Magic Numbers: Free Throws and Turnovers

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I don’t think the highs and lows quite qualify as a roller coaster, but Tennessee’s basketball season is definitely on a winding road. The hope, of course, is that this thing is still going up the mountain: the Vols were the 11th-best team in college basketball in the eyes of the selection committee on Saturday, before the loss to LSU. That followed a pair of statement wins over Kansas and at Kentucky the previous two Saturdays. It remains incredibly important this year to earn at least a #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, ensuring you avoid Gonzaga and Baylor until at least the Elite Eight. The Zags, in particular, would now be at least an eight-point favorite over any team in the nation that isn’t Baylor via KenPom. And Baylor would be at least -5.5 on the non-Gonzaga field.

Despite what those two are accomplishing, inconsistency is still generally the theme. It comes with covid, and it comes with freshmen, though Tennessee’s most recent struggles have come from everyone else’s contributions while Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer move to the front. The Vols also have health issues, as Yves Pons was clearly at less than 100% at LSU and UT’s defense suffered for it.

Still, the Vols are third nationally in KenPom defense, and the schedule should provide some opportunity for retooling. A second date with Florida needs to be rescheduled, but the Gators represent the only NCAA Tournament team left on Tennessee’s schedule. The Vols’ five SEC losses – all Quad 1 – currently leave them in fifth place in the league, but KenPom projects them to fall just once more, with six losses good enough to finish tied for second.

The schedule should help. How can the Vols help themselves?

The good news: I don’t think we’re far away, and I don’t think we’re done getting better.

Points

  • When UT scores 65 or fewer points: 3-5
  • When UT scores 66+ points: 11-0

Offense is definitely the greater challenge, and while the freshmen have been good, this is still a work in progress. But when your defense is this good, this is the simplest way to explain it: so far, when the Vols score 66 points, they win.

Early on, Tennessee was able to beat Colorado (now #14 KenPom!) with just 56 points. That’s also how the Vols escaped against Mississippi State.

This number won’t do it alone: in four of Tennessee’s five losses, 66 points wouldn’t have been enough. Alabama, Florida, Missouri, and LSU all scored in the 70s. But it’s a good starting point for success. And what’s been the most effective way the Vols have scored points?

Free Throws

  • When UT shoots 65% or less at the line: 1-4
  • When UT shoots 66% or better at the line: 13-1

Tennessee leads the SEC in free throw rate. The freshmen both excel at drawing contact, and it’s still one of John Fulkerson’s real strengths as well. Throughout the year, getting to the line has been the steadying play for a struggling offense.

But you have to make them when you get there. In losses:

  • Alabama: 17-of-26 (65.4%)
  • Florida: 12-of-25 (48%)
  • Missouri: 13-of-21 (61.9%)
  • Ole Miss: 10-of-16 (62.5%)
  • LSU: 13-of-17 (76.5%)

So not the problem on the Bayou, but problematic everywhere else in defeat. I’m sure there’s a confidence factor that comes into play here too. The freshmen are the team’s best at getting to the line, but the worst among regular contributors once there: Springer is okay at 75%, but Johnson just 68.9%.

In part, I think what happened at LSU is you had a physical game with few whistles. That’ll happen again. The Vols have to figure out how to respond when they can’t get it at the line, and will continue to be vulnerable if they don’t take advantage when there.

If you really want to lean into the team’s strengths:

Forcing Turnovers

  • When UT’s opponent has 13 or fewer turnovers: 3-4
  • When UT’s opponent has 14+ turnovers: 11-1

Just as getting to the line is the strength of the offense, turning it over continues to be the strength of the defense. The Vols are 18th nationally and second in the SEC in turnover rate, getting one on 23.1% of opponent possessions. The Vols can win without it: Kansas had a season-low seven turnovers and got waxed. The Ole Miss game continues to go in the weird category, the exception to the 14+ rule with 17 from the Rebels in their win.

But the others, all NCAA Tournament teams, had between 10-13 turnovers against the Vols. That jumps out to me, and can jump-start Tennessee’s offense if the Vols can get that going again.

When the Vols force turnovers, getting to 66 points shouldn’t be a problem because they generate offense, and 66 points should be enough. When it’s not, Tennessee needs to clean up its free throw shooting. Beyond that, there’s still plenty of room for offensive improvement. There’s also the notion that shots will still fall: for what it’s worth, Shot Quality has the Vols shooting 3.4% under their expected average from three, second-highest among ranked teams. That means a Tennessee team shooting 34% from the arc is getting good enough looks to be shooting 37%.

Maybe something like that will come around, maybe not. But if the Vols continue to force turnovers and clean it up at the line, Tennessee will create plenty of opportunities for themselves.

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