The first game of SEC play might be the most difficult, depending on which set of power ratings you ask. RPI Forecast uses Jeff Sagarin’s, which give Tennessee just a 28% chance to win at Arkansas tomorrow. That’s the lowest percentage left on the schedule – the Vols are currently getting 30% in Rupp Arena – and one of only five remaining games where Tennessee is the underdog (at Missouri 40%, vs Texas A&M 46%, at Alabama 48%).
So yes, it’s a big test. As we know, the Vols have already played three of the nation’s top eight teams in KenPom. They beat one and took the other two to the finish line. Arkansas is 22nd in KenPom, just behind the Vols at 19th. But this time, Tennessee has to get it done on the road.
Arkansas does not like close games.
The Razorbacks are 10-2. They beat Oklahoma (#16 KenPom) in the Phil Knight tournament 92-83, then lost to North Carolina by 19 the next day. The Tar Heels were +16 in rebounds, shot 8-of-16 from the arc, and had 21 free throw attempts to eight for Arkansas.
They blew out UConn by 35 two days after that, then lost at Houston (#40 KenPom) by 26 six days later. The Cougars were +9 on the glass, but were also particularly good at shutting down Arkansas: Houston (34.5%) and UNC (37.5%) are the only teams to hold them under 43% from the field.
Then they dusted Minnesota (#41 KenPom, 14th in the AP poll at the time) by 16 a week later in one of their best performances of the season: 57.4% from the field, 43.5% from the arc, 23 assists to nine turnovers. Since then they’ve beaten Troy, Oral Roberts, and CSU Bakersfield by a combined 87 points.
They lost Dusty Hannahs and Moses Kingsley from the group that pushed North Carolina to the end in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. But their three senior guards have been a terror: Jaylen Barford averages 18.6 points and 46.4% from the arc, Daryl Macon gets 15.3 on 43.7% from three, and Anton Beard goes for another 12.1. And 6’11” freshman Daniel Gafford has poured in 11.7 points and 6.3 rebounds in just 20 minutes of action, while guard C.J. Jones has gone from role player to double-digit scorer at 10.5 per. In both losses, this guard-heavy lineup suffered in the post: Luke Maye had 28 points and 16 rebounds while Gafford played only 15 minutes with foul trouble, and Houston’s Devin Davis (only 6’6″) had 28 and 10 while Gafford had just five. Tennessee will need Grant Williams to have similar success.
What Arkansas does well:
- Offense, in general. 50.3% from the floor (21st nationally) and 41% from the arc (also 21st nationally). Arkansas is 19th in KenPom’s offensive efficiency ratings, and they score 90 points per game playing the 29th fastest pace in college basketball; only North Carolina is faster among Tennessee’s prior opponents.
- Turnover-free basketball. This is Arkansas’ most remarkable stat: despite playing at such a fast pace, the Razorbacks are 10th nationally in total turnovers and fourth in turnover percentage, giving the ball away on just 12.1% of their possessions. Arkansas’ Twitter account points out Daryl Macon has 17 consecutive assists without a turnover. The primary ball-handlers are seniors who don’t succumb to pressure. This is an extraordinarily efficient offense.
- Blocking shots. The Razorbacks are 30th nationally in block percentage, sending back 14.5% of opponent shots. Gafford gets 1.9 per game, a little less than Moses Kingsley’s 2.6 last season, but still effective in limited minutes. Good news here: Tennessee is even better at this, sending back 16.2% of opponent field goals, 21st nationally.
What Tennessee can do to win:
- The Vols have plenty of experience with great offenses, and remain one of the nation’s best defensive teams. Tennessee has played the nation’s 14th most difficult schedule in terms of opponent offenses via KenPom. The Vols are first among major conference teams in that metric, and it’s about to get better/worse. Having already faced offenses nationally rated second (Villanova), seventh (Purdue), 18th (North Carolina), and 27th (Wake Forest), the Vols now face Arkansas (19th), Auburn (29th), and Kentucky (25th) in a row. Half of Tennessee’s first 14 opponents will have had a Top 30 offense. And yet, the Vols are 35th nationally in field goal percentage defense at 39% and rated ninth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency. The common denominator in defeat is an elite offense getting the best of Tennessee’s great defense: Villanova and UNC are still the only two teams to shoot better than 40% against UT. Will Arkansas get there?
- Do you crash the offensive glass or set up transition defense? Tennessee chose the former against Villanova and North Carolina, getting offensive rebounds on 40.6% of their misses against the Wildcats and 39% against the Tar Heels. It almost paid off both times. But against another fast foe in Wake Forest, the Vols only grabbed 22.2% of their misses. However, Tennessee held the Demon Deacons to 37.7% from the floor and forced 19 turnovers. As noted, it’s unlikely the Vols will force a ton of turnovers against Arkansas. But Rick Barnes will have to choose if he wants to try to win this game with second chances on the offensive end, or if Tennessee’s first chance can be enough to try to win by slowing Arkansas down. North Carolina beat Arkansas via the offensive glass (and, I’m sure, by being North Carolina). We’ll see what Tennessee decides.
- Grant Williams dominates. It almost worked last year. Robert Hubbs got the headlines with 21 points in a four-point loss in Knoxville, but Williams had 15 points and 11 rebounds (six offensive) in 28 minutes. Moses Kingsley had just seven points. The blueprint is there against Gafford; if Kyle Alexander can help, even better.
It’s the first SEC impression, but could end up being a lasting one. All the pieces are there for the Vols to interest Arkansas in a close, great game between two teams gunning for the conference crown. The Vols have earned the fun they’ll find in Fayetteville.
Saturday, 1:00 PM ET, SEC Network. Go Vols.