Everyone is on the books now in SEC action, and most of the league has played twice. The other teams we believed to be contenders for the SEC Championship – Auburn, Florida, Kentucky, and Mississippi State, all Top 25 in KenPom – have already lost once. Tennessee beat Georgia by 46, then won at Missouri by 24. The Vols are now projected to win the SEC at 14-4 in KenPom. But more than that, the second place team(s) are projected to finish 11-7.
Tennessee, meanwhile, is now fifth nationally in KenPom with a rating of +26.87 (points better than the average team on a neutral floor in 100 possessions). It’s easily the program’s best rating in the 18-year KenPom history. I’ll leave the Ernie & Bernie comparisons to those old enough to have seen both, but otherwise, right now you’ve got statistical backup for, “This is the best Tennessee team I’ve ever seen.”
With that comes an exciting curiosity: now it’s not just if the Vols will win, but can they ascend the blowout ladder? Rebuilding team with a first-year coach, check. Bubble team on the road, check.
What about the Gators? KenPom still only projects the Vols as a two-point favorite in Gainesville, so perhaps we shouldn’t get too greedy. But I’m also not sure this team is done teaching us what greedy actually looks like just yet.
Last Year: After a 9-1 stretch book-ended with victories over Kentucky, the Vols lost two of their next three to fall out of the number one seed conversation. Florida was the return to form: a gritty 62-57 win in Knoxville, which helped us simplify Tennessee’s best basketball to a degree.
This was the game that made us start conversations with, “Does this team have anyone who can guard Grant Williams?” The soon-to-be SEC Player of the Year had 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting and 7-of-8 at the line. A Florida team that found plenty of success leaning on guards Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen had no answer for Williams.
I’m not sure how much that’s changed. The Gators still like putting four guys at 6’5″ and under on the floor with a single big, most often 6’9″ senior Kevarrius Hayes. He’s a good shot-blocker, but he and 6’8″ junior Keith Stone are really the only shot blockers on this team. The Vols remain first in the nation in fewest shots blocked.
Where Florida does make its living is turnovers. The Gators are fifth nationally in defensive efficiency, the Vols fourth in offensive efficiency, which should make this really fun to watch…if Florida has an answer for Williams. Forcing turnovers on 24.6% of opponent possessions (seventh nationally) is a good start. The Gators are 7-2 when forcing 15+ turnovers, 2-3 when they don’t hit that mark.
KeVauhgn Allen is still around, but a pair of freshmen guards – Noah Locke and Andrew Nembhard – are a big part of what they like to do as well. Nembhard is 28th nationally in assist rate, averaging 5.7 per game. Locke is a volume shooter, hitting 42.4% from the arc so far this year.
It’s thankfully the first of two with the Gators this year, who return to Knoxville on February 9 in an already sold out Thompson-Boling. This one will get some national eyeballs – 6:00 PM ET Saturday, ESPN – and represents another big chance for Tennessee to separate themselves from the SEC contenders. We’ll see how much additional separation the Vols can create in Gainesville.