Selection Sunday is officially here, and thus brings with it the greatest month of sports of the year. It’s almost tournament time. With the beautifully endless run of conference tournaments winding to a close, Tennessee has positioned themselves beautifully for the committee as they get set to play for the SEC Title against tournament cinderella Texas A&M. It truly is the most wonderful time of the year.
The Vols have done more than enough to spur dreams of a deep run in March. They currently sit at 25-7 heading into the SEC Tournament championship game following a 69-62 victory over Kentucky. That’s two out of three on the year against the Cats for whoever’s counting. As for the analytics, they’re eighth in the NET and on KenPom, and they currently boast a top three defense in the nation.
So, what does this mean in terms of March? The Vols currently sit comfortably as a three seed according to Bracket Matrix—a site that compiles over 100 different bracketology breakdowns and finds the average seeding for each team—and after another win over Kentucky, they could find themselves with a ‘2’ next to their name on Sunday. This, of course, means the Vols are slated to face a 14 seed round one, but in a wild year of college hoops, the 13 and 14 seeds are going to be potentially frisky matchups in this year’s tournament.
Before we get started, let’s talk about the Vols as a tournament hopeful. As I’ve stated many times before, *knocks on wood* this Tennessee team feels upset proof for, at the very least, the first weekend. Guard play has proven to be the catalyst to deep runs in March, and in such a tournament that doesn’t just breed randomness but prides itself on it, an off shooting night for even the best of offensive teams can lead to a total collapse and a major upset.
Good thing for Tennessee, however, because with the high level of play, especially defensively, the Vols have gotten lately from guards Kennedy Chandler, Santiago Vescovi, and Zakai Zeigler makes Tennessee a favorite for many to reach the Sweet Sixteen and beyond. With that being said, let’s take a look at a handful of potential matchups the Vols could see in the first round.
New Mexico State
Summary: 25-6 (13-4) | 1st in WAC | WAC Conference Tournament champs
Stats: 73.5 PPG, 85th KenPom, 85th NET, 90th Sagarin
Bracket Matrix Seed: 13-14
Lunardi: 14 seed
As the one seed in the WAC Conference Tournament, despite finishing half a game back of both Seattle and Stephen F. Austin (I don’t know how that worked. New Mexico State had the best overall record so maybe that’s how?), the Aggies won the WAC Tournament and have clinched an auto-bid in this year’s tournament.
The Aggies are led offensively by guard play. 6-6 junior guard Teddy Allen leads the team in scoring at 19.5 points per game. He also leads the team in rebounds and steals per game, and he has one of the highest percent of shots ranks in the country (he takes 30.6% of New Mexico State’s shots, ranking 72nd among 2200 players). Alongside him is 6-4 junior guard Sir’Jabari Rice. Rice is much more of a facilitator and leads the team in assists with 3.3 per game. He’s also the only other double digit scorer for New Mexico State.
Overall, this isn’t a strong offensive team. They shoot a pedestrian 33.0% from three, and their 20.6% turnover rate is among the highest in the entire country. To counter this, they thrive on forcing teams deep into the shot clock and taking bad shots. The Aggies are 13-2 when they force 12 or more turnovers on the season. Their ability to take away second chance points is also something they thrive on as they don’t allow many offensive boards. Johnny McCants is the defensive anchor for this squad and is a very good shot blocker and rebounder. McCants is top 50 in the nation in block percentage despite being undersized at 6-foot-7.
Needless to say, New Mexico State is more than willing to muck it up to win, but they don’t create a ton of turnovers defensively, and while their three-point defense is among the elite (their 30.3 3PT% against is top 40 in the nation), they don’t generate many steals. In fact, they’re bottom five in the nation in steal percentage at 6.5%.
How Tennessee wins
Perhaps the biggest struggle this team faces is ball pressure. Stephen F. Austin is a team that pride themselves on aggressive on and off-ball pressure, and they gave the Aggies fits twice. They denied passing lanes and created turnovers at a high rate. New Mexico State had 34 turnovers against SF Austin in their two games this year, splitting the meetings.
What is Tennessee’s biggest strength? Creating turnovers through Chandler and Zeigler’s speed and quick hands. The Vols create tons of live ball turnovers and often turn them into points. The Vols are sixth in the nation in steal percentage at 13.6% and rank in the 95th percentile in points off turnovers per game. New Mexico State wouldn’t be able to keep up given the aforementioned struggles beyond the arc and combo of their knack for turning the ball over and Tennessee’s knack for creating them.
Summary: 27-7 (16-4) | 1st in Big Sky | Big Sky Tournament champs
Stats: 77.0 PPG, 134th KenPom, 127th NET, 146th Sagarin
Bracket Matrix Seed: 14
Lunardi: 14 seed
The Bobcats comfortably won the Big Sky Tournament final on Saturday, clinching their spot in the Field of 68. This is a team that excels at getting to the free throw line. They play downhill and look to get the ball inside to Jubrile Belo whenever they get the chance.
