Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Arkansas (II)

OPPONENT #14 Arkansas
24-6, 13-4 SEC, #19 KenPom
25-7, 13-4 SEC, Elite Eight 2020-21
LOCATION Thompson-Boling-Fulkerson Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME Saturday, March 5
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: Tennessee -7
Torvik: Tennessee -5.1

On January 15, Tennessee was 2-3 in SEC play and had just gotten smoked by their biggest rival by 28 points. The season felt pretty stupid. I was thinking about how nice it must be to have never created an account on Twitter. On January 15, Arkansas was also 2-3 in SEC play, and while they’d beaten LSU on the road, it was an Arkansas team that had just lost five of six with the only win being over KenPom #244 Elon. They were…not exactly on track to make the NCAA Tournament.

Fast-forward seven weeks. Tennessee and Arkansas are both 13-4. Tennessee’s only loss is to top-20 Arkansas on the road; Arkansas’s only loss is to top-25ish Alabama on the road. Both have beaten Kentucky and Auburn, the conference’s two best (per KenPom) teams, at home. Both have lovable players. Both have grown to adore their flawed, frenetic, defensively-dominant basketball teams. The winner of this game is guaranteed no worse than the 2 seed in the SEC Tournament, and with just one (admittedly very unlikely) Auburn loss, the winner would be the 1 seed.

Look at us. Who would’ve thought? Not me.

Arkansas offense

The nice thing about Tennessee having played this team all of two weeks ago is that, largely, I have already written everything I felt was worth researching on the offense. Plus, the amount of free time I have to work on these at the moment is…very small. If you missed the first game’s preview, here’s the link. Here’s what’s changed about Arkansas in two weeks:

  • Remember when I mentioned they were the 108th-best offense nationally from January 12th onward? They’re better now – Torvik has them as the 55th-best offense over the last ten games – but all of the same shooting concerns still exist. Razorbacks over last 10: 47% on twos, 33% from deep, one spot ahead of A&M in offensive efficiency. When you’re being mentioned alongside A&M in an offensive sentence, that’s a bad thing.
  • Torvik has a sort of Points Above Replacement stat called PORPAGATU! I reference every time in the Starters + Rotations section. #1 on the team over the last month has been Stanley Umude (11.6 PPG/4.7 RPG season-long), who is 24-for-55 on threes since February commenced. Guard him.
  • J.D. Notae (18.8 PPG/4.4 RPG/3.6 APG)’s usage has actually increased to nearly 30% of all Arkansas possessions in February. The same Chaotic Good about him exists – 62.5% at the rim on the season, 37% on threes in February, quality passer – while all of the same Just Plain Chaotic stuff is becoming quite visible (42% on twos in February, fouled out against Tennessee).
  • Jaylin Williams (10.9 PPG/9.7 RPG) has taken more charges than anyone else in America, so, uh, hope you get some good home officiating? Anyway, this is an offensive section, and Williams has become the clear #2 option offensively. Since February 1: 15 PPG on a 48.5% eFG%, which undersells the impact somewhat. Williams draws a bunch of fouls and is crazy good at midrange twos (18-for-32 in February) but crazy bad at threes (19% in February, 26% for his career). I would let him shoot, but strangely, I would not let him shoot the 15-footers.
  • Davonte Davis (7.6 PPG in Feb) and Au’Diese Toney (8.7 PPG in Feb) are the only other 4+ PPG scorers over the last month. Davis remains a curious case: terrific at the rim, below-average at shooting despite a recent hot streak. I’ve noticed he commits frustration fouls when things don’t go well. Toney, meanwhile, is 1-for-15 since February 1 on everything that isn’t a layup or dunk.
  • Only other guys that get real minutes are Chris Lykes and Trey Wade. Lykes is a genuine Disaster Factory (h/t MGoBlog) and posted a 28% FG% last month while committing 4.7 fouls per 40. Wade is almost invisible offensively, but can shoot a little.


