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.

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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.

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: South Carolina

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

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

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

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

Game Information:

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

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

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: LSU

Here’s what I wrote last year when Tennessee played LSU in January, two months before the world ended:

“Largely, I think Will Wade’s a good coach. Good guy, well…that’s a debate for another day. Undeniably, though, he’s given LSU a lot of firsts, ones that they probably didn’t expect just two-plus years in. Now, he gets to live out the ultimate challenge of a coach: what happens after all those firsts?”

Obviously, we’ll never know how the 2019-20 edition of the team would’ve performed in the NCAA Tournament, but the year after the best year since Big Baby, the Tigers looked like they’d just follow it right up the next season. 21 games in, LSU was 17-4 and a perfect 8-0. They’d won 24 of their last 26 SEC regular season games. Even though an alarming amount of these were close, and even though LSU suffered three losses to teams ranked outside of the KenPom Top 50, it really did look like Will Wade was going to run it back.

Then, out of nowhere, they lost to a Vanderbilt team that hadn’t won an SEC game in two years. Then, out of something moderately predictable, given that they never got higher than #28 on KenPom, the wheels fell off and the luck ran out. LSU finished the 2019-20 season by losing six of their final ten games, giving up 90+ points three different times and ranking #179 overall defensively by season’s end. It was pretty rough, and it made sense that if an NCAA tournament had existed, LSU probably wouldn’t have escaped the first weekend as an 8 or 9 seed.

One year later, LSU sits at 7-4 in SEC play (same as Tennessee) and 12-6 overall. To Wade’s credit, the Tigers only have one loss to a sub-50 team: Kentucky. Still, the same problems that led to the demise of the 2019-20 team are pretty prominent with this group. LSU ranks 146th in adjusted defensive efficiency. They own one win against a team in the KenPom top 40. This is despite having a roster where the entire starting lineup are former top 100 recruits. So, yeah, I don’t quite know what’s happening after all those firsts.

Game information:

  • THE OPPONENT: LSU (12-6, 7-4).
  • THE TIME: 2 PM ET. Please pray for the writer of this article, who is doing a 7-mile run in the rain at 12.
  • THE CHANNEL: ESPN.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: I don’t know PBP as of the time of writing, but I do know Jimmy Dykes is the color commentator.
  • THE SPREAD: Vegas not available yet. Tennessee is -1 on KenPom and -2.2 on Torvik.

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NEXT PAGE: Musicians from Louisiana, ranked: 1. Louis Armstrong 2. Fats Domino 3. Dr. John 4. Lucinda Williams 5. Allen Toussaint

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Georgia

Well I guess we’re doing this one instead. Tennessee was supposed to play Florida as part of a revenge game of sorts at 7 PM tonight, but instead, they draw a Georgia program that currently saddles up at 90th at KenPom. This is not to say that Georgia can’t have an unusually good performance, obviously! It’s just to say that going from playing #28 in a legitimately important game to playing a team with zero wins against Top 50 competition is quite the bummer.

Anyway, Georgia is anchored by Tom Crean, the former Indiana coach who made all the goofy faces you see on your timeline every time he wins or loses an important fixture. To Crean’s credit, twice in his coaching career he’s done a full-on program turnaround. His Indiana one was more impressive, but don’t forget about a double-turnaround at Marquette. The Golden Eagles had Dwyane Wade, of course, but what you may not remember is Crean’s final Marquette team finishing up at #14 in KenPom and making the Round of 32.

At Georgia, things have…not really turned around yet. Georgia has gotten incrementally better through 2.5 seasons (132nd, 96th, 90th) but has yet to take the grand leap that recruiting Anthony Edwards suggested or having four Top 100 recruits on this year’s roster would’ve theoretically suggested. Tom Crean’s next miracle is taking a while.

Game information section:

  • THE OPPONENT: Georgia (12-6, 5-6).
  • THE TIME: 8 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: ESPN2.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: Tom Hart (PBP) and Jimmy Dykes (color).
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -12.

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NEXT PAGE: We do not have enough time to rank the best musicians from Georgia. That would take a while!

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Kansas

If you have followed college basketball even loosely over the last 30 years, it is pretty much impossible to ever feel bad for the Kansas Jayhawks unless you’re a fan of the Kansas Jayhawks. They won 14 regular season Big 12 titles in a row. They won a national championship in 2008. They’ve made five Final Fours in my lifetime to Tennessee’s zero. In 10 of the last 18 NCAA Tournaments, they’ve at least gone to the Elite Eight. How could anyone feel bad for Kansas?

And yet: here I am, typing that I did feel really bad for the 2019-20 version of Kansas. The Jayhawks finished the regular season at #1 on KenPom by over three full points, the widest gap between #1 and #2 since Kentucky had a 4.4-point edge on the field heading into the 2015 NCAA Tournament. (At the time, it really did make sense.) If the NCAA Tournament had gone on, they would’ve been the favorite to win it all and bring home a second championship for Bill Self. In terms of pure Efficiency Margin, it was the third-best team Bill Self has ever coached (2007-08 and 2009-10 a bit ahead) and one of the best teams in school history.

