BROOKLYN, NY — Early in its pre-game walkthrough Sunday at Long Island University, the entire Tennessee basketball team crowded around a hoop. Two balls had gotten stuck in the net, and then three, and then someone decided that the Volunteers needed to make all of the balls get stuck between the rim and the backboard. When they achieved said goal, with Julian Phillips lofting the last into place, the players celebrated with a cheer.
And that was the end of the frivolity.
For most teams, gameday walkthroughs include more exercises in lodging basketballs than doing anything terribly productive. Players get loose, stretch, toss up some shots, maybe enjoy a halfcourt shot contest and move along. Tennessee worked on defense. Slides and recoveries and double teams. Rinse. Repeat, the Vols working up a real lather before calling it quits 90 minutes later.
When, three hours later, they took the court and suffocated Maryland during a first half in which the Terrapins hit one 2-point shot, three field goals all together, and scrounged together 17 points, it all made sense. The Vols clearly rank first in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency for a reason. But just when the fans settled in for the rout — “ya gotta be kidding me,” one groaned after Patric Emilien twice blew a wide-open chip shot in which the nearest defender was three New York boroughs away — the 2022-23 season happened.
Just more than a month in seems premature to make any bold sweeping declarations, but it does seem safe to say that this year is going to be … messy. If one game can serve as emblematic of what is going on nationally, this was it. Maryland raged back from a 17-point halftime deficit, scoring more points in the first nine minutes of the second half than it could in the entirety of the first. Tennessee threatened to come unglued, its own struggles to score without both Josiah-Jordan James (knee) and Jonas Aidoo (flu) nearly negating its defensive effort entirely, before the Vols rallied to cling to the final threads of a 56-53 victory.
Afterwards, Rick Barnes and Kevin Willard met at halfcourt, both shrugging in a sort of I-don’t-know-what-just-happened-here moment. Barnes later said he was proud his team hung on, Willard said he was impressed that he fought back, and both unsure of what to make of it all. “You look around the country right now, I’m not sure anyone has established themselves like they’re on a higher floor than everybody else,” Barnes said. “Proof is going to be a major hurdle for everybody. We’ve been in games like this before, and we will again. Might as well get used to it.”
It used to be easy to chalk the early parity up to youth, to players new to men’s college basketball figuring out just what they were doing. But the game is older. COVID-19 doled out extra years of eligibility, convoluting the way experience is measured. Pomeroy, for example, changed to a “minutes played” metric to try to combat the way different schools report class years to account for COVID. But even with that, 157 teams average two-plus years of college basketball experience; that may not sound like much but in college hoops, age is measured in dog years.
So what gives with the topsy-turvy results? Just this weekend, Houston, which looked like the meanest and nastiest team in college basketball, surrendered more points in a half than its season average in a home loss to Alabama. Purdue was pushed to the brink by Nebraska, before winning in overtime. Creighton lost to BYU. And Tennessee almost got beat after looking unbeatable for 20 minutes. And it’s not like these games are outliers. The whole season has been wacky. Baylor got trucked by Marquette and then trucked Gonzaga in turn. Michigan State beat Kentucky and got torched by Notre Dame, and the Wildcats, not to be left out, lost to the Zags after the Zags got walloped by Texas. That would be Texas, which by the way, lost this week to Illinois, which then lost to Penn State at home.
Don’t try the transitive theory of college basketball at home, kids.
Willard, for one, wonders if the schedule is the problem. College basketball has long produced the best season finish in all of sports, and the least impressive start. November and December traditionally included a few Feast Week matchups in far-flung island paradises and a parade of guarantee games. If there is a silver lining from COVID it is that many college basketball coaches have decided to take off the training wheels and go play each other.
There are more one-off made-for-TV events and mini tourneys than ever before. Combine those with an expanding multi-team events field — and especially this year, the PK85 in Portland — and you’ve got really good teams playing really good teams early.
Which is great for college basketball. And not so great for the win-loss column.
Some coaches have built their schedules this way for years. Tom Izzo basically has “anywhere anytime” stitched into the fabric of Michigan State’s uniforms. Gonzaga made its national hay by traipsing across the country, and Mark Few doesn’t seem terribly interested in stopping now that his team is among the country’s elite. Scott Drew apparently will play anywhere someone can fashion a pickleball court in a ballroom.
But there is a trade-off to chasing games across the country. “I think the good thing about these games this time of year is you really learn about your team,” Willard said. “But I’m not sure it’s fair to these guys. A lot of our issues, we haven’t had time to practice. You really need to balance your schedule out a little bit. I’ve learned a lot, but I also think we’ve regressed a little bit, too. The way we played over the last week and a half, we’re not as sharp as we were early, and that’s because we haven’t practiced.”
He has a valid point. His Terps played at Louisville on a Tuesday, at home against Illinois on a Friday, at Wisconsin on a Tuesday, and against Tennessee in Brooklyn on a Sunday … and will host UCLA on Wednesday. Undefeated a week ago, the Terps now have lost two in a row.
Similarly, Purdue looked unbeatable in Portland, and then its flight out got delayed and the Boilermakers did the Portland-to-West Lafayette-to-Tallahassee road trip in four days. Not so surprisingly, they looked a little muted against Florida State. Baylor played twice in Vegas, returned to Waco and then went to Milwaukee for its shellacking.
But the solution is not to get rid of the good games. The sport needs to force itself into the conversation in November and December, and the only way to do that is to schedule games with some meat on the bones. The solution is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. The beauty of college basketball, unlike college football, is no one is eliminated from contention with one game. The committee routinely rewards teams that play hard schedules, and punishes those who feast on creampuffs.
Even Willard, whom no one will ever accuse of being an optimist, found plenty to celebrate about his team (if he could stop staring at offensive rebounding differential). The Terps were picked to finish 10th in the Big Ten with good reason, and yet have already worked their way into the top 25 with a quality schedule and competitive results. Moreover, Maryland has proven to be both resilient and tough, two adjectives no one would have used to describe them a year ago.
Meanwhile, Barnes, who could have glowered over the second half, also reached for the half-full glass. Tobe Awaka, who averaged 1.1 points per game, answered the call to fill the roster gap by scoring seven and adding eight rebounds. And the Vols, who apparently left all of their shots in the basket during the walkthrough, won despite connecting on just 28 percent from the floor. “People tell me all the time how a team could be good if they just made their shots,” Barnes said. “If you’re making your shots, it always looks pretty. But can you win when it’s ugly? The second half was pretty ugly for us, and we found a way to win.”
And for the 2022-23 season, that just might be good enough.
(Photo: Jessica Alcheh / USA Today)