When You Got Feelings and Guitar, You Wanna Trade It For Cash

SEC Quarterfinals, March 11: (2) Tennessee 72, (10) Mississippi State 59 (24-7)
SEC Semifinals, March 12: (2) Tennessee 69, (3) Kentucky 62 (25-7)
SEC Finals, March 13: (2) Tennessee 65, (8) Texas A&M 50 (26-7)

Perhaps the kindest thing Tennessee did was remove an immense amount of anxiety and drama from the SEC title game not even five minutes in. The game started at 0-0, obviously; it was 14-0 in essentially no time at all. Texas A&M never led, and the game was never within five points after early in the second half. It was rarely in double digits. But you’d be forgiven if you were a Tennessee fan and you were still waiting for the other shoe to drop with Tennessee up by 13 and 90 seconds still to play.

That is how things generally work here. The impossible is always possible at Tennessee. Purdue, one of the greatest shooting teams I have ever seen Tennessee play, can miss half their free throws, but a future insurance agent hits seven threes to win the game. Loyola Chicago can blow a 10-point lead, but win anyway because of a double-bounce mid-range pull-up. Tennessee can make their first Elite Eight, then have to fire that coach a year later. Tennessee is up on an 8 seed by six with four minutes to play, then never scores again. Tennessee can go 30+ years without a single coach lasting longer than six seasons.

Almost anything ends up on the table at this school. One of the only things that truly felt impossible was being able to lift the trophy on Sunday. Tennessee made it to Sunday one time in my life prior to 2018, played a significantly worse Mississippi State team, and lost. Tennessee was the higher-ranked seed in 2018 and 2019 and lost both of those, too. When the year counter increases by one every time out and touches 43, hope feels like a foreign concept.

As with everything written over the last month, this all starts after losing by 28 to Kentucky. I complained after the game that the Tennessee Treadmill had restarted and this team was well on its way to another annoying, forgettable run as either a 4 or 5 seed in the NCAAs. Maybe they make it to SEC Saturday, blow a late lead to Kentucky or Auburn, and this time I just laugh instead of feeling annoyed. 11-5 and 2-3 SEC, regardless of competition, is a record you look at and sigh towards. You beat Arizona at home, cool. Where’s the other wins?

The ratings on January 16 are a fun time warp of sorts. Every team in the top 16 finished 19th or better, which is remarkably steady for a season with two full months left, but the order of those teams became jumbled. At the time, though, you could argue opportunity was nowhere.

Fourth in the SEC with a loss to the fifth-place team below you that seems to have your number under their analytics darling head coach. An offense that, aside from that random Rupp explosion, resembled Iowa football. A sixth-year senior that scored zero points against the conference’s best team. No truly rootable players. Zakai Zeigler had not yet forced a stranglehold on the hearts of Tennesseans. 14th in KenPom is nice until you remember the 2020-21 team was 12th at that time the year prior. It can always get worse. Why wouldn’t it?

So, sure, Tennessee goes on a run that’s at least partially influenced by a lighter schedule. You get some really great home wins that you remember happily, but they’re all at home. The best non-home win remains a North Carolina team that just got an 8 seed.

You head to Tampa, which isn’t even Nashville, playing what’s best described as a fairly potent brand of feelingsball. You will remember this team; will anyone else? Tennessee gets teams stuck in the mud and whatnot, and you like their March odds, but you see Kentucky at second in KenPom and Auburn drawing a mid-50s Texas A&M team and figure you’re in for yet another SEC Tournament kick to the nuts. It never goes well. Why would it now?

Texas A&M wins and you get a little excited. Tennessee takes care of business; Kentucky struggles, but does the same. You head to Saturday with the same feeling of not wanting to be Charlie Brown running at Lucy holding the football for the 43rd year in a row. Tennessee beat Kentucky at home, but again, that’s at home. Amalie Arena was decidedly decked out in blue, almost like it would be for your standard Lightning home game. Tennessee has to overcome not just this, but the officiating pairing of Pat Adams and Doug Shows, the only officiating combo that can manage to unite Tennessee and Kentucky fans in anger.

Tennessee trails for all of 27 seconds in a game that’s rarely within eight points until the final couple of minutes. Kentucky makes their run, and then you remember the critical tenet of Feelingsball: Act like every high point in the game is simply Sisyphus reaching the top of the hill. The rock will roll down. Back up you will go. This should be impossible, but impossible always happens here. Kentucky will do their usual, as will Tennessee.

