The Offensive Rebounding Final Exam

The most telling statistic for Tennessee this year is how many threes they make. Tuesday’s 20-point win over South Carolina included 7-of-21 from the arc for the good guys, making Tennessee 10-0 this year when they hit 26+% from three and 1-4 when they don’t.

But over the last three post-PB&J seasons, the most telling trend overall might be what the Vols allow on the offensive glass.

The Vols have lost four straight to LSU, three of them in Baton Rouge. And we’ve dropped six straight to Auburn, three of those on the road plus one in the SEC Tournament.

Compare that to our oldest rivals from Kentucky, where Rick Barnes is 8-6 since arriving in Knoxville, and 3-1 in our last four trips to Rupp Arena. No Tennessee coach has ever enjoyed this kind of success against Kentucky, regularly the most talented team in the league.

The Cats certainly haven’t played as fast in the past, but I don’t think physicality has ever been an issue for them. If anything, I think there’s an important style point here.

Auburn and LSU were both in the Top 15 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage in 2020, Auburn again in 2021. Unlike previous versions, this year’s Bruce Pearl squad is defense-first, and perhaps more willing to make that trade to get guys back on that end of the floor, where they lead the nation in blocked shots. But we’ve got until February 26 to figure them out. LSU is 37th, and grabbed a dozen offensive rebounds against us, a season high allowed by the Vols.

And from the data at Sports-Reference, that’s a good place to start. In the last three years, Tennessee is 6-15 when allowing 10+ offensive rebounds. It drops to 2-9 at 11+.

Those 15 losses with 10+ offensive rebounds allowed? That’s 56% of Tennessee’s total losses the last three years. It includes all three losses to LSU, Auburn, and Alabama in that span. It also includes Villanova this year, Oregon State and the dreadful performance at Florida last year, and the Memphis loss in 2020.

Noticeably absent from the list? Kentucky. The Cats had anywhere from five to nine offensive rebounds against the Vols in our last four meetings, each won by the road team. Throughout Barnes’ tenure, the Vols have found regular success with undersized post players against Kentucky: not just Grant and Admiral, but Armani Moore and John By God Fulkerson.

So we’re going to find out real quick about this hypothesis on Saturday, because when it comes to offensive rebounds, Oscar Tshiebwe is the final exam.

You never know what kind of pro someone will be. But if you’re just looking for a great college basketball performance, Tshiebwe is giving it to you almost every night. He’s the current leader in the KenPom Player of the Year standings, putting him on a short list with guys like Carsen Edwards, Brandon Clarke & Rui Hachimura, and Devon Dotson & Udoka Azubuike as the most productive college players the Vols have faced in the last few years.

Tshiebwe averages 17 points and 15 rebounds – five offensive – per game. In 29 minutes. You can beat Kentucky when he goes off, or at least Duke did (17 points, 20 rebounds). Notre Dame (25 points, 7 rebounds) and LSU (8 points, 13 rebounds) kept him one dimensional, relatively speaking. In the last two games, he has 59 points and 30 rebounds against Georgia and Vanderbilt.

Who’s drawing this 6’9″, 255 lbs. assignment? Kentucky surrounds him with three shooters, so it’s not usually a twin towers situation like the Vols have seen in this matchup before. Tennessee’s best defensive rebounder is Olivier Nkamhoua, who’s still giving up 25 pounds here. It’s also a big game for Josiah-Jordan James, who’s been one of the team’s best rebounders his entire career, to help clean things up.

Styles will indeed collide here. Is Tennessee just as susceptible against this Kentucky team as they’ve been against Auburn and LSU in the past when it’s mostly one guy doing all this work on the offensive glass? Could the Vols simply shoot their way past it by getting north of 26%? How much can Tennessee’s own bread and butter – creating turnovers – become a factor in this game?

Our first four SEC road games have been mountainous: Alabama, LSU, Kentucky, then Memorial on Tuesday. That’s followed by a trip to Texas two weeks from tomorrow. It gets easier from there: our last five SEC road games are South Carolina, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Missouri, and Georgia. There’s a concern that Auburn, with both dominant play and a lighter schedule, could build an insurmountable lead in the conference race. If the Vols want to keep pace there, this is a big one to get.

But I’m most interested to see how the things we believe about Tennessee – in the present, and over the last three years – manifest themselves in this game. That Barnes and these guys have created something other than, “It’s Rupp, we’ll lose,” is remarkable by itself. What more will we learn about the Vols this time?

1:00 PM ET Saturday, ESPN, with the Dan Shulman/Jay Bilas/Holly Rowe A-team.

Go Vols.

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