What matters most in winning college basketball’s closest games?

Sports, in general, lend themselves to classic cliches. The team that continuously wins coin-flip fixtures wants it more. They get the 50/50 plays. Clearly, they have more heart, or perhaps they’re just the more experienced team. Sometimes, we talk about how you can’t let a team like them hang around and how these teams, or players, or coaches, or heck, fans are simply winners. They get it done when it counts.

All of the above are various cliches I’ve heard surrounding close, tightly-contested games. Also, all of the above are cliches I’ve heard across every single sport I watch. The same teams with experience or heart or devil magic seem to exist in all sports, from football to basketball to hockey to European football to curling. They’re everywhere, pervasive at all times, unable to be hidden from. Announcers and sportswriters love cliches like these because they’re narrative-friendly and for the most part, you can’t really disprove them.

How is one supposed to disprove an individual or team having the larger amount of heart, exactly? Do we get postgame MRIs detailing heart girth? Do we get live blood pressure readings in the final moments of a high-leverage situation? Along with that, I’ve never understood how I can say a team didn’t want it more. I mean, I can’t get in their heads or read their inner thoughts. I don’t know if one player is thinking about wanting to take the last shot or throw the final pitch while another is thinking about Arby’s.

Basketball, particularly of the college variety, could be the best testing grounds for all sorts of ideas and philosophies. Are there certain statistical elements that lend themselves to teams winning more close games? Are these elements different in any way from those that decide every other basketball game? Can we actually prove or disprove some of the less airy cliches surrounding basketball’s closeness? I spent a month’s time this offseason diving deep into these questions and more. Whether or not it proves to be of real use, we’ll see.

NEXT PAGE: What defines a close game? What are some of the common stats-unfriendly tropes that can be proven or disproven?

Show Me My SEC Tournament Opponent, 2020-21: Alabama

Well it’s these guys again. I think you may have heard about them over the past two months, perhaps?

It’s worth breaking down just how much has changed since the first and only time Tennessee faced this Alabama team. Heading into January 2, Tennessee sat as the #6 team in KenPom, undefeated and coming off of an absolute destruction of what we thought would be the second-best team in the SEC, Missouri. Alabama was #45, had lost at home to Western Kentucky two weeks prior, and came very close to dropping a mid-December home game to Furman. The Tide had potential, but they didn’t seem to be quite in the same stratosphere as Tennessee at the time.

On March 13, 2021, it’s like everything has flipped. Alabama obviously won that first game, then simply went on to smoke the rest of the SEC (minus Missouri, strangely, and Arkansas) and finished 16-2 in conference play. They’re now #8 on KenPom. Tennessee began to wobble with the Alabama game, fully fell off the table at times, and squeaked out a 10-7 SEC record in one of the most frustrating seasons in program history.

We thought we know a lot in January. We didn’t. The question remaining is this: how much have both teams learned about themselves and each other since then?

Game information:

  • THE OPPONENT: 1 seed Alabama (22-6, 16-2). They defeated 9 seed Mississippi State 85-48 yesterday.
  • THE TIME: 1 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: ESPN.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: Karl Ravech (PBP) and, yes, Dick Vitale (color).
  • THE SPREAD: Alabama -3.5.

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NEXT PAGE: When I have more time, please remind me to write something about how smaller conferences in college basketball mostly do a terrible job of protecting their best teams in the conference tournament. Been on my mind this week!

Show Me My SEC Tournament Opponent, 2020-21: Florida

Hey, look who it is! Didn’t Tennessee just get done playing this team five days ago? Why, yes, they did. What you’ll see below is just about exactly the last preview, though with some small alterations and an attempt to show just how badly Florida was harmed down the stretch by having Tre Mann (their leading scorer in SEC play) unavailable for the game due to a migraine. Florida beat Vanderbilt 69-63 yesterday, if you didn’t see it, with Mann going for 22 points. He is important. So is this game for Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament seeding hopes.

Game information:

  • THE OPPONENT: 5-seed Florida (14-8, 9-7).
  • THE TIME: 30 minutes after Alabama/Mississippi State; most likely around 2:30 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: ESPN.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: Karl Ravech (PBP) and Jimmy Dykes (color).
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -4.5????

