The Vols continue to play at an all-time pace in Knoxville, by any metric you want. In raw wins, 17-3 through the first 20 games trails only 2000 (18-2), 2008 (18-2), and 2019 (19-1). In the polls, the 2000 Vols topped out at #5, while both 2008 and 2019 went to #1. This group sits at #4, with #10 Texas headed to town tomorrow.
In the Bracket Matrix, the Vols are the first two seed. In Bart Torvik’s predictive bracketology, the Vols are the last number one seed with Texas the first two, adding to the Elite Eight atmosphere surrounding tomorrow’s game.
It’s KenPom where the case for the current Vols is strongest: a 29.53 rating continues to represent what would be a program high, as well as an SEC high in the last eight years. As was the case against Kentucky, the Vols will go to a big Saturday home game with a chance to move to number one in KenPom, less than a point behind Houston at the moment.
The loss to Kentucky – and probably the fact that this team’s best win came away from our presence in Knoxville vs Kansas – makes it tempting for some of us to question whether this team is really the best we’ve seen at UT. That’s been a really fun conversation this week from Wes Rucker and Will Warren.
I think there are two parts of this conversation worth mentioning again. First, KenPom places a value on every possession, much like SP+ does with every snap. When Bill Connelly went back through the archives and rated the best teams of each decade by percentile, it was Heath Shuler’s 1993 Vols who rated highest at UT in the 90s in SP+. No one would pick 1993 as the best season. But play-for-play, that team was a machine: they lost 41-34 in The Swamp, tied the defending champs from Alabama in Birmingham, and destroyed everyone else in the regular season. They beat #22 Georgia by 32 and #13 Louisville by 35. That’s how you rate so highly. In metrics that value possessions and snaps over the final outcome – and don’t put any special value on the fourth quarter or the last two minutes – you get a good picture of how a team performs play-for-play. And possession-for-possession, the 2023 Vols are as good as anything we’ve seen here in basketball.
But the other part of this is, of course, that the season isn’t over. So when we’re comparing the present to the past, we’re comparing an incomplete picture to a finished work.
The two most popular answers for what has been better – 2008 and 2019 – have arguments that lead with their number one ranking. To me, they also both have stories that end with results that, even though we hated them, make sense. The 2008 Vols ran into a bad match-up buzzsaw with three-seed Louisville in the Sweet 16, and lost by 19. The 2019 Vols ran into Ryan Cline shooting 7-of-10 from the arc and some frustrating officiating in the final minute; replay that game all you want, and I’m still not exactly sure what we’d like the Vols to do much differently in it. But the simplicity of those answers made them easier to accept, at least over time.
One key difference in each of those years as well though: 2008 and 2019 were all-time college basketball years. In 2008, all four number one seeds made the Final Four. In 2019, you had elite versions of Gonzaga, Duke with Zion, and a Virginia team that is one of the best college basketball teams of the last 10 years. In KenPom, three teams finished at 30+ in 2008, five in 2019.
Right now, Houston is the only team at 30+, with the Vols right behind them at 29.59. For the moment, that’s it.
We need the full season to know what we think about the 2023 Vols. Sometimes, at this point, things look one way and end up another. The 2001 Vols started 16-1 but finished in the 8/9 game. And the 2022 Vols were 14-6 (5-3) at this point, fresh off a last-second loss to Texas. They won 13 of their next 14, including the SEC Tournament, jumping from 14th to 7th in KenPom.
Some of the most fun you can have with this conversation right now is to mad scientist it. Because when we’re talking about what we think is better than right now, in part I think we’re talking about it like this:
2018 Defense + 2019 Offense
This one we can quantify: in KenPom, if you put the 2018 defense (sixth nationally) and the 2019 offense (third nationally) together, you’d have a rating of approximately 30.3, which would be the best in program history. It’s not far from where the 2023 Vols are right now. But in at least that metric, it would be the leader in the clubhouse.
It’s how we sometimes think of that group, because the faces are all mostly the same. One exception: James Daniel, who had the highest steal rate on the 2018 group. As we speculated throughout the 2019 season, perhaps there was simply the human nature element of focus with that group: when you’re number one for a month running through a back-loaded SEC schedule, it’s understandably easier to loosen up a bit on defense. We also saw that group turn it way back up when facing Kentucky in Knoxville. But if you take the very best of that two-year run, it would represent the program’s very best basketball…for now.
March 2010 & March 2014
The Tennessee team that went the farthest was 20-7 (8-5) on February 23. But they finally got all their rotation back when Brian Williams returned to the lineup. And from that point, they went 8-2. They beat the Wall/Cousins NBA D-League team in Knoxville. They smashed an NIT 1-seed in Starkville. And they made it to the Elite Eight by going through the Evan Turner Ohio State squad, finishing a point away from the Final Four. That season was a roller coaster, and it led to plenty of lineup changes. But that core group at the end – Bobby Maze, Scotty Hopson, J.P. Prince, Wayne Chism, and Brian Williams – was a really good college basketball team.
In the figured-it-out department, no Tennessee team got there later than Cuonzo Martin’s last squad. On February 22 they were 16-11 (7-7). They also finished 8-2, jumping from 26th to 7th in KenPom. Six of those wins came by 15+ points, with what was another really good college basketball team: Antonio Barton, Jordan McRae, Josh Richardson, Jeronne Maymon, and Jarnell Stokes. Possession for possession, you wouldn’t consider either of those teams as the best in Tennessee history. But at the end of the year, they were absolutely playing their best basketball, and became the two teams that came closest to the Final Four.
2007 Chris Lofton in 2008
Not sure how to quantify it, and there’s obviously nothing to do with it other than celebrate Lofton’s recovery from cancer. But when we think about those teams, we never really got to see this hypothetical peak…and the actual peaks, including the win at Memphis in the 1 vs 2 game, were so high, we never really needed to ask for more. But if you’re talking about how those teams might be best suited to beat the current squad, it’s this version of it in our heads – Lofton at full strength with the added presence of Tyler Smith – that we’re sometimes assuming.
Alllllllll of that to say…if the current Vols are simply in the conversation of being as good or better than these teams, real or hypothetical?
This season has every opportunity to be special.
And that continues tomorrow, in a huge one with Texas.