Tennessee’s Tournament Blueprint

One of the best days in sports is relevant right away: the first game of the NCAA Tournament features the other half of Tennessee’s pod in Indianapolis, with Colorado State and Michigan squaring off at 12:15 PM ET. The Vols and Lancers will follow around 2:45.

The Vols are seventh in the nation in KenPom, third in defensive efficiency, and have done all that playing the nation’s fourth most difficult schedule. There’s as much reason to believe in this Tennessee team in this tournament than any I can remember, and meaningful history is available with almost every win.

Here’s how Tennessee is most likely to get those.

Tennessee’s Best Basketball

  • 24-1 with 11+ assists
  • 23-1 shooting 29+% from three
  • 22-1 shooting 39+% from the floor

The go-to numbers all year, with the consistent lone loss coming when the ghost of Joe B. Hall set the nets on fire in Lexington. Tennessee’s best offense is shot selection, and Rick Barnes’ teams continue to set the pace in assist percentage: sixth nationally this year, seventh in 2018, 24th in 2019.

One difference between this team and those: the number of players who can take the lead in scoring. Grant Williams or Admiral Schofield led the 2019 Vols in scoring in 28 of 37 games. This year, Tennessee’s leading scorers have been:

  • Santiago Vescovi 12 games
  • Kennedy Chandler 6
  • Josiah-Jordan James 4
  • Zakai Zeigler 4
  • Olivier Nkamhoua 4
  • John Fulkerson 2
  • Justin Powell 1

Tennessee’s balance covers a multitude of sins, and helps promote good shot selection. An important recent development here: Kennedy Chandler had zero assists and three turnovers in the loss at Texas. Since then, he’s averaged 4.5 assists to 2.2 turnovers in the last 13 games. In his three-game run as SEC Tournament MVP: 15 assists, 3 turnovers. This offense is accelerating, and he’s at the wheel.

Against their toughest competition, the Vols also found wins just beneath those shooting and assist numbers. They beat Auburn with nine assists. They beat Arizona at 38.8% from the floor and 29.2% from the arc.

As has been the case all year, the Vols don’t need much from their shooting to win, and they’ve been getting that and more for a while now. Since the loss at Arkansas: 61-of-139 (43.9%) from the arc, seven wins, zero losses. Josiah-Jordan James in that stretch: 18-of-36 (50%). Not bad for a guy who went 14-of-63 (22.2%) in his first 11 games this season while recovering from injury.

The defense leads the way, but it can’t win by itself. Tennessee’s two best defensive performances this year by shooting percentage: 30.5% at Arkansas, 31.1% vs Texas Tech, both losses. The good news is, the Vols have mostly solved the offensive rebounding problems that plagued them in the past. Against teams not featuring Oscar Tshiebwe, the Vols went 19-2 when allowing single digit offensive rebounds. They also beat teams featuring Oscar Tshiebwe twice, despite allowing 29 combined offensive boards.

So, what beats Tennessee?

Tennessee’s defense travels everywhere except Rupp. So even when the shooting isn’t there, the defense keeps the Vols in it. What has taken Tennessee out of it this season: turnovers and poor free throw shooting.

Kentucky forced 20 turnovers at Rupp, Villanova 18 in Connecticut. The most painful portions of the losses to Texas and Texas Tech: identical 8-of-16 performances from the free throw line. Tennessee is 16-2 when shooting 68+% from the stripe.

From the few losses we’ve seen, the worst-case scenario for Tennessee is cold from the arc + sloppy with the ball + really poor free throw shooting. Against elite competition, two of the three showing up could be trouble. But Tennessee’s defense has still been so good, the Vols have had their chances in three of those seven losses. If we get back to Villanova, we’ll see if we can take anything from that one.

If the Vols get a good day from their offense, a great day from their defense tends to take care of the rest. Their ball sharing and diversity of scoring options has led to far, far more good days than not recently. And even if shots aren’t falling, taking care of the basketball and making free throws can be enough to win the day.

Tennessee’s best basketball has unfolded beautifully these last few weeks.

It could dance for a while.

Go Vols.

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