Into the Great Wide Open

Of the 52 entries in Wednesday’s Bracket Matrix, 50 had the Vols as a three seed. This chaos season has actually solidified the top of the tournament: Alabama, Houston, Kansas, and Purdue remain entrenched as the ones, with UCLA, Texas, Baylor, and Arizona firm on the two line. Should the Wildcats slip down, their brethren from Manhattan, KS are most poised to move up from the three line in the matrix. Marquette and Gonzaga join the Vols and Kansas State there.

I appreciate Joe Lunardi – who got the Vols’ placement dead on last year even while disagreeing with it – who works to put stakes on every outcome:

But we all carry the scars of last season, when winning the SEC Tournament did nothing for Tennessee on the seed line. If the Vols were a three in the bracket reveal a couple of weeks ago, and have kept pace with everyone else’s chaos…they seem likely to be a three on Selection Sunday no matter what happens from here.

The most cynical among us could make the argument that the Vols are more likely to move down because of Zakai Zeigler’s injury than move up by winning out.

There are an incalculable number of words to be said about Zeigler, and thankfully more seasons left to say them. And there are plenty of words to say about Tennessee without Zeigler; Will Warren has a great breakdown of how the Vols might look.

This Tennessee team is well-versed in the chaos that defines this season:

Seven Quad 1 wins ties the Vols for ninth in the country. Tennessee is still third in NET, fourth in KenPom, and has a chance to play its way to a double-bye in the SEC Tournament on Saturday despite losing five of seven games in February. There is plenty of good already done, plenty more to be done.

We obviously saw Tennessee function at a high level against Arkansas without Zeigler (and Tyreke Key). The Vols adjusted on a fly with a lineup that included 38 minutes for Santiago Vescovi. In postseason play, Rick Barnes isn’t afraid to go this route even with all options available: against Michigan last year, Vescovi, Kennedy Chandler, and Josiah-Jordan James all played 37-38 minutes.

It feels like there’s a decent chance the first line on an opposing scout of Tennessee just became, “Get Vescovi in foul trouble.” The good news there: that’s statistically harder to do with him than any other Tennessee player. Vescovi averages 2.4 fouls per 40 minutes, the best number on the roster. It’s mostly outrageous that he plays so clean while also being 68th nationally in steal percentage. And lineups that include Vescovi + Mashack won’t have to worry about a huge drop-off there without Zeigler, as Jahmai is fifth nationally in that stat.

We might be overly partial to this as a potential red flag because we’ve seen it happen too many times in March. Two years ago the Vols lost John Fulkerson in the SEC Tournament, then saw Yves Pons get into quick foul trouble against Oregon State in round one. That forced Tennessee even deeper into combinations that just hadn’t played together much. In 2019, Kyle Alexander fouled out with three minutes left in overtime against Purdue and the Vols down one. The Boilermakers hit those two free throws, then got a layup and a dunk on their next two possessions to push the lead to seven.

But if Tennessee can keep Vescovi on the floor, I think there’s a good chance they can continue to do the things they’re very best at. Any argument that the Vols would be better without Zeigler is nonsense. But the core of what represents their best basketball – elite defense, limiting fouls, offensive rebounding, and minimally efficient three-point shooting – can survive and advance.

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