Click below to achieve your dreams of drifting ahead to your preferred section.

NEXT PAGE: Did you know Tennessee hasn’t beaten Florida in the SEC Tournament since 1984? They’ve also only played Florida thrice in the SECT since then, but, yeah

How high or low can Tennessee be seeded in the NCAA Tournament?

Somehow, after 17 years of COVID-19 (citation needed), the SEC Tournament will be taking place later this week. Regardless of how everything shakes out, it will simply be great to watch a conference tournament be played again. The sensation of watching a school pull an upset (as long as it’s not against your school) is just about unbeatable.

Tennessee will open their SEC Tournament experience on Friday against one of Florida, Texas A&M, or Vanderbilt. Both KenPom and Bart Torvik agree that it’s around 80% likely to be Florida, but that does leave open the 20% chance that it’s someone else. As such, that leaves open a lot of potential scenarios for Tennessee to work their way through this upcoming weekend. All of these scenarios have serious NCAA Tournament implications, and using Bart Torvik’s amazing TeamCast tool, I’ve tried to work my way through all of the mostly-useful scenarios I could think of.

We’ll go through each scenario one-by-one. I have elected to restrain myself from covering a couple, such as playing a 12/13 seed in the quarterfinals then an 8/9 in the semifinals simply because the odds are so low. (Roughly 2%.) As of this morning, Tennessee ranks out as the top 6 seed (21st overall) on Bracket Matrix while ranking as the second 5 seed (18th overall) on Torvik. It’s only a three-slot difference, and if you feel like adjusting downward using the Matrix average, feel free to. (I’ll include it in parentheses alongside the Torvik projection, simply as a rough approximation of what it would look like by consensus ranking.)

In the meantime, I’m trying to perfect this video step-by-step:

  1. 0-1, quarterfinals loss to either Texas A&M or Vanderbilt

Average outcome, per Bart Torvik’s TeamCast: 6 seed, 24th on seed list (7 seed, 27th on Matrix)

This would obviously be a disaster. Losing to either of these teams is really embarrassing and opens the door for Tennessee to have a really bad seeding outcome. I’ve no interest in falling out of what I’d call the Upset Range (being a 6 seed or better), and finding a way to lose to either the 95th or 129th-ranked team by KenPom would be awful. It’s like losing a home game in non-conference play to Tulsa or someone. Let’s avoid talking about it.

2. 0-1, quarterfinals loss to Florida

Average outcome: 6 seed, 21st on seed list (6 seed, 24th on Matrix)

Also not ideal, though this is much more realistic. Despite playing Florida twice already, Tennessee still hasn’t played a full-strength Florida team, and for 56 of the 80 minutes they’ve played the Gators, they’ve gotten rocked. However, the final 24 minutes of Sunday’s game were the most promising minutes Tennessee’s showed in a game since they defeated Kansas. You’d hope they can build off of that and simply avoid disaster.

3. 1-1, win over Florida, loss to Alabama in semifinals

Average outcome: 5 seed, 17th on seed list (5 seed, 20th on Matrix)

I admit I’m surprised that this would actually boost Tennessee, considering they’re likely to be seeded higher than Florida anyway. That said, gaining a win over a team that will be around a 7-9 seed is never a bad thing, particularly if it’s not a home game. Losing a second time to Alabama would be disappointing, but they are the best team in the SEC, so it’s not like it would be stunning. If Tennessee only gets one win this weekend, this is the best scenario you can dream up. The average outcome is probably a 4 or 5 seed, and it would be hard to see Tennessee falling past a 6 seed.

4. 1-1, win over Texas A&M or Vanderbilt, loss to Alabama in semifinals

Average outcome: 5 seed, 18th on seed list (6 seed, 21st on Matrix)

While it would be nice to avoid Florida, it might not be the best move for Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament seeding. Per Torvik’s simulator, losing to Florida is almost the same as beating a bad Vandy team then losing to Alabama. The win over Vanderbilt does nothing to boost Tennessee’s resume; it’s like having not played a game at all. I’d somewhat rather play Vanderbilt because I greatly enjoy watching Florida lose basketball games, but it might be a bad thing for Tennessee if that happened.

