (27 possessions) against ETSU went 36 Rim/20 Mid/44 3PT; all other lineups against ETSU and UT-Martin are 42/17/41. I’m fine with it for now and it obviously worked, but 1) I’m gonna guess that a 50% OREB% is not sustainable; 2) Nkamhoua will need to average over 2 threes per 40 minutes for the spacing in this lineup to work correctly against SEC competition.

5-out basketball has arrived. I’m not totally convinced Huntley-Hatfield has been given a green light on threes yet; he did hit his only attempt against Tennessee-Martin but other than that, jumpers have been basically non-existent. Fulkerson’s not gonna shoot a three. Neither is Plavsic. So it gave me a little spark of joy to see this, even if this possession ended in a turnover:

All ten feet are outside the three-point line. I feel like you could count the number of possessions this happened on in 2020-21 where Pons wasn’t at the 5 on one hand, maybe two. I don’t believe it to be a coincidence at all that, of the 19 possessions so far where Nkamhoua is at the 5, Tennessee’s taken 14 shots and precisely one was a mid-range attempt.

Doberman defense, again. I mentioned in the preview for this game that I was a little underwhelmed by Tennessee’s defensive performance against UT-Martin. This was a nice reminder of the potential they’ve got. ETSU posted 0.82 PPP and spent almost the entire game taking well-guarded threes; 10-for-32 feels pretty fair for the shot quality they generated. The general desire for an offense from a stats viewpoint is for >80% of your three-point attempts to require zero dribbles and >50% of your catch-and-shoots to be deemed Open by Synergy; ETSU’s numbers were 69% and 45% and I thought the latter was pretty generous. It’s a good way to turn a potentially stressful affair into a surprising laugher.

BONUS: Early returns promising. Rick Barnes talked a big game this offseason about how much Tennessee was going to take threes this year. This game was less special in this regard (23 attempts), but I guess it’s a sign of how quickly narratives can shift that 23 three-point attempts felt disappointing. Tennessee only took 23+ threes in six of 25 games last season; for 23 to feel a little light is nice. This is also nice, but very early (look at #17):

I hope we’re seeing a sudden late-career philosophy shift here and would like to believe it. I also have watched Rick Barnes have the same shooting splits at Tennessee consistently for six seasons, so forgive me if my current feelings here are “let’s see it in January.”

If you like the format of these or want to see changes, let me know at statsbywill@gmail.com.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: East Tennessee State

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT East Tennessee State (13-12 in 2020-21)
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME 12:00 PM ET
CHANNEL SEC Network (the cable one)
ANNOUNCERS Roy Philpott (PBP)
Mark Wise (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -16.5
KenPom: Tennessee -16
Torvik: Tennessee -14.4
Over/Under: 136

Tennessee played with their food for about 15 minutes against Tennessee-Martin then ran away with the game; their reward is drawing a projected-to-be-somewhat-frisky East Tennessee State team. ETSU threatened to go off the rails entirely this off-season for Reasons That I Am Being Asked to Not Discuss For Fear of Losing Readership, then Desmond Oliver did his best to keep most of the roster together.

ETSU was projected to lose to Appalachian State by one point and lost by two. With all of the perspective that literally one game gives you, it seems like they’re just interesting enough to provide a decent pre-Villanova test for Tennessee. However, in that one game, they didn’t appear to be too terrific on the defensive front and couldn’t get much going in the paint at all. We’ll see what happens when the rubber hits the road, or whatever the saying is.

Continue reading “Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: East Tennessee State”

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Tennessee-Martin

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT Tennessee-Martin (8-16 in 2020-21)
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME 7:00 PM ET
CHANNEL SEC Network (the cable one)
ANNOUNCERS Kevin Fitzgerald (PBP)
Dane Bradshaw (color commentary)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -35.5
KenPom: Tennessee -35
Torvik: Tennessee -34.3
Over/Under: 152

Tuesday night (which is tonight!), attendees at Thompson-Boling Arena will witness one of the most unique stories in recent college basketball history. Tennessee-Martin is performing a most unusual experiment: every single player on the roster is a newcomer, as all Skyhawks from the 2020-21 team have departed for various reasons. That means Tennessee-Martin returns zero minutes, zero points, zero rebounds, no nothin’. Crazy. They’re the first team to do this since 2014-15 Florida A&M, who went 2-27.

