Our first impressions of Tennessee’s draw were pretty favorable: bid thieves moved some of the more dangerous mid-major champions off the 12 line, and by most any metric you’d rather play Oregon State than Georgetown in that department anyway. It’s easy to look ahead to Cade Cunningham, Illinois, or Sister Jean.
Skipping past the first round is also in our DNA: this is Tennessee’s 15th NCAA Tournament appearance since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, and the Vols have never lost in the first round as a seven seed or higher. Tennessee is 9-5 in Round 1, going 0-4 in the 8/9 game plus a loss as a 10 seed in 1989. Sooner or later, the first round upset will come for our NCAA Tournament bingo card…so how can we avoid it happening this time?
This is Oregon State’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2016, which was their first since 1990. You always wonder about some, “Happy to be here!” from the bid thieves. But that only tends to be the case about half the time:
Major Conference Bid Thieves, 2008-2019
If you exclude our SEC friends from 2008 and 2009, in the last decade major conference bid thieves won at least one game in the big dance four out of five times. Hot teams tend to stay hot.
Oregon State’s run started before the Pac-12 Tournament. After a February 20 loss to Colorado, the Beavers were 11-11 (7-9). They won three straight over Cal, Stanford, and Utah before falling to Oregon in the regular season finale. It took overtime in the Pac 12 quarterfinals to beat UCLA, but then they also took down NCAA Tournament teams from Oregon and Colorado to win the prize.
In the Pac 12 Tournament, Oregon State was the definition of hot team from the arc:
- UCLA: 10-of-25 (40%)
- Oregon: 10-of-19 (52.6%)
- Colorado: 9-of-22 (40.9%)
- Pac 12 Tournament: 29-of-66 (43.9%)
They shot 33% from three in league play in the regular season. 43.9% is how you advance.
We saw two years ago how any hot-shooting team can give you a run for your money. Not only did Auburn and Purdue hit 15 threes apiece against the Vols in the SEC and NCAA Tournaments, Colgate did it too at a blistering 15-of-29 (51.7%), giving us all we wanted in the first round. Fifteen threes is the most any opponent has hit against Tennessee in the last decade, and three different teams did it over the course of those 19 days. In good news, only one team has hit more than 10 threes against the Vols this year: Vanderbilt went 13-of-33 (39.4%) in Nashville and still lost by 12.
Elsewhere, Oregon State is a team that generally takes care of the basketball: 82nd nationally in turnover percentage, so less likely to play into Tennessee’s greatest strength. They turned it over just 11 times in the overtime win over UCLA, and only six times in the title game against Colorado. They share the ball well, 25th in assist rate. Fortunately for the Vols, they do play into Tennessee’s second greatest strength: the Beavers are 304th nationally in defensive free throw rate. They love to put teams on the line, which can get Tennessee’s offense going even when turnovers aren’t available.
Tennessee never loses as a higher seed in the first round, but hot teams off surprise conference tournament titles tend to stay hot. Oregon State has been launching from three, but the Vols have defended it well all year. And the Vols have been excellent at forcing turnovers, while the Beavers don’t give it away.
In a match-up where it’s hard for either team to lean on its greatest strengths, individual performances can make the biggest difference. Tennessee’s only quality win without a quality performance from John Fulkerson came at Rupp Arena, when Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer went off. Those two almost carried the Vols to victory against Alabama. Is there a scenario where they’re simply better than what Oregon State can throw at them defensively?
In a pandemic year that encourages us to look ahead by default, don’t skip the first round. Survive and advance is still the most important part. I’m curious to see how the Vols will attack.
4:30 PM Friday on TNT, from the home of the Indiana Pacers.