March approaches. Tennessee is holding firm on the three line in the Bracket Matrix, with clear divisions emerging among the top ten teams. At this point it would be a surprise to see something other than the current groupings in the matrix on the one and two lines, plus Kansas State and Tennessee at three.
Of course, the last few weeks have held more surprise than the Vols would’ve liked. Tennessee has lost five of seven, but gets a bounce-back opportunity in hosting South Carolina tomorrow.
Headed into March, what is the best available blueprint for Tennessee? What numbers lead to victory most often, especially offensively as this group tries to find itself?
Nothing is guaranteed: last season the blueprint for Tennessee’s worst basketball was turning it over excessively, then the Vols had a season-low six turnovers against Michigan but lost. But if we’re looking for Tennessee’s most reliable paths to victory, so far this year it goes something like this:
17-0 when opponents score less than 60 points
It starts here, and the Vols are still plenty good at it. Tennessee is still first nationally in defensive efficiency, first in effective field goal percentage allowed, and first in three-point percentage allowed (25%). The Vols are also 17th nationally in turnovers forced and 33rd nationally in blocked shot percentage. Tennessee does almost everything at an elite level defensively. Almost.
13-1 with 16 fouls or less
In defensive free throw rate allowed, the Vols are 290th nationally. The absolute best way to beat Tennessee’s defense is to get to the free throw line.
This plays out in a number of foul-related stats:
- 17-2 when opponents attempt 20 free throws or less (Missouri & Vanderbilt)
- 8-1 when opponents make 11 free throws or less (Vanderbilt)
- 0-5 when opponents have a free throw rate of 37.5% or higher
You’ll see as we go the frequency with with Missouri, Vanderbilt, or both show up as the outliers. They’re the only two teams to hit 10+ threes against the Vols. Tennessee is 1-4 when teams shoot 35+% from three, but the one is number one Alabama.
So yes, teams that are on fire from deep can hurt even Tennessee’s defense. But the more reliable way to get to them is via the free throw line. It’s always less comfortable when you feel a little reliant on how the game is being officiated. For the Vols, is there an emphasis to be placed on defending without fouling?
What about offensively, with the greatest room for improvement?
Here’s a look at each of the last six Tennessee teams, and how they’ve performed offensively in KenPom’s four factors:
|Season||KenPom O||EFG%||TO%||OREB%||FT Rate|
This team finds itself in the back half of these Barnes teams offensively. They are the worst of the group in shooting, but the best of the group in:
13-1 when getting 40+% of offensive rebounds
If you can’t make shots, you’d better be good at getting the rebound. And these Vols are great at it. Here again, the lone loss is Missouri.
We know Jonas Aidoo is a machine here; Jahmai Mashack is also better than he gets credit for. Two of Tennessee’s best offensive glass guys are, of course, Josiah-Jordan James and Julian Phillips. I obviously don’t know the depth of conversation they’re having on attacking the offensive glass vs transition defense. But Tennessee’s greatest asset offensively is the number of second chances they create for themselves. More history on this from January 16.
And then there’s this old friend:
14-2 when shooting 30+% from three
The two, of course, are Missouri and Vanderbilt. Last season, the Vols were 22-1 at this number, the lone loss at Rupp Arena. Here again, you’re not asking for a whole lot. Santiago Vescovi is heating up, now at 36.1% from the arc on the season. But Tyreke Key (33.6%) is the only other Vol shooting better than 33% among perimeter players. More history on this from February 7.
So, the best available blueprint:
- Hold teams under 60
- Keep opponents to less than 20 free throws
- Crash the offensive glass at 40%
- Shoot 30% from three
Play to your absolute strengths on defense and the offensive glass. Defend without fouling. And get simply minimum efficiency from the three point line.
We’ll see what else we can learn between now and tournament time, starting tomorrow against South Carolina. March is on the horizon. And Tennessee’s best basketball is still plenty good enough to win.