Another Look at the Ceiling

Four years ago, Tennessee opened SEC play with a 96-50 beatdown of Georgia. Even with a team you already knew was really good by that point, it was an abnormally great performance. It remains the only 40+ point win over an SEC foe since 1979.

Those Dawgs were not great: 8-4 at the time, 11-21 at the end, 132nd in KenPom. From the Bruce Pearl era onward, Tennessee has seven wins of 30+ points against SEC foes. And, as you’d expect, five of them came against teams finishing outside the Top 100 in KenPom.

Ten years ago, Cuonzo Martin’s Vols caught Kentucky in their first game without Nerlens Noel, and laid down the law in an 88-58 shocker. That UK squad ended up in the NIT, as did those Vols. Kentucky was 18th in KenPom at tip-off, but finished 55th.

I’m not sure exactly where this Mississippi State squad will finish. They were as high as 22nd before what is now a three-game losing streak, leaving them currently 46th. And they were a nine seed in yesterday’s Bracket Matrix.

The story of Tennessee’s season won’t be defined by how good those Bulldogs are or aren’t, though we’ll see them again in Starkville in 12 days. But when considering a ceiling that already looked pretty good, this week’s performance – an 87-53 win – makes you start thinking about a skylight.

It wasn’t Josiah-Jordan James’ return by itself; hard to make it only about that when Tennessee leads 16-0 as he’s checking in. But his presence – eight points and four assists in 17 minutes – deepens the questions about what Tennessee’s best lineups even are. Having no definitive answer there means there could be even better basketball still out there somewhere. And the notion that Tennessee’s offense will automatically struggle has never made less sense than Tuesday night.

Better shooting may be harder to come by, considering it set the program record for effective field goal percentage in KenPom. It’s happened a couple of times in the post-2019 world for the Vols, when a squad with an outrageously good defense gets hot at the same time, and just annihilates anyone from Kansas two years ago to the team with the previously-sixth-best defense in the land this week. While the Vols are unlikely to be quite so hot again, the stuff that makes their best basketball – 28 assists on 36 made shots – can continue to hang around. And Josiah’s presence allows for small ball lineups we really haven’t been able to see.

Meanwhile, the last of the unbeatens is down in college basketball, and the race for the number one seeds is on:

  • One Loss: Arizona, Houston, Kansas, Purdue (plus Kansas State and TCU)
  • Two Losses: Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas, UCLA, UConn (plus Iowa State, LSU, Miami, Missouri, Wisconsin)

Tennessee is the second number two seed in the Bracket Matrix, and the second overall seed in Bart Torvik’s predictive bracketology. The Vols are at South Carolina on Saturday, then play Vanderbilt in Knoxville on Tuesday before Kentucky comes calling January 14. The regular season will hit its halfway point next week. And at the moment, there’s a small gap forming in KenPom between the top two teams – that’s Houston and Tennessee – and everyone else.

The Vols have looked good and very good. They’ve never looked better shooting the ball than they did against Mississippi State. But if a full roster has indeed presented itself once more, Tennessee has even more room to grow. So what already might be some of the best basketball we’ve seen in Knoxville is, in a very real sense, just getting started.

Go Vols.

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