Vols at the Halfway Point: Stay Close

What Tennessee did against South Carolina was a perfect example of where this team is and what it will take going forward. The Vols shot 25.9% from the floor, which would’ve been the worst number in any of the last ten years if not for going 25% from the floor against Memphis. Yet Tennessee had a chance to win that game, and actually got it done this time: they held South Carolina to 32.8% from the floor, 2-of-13 (15.4%) from the arc, and the Vols knocked down 22-of-28 free throws.

Tennessee is 29th nationally in defensive efficiency (via KenPom), and has faced a schedule ranking 34th by opposing defenses. You know what you’re getting into against Kansas, Kentucky, Auburn, and Arkansas going forward, but the rest of Tennessee’s schedule should lighten a bit in this department. For the most part, the Vols can still defend well enough to give themselves a chance.

But this offense is now 114th nationally in efficiency. That’s the lowest number at Tennessee since Kevin O’Neill’s last season in 1997, when the Vols went 11-16 (4-12) and finished 278th in offensive efficiency. The only other year the Vols finished outside the Top 100 was Cuonzo Martin’s first campaign in 2012, when UT finished 106th.

Right now every shot that goes in is a big deal. Tennessee’s 14 made field goals against South Carolina tied Florida State for a season low; the Vols made just 15 shots against Memphis and 16 against Wisconsin. Tennessee continues to get high-percentage scoring from John Fulkerson (21st nationally in effective field goal percentage), but continues to have a tough time getting him quality touches inside.

Meanwhile, the late revelation at Missouri came with Fulkerson off the floor. With six minutes to play and the Vols down three, a lineup with Yves Pons at the five surrounded by Vescovi, Bowden, James, and Jalen Johnson ripped off a 14-3 run over three-and-a-half minutes. Tennessee’s small ball lineup spaced the floor and created a number of great looks for three point shooters.

From the arc, Santiago Vescovi is red hot out the gate at 10-of-18 (55.6%). Josiah James is also doing a nice job at 37.8% on the year. With Jordan Bowden now dipping under 30%, I’m curious to see how the Vols adapt their shot selection. Again, some of this should get better just by virtue of who’s next on the schedue: at Georgia (83rd in defensive efficiency), at Vanderbilt (242nd), and vs Ole Miss (119th) before going to Kansas next Saturday.

Overall, this team currently sits about where you’d expect when compared to their predecessors:

YearKenPomRecordFinish
201926.2431-6Sweet 16
201423.6924-13Sweet 16
201822.2726-9Round 2
200822.1731-5Sweet 16
200619.4422-8Round 2
201018.5028-9Elite 8
200718.2924-11Sweet 16
200916.4821-13Round 1
202013.3110-5
200212.6715-16
201712.6216-16
201112.4119-15Round 1
201211.3819-15NIT
200310.9917-12NIT
201310.4720-13NIT
20058.8914-17
20167.3115-19
20047.3015-14NIT
20157.2416-16

In KenPom, this team is behind all of Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament teams post-Jerry Green except for Bruce Pearl’s final season. Their closest comparison is Buzz Peterson’s first team, which lost seven one-possession or overtime games between December 15 and January 16, then lost Ron Slay to a torn ACL at the end of that stretch. Slay’s absence is probably the best historical comparison to this team losing Lamonte Turner. And that group’s 15-16 (7-9) finish shows the importance of winning close games, which can be the difference between the bubble and not even making the NIT in a season like this.

It’s why any win is a good one now, including a one-point slugfest against South Carolina. KenPom projects the Vols to finish 18-13 (10-8), which would at least send them to the SEC Tournament in the bubble conversation. The league has two ranked teams in Auburn and Kentucky, and then a lot of iffiness. Arkansas lost some of their momentum in a two-point loss at LSU, while the Tigers regained their close game magic in a 3-0 SEC start.

The Vols will keep figuring out, and it’s fun to watch the freshmen get better, not just Vescovi and James who play a lot, but guys like Drew Pember who can find themselves in crucial situations. The difference in this year ending at .500 and landing on the right side of the bubble is likely to be what the Vols do in close games. In SEC play, so far, so good.

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