Looking for Consistency in Lexington

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What we’re seeing from Tennessee right now is something we might’ve predicted at the start of the season, but a 10-1 flurry with the lone loss to hot-shooting Alabama made us believers in something more. Our program has little experience playing multiple freshmen heavy minutes, and mostly zero when two potential first round picks are asked to carry this kind of load offensively.

Rick Barnes probably knows what to expect in this situation from Texas. When his Longhorns asked big things from multiple freshmen, they tended to hit speed bumps along the way:

  • 2014 (Isaiah Taylor, Martez Walker): Started 20-5, finished 3-6. Lost in the second round as a 7 seed to 2 seed Michigan.
  • 2011 (Cory Joseph, Tristan Thompson): Started 23-3, finished 4-4. Lost by one point in the second round as a 4 seed to 5 seed Arizona.
  • 2010 (J’Covan Brown, Avery Bradley, Jordan Hamilton): Started 17-0, finished 7-9. Lost in overtime in the first round as an 8 seed.
  • 2007 (Kevin Durant, D.J. Augustin, Damion James, Justin Mason): Started 13-3, finished 11-6. Lost in the second round as a 4 seed to 5 seed USC.

Obviously there’s no Kevin Durant on this team, but that’s the kind of “inconsistency” you’d like to see: maybe not going to rampage through the regular season the way you thought they would early, but still plenty of big wins along the way so there’s not a before/after or, “And then they hit the wall,” moment.

What we hoped the Vols would have sorted out by the time they hit mid-January has carried through the most challenging part of their schedule into February. I don’t think Tennessee or its freshmen have hit any kind of wall – recall the 19-point win over Kansas six days ago – but they’re also clearly not done figuring themselves out, especially as more is being asked from the freshmen. Consistency is the current challenge.

The loss at Ole Miss didn’t do much to change my thoughts on Tennessee’s ceiling: the Vols played quite poorly down the stretch on offense, had an unusually high number of turnovers, and credit Ole Miss for hitting some big shots. A close road loss like that didn’t ding the Vols much in the advanced metrics. But it is the first time Tennessee lost to anything other than a really good team, which at least makes you wonder about Tennessee’s floor.

Via KenPom, the Vols are still the best defensive team in the nation, and school history. That part hasn’t suffered in these losses. But if Tennessee runs into an on-fire opponent (Alabama) or scores 49 (Florida) or 50 (Ole Miss) points on its own end, the Vols are clearly vulnerable. And the Rebels getting it done shows that vulnerability can be present before we get to the second weekend of the tournament.

In Oxford, Keon Johnson’s 27 minutes were the most he’s played in a game that Jaden Springer finished, and Springer’s 31 were a season high. All of Tennessee’s previous losses came when Springer was hurt, then Tuesday night he had his worst outing of the year: 1-of-7, 0-of-2 at the line, three turnovers, two points. That’ll happen to freshmen; let’s see a little more data with both of those guys playing big minutes, but it’s another argument for how valuable their ability to get their own shots and empower Tennessee’s offense is.

Speaking of vulnerability, tomorrow night it’s Rupp Arena. Kentucky is 5-11 (4-5) and has lost at home to Richmond, Notre Dame, and Alabama this year. In addition to the usual, the Cats make me nervous because they’re 352nd nationally in KenPom’s luck ratings: some of their losses have come from teams shooting wildly higher percentages than they’re accustomed to. It’s super frustrating to be a fan of one of these “bad luck” teams (see Cuonzo’s 2014 squad, 341st in luck), but they’re also the kind of teams that can still blow you out of the water when things do start falling their way (see also Cuonzo’s 2014 squad).

You’ll want to watch the whistles in this one, but where Tennessee is most likely to thrive is via turnovers: the Cats’ young guards have struggled mightily at times here, Tennessee’s defense is one of the best in the land at it, and Kentucky’s defense doesn’t force many on the other end.

And, of course, it’s Rupp. Tennessee’s thrilling come-from-behind win there last year lost some of its luster because it happened on March 3, and we stopped playing sports altogether ten days later. But if the Vols win tomorrow, it’ll be three wins in four years in Lexington. From 1977-2017, the Vols won there four times. And in this case, a W would make it four-of-five against Kentucky overall.

You throw a lot out this year with the pandemic, making it harder to understand both Kentucky’s struggles and Tennessee’s quest for consistency. Alabama is running away with the regular season league title and on track to earn their own one seed. From there, the Vols are one of five teams (Arkansas, Florida, LSU, Missouri) projected to finish with six or seven SEC losses via KenPom. Two of those teams won’t earn a double bye in the SEC Tournament. But that crowded field is also establishing itself well in the NCAA Tournament:

The league’s top tier is still quite strong, and Tennessee is right in the thick of it. And the long game in college basketball this year is still about Gonzaga, Baylor, then everybody else. So there is extreme value in earning at least a three seed, meaning you wouldn’t see either of those teams until the Elite Eight at the earliest.

In some ways, we’ll still measure Tennessee by what they do against Kentucky, with a chance to make the kind of history at Rupp Arena that would’ve seemed absurd just four years ago. Overall, Tennessee is looking for more consistency, which means we won’t get all the answers tomorrow night. But if we get enough to beat Kentucky again, all will be quite well once more.

Saturday, 8:00 PM, ESPN. Go Vols.

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