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Previewing Tennessee’s Final Five Games, Plus an NCAA Tournament Seeding Update

LEXINGTON, KY – FEBRUARY 06, 2018 – Guard Lamonte Turner #1 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Kentucky Wildcats and the Tennessee Volunteers at Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY. Photo By Kyle Zedaker/Tennessee Athletics

The alternate title for this article is/was “Tennessee Just Had Two of Their Four Worst Performances of the Season. Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Panic.” Writing on Tennessee sports, at times, proves to be mostly a job of yelling at people that the sky is not falling. It’s more difficult when you yourself are a fan and occasionally would like to believe that the sky is falling. It presents comfort, because we’ve been kicked in the nuts so many times that we’re all waiting for the next one.

Perhaps it’s time to take a step back and – I know this is gonna hurt – breathe. Please breathe, my God. You’re holding all the air in. Air hog. Tennessee, despite everyone (including pundits) anticipating shoe droppage at any and all points, has won 10 of their last 12 games, including 9 of 11 SEC games, in what’s universally regarded as at least a top-four college basketball conference. (Massey’s Composite says it’s the second-best conference by a hair over the Big East.) Half of those wins were by double digits. Three of them came over Top 40 opponents. In fact, Tennessee still has yet to lose to a team outside of the KenPom Top 50 (Arkansas, at #44, is the “worst” loss) and hasn’t even played a non-Top 100 KP team in two months (Furman, 108th).

So, I hate to say it, but: the team’s pretty good. They’re a near-perfect embodiment of the head coach: frustratingly very good, probably not great, but an A-level team in a sport devoid of them in 2018. What gets Tennessee to 13th in KenPom in 2018 would have given them a 24th-place bid in 2017. It’s strange but perfect that a young, overachieving team that probably would’ve been an average 5 seed (or even 6 seed) in most other years is the highest-ranked 4 seed per the Tournament committee themselves.

Anyway, the purpose of writing this is to show what’s at stake over the next 2.5 weeks. It’s not much for anything beyond seeding – Tennessee is considered a 100% lock by generally everyone to make the Tournament, and gives them just a 2% chance of slipping below a 6 seed (or, alternately, a 1.4% chance of anything above a 2). But: each of these matchups present unique game plans and can help Tennessee achieve the seed they desire.

February 17th, at Georgia

  • KenPom Rank: 80th
  • Last 10 Games Rank: 113th (2-8 in last 10)
  • Adjusted Offensive Efficiency: 130th
  • Adjusted Defensive Efficiency: 45th
  • Projected KenPom score and line: Tennessee 65-61; Tennessee -4
  • Quadrant 1

I gotta be honest, folks: I’d rather slam my head through a wall than watch Mark Fox coach another basketball game. Because God loves me, I get to watch two of them in a two-week span at the end of the season. Fox has found a way to waste the SEC’s best player (Yante Maten; 19.4 PPG, 8.7 RPG) by producing no other double-digit per game scorers. None! Their second-best player, Derek Ogbeide, would be Tennessee’s eighth-best, per Value Add Basketball. Plus, Home Georgia plays suspiciously on-brand: on average, they’ve finished their 12 home games within -0.0083 points of the projected margin. They’ve won nine of those 12 games, but they started out 8-0 at home (exactly one win was over a Top 50 opponent) before losing three of four.

Plus, Georgia’s previously-stout defense has slipped lately. They rank just 89th in defensive efficiency over the last 10 games, allowing five of their last seven opponents to top 70 points after just four of their first 17 opponents did. Why? Well, Georgia doesn’t create turnovers (340th in defensive turnover rate). They’re thoroughly average at board protection (170th in defensive rebound rate). They don’t hit shots, ever (287th in eFG%, 313th in 3PT%). You’d be exhausted on defense, too.

 February 21st, vs. Florida

  • KenPom Rank: 26th
  • Last 10 Games Rank: 32nd (6-4 in last 10)
  • Adjusted Offensive Efficiency: 40th
  • Adjusted Defensive Efficiency: 29th
  • Projected KenPom score and line: Tennessee 73-67; Tennessee -6
  • Quadrant 2

Florida entered the season as a Top Ten team by nearly every metric; their fall has been muffled in the SEC by Kentucky’s much more public and disastrous dive. It’s as simple as this: last year’s Florida team was significantly deeper (eight top-1000 VAB players versus six this year), had five elite players (three, at best, this year), and have suffered from a very high free-throw conversion rate by opponents (74.4%; national average 71.2%). It is what it is.

It’s unusual for Tennessee to only play Florida once, but they do present at least one unique problem for Tennessee: Chris Chiozza. The Gators’ best player is perhaps the best non-Collin Sexton guard in the SEC, and Sexton gave Tennessee all sorts of issues. Jalen Hudson is just as good, but he’ll be matched up with a combination of Schofield and Williams, two excellent defenders. The solution for Tennessee: let just about anyone else shoot. Egor Koulechov, Florida’s best outside shooter, has struggled mightily against Top 50 opponents, and KeVaughn Allen is nowhere near the player he was last season.