The most cathartic, signature moment of a game is not a made shot, or a block, or anything normal at all, but a hard-hat lunch pail rebound by a 6’3″ Uruguayan shooting specialist despite being boxed out by a pair of Kentucky players that are 6’7″ and 6’9″. If you could name a stronger, more perfect signature moment of the Rick Barnes era, I would like to hear it. It is absurd, and it is real, and it is beautiful, and it is Tennessee.

And then they win, and then you briefly allow yourself to think that This Is Real. Tennessee got to sit and watch the previously-assumed conference title favorite Arkansas go down to that mid-50s Texas A&M team, who gets to build their NCAA Tournament case on a national scale. The odds, more or less, have never been better. But then 2009 pops back into your head. It can’t actually be real, because it’s never been real in my life. The Feelingsball Team, the one that was born of the mud and drags all opponents into the mud with them, may be incredibly fun. After 43 years, or 28ish for me, you just have to see it to believe it.

All this team had to do was see it and believe it for 40 minutes on a Sunday in March. They were able to when mere peons like me could not. They saw 11-5, 2-3 SEC and laughed in its face. The SEC kept sending its best and brightest to Knoxville to attempt to pull off road victories, and every challenger failed. Then when Tennessee got to head south for a weekend, they took on the conference’s assumed best team and stuffed their top-10 offense in a locker for the entire game. They drew Texas A&M, a team that had played at the level of the 8th-best in America (per Torvik) over its last ten games, and blended their offense into a fine paste with burgundy tones. At game’s end, I thought about wishing my grandfather could’ve made it another month to see it, but his afterlife broadcast of the game was not interrupted by Xfinity and did not include the wire camera angle. Even better.

This Tennessee team has been telling anyone who will listen for two, three, even four months that they are legitimate. That they can do things no team has ever done in the history of the program. That they are capable of creating memories fans and followers believed impossible. Tennessee is two seed upsets away from the Final Four, and only one KenPom upset out of it potentially against a team they’ve already beaten. The prospects of something unforeseen no longer feel like attempting to see clearly through a kaleidoscope. The metrics are there to tell you that it’s okay to feel these feelings:

That’s since January 16, one day after the Rupp blowout, one day after it all felt meaningless. These kids believed it was far from meaningless; it was merely the start of a new season to them. They deserve it all. They gave us the good feelings, and turned it into something people have been waiting over four decades for. It’s worth letting America in on the secret.

Notes section and whatnot:

  • Tshiebwe handled. Tshiebwe against Tennessee, including the Rupp demolition: 9 & 12, 15 & 15, 13 & 11. For a guy who averaged 20 & 15 over the final month-plus of the season, Tennessee was able to figure out how to slow down the National Player of the Year consistently across all three matches. Along with that, Tennessee is the only team to foul out Tshiebwe this season. God bless Mike Schwartz.
  • Star status. Kennedy Chandler this weekend: 14.7 PPG, 5 APG, four steals, and six threes. That’s the closest thing Tennessee has had to a #1 option since Grant Williams departed.
  • THE HOTTEST SHOOTING TEAM IN AMERICA. Or something like it: Tennessee is shooting 39.2% from three over the last two months. The only team among the top four seed lines that’s outshot them in that time is Gonzaga, who is at 39.3%. This is legitimately one of the scariest deep-shooting teams out there. Tennessee!
  • Another team turned to wet mud. Tennessee played this Texas A&M team on February 1 and gave up 1.121 PPP; give Mike Schwartz and Rick Barnes a second-chance and they will twist the knife. A&M went for 0.798 PPP and that was a significant improvement over their halftime pace of 0.667 PPP.
  • Shooting variance goes your way. Teams shot 12-for-56 (21.4%) against Tennessee from deep in Tampa, which is fine. I think it’s good to cash in your luck when you need it most. I don’t think teams (especially Longwood, who is bizarrely efficient from deep on relatively few shots) will be quite that consistently bad against Tennessee, but against a potential second round opponent like Michigan, whose entire season has been “did you hit shots or didn’t you,” seems like it plays in Tennessee’s favor.
  • That being said… Almost none of the shots Kellan Grady or Davion Mintz attempted Saturday had any space at all; I find it no real surprise that they combined to go 0-for-8 from deep. They were off-balance the entire game.
  • Potential new rotation. Rick Barnes mostly went with seven guys on Sunday, eschewing Aidoo for all but three minutes. I ran a study for a D-1 staffer last summer that showed the average rotation size (8+ MPG) of Sweet 16 or further teams was 7.64 players. If Tennessee can be comfortable at eight, I think that’s optimal; you can extend to nine if you have foul trouble or something.
  • Longwood. Preview up Thursday morning. I think a podcast with Jon Reed and Seth Hughes is being scheduled. Not sure about other duties, but they could happen depending on variables.
  • Bracket stuff. Tuesday.
  • The thread title comes from “Donna Said” by Pardoner, a pleasant and pretty good rock song of no great consequence other than the fact the main riff is excellent. I would describe it as a toe-tapper.