This game will serve as the first real experience for all these dudes in a Martin uniform; meanwhile, this is also the season opener for a post-hype Tennessee basketball team that looked like the top 10-15 quality I’d expected in an exhibition against a Division II opponent and seems like they could have a breakout season the year after everyone wanted the breakout season. Life works in funny ways; hopefully it is not too rude to the Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks.

AFTER THE READ MORE TAG: Will previews the offense by spending time focusing on a player who isn’t even starting

Continue reading “Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Tennessee-Martin”

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Lenoir-Rhyne

GAME INFORMATION

OPPONENT Lenoir-Rhyne (9-7 in 2020-21)
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville, TN
TIME 3:00 PM ET
CHANNEL SEC Network+ (online only, sorry)
ANNOUNCERS Roger Hoover (PBP)
Steve Hamer (color commentary)
Kasey Funderburg (sideline)
SPREAD sicko

Back. Finally. Sort of.

Tennessee takes on Lenoir-Rhyne, which is where Rick Barnes went to college, on Saturday. You will know that he attended Lenoir-Rhyne because the broadcast (featuring Roger Hoover, who I love) is likely to mention this exact point no less than four times in 40 minutes of basketball. It’s hard to give a true estimate on a ‘point’ ‘spread’ here but somewhere in the mid-to-upper 30s feels right.

To be completely honest, this exhibition is less about the game and more a celebration of everyone being back. This will be Tennessee’s first full-capacity indoor basketball game since March 2020; they could have played South-Doyle High School and I would be there in attendance. I’m excited for a new season. I hope you are too.

As a reminder, I outlined some key changes in both this year’s intro post and the season preview (which I think is pretty good). To distill these down to the basics, here’s what to look for:

  • A statistical summary of both the offense and defense Tennessee is facing.
  • When Tennessee isn’t playing a Division II opponent replacing almost its entire rotation, a graphic showing the starting five, some key metrics, and other rotation pieces.
  • Less GIFs.
  • Less words.

Okay. Onto the preview.

AFTER THE READ MORE TAG: hey did you know Rick Barnes went to Lenoir-Rhyne. did ya


Continue reading “Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Lenoir-Rhyne”

2021-22 Tennessee men’s basketball season preview

Finally.

Tennessee basketball is returning. Life is (somewhat) coming back to normal. You can attend a full-capacity game at Thompson-Boling Arena, just like you’ve been able to attend a full-capacity outdoor sporting event for the last couple of months. It feels okay to head back in after the longest winter we’ll hopefully ever live through. And I think I’m speaking for a lot of people here when I say: finally.

Finally, of the 14 scholarship players on this Tennessee roster, nine will be able to play games in front of a full-capacity crowd for the first time. Finally, we will all get to enter Thompson-Boling Arena on cold January nights again without roughly 15,000 of us being rejected at the door. We can see a top 15 team in person again. We can watch a team grow over the course of 30-plus games. We can see the students do silly things. You can get a big popcorn for $27 or thereabouts. It’s not totally normal yet but it’s close enough to normal that I’m gonna grab it and hold onto it. It’s all I can do.

The thought of experiencing People again sort of continues to push me forward on this 2021-22 track. Undeniably, more than a few Tennessee fans reading this watched the 2020-21 season, felt serious disappointment, and are collectively wondering what the big deal is. Five-star freshman? Did that last year, turned into a mish-mash offense. John Fulkerson’s back for a 19th season? Would be happier if he hadn’t declined in 2020-21. Tennessee has a better overall roster construction? Rick Barnes is still going to convince them to take 14 mid-range jumpers a game.

If you do this, it is obviously understandable. Year Seven of Rick Barnes is upon us, and all the good he has brought Tennessee brings frustrations with it. No coach is perfect. The coaching flavors of the month all eventually reveal themselves to have flaws. Barnes has his. His offense is very much influenced by 2000s/early 2010s basketball, pre-Morey revolution; he’s a bit conservative on trusting players in foul trouble; his sustained success in March is, shall we say, flimsy.

Yet Rick Barnes has won 727 more games than any of us have. He is, at worst, the second-best head coach Tennessee has had in the last 40 years of the program. The defense has twice been spectacular and almost always been pretty good. The offense has been good before and reasonably has the pieces to be good again. And, to be honest, after a year-and-a-half of COVID living, it feels sort of pointless to have anything other than true and real Hope for a new season with new players and no capacity restrictions.