February 24th, at Ole Miss

  • KenPom Rank: 95th
  • Last 10 Games Rank: 93rd (2-8 in last 10)
  • Adjusted Offensive Efficiency: 59th
  • Adjusted Defensive Efficiency: 179th
  • Projected KenPom score and line: Tennessee 76-70; Tennessee -6
  • Quadrant 2

I heavily question just how motivated Ole Miss players will be in ten days. Andy Kennedy just got canned, they’ve lost six straight SEC games, and their in-conference shooting has been frighteningly bad: 45.1% from 2 (13th of 14), 30.3% from 3 (12th), and they’ve yet to hit 70 points this month. Deandre Burnett is the only seriously consistent outside threat. They stay in games offensively because they rarely turn it over and grab a healthy amount of offensive boards, but the latter may simply be because they miss so many shots.

February 27th, at Mississippi State

  • KenPom Rank: 57th
  • Last 10 Games Rank: 42nd (5-5 in last 10)
  • Adjusted Offensive Efficiency: 111th
  • Adjusted Defensive Efficiency: 17th
  • Projected KenPom score and line: Tennessee 68-66; Tennessee -2
  • Quadrant 1

Somehow, this may be Tennessee’s toughest and most important game remaining. Remember when Mississippi State started out 13-1 because they played one Top 100 team out of conference (and lost by 15) and fooled…wait, literally nobody? Yeah, apparently Mississippi State received ONE vote in the January 1st AP Poll, at which time they were 12-1. More people usually fall for this stuff. I’m impressed!

Anyway, Mississippi State would be in the field of 68 if they hit threes at even a bad rate. Only three teams in all of America (all from smaller conferences) have a worse three-point percentage (28.5%!!!) than the Bulldogs. It’s a shame for them, because I like almost everything else: they convert a ton of twos (10th-best 2PT%), they rebound well (52nd in OREB%), they’re obviously pretty good defensively, and their twin towers (Abdul Ado and Aric Holman) block a ton of shots. This is a game where Tennessee may lose because they shot something like 6 of 21 from three and couldn’t get to the rim. A pure rock fight.

March 3rd, vs. Georgia

  • KenPom Rank: 80th
  • Last 10 Games Rank: 113th (2-8 in last 10)
  • Adjusted Offensive Efficiency: 130th
  • Adjusted Defensive Efficiency: 45th
  • Projected KenPom score and line: Tennessee 69-58; Tennessee -11
  • Quadrant 3

This would be Tennessee’s worst loss of the season by a country mile. Home losses mean a lot more than road losses, and it helps Tennessee immensely that their two home losses are to teams that will finish as 3 seeds or better. There is literally nothing else worth mentioning about the 2018 Georgia Bulldogs basketball team.

KNOXVILLE, TN – FEBRUARY 13, 2018 – Forward Admiral Schofield #5 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Tennessee Volunteers at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Kyle Zedaker/Tennessee Athletics

So what seed are we looking at?

Last week pre-Kentucky, I went over Tennessee’s higher-end seeding scenarios. For about three days, I had even convinced myself Tennessee had a pretty good shot at a 2 seed. Now, we’re back to where we were about two weeks ago: most likely, it’s a 4 seed, but several scenarios can shotput you elsewhere. Keeping in mind our probabilities from earlier (anything lower than a 6 seed at 2%, 1 seed at 1.4%), Tennessee has about a 97% chance to end up somewhere from a 2 to a 6 seed. provides the following odds for each:

  • 2 seed: 13.9%
  • 3 seed: 32.2%
  • 4 seed: 32.8%
  • 5 seed: 12.9%
  • 6 seed: 4.9%

Torvik bases these on 10,000 simulations of the season. Translated: in about 9,170 of these 10,000 simulations, Tennessee lands somewhere between a 2 and 5 seed, most likely a 3 or 4. It’s more or less a reflection of what the committee said: Tennessee was the highest-ranked four seed (likely still is). The committee typically doesn’t take margin of victory into account (hence their reliance on the RPI for help), so they’re just looking at wins and losses, unless I’ve misheard. The solutions I laid out in the previous piece are all obviously still within reach. For updates, we’ll do quick hitters.

  • To achieve a 2 seed, Tennessee most likely must: win out (5-0) plus win the SEC Tournament (27-6, 14-4 SEC); Torvik has them as the highest 3 seed with a 4-1 regular season record plus an SEC Tournament win.
  • To achieve a 3 seed, Tennessee most likely must: go at least 4-1 in their final five games and 2-1 in the SEC Tournament (25-8, 13-5 SEC)
  • To achieve a 4 seed, Tennessee most likely must: go 3-2 or 4-1 in their final five games, go 1-1 in SEC Tournament (23-9, 12-6 SEC OR 24-8, 12-6 SEC)
  • To achieve a 5 seed, Tennessee most likely must: go 2-3 or 3-2 in their final five games, go 1-1 (in first scenario) or 0-1 (in second) in SEC Tournament (22-10, 11-7 SEC OR 22-10, 12-6 SEC)

Of course, these projections for the purposes of this research, funny enough, depend on Tennessee’s margin of victory and in-game play rather than just the win or loss. Tennessee defeated South Carolina, but dropped a pair of spots on both KenPom and due to failing to cover a projected 14 point spread. If Tennessee were to flip that around and defeat Georgia by 15 on Saturday, they’d rise again on both sites. If you’re rooting for Tennessee to look like an Elite Eight-level team again? Root for a six-point win or better. It’ll help.

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