Arkansas defense

Similar to the offensive section, here’s the first game’s preview on the defense. Here’s what’s changed since then:

  • This is the #4 defense nationally over the last month, but I would caution this because of one specific thing: teams are shooting 26.7% from three against them in that span. That is…unsustainable. Tennessee got a lot of good looks from deep in the first game and just didn’t hit them. Considering Missouri (a true Disaster Factory of a program) made more threes than Tennessee, I am withholding judgment.
  • Still not blocking a ton of shots, but the general gist of “this defense forces a very bad shot quality from the average opponent” still holds. Opponents are taking about 29% of their shots from non-rim two-point territory and hitting just 30.8% of them.
  • An alarming thing right now, however, is that they’ve become very leaky on the defensive boards. Kentucky/LSU/Auburn are all really good on the boards, but to surrender 40% or worse DREB% to each of them is a bad sign. Jaylin Williams is playing 33-34 minutes a night right now because he’s very good, but also because Arkansas goes from an okay DREB team to a disaster (28.8% vs. 37.5%) when he leaves the court, per Hoop-Explorer.
  • The turnovers. Arkansas has forced almost a 20% TO% rate over their last ten, which is very good when you consider the competition. Notae obviously is a hound on defense, but Chris Lykes, all of 5’7″, is creating a ton of havoc. Only Tari Eason has a better per-minute steal rate in February among SEC players.
  • Catch-and-shoots from the first time out: still a potential flaw. Arkansas sits at an Actually Bad 49/51 Guarded/Unguarded rate.

How Tennessee matches up

I’m still fairly concerned about Tennessee’s inability to hit twos now that Olivier Nkamhoua is out of the lineup, and this may or may not be the game that gets you back on the right track. Still: you have to hit some twos eventually. 43% 2PT% over the last ten games is…brutal. The competition is what it is, but if you shoot 43% from two against a good opponent in March, you better have the threes to bail yourself out.

Tennessee is playing an opponent who is good at most things but very bad at two specific play types: basket cuts (14th-percentile) and hand-offs (15th-percentile). Tennessee is much more well-versed in the first of these, but in the first game, they got zero points from five cuts, per Synergy. That’s inexcusable; considering Arkansas got 12 on 13 cuts, that pretty much explains the scoring differential and the loss. If Tennessee wants to turn things around on Senior Day, Uros Plavsic and John Fulkerson have to finish at the rim. Alternately, the back-cut with Chandler has worked very well as of late. My thought is that if a team over-commits to stop Chandler, Fulkerson or someone’s going to be open inside. Be prepared for a variety of scenarios.

Hand-offs are a hair trickier, because Tennessee doesn’t run these as often; it’s roughly 3-4 times in the average game. The first time out, they ran five and went 0-4 FG on them. (Again, a potential reason for the poor offensive performance.) The general idea of all four shots were fine, and two of the threes were pretty open, but they didn’t go down. Santiago Vescovi has been the main recipient of hand-offs, but if you want a similar feature from a different set, just keep running the same off-ball sets you’ve ran for Vescovi (and others) all season.

Defensively: make Notae take jumpers, make…everyone take jumpers? That’s obviously a little reductive but this is a team that’s shooting well at the rim and shooting poorly everywhere else. When you’re 301st in 3PT% I’m probably gonna recommend you let them shoot the ball. The only guys you truly have to run off the line are Umude (who’s white-hot right now) and Notae if he gets a catch-and-shoot. Everyone else, whatever, beats Jaylin Williams running roughshod on you down low. I know Tennessee got hit on this a little by two random Davonte Davis (career 27% 3PT%) makes but still.

Some of this is also just intangible stuff: stay focused, don’t give up backdoor cuts, hope you win referee roulette. I’ve reached a minor point of season-long tranquility where I’m very pleased with how this season has unfolded no matter what, but, uh…just win, baby.

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

  • Please make the threes. I mean flip literally two threes from the first game and it feels entirely different in that final minute. And that would’ve meant a 6-for-24 performance. If Tennessee can manage even 32-33% or better I think they’re in business.
  • Can Tennessee find a path to the rim? Arkansas forced 19 non-rim twos against 16 rim attempts in the first game. Part of this was influenced by insane officiating, sure, but Jaylin Williams is just that good. Gotta find some backdoor cuts and screens to open things up and keep the ball moving.
  • Senior Day John. Fulkerson put together one of his best performances of the 2020-21 season on his initial Senior Day last year. Does he do it again in his final TBA game? Even at 14 & 7 or so it’s a massive difference-maker.

Key matchups

J.D. Notae vs. Kennedy Chandler. Despite the insane foul calls I thought Chandler won this battle the first time out. (Notae obviously picked up 2-3 terrible calls, too.) The key this time is continuing to push the ball to the rim and, well, making open threes. Holding Notae to 15 or less again would be a win.

