We're a quarter of the way into Tennessee's 2013-14 basketball season and business is about to pick up. The Vols are 6-2 with a four point loss at Xavier and a terrible performance against UTEP in the Bahamas, although Tennessee rebounded to beat Xavier in a rematch and then Wake Forest to finish up the Battle 4 Atlantis. It's still a little difficult to get a handle on what those games mean; Xavier went 0-for-Atlantis with losses to #23 Iowa and USC, while Wake is a respectable 8-2 in the early going. The Vols are currently 34th in Ken Pomeroy's rankings.
But not only are the Vols about to get a surefire test of their ability, they're about to play one of the most important games of the year.
Remember: no Memphis this year, and only one game against Kentucky. That's an automatic hit to UT's strength of schedule and potential RPI number, which will once again be significantly hindered by what is becoming an alarming annual chasm between the top and bottom of the SEC.
Kentucky is not a 1 seed right now, though get back with me after they face North Carolina, Belmont, and Louisville in the next 16 days. Florida is Florida, knocking off Kansas to get their first signature win after narrow defeats at Wisconsin and UConn. Missouri is undefeated at 9-0 with a nine point win over UCLA. But in the grand scheme of things, you can consider Missouri Vanderbilt's replacement in that top tier as the Commodores continue to rebuild, and otherwise the league looks almost exactly the same as it has for the last four years: Florida will dance, Vanderbilt then/Missouri now will dance, Kentucky will go as their freshmen go, Alabama will be on the bubble, Tennessee will be in or on the bubble, and unless someone else wins the SEC Tournament that's about it. Four-ish teams are getting in. Maybe it's three, maybe it's five, definitely it stinks from there on down.
Here are the league's representatives in the last five NCAA Tournaments:
- 2009: 3 (LSU 8, Tennessee 9, Mississippi State 13)
- 2010: 4 (Kentucky 1, Vanderbilt 4, Tennessee 6, Florida 10)
- 2011: 5 (Florida 2, Kentucky 4, Vanderbilt 5, Tennessee 9, Georgia 10)
- 2012: 4 (Kentucky 1, Vanderbilt 5, Florida 7, Alabama 9)
- 2013: 3 (Florida 3, Missouri 9, Ole Miss 12)
- Points Per Possession - For all the talk about how inefficient our offense can be, here's Tennessee at #16 in the nation in points per possession eight games into the season. The Vols average 1.2 points every trip down the floor; Wichita isn't far behind at 1.15, 40th nationally. These are two smart, efficient teams who are good at making the most out of each opportunity down the floor.
- Free Throw Rate - As represented in the Four Factors graphic above, both teams are excellent in this category as well. This was the go-to stat for the Vols last year, especially in comparison to three point shooting. The Vols are currently getting 25.5% of their points at the line and just 19.1% beyond the arc, a three point percentage ranking of 305th nationally. If we want to shoot better than 33.6% from back there that's fine with me, but it's a nice sign of maturity that this team is playing to its strengths and not relying on the three ball to save the day, because it won't always deliver. Likewise, Wichita is also great at getting to the free throw line and as a team is shooting a strong 73.2%.
- Offensive Rebounding Percentage - To no surprise, we're awesome at this: second in the nation and getting the rebound on almost half of our misses (45.3%). Wichita certainly isn't bad at this, but they ain't us, and few opponents will be this season. If Stokes and Maymon stay out of foul trouble - a huge deal for Tennessee every game, but especially tomorrow - Wichita is going to have to go to a different script than the one they've been using to beat us, because we too write that script and our penmanship is superior.
- Assist Percentage - Right now the Vols are only scoring off an assist 43.3% of the time, 309th nationally. I expect that stat to come back to the middle a little bit because things are still a little weird eight games in, but I believe that number is one part Jordan McRae creating on his own and one part our massive offensive rebounding numbers. The good news on the other end is we have a 1.22 assist/turnover ratio and Darius Thompson in particular has been spectacular about taking care of the basketball. Wichita is good here too, and actually better at 1.35, 43rd nationally.