While Xavier Bishop leads the team in points per game, it’s Belo who has been among the most efficient players in the country and is who this offense runs through. They try to get him looks off of pick-and-rolls, elbow to the block high-lows, or traditional post-ups. Belo’s 62.9 true shooting percentage ranks in the top 70 in the nation, and his free throw rate (ratio of free throw attempts to field goal attempts) is a staggering 83.3%. Belo has been hampered with a knee injury lately, and it’s affected his impact on the game tremendously.
Luckily for the Bobcats, English freshman big man Great Osobor has stepped up and given Montana State great minutes. Over his last four games, he’s averaging 12.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game off the bench and has given a lift to this team in a big way.
As a whole, Belo epitomizes what this team does best healthy or not, and that’s be aggressive and get to the line. Montana State as a team ranks in the 96th percentile with a 38.0% free throw rate. With a high free throw rate comes foul trouble and discombobulation for an opposing coach’s game plan.
The Bobcats shoot a high percentage across the floor as well. They rank within the top 65 in the nation in three-point, two-point, and free throw percentage. Overall, this is a well oiled mid-major offense.
How Tennessee wins
Montana State can score. However, they don’t create a ton of turnovers. They’re 295th in the country in steals per game, and they create a bulk of their few takeaways through taking charges among other dead ball turnovers. The Vols are normally very composed entering the lane and rank within the top 100 in KenPom’s non-steal turnover percentage.
On top of that, the Vols have a vast rotation inside to defend Belo, all whom are bigger than him as well. Among the teams that finished .500 or better in the Big Sky, there were just three players taller than Belo. Tennessee has three of their own in Plavsic, Huntley-Hatfield, and Aidoo. We’ve seen how effectively the Vols can take away a top option inside, see the Kentucky game at home and how they defended Tshiebwe. Combine that with the confidence that the Vols’ guards can outplay pretty much anyone else’s, this bodes very well for Tennessee.
Summary: 23-11 (16-2) | 1st in Patriot | Patriot League Tournament champs
Stats: 76.1 PPG, 120th KenPom, 126th NET, 134rd Sagarin
Bracket Matrix Seed: 14-15
Lunardi: 14 seed
If there’s a matchup that will make you lose sleep, this is the one. Team Toothpaste is back with nearly an identical roster to what they had a year ago when they took the Muss Bus and Arkansas to the limit. The Vols are no strangers to Colgate themselves. It was the Raiders who nearly toppled two-seed Tennessee back in 2019. Though that Vols team did fall in the Sweet Sixteen in a classic against Purdue, that famed Williams-Schofield team nearly went out with a whimper.
Led this year by 6-foot-0 guard Nelly Cummings and three point specialist Jack Ferguson, Colgate plays a very good, high assist, highly efficient offensive style, assisting on 62.0 percent of their baskets, a top 10 mark in the nation according to KenPom. The Raiders score 0.997 points per possession, a top 20 mark in the country, and it really emphasizes how good this team is offensively. Colgate shoots threes at a 40.1 percent clip, the second-best in the nation behind only South Dakota State, and these stats are why they’ve won either the regular season or conference tournament in the Patriot League for four seasons running.
Individually, Colgate has three players who average over 20 minutes per game and shoot 40-plus percent from three. Oliver Lynch-Daniels comes off the bench shooting a blistering 53.7 percent behind the arc. Starters Ryan Moffatt and the aforementioned Jack Ferguson round out this trio. Simply put, they can shoot.
To balance this out, 6-10 big man Keegan Records has only attempted three three-pointers all season, but in his own way, he is also incredibly efficient. Records shoots 64.5 percent from the field, and though he doesn’t get to the line much, just having that kind of efficiency inside to counteract their volume of threes makes this team so dangerous in March. On top of that, Records also ranks within the top 100 in offensive rebounding percentage at 12.1%. Seeing the numbers really just shows how bought into their roles the individuals on this team are.
How Tennessee wins
In total contrast of Colgate’s great points per possession mark, the Vols rank 12th in the nation in points allowed per possession, at 0.799. In terms of pace of play and tempo, the Vols and Raiders are pretty even. The big advantage Tennessee has over Colgate is athleticism. Without sounding like a broken record, the Vols’ defense leads to offense and easy transition points. Colgate can’t match that pace largely because they can’t match that level of defense on the other end. The Raiders rank 203rd in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom, allowing 104.1 points per 100 possessions while Tennessee ranks third. It’s such an extremely vast disparity.
Tennessee defends the three very well percentage-wise though they’re prone to giving up open looks. So long as the Vols don’t let Colgate get into their half court sets and can pressure the ball, they can win this game going away.
