A Midseason Blueprint: Lineups and Good Shots

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Alternative title: make more threes!

You already knew that, of course. But the rise in frustration in watching Tennessee’s offense is directly related to their in/ability to make threes…and more than I thought.

When word leaked out after an exhibition that the Vols were jacking 40+ threes, optimism reigned. Modern basketball! Fun to watch! Final Four!

Through 14 games this season, the Vols are 61st nationally in threes attempted as a percentage of their total shots (via KenPom). Last year: 244th. In the vaunted Peanut Butter & Jelly offense of 2019, third overall in KenPom: 324th.

So yeah, we’re shooting more threes. Like a lot more. Like 28.3 per game, when we’re used to taking 19.9 (last year) or 19.3 in 2019 and 2020.

But you’ve noticed how that’s working out for us so far:

Year3PT%Attempts/Game% of shots
202232.1%28.343.7%
202133.1%19.934.6%
202031.3%19.336.1%
201936.7%19.332.2%
201838.0%20.535.7%

We’re shooting it way more often, but not making them any more often. The good news when it comes to effective field goal percentage: from two, the Vols are better than they’ve been in any year under Barnes other than 2019. And so, in part as a result of playing four Top 20 KenPom defenses, Tennessee’s offense is currently 52nd in those ratings. It ain’t great, but it ain’t last year (85th) or 2020 (96th).

But in the three-game SEC opener, from deep the Vols are 7-of-29 at Alabama (24.1%), 10-of-34 vs Ole Miss (29.4%), and 6-of-24 at LSU (25%). And those will get you beat twice and taken to overtime.

That’s the magic number so far, in fact: Tennessee is 9-0 when shooting at least 26% from three, but 1-4 when they don’t (6-of-24 at Colorado).

We’ve seen good and bad performances against good teams: 17.9% against Villanova and 45% (9-of-20) against North Carolina in the same weekend. The Vols were just 7-of-24 (29.2%) against Arizona and, of course, 6-of-40 (15%) against Texas Tech.

Who is Tennessee’s best three-point shooter?

Player3PT%Attempts
Nkamhoua50.0%22
Powell39.0%41
Vescovi36.4%110
Chandler34.0%50
Zeigler30.6%49
James22.6%62
Bailey21.7%46

I’m not sure how much they want to increase the outside looks for Nkamhoua; that probably depends on how many minutes he’s spending on the floor in lineups with non-shooters like Fulky or Plavsic. A group with Josiah-Jordan James at the 4 and Nkamhoua at the 5 is Tennessee’s fourth-most common lineup in the last five games via KenPom. As we know, Tennessee’s overall rotation varies heavily from night to night at the moment.

Among regular shooters, Justin Powell has the team’s best percentage. But his minutes have been streaky: 26 vs Arizona, then 15 at Alabama, then 22 vs Ole Miss, then just 10 at LSU. In this stretch he’s 3-of-9 from deep.

Vescovi is the most consistent option, and the main reason our shooting hasn’t been worse in SEC play. In 33 minutes at Alabama and LSU and 41 against Ole Miss, he’s 10-of-25 (40%) from three. He’s taken just five two-point shots in those three games, though he did get to the line seven times at LSU. And he pulls up around twice as often as the point guards, sharing the floor with either Chandler or Zeigler almost exclusively. When Jahmai Mashack gets in the game, Vescovi has seen a tiny bit of PG run. But otherwise he’s become both a strong shooter and defender.

You can tinker with the lineups all day, and perhaps Barnes will continue to do so. But nothing would help Tennessee more right now than Josiah-Jordan James hitting open looks. James is Tennessee’s best defender, ranking in the Top 150 nationally in both block and steal percentage. He rebounds well, and he rarely turns it over. And the Vol offense can create lots of open looks for him, as we saw multiple times in the corner at LSU. He’s just struggling mightily to see it go through the net.

You’ve also got Victor Bailey unable to level up his flamethrower coming off the bench: 4-of-8 against Presbyterian, 6-of-38 (15.8%) the rest of the year. It’s been a difficult season shooting it for a guy who hit 33.8% last year and 39.8% at Oregon in 2019.

You can always simplify things down to the Cuonzo Martin school of, “We didn’t make shots.” So yeah, make more threes: particularly Josiah, and either Bailey finding his shot off the bench or Powell playing more. Some of this will come down to lineups. Some of it will come down to open looks that just need to go in more often.

It’s good news, overall, that if Tennessee just gets north of 25% from the arc – not a huge ask! – so far, they win. Almost all of the other pieces are there, and the eye test doesn’t show a lot of bad shots going up. But when shots aren’t going down, as has been the case to open SEC play, it seems to be contagious, with only Vescovi immune.

How do we bust the slump? The Vols will have to figure it out against Frank Martin, then at Rupp, then at Memorial, then LSU again, then Florida, then at Texas. The league is good; its only teams outside the KenPom Top 100 we don’t play until February 22 and March 1. Tennessee has the makings of a good basketball team too. We just need to see some threes go in.

Go Vols.

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Keepontruckin
Keepontruckin
13 days ago

I think Barnes calling out Fulky in the media like he did is totally classless. Why is that comment not kept in the locker room, or better yet, one on one? Better yet Rick Barnes, how about you taking some responsibility. You are the one being paid as a top five coach, how about starting to coach like one!