And then…the NCAA Tournament never happened. Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike left for professional pastures; Isaiah Moss graduated; Bill Self suddenly had to replace two of the 10 or so most impactful players in all of college basketball with nothing to show for it. Objectively, that’s brutal. So, yeah, I do hurt for them, in the way you would hurt for the Green Bay Packers or something. This year’s team isn’t anywhere near what last season’s was, but if nothing else, they will get to see this team play on a Turner Sports affiliate in March.

The following game information section is included to relieve pressure from Grant Ramey’s mentions.

  • THE OPPONENT: #15 Kansas (11-5, 4-4).
  • THE TIME: 6 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: ESPN.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: Bob Wischusen (PBP) and Dick Vitale (color).
  • THE SPREAD: Is not up as of publishing time, but is Tennessee -2 on KenPom and Tennessee -4.3 on Bart Torvik.

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NEXT PAGE: Musicians/artists from Kansas, ranked: 1. Charlie Parker (born on the Kansas side of KC) 2. Gene Clark (went to HS in Kansas) 3. Janelle Monae (actually from Kansas!)

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Mississippi State

Back during the 2014 and/or 2015 coaching searches, I remember there being a fairly strong desire from online Tennessee fans for Ben Howland. After all, Howland had just been let go by UCLA after the 2013 season, and it isn’t every day there’s a coach on the market with three consecutive Final Four appearances, especially when they’re as recent as 2006-2008. (At the time, this was recent.) Perhaps what we didn’t know – or chose to not see – was that after the final of those Final Four appearances, the UCLA program cratered. They went 117th-52nd-58th-46th on KenPom over his final four seasons, didn’t escape the second round, and were instantly better under new HC Steve Alford.

Howland got scooped up by Mississippi State, who needed literally anything they could get after the Rick Ray error. Again, at the time, it felt like the Bulldogs were seen as making the better hire between them and Tennessee heading into the 2015-16 season. Over 5.5 seasons, Mississippi State has finished inside the KenPom top 40 once, has made one NCAA Tournament, and bombed out to Liberty in the first round. Rick Barnes, whether you like him or not, is headed towards posting his third top-20 finish at Tennessee and has the third-best defense in the country. Funny how these things work out.

Game Information:

  • THE OPPONENT: Mississippi State (9-7, 4-4).
  • THE TIME: 7 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: SEC Network.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS (by request): Tom Hart PBP, Jimmy Dykes color.
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -9.5.

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NEXT PAGE: Jimmy, if you’re reading this, the world needs to know who drew your Conor McGregor tattoos

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Florida (#1)

To be frank, it’s a little difficult to write these previews, knowing that in a normal world, Florida likely would’ve had Keyontae Johnson available. Before we even really get started here, a reminder for Vol fans to be praying for his recovery and for the best possible outcome.

Alright, back to the rivalry. Tennessee has defeated Florida on four straight occasions. Mike White, who was about $250K in assistant money away from being Tennessee’s head coach, is 1-5 against Rick Barnes. And I have to say, this is one of my favorite sites on the Internet at the moment.

Here are the things to know about these Florida Gators:

  • Based on the roster they had heading into the season, Bart Torvik’s site had them ranked 10th. I know, I know: sounds ridiculous. But Bart’s site also nailed how good Texas would be when a lot of others doubted.
  • That said, the Gators are now ranked 37th and freefalling on the same site.
  • The Gators are as close to a schizophrenic team as Tennessee can draw this year. They’ve got five 90+ Game Scores on Torvik’s site (that’s very good)…and five performances of 72 or worse (that’s not good).
  • The only player who was on Tennessee’s roster the last time Tennessee lost to Florida (2017) is John Fulkerson.
  • Mike White is 1-5 against Rick Barnes and 56-34 against all other SEC competition.

Here is a game information section to relieve pressure from Grant Ramey’s mentions.

  • THE OPPONENT: Florida (6-4, 3-3).
  • THE CHANNEL: ESPN. Dick Vitale is on the call, just FYI.
  • THE TIME: 7 PM ET.
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -7.

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NEXT PAGE: If you ask politely I’ll give you my thoughts on Tennessee football. Just kiddin’

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Vanderbilt (#1)

Could this be the first of multiple games? Could it be the only time Tennessee actually plays Vanderbilt? Could they play Vanderbilt four times while not playing South Carolina once? Pretty much anything is on the table in the silliest season in college basketball history.

As a heads-up, this is the exact preview I wrote for Tuesday’s fixture, which was cancelled about eight hours before tip-off, much to the chagrin of the person writing this post. All I’ve changed is the final score prediction, given that the game is now in Knoxville and not Nashville. I am begging both of these schools to simply ensure the game gets completed, lest I lose my mind.

A quick note here as well: Vanderbilt hasn’t really announced who in the program tested positive or if anyone has to sit out for contact tracing purposes, so if a player is mentioned in this post and they don’t play, that’s probably why.

Game information section:

  • THE OPPONENT: Vanderbilt (4-5, 0-3).
  • THE TIME: 6 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: SEC Network.
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -18.

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NEXT PAGE: Please play the game