Tennessee at Missouri Preview

The Vols have lost four of five, but Santiago Vescovi injected new interest into this season. In his second act, what changes more: six threes or nine turnovers?

Even without Lamonte Turner, Tennessee’s offense goes almost exclusively through good ball movement. Against Wisconsin Tennessee made just 16 shots, the fourth time this season the Vols made less than 20 field goals. But they still managed 12 assists. The ball went in much more often against LSU, but many of those threes still came off good ball movement, including penetration from Vescovi: 24 made shots with 18 assists.

Lamonte’s assist rate would still rank sixth nationally, but Tennessee still has it in its DNA: the Vols are fourth nationally in assist rate as a team, assisting on two-thirds of their made shots. But there’s a general problem here – does Tennessee have anybody who can create their own shot? – as well as a specific one the last two games. Against Wisconsin, the Vols got to the line 19 times but only made 10 free throws. Against LSU, the Vols shot just five free throws.

Vescovi will get better at finishing in the lane and not turning the ball over. He’s not going to hit six threes every night, nor am I sure Barnes wants him to take nine a game. But he’s also not going to go 0-for-4 from inside the arc with nine turnovers. We watch Vescovi with excitement for next season, a dedicated point guard hopefully expanding the potential of Tennessee’s elite incoming talent. But I’m still interested to see how if/how he can transform this year’s team: can he successfully create his own shot? Will he adjust his game in the lane fast enough to score at the rim?

Everything is very much in flux with this team, including:

Bowden’s minutes are 33.5 per game. Vescovi, fresh off the plane, played 32 minutes against LSU. There’s a lot more figuring out in front of this team than behind it, which will be frustrating with moments of enlightenment along the way.

The bad news: I’m not sure Cuonzo is who you want to be figuring your offense out against.

If those 16 made shots against Wisconsin felt low, they were: the Vols made just 15 shots in the infamous Virginia and Georgetown games in Cuonzo’s second season when the Vols, learning to play without Jeronne Maymon, ran into good defensive teams. You’ll find Maymon on Mizzou’s sideline these days, and the same defensive philosophy very much intact: the Tigers are fifth nationally in effective field goal percentage allowed.

Missouri is battle-tested, with losses to Xavier, Butler, Oklahoma, and a 71-59 defeat at Rupp in the SEC opener. They also beat rival Illinois on a neutral floor. Teams shoot just 25.9% against them from the arc, so yeah, it’s a great time to figure out how Vescovi can help Tennessee elsewhere. Much to Cuonzo’s chagrin, I’m sure, the Tigers are 338th nationally in non-steal turnover percentage on offense (via KenPom), meaning they love to give the ball away unnecessarily.

This may not be the match-up you want if you’re looking for Tennessee’s best chance to break this losing streak. But if you want the blessings and curses of Tennessee trying to figure themselves out against a team that will force them to do things differently…well, that’s probably what we’re going to get. Watch the lineups, watch Vescovi, and see if the Vols can get to the line and convert inside the arc.

7:00 PM ET, SEC Network. Let’s see what we learn this time.

Go Vols.

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