The Richard D. Barnes Album
"pass me the sticks," he says, as he drives the Bad Boy Mowers Carn Marth Edition over the sea
November 23: #22 Tennessee 71, Butler 45 (3-1)
November 24: #22 Tennessee 73, USC 66 (OT) (4-1)
November 25: #22 Tennessee 64, #3 Kansas 50 (5-1), Battle 4 Atlantis Champs
At the same moment, however, he didn’t forget to remind himself from time to time of the fact that calm (indeed the calmest) reflection might be better than the most confused decisions.
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1915)
This is a strange time to be alive. All sorts of horrors happen every day, local and national and international ones. You gotta deal with a lot of wild news. Money’s gotta stretch more. It’s a stressful time out there, almost regardless of what profession you work on. There are a billion things competing for your attention. None of this even touches on sports, where this Thanksgiving presented this college basketball tournament, several more, the NFL, college football, and a dang World Cup held in November that featured the United States playing England. Staying focused is a hard thing right now.
If your focus wobbles and bobbles, I do not think you can be blamed. You can be forgiven for maybe not being locked in on the Battle 4 Atlantis, a preseason college basketball tournament held on a makeshift court in a hotel ballroom in the Bahamas. For those of us not attending - presumably 99.9% of people reading - the closest games played in this tournament happened at 11 AM ET and 1:30 PM ET on Thanksgiving day, right when most people are having plate #1.
But. But! There is joy in the work, and there is joy in realizing there is no work. There is a group of 18-23 year old young men doing the work for you. The work is on the court, right now, but the work has been occurring since the second a Round of 32 game against Michigan ended on March 19th. It’s been undergone all offseason. While other programs made flashier additions, while other programs made sexy hires, they made the moves they felt were right for them and got to work.
The problem with the work is that it is not linear. Some nights, the work looks beautiful and the beginning stages of a months-long masterpiece; other nights, people run to the first distraction they can find and would like to forget about this group of young men as soon as humanly possible. Even in the aftermath of an admittedly meaningless preseason tournament title, there are the screechers, the down-keepers, the sun-slappers, the self-soilers, the harmony-hushers. Wait until March. Wait until March. Wait until March.
If this is you, I promise it is not a targeted attack. I am going Bill Clinton Mode before that meant something much different and much worse. I see you. I hear you. I feel your pain. Tennessee’s delivered more crushing March losses over the last 25 years than feels fair to a devoted fanbase. In a town where this sport is the second banana, this program has frequently been the top performer for the first four months of its season. The final two weeks, though, are what everyone is waiting for. You want it to be different. You want to see it before you say “I am in.” And that is fine and fair.
But things can be different. Look at the 68-year-old that felt like the lead architect on this three-day project that started many months ago.
We - the royal “we” here - asked him to recruit better as recently as 2019. He has, bringing in seven of Tennessee’s 11 highest-rated recruits in 247 history. We asked him to change the offense he’s stuck to for 30 years and quit the mid-range jumpers. He has, producing the third season ever where Tennessee’s made 300+ threes and creating an offense that takes fewer mid-range jumpers than 93% of Division I teams, per Synergy. We asked him to change the defense, multiple times, through multiple staff overhauls. He has, producing what’s as of this morning the best defense in KenPom history. We - okay, not everyone - asked him to stop screwing with lineups and rotations so much. He played a total of ten players in the Bahamas, and two of them played one on-court minute each.
We, collectively, have asked a lot of Richard Dale Barnes at Tennessee. He has delivered, again and again, in a fashion that’s rarely flashy but frequently works. The problem is that he’s delivered, again and again, from November through February. Wait until March. I get it. But if we’ve asked for so much change and a person who’s been reluctant to change for much of his career has changed, why not accept the possibility that it’s okay to invest even if the result may not change?
Immediately after the Kansas game ended I fired off an annoyed tweet at someone occupying Wait Until March Mindset, asking “can you freaks not be happy for once.” Frankly, I stand by it, but I feel bad about it. I’ve been there. I’ve committed myself to March Mindset. I’ve forced myself to wait for the other shoe to drop, to accept the Sword of Damocles hanging over the head at season’s end.
But you know what? Screw it.
If the Sword of
March Damocles is there, I’d be willing to follow this group of young men to it. They are a fearless group that smoked the field without arguably their best player and without a single super-impressive offensive performance. They’re disgustingly tight on defense and figuring things out on the other side of the ball. They’re #3 on KenPom, #2 on Torvik, and should be in the AP Poll top 10 even if they won’t be by the time this comes out. This is a team that shot almost 40% from three over the final 20 games of last season and returned 71% of those threes to the team.
Along with the players, there is the coaching staff. This is a group that’s got Barnes, yes, but the assistants still don’t seem to appear on the 40 Under 40 or Next Guys Up lists. One of them is a 64-year-old who was last a head coach in 1999. Despite that turnover, these guys keep delivering, over and over. They played three teams with three unique styles, all with well-respected head coaches (your mileage may vary on Andy Enfield?), and shut all three down. The only one that was even close was a game where bad luck and shooting variance were factors. Whenever you get a team-wide masterclass like this, I think it is worth celebrating, even if it’s November.
If you want to hold out, hold out. I think these guys just did something worth caring about and worth respecting. And if they ever rediscover their shooting form while sustaining this historic level of defensive excellence? Well, then, I can’t wait until March. Bring it on.