Summary: 24-9 (14-6) | T-3rd in MAC | MAC Tournament champions
Stats: 71.2 PPG, 131st KenPom, 136th NET, 136th Sagarin
Bracket Matrix Seed: 13-15
Times were simpler in early February for the Zips. They sat at 16-6 and 9-3 in the MAC, setting themselves up for a top two seed in the conference tournament. What followed was a three game losing streak by a combined total of nine points. This caused Akron to stumble down the standings into fifth place. Since then, coach John Groce’s squad has ripped off eight straight wins, half of which by 14-plus points, including three in a row to win the MAC Conference Tournament.
The Zips had a different leading scorer in each of their three tournament games which goes to show how many ways they can beat a team. Sophomore forward Ali Ali led the way against Buffalo with 19, then 6-1 junior Xavier Casteneda dropped 26 in an upset win over top seeded Toledo. Lastly, in the final, it was sophomore Enrique Freeman leading the way with 23 in a blowout 75-55 victory over in-state rival Kent State.
Akron plays remarkably slow. They play so slow, in fact, that they rank in the sixth percentile in possessions per 40 minutes at 63.5. Akron’s defense has stepped up in a big way lately, allowing over 70 points just once since the start of February. That’s largely because of their ability to slow the game down and make opponents grind out possessions.
How Tennessee wins
It will be interesting to see how Akron matches up with Tennessee’s three guard lineup. Akron largely rolls seven deep with just one guard, Garvin Clarke, getting prominent minutes off the bench. This is an unfortunate issue that the Zips otherwise wouldn’t have faced, but Bryan Trimble was placed on a leave of absence by John Groce. Trimble took the vast majority of Akron’s shots prior to his dismissal, and though they’ve played much better without him, it does leave them hurting in the depth department, an area they can’t afford to lack against Tennessee.
Casteneda, Greg Tribble, and either Mikal Dawson or Ali Ali will be tasked with guarding the Chandler-Vescovi-Zeigler trio, but the true task will be who matches up with the surging Josiah-Jordan James and either of the Vols’ near seven footers. Matchup-wise, it’s a bad spot for Akron.
Summary: 26-6 (15-1) | 1st in Big South | Big South Tournament champions
Stats: 76.3 PPG, 144th KenPom, 124th NET, 164th Sagarin
Bracket Matrix Seed: 14
Last but not least is Longwood. The Lancers ran away with the Big South and dominated Winthrop in the conference tournament title game, locking up their spot in March Madness. Longwood is the deepest team of this group, running out nine guys who average 14-plus minutes per game.
The Lancers don’t shoot the three in high volume, but they shoot it very well, ranking eighth in the nation at 38.6 percent. They attack the rim and crash the offensive glass aggressively, leading to a top 50 free throw rate in the country.
What makes Longwood such an intriguing matchup against the Vols is that they, too, run a three guard lineup. Sophomore Justin Hill leads the team in scoring, senior Isaiah Wilkins shoots over 40 percent from three and is a good on-ball defender ranking in the top 100 in the nation in steal percentage, and senior DeShaun Wade is an absolute sniper from beyond the arc, shooting 46.6 percent from three, a top 20 mark in all of college basketball. Sounds familiar, right?
How Tennessee wins
It’s hard to look at the Lancers without feeling like you’re looking in a mirror. Longwood is a very athletic team who can match up with the Vols better than most any other mid-major in the field. This is why Josiah-Jordan James is the x-factor for this matchup.
Longwood’s lineup is ironically short. They start four players 6-foot-4 and shorter leaving 6-7 Zac Watson alone inside against the Vols’ rotating big man. Triple J puts Longwood in a bind. They either face a size disadvantage with James has been able to take advantage of lately, or they bring in 6-6 Jesper Granlund.
Granlund ranks last among the nine major contributors in Bayesian Performance Rating with a poultry -11.3 BPR. Both his offensive and defensive BPR marks are in the negative (Bayesian Performance Rating: this is statistician Evan Miyakawa’s measurement of a player’s impact on either the offensive or defensive end of the floor. “This rating incorporates a player’s individual efficiency stats and on-court play-by-play impact, and also accounts for the offensive strength of other teammates on the floor with him, along with the defensive strength of the opponent’s players on the floor. A higher rating is better.”). Safe to say they’d be sacrificing a lot for a size matchup.
This served as an elongated “getting to know you” for each of Tennessee’s possible first round matchups. I don’t foresee the Vols having much trouble with their opening game as they’ve earned their way to this high of a seed, and thankfully so. This is a loaded tournament top to bottom, so the lower seed they can draw, obviously the better. Tune into any of your major sport networks for Selection Sunday to see not just who the Vols get in the round of 64, but who else Tennessee could see hopefully moving forward.