Thanks for reading along this season; I hope March never ends. More coming, and if you would like me to be on your podcast or website or something, email statsbywill at gmail dot com.

Show Me My Opponent, 2022 SEC Tournament Championship: Texas A&M

23-11, 9-9 SEC, #42 KenPom
LOCATION Amalie Arena
Tampa, FL
TIME Sunday, March 13
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -6.5
KenPom: Tennessee -7

Torvik: Tennessee -5.5


At least with Tennessee, you could’ve convinced yourself pretty easily that they were one minor upset of Kentucky away from an SEC Championship Game appearance. Texas A&M would’ve required quite the amount of mental gymnastics. The Aggies lost eight in a row, lost to Vanderbilt on February 19 to fall to 5-9 in conference play, and were roughly as close to the NCAA Tournament as Georgia. Out of nowhere, they have become one of the hottest shooting teams in the nation with a defense that’s pretty hard to prepare for on short notice.

Tennessee, meanwhile, just put up its tenth Quadrant 1 win and has forced the door open to the 2 seed line after they were once 11-5, 2-3 SEC. Sunday seemed more like a lark than a real possibility two months ago. Now it is here, and Tennessee is 40 minutes away from their first SEC title since 1979 for the third time in five years. If you treat all of these as slightly-weighted coin flips, eventually one has to land in Tennessee’s favor. Eventually.

Texas A&M offense

This was originally previewed back in February, but there’s been some fairly significant changes. I’m still doing the bullet-point structure here because of time constraints. Same basic structure of offense, same general lack of post-ups, same “hit shots and win, or don’t” status.

  • In the first preview, I mention that A&M doesn’t have a true #1 scorer. This is no longer true. Quenton Jackson (14.8 PPG) has been a volcano of recent; since the Tennessee game on February 1, Jackson’s scored 18.1 PPG on 59/40/82 shooting splits. He takes and makes more shots than anyone else on the team and has drawn a ton of fouls as of late. Don’t let him cook the frontcourt.
  • Second banana is Tyrece Radford (10.8 PPG season-long, 13.3 PPG last 12 games), who is scorching from deep: 25-for-44 on threes since February 1. I would consider not letting him shoot threes.
  • The third guy is the same guy you remember from the first battle: Henry Coleman III (11.2 PPG season-long, 11.8 PPG last 12), who remains terrific at the rim (69% on the season) and horrific everywhere else (22.8% on Other Twos). Coleman is a bear on the boards and draws lots of fouls, too.
  • The other two high-usage guys you need to know are Wade Taylor IV (7.3 PPG last 12) and Hassan Diarra (6.8 PPG last 12). You remember Taylor from him randomly exploding in TBA; what you may not remember is that he’s followed said explosion up by going 9-for-51 on threes and 17-for-51 on twos. Diarra, meanwhile, is much less Disaster Factory but just not as notable in either direction; he is simply a solid player.
  • A guy you’ll annoyingly have to watch out for is Hayden Hefner (3.5 PPG season-long, 4.9 PPG last 12), who I don’t think is related to Hugh but is slaying the nets from downtown (11-for-26 last 12) at the moment. It always hurts more when the bench hits you.
  • The rotation is still 10 players deep, which is proving useful against teams like Arkansas that only have seven playable guys. Still, guys like Obaseki/Henderson/Gordon have been in Struggle Mode as of late and you’d prefer them on the court over others.


