Grant Williams

SEC/Big 12 Challenge: Tennessee vs Iowa State Preview

Opportunity knocks for the SEC tomorrow, and particularly hard for a handful of bubble teams. The Big 12 has five teams in Ken Pomeroy’s Top 20 and three more in the Top 40. They lead the nation in conference RPI with a ridiculous .863 winning percentage (101 wins with just 16 losses) in non-conference play. But with an out-of-conference strength of schedule ranking just 16th out of 32 conferences, tomorrow may be the toughest non-conference test for several non-marquee Big 12 schools.

This continues to be the best SEC of at least a decade, but some clear divisions are beginning to appear. Auburn and Tennessee are in the Top 15 in both KenPom and RPI; Kentucky and Florida may be frustrating fans a little this week but both are in good shape. Then there’s chaos in bubble town: Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas A&M are all a nine or ten seed in the latest Bracket Matrix, with Georgia in the first four out. LSU and South Carolina – teams well off the NCAA radar when conference play began – are playing themselves into the conversation. There is simply no such thing as an afterthought in this league.

The bad news for the SEC in looking to win the challenge tomorrow:  Auburn isn’t in it this year, and neither is Missouri or LSU. Vanderbilt hosts TCU in a one degree of separation game for Jamie Dixon, while Ole Miss is at Texas. The SEC will be a significant underdog in both of those games. But there are games that can make a serious difference for South Carolina (vs #14 Texas Tech), Alabama (vs #12 Oklahoma), and Texas A&M (at #5 Kansas).

Is there such a thing as a bad team in the nation’s best conference? Tennessee gets to find out.

Last year Iowa State was a five seed in the NCAA Tournament, losing to Purdue in the second round by four points. But they lost their top four scorers and started the year getting blown out by Missouri (74-59) and Milwaukee (74-56) in one degree of Bruce Pearl games. Then they won nine in a row en route to conference play.

After a blowout home loss to Kansas State, the Cyclones were feisty in defeat: overtime losses to Texas and at Oklahoma State, then a five point loss at Kansas. In the last two weeks, they have avoided close games like the plague: beat Baylor by 10, lost at TCU by 23, beat Texas Tech by 18, lost at Texas by 16.

What Iowa State does well:

  • Guards who let it fly. Lindell Wigginton and Donovan Jackson are 6’2″ and unafraid: between them they average 13.1 threes attempted per game. And they’re not just volume shooters: Wigginton shoots 43% from the arc, Jackson 42%. Nick Babb is the distributor with 7.2 assists per game.
  • Ball security. Iowa State is 59th nationally in turnover percentage, giving it away on just 14.6% of their possessions.
  • Free throw shooting. The Cyclones shoot 73.2% from the line, and Donovan Jackson is one of the best free throw shooters in the country at 40-of-43 (93%) on the year. They also defend without fouling, allowing the 11th fewest free throw attempts in college basketball this year.

What Tennessee can do to win:

  • Wear them down. This isn’t just a nine-man rotation, it’s essentially a nine-man roster. Their pace isn’t slow (139th nationally), but I’ll be curious to see if Tennessee tries to speed them up. Nick Babb has an amazing stat line of 12.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 7.2 assists per game, but it comes in nearly 38 minutes of work every night.
  • Good looks from three. And they’re available against Iowa State, 222nd nationally in three-point percentage defense. Assist percentage and three-point shooting continue to be the best predictors of success for Tennessee.
  • Take the crowd out early. This is the first year we’ve seen Tennessee as a ranked team in a non-conference road game since 2011, which means it’s the first time we’ve seen these Vols wear the target associated with a meaningful win for the home team. The Vols have traveled extremely well and not allowed teams like Wake Forest and Georgia Tech to find that win. Against an Iowa State team recently familiar with blowing out or getting blown out, the Vols need to make sure it’s going to be the latter Saturday as soon as possible.

Saturday, 4:00 PM ET, ESPNU. Go Vols.

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Great work as always, Will.

It’d be great for NCAA seeding to have a win against the Big 12 to go along with our 3-1 record vs. the ACC.