How Tennessee’s win over Maryland spells 2022-23 men’s college basketball
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The entire Tennessee State basketball team gathered around the ring at the start of Sunday’s pregame preview at Long Island University. Two balls got stuck in the net, then three, and then someone decided that volunteers should make all the balls get stuck between the backboard and the backboard. When they have achieved the mentioned goal, p Julian Phillips lifting the latter to his place, the players celebrated with cheers.
And that was the end of the frivolity.
For most teams, game play involves more basketball placement drills than doing anything very productive. Players relax, stretch, throw in a few shots, maybe enjoy a half-court shooting contest, and move on. Tennessee worked abroad. Slides and recovery and double teams. Wash it off. Again, the Vols make a real splash before giving up after 90 minutes.
When three hours later they occupied the court and strangled them Maryland in a first half in which the Terrapins hit one 2-pointer, three field goals and a combined 17 points, it all made sense. The Vols clearly rank No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency for a reason. But just as the fans were deciding the rout — “You’ve got to be kidding me,” one groaned after Patrick Emilien twice made a wide throw that put the closest defender in the tri-borough of New York – 2022-23 season happened.
More than a month later, it seems premature to make any bold sweeping statements, but it’s safe to say that this year is going to be … dirty. If one game can serve as a symbol of what is happening in the country, this was it. Maryland came back from a 17-point first-half deficit, scoring more points in the first nine minutes of the second half than it had in the entire first. Tennessee threatened to break loose as it struggled to score without both Josiah-Jordan James (knee) and Jonas Aydu (flu) almost completely nullified his defensive efforts before the Vols rallied to cling on to the final threads of a 56-53 victory.
Afterward, Rick Barnes and Kevin Willard met at half court, both shrugging in an I-don’t-know-what-just-happened-here moment. Barnes later said he was proud his team hung on, Willard said he was impressed with how he fought back, and both didn’t know what to make of it. “You look at the country right now, I’m not sure anybody has established themselves as if they’re on a higher floor than everybody else,” Barnes said. “The proof will be a major obstacle for everyone. We’ve been in games like this before, and we will again. You could get used to it.”
It used to be easy to attribute early parity to youth, to players just starting out in men’s college basketball, to understand what they were doing. But the game is older. COVID-19 granted eligibility for additional years, changing the way experience is measured. Pemeroy, for example, changed the metric to “minutes played” to try to combat how different schools report years of classes to account for COVID. But even so, 157 teams average more than two years of college basketball experience; it may not seem like much, but in college, age is measured in dog years.
So what gives upside results? This weekend only Houstonwho looked like the meanest, most disgusting team in college basketball, gave up more points in a half-year than their season average in a home loss against Alabama. Purdue was pushed to the edge by Nebraskabefore winning in overtime. Creighton lost BYU. And Tennessee was nearly beaten after looking unbeatable for 20 minutes. And it’s not that these games are exceptional. The whole season has been stupid. Baylor was moved by Marquette and then by Gonzaga. State of Michigan to beat Kentucky and was set on fire Mother of Godand the Wildcats, not to be outdone, lost to the Zags after the Zags were shut out Texas. That would be Texas, who by the way lost this week to Illinois, who then lost Pension state at home.
Don’t try college basketball transition theory at home, kids.
Willard, for one, wonders if the schedule is an issue. College basketball has long had the best season total in any sport and the least impressive start. November and December have traditionally included a few holiday week matches in distant paradise islands and a parade of guarantee games. If there’s one good thing about COVID, it’s that many college basketball coaches have decided to take off their training wheels and go play with each other.
There are more one-off televised events and mini-tournaments than ever before. Combine those with an expanding field of multi-team events — and especially this year, PK85 in Portland — and you’ve got some really good teams playing very good teams right from the start.
Which is great for college basketball. And not very good for the win-loss column.
Some coaches have built their schedules this way for years. Tom Izzo’s Michigan State uniform has “anywhere anytime” sewn into it. Gonzaga made his national name by roaming the country and Mark Few doesn’t seem too interested in stopping now that his team is among the nation’s elite. Obviously, Scott Drew will play anywhere anyone can create a ballroom playing field.
But there is a trade-off in chasing games across the country. “I think the good thing about these games this time of year is you really get to know your team,” Willard said. “But I’m not sure that’s fair to these guys. We didn’t have time to work out many of our questions. You really need to balance your schedule a bit. I’ve learned a lot, but I also think we’ve regressed a bit too. The way we played in the last week and a half, it wasn’t as sharp as it was at the beginning, and that’s because we didn’t train.”
He has a valid point. His Terps played at Louisville on Tuesday, at home vs Illinois on Friday, at Wisconsin on Tuesday and against Tennessee in Brooklyn on Sunday … and will host UCLA on Wednesday. After going undefeated a week ago, the Terps have lost two in a row.
Similarly, Purdue looked undefeated in Portland, then had its road trip postponed and the Boilermakers made a four-day road trip from Portland to West Lafayette in Tallahassee. Not surprisingly, they looked a little muted in the background State of Florida. Baylor played in Vegas twice, returned to Waco, then went to Milwaukee to break it up.
But the solution is not to get rid of good games. In November and December, sports need to force themselves into the conversation, and the only way to do that is to schedule games with meat on the bones. The solution is to make yourself comfortable. The beauty of college basketball, unlike college football, is that no one is eliminated from contention for one game. The committee typically rewards teams that play tough schedules and penalizes those that feast on the cream of the crop.
Even Willard, who no one would ever accuse of being an optimist, found something to celebrate his team (if only he could stop looking at the offensive rebound differential). The Terps were picked 10th in the Big Ten for good reason, and yet they’ve already cracked the top 25 with a quality schedule and competitive results. What’s more, Maryland has proven to be both resilient and tough, two adjectives that no one would have used to describe them a year ago.
Meanwhile, Barnes, who might have watched the other half angrily, also reached for the half-full glass. Toby Avaka, who averaged 1.1 points per game, answered the call to fill a void in the lineup by scoring seven points and adding eight rebounds. And the Vols, who apparently left all of their shots in the basket while passing, won despite connecting on just 28 percent from the floor. “People tell me all the time how good a team can be if they just make their shots,” Barnes said. “When you take your pictures, it always looks beautiful. But can you win if it’s ugly? The second half was pretty ugly for us and we found a way to win.”
And for the 2022-23 season, this may be enough.
(Photo: Jessica Alche/USA Today)
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