Texas A&M defense

Same annoying thing to prepare for as you remember. First preview linked here. What’s new:

  • They’ve turned up the heat. Torvik ranks A&M’s defense as the ninth-best in the nation over the last 10 games, with all the turnovers playing a huge part. Teams are turning it over on nearly 22% of possessions against the Aggies; Arkansas gave it up on almost 21%.
  • Some of this heat has been driven by…wait for it…luck. Shocker! Teams are shooting 26.5% from three against A&M over the last 10. Part of this is, obviously, good defense. Another part of this is A&M, a team with a 50/50 Guarded/Unguarded rate, seeing opponents shoot 30.9% on open threes and 19.8% (!) on guarded ones. The former is probably a little more sustainable than the latter.
  • Defensive rebounding remains a problem. A&M has allowed their opponents to rebound 32% of misses over this 10-game run, which ranks 318th-best nationally. It was almost entirely why they nearly lost to Florida and Auburn despite both teams shooting very poorly.
  • It remains relatively easy to score at the rim against this team. Opponents are hitting at nearly a 64% rate over this 10-game run, per Synergy.
  • The big key is still finding ways to score in general half-court offense. When A&M slows an opponent down, it becomes pretty hard to generate points; they rank in the 86th-percentile or better against ISOs, post-ups, and ball screens.

How Tennessee matches up

The first game was more or less Tennessee forcing A&M to solve a math problem: does 3 > 2, or does it not? Tennessee hit 11 threes to A&M’s seven in a game Tennessee won by 12. That game featured A&M hitting some wild shots, which we’ll touch on, but for the most part, Tennessee identified early on that the Aggies couldn’t stop the drive-and-kick game. Tennessee generated 24 catch-and-shoot threes in the first game, and Synergy deemed 18 of them to be open (AKA, no defender within four feet of the shooter). That’s a heck of a rate.

A similar thing will have to happen here to win this game. I don’t know that Tennessee needs to shoot 42% from deep to win again, but against an A&M team that has become the Golden State Warriors of Tampa Bay, maybe you do. Tennessee will likely have to go deep in the clock against an Aggies side that slowed Auburn down into their second-slowest game of the last month. If so: gotta move the ball, gotta hit the nail on the free throw line, gotta look for the open man. Play smart basketball and such.

Along with this: get some good twos. A&M’s biggest struggles defensively this year have come against teams that are either good at converting second chances via the glass or hammer the rim with a variety of off-ball cuts and screens. To boot, Tennessee’s 1.261 PPP in the first A&M game is still the worst defensive efficiency surrendered by the Aggies all season. The threes were one thing, but Tennessee getting 10 points off of nine basket cuts were something else worth noting.

The two missed shots on cuts were via fadeaway jumpers; the cuts that ended in layup/dunk attempts were a perfect 100% FG%. A&M is hyper-aggressive on defense, which lends itself well to forcing turnovers, but they can get drawn away from the basket and give up easy looks down low. Tennessee’s guards need to be smart in taking advantage of the open space down low, just as they did the first time out.

Defensively…don’t turn it over? Texas A&M scored 29 points on 21 transition possessions in the first game; the other 51 offensive possessions resulted in 51 points. You can survive A&M going for 1 PPP, but banking on a second-consecutive 1.2+ PPP game is probably not that realistic. If Tennessee takes care of the ball and forces A&M into half-court offense, the game will look and feel like your average Tennessee basketball game: Sludge City, USA.

A&M spent a lot of time in ball screens in the first game and more or less did nothing with them. Synergy credits the Aggies as putting up just seven points on Tennessee over the course of 18 possessions, which is atrocious. Tennessee completely shut down what Texas A&M primarily wanted to do, and it took lots of fouls and OREBs and a couple crazy shots for A&M to stay in the first game. (Also a serious overperformance on free throws: 21-for-25, or +4 above what they’d be expected to shoot.) If Tennessee continues to own the pick-and-roll, forcing Texas A&M’s ball-handlers into tough decisions, I think they win this game.

I mean: Tennessee is 40 minutes away from the first SEC Championship since many readers were born, including myself. They’re expected to win by every metric system in existence. Whatever it takes to win, win.

Starters + rotations

Three things to watch for

  • Turn the faucet off. Texas A&M is an impressive 15-0 when posting an eFG% of 53% or better and 8-11 otherwise. This is generally driven by how well they do/don’t hit threes; A&M is also 12-1 when shooting 40% or better from deep. A&M just posted its two best 3PT% performances of the entire season in this tournament, which is either a great sign if you believe in regression to the mean or a terrible one if you believe that we live in a painful simulation.
  • Can Tennessee choose its shots wisely? In the first battle, Tennessee only got 15 shots at the rim, but they went 13-for-15 and hit threes, so they won. A situation where Tennessee is not taking numerous mid-range jumpers is ideal; you really should be able to generate open threes with fair consistency as you did the first time.
  • Officiatin’. Well, obviously. But I mean it this time: A&M is 18-2 when the opponent shoots 20 or fewer free throw attempts and 5-9 otherwise.

