Who’s the best team Tennessee will play this year?
If the answer ended up being Kansas, we’d certainly take it. The Jayhawks rebounded from their loss to the Big Orange in Atlantis by dropping bombs on Seton Hall (91-65) and our previously-unbeaten brethren from Missouri, in CoMo, 95-67. I know the best team we’ll play this year probably isn’t Maryland, in part because the Terps responded to losing to us in the other direction. UCLA blasted them 87-60, also on their home floor.
In KenPom, there’s an upper crust emerging: UConn is undefeated and first, Houston lost only to Bama (also at home) and is second, and the Vols are third. The aforementioned Bruins are next, around 1.5 points behind the Vols on a neutral floor. The numbers take a small dip there, but next is Purdue, also undefeated and the current top choice in the Bracket Matrix. Its most recent update from December 14 is less kind to UCLA as a four seed, but has Purdue, UConn, Virginia, Houston, Kansas, and Tennessee as the top six teams in the nation, all tightly packed with seed averages of 1.something.
It’s early. But things will shift quickly: conference play begins before the Orange Bowl, and the SEC is as strong as ever at the top. The league has three teams in the KenPom Top 10 and Arkansas at 14th, plus Auburn and still-unbeaten Mississippi State in the Top 25. There’s a gap from there, but that’s a good group of six. Tennessee picks up both Auburn and Mississippi State home-and-home this year. But Alabama and Arkansas both come to Thompson-Boling.
Any conversation as to who our toughest opponent might be will always include Kentucky; it’s their burden to be uncertain about this year’s team while simultaneously being sixth in KenPom. Texas is seventh in KenPom, and also comes to Knoxville.
There are lots of options; it’s in Rick Barnes’ nature to ensure the schedule works that way. We’ll probably spend all year trying to figure out our toughest opponent.
But our toughest single contest, I’d imagine, will be one of two things: Rupp Arena, as usual.
And tomorrow night.
The NCAA Tournament is a neutral site affair. And we learned last year that no matter how bad you may look in a hostile environment – Vols return to Rupp on February 18 – it’s not the best indicator of your chances in March.
Arizona learned this early in our game last year, with Tennessee blitzing them to a 16-2 lead. The Wildcats came all the way back to tie it, but John Fulkerson had his moment with 24 points and 10 rebounds, and the Vols won 77-73. The Wildcats would still go to Selection Sunday at 31-3.
Saturday night at a ludicrous 10:30 PM eastern time, the Vols make the return trip. It’s an amazing number one offense vs number one defense game, one you wish would take place in front of more eyeballs. But there will be plenty of them in Tucson, I’m sure.
The winner is guaranteed little in the moment, but can continue to build a strong resume in what appears to be a crowded field, give or take your current level of belief in UConn or Purdue. From a regular season/advanced stats perspective, we’ve grown used to seeing one team at the top for several years now. I’m not sure any compare to Kentucky’s 2015 juggernaut, but those Wildcats opened the door for a kind of “this-is-clearly-the-best-team” run. Villanova earned that place in 2016 and 2018. But most of the other seasons, it was Gonzaga: KenPom champs and national runners-up in 2017, the only team within a hair of the 2019 champs from Virginia in efficiency, undefeated all the way to the title game in 2021, and back atop that list last season before falling to Arkansas in the Sweet 16.
Gonzaga did much of that with Tommy Lloyd, who took the Arizona job last season. The Bulldogs are not that team this year: Texas and Purdue beat them by 37 combined points. The Vols, you’ll recall, beat them by a similar margin in a televised exhibition. And relative to talent, Rick Barnes’ teams have always played well against Gonzaga, and did so again with Lloyd’s team last year.
With Gonzaga being less Gonzaga-like, the regular season conversation feels much more open. And when the Top 5 teams in KenPom are UConn, Houston, Tennessee, UCLA, and Purdue? It feels w-i-d-e open.
Part of that becomes the chase for the four number one seeds. On Selection Sunday in the last five non-covid-affected NCAA Tournaments, the one seeds averaged 4.55 losses on Selection Sunday. The two seeds averaged 6.25 losses. Maybe the wide open nature of the season means more losses for everyone. But those top teams are getting ready to go their separate ways to conference play. Will the Vols get more beat up than UConn or Virginia? How will Purdue fare in an equally-tough Big Ten?
So this one at Arizona, aside from its own incredible offense/defense merits, could be the small difference between a one and a two seed at the end. Sometimes, it’s just about who has fewer losses. And the winner has a great opportunity to put themselves a step ahead here.
It may not get any tougher this year than Tucson. But the NCAA Tournament won’t be played on anyone’s home floor. For a Tennessee team still trying to ascertain its own health and lineups, while still playing the nation’s best defense? It’s an incredible opportunity in what is shaping up to be a fun, wide open year to get one step closer to the top of the bracket.