Through the first six games, we haven’t seen anything from Rick Barnes’ Vols to suggest last year wasn’t the real thing. And despite the pain of an overtime loss to #2 Kansas, there are encouraging signs the Vols are going to be even better.
There’s this, first of all:
— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) November 29, 2018
I remember watching his highlights on YouTube against the likes of the Lithuanian under-17 national team, and telling myself not to get too excited. I think it’s okay to get excited now.
Pons has gone from playing five minutes per game to fifteen. The best is yet to come – the Vols don’t need him to peak this season – but it’s exciting to think about what that best could look like.
It’s not just Pons who’s seeing increased minutes. Right now Tennessee is running Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, and Jordan Bone roughly 32 minutes per game, plus 29 from Jordan Bowden and 28 from Kyle Alexander. Last year no one averaged more than 28.8 minutes per game. For all the early-season chatter about playing a 10-man rotation, the Vols are basically rolling eight deep right now with spot duty from Derrick Walker and Jalen Johnson.
The Vols are still really good at some of the important pieces of the puzzle from last year, including assist rate (68%, fifth nationally). Increased roles for Alexander and Pons show up on both ends of the floor in blocked shots: only 3.8% of Tennessee’s shots get blocked, seventh nationally. And the Vols are sending back 13.8% of the shots they face, 34th nationally. This is a big part of Tennessee’s defense, which continues to be their calling card: 54th nationally in effective FG% allowed, and opponents are shooting just 29.7% from the arc in the early going.
Maybe the best news of all: Tennessee isn’t shooting well from the arc either. And the Vols are still rolling.
31.8% from three is good for 228th nationally. A 9-of-21 performance against Louisiana is the only one to write home about; Jordan Bowden is off to a decent start at 38.1%, but Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner are both shooting a cool 20%.
But so far, the Vols are dramatically better at scoring inside the arc.
It was their biggest weakness last year, shooting just 47.3% from two (278th nationally). This year: 56.7%, 38th nationally. Kyle Alexander was great at the rim last year (67.9%) and is off to a good start this year (64%). But look at the rest of the team:
A healthier Fulkerson and an unleashed Pons are making a difference. Bowden’s numbers are nice to see, though he’s still most valuable to the Vols from behind the arc. But the biggest differences: Jordan Bone is finishing at the rim, and Grant Williams is finishing at the rim the first time instead of living via offensive rebounds. Williams is also starting to get the superstar whistle: he’s 15th nationally in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (via KenPom).
Overall, the Vols are 10th in KenPom and one of just eight squads with a Top 20 offense and defense in those rankings, a metric every national champion other than 2014 UConn has hit since 2002.
This becomes a weekend sport for a minute now: Texas A&M Corpus Christi (314th in KenPom) on Sunday, then the showdown with Gonzaga next Sunday, then a trip to Memphis to renew the rivalry on Saturday, December 15. There’s plenty of time to keep getting better before SEC play, where five teams are in the KenPom Top 30 and seven others are in the Top 80. But so far, any concerns that last year was a nice story the Vols would have a hard time duplicating have been replaced by better basketball, more athleticism, and a higher ceiling.