In basketball, Tennessee just finished as the number one defense in KenPom, their third consecutive Top 5 finish there. Outside of how the 2023 Vols looked night-to-night due to injuries, the real question there was about the gap between offensive and defensive efficiency. How good do these teams need to be offensively when they’re this good on defense? The Vols were undefeated when holding teams under 60 points, but what about beyond that?
If you look at Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament teams, you’ll find the search for balance can run both ways:
Tennessee NCAA Tournament Teams in KenPom Rank
Obviously a small total in the difference column by itself doesn’t tell you much; you could be bad at both and do that. But a few things that jump out to me here:
- The biggest gap is the covid season, which was also the Rick Barnes team that relied most on true freshmen – not a huge surprise
- Note how a couple of these teams flipped their strength with much of the same roster: the 2009 and 2010 seasons went from offense-first to defense-first, then in 2018 and 2019 the Vols did the opposite
- In these 12 seasons, the Vols were strongest on the offensive side five times, and on the defensive side seven times. Barnes’ teams tend to lean defense, Pearl’s teams started offense-first but shifted the other way his last two years. And while Cuonzo’s first season in 2012 featured an offense rated 106th, by his last season here in 2014 the Vols were incredibly balanced.
So, the question: when you’re so good at the one, how good do you need to be at the other?
At Virginia, it took Tony Bennett four seasons to make the NCAA Tournament. When they did as a 10-seed in 2012, the Cavs finished fifth in KenPom defense and 133rd in offense. Two years later, UVA arrived on the national scene as a one-seed. They were fourth in defense…and 27th in offense. In their run from 2014 through the 2019 national championship, they had a Top 10 defense every year…but only once finished outside the Top 30 in offense. So while the first-pass impression was always about their defense, their offense was plenty good enough. Those six seasons led to three Sweet 16s, two Elite 8s, one loss to a 16 seed…and a national championship.
For Tennessee, I’m sure the first impression will always be defense first. And, even in a time when offense tends to lead for national champions, I’m more than okay with defense being first when the defense is this good. You just need the other part to be…”good enough”? I think Barnes and all these guys would tell you just “enough” isn’t what they’re going for. You need a group you can have some confidence in on the other end of the floor.
You know me, we’re all about that intersection of feelings and data: when we look at the KenPom list, the teams you felt best about had a good balance to them. Teams that were in the Top 50 in both categories include 2018, 2019, and 2022 under Barnes. With Pearl, the 2008 team hit that benchmark, while the 2010 team was playing at that level once back to full strength. I would imagine the same would go for the 2007 squad if you removed the games Chris Lofton missed with an ankle injury.
Who in the world knows exactly what next season’s roster will look like yet. But I appreciate Bart Torvik’s site for having fun anyway with early 2024 projections. That’s where you’ll again find the Vols projected to have the best defense in the land, and an offense rated 69th. (Torvik had the Vols at 57th offensively this past season.) How good is good enough? How much confidence will next season’s team instill on the offensive side of the ball.
Speaking of good enough:
Tennessee Bowl Eligible Teams in SP+ Rank
On the eve of the Orange & White Game, you’ll note that the 2023 SP+ projections pick the Vols to finish second in offense and 32nd in defense, an almost identical finish to last year.
When your offense is this good, how good is good enough defensively? And likewise, I’m sure Josh Heupel, Tim Banks, and all these guys are interested in much more than just “enough”. In SP+, you’ll note that last year’s defense, South Carolina included and all that, still finished stronger on the season than some of the “If we only had a little better defense!” groups from 2016 or 2007. They weren’t bad, by any stretch of the imagination; I would say a Top 30 unit, especially coming from one that finished 47th the year before, is drifting toward the “good” department.
Will it get there this fall? There are plenty of questions on the other side of the ball, starting with, “Can Tennessee still have one of the two best offenses in the nation after saying goodbye to all these early round draft picks?”.
But I think the best news for Tennessee, in both sports, is the way we’re in the neighborhood of having the right kind of excellence on both sides of the ball. We felt it in basketball in the 2022 season. And we could be one step closer to seeing it take place in football this fall.