What’s been most different without Zakai?

In basically six full games without Zakai Zeigler, the Vols still rate among the nation’s best teams. Bart Torvik has Tennessee ranked 13th since February 28; down from their full-season rank of fifth, but still plenty good enough to win. You’ll note that Duke is/was the fourth-best team in the nation in these last three weeks.

There are some things Tennessee clearly misses. Zeigler is still 35th nationally in steal rate; the Vols have five steals or less against in half of our games without him now. Our two lowest turnover-producing games of the season are Ole Miss (five) and Auburn (six). It felt like Duke had a ton, but they (and Louisiana) finished with just 14, an average number for the Vol defense over the entire season.

Meanwhile, Tennessee’s three-point shooting is up, from 32.4% to 36.3% in the last six games. It’s not a huge jump, but it’s a nice one. In addition to the Olivier Nkamhoua boost against Duke, some of this may be a higher percentage of attempts going to Santiago Vescovi. He averages 7.4 threes per game on the year, but 8.6 per game in the last six (minus Louisiana, where he sat with foul trouble). Vescovi is Tennessee’s best shooter at 37.1% from the arc.

And there are a couple of ways Tennessee is simply different without a 5’9″ player on the floor. Our offensive rebounding has been a key all season, with the Vols 15-1 when grabbing 39+% of their misses. Rick Barnes shared after the Louisiana game that Tennessee has actually been crashing the offensive glass less without Zeigler, because they trusted him so much to play transition defense but are now dropping two guys back. And the numbers follow suit:

Offensive Rebounding Percentage, Last Six Games

  • Season Average: 36.4%
  • Arkansas: 32.1%
  • Auburn: 27.6%
  • Ole Miss: 36.4%
  • Missouri: 29%
  • Louisiana: 22.7%
  • Duke: 31.3%

Remove the Rebels, and all of Tennessee’s other opponents without Zeigler are NCAA Tournament teams. Against those five, the Vols have failed to grab a third of their offensive rebounds each time.

But on the defensive glass? Tennessee is attacking.

Our season average in defensive rebounding percentage is 73.4%, 91st nationally.

Defensive Rebounding Percentage, Last Six Games

  • Season Average: 73.4%
  • Arkansas: 80%
  • Auburn: 75.9%
  • Ole Miss: 87.5%
  • Missouri: 88%
  • Louisiana: 78.6%
  • Duke: 87%

Duke was/is the 10th best offensive rebounding team in the nation, averaging 35.9% per game. Against Tennessee, they got a season-low 13%. Virginia (15.4%) is the only other team to hold them below 20% this season.

Basically, the Vols are playing Santiago Vescovi until he drops, and he doesn’t drop. And then we’re rotating eight other dudes who are all physical (not that Vescovi isn’t!) and are all attacking the glass defensively. Vescovi played 38 minutes against Duke; everyone else played less than 30 but more than 10. It’s a bunch of fresh bodies coming at you all the time, and all of them are big and/or long, and all of them rebound with a passion.

This, of course, brings us to the officiating component.

The most reliable predictor of Tennessee’s success remains defense: the Vols are now 22-0 when holding opponents under 60, and 3-10 when they don’t. But one of the surest ways Tennessee holds opponents under 60 with such a great defense is to keep them off the free throw line. Those numbers one more time:

  • 23-3 when committing less than 20 fouls
  • 19-3 when opponents attempt less than 20 free throws
  • 21-3 when opponents make less than 15 free throws
  • Every one of these losses is Missouri (x2) or Vanderbilt, the only teams to hit 10+ threes on UT

Arkansas and Auburn both crossed the free throw thresholds in the first two games without Zeigler. Since then, though:

  • Ole Miss: 8-of-12 on 10 UT fouls
  • Missouri: 9-of-13 on 16 UT fouls
  • Louisiana: 5-of-9 on 14 UT fouls
  • Duke: 4-of-7 on 11 UT fouls

All four of those opponents were also whistled for less than 20 fouls themselves. Tennessee’s offense had the lowest free throw rate in the SEC this season; it’s not that the Vols are getting all the calls and these poor opponents aren’t.

Meeting the media today, I thought FAU’s coach Dusty May gave two enlightening responses:

Which is to say:

  • “I don’t really know what happened, I just read about it on Twitter,” is both refreshingly honest and depressing.
  • “They play every possession like it’s their last,” is a truly great compliment.

The Vols are going to hit the boards without Zeigler. But they’ve been this kind of elite defense all season. And if they can once again do so without fouling, you’re going to need a bunch of threes to beat it.

Go Vols.

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