Vols at the 1/4 Mark: Good News! Bad News?

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So Tuesday, we were doing job interviews at church. I ended up missing all of the Texas Tech game, walking in the door just as the game went final. It became apparent very quickly that this was not something to lament, given the way all four teams in the building that night looked to set offensive basketball back a few decades.

This becomes the conversation on Tennessee, now a quarter of the way through the regular season. It’s Tennessee who has the nation’s best defense via KenPom, somehow still generating blocked shots and turnovers at an extraordinary rate without the guys who did a ton of that work last year.

The first takeaway from watching this team early on was the absence of Yves Pons on the defensive end. But just because it looks different doesn’t mean it isn’t working: Tennessee is 10th nationally in block percentage, sending back 16.8% of the shots they face. Josiah-Jordan James has been stellar at this, as he is everywhere defensively, while John Fulkerson has turned in the best basketball of his career in this department so far. And Olivier Nkamhoua has taken a leap on both ends of the floor, though not enough to finish the fight against Texas Tech.

Meanwhile, despite losing Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson, the Vols are relentless in forcing turnovers. Again, Josiah leads the way here, currently 11th nationally in steal percentage. But Tennessee’s three point guards have been huge factors in this department as well.

The result is a defense that, so far, does everything well. Even their play against Villanova was noteworthy, and the only place we’ll see a better offense than theirs is the NCAA Tournament. Defense travels, and if it shows up consistently (like in 2018) instead of sporadically (like in 2021), the Vols will be players.

Offensively, there’s Kennedy Chandler, and there are a lot of threes that can fall. This team needs a Plan C, whether that’s playing back through John Fulkerson or something else developing.

One thing that is not, at all, developing: Tennessee getting to the free throw line. This is not the threes-and-frees offense. It’s threes, and hope they finish at the rim.

The Vols at the stripe this year:

  • Tennessee Martin: 7-of-13
  • ETSU: 16-of-18
  • Villanova: 10-of-13
  • UNC: 4-of-5 (lol)
  • Tennessee Tech: 10-of-10
  • Presbyterian: 6-of-9
  • Colorado: 5-of-9
  • Texas Tech: 8-of-16

In four games against major conference opponents, the Vols are 27-of-43. The percentage (62.7%) isn’t great, but it was only costly against the Red Raiders. It’s the sheer lack of attempts that stands way, way out: the Vols are 350th of 358 in college basketball in free throw attempt percentage.

As new as the three-point barrage is, so too is this. Right now 42.3% of Tennessee’s attempts are from behind the arc. The previous high under Barnes: 36.25% in his first year (Kevin Punter, Detrick Mostella, Devon Baulkman). But the current Vols are getting to the line on just 17.5% of their attempts. The previous low in this department is Tennessee’s best offense from 2019, that blistered the nets and didn’t turn it over. But they also got to the line on 33.3% of their attempts.

No surprise, here’s where playing through Fulkerson would improve things. I’m curious to see if Kennedy Chandler can get more of a whistle going forward; we know he’s going to get past guys. If a defense is going to put up little resistance like UNC, so be it. But especially when we get to the rigors of SEC play, Tennessee’s offense is going to need more help via the charity stripe.

This week the Vols roll out the carpet for the Carolinas, with UNC Greensboro tomorrow and USC Upstate on Tuesday. That ends the tune-ups: it’s Memphis in Nashville next Saturday, then undefeated Arizona in Knoxville on December 22, followed by the SEC opener in Tuscaloosa on December 29. If Tennessee continues to split these heavy hitters as they’ve done with Villanova/UNC and Colorado/Texas Tech, they’ll keep themselves in position for a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament. Last year we saw Tennessee’s best basketball in December. This year, more consistency would be a good start. There’s no room to grow in the rankings on defense. But there’s room for improvement, and for a Plan C, on the offensive end. Can this team find more of a home at the free throw line? That can make a big difference when you know you’re going to have an elite defense and elite point guard out there every night.

Go Vols.

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