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The SEC Shooty Hoops Review: On Tennessee and Everyone Else, Too

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RTT’s resident hoopsters, Volundore and Will Shelton, exchange thoughts on the eve of conference play

NCAA Basketball: SEC Tournament-Kentucky vs Texas A&M
3 colors of confetti, one for each SEC team making the tournament
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Back. Back again. SEC hoops are back. Try to contain your excitement.

NCAA Basketball: South Dakota at Gonzaga
Presented without comment, especially not one about hot dogs are 100% NOT sandwiches
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we set the stage for SEC basketball this year, taking a look at who’s good (Kentucky), who’s not (Missourah), and everything in between.

To officially tip things off with 5 conference games on Thursday night, Will joins me to break down the Vols and the league at this point. We did a similar exercise last year, and since you loved it so much (Pendley’s one comment just summed up your feelings so perfectly that you didn’t want to ruin it, I understand)...we went with a totally different format.

With all apologies to Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell, here’s a mere 1,600 word email exchange on the state of shooty hoops at the moment.

Volundore: Well, Will...now that the Vols have finished up the non-conference schedule, I want to get your quick reaction.

How would you assess the Vols' performance to date? Does 7-5 at this point in the schedule feel markedly different than the same record at the same time last year?

Will Shelton: I still think the biggest difference is balance, and it's a positive one. Last year at this point we were beginning to understand the Vols were going to need 20+ points and 32+ minutes from Kevin Punter every night to have a chance. This year the Vols are getting 15.5 in 30.3 from Robert Hubbs, but the rest of the box score balances much easier.

To me this is a bigger difference overall than flipping Georgia Tech from a close loss to a blowout and getting a meaningful road win at ETSU. Tennessee has three freshmen playing 20+ minutes scoring 8-10 points, and will add a fourth when Jordan Bone gets back. Have any one of the newcomers impressed you more than the others, or is the whole greater than the sum of its parts?

Volundore: All of the freshmen have had some solid moments that offset the expected growing pains. Turner and especially Bone (21 points against UTC, 8 assists against App State) have done some nice things at the point and Bowden has potential on the wing (his 12 points were crucial in the early surge at UNC). If forced to choose one, though, I really like Grant Williams in the post. I don't know that he's got quite the size to play Stokes/Maymon bully ball, but he's got a variety of skills on both ends that should develop well over time.

Is it fair to say I am as impressed with the freshmen as I am disappointed with the sophomores? Kyle Alexander has doubled his scoring (from 1.7 ppg to 3.6 ppg) but he's only playing 15 minutes a game on a team with absolutely no post depth, especially in the absence of John Fulkerson. Admiral Schofield has struggled on (and off) the court, missing 4 games, playing 7 fewer minutes, and regressing in basically every category.

Does the lack of development from those guys and the dearth of starzzzz in Barnes' recruiting concern you long term?

Will Shelton: The Schofield situation is strange. I really thought he would play an Armani Moore-type role with this team for the next few years but the freshmen certainly have been getting (and Barnes might say earning) more opportunities.

In recruiting I think we're still so spoiled by Bruce's work that we differentiate specifically with Barnes when perhaps we should see him the same way as Cuonzo or Tyndall. Post-Pearl, Cuonzo secured Hubbs and Stokes as in-state five-star kids (although West Tennessee kids deserve some kind of in-state-plus designation). The next highest post-Pearl recruit is Detrick Mostella, followed by four of the current freshmen and 2017-18 freshman Zach Kent.

You can make an argument that Barnes is the most consistent recruiter we've had since Pearl. But as long as that consistency is high-end three-stars and no names we can get excited about, it'll be a concern (editor’s note: Barnes’ 2016 class had 7 members and ranked 48th; his 2017 class has 1 current commit and ranks 98th). I'm glad these freshmen are playing so well now so we don't have to have the gloom-and-doom conversation in the short-term or the long-term. At least I think we don't have to have it...

Volundore: So let's have a conversation about the most immediate future with the SEC season tipping off tomorrow.

The Vols clock in at 74th in KenPom (for those following at home, my Dores are at 75th with an almost identical efficiency margin), one of 11 SEC teams in the top 87. The revamped SEC schedule has the Vols home-and-home in Lexington, Nashville, and Columbia with a rotation this year through the fine state of Mississippi.

