Basketball season tips off tonight: the Vols host Presbyterian at 7 PM ET (available online via SEC Network+). Tennessee beat this team by 40 last year; Presbyterian enters the season 341 out of 351 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. It should serve (along with hosting High Point on Tuesday) as a soft opening before the Battle 4 Atlantis over Thanksgiving.
We shouldn’t learn a lot before then, but a few things stand out as opportunities for significant improvement from last year. If the Vols are going to play their way onto the bubble in hopes of finishing on the dance floor, they’ll have to be better in three critical areas:
1. Shoot the ball better.
Rocket science, I know. But this is more than the Cuonzo Martin school of, “We didn’t make shots.” The best way for Tennessee to shoot it better is to get better shots.
We covered this at the old site late last season: the Vols were 13-1 when they had 16+ assists, 3-15 when they had 15 or less. Overall the Vols shot 42.2% from the floor last season (289th nationally), and just 40.7% in conference play (12th in the SEC). When the offense was humming the Vols shared the ball and created good looks, often for Robert Hubbs or Grant Williams. But the Vols struggled to create their own shots beyond Hubbs, leading to tough twos for guys like Lamonte Turner (35.5% from the floor) and Jordan Bowden (37.1%).
Tennessee also struggled to win ugly, a quality any bubble team needs. The Vols were 13-2 when shooting 42% or better from the floor, including strong performances in losses at North Carolina and at Florida. But under 42%, the Vols were only 3-14. Tennessee did face the nation’s third most difficult schedule in opponent defensive rating by KenPom, but an improved SEC and Rick Barnes’ choice to schedule for the tournament shouldn’t make things tremendously easier this time around.
I don’t know if we can count on the newcomers to make a huge difference here. James Daniel did put in 27.1 points per game for Howard, but was more of a volume scorer averaging 38.8% from the floor on 19.4 shots per game. Better shooting is still more likely to come from better offense than guys naturally evolving into better jump shooters. This means point guard play, starting with Jordan Bone, will be critical for the Vols this season.
2. …but maybe trying a few more threes wouldn’t hurt.
Last season the Vols were 290th nationally in three pointers attempted and 13th in SEC play. The percentages made sense: 32.6% from the arc overall and 31.8% in league play weren’t inspiring anyone to jack it up more.
Some of the offense’s best performances came with the fewest three point attempts of the season. Against Kentucky the Vols were 5-of-10 from the arc, the fewest attempts of the year. Tennessee also beat Georgia Tech, Kansas State, and Vanderbilt while attempting 15 threes or less. UT’s best three point shooter last year was…Admiral Schofield at 38.9%. There still may not be a great three-point shooter on this roster.
However, the game is evolving to the arc more and more: last year only two teams earned an at-large bid while taking less than 600 three pointers (Seton Hall and Miami). The Vols took 579. Here again, the solution is better offense: creating better opportunities for a guy like Grant Williams inside can lead to more open looks for a number of players on the perimeter. In an exhibition win at Clemson, the Vols were 9-of-24 (37.5%) from the arc. Twenty-four attempts would have been the sixth-most taken in all of last season. Of particular note: in two exhibition games, Grant Williams is 2-of-4 from the arc and Admiral Schofield is 3-of-7. Williams averaged one three attempt per game last year, Schofield 1.7. If those two put that in their game regularly and effectively, Tennessee’s entire offensive dynamic will change.
3. Keep the other team off the offensive glass
What comes of playing a bunch of guys under 6’8″: the Vols were 13th in the SEC in defensive rebounding. In the close losses that were most costly last season – the ones that could have made the biggest difference in Tennessee’s bubble presence – this was the number one issue:
- North Carolina had a 46.3% offensive rebounding percentage and 19 total offensive rebounds, narrowly escaping the Vols in Chapel Hill.
- Mississippi State grabbed 34% of their misses in a 64-59 victory in Starkville, breaking Tennessee’s four-game winning streak on February 4.
- One week later Georgia got 29 from J.J. Frazier, but also grabbed 34.6% of their misses in beating the Vols by one point in Knoxville. This loss knocked Tennessee out of the Bracket Matrix field.
You can what-if yourself to death, but if the Vols turn those three losses by a combined eight points into wins, Tennessee is 19-13 with a projected RPI of 52 (via RPI Wizard) going to the SEC Tournament, looking to play their way into the NCAA Tournament. Giving up such a high percentage of offensive rebounds was particularly costly.
Again, only so much you can do with so little height. John Fulkerson’s return will help here, as will the arrival of Derrick Walker to join Grant Williams and Kyle Alexander inside. Tennessee is still going to be smaller than the opposition more often than not – we’ll come back to this point in a major way against Purdue in 12 days – but has to avoid annihilation on the offensive glass to turn some of these close losses into close wins.
The Vols don’t have to excel in any of these areas to be a good team; there are plenty of things Tennessee did well last season (getting to the free throw line, blocking shots while defending without fouling, staying in the black in assist-to-turnover ratio). But these are the greatest areas for improvement for Rick Barnes’ squad, and could make the difference between the NIT and the NCAA Tournament.
The fun starts tonight.