Best Is Not Bulletproof

Even with the loss at Florida, the Vols are projected to finish the regular season at 25-6 (14-4) in both Torvik and KenPom. In recent history, that number would be topped only by 2000 (24-5), 2008 (28-3), and 2019 (27-4).

Of course, that probably doesn’t make Wednesday’s loss feel much better; I continue to think about these conversations in football when people say a 12-team playoff will make the regular season less meaningful. Just as Saturday’s win over Texas truly satisfied, the loss at Florida truly stings. It was the first of Tennessee’s four losses this year that couldn’t be explained by teams keeping the Vols off the offensive glass: Colorado, Arizona, and especially Kentucky (9%) held the Vols to less than 23% in offensive rebounding percentage. At Florida, the Vols grabbed 31.8% of their misses, but still couldn’t overcome on the offensive end.

Florida also shot a season-high 35% from the arc against Tennessee. The only other team to shoot 33+% against us was USC, who took the Vols to overtime in the Bahamas. Of note, last season 14 teams shot 33+% against the Vols from the arc; the Vols went 9-5 in those games, including wins over North Carolina, Arkansas, and Arizona.

I think some of the worry of any loss this season will get tied directly back to Michigan by default, which we can’t do anything about until March comes around again. Last year the Wolverines shot 37.5% (6-of-16) from the arc against Tennessee, combined with strong individual post play and an ice-cold performance from the Vols. Because it beat a UT team playing its very best basketball at the time last year, there’s always a concern it could do the same to this UT team playing the very best in KenPom in program history.

So here’s the least-fun but always-necessary version of this post that shows up every year: even the best Tennessee teams lose games, and usually ones you think they shouldn’t.

Every one of Bruce Pearl’s teams lost at least one game to a team finishing outside the Top 50 in KenPom. The 2008 squad went to Rupp Arena at 16-1 and lost to a Kentucky team that finished 78th. The 2010 Elite Eight squad lost at #91 Georgia.

Rick Barnes’ two best teams have, in part, been victims of their own success in a different kind of way. The 2019 squad started 23-1, but faced a back-loaded SEC schedule. They lost five times in their final 13 games, but all were to Top 20 KenPom foes. And last year’s team didn’t lose to anyone outside the Top 30, but also didn’t lose to anyone other than #18 Arkansas after January, until the Michigan game…which made it sting so much more, of course. But along the way, both of those teams had very un-fun days in Rupp Arena, losing by a combined 45 points.

This team’s “worst” loss is likely to remain #64 Colorado, but that was the second game of the season. Florida is currently 38th in KenPom; we’ll see where the Gators finish. But there’s the combination of “best ever” in advanced metrics, and losses, other than Arizona, where the offense suffers…plus a fairly back-loaded schedule in its own right. So it creates a conversation where there are more reasons to believe in this team than ever in some ways…and a question that waits to emerge if shots aren’t falling early in the contest. What will this team do when it’s cold? And how hot does the opposition need to be to overcome it? We know the Vols can struggle if they can’t create second chances. But they, like every other team in the nation this year, aren’t bulletproof, even with a defense this good.

From a purely college basketball standpoint, it should make for an enjoyably unpredictable finish. From Tennessee’s perspective, the Vols get a test from Auburn tomorrow afternoon, then go to Vanderbilt and get Missouri the following week. And then it ramps up: Alabama, at Kentucky, at Texas A&M, South Carolina, Arkansas, at Auburn. With apologies to the Gamecocks, the rest of that stretch are all Top 40ish KenPom foes.

We’re only at the halfway point in SEC play; plenty of basketball remains, plenty of room for improvement, as we just witnessed last year. This group still has a chance to be in the conversation for the best we’ve ever seen around here. But best will not be bulletproof, even when their defense makes it feel like that sometimes.

As they hit the same speedbumps that even those best Tennessee teams have struggled with, how will the Vols continue to grow?

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Mr B
Mr B
1 year ago

This team is getting everyone’s best and it comes with the top 10 ranking. How cool is it that the Vols are the hunted and are projected to win every game? Incredible. Luckily it’s not one and done yet, must enjoy the ride for now. Go Vols!