Jaylin Williams vs. Center Roulette. Again, Tennessee plays four different guys so whatever. Williams cannot be allowed to go for 13 & 16 again and draw six charges. Can you get a guy who’s at 3.8 fouls/40 for his career in foul trouble? If so: profit.

Stanley Umude vs. Josiah-Jordan James. These are two guys who are hot at the perfect time. James just got done having the best scoring performance of his career, while Umude is the one Arkansas player I’d be worried about for all 40 minutes from deep.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee wins the foul battle (yes, seriously);
  2. Santiago Vescovi hits four threes;
  3. Tennessee 72, Arkansas 65.

Neon Swag Surf Evangelion

I can’t pinpoint when I first noticed it; maybe it’s one of those things that just suddenly existed one day. The type of thing that has only existed for a little while but feels like it’s been around for my entire life. I was completely baffled by this at first because, well, it shouldn’t make much sense on its face. It’s sort of like how Michigan (and Cincinnati before them) adopted a 2019 remix of a 2004 club song, or maybe the St. Louis Blues having their Stanley Cup Final run soundtracked by, of all things, “Gloria”.

I am, of course, referencing the fad known as Swag Surfin’.

That video is from January 2016, which is an HBCU-led rendition of a song from 2009 by a group called the Fast Life Yungstaz. (Please know and understand that I have rarely felt more aware of my whiteness than this exact moment.) At the time, this was a semi-hit: peaking at #62 on the Hot 100, I think I remember hearing it on the radio a time or two. I graduated high school in 2011, college in 2015, and do not remember this song being a part of any sporting event I attended. It’s to the point that until finally giving in and Googling “Swag Surfin'” two weeks ago, I realized that for nearly 13 years I thought this song was by Soulja Boy.

The HBCU portion of this research seems important. All of the earliest videos I’m able to find of this are at HBCUs: Clark Atlanta/Morehouse/Spelman in 2013; Howard University in 2015; Winston-Salem State in 2016. Some on Twitter swear that this is an Atlanta thing first, which makes sense because F.L.Y. were Atlantans. Whatever it may be, at some point, this made the jump from HBCUs and Black culture to American culture as a whole.

Willie Taggart, a Black man who coached Oregon’s football team for precisely one season, brought Swag Surfin’ to Oregon in 2017. Then it made it to Michigan State, then Auburn, and a variety of other football stadiums. I cannot find proof of it making it to a basketball arena until March 2018, when, unsurprisingly, Auburn adopted it. I suppose that over a four-year span, only interrupted by a global pandemic, Swag Surfin’ has ensconced itself as its own pandemic: a happy accident to a 13-year-old song previously only treasured by Atlantans and those who made the song what it is in the first place.

All of this to say that I didn’t get it for the longest time. Admittedly, part of this is because I really did think it was a Soulja Boy song. (I would like to offer a defense for myself here. Soulja Boy has songs titled “Pretty Boy Swag” and “Turn My Swag On”, along with four different mixtapes that have Swag in the title. Call it an accidental hybrid?) But also, this is just age. I am 28 and not 21 anymore. I sit far away from the student section. I am closing in on becoming An Old. I think I know a lot about music, but this entire paragraph is about me mis-remembering a really popular song as being by a different artist.

Crowd participation is a tale as old as time. There is the wave, obviously, but there is “All I Do Is Win”. There is “Let It Be”. There is “Hey Jude”. There is “Sweet Caroline”. Then there is “Swag Surfin'”. At first, I found it a mild curiosity that was more baffling than useful. Tennessee’s in-arena music director, whoever they may be, started playing this steadily in the 2021-22 season. Up to a month or so ago, I would’ve put the student participation for Swag Surfin’ at maybe 40%. I get it. It’s enough effort to stand for two hours; it is more effort to sway on beat to a song from 2009.

Maybe this is me projecting my own feelings and life onto the newfound East Tennessee staple. I did not feel any type of way about it until I watched the young man and his grandfather sway to the song days before my own grandfather passed. Even then, it’s just a unique thing that happened towards the end of a uniquely stressful and depressing multi-month stretch for my brain. The Kentucky game was the first time I can remember it appearing as a somewhat-cohesive unit in the student section.