What's a realistic target for the Vols this year? Where do you think that will place them within the conference hierarchy?

Will Shelton: Goal one should be avoiding Wednesday in the SEC Tournament, which means finishing 10th or better. That's required either a 7-11 or 8-10 finish every year since the league went to 14 teams. I don't think the bottom of the SEC is bad enough this year for that number to slide any further south than that. An 8-10 finish would give this team a chance to finish at or above .500; last year the Vols were 6-12 and didn't win consecutive SEC games until the tournament.

If Tennessee found a way to get to 9-9 and beat Kansas State at home, a 17-14 regular season with this schedule might get them a look from the NIT. I think progress is still the overall goal, and a non-Wednesday, at-or-above .500 finish would be that. Just staying in the conversation for the NIT would be an accomplishment as well.

I think they'll get the first goal and finish somewhere between 7-10 in league play, which would be a nice building block. What do you think?

Volundore: When we did this last year, it felt like there was a top tier of 5-ish teams that could legitimately expect a bid: Kentucky, Vandy, Florida, South Carolina, and A&M. 4 of them did finish in the league's top 5 (Florida fell off), LSU made a bit of a run (but had dug themselves too big a hole in the non-conference), and only 2 teams made the round of 64 (Vandy got crushed in Dayton and I’m still salty about it).

We've got a similar looking cutoff of 5-ish teams this year (swap Arkansas for Vandy), and I don't see any realistic way the Vols crack that. Can they translate their current position (7th in the league by KenPom) into a similar standing at year’s end? The schedule is manageable and the bottom half of the league still has some squish.

I think .500 is a reasonable goal for the Vols, which should put them in the 8-9 seed range come conference tournament time in Nashville.

To start to wrap this up, what teams do you think will go to Nashville looking forward to the NCAA Tournament? What does success look like for the league after only getting 3 bids in 3 of the last 4 years?

Will Shelton: I think the league is getting four in this year.

Kentucky's in, and Florida is 9-3 against a Top 15 schedule. South Carolina's schedule is going to be just good enough this time around if they do what they did in league play last year again. And I think one of Arkansas, Texas A&M, Georgia, and maaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyybe Auburn? If one of those four can separate themselves in league play, I think there's going to be room on the dance floor.

Four in would be progress, but to get success we're going to need multiple non-Kentucky teams to get to the Sweet 16. That's the fastest way the league gets back on the national radar. But unless you believe in multiple upsets, that requires lots of high seeds. Right now the Bracket Matrix has Kentucky at 2, Florida at 5, South Carolina at 7, Arkansas at 8, and A&M at 10. Again, progress, but if all those trees fall in the woods before the second weekend, I don't think they'll make a sound.

Volundore: It hasn’t been the most awe-inspiring turnaround, but I think KenPom shows how the league has progressed in the last few years with an increased focus on scheduling and RPI.

In 2013, fully half the league, 7 teams, finished below 90th in KP with Mississippi State bringing up the rear at 255 (!). 2014 saw that number drop to 5 with the Starkville Bulldogs up to 205. 2015 reduced that number to 3 with Missouri in last at 192; it was 4 in 2016 with Auburn in last at 189; and it’s currently at 3 with Mizzou at 166.

Bringing up the level of performance outside of the league matters because it gives teams opportunities for “quality wins” in conference play. Yes, there are still bad basketball teams that will create landmines for those looking to get into The Dance, but it helps Arkansas and Georgia that they can get a meaningful victory in Columbia and College Station in addition to Lexington.

Kentucky and Florida will dance. Can all of the next tier - South Carolina, Arkansas, Texas A&M - make it, too? Will someone like Auburn be able to make a run?

It should be an interesting year in the SEC. It starts on Thursday.

Volundore’s Final Predictions For Posterity/Gloating/Teasing Sake

SEC Regular Season Champ: Kentucky

NCAA Bids: 5 (Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas, Auburn [<3 you, Bruce])

Will’s Final Predictions For Posterity/Gloating/Teasing Sake

SEC Regular Season Champ: Kentucky

NCAA Bids: 4 (Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas)