Over at Bart Torvik’s predictive bracketology, the Vols would be well acquainted with their current neighbors on the one line:
- Texas, first in KenPom and second in defensive efficiency, comes to Thompson-Boling Arena on January 28
- Tennessee, third in KenPom and first in defensive efficiency
- Arizona, ninth in KenPom and third in offensive efficiency, hosts Tennessee on December 17
- Houston currently rounds out this group, second in KenPom and third in defensive efficiency
We’re a long way from March. But we miss no opportunities to celebrate. So on this Thanksgiving Weekend…how bout them Vols.
If you watched it, it wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing performance. Tennessee turned it over 24 times, 17 in the first half. Recall last season, when UT’s worst performances could be directly tied to this number: 18 turnovers in the loss to Villanova, 18 in an overtime squeaker against Ole Miss, 20 in the blowout at Rupp Arena.
Twenty-four last night, seventeen in the first half…and the Vols led by eight at the break. And won by 14. Against the number three defending national champions.
Kansas gave it away 16 times, 11 credited to Tennessee steals. Four of those belonged to Zakai Zeigler. And the Vols also did good things from the arc when they weren’t giving it away: 12-of-27 (44.4%) from the arc, including 3-of-5 from Zeigler and a shooters shoot 5-of-14 from Santiago Vescovi.
Two years ago, Tennessee blew out Kansas in Knoxville in a “what if we get hot” game: 8-of-13 from the arc, 16-of-17 at the line, 52.8% from the floor overall. It was a good look at the ceiling, but a less predictable outcome from game-to-game. Those Keon Johnson/Jaden Springer Vols were 12-3 after that win, won at Rupp the following weekend, and were 14-4 on February 10. But they went 4-5 in their final nine games, including two without John Fulkerson and a defense more reliant on one player, Yves Pons, who sat much of the NCAA Tournament loss to Oregon State in foul trouble.
This Tennessee team played their way through Atlantis without Josiah-Jordan James, sitting with knee soreness. They finished the Kansas performance at 41.5% from the floor and, again, the 24 turnovers.
But what can show up much more predictably is defense. And we’ve seen some really good versions of that over the years, from last year to the 2018 team, all the way back through Cuonzo. Bruce Pearl’s best defensive team in 2010 is the one that went the farthest in the NCAA Tournament.
It’s early. But this team is chasing new territory on multiple fronts:
And, of course, the elusive one seed in an NCAA Tournament featuring regionals in Louisville or three plane tickets to Kansas City, New York, or Las Vegas.
The whole goal of the regular season is to get as far up the bracket as possible, and to be playing your best basketball when it arrives. Tennessee will once again have the strength of schedule component well in hand: three tune-ups in Knoxville are next, then Maryland, then Arizona.
We’ll see about Josiah, we’ll see about the three-point shooting. In Atlantis, a surprising offensive rebounding surge appeared: 15 against Kansas on 31 misses, otherwise known as almost half of them. If that continues, we could see a team that looks a lot like that 2014 Cuonzo squad with Jarnell Stokes, one that can excel both defensively and on the offensive glass. That brand of basketball can cover a multitude of sins.
And there ain’t many of those on this team to begin with. Right now, this team has a higher KenPom rating than any Tennessee squad at the end of the season.
Five years ago, Tennessee went to Atlantis and entered the national conversation with a crucial program win over #18 Purdue. Five years later, the Vols took home the conch shell with a dominant win over #3 Kansas. It is the eighth Top 5 win for Rick Barnes at Tennessee:
- 2017: Tennessee 82 #4 Kentucky 80 (Knoxville)
- 2019: #7 Tennessee 76 #1 Gonzaga 73 (Phoenix)
- 2019: #7 Tennessee 71 #4 Kentucky 52 (Knoxville)
- 2019: #8 Tennessee 82 #4 Kentucky 78 (SEC Tournament)
- 2022: #16 Tennessee 76 #4 Kentucky 63 (Knoxville)
- 2022: #17 Tennessee 67 #3 Auburn 62 (Knoxville)
- 2022: #9 Tennessee 69 #5 Kentucky 62 (SEC Tournament)
- 2023: #22 Tennessee 64 #3 Kansas 50 (Atlantis)
And if this team continues to develop, more will be on the way.