I can’t help but hope. Things can reasonably be different. Perhaps the offense features more analytically-friendly shots and less of the “33% two-point shooter takes five mid-range jumpers” variety. Maybe Tennessee goes all in on winning the shooting and turnover battles. Maybe – just maybe – Tennessee breaches that second Elite Eight or even their first Final Four. It’s about to be November. Anything is possible. Let the hope flow through you. It’s better than the alternative.

Over the following pages, I’m going to try to answer seven reasonably important questions surrounding this 2021-22 Tennessee squad, two per page, except for the final one that gets its own:

  1. What is the realistic floor and ceiling for this team?
  2. Will Rick Barnes shift his offensive system to fit the newcomers, both transfers and freshmen?
  3. What are realistic expectations for these newcomers?
  4. Can the defense sustain its level of 2020-21 excellence with so many new pieces?
  5. What are the best lineups, both offensively and defensively?
  6. How deep does the rotation need to be, and which players are most likely to be in it?
  7. How does the schedule break down for Tennessee, and what are realistic expectations for fans to have?

I hope the answers are, at worst, somewhat satisfactory.

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Eight Games, Pt. 8: Ghost Town

The 2018-19 Section Where I Go “Remember This?” 20 Times

March 2018 represented heartbreak. November 2018 represented new hope. Tennessee opened the 2018-19 season #6 in the AP Poll, their highest-ever preseason ranking. Even the 2007-08 season didn’t have *quite* this much hype, though this could obviously be influenced by social media existing versus mostly not existing 11 years prior. There were a few big questions to answer, though:

  1. Would Tennessee’s defense be as excellent as it was a year ago?
  2. Could Tennessee’s offense get over the hump of poor two-point shooting?
  3. Lastly, could a third star emerge alongside Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield?

In the hopes of finding out the answer to this relatively early, Rick Barnes crafted a tricky non-conference schedule: neutral-site dates with Louisville (future NCAAT 7 seed), Kansas (#2 in AP Poll at time of game), and Gonzaga (#1) while also tossing up a road date with…Memphis, under new head coach Penny Hardaway. To get to these, Tennessee had to take care of business against lesser competition first.

That first week of basketball – Lenoir-Rhyne, Louisiana-Lafayette, Georgia Tech – was just three straight games of “easy enough.” Tennessee was never seriously challenged by any of the three, winning by 45, 22, and 13; there was nothing serious to worry about yet. The first tests would come in Brooklyn over Thanksgiving break.

At the time, Louisville was seen as a fringe-NCAAT-at-best team under first-year head coach Chris Mack. Which made Louisville giving Tennessee a brutal battle for 32 minutes quite frustrating. Louisville went 11-for-28 from three, Tennessee couldn’t find a ton of shooting beyond the arc early to respond, but finally, they got over the hump. A 17-2 run took it from 68-68 to 85-70, Tennessee.

Then came #2 Kansas. Any time you’re playing the #2 team in the country at a neutral site, you’d generally label this as a “nice to have” game. Not Tennessee. They came out and forced 16 turnovers, equaled Kansas on the boards, and hit two more threes than Kansas. At one point, Tennessee even led 47-38 with 15 minutes to go. Unfortunately, there were 15 minutes to go. Kansas came back, but this still went to overtime…which led to Grant Williams fouling out and Tennessee having to run out a short-handed lineup. Kansas attempted 17 more free throws despite roughly the same amount of action near the basket; Tennessee fans figured if this was played again, they’d have a great shot at a victory.

A pair of interesting storylines began to arise during this time period. After a 28-point demolition of Eastern Kentucky the next week, Lamonte Turner suddenly was ruled out for the next game. He didn’t reappear for Tennessee until SEC play started. It was officially titled a “nagging shoulder injury,” which one hopes would simply go away over time. In the meantime, Tennessee had to go to Arizona to play the #1 team in the nation – Gonzaga – with a seven-man rotation missing its most confident player.

Tennessee’s odds weren’t wonderful, but you simply hoped it would be a good game that Tennessee could steal at the end. It certainly looked that way early. Tennessee jumped out to a 17-8 lead, led 34-33 at halftime after a half-closing 7-0 run, and stayed in contention for most of the second half. At a certain point, though, Gonzaga just became too powerful. A 52-50 deficit turned into 64-55 by way of three consecutive Gonzaga threes, all from Zach Norvell, Jr. Per KenPom, Tennessee had just a 7.3% chance of winning with 6:15 to play.