I was planning on investing a very low amount of emotion into yesterday’s game; it’s just been a hard week and a hard two months. At some point, you just feel really tired. This held pretty well until two specific moments: first, when Zakai Zeigler nailed a shot-clock-beating three to tie the game at 39 in the midst of an 11-0 run. Secondly, when I heard “Swag Surfin'” come through the speakers and watched as the student section put together its strongest performance to date.

I do wish there was a video that included the upper deck, but you get what you get when you’re out of space on your iPhone and refuse to delete old messages. Something about this particular Swag Surf got to me. Something about it just feels right. Fundamentally different. Unusual in a good way. Being well on the way to Old status and on the opposite side of the arena, I did not participate, but I felt it projected onto people like me in a positive manner. Maybe you can project it all onto this team, too.

This is a team that started out hot and cold. I didn’t know how to feel about them for a long time, then in January, I was pretty ready to simulate this season to the finish. You watch them get dressed down by 28 in Lexington and it feels like any number of football beatdowns Knoxville has seen in the last 15 years. You figure the best-case scenario is a Sweet Sixteen. The offense is a mess that puts up a game you call the Act of God then manages to replicate something like it multiple times over. There isn’t much to like. There are no leaders.

This is all Battered Vol Syndrome speaking. It would be easy to keep speaking through that; to say that none of this really matters and that Rick Barnes underperforms in March and that it’s pointless to actually invest in this. There’s plenty of painful losses and annoying evidence to back that side of fandom up, I guess. The lasting postseason memories of the last 11 years have been a brutal overtime loss in an instant classic Sweet Sixteen game and a brutal buzzer-beating loss to a Catholic wizard in the middle of Lent.

But in the same way that Swag Surfin’ is the thing, so is Zakai Zeigler nailing that three and Kennedy Chandler winning (!) a post-up matchup with Jabari Smith. So is holding Walker Kessler to 8 & 5. So is a season where you’ve now defeated #2, #3, and #10 in KenPom all in front of sellout home crowds. The two losses since January 15 are a one-point road loss to a top 20 Texas team and a freak outlier shooting night against Arkansas, a top 20 team in their own right.

Everything else has been good and right and working. It feels different from a year ago, when Tennessee had the top-five defense but three home games and crash-landed with a 5 seed. It feels different from most of the Barnes era in general, where the fans actually grow to love the team more over the course of the season and point out the flaws less.

The players have spent the entire back half of this season saying that this is different. Saying that it doesn’t have to be the same old thing over and over. They’ve gone on the road and handled tricky grounders and line drives. They own three wins over teams that will be among the top 2 seed lines. This is a group that, for basically the entire season, has turned opposing offenses into wet sludge. Multiple players have stepped up to be capital-G Guys who are unafraid of the moment, not scared of the stress. A team full of people born after 2000 has completely changed the image of Tennessee basketball in my head.

A team that was leaderless a month ago now has Uros Plavsic goading Jabari Freaking Smith into a technical foul and Zakai Zeigler dancing through defenses. Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, who looked completely listless for three months, suddenly appears to be a legitimately good defender. The entire team pumps up the crowd during timeouts, understanding how crucial the home-court heat is after a year without it.

I think that’s the ultimate crux of why the Swag Surf finally wormed its way into my brain beyond repair. A year without crowds; a year without attending basketball games; two years of national and global despair. This is real Protagonist of History stuff, yes, but it is my lived experience that I am reporting on. It is of no small embarrassment that it has taken a crowd largely of youthful whites in orange to get me to understand it, but this is unfortunately common among people like me. I guess if nothing else, 13 years belatedly, it connects.

While very late to the party, I finally get the Swag Surf. I already got most of the Tennessee experience this year – I wrote about how it was all mud, all the time a month ago and that’s only partially changed – but now it’s sort of transcended the original boundaries. The mud is inescapable for opponents in the same way that Swag Surfin’ has become inescapable in SEC basketball. It travels everywhere and infects everyone. If mud can travel to March, this surprising fount of joy could provide some lifetime memories that you look back on fondly. Maybe you can sway to them.

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

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
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!


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.

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 ANNOUNCERS: Karl Ravech (PBP) and, yes, Dick Vitale (color).
  • THE SPREAD: Alabama -3.5.

If you’d like to skip ahead to a certain section, click below.

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 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 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