The Value of Second Chances to Tennessee’s Offense

When people say a 12-team playoff will make regular season games less meaningful, Saturday’s loss to Kentucky is a great counter argument. It is, appropriately, a downer that continues to linger, with Tennessee missing a chance to get another one on their biggest rival with one of their greatest players going into the rafters. And absolutely, Tennessee can still earn a one seed and win the SEC and all that stuff. But this Monday morning has the right aftertaste of a hard loss. In sports, that’s not going anywhere.

Some of Saturday’s outcome is a credit to Kentucky following the upset playbook: 22-of-25 at the free throw line, 88%. And some of it is Tennessee doing things I’m not really concerned about them doing with frequency, like missing a bunch of layups.

In large part, Tennessee’s defense did the job we’re accustomed to seeing: 19 Kentucky turnovers, with 31.2% from the arc representing a really good day against the Vols. And of course, the Vols would’ve benefitted from hitting more shots; not just the bunnies, but a 3-of-21 performance from the arc. That stirs the ghosts of Michigan last year, when a hot-shooting Vol squad suddenly wasn’t for the wrong 40 minutes.

But when Tennessee’s offense falters, it normally gets a ton of second chances. And in UT’s three losses this season, I think it’s the biggest factor.

In 14 wins, Tennessee has gotten the rebound on at least a third of their misses. If the Vols just averaged their lowest performance in victory – 33.3% over USC – they would still be a Top 50 offensive rebounding team nationally. Tennessee actually averages 39% in offensive rebounding, fourth in the country. It peaked at 56.2% against South Carolina (so far), but the Vols were dominant here against good teams (43.8% vs Mississippi State, up next again Tuesday night) and great teams (46.9% against Kansas).

But in their three losses? The Vols got the rebound on just 25% of their misses against Colorado, 24.3% at Arizona, and a Tshiebwe-infused 11.8% against Kentucky.

Against the Cats last season, offensive rebounding was the least of our problems in Rupp Arena; the Vols ended with 33.3% but gave up 107 points to the hottest of hot shooting. In Knoxville, Kentucky found similar success: the Vols rebounded just 21.4% of their misses, but shot 8-of-17 (47.1%) from the arc. Same thing in the SEC Tournament: Vols grabbed just 22.9% of their misses, but shot 6-of-15 (40%) from three and held Kentucky to 2-of-20.

If Tennessee’s defense is the constant, the Vols will continue to run away from teams when they shoot it well. Making threes will always cover a multitude of sins. But if shots aren’t falling, this Tennessee team creates a significant portion of its offense from second chances. Against Tshiebwe, that’s always going to be a taller task, no pun intended. And there will be other Kentuckys and Arizonas of the world if the Vols advance deep into March. Arkansas is currently the best in the SEC on the defensive glass; we’ll see them on senior day.

Losing to Kentucky is no fun anytime, especially at home, especially this weekend. Overall, the Vols are still largely the team we hoped they’d be…but the offensive equation is a little more clear after this loss. If the Vols are shooting it well, they’ll be in good shape against any team because of their defense. If not, the Vols need the glass. And as they continue to play with lineups in swiss army fashion – shout out Uros Plavsic, clearly the sharpest blade on Saturday – I’m curious to see how they balance things to keep rebounding high on the priority list.

Go Vols.

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