5. 1-1, win over Florida, loss to Kentucky or Mississippi State in semifinals

Average outcome: 5 seed, 18th on seed list (6 seed, 21st on Matrix)

I think this would be the absolute dumbest and most infuriating outcome on the board by a mile. Imagine finally getting to beat full-strength Florida right after watching the SEC’s best team lose to a Kentucky or Mississippi State team that isn’t making the NCAA Tournament. Then, the next day, you lose to that exact team. I think I’d have to log off for a week. And yet: it doesn’t actually appear to be that disastrous? Kentucky and Miss State both would be Q2 losses, which is better than Q3 or Q4. (It would make Tennessee’s Q2 record an incredibly embarrassing 2-3, though.) This exact scenario screams 6 seed to me; it yells “you will be playing VCU on Friday afternoon.”

6. 2-1, wins over Florida and Alabama, loss to Arkansas…

Average outcome: 3 seed, 11th on seed list (4 seed, 14th on Matrix)

Oh my. If you’ve got to lose a game this weekend, this is the path. I have to be honest and say it’s really hard for me to imagine Tennessee getting a 3 seed without winning the SEC Tournament, but this clearly opens the path to a 4 seed and probably no worse than a 5. With this, you’d add a pair of Quad 1 wins, beat a near-certain 2 seed, and your loss would be to the hottest team in the SEC who’s on track for a 2 or 3 seed. It’s not that bad of an outcome…but this would be Tennessee’s third straight loss in the SEC Tournament championship. It would hurt, badly.

…or LSU…

Average outcome: 3 seed, 11th on seed list (4 seed, 14th on Matrix)

LSU seems destined for an 8 or 9 seed, but as we saw a few weeks back, they can get hot at any time and it’s very, very hard to slow their offense down. (Alabama is the only school to consistently do this all season.) I’d still have a hard time seeing Tennessee come out of this scenario at something worse than a 5 seed.

…or a lower seed 

Average outcome: 4 seed, 14th on seed list (5 seed, 17th on Matrix)

I chose both Ole Miss and Missouri for this example; they’re the 6 and 7 seeds, and the 10 and 11 seeds (Georgia and South Carolina) have a combined 2.5% chance of making the title game. This is the most annoying possible outcome out of the “make it to the SEC Championship Game” scenarios, obviously. A loss to either Ole Miss or Missouri probably opens the door back to potentially being a 6 seed, and it definitely eliminates the chance of Tennessee getting any higher than a 4. There’s only a 28.5% chance of one of these teams being in the title game, so it’s unlikely, but if it happens, Tennessee simply has to win.

7. Win the whole freaking thing

Average outcome: 3 seed, 9th on seed list (3 seed, 12th on Matrix)

For this, I used the average among all potential opponents, weighted towards each opponent’s likelihood of making the title game. Using all of these, Tennessee came closest to being the highest 3 seed, and in some scenarios (particularly any scenario involving beating both Florida and Alabama), Tennessee was the lowest 2 seed on Torvik’s TeamCast. This would be amazing for several reasons – being the 4 seed and making it this far; the first SEC Tournament championship since 1979; the reclamation of the last two months of frustrating basketball. Which is why I simply can’t allow myself to believe this is a possibility.

So, yes, Tennessee still could end up as a 3 seed. Or, alternately, a 7 seed is on the table. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, and we’ll simply have to wait and find out what it is.

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Florida (#2)

It’s Sunday, it’s early, and this is the final game of the SEC’s regular season. I’m tired. Super sim to the start of this game, please.

In all seriousness, you don’t really need millions of words about this game. With a win, Tennessee can somewhat salvage this turd of an SEC season by getting the final double-bye in next week’s conference tournament. With a loss, I think I’m moving out to a farm and not thinking about the Internet for a while.