They needed contributions, fast. Two huge ones came; the first was Jordan Bowden. 28 seconds after Gonzaga made it 64-55, he cut it back to six with a three. 43 seconds later, the lead was now three points.

Tennessee began scoring quickly, something they almost never did the season prior. The offense was humming despite Turner’s absence. Five consecutive Tennessee possessions ended with a made shot. With 3:18 to go, Admiral Schofield tied it with his 22nd point of the game.

Immediately after this, though, Grant Williams committed his fourth and fifth fouls in a 19-second span. It was a brutal way to go out for a guy who’d had a fantastic statline: 16 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists. While John Fulkerson was an okay bench option at the time, it wasn’t like Tennessee was exactly dying to replace the SEC Player of the Year with him. Tennessee would have to do something Rick Barnes wasn’t generally used to: go small, or something like it, for the final three minutes of the game. All of Tennessee’s options 1-4 were 6’6″ or shorter; only center Kyle Alexander, who was 6’11”, was a true frontcourt player.

I guess they could’ve put pretty much anyone out there with Admiral. It wouldn’t have mattered, really; this was his game. With Turner sidelined, it was Admiral who suddenly looked like the most confident player in the gym. He completely took over Tennessee’s offense with the game on the line. He hit a mid-range jumper to make it 71-70. Then he’d hit a three to make it 73-71, Tennessee. After Rui Hachimura tied it with free throws, there were 24 seconds left on the clock. Schofield took one final shot:

And could’ve walked out of the gym right there. Gonzaga missed a pair of threes on the other end, and Tennessee had done it: #7 Tennessee 76, #1 Gonzaga 73. Schofield took home the final 11 points of this game, capping a 25-point second half and 30-point performance. He also produced this incredible photo.

Almost as important as the win itself, obviously. From there, Tennessee began rolling opponents: a 102-92 win over Memphis the next Saturday that wasn’t as competitive as that sounds, followed by three straight (13, 19, and 43 points) over overmatched non-conference competition. The first SEC game was against Georgia, who entered with an 8-4 record and a moderate amount of juice. That was drained in record time in the worst beatdown I have personally witnessed in Thompson-Boling Arena.

Tennessee’s hype began to shoot through the roof. They demolished Missouri on the road by 24. A Florida game that was close for 39 minutes turned into a double-digit win in the 40th. They posted 106 on Arkansas. Finally, on a January Saturday where the teams ranked #1 and #2 had lost that week, Tennessee had a chance to get their second #1 ranking in school history. They had to struggle with a plucky Alabama team for a long, long time to get it. Thanks to some late heroics by Williams and the returned Turner, Tennessee survived, 71-68.

#1 once again. Just like 11 years ago, their reign at #1 looked like it would last all of one week, and in the most embarrassing fashion possible. Tennessee played at Satan’s School for the Rich Vanderbilt on a cold Wednesday night in January, but this was no ordinary Vanderbilt team. Future lottery pick Darius Garland was lost for the season in non-conference play, and the team had floundered brutally since. They’d lost their first five SEC games, only one of which was close. A home date with the #1 team in the country felt like a nightmare for them.

It turned into what would’ve been a genuine nightmare for Tennessee. Vanderbilt, one of the worst three-point shooting teams in basketball, hit 10 of their 21 attempts. Tennessee, one of the best, went 5-for-20. That alone nearly explained what would’ve been a catastrophic loss for Tennessee. With 1:32 to go, they trailed, 76-70. Tennessee needed energy like they needed air. They got it, in the form of Grant Williams having the best free throw performance (23-for-23) since 1959.

Williams put up 43 points, one of the greatest performances in program history, on a night where only one other player (Jordan Bone) scored more than nine. To this point, this was Tennessee’s worst performance by a mile. And they still won. (Also, this made Vanderbilt fans angrier online than I have ever seen before. A great accomplishment.)

After the season briefly teetered on a cliff, Tennessee rescued it. They won their next six games by double digits and were rarely threatened at all. Instead of the dreaded one-week #1 run, they spent four weeks at the top, tied with Duke for the longest run at #1 of the season. Even Tennessee football fans who were lukewarm at best on the concept of “basket ball” were every-game viewers.