Key matchups

Quenton Jackson vs. Josiah-Jordan James. Individual plus-minus is about as useful as nothing at all, but sometimes it’s right: Tennessee was +8 with James in the game for 30 minutes yesterday and -1 in 10 minutes without him. They’ll need James for 35 to slow down one of the hottest scorers in America.

Henry Coleman III vs. Center Roulette. Coleman has held steady throughout the year as a terrific rebounder and quality foul-drawer that nonetheless cannot create his own shot very well. If Tennessee restricts him to just rebounds and exploits his lack of verticality on defense, they could create a significant advantage.

Tyrece Radford vs. Santiago Vescovi. Pretty simple matchup: who shoots better? Radford is blistering the nets at the moment, but Vescovi may be the SEC’s best deep shooter.

Three predictions

  1. Santiago Vescovi hits four threes;
  2. Tennessee wins three of the Four Factors and commits fewer fouls;
  3. Tennessee 69, Texas A&M 63.

With No Regard For Human Life

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

Maybe it was here:

Or here:

Maybe here:

I’m thinking this played a part:

Or, well, here:

Possibly this, too:

Or here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Various notes from the last two games:

  • Another out-of-nowhere ref show. Tennessee and Texas A&M combined for 42 fouls, a couple of which were late A&M desperation ones but most of which were organic. I was a little surprised by this, mostly because Tennessee is rarely a foul-heavy team and A&M isn’t as extreme as Carolina. Getting a little tired of noting these stats in games where the general expectation should be about 32-34 combined fouls; very much “this could’ve been an email” vibes. Let the players play.
  • On free throw variance. There were a couple weeks where Tennessee fans were in tatters over free throw shooting. That’s fine; it did look bad for a while. Those complaints have now gone quiet after Tennessee went 34-for-41 (82.9%) at the line this week, but the worst Benevolent God of Variance action was letting A&M, a team that entered the game shooting 64% at the line, go 21-for-25 (84%). You could explain five of A&M’s 80 points away right there; a 90-75 scoreline would indeed feel a little better.
  • The Josiah-Jordan James resurgence. Torvik’s site also provides an adjusted Net Rating for each player that rarely goes above, like, +8 or +9. James posted a +7.3 against A&M and +9.6 against South Carolina to go along with his two highest scoring performances of the season. James is now shooting 32.7% from deep in SEC play, which sounds average but is a percentage everyone was begging for when the guy was in the 20-25% range.
  • Positive three-point variance! When I found myself in the depths of exploring seagulls in January, it was in part influenced by Tennessee’s seeming inability to have a normal basketball game. At the time, through 14 games, these were their numbers:
    • 50% or better: 1 game (7.1%)
    • 40-49%: 4 games (28.6%)
    • 30-39%: 1 game (7.1%)
    • 20-29%: 6 games (42.9%)
    • 19% or worse: 2 games (14.3%)

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

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

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

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

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Texas A&M

OPPONENT Texas A&M (15-6, 4-4 SEC, #72 KenPom)
(8-10, 2-8 SEC, COVID-19 2020-21)
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME Tuesday, February 1
Dane Bradshaw (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -11.5
KenPom: Tennessee -11

Torvik: Tennessee -9.3

If you’re one of the growing number of Twitter people who preach the benefits of dropping a salad fork in your eye over watching Tennessee basketball games, maybe skip this one. Texas A&M has lost four in a row, has an offense ranked two spots ahead of ETSU’s, and has built off of a 15-2 start that looked legitimately promising by taking a blowtorch to their NCAA Tournament hopes. Also, their offense is still pretty rough to watch.

The great news for Tennessee is that I can’t imagine a better time to draw A&M: four losses in a row, can’t score very much, and their defense has sprung a serious leak in both rebounding and fouling. The opportunity for a get-right game is very much here. We’ll see what Tennessee does with it.

Texas A&M’s offense

More or less what it always is. A&M plays a little faster this year and isn’t quite as recklessly terrible at hitting threes, but they’re one of the worst free throw shooting teams alive (64.3%, 344th) and generate offense by way of crashing the boards and getting fouled a lot. I am sure you’ll be floored to hear this is not my favorite SEC team to watch.

