It’s considerably earlier in March than I’d hoped to be writing this. I anticipated perhaps writing this on the morning on March 23 or 25; I never really bought into the Final Four thing, but I appreciated that people did. I really, truly believed this group would end the season as, at worst, one of the 16 best teams in America. With a couple good breaks, one of the best eight. It’d be the second time ever they were one of the best eight, and this one would feel different because nothing about the regular season was disappointing.
But that’s sports, and that’s why I wake up after yet another killer loss wondering why I do this. This is a hard write, but it’s a harder read, and I have no issue with anyone who doesn’t want to read it yet, or ever. You’ve read enough of these postmortem columns after a Tennessee sports loss that made you want to turn the car on in the garage and wait for the inevitable.
I can’t promise this will help. I’m mostly writing this for myself and for anyone else who wants to figure out what happened and why. What will hurt most reading this is that Tennessee did several things right. They simply didn’t do enough. There will not be any video, because you all saw enough last night. Only words.
- Tennessee took just 15 of their 55 shots at the rim. This wasn’t Kentucky, Mississippi State, or another SEC team with a pair of large dudes in front of the basket; this was Loyola Chicago, who has one rotation player taller than 6’6″ and he looks like he’d rather be playing Fortnite. Of the 15 layup and dunk attempts, Tennessee made 10. (Credit to Loyola: only one of these 15 possessions ended in a foul – the Grant Williams attempt that temporarily gave Tennessee the lead at 62-61.) When they went to the rim, they had success, as anyone would have guessed. They just…didn’t. This is at least partially because:
- Kyle Alexander is far, far better than either John Fulkerson or Derrick Walker. It really, truly is not close, and it never was. The Derrick Walker hype, as of now, is entirely because he grabs a metric ton of rebounds and looks the part. At no point has he looked offensively potent or defensively aware. Fulkerson, quite simply, does not have SEC athleticism. It’s not because he’s white; he lost an entire year of training and practice to an injury and it’s pretty obvious what effect that had. Tennessee ended up defending the rim at a normal rate – Loyola made 10 of 18 attempts, or 58%, which is below their average – but it was clear they didn’t have the same power inside. Per Bart Torvik, Alexander’s departure single-handedly dropped Tennessee’s odds of winning by 7.3%.
- A team that wasn’t a great jump-shooting team all year got locked in a jump shooting game and couldn’t hit jump shots. That’s a long way of stating the following: Loyola hit 12 of 25 jumpers (about 2 above their expected number); Tennessee hit 13 of 37. In a game where Tennessee had a size advantage, they took 12 more jump shots and refused to go to the rim. Thankfully, they only took 12 of these from 2. Taking 25 from 3 isn’t quite as offensive as I’d thought, because they did hit 9, which translates to 1.08 points per possession…or also the best possessions they had outside of when they went to the rim (1.4 PPP). But: they took 37 jump shots against a team they could have bullied inside.
- Loyola’s catch-and-shoot prowess was slightly overblown. They hit just 5 of 15 catch-and-shoot jumpers, and Tennessee had someone within four feet on eight of them. I know that seems high, but that’s what the Synergy data shares. It wasn’t the catch-and-shoots.
- It was the off-the-dribble jumpers. The average team hit 33.7% of these in 2017-18; Loyola hit about 40% on the season. It’s one of the worst shot attempts in basketball, because very few of these aren’t guarded and it’s entirely reliant on an unreliable variable (a 19-22 year old basketball player) to hit a tougher-than-normal shot. Loyola hit 6 of their 8 attempts. Two of them hit the rim twice before going in. Basketball is the best bad sport in the world because almost nothing else has the capacity to be this stupid.
- Tennessee’s catch-and-shoot prowess wasn’t quite overblown. They hit 9 of 21 catch-and-shoot jumper attempts, above their season average, though it helps that Admiral Schofield hit 4 of his 7. (The rest of the team: 5 of 14.) This means that on all other jumpers – 16 of them, in fact – Tennessee hit four. A 25% success rate in a game where the other team was at 70% is not great.
- Tennessee failed to crash the boards. As I said in my Twitter game preview, this was the worst offensive rebounding team Tennessee has played in the KenPom era. They actually held them slightly below their average – 21.7% of OREB opportunities grabbed – but couldn’t do a thing themselves. This is where Alexander’s loss was felt: against a smaller team, Tennessee only grabbed 21.4% of potential offensive rebounds. No player on Tennessee’s roster had more than four rebounds total. For all the toughness talk, they didn’t look the part, and that might be what feels worst. Loyola themselves still didn’t produce a decent shot volume (104.5, barely above their season average of 103.5); Tennessee didn’t respond with a notably better one (109.3).
- Lastly, the lineups sucked, too. It isn’t my job to criticize a coach that won 26 games this year, but there were a pair of lineups that made zero sense: a Yves Pons/James Daniel lineup in the first half that stayed on the court for three minutes as Tennessee’s lead shrunk from 15-6 to 15-12 and an equally confusing usage of Daniel for seven whole minutes in the second half with both Bone and Turner on the bench at various parts, during which Tennessee’s deficit went from as low as one point to as high as nine. Daniel was a brutal play for the final month of the season; outside of a three and a steal, last night was no different.
- Lastly, lastly, Admiral Schofield went 19 minutes and 19 seconds without a single field goal attempt, between 12:48 of the first half and 13:29 left in the second. I have nothing to add to that, other than the best player on the team from Florida onward didn’t shoot the ball once for almost half the game. In that time, Tennessee scored 21 points. They put in 41 in the other half of the game. Seems meaningful. Whatever, I’m pivoting to books.
The feeling of loss due to a meaningful amount of care, in any field, will inevitably be painful. It is even worse in sports: you spend your whole life waiting to stop losing, to stop feeling pain, to stop getting kicked in the balls over and over and over. Until one day, when it just…stops. For those maybe 27 and older, this is Tennessee’s 1998 national championship. Perhaps a professional team you support has won a title. None of mine have in my lifetime, and I didn’t know what football was until Casey Clausen was Tennessee’s quarterback.
Every year, I get back up and wait for something to change. And, every year, it always ends in a loss. It always ends in heartbreak. It always ends in me pivoting to something else for a few days, whether it’s books or a TV show (Waco!) or music. If you want to pivot to music with me for a few days, there will never, ever be anything better for this than Hank’s 40 Greatest Hits, which is maybe the greatest country release of all time. Nothing has captured heartbreak so effectively, other than Patsy Cline’s voice.
Next year will be no different: Tennessee will, again, leave the NCAA Tournament a little earlier than I’d like. The article I wrote about Rick Barnes not being a March underachiever will feel a little worse. And yet, like an idiot, I will come back and let myself be tossed by the waves. I will give in to the temptation of thinking this group is The One that makes the Final Four. I will allow myself to believe that my grandfather, who will be 78 by next year, will get to see Tennessee in the Final Four in his lifetime.
And again, I will be disappointed. And again, I’ll have to read the quote about how it’s better to loved and have lost than to have never loved at all. And again, it will make me smile while also making me hurt that much more. This is life, and this is the constant pendulum between overlooking the flaws and confronting them all the same. Let’s all go read a book.
Will Warren can be reached by electronic mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @gyrateplus. He is pivoting to softball in preparation for a future disappointment.