The biggest road game since 2008 took place for Tennessee at #5 Kentucky on February 16. They got ran over by a bulldozer, 86-69. It was, to say the least, quite disappointing. A brutal overtime loss at LSU followed the next weekend. Suddenly, everyone was up in arms again: was this team fake all along? Is basketball the exact same as football where every game is extraordinarily important and you are never, ever allowed to lose?

Tennessee answered these questions in two different ways: firstly, by winning in the most hilarious fashion imaginable over Ole Miss (a game also involving trash being thrown at players)…

And then bringing #4 Kentucky into Thompson-Boling Arena and eviscerating them for 40 straight minutes.

Unfortunately, Tennessee was having their best-ever season at the same time as two other schools (LSU and Kentucky) were also having really good conference seasons. LSU would finish 16-2; Kentucky, 15-3. Tennessee entered their final game of the season, on the road against a very good Auburn team, at 15-2. To put in perspective how unusual this is, the full list of non-2018-19 seasons where three teams finished at 15-3 or better in SEC history is zero. The list of non-2018-19 seasons where three teams finished at 14-4 or better is also zero. In fact, even dating back to when they played 16 games instead of 18, there has never been a season where three teams had three or fewer losses. Only once (1976-77) had two teams potentially finished at 16-2.

Perhaps that’s why it makes sense Tennessee simply couldn’t defeat Auburn that day (an 84-80 loss). People were angry as hell online over this game, perhaps also because of the buildup of the last month and its less-than-ideal results. Tennessee needed more big wins. Luckily, the SEC Tournament, a place where nothing bad has ever happened to Tennessee in its history, came next.

This time, Tennessee was up for the challenge. Just like 2017-18, they beat Mississippi State on Friday night. Unlike 2017-18, their semifinal challenger would be…#4 Kentucky. At 3:30 PM on March 16, a legitimate Game of the Year contender would tip off in Bridgestone Arena.

You may or may not remember that Tennessee trailed for most of the first half but led 36-34 at halftime. Or that the game was within a three-point margin for the first 12 minutes of the second half. That was before a couple of unfortunate things began to happen: Tennessee couldn’t seem to buy a basket, and Kentucky got several favorable foul calls (no way!) that pushed their lead out to 72-64 with 2:58 to play.

It seemed pretty hopeless at this point. My wife (then fiancé) and I had engagement pictures scheduled for 6 PM ET or thereabouts and got in the car. I think almost exactly at the time we turned my car on, Grant Williams hit a three to make it 75-74, Tennessee, with 1:31 to go.

WHAT HAPPENED? In the span of 87 seconds, Tennessee had scored 11 points. Kentucky had completely melted down: two turnovers and a Reid Travis foul, along with poor three-point defense, had swung the door wide open for a Tennessee comeback. Kentucky would get back in front briefly, then Tennessee had their chance to take the lead with 31 seconds left. You’ll be stunned to hear who they turned to to make a big shot when they needed one most.

Tennessee 82, Kentucky 78, my wife and I were 20 minutes late to the engagement photoshoot and everyone completely understood why.

Looking back now, I guess I wasn’t all that surprised that the SEC Tournament had one last kick-in-the-nuts prepared. Tennessee drew Auburn after Florida had defeated 1-seed LSU on Friday. Tennessee simply looked exhausted, both physically and mentally, after their battle the previous day. Tennessee kept it close for a while, but Auburn turned on the jets in the second half and won by 20. It was a huge disappointment, but hey, NCAA Tournament’s around the corner.

Tennessee got a 2 seed, again, and drew 15-seed Colgate (in their first NCAA Tournament since 1996) as their opponent. For 38 minutes, it seemed like Jordan Burns on Colgate was going to be the new Harold Arceneaux; he dropped 32 points and eight threes on a Tennessee defense that just couldn’t slow him down. Colgate as a team went 15-for-29 from deep. Yet it was Admiral Schofield who dragged Tennessee to the second round.

Then Tennessee got 10-seed Iowa in the second round and led by 21 at halftime. It felt very, very over. Until it very much wasn’t. Tennessee suddenly became unable to string together multiple good possessions in a row. Iowa, meanwhile, got to the free throw line 32 times. Tennessee managed to blow what was once a 25-point lead and had to go to overtime to survive despite never trailing once in the game.

