Tobias Harris and Meighan Simmons: Hitting the Freshman Wall

We all know Tobias Harris. We know how he got here and what he means to this team. He could be Tennessee's first legitimate one-and-done player ever. (I'm not counting Ed Gray or Kevin Nash, for entirely different reasons.) So far, the aggregates are there - 14.7 points per game, 7.7 boards, getting to the line about 5 times a game, and no worse than the second-most important player on the court most nights. More than that, there's the perception he's been consistent. (This may be relative, at least when compared to Rollercoaster Scotty and the rest of the team.)

Harris isn't the only standout freshman playing basketball in Knoxville; Meighan Simmons was a big recruit as well, but we didn't know as much about her at first. (We figured out pretty quickly, though.) More importantly, there was the perception we didn't need to know much about her; Simmons was stepping into a loaded 2-guard rotation behind Bjorklund, so if she took a while to get acclimated, so what? It's not like Bjorklund can't carry this team from the perimeter. Simmons promptly opened up with a string of 20-point plus performances and forced her way into the Lady Vols' starting lineup with a quickness. She's been averaging 15.5 points and 2.8 assists per game, both of which comfortably lead the Ladies.

Take a look at the last five games for both Harris and Simmons:

Harris:

v. Vanderbilt: 15 points, 9 boards

@ Georgia: 15 points, 5 boards

@ UConn: 10 points, 5 boards

v. LSU: 11 points, 11 boards

@ Ole Miss: 6 points, 12 boards

Simmons

v. Vanderbilt: 17 points, 3 assists

@ South Carolina: 16 points, 4 assists

@ Auburn: 5 points, 3 assists

v. Mississippi State: 12 points, 4 assists

@ Arkansas: 0 points, 3 assists

That doesn't look too bad, right? (Okay, so they don't look too bad for Tobias; Simmons' big ol' donut yesterday stands out like a flare.) Let's take a closer look:

Harris

v. Vanderbilt: 15 points (6-13), 3-4 FT, 9 boards (3 offensive)

@ Georgia: 15 points (6-18), 0-0 FT, 5 boards (1 offensive)

@ UConn: 10 points (4-10), 1-2 FT, 5 boards (2 offensive)

v. LSU: 11 points (5-12), 0-0 FT, 11 boards (3 offensive)

@ Ole Miss: 6 points (2-12), 2-4 FT, 12 boards (5 offensive)

Simmons

v. Vanderbilt: 17 points (6-18), 3 assists, 3 TO

@ South Carolina: 16 points (5-11), 4 assists, 4 TO

@ Auburn: 5 points (1-8), 3 assists, 4 TO

v. Mississippi State: 12 points (5-17), 4 assists, 1 TO

@ Arkansas: 0 points (0-6), 3 assists, 4 TO

That ...well, that doesn't look quite right, does it?

It's not a question of raw scoring or secondary stats for the most part; Harris and Simmons are generally putting up points and boards / assists, respectively. Their offensive efficiency, on the other hand, is in the absolute tank. It shouldn't take 18 shots to throw up 15 points, and it certainly shouldn't take 17 to put up 12. Harris had awful games against Georgia and Ole Miss, but he hasn't had an offensive game that could really be considered top-notch lately. The LSU game comes closest; it's possibly not a coincidence that LSU is the worst team Tennessee's played over the last five. The story is worse for Simmons, who had a decent game against South Carolina but has been awful ...well, across the board lately. Let's not even mention the Arkansas game.

Baseball has the dog days of summer - the dead-to-the-world games in mid-to-late July and August that just kind of happen in a relative vacuum; if I asked you what the Oakland A's record was last August I doubt anyone who isn't an A's fan could tell me off the top of their head. This is as close as basketball season comes, and it's closer to that for Simmons (who basically has to stay awake for the Lady Vol games at this point) than Harris (who's sorely needed by the men for their tournament and SEC life). Legs and focus can start to slip in the doldrums of conference play, and if you haven't gone through it before it can be difficult to figure out how to cope.

This is the first significant college basketball test for both Harris and Simmons. They're both gifted scorers who can dominate a game given the opportunity to. How they dominate the game is different; Harris still looks like a flow-of-the-game kind of guy who you happen to notice at the 10-minute mark of the second half he's sitting on a 14-12-3 and has been involved with 75% of Tennessee's possessions. Simmons just bombs four threes in a row to turn a 2-point game into a 14-point scrimmage. What happens when the shots don't fall for either one, though?

It's a credit to Harris that he's recognized that the shots aren't falling like they were at the beginning of the season; he's compensated for that by attacking the defensive boards and contributing in other ways. That shows some serious basketball IQ. But I'd be lying if I wasn't concerned about the lack of getting to the line. If the shots aren't falling, then the unguarded 15-foot shot needs to happen - that hasn't happened so far. Same goes for dealing with the offensive glass; it's not strictly his job most of the time (thank you, Brian Williams), but putbacks are another way to get points. Heck, maybe Harris could get to the line a few more times off missed putbacks.

On the other hand, Simmons would kill for the kind of offensive efficiency that Harris has shown. Simmons has still generally put a bunch of points up, but on way too many shots. Part of that is how's she wired; as a classic gunner, she's trying to shoot herself out of the slump she's in. That results in forcing things at the expense of the rest of her game. Summitt has tried to help her cope by shifting her to PG (sure, this is also to get Bjorklund on the floor at the same time), but the assists just aren't there yet. Sure, she could transition to a Derrick Rose-type PG, but right now she isn't distributing as well as she needs to. Ball control is key, and she's not demonstrating that right now. Half the reason she's still in the regular rotation is Bjorklund's injury; once she comes back, a Stricklen-Bjorklund-Spani-Glory-Cain starting five isn't out of the question. Stricklen's played the point before - she can do it again.

The women's team can get by without Simmons, if you consider getting by not making the Final Four. These performances are okay in the meat of a weak SEC women's schedule, but in March she'll shoot the team out of the tournament. For a team with justifiably high expectations, that's not good enough. If the women want to raise trophies this season, Simmons needs to contribute.

As for the men, Tennessee will struggle to make the tournament without a consistent Harris - at best. This version of the Vols craves consistency, and Harris is the closest thing they've had most of the season. One of the oddities with the men's squad is generally two or three guys step up in order to deliver victories, but they're not a consistent set of guys. It's a strength and a weakness, and Harris is the only guy who's come the closest to being consistent. He needs to deliver again if the men want to make some noise in March. If the men want to raise trophies this season, Harris needs his stroke back.

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