Selling Tennessee's stock after an anticlimactic regular season finish? Here's why you should buy low
After the final seconds ticked on Auburn’s upset win against Tennessee on Saturday, Bryce Brown celebrated his final home game by jumping on the scorer’s table and climbing into the stands to hug his family. It was the climactic ending that every senior hopes for. Hit some clutch shots, beat a top 5 team on your home floor and have an unforgettable Senior Day moment.
Tennessee’s regular season finish was the opposite of that.
The loss to Auburn gave Tennessee a 4-3 mark in the final 3 weeks of the season. For most teams, a stretch like that to end the season wouldn’t be very noteworthy. But for the Vols, who entered that stretch riding a 19-game winning streak, it might have raised a few eyebrows.
The team that once looked like it would win the SEC regular season in a landslide instead slipped into the No. 3 seed for the conference tournament. In a sport often fixated on trends — a mistake when it comes to projecting how 18-22 year-olds will perform — the perception is that Tennessee is heading in the wrong direction at the wrong time of year.
It would be an easy time to sell the Vols’ stock and get on board with what Pat Forde wrote after the humbling loss at Kentucky. That is, that the Vols were “overrated” and not as good as their 19-game winning streak indicated.
That, however, would be a mistake. Buy low.
Momentum going into the postseason is what’s overrated. Last year, Kentucky rolled through the SEC Tournament for the fourth consecutive year. Heading into that? The Cats finished 4-5 in their final 9 regular season games, including a 13-point loss to Florida heading into the SEC Tournament.
Remember when South Carolina stormed through the NCAA Tournament and made it to the Final Four 2 years ago? Of course you do. You might also remember that the Gamecocks were 3-5 in the 8 games heading into the postseason, and they actually laid an egg in their first SEC Tournament game against Alabama.
Consider that my way of saying, no, Tennessee’s frustrating finish to the regular season is by no means a sign of an epic collapse. In fact, it could serve as a positive.
It’s cliché, but there’s truth behind the belief that a long win streak can cover up some flaws. And on the flip side, a loss can reveal some. Tennessee needed to get tougher, especially on defense. You can’t defend that poorly against a team as talented as Kentucky and hope to grind out a road win. Admiral Schofield said after the Kentucky loss that halted the Vols’ streak that the Cats “kicked our butts, scoring the ball, defense, everything.”
The Cats exposed the fact that Tennessee, to that point, had yet to play a truly elite team on the road. In fact, all 3 of the Vols’ losses down the stretch came against SEC teams on the road that finished in the top 4 of the conference (people ignore that there aren’t road games in the postseason).
And as one-sided as the Kentucky game was, you could certainly point to the Auburn and LSU losses as being a coin flip (an offensive goaltending here or a brutal foul call in the final seconds there and maybe those results are different). If Tennessee was blown off the floor against Auburn and LSU, we’re having a different conversation.
Instead, the Vols should still be considered the team to beat in Nashville. That’s why they opened as the betting favorites.
🚨Breaking Odds to Win the 2019 SEC Tournament 🚨
— MyBookie Sportsbook (@betmybookie) March 10, 2019
Perhaps the oddsmakers see what I see. The Vols are still extremely well-coached with the best 1-2 punch in the SEC in Schofield and Grant Williams, both of whom can take over a game at a moment’s notice (lost in the shuffle of the Auburn loss was how Williams played like a National Player of the Year). They still have the underrated Jordan Bone running the offense. And there’s still nobody in the SEC with the type of experience they have in a starting lineup of upperclassmen.
All of those factors were why they were about as letdown-proof as anyone in college basketball. The Auburn loss was Tennessee’s first to an unranked opponent all year. The only teams who finished the regular season without a loss to an unranked foe were Gonzaga and Virginia.
Like Gonzaga and Virginia, Tennessee still belongs at the forefront of the national title conversation. I’ll still believe that even if the Vols don’t wind up cutting down the nets this week in Nashville.
They came close to doing that last year, but a peaking Kentucky team proved to be too much for the upstart Vols. Maybe that corrects itself this year. Tennessee is still just 10 days removed from avenging the Kentucky blowout loss with a blowout win of its own. Perhaps Rick Barnes figured out a few things in that game that’ll bode well if and when we get Part III this week.
The question now is how much has Tennessee figured out about itself heading into the postseason. Fans will wonder that coming off the Auburn loss. In the postgame press conference, Barnes had an interesting comment about that and keeping things in perspective.
“A year ago, you think about it, we win the league with 5 losses,” he said Saturday. “This year we only have 3. You have to learn from this. Some of the mistakes we made today, we can’t make. Not at this time of year.”
True, true, true and true.
It certainly doesn’t sound like Barnes is selling stock in his team, nor should anyone. Yet, people will. That’s March.
For some, it’s a what have-you-done-for-me-lately sport, especially this time of year. To borrow a phrase from CNBC personality Jim Cramer, though, I can’t help but think of these 3 words when I hear someone dismissing Tennessee.
Buy, buy, buy.