What counted, though, was this: Tennessee was back in the Sweet Sixteen. It was just their sixth Sweet Sixteen appearance in the last 40 years. Now, what came next was a date with 3-seed Purdue and a very high likelihood of an excellent game, start-to-finish.

Purdue failed to get this message, I guess. They completely, totally demolished Tennessee for the first 29 minutes, led by 12 at the break, then led 65-51 with 11 minutes to play. Tennessee’s season seemed like it was going to end in a crushing disappointment; the parallels to 2007-08 were being drawn in real time. Most frustrating (though Purdue struggled at this, too) was that Tennessee, one of the best free throw shooting teams out there, turned into a pumpkin: 14-for-28 from the line in this game.

I figure that if you’re a Tennessee fan, you already know everything here. So if you get bored, you can skip ahead. But I think you might enjoy reliving minutes 29-39 a little bit.

Carsen Edwards’ layup with 10:53 to play made the score 65-51, Purdue. They were on pace to touch 90 in regulation, which felt right, because Tennessee’s defense had offered no resistance. Grant Williams’ layup made it 65-53. Then Purdue began a meltdown their fans have seen all too often: six straight possessions with zero points. Meanwhile, Tennessee ripped off five straight scoring possessions of their own: a Schofield three, a Schofield layup, two Bowden free throws, a Turner layup, then to tie it at 65, a Turner three.

The race was on; it went back-and-forth for the entirety of the final seven minutes, where neither team led by more than three. Every massive shot by Admiral Schofield:

Would be answered by a massive shot from Ryan Cline of Purdue.

It would go back-and-forth like this the whole way down, neither team giving an inch. What had looked like a blowout had suddenly turned into one of the five or so best NCAA Tournament games I have ever seen. With ten seconds left, Lamonte Turner drove to the lane and wildly missed a layup. He missed so poorly that you could reasonably call it a pass, one of the most accurate passes of his career:

Then the game ended and everyone went home happy and nothing bad happened ever again. The end.

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Tennessee lost in overtime. You know this. I know this. It was the most heartbroken I think a lot of Tennessee fans have been over the result of a basketball game. They didn’t deserve to go out like that. But basketball, more than nearly any other sport, has that capacity to be cruel. It can break you. It creates a hurt unlike any other hurt. It constantly devises new points of pain.

There’s so much more I had to leave out from this season that makes me smile. Admiral’s eff-you dunk to Kentucky with no time on the clock when Tennessee was up by 19. Grant Williams getting tackled by Naz Reid and somehow not wanting to fight him. The Settlers of Catan stuff. The best offense in school history. The best season in school history. Jordan Bone’s mid-range jumpers. Kyle Alexander’s blocks. The white guys on the bench that got in at the end of blowouts.

You have to let a lot go to be able to find a way forward.

The recovery begins now.

NEXT PAGE: School spirit

Eight Games, Pt. 7: Return to Hot Chicken

Eight Games is a series on modern Tennessee basketball that plots the history of the program from 1997-98 to present (the last 24 seasons). In this series, there are eight chapters, each referring to a specific time period in Tennessee basketball told through the lens of one game in that period. This series runs three times a week in the month of October 2021. You can follow all editions as they’re listed here.

By Tennessee’s standards of traditionally misfiring on anywhere from one to nine candidates publicly before settling on their Break in Case of Emergency hire, this was as smooth as it could possibly get. Donnie Tyndall was fired on March 27 from Tennessee; Rick Barnes was released from Texas on March 29. Pretty much instantly, Barnes rose to the top of Tennessee’s list, and two days later, he was the sixth coach in 15 years for Tennessee basketball.

The last fragment there seems flippant, but it’s noteworthy because at one point in time, Tennessee’s three main sports (football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball) were beacons of stability. From 1974 (Pat Summitt’s first year) to 1989 (Don DeVoe’s final season), Tennessee had two football coaches, two men’s basketball coaches, and one women’s basketball coach. Even through the 2000s, the first two programs were still quite stable: Pat Summitt, of course, coached the Lady Vols from 1974 to 2012, while Tennessee football only had three different coaches from 1970 to 2008.

Basketball, however, sort of portended what was to come for the other major programs at Tennessee. From 1997 (counting Kevin O’Neill’s final run) to now, Tennessee has had seven different coaches try their hand at running Tennessee’s basketball program. In that time, Tennessee has had a legitimately successful run of play. They’ve made 14 of the last 23 NCAA Tournaments (more than all but 23 programs in college basketball), have made six Sweet Sixteens (more than all but 18), and rank out as KenPom’s 24th-best program over the last 25 years.