Game information:

  • THE OPPONENT: Florida (13-7, 9-6).
  • THE TIME: 12 PM ET. For some reason.
  • THE CHANNEL: ESPNU. First ESPNU appearance this season!
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: Tom Hart (PBP) and Jimmy Dykes (color).
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -4.5.

Click ahead to get to your preferred section if you’d like.

NEXT PAGE: Please win

Six additional questions answered about Tennessee and mid-range jumpers

If you’re reading this site for the first time, I wrote about 7,000 words on Tennessee’s infatuation with mid-range jumpers last Tuesday and was quite pleased with how it came out. Please read that first before reading this.

I got a lot of great, informational feedback on my mid-range article last Tuesday, and I’d like to thank everyone who responded or shared the piece in whatever way they saw fit. I’ve found myself inwardly cringing every time I see any mid-range jumpshot as of late, which is not a good way to live. In the right hands, the mid-range jumper is a tool that can free up space all over the court for an offense in need of it. If you have multiple excellent mid-range shooters, you’re probably going to have a pretty solid offense on the whole.

The issue, as Tennessee fans have seen this season, is that Tennessee doesn’t really have any. This is not 2018-19, when Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, and Jordan Bone were knocking shots down. It’s been a parade of bad shot selection, frustrating misses, and what looks like a team-wide case of being locked in a mental pretzel. As a fan, it isn’t fun; as a writer trying to make the team sound interesting, it is very annoying.

Anyway, I got several good follow-up questions, and I thought it might be best to devote an article to answering them. No GIFs in this piece, just words; do prepare yourselves for that.

If you’d like to skip ahead to a question, click below. They’re across the next two pages.

  1. Can you clarify some of the data sources?
  2. Are there any other teams that take more or as many mid-range jumpers as Tennessee?
  3. Has *anyone* been great offensively over the last few years taking this many mid-range jumpers?
  4. Has Tennessee been better/worse efficiency-wise in games where they’ve taken a lot/very few mid-range jumpers?
  5. Can we see shooting splits over first 11 games versus the last 12?
  6. Is it just Tennessee’s stars that do this, or is it the entire team?

NEXT PAGE: Questions 1-3

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Auburn

Last year in February, before the world ended and we all realized we live in something entirely different now, I wrote a spirit-of-the-moment article about how 22-2 Auburn was an incredibly lucky team heading for a downturn. It was written after thinking early that morning about how much people don’t seem to think about luck in close games. In a season where Auburn was 10-0 at the time in games decided by six points or less, it seemed worth exploring.

Since I published that article, Auburn is 4-7 in games decided by six or fewer and, unfortunately for them, 14-17 overall. I think this is at least partially my fault and definitely no one else’s for cheating or anything.

Game information:

  • THE OPPONENT: Auburn (11-13, 5-10).
  • THE TIME: 12 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: ESPN.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: Beth Mowins (PBP) and Dalen Cuff (color).
  • THE SPREAD: Not up yet. KenPom has Tennessee -4, Torvik Tennessee -3.3. Obviously, this is riding on Sharife Cooper’s status.

Click below to get ahead to a certain section:

NEXT PAGE: Please win

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Vanderbilt (#2)

9 PM Eastern tip…playing the second-worst (per KenPom) team in the SEC…limited fan attendance…neither team is fully healthy…yeah, hard to really get up for this one if I’m being honest.

Vanderbilt has lost 38 of their last 43 SEC games, which is one of the worst stretches of losing in conference history if not the absolute worst. They haven’t beaten a team that ranks higher than 70th in KenPom (Mississippi State in a very random 72-51 victory) and, as such, are 0-7 against the KenPom Top 50 teams they’ve faced. I know this hasn’t been a Tennessee team that’s lived up to expectations by any means, but they are absolutely above even having this game be close.

But…it’s Vanderbilt. While Tennessee has defeated the Commodores seven times in a row and have had the far, far superior roster for four straight seasons, four of the seven wins have been by eight points or fewer. In fact, Tennessee hasn’t pulled off multiple double-digit wins against Vanderbilt in the same season since 2008-09. Again, that’s despite winning seven in a row, nine of ten, and 15 of 20 against Peabody University.

