The week between Christmas and New Year’s has been light on anticipation in years past, but not now: while the football team prepares for the Orange Bowl on Friday, the basketball Vols tip-off SEC play at Ole Miss tonight (watch out, that’s a 5:00 PM eastern tip-off on the SEC Network). Rick Barnes’ squad continues to chase new ground for the program: the Vols are the second two-seed in this week’s Bracket Matrix, in hot pursuit of Tennessee’s first number one seed. And in KenPom, the Vols enter league play with what would be a program record in overall efficiency rating, and a historic number in defensive efficiency; Will Warren has been all over that pursuit this season.
When those numbers are that good, there’s a temptation to believe we should be feeling even better about this team. Tennessee lost a 50/50 game at Arizona, and has the heeded wake-up call vs Colorado on the resume. Their most impressive performance to date doesn’t count in the exhibition win over Gonzaga. But some of the hesitation may come from some of this team’s early struggle in doing that essential basketball truth of putting the ball through the net: Tennessee is 232nd in effective field goal percentage, and 186th from the arc at 33%. The latter would be Tennessee’s worst number from the arc since the 2020 season, when Jordan Bowden was routinely smothered and Santiago Vescovi was stepping off an airplane. The overall effective FG% number is so far the worst of this now six-year run of Barnes’ teams competing on a national level.
And yet, the Vols are as strong as they are both on the floor and in the advanced metrics for more than just “defense good.”
In particular, Tennessee leads the nation in three critical categories:
Opponent Three-Point Percentage
Teams shoot a robust 20.1% from the arc against the Vols. Houston is second in the country at 24.0%. That’s, uh, pretty good.
In a dozen games, two teams have cracked 30% from three against Tennessee. Two. Colorado hit 8-of-26 (30.8%). Southern Cal hit 5-of-15 (33.3%). The rest? Kansas shot 23.8%. Butler 21.7%. Maryland 8.3%. There’s a zero in front of that one. And Arizona was 5-of-24, 20.8%.
The additional note on all of these is that Tennessee has done most of this without Josiah-Jordan James. But when the Vols have Santiago Vescovi, Zakai Zeigler, and Jahmai Mashack at their disposal on the perimeter, you’re gonna have a bad time.
Teams can get hot, sure. This goes for the Vols too, who I’m sure have a suddenly-hot game in them when they’ll blow out a good team. But overall, the Vols are smothering teams from the arc at a rate not close to anything we’ve seen: in the last six years, no Tennessee defense has held opponents to less than 30% from the arc for an entire season.
What about on the offensive end?
Offensive Rebounding Percentage
Our old friend from the Cuonzo Martin days is back with a vengeance. In 2014, the Vols grabbed 39.7% of their misses with Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon on the floor, fifth best nationally. This Tennessee team is operating at the same level: 39.9%, best in the land. Tobe Awaka is dominating here as his minutes grow. But Julian Phillips has been consistently good here as well, fulfilling a backside rebounding role that Josiah was also good at. The best any Barnes team in the last six years has done is 33.4% in 2018, 41st nationally led by Kyle Alexander and Grant Williams. We probably don’t think of this team as post-heavy like those Cuonzo squads, but so far they’re every bit as good on the glass. And when the ball isn’t going through the net the first time as much as you’d like, offensive rebounding covers a multitude of sins.
An old Rick Barnes friend, better than ever. The Vols are assisting on 69.7% of their made field goals, well ahead of last year’s 63%, UT’s highest of this era. This continues a trend of an offense based less around individuals winning one-on-one and more around ball movement and shot selection. Tennessee couldn’t replace Kennedy Chandler here, but they have so far re-created him: Vescovi and Zeigler, again, are really good.
On the offense-first 2019 squad, Grant Williams averaged 18.8 points per game, Admiral Schofield 16.5. Other than those two, who’s the last Tennessee player to average more than 14 points per game?
It’s Kevin Punter, 22.2 in Barnes’ first year. That’s seven basketball teams ago.
The current squad appears unlikely to break that streak, with Olivier Nkamhoua and Santiago Vescovi both at 11.8 points per game entering league play. But the Vols have ranked no worse than 30th nationally in each of the last six seasons in assist rate, and are doing it better than ever right now.
All of this will get tested in the fires of SEC play + Texas over the next 19 games, starting tonight in Oxford. If more shots fall for this offense, the Vols will solidify their argument as one of the very best teams in the nation. But even if they don’t, if this team continues to excel at defending the three, sharing the ball, and giving themselves second chances? Tennessee will continue to have a chance to beat anybody, anywhere.