Think about that for a minute. That’s a lot of consistent success. Yet it’s come by way of seven different coaches, none of which will have seen a seventh season at Tennessee until Rick Barnes begins the 2021-22 campaign this fall. All sorts of ailments have kept promising coaches from lasting longer: a lack of fanbase support; NCAA troubles; a lack of administrative support; more NCAA troubles. In short, Tennessee has badly needed stability for a long time.

All you have to do is look at the university’s supposed flagship program in terms of how important stability can be. After 39 years with three coaches, Tennessee football has seen five coaches in 13 years even before you count various interims and care-takers. Only one coach has made it longer than three years, and it really may be reasonable to say that he’s the most-despised coach in university history.

Barnes came into a very, very unstable situation and knew he needed time. Tennessee was willing to give him more than enough to reform a program from top to bottom.

NEXT PAGE: Big day coming

Eight Games, Pt. 6: Bruised Orange

Eight Games is a series on modern Tennessee basketball that plots the history of the program from 1997-98 to present (the last 24 seasons). In this series, there are eight chapters, each referring to a specific time period in Tennessee basketball told through the lens of one game in that period. This series runs every Monday and Thursday in the month of October 2021. You can follow all editions as they’re listed here.

Cuonzo Martin didn’t really leave Tennessee in the middle of the night like the classic tales go. The news broke while I was in a 12:40 PM English class on a Tuesday; it was something you texted your friends about the rest of the day, and by the time Martin did leave, it was sort of an understandable surprise. A long-term Martin and Tennessee marriage seemed destined to fail. Athletic director Dave Hart clearly wasn’t that interested in spending over his hypothetical budget to keep Martin, and while fans had managed to get behind Martin in March, they had wanted him fired in January and February.

All of this goes to say three things, none of which deserve their own paragraph:

  1. Tennessee was deemed a toxic position to take by national media members;
  2. As such, a coaching search was likely behind the 8-ball before it even started;
  3. I remember driving to my part-time job at a local Catholic school and hearing a caller on local sports radio station 99.1 FM asking if Tennessee could hire Billy Donovan from Florida.

In only its fifth day of the search, Tennessee had seemed to zero in on a candidate they really liked: Louisiana Tech head coach Mike White. At the time, White’s resume was pretty impressive. After an extensive run as an assistant at Mississippi, White took the head coaching job at Louisiana Tech prior to the 2011-12 season. All he did was give a moribund program their longest run of success since Karl Malone was on campus. White’s teams went 18-16, 27-7, then 29-8; all he was missing was an NCAA Tournament bid.

For about 12 hours, Mike White was going to be Tennessee’s next head coach. Then Hart, again, got in the way. He and White seemed to have a disagreement on Tennessee basketball’s budget for White’s assistants. White wanted more money; Hart wouldn’t budge. (White has also said he wasn’t completely convinced he wanted to leave Louisiana Tech yet, to be fair to Hart.) White backed out of the job. Tennessee’s only super-serious candidate to that point was out.

Next up on the list was everyone’s agreed-upon “break in case of emergency” pick: Southern Mississippi head coach Donnie Tyndall. Tyndall also had his own impressive Conference USA run while holding a pair of NCAA Tournament runs from his time at Morehead State, including a fairly infamous win over Louisville. Tyndall had only been with USM for two years, but those two years were quite special: records of 27-10 and 29-7. Tyndall had a reputation for quick, deep turnarounds at programs who were on the cusp of success but couldn’t get over the hump. In theory, you could see where Tennessee was coming from.

Tyndall, with his ultra-thick Michigan accent (memories of “Vals” still ring in my ears), was hired on April 22, 2014. Most everyone was willing to give him a Year Zero: a year where no one cares all that much about wins and losses as long as you fight hard and show progress. Tennessee returned just 27.4% of its minutes from the previous season, one of the lowest rates in all of basketball. Making the NCAA Tournament wasn’t likely; a good season would probably be an NIT bid. The clock had been reset.

Unfortunately for Tyndall, he was resetting his own clock in a different way all during this time. Tennessee seemed to have no idea of this until it was far too late.

NEXT PAGE: Lost dogs and mixed blessings