Tennessee should be 15+ points better than Vanderbilt in this game. For some reason – call it history! – I am sure that this game will somehow be within single-digits at night’s end.

Game information:

  • THE OPPONENT: Vanderbilt (6-12, 2-10).
  • THE TIME: 9 PM Eastern.
  • THE CHANNEL: SEC Network.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: Mike Morgan (PBP) and Debbie Antonelli (color).
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -8.

If you’d like to click ahead to a certain section, that’s what the below menu is for.

NEXT PAGE: Remember when Grant Williams dropped 43 points on Vandy in an overtime win? 🙂

Tennessee is obsessed with the mid-range jumper. Is this a problem in 2021?

Tennessee has a problem. Well, they have several problems, but you have to take them one at a time.

Tennessee’s offense is broken. It has been for most of conference play, minus a couple spare performances. Tennessee sits at an on-the-dot 1 PPP against SEC opponents, which ranks 11th out of 14 teams. They’ve posted an eFG% of 48.4%, which is 10th-best. They rank 10th in both 3PT% (32.5%) and 2PT% (48.2%). Things are not good. So why aren’t they good when they have the most talented, deep team of Rick Barnes’ tenure?

There are many different factors that go into the goodness or badness of an offense, and I’m not going to pretend to know all of them. But the first and foremost thing to me is a very obvious thing that stands out every time I check Simon Gerszberg’s top 20 teams on Shot Quality:

And something else that stands out when I sort by who gets the lowest amount of their shots directly at the rim or from deep:

It’s time for the mid-range debate in Knoxville again. The Worst Shot in Basketball, as deemed by nerds like me, has long been a staple of every Rick Barnes offense. When it works, as it did in 2018-19, you hear very few complaints about it. When it doesn’t, as it hasn’t in…well, every year but 2018-19, it becomes more and more of a criticism and less of a thing you’re willing to let a more traditional coach have.

For this specific article, I’ve broken down the mid-range debate into nine key questions. There’s three per page on the pages that follow. For this article, I reached out to several coaches I know, multiple analytics pals, and, yes, Jimmy Dykes. It’s very long, but I’ve tried to dive into each corner of the Tennessee Mid-Range Issue that I can possibly find. I hope it’s worth your time and mine.

The nine questions are linked below, or you can just click on page 2 after the bullet points end.

  1. Why does Tennessee take so many mid-range shots?
  2. Has Rick Barnes focused on three-level scoring for his full career? Has this worked for Tennessee (or Texas) before?
  3. Has Tennessee’s offense stopped working because of five-star freshman? John Fulkerson? Personnel shortcomings?
  4. Does Tennessee need more ball screens or modern sets?
  5. Should John Fulkerson (or Olivier Nkamhoua, or E.J. Anosike) have worked on becoming at least an okay three-point shooter?
  6. Does Tennessee hurt itself by putting bad combinations (double-big lineups, two or more non-shooters) on the floor?
  7. Can you still score if you have a big man that can’t shoot?
  8. Is the mid-range jumper a thing of the past for great offenses?
  9. Can you temporarily fix this with a lineup change?

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Kentucky (#2)

Some fun stats for your Friday/Saturday enjoyment:

  • As of Saturday, it will have been 378 days since the Kentucky Wildcats last defeated the Tennessee Volunteers.
  • There were 11 total cases of COVID-19 in the United States when Kentucky last defeated Tennessee.
  • Absolutely nothing about the world has changed since that game happened. Nothin’!

Game information:

  • THE OPPONENT: Kentucky (7-13, 6-7).
  • THE TIME: 1 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: CBS. Yes, seriously.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: Not sure as of this time, but last week it was Ian Eagle (PBP) and Jim Spanarkel (color).
  • THE SPREAD: Not up yet; both KenPom and Torvik have Tennessee -7.

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NEXT PAGE: Loretta Lynn’s three best albums, in order: Coal Miner’s Daughter (1970); Writes ‘Em and Sings ‘Em (1970); I Remember Patsy (1977). Not the Jack White collaboration, which is okay.