You might feel all kinds of different ways about KenPom; part of the beauty of the formula, of course, is that it doesn’t care about your feelings. If you’ve spent any time on this site or Rocky Top Talk over the years, you know we use it regularly. And you know we love feelings, like the ones we felt when the Vols ascended KenPom’s throne for a few days earlier this season.
I don’t believe we hang banners for “Reached #1 in KenPom” – I’m not entirely sure, we’ve never done it before – but it’s worth pointing out both for celebrating what is available to celebrate, and looking forward to the bracket. It’s true this is a college basketball season more for the people than the elites: even now, the Vols are still fifth overall in KenPom. The 2019 squad, the program’s best at season’s end by that metric, would be third overall this year. They finished tenth in 2019.
But this bracket’s chaos is equal opportunity: the field doesn’t start getting weaker after the first couple of teams, it’s open from the get-go. Houston, number one in KenPom, would be sixth in that same 2019 season.
So yes, there’s great opportunity for madness. But you’d still rather have the best available team, right?
In that spirit: Tennessee is the highest-rated team in KenPom in the East region.
It’s tempting to dismiss UT’s rating and/or the Vols overall because of the Zakai Zeigler injury. But keep in mind, a significant percentage of UT’s rating was earned without Josiah-Jordan James and/or Julian Phillips. We only saw Tennessee’s full-strength best basketball against Texas; the wins over Kansas and Alabama, along with tournament teams from Maryland, Mississippi State, and Arkansas came short-handed.
Though the Vols have been a two seed three times in the past, this is the first time in KenPom’s 22-year history that Tennessee represents the “best” team in its region.
And it’s only the second time in UT’s 12 tournament appearances of the KenPom era that the Vols are “underseeded” by this metric.
As advanced stats have grown in popularity, they’ve more closely mirrored the actual bracket. In each of Rick Barnes’ previous tournament appearances at UT, Tennessee’s seed and their KenPom rank in that region were identical. Hop in the time machine back to the Bruce Pearl era, and you’ll find that five of his six teams were actually “overseeded” in KenPom. Pearl was such a pro at scheduling to the old RPI format, giving those teams the well-earned resume to move them up the bracket on Selection Sunday. But even what we’d consider the best full-season version of his teams in 2008 – a two seed with the resume of a one, we argued – was only the fourth-best team in that region by KenPom’s pre-tournament numbers.
Only once before has a Tennessee team entered the tournament underseeded via KenPom. That was Cuonzo Martin’s squad in 2014, who barely landed in Dayton as an 11 seed…but was actually the fifth-best team in the region via KenPom.
Tennessee Tournament Teams by Seed & KenPom Rank in Region
|KenPom Region Rank
Here’s where we get to talk about the ol’ luck rating. Cuonzo’s team was 341st nationally (out of 351) in KenPom’s luck stat, 0-6 in games decided by six points or less. That bunch was down five with 4:40 to play against Iowa in the play-in game, but got the game to overtime, where they held the Hawkeyes to one (1) point. And just like that, they were on a path that was one possession away from the Elite Eight.
This Tennessee team is 3-4 in games decided by six points or less, and obviously 0-2 at the buzzer. They’re 324th in KenPom luck, the second-worst number of any UT squad.
We’re in the make-your-own-luck time of the year now, and a Tennessee squad that’s been shorthanded all year will play its most important games without Zeigler, while figuring out how they’ll extend rotations for the rest of the team. The Vols are imperfect, but well-practiced in their incompleteness by now. The field is open, and perhaps nowhere more than the East region. All things considered, you’d still rather have the best team. And I’m excited to see what this team’s best can be.