Normally this is just a here-and-there notes section, but I don’t usually get to cover three games in one post. Instead, here’s a few bullet points on all three games.
16 minutes of annoyance followed by 24 minutes of bliss. Here, I’ve got a GIF of the exact moment the game permanently flipped. After Zakai Zeigler’s three goes down, Tennessee’s win probability never dipped below 85% again and they outscored Butler 43-22 in the second half.
Historic! Butler posted 0.657 PPP in this game; that is their worst offensive efficiency in 22 years of history on KenPom. They’ve scored less points over the years, but Tennessee dominated these guys in a specific way more than anyone else has since at least 2000. Speaking of:
Half-court hoops. 20% of Butler’s possessions - AKA, 14 of them - saw Butler get to 5 seconds or less on the shot clock before either attempting a shot or turning the ball over. That’s absurdly high for one game. Tennessee covered everything Butler wanted to do, everywhere.
Also dominating: the shot selection. 71 points on its face isn’t impressive, but Tennessee probably deserved more than they got. Butler forced just four pull-up jumpers (fewest all season), gave up 41 points at the rim (second-most allowed), and gave up an astounding 35 points on cuts and off-ball screens. No other team Butler’s played has posted more than 14 in those two play types in a game.
An overtime win in a double-digit win’s body. Simon Gerszberg of Shot Quality sent over his data for this one: based on the shots taken by both teams, Tennessee would’ve been expected to win 78-67. Adjusted for 40 minutes instead of 45, that’s more like 69-59. That would’ve felt fair. The actual 63-63 followed by 73-66 sort of failed to appropriately cover what was happening.
Which is because Tennessee just straight-up missed shots. This is a common complaint, but I do suggest people check in on other teams; college basketball teams just have bad shooting nights sometimes. They’re not professionals. Tennessee shot 3-for-19 on catch-and-shoot attempts; normally they would be expected to hit six or seven. That alone pretty much explains the underperformance.
Once again: shot selection victory. I mean, Tennessee generated 26 free throw attempts and scored 34 points at the rim against a defense allowing 18.6 FTAs and 26 PPG, respectively. They got eight genuinely wide-open threes and hit one of them. Sometimes it ain’t your day, but luckily for Tennessee, they still escaped.
The Boogie Game. Boogie Ellis had a monster game, going for 21 on 14 shots and keeping USC in it until others could help. This is the second 20+ point game Tennessee’s given up along with the KJ Simpson disaster. Is this a sign of bad things to come? No, because USC lost.
And because Tennessee won the shot selection game. Think of it this way: Tennessee forced USC to take 22 pull-up jumpers (third-highest this year) and gave up just four open catch-and-shoot attempts (USC’s lowest number of 2022-23). Tennessee got got at the rim in this one to some extent, but that was basically it for Atlantis.
Lastly: the zone. Because everyone wants to ask about it! So: I thought Tennessee did a really good job of generating good shots. Tennessee attempted 44 field goals against the zone. 38 (86.3%) were either from three or in the paint. Because that’s a small sample size, Tennessee (of course) went 4-for-6 on the no man’s land shots but 14-for-38 on everything else. Even so, they shot 50% on twos against the third-best 2PT% defense in 2021-22. If they’d just hit two more threes, you would’ve been less stressed. Meh.
I mean. I think AP #3 for these guys was very misleading; there hasn’t been a single Kansas performance yet where they’ve looked like one of the three best teams. But this is Bill Self, and this is Kansas, and you figure that come March, these guys will at minimum be one of the 15 best teams the sport offers. This is a giant win for resume purposes and erases the sting of the Colorado loss.
More defensive dominance. Tennessee saw what Jalen Wilson did through six games and said “not against us.” Santiago Vescovi in particular did terrific off-ball work to ensure Wilson didn’t even touch the ball on some possessions. When Wilson cannot go Superman (and because they aren’t letting Gradey Dick shoot it 20 times a game), Kansas’s offense goes stagnant. An amazing job of scouting on a quick turnaround by this staff.
More specifically: thank you Wisconsin? Wisconsin unintentionally gave Tennessee a great blueprint on how to beat these guys: you just pack the paint and force guys not named Gradey or, I guess, Yesufu to shoot over the top of you. It worked brilliantly. Kansas generated just 19 attempts at the rim - their second-fewest all year behind the Wisconsin game - and shot 7-for-23 on jumpers. They got off all of four open catch-and-shoot attempts in a 40-minute game.
TY Wisconsin pt. 2. Wisconsin got a total of 27 points off of cuts, off-ball screens, and post-ups, per Synergy. Tennessee merely generated 20 of their 64 points from such (Kansas’s second-highest total allowed), but 16 of those were on the off-ball screens. Tennessee clearly noticed Kansas was struggling to keep up with those the day before and hammered them on it over and over. An example:
One more time: let’s talk shots. This is perhaps the most encouraging aspect of this game. Take a look at this shot chart:
That’s Synergy’s shot chart for this game from Tennessee. The Volunteers attempted 46 shots against Kansas. 40 of those shots were either within five feet of the rim or from three. 43 of them were either from deep or in the paint. This is the same team that attempted more mid-range jumpers than any other team in America two seasons ago. Old dogs can learn new tricks.
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