The college basketball regular season has reached its zenith. If you’re like me, you’ve enjoyed its one, football-free month in the spotlight and will be sad to see it go. If you’re everyone else, you’re ready for RTT’s Spring Practice coverage.
But we will get our last moment in the sun! In the immortal words of President Bill Pullman:
“We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our [unreasonable love affair with basketball that lets us spill 1700+ words on a weekly basis]!”
To ride it out, Volundore and Will Shelton wax poetic one last time in examining all things college basketball.
Volundore: Well, Will, another basketball season has largely come and gone. We laughed. We cried. We got ourselves all in a tizzy about the NCAA Tournament only to come crashing back to earth at the end.
What's your overarching, big picture takeaway from this season? Is it "improvement" (13-18 to 16-15 overall, 6-12 to 8-10 in the SEC)? Is it a worrying "trend" of stumbling down the stretch under Barnes (2-7 in the last 9 games last year, 3-6 this year including two heartbreakers, two blowouts, and a mind numbing loss to LSU)? Is it something else entirely?
Will: My big picture takeaway is a higher ceiling for this core going forward. I'm so fascinated by what they could be next year with John Fulkerson healthy, plus the two highest-rated players on their 2017-18 roster we didn't see this year in redshirt freshman Jalen Johnson and incoming Frenchman Yves Pons (Ed: I know all highlight videos are not reality, but dude can FLY...I am excite!). It's a roster full of potential that somehow still may not include a legitimate three-point shooter or conventional big man. If this was a middle-of-the-pack SEC team this year, I think next year they can be in the whatever-is-after-Kentucky tier.
But this year isn't over yet, and the stumbling is worth a look. Robert Hubbs and Kevin Punter have both broken down at the end of the year, but I'm not sure if we should connect those dots.
I think we can make a legitimate got-hot-from-three argument when they were playing their best basketball in January, but they weren't overly-reliant on three-point shooting in that stretch either. I keep going back to the assist stat (13-1 with 16+ assists, 3-14 with 15 or less), and I think a common thread in all of this is guard play. We've never seen the level of consistency we needed from Bone, Turner, or Shembari on either end of the floor. So I'd start with guard play as the difference when we see our best basketball.
What do you think?
Volundore: Honestly, I'm not quite sure what to take away from this year.
On the one hand, other than UK and South Carolina in the last two weeks, this team has been in every game with a chance to win in the last 8 minutes. Grant Williams looks like a steal. I think Jordan Bowden has a lot of potential. Losing only Evans and a hobbled Hubbs from this team and gaining the pieces you alluded to, it's really tempting to extrapolate and assume that this is an NCAA Tournament team next year and maybe a legitimate SEC threat after that.
On the other hand, do we have a point guard? Bone and Turner both struggled mightily in the second half of SEC play, and Phillips isn't a natural there. With a logjam at the guard slots, will all these guys be back next year? Hubbs is going to leave a leadership vacuum. Will someone else step up as the "go to" guy in late clock situations? The problem with just assuming that everyone will be X% better next year is that progression doesn't always happen in smooth, linear fashion.
I'll meet your assists stat and raise you an assists/shooting Venn diagram: the Vols ended up 11-0 when shooting 35%+ from 3 and having 13+ assists. They were 3-5 when they only did one of two, and 2-10 when they did neither. To me, that suggests guard play (Ed: hard-hitting analysis, that, especially after Will already suggested it!), so the question next year is whether the Vols can find a more consistent combination of shooting and ball movement/offensive execution.
All of that to say...I think this season ends up as a Tale of Two Cities, best of times/worst of times deal. There were some great moments and some soul-crushing defeats. There's enough here to see a positive future, but there are also sufficient questions (guard play, depth, why both teams have been so bad from early February on, etc.) that I'm not 100% sold that there will automatically be a Great Leap Forward next year.
But as you said, the season still has life to it. How do you feel about Nashville and/or the NIT for the Vols? It's obviously a tough draw with JJ Frazier, Vol Killer, on Thursday and Big Blue Nation awaiting should the Vols make it to Friday.