Buzz Williams runs a ball-screen heavy offense with the fewest post-ups of any team in the SEC. That…basically gives you the gist. I’m trying hard to make this interesting! Similarly to Texas, A&M doesn’t have a true #1 scorer – the team leader that we’ll get to scores 12.9 points a game – but they have about six third bananas. There are two that stand out from the pack, but A&M is mostly scoring-by-committee.

The top dog is Quenton Jackson (12.9 PPG), who predictably never starts and comes off the bench in a Tari Eason fashion. Just under half of Jackson’s makes are unassisted, with the heaviest amount of his shots coming at the rim. Jackson takes a lot of jumpers, most from three, and is a decent-not-great shooter (32.9% 3PT%). The main threat here: despite mostly playing the 3 & 4, Jackson is a quality ball-handler that has proven very good at dribbling off a pick to the rim. (Same with spot-ups.) A weird thing that is true: Jackson is only 11-for-16 on dunks.

Jackson has the second-highest usage rate on the team (26.7% USG%), so you can expect him to be a major contributor. The other double-digit scorer is Henry Coleman, who has a usage profile of a plus role player (20.4% USG%, 18.8% of shots when on the court) but is super efficient with his shots. Coleman is A&M’s center by default at 6’8″, 243. He never posts up, but his shot selection is a who’s who of high-PPP process: cuts, OREBs, and plays in transition. Coleman is a very poor jump shooter, but he’s so good at the rim that it rarely matters.

Beyond that, A&M has four players that score between 8.2 and 9.4 PPG. In order of most to least points:

  • Marcus Williams (9.4 PPG) is the starting point guard. He is an okay deep shooter (31.2% 3PT%), but his main feature is an alarming 26.2% TO%. Also kind of a bad finisher at the rim.
  • Tyrece Radford (9.3 PPG) transferred from Virginia Tech and has taken a bizarre step back in fouls drawn (1.2 fewer per 40) while still being a bad jump shooter. Excellent finisher at the rim, though.
  • Wade Taylor IV (8.2 PPG) is atrocious at the rim (39.4% FG%) but hitting 35% of threes. Both the team’s best passer and team’s most aggressive offensive player (33% USG%).
  • Andre Gordon (8.2 PPG) is the closest thing to Just A Shooter A&M has. 31-for-65 (47.7%) on threes, 51% on twos.

CHART! The official Chart Guide is now as follows:

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

Texas A&M’s defense

A same-but-different thing? Texas A&M’s signature as long as Buzz Williams has been head coach is a defense that shifts between a 2-3 zone and a man-to-man defense, often within the same possession. It makes charting them quite difficult, but there are a couple of noticeable differences with this year’s unit:

  1. Texas A&M has stopped allowing as many three-point attempts, dropping their 3PA% all the way to 36.9% after 47.4% last year;
  2. They’ve also tightened up their rim defense and have made it really, really hard to score.

Essentially, A&M’s goal is to win as many games by a 66-65 score as humanly possible. This year alone, nine of their 21 games have been decided by six or fewer points. What’s interesting about A&M’s defense is that a lot of the same hallmarks are still there: lots of catch-and-shoot attempts, lots of attempts down low, not many off-the-dribble jumpers, and a genuinely monstrous amount of turnovers forced. In particular, ball-handlers, whether in pick & roll or isolation, have had a whale of a time simply holding onto the ball.

When you can get off a shot against them, the results haven’t been optimal. You’re certainly able to score against them if you get shots off – Synergy rates A&M as 28th-percentile in catch-and-shoot defense and in the 59th-percentile at the rim – but it’s just not been easy. #3 (by KenPom) Kentucky posted just 0.898 PPP against A&M, while #39 Arkansas went for only 0.966 PPP. Both were losses because of the anemic-as-always Aggie offense, but the amount of havoc plays they produce are remarkably high. There’s not just one blocksmith on the team, but several; everyone gets a share.

The good news is that there’s a path to success here. A&M has played eight Top 100 opponents; six went for 1+ PPP. Top 100 offenses have gone for an average of 1.045 PPP, with a lot of damage being done on the boards. A&M has allowed opponents to go for a 31% or higher DREB% 12 times; they are 6-6 in those games and 9-0 in all others. All you can do is what the system would suggest: attack the paint with cuts to the basket, kick out for open threes, and avoid taking mid-range twos.

