Blueprint for the Bracket

I love the simplicity of the NCAA Tournament. It takes a minute to get there sometimes: last year the Vols rode an emotional wave on Selection Sunday, winning the SEC Tournament only to still be disappointed with a three seed. For better and for worse, no such drama is available to Tennessee this year. And with no Zakai Zeigler available, there’s a bit of a shrug about this whole business.

But that shrug is for predictability, and not for a lack of desired outcome. The Vols will play a first round game in just a few days. Tennessee has been good at the “survive” part already this year, this team bothered by injuries more than any of our tournament groups going back through the Pearl era. Now comes the advance part. It’s this part, in the sport’s very nature, that always carries the greatest risk and the sweetest reward.

There will be time to look at individual matchups once the bracket is announced. But for now, let’s simply start with Tennessee. How do the Vols advance?

Team Defense

  • 20-0 when opponents score less than 60 points

While UCLA has momentarily usurped Tennessee’s KenPom defense crown, the Vols are still plenty good here. The first question for any opponent: can you get to 60 against us? The Vols are third nationally in effective field goal percentage allowed, and still first in three-point percentage allowed, even though that number has improved for opponents. The Vols allowed 28.9% in conference play from three, and sit at 26.2% on the season.

The flip side of this one, of course, is Tennessee is 3-10 when opponents score 60 or more. But the Vols do have meaningful wins over Texas (82-71) and Vanderbilt (77-68) at those marks, and beat Alabama with the Tide at 59 points.

Maybe we’ll see it show up and overwhelm a first round opponent. But either way, Tennessee’s defense remains elite, even with their turnover prowess lessened without Zeigler. This is level one.

Defend Without Fouling

  • 21-3 when committing less than 20 fouls
  • 19-3 when the opponent makes less than 15 free throws
  • 17-3 when the opponent attempts less than 20 free throws

The corresponding stat here: it’s the same three losses in each of those. Vanderbilt and Missouri (twice) are the only teams to hit 10+ threes against the Vols this season. So for sure, if an opponent catches fire from the arc, the Vols could be in trouble. But if they don’t, the Vols don’t want to help an opponent cheat past their defense by getting an abundance of points at the free throw line.

More on rotations and tournament minutes without Zeigler in a moment, but keep an eye on Jahmai Mashack here. In two of three full games without Zeigler, he’s gone to the bench early with foul trouble, and played just 13 minutes at Auburn.

Crash the Offensive Glass

  • 15-1 with a 39+% offensive rebounding percentage

The one loss here is Missouri in Knoxville: 14 threes and a buzzer beater, etc. But the best remedy for an offense that can struggle with good shooting is to attack the boards, and Tennessee is generally very good at that. They’re also less limited here by Zeigler’s absence than anywhere else.

This stat also catches a large percentage of Tennessee’s Quad 1 wins: Kansas, Texas, Maryland, and Starkville all featured 40+% offensive rebounding performances. At first, it seems easy to make this the go-to stat: the Vols are 15-1 at 39+%, but just 1-4 at 26.5% or less. But the one in 1-4 is Alabama (21.4%). Still, attacking the offensive glass is where Tennessee’s offense shines brightest.

Individual Players: Not Enough Information

  • 4-0 when Josiah-Jordan James plays 30+ minutes
  • 9-1 when Josiah-Jordan James scores 11+ points
  • 13-2 when Julian Phillips plays 26+ minutes
  • 12-2 when Julian Phillips makes 3+ shots

A couple of outliers here: the one loss when Josiah scores 11+ is Colorado in the second game of the season. The most reliable of these numbers is Julian at 3+ made field goals, bested only by Vanderbilt and Missouri yesterday, both at 10+ threes made.

But both of these groups simply need more data, and we’re almost out of time. We’re not, however, out of minutes…and Rick Barnes loves to give those to his best players in March.

Look at the increase in minutes for the top of the rotation in Tennessee’s most recent competitive NCAA Tournament games:

PlayerAvg. Minutes2022 Michigan
PlayerAvg. Minutes2021 Oregon St
K. Johnson2635
J. Springer2631
PlayerAvg. Minutes2019 Purdue
PlayerAvg. Minutes2019 Iowa
PlayerAvg. Minutes2018 Loyola

It’s a safe bet you’re getting ready to see a ton of Santiago Vescovi. I think there’s reason to believe the same will be true for Josiah-Jordan James. Are there more minutes getting ready to materialize for Julian Phillips as well?

And in the post?

Individual Players: Post Scoring

  • 11-2 when Olivier Nkamhoua makes 5+ shots
  • 9-0 when Jonas Aidoo makes 3+ shots

There’s only a tiny bit of overlap here, with Nkamhoua and Aidoo both crossing these thresholds just twice. That makes the Vols 16-2 when just one of these two things happens. Tennessee needs one of those two to produce offensively to create their best basketball. And UT’s most frequent lineups put these two guys on the floor together; we’ll see what more minutes for Josiah and/or Julian might do to those pairings.

The Vols aren’t perfect, but no one is, especially this season. Defend without fouling, crash the offensive glass, get one of your bigs going inside…and let’s see what some extra minutes for UT’s best players might do.

The fun starts soon.

Go Vols.

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1 year ago

Great stats and insights… but it makes my head hurt trying to figure out this team. Go Vols!

Mr B
Mr B
1 year ago

Can’t wait… it’s great watching many of these players spend long careers as Vols. Perhaps they are still adjusting to the loss of double Z. Go Vols!