Here’s the best way I know to describe what’s no longer on the horizon, but finally here:
Tennessee (24-2, 12-1) has played eight games against KenPom’s Tier A, representing a Top 50 opponent when adjusting for location. Half of those came in the non-conference (Louisville, Kansas, Gonzaga, Memphis). Both games against the Gators are now Tier A after Florida’s win at LSU, as were the trips to South Carolina and, of course, Kentucky. That’s eight of Tennessee’s 26 games.
The Vols are about to play five Tier A opponents in a row.
Tennessee has played seven games against teams currently in the Bracket Matrix. Three of those came against Alabama and Florida, currently two of the last four in.
The Vols are about to play five teams seeded eight or better in a row.
Of Tennessee’s 12 SEC wins, 10 came by at least 11 points. Adjusting for location, KenPom projects the Vols to beat LSU by one, Ole Miss by four, Kentucky by three, Mississippi State by nine, and lose to Auburn by one.
Everything is different from here on out. Every night will be a challenge, every win a good one by any margin. The next five games and the SEC Tournament are the dress rehearsal for the NCAA Tournament, and the Vols are still fighting for one of its top seeds.
A year unlike any we’ve seen so far now faces its toughest test. Let’s see what Tennessee has left to give.
DaCoachO Doesn’t Care For DaNoonTipoff
LSU shares the same strength of schedule issues as Tennessee, with a less murderous finish. After tomorrow the Tigers face Texas A&M, then back-to-back road trips to Alabama and Florida, then finish with Vanderbilt. The loss to the Gators midweek helps, and they could easily fall again in Tuscaloosa or Gainesville…but you want to stay ahead of this team in the standings, given what Tennessee has left.
Their road to 11-2 in conference play is paved with points: in 10 of their 13 contests, LSU has scored at least 80 points, and cracked 90 three times. The Tigers also beat Kentucky with just 73 points. The footrace works both ways: LSU has three overtime wins in league play, plus the OT loss to Florida. They also fell to Arkansas in an absolutely bananas game 90-89.
So tomorrow they’ll face the only SEC offense better than their own: the Tigers are 11th nationally in offensive efficiency, but the Vols still trail only Gonzaga in that department. The Zags have an offensive rating of 127.9, topped only in the KenPom era by the 2015 Wisconsin team that beat Kentucky.
The Tigers get it from a David-and-Goliath combo of 5’11” Tremont Waters and 6’10” freshman Naz Reid. Waters puts in 15.7 points and 5.9 assists per game; he’s also seventh nationally at creating steals. Reid gets 13.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, and is a sneaky good three point shooter (38.1%). LSU has other double-digit scorers in guards Skylar Mays (an 86% free throw shooter) and Ja’vonte Smart, but a huge percentage of their offense runs through Waters and Reid.
LSU is going to run, and they’re going to attack the rim and the offensive glass. They lead the SEC in both offensive rebounding percentage and free throw rate. And when it goes the other way, they’re going to attack the ball: the Tigers are fourth nationally at creating steals.
But if you can get past all the havoc – which is considerable – their defense is vulnerable. The Tigers are sixth in the SEC in defensive efficiency, but dead last (and 277th nationally) in two-point field goal percentage allowed. And the Vols have been excellent from inside the arc, shooting 57.1% on the year: sixth nationally, best in the SEC.
The win over Vanderbilt on Tuesday was a Cuonzo Martin special: we didn’t make shots, but everything else was there. Tennessee’s defensive efficiency went from the mid-50’s to the low-40’s, a great sign for this team’s championship potential. Against a team as good as LSU, the Vols will need to make more shots, of course. But the defensive performance against the Commodores made me feel better about Tennessee’s ceiling.
It’s easy to oversimplify this game and say Tennessee needs Jordan Bone to outplay Tremont Waters, and Grant Williams to outplay Naz Reid. But after Tennessee had its worst game of the season on so many levels at Kentucky, the Vols can be more than just the same team from Lexington that happens to make more shots. Against a team that goes so hard to the offensive glass, we’ll see what Tennessee learned in the toughness department. But it’s not just an intangible, as three of LSU’s five losses came when teams beat them at their own game: Florida State had 19 offensive rebounds, Houston 17, and the Gators 14, the three highest totals the Tigers have allowed all year.
The Kentucky game was bigger on a national level, but for the whole of the season this is one of the most important games left. For Tennessee to remain in control of its own destiny in the chase for a number one seed, this is a big one to get.
High noon, ESPN. Go Vols.