How Tennessee matches up

It would frankly be nice if Tennessee’s offense kicked itself into gear so I could stop writing the exact same thing twice a week on a loop. Tennessee probably doesn’t have a roster that fits the new rim-and-threes philosophy very well, but the results should be better than what fans have seen thus far. Anyway, this matchup presents a couple of get-right opportunities: the chance to take and make a good amount of threes while driving to the rim out of spot-up situations after you hit a couple.

Justin Powell should be taking more shots. If you would like one “Will, what fix do you propose?” answer to the question I get every week, it is that. Think about it: today is February 1. If on November 1, I had told you that Justin Powell would rank in a three-way tie for third on the team in made threes, fifth in three-point attempts, and seventh in minutes played, I imagine you would be either disappointed or truly blown away at how well the rest of the roster developed in one offseason. It is okay to be disappointed.

For Powell to make these final two months count, he has to shoot. Period. Rick Barnes is right when he claims Powell passes up several open looks every game. If Tennessee wants to squeeze everything they can out of a bruised, rotting lemon that they call an offense, Powell’s over/under for three-point attempts over the final ten games of the season should be 45. It starts here, against a defense that’s below-average at closing out on true catch-and-shoot possessions.

The other thing that’s gotta turn is something that should be borderline obvious by now: the starting (and in close games, closing) lineup. Understandably, Barnes has fiddled with this lineup for a while because the team has two standout players (Chandler/Vescovi), five “let’s see where the night takes us” guys, and four players somewhere between fledgeling and farting on any given night. My proposal is this: embrace the fact that you mostly have no center. Play Nkamhoua at the 5. Play James at the 4. Play Chandler, Vescovi, and Rotating Guard/Wing of the Day at 1/2/3. It works. God, I promise it works.

Do it, and I promise things will get better sooner rather than later. Here’s Kennedy Chandler driving to the basket as a bonus.

The defensive section is becoming pretty easy to write. Texas posted a 63.5% eFG% on Saturday – a number that normally translates to, like, no worse than 1.15 PPP (AKA 66ish points) – and had one of their worst offensive games of the year because Tennessee dominated the boards and forced 19 turnovers. The defense is rock-solid and remains the very opposite of The Problem. If Tennessee shuts down the deep balls A&M wants to loft up and forces low-quality shots on the whole, which isn’t that hard to do, this should be a get-right win. Given the high amount of shots A&M wants to take at the rim, I would like to see Tennessee post at least five blocks.

Just win.

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

  • How often does Tennessee play a James/Nkamhoua frontcourt? Really, how often does Tennessee play James at the 4? The Fulkerson/Plavsic frontcourt, for reasons beaten to death, is an offensive black hole. Nkamhoua/Fulkerson is producing a 0.97 PPP (not schedule-adjusted) offensively because Nkamhoua doesn’t take enough threes to create the offensive spacing necessary for such a lineup. (Look at Fabian White at Houston for how a 6’8″ back-to-the-basket player with a similar build can still take 2-3 threes a night.) Of Tennessee’s four best frontcourt combinations (min. 100 possessions), three have James at the 4. There shouldn’t be a question anymore because the answer exists. How soon Tennessee realizes it is up to them.
  • Shot volume. Tennessee should own an advantage in both TOs + rebounding, but to what extent will be determined by Tennessee’s own offensive turnover struggles.
  • Tennessee’s pass deflections. This is tracked internally, but Tom Satkowiak (Tennessee SID) reports Tennessee averages 28.5 pass deflections per game. That’s an insanely high number; if Tennessee gets to 28 or more in this one they may win by 20+.

Key matchups

Olivier Nkamhoua vs. Henry Coleman. I guess this could be any number of centers, but Nkamhoua should be getting the most minutes at the 5. Coleman is a bear to deal with at the rim, but Nkamhoua could exploit Coleman’s foul troubles (4.3 per 40).

Quenton Jackson vs. Basically Half of the Tennessee Roster. Jackson splits his time at the 3 & 4; across the last five games, six different Tennessee players have seen at least 8+ MPG at either the 3 or 4.

Andre Gordon vs. Santiago Vescovi. Shooter vs. Shooter. The goal here: Vescovi either ends with more made threes or Gordon is held to fewer than four three-point attempts.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee wins three of the Four Factors (losing Free Throw Rate);
  2. Dane Bradshaw correctly uses part of the second half to start a Santiago Vescovi First-Team All-SEC campaign;
  3. Tennessee 70, Texas A&M 59.

