Entering the 2020-2021 basketball season, the Tennessee Volunteers were met with a slew of COVID-19 cancellations and setbacks. While many programs were getting their proverbial feet wet on the court, the Vols were sidelined for days, yielding a team with a soft schedule ahead of them for the first batch of games.
Instead of testing their mettle against the likes of Gonzaga, Tennessee didn’t meet a team that qualified as a true test until their date with Missouri in Columbia on December 30. When the Vols sprinted out to a lead they’d never relinquish, ultimately winning 73-53, hopes were high on Rocky Top before those lofty ideals were temporarily put on the back burner.
After the impressive victory against the Tigers, Tennessee laid an egg against Alabama on January 2. Of course, as we know, a single loss isn’t the end of the world, particularly against a conference opponent who made half of their three point attempts, and eight of 11 in the second half. While the Vols might’ve been creating open shots at a greater clip, it was the Tide who capitalized on their opportunities through finishing inside or kicking out for a quick three.
Now, with the Missouri game firmly in the rearview mirror, we’re left to wonder if that game was a test at all. Sure, the Tigers were ranked in the top 20 — they still are, even though an ugly loss to Mississippi State will surely see Missouri fall in the rankings the next time they come out. Could it be Missouri simply came out uninspired and a bit lethargic in that loss to the Bulldogs? It’s possible. This is a team that picked up a double digit win against an Arkansas squad that gave Tennessee difficulty; it’s also the team that beat Illinois — the sixth ranked team in the country at that point (now 12th).
But it could also be that Missouri just isn’t as good as their ranking and record dictate. By KenPom.com standards, Missouri isn’t quite up to the ranks of some of their peers. The team’s AdjO (adjusted offensive efficiency) is 108 — where higher is better — putting them at 65th in the country by that metric. The story for AdjD (adjusted defensive efficiency) is better, coming in 29th in the country with 92.2 — where lower is better. The squad’s overall ranking on KemPom, as determined by AdjEM — or, the adjusted difference between offensive and defensive efficiency — is +15.78, with higher being better, which ranks them 49th in the country, stuck between Penn State (3-4) and Seton Hall (8-5).
Now, it’s also true that Missouri’s Strength of Schedule AdjEM is +13.06, where higher is more challenging, and places them with one of the toughest schedules in the nation, coming in at 10th; to contrast, Tennessee’s is currently 126th. So, could it be that Missouri has faced tough competition and, given the circumstances, has performed well? It’s plausible, certainly, and we’ll have to gauge it going forward. The Tigers meet Vanderbilt and LSU over their next two contests. Losses there — particularly bad ones — could spell something amiss in Columbia.
But this article is supposed to be about Tennessee, not Missouri. Where does Tennessee fit into this equation? The Vols are finally in conference play, meaning the quality of competition will increase, which will inevitably lead to some losses. Remember, a single loss to the Crimson Tide can’t break the camel's back. It’ll take much more to get there.
Today, I heard a local radio show host discussing how he saw rumblings on Twitter by fans insisting that, while head coach Rick Barnes can recruit, he can’t coach once the players arrive in Knoxville. Pump the brakes on that assessment. This Tennessee team hasn’t reached its potential yet, but my inclination is that it will; and that will be the product, in large part, of Rick Barnes’ coaching.
Tennessee’s test this season might not come in the form of one game — at least not until the tournament kicks off in Indiana in March — but instead, a collection of games, each building on the last and, hopefully, resulting in a resume commensurate with that of a top program.