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College basketball and perilous conference games

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, January 2, the Tennessee Volunteers (7-1) men’s basketball team lost its first game of the season to the Alabama Crimson Tide — a disappointing effort coming after a stellar win against the Missouri Tigers. Such is life in the perilous world of college basketball.

In the grand scheme of things, Tennessee’s loss might not come back to haunt them. In a conference where the clearest potential conference champion was/is Tennessee, they still seem primed to make a run at the title. When projecting the rest of the Vols year after the first few games, I picked them to go 21-4, which included a loss to Missouri, a potential loss against Kansas, and a couple of slip-ups throughout the season. It just so happens that one of those latter games came earlier than I would’ve guessed.

But college basketball isn’t like college football; a loss doesn’t ruin a team’s opportunity at a national championship, which therefore means losses don’t spell the end of the world. Theoretically, a 19-13 team could put together a spectacular March, assuming they gain entry as a lower seed, and win the whole thing. In football, a team with that winning percentage (.594) would win around seven games and not be considered at all for a college football playoff spot. That’s part of the beauty of basketball and part of what makes March Madness so alluring.

As Tennessee shifts gears to focus on the formerly undefeated Arkansas Razorbacks, they’ll look to get back on track as they navigate conference play until January 30th’s matchup against the Jayhawks. While Tennessee’s defense is clearly stout, it’s the offense which remains a question mark. Some metrics indicate that the Vols play offense at about a top-30 clip, but not all numbers are quite so kind.

With that said, at times Tennessee’s looked like a club that could beat any challenger, even the nation’s premier team, Gonzaga. At other times, like against Alabama, it looked as though it might struggle against middling to decent conference foes. But we also know that conference play is different and can create unique challenges that out-of-conference competition can’t always supply.

On Saturday, a mixture of poor shot conversion and Alabama dialing it up from long range spelled loss number one of the season. As I mentioned up top, this loss probably won’t mean so much come March, and it’s likely not indicative of worse things to come; hopefully once the squad takes the floor again, we’ll see different results. Rick Barnes has reputation of being tough and demanding; he’s unlikely to let this loss skate by his players. I would expect a different effort to come out of the next handful of games.