Will: I actually think Georgia is a good match-up for us, better than the other alternatives in Vanderbilt or Ole Miss, it's just Frazier specifically the Vols have to do a better job with (Ed: The 29 he scored against UT is only T-3 for JJ’s scoring output in his last 7 games...not all of us are as sanguine about shutting him down).
The Georgia game is the one in the 13-1 with 16+ assists; we played really well offensively in that game but Frazier just made more plays down the stretch. Shembari Phillips should get the first crack at Frazier on Thursday; Jordan Bone is in the defensive doghouse for now. If the Vols get past UGA they'll need to hope Kentucky is cold in their first game in the tournament on Friday.
The NIT would be absolute progress. I'm fascinated by how the selection committee there might distinguish between a 17-16 (or 16-16 with no Chaminade) Tennessee team and the slew of contenders that will be just one game better. They've long had the must-be-at-or-above .500 criteria, but I don't think they can be overly self-righteous about not taking a team just one game over .500 when they're probably going to have to take a bunch of teams at two over. We'll see, but I still like the Vols’ chances to be there if they beat Georgia.
Who do you like in Nashville overall? Vanderbilt has won five of six and is 4-0 against their Thursday/Friday combo...
Volundore: Don't you heap that kind of bad juju on my Commodores! If they can just TCOB on Thursday against A&M and there's not absolute bedlam across the conference tournament landscape, they'll probably dance...it might be Dayton, but that counts. Right? (Ed: Vandy showing up here would make one of Volundore’s teams in the First Four in 3 of the last 4 years...perhaps I should start making an annual trip to Dayton?)
Anywho, I'll get no points for originality...but it's gotta be Kentucky, right? After getting blasted in Gainesville, the Cats rolled off 8 straight to take another SEC regular season crown, their 48th (Note: UT has 8, Tulane has 1, and Ole Miss has 0). Now, only 1 of those 8 wins down the stretch was by more than 10 points (DON'T ASK ME WHICH ONE), but they have the best players. Sometimes, it's that simple.
If you are morally opposed to Kentucky, what are the alternatives? Florida has had a fine season, but they're not as potent without Egbunu in the middle. South Carolina has hit the Martin Malaise. Arkansas? Pass. After that, I just don't see anybody from Alabama on down who I strongly believe has the "4 wins in 4 days" vibe, though maybe there will be a tornado and someone will pick up the “4 wins in 3 days” vibe.
All of this brings us back to a question I asked in December: is the SEC getting better? As of now, the league looks like it will get at least 4 bids with Vandy (or surprise champion TBD) possibly as the 5th. 5 bids would tie 2015 as the most in the 14-team era. Everyone but LSU and Mizzou is in the top 100 of KenPom. Is that progress? Is the league on a positive trajectory with line of sight to getting 6 or more bids next year?
Will: Definitely getting better, and I think we're on a path to being able to think about the league moving into the tier behind the ACC overall instead of being thought of as the weakest of the power conferences. LSU (Ed: FINALLY!) and Missouri are two programs that historically win a lot more than they have under their recently-fired coaches. South Carolina and Auburn are already playing above their pay grades. While everyone that isn't Alabama has questions about their head coach in football, what programs don't feel good about their leadership in basketball right now? The coaching upgrade is paying off.
Kentucky and Florida are always going to be there, but Vanderbilt and Tennessee both look like they'll soon resume their places as regular tournament threats as Arkansas already has. Texas A&M is just a year removed from winning the league. Coming into next season I think you'll have 10+ teams that legitimately feel like tournament contenders when the season starts. That's real progress.
Volundore: We already talked about the Vols’ prospects, but the immediate payoff for the league also requires a belief in a growth trajectory. Can Auburn continue to progress? Will Mississippi State turn STARRRRZZZZZZZ into wins? What will Vanderbilt look like as Bryce Drew works in his recruits?
Pushing up the quality of the middle/bottom tiers of the league - and winning a few more games out of conference - will be crucial to ending the “LULZ, SEC” hot takes and making the SEC a meaningful basketball conference again.
And to wrap it all up...we should revisit our preseason predictions! We both picked UK to win it, which was boring, but accurate. Can Vandy get in? That would make my 5 total teams correct, but Will will benefit from having no incorrect picks (because lol I <3 Bruce).
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)