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Texas A&M

Texas A&M is a basketball team that plays their games in College Station, TX. They are coached by Buzz Williams. Through 1.3 seasons at Texas A&M, his two teams have ranked 131st and 98th in KenPom. Please let this be an easy one.

Five things worth knowing:

  • Texas A&M is 6-0 at home…
  • …and 0-3 on the road.
  • The Aggies are 1-3 against KenPom Top 100 teams, with the one win being a two-point win over Auburn. The three losses were to #81 TCU (73-55), #33 LSU (77-54), and #62 South Carolina (78-54).
  • Emanuel Miller is the only Texas A&M player in their top six minute-getters to have an Offensive Rating above 100 (essentially, CBB’s Mendoza Line). His is 119.9.
  • The Aggies are, amazingly, one of three teams in America to have a sub-300 offensive Turnover Percentage and a top-25 defensive Turnover Percentage.

Here’s a game information section:

  • THE OPPONENT: Texas A&M (6-3, 1-2).
  • THE TIME: 2 PM ET.
  • THE LOCATION: College Station, TX.
  • THE SPREAD: Has not yet been posted at the time of writing.

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NEXT PAGE: You have to admit that College Station is a good name for a town with a college stationed there

Show Me My Opponent: Texas A&M

Writing about Texas A&M basketball as a 2019-20 entity is not very exciting, guys. I’ll be honest! You like honesty! Writing about Texas A&M basketball from a historical perspective, however, gets me a little more interested. You can somewhat neatly break down Texas A&M’s last 40ish years of basketball into three distinct parts:

  • Wilderness. From 1981 to 2005, Texas A&M made the NCAA Tournament oncewhich is…kind of wild to think about. In fact, from 1987 to 2005, they finished above .500 in conference play just once, in 1993-94. Shelby Metcalf, Kermit Davis, Tony Barone, and Melvin Watkins combined for one 12 seed appearance and zero conference titles.
  • Success. Then they made the NCAA Tournament six years in a row under two different coaches: Billy Clyde Gillispie (peaked with a 3 seed and a Sweet Sixteen run in 2006-07) and Mark Turgeon (5 seed, Round of 32 three times). For a very brief, specific six-year run in history, you could very reasonably say Texas A&M was one of the 20-25 best programs in college basketball.
  • Wilderness and Success and also Wilderness again. After Turgeon came Billy Kennedy, and with Kennedy’s second season came SEC basketball. Over an unexpectedly slow five-year rise, A&M went from the dungeon of the Big 12 to being a legitimate top two SEC team in 2015-16 alongside Kentucky. They’d get a 3 seed, complete maybe the most insane comeback in college basketball history in the Round of 32, then get demolished by eventual champion Villanova in the Sweet Sixteen. Two years later, they’d make another run at the Sweet Sixteen in one of the strangest seasons ever: an 11-1 start shot them to #5 in America, followed by a 2-7 stretch, followed by a 9-3 run that completed itself with a 21-point blowout of 2-seed North Carolina. After a disappointing 2018-19, Billy Kennedy got fired. They hired Buzz Williams…

…and here we are. Texas A&M enters this game just barely above the KenPom national average, which is to say that they’re better than Vanderbilt but no one else. They’ve managed a road win at Mizzou (mildly impressive?) and home wins over other sub-KP #100 teams Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, but that’s it. In one of the more astounding accomplishments of the season, they managed to go 0-3 in a Thanksgiving weekend tournament where they played Harvard (lost 62-51), Temple (65-42), and Fairfield (67-62). They barely hit a quarter of their threes. They could’ve lost to UL-Monroe (won 63-57, trailed for 19 minutes), Troy (56-52, 33 minutes), Texas A&M Corpus Christi (63-60, 20 minutes), and Texas Southern (58-55, never led by more than eight).

Torvik’s average lead/deficit, which is exactly what it sounds like, says that Texas A&M has, on average, been the team trailing in 14 of their 18 games. Their point differential is more suggestive of a 6-12 or 7-11 team. They’re already bad, but Buzz Williams’ first A&M team really should be staring down this Tennessee game with additional losses to Troy and Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Think about that: these Aggies are lucky to be 9-9. It always, always, always could be worse.

NEXT PAGE: Thank you, Kobe.