One of Bruce Pearl's selling points is that his teams have always been first or second in their conference in scoring. It was a point of interest to entice a fanbase that had little to begin with when he was hired, and we quickly found out that on this point, Pearl wasn't lying: the Vols led the SEC in scoring in his first four years in Knoxville.
Last year, Tennessee played a slower tempo and better defense; though Tennessee was just sixth in the league in scoring, we didn't complain because the Vols still had enough offensive punch to beat Kansas (76), Kentucky (74), and Ohio State (76). Those Vols averaged 73.5 points per game and made the Elite Eight.
These Vols are also sixth in the league in scoring, but average just 70.4 points per game. Tennessee's biggest non-conference wins involved lots of points: Villanova (78), Pittsburgh (83), and Memphis (104) were all productive offensive days. But in SEC play, the Vols' biggest wins have been grind-it-out affairs: Vanderbilt (67), Georgia (59), and Vanderbilt again (60) all saw the Vols use defense to succeed.
In sixteen conference games, the Vols are only eighth in the league in scoring, averaging just 66.3 per game. It's the pace we play these days: the Vols only hit 75 points in regulation once, against LSU. Likewise, Tennessee is yet to give up 75+ points in regulation in conference play; only Kentucky in Rupp (73) was able to get above 70 on us.
I'm more than fine winning with defense and rebounding; I think it shows maturity. But playing at a slower pace, Tennessee has to be more efficient on offense - you'll also find the Vols in eighth place in SEC play in categories like field goal percentage and points per possession.
So with an entire season's worth of data now at our fingertips, let's examine how this team scores points in comparison to Pearl's previous groups, and what kind of difference it makes to play at a slower pace with only two true scorers.
Here are the Vols' top five scorers per year during the Pearl Era:
- 06: Lofton 17.2, Watson 15.6, Wingate 10.6, J. Smith 9.5, Patterson 9.4 - TEAM 80.4
- 07: Lofton 20.8, J. Smith 15.2, R. Smith 10.7, Chism 9.1, Crews 8.4 - TEAM 80.9
- 08: Lofton 15.5, J. Smith 14.4, T. Smith 13.6, Chism 9.9, Prince 8.0 - TEAM 81.8
- 09: T. Smith 17.4, Chism 13.7, Prince 9.9, Hopson 9.2, Maze 8.2 - TEAM 78.4
- 10: Chism 12.6, Hopson 12.2, Prince 9.9, Maze 9.4, Tatum 7.4 - TEAM 73.5
- 11: Hopson 17.7, Harris 14.7, Tatum 9.4, Goins 8.0, Williams 7.0 - TEAM 70.4
Other than Lofton's incredible junior season, Scotty Hopson is having the best scoring year of any Vol since Ron Slay won SEC Player of the Year with 21.2 ppg in 2003. Tobias Harris has scored more points than any true freshman at Tennessee since Allan Houston (20.3 ppg in 1989).
Obviously there's a lot to feel good about with Hopson and Harris, but a couple of things jump out across the board. The decrease from the second to third leading scorer is greater now than it's ever been under Pearl, with 5.3 points separating Harris and Tatum. And though the starting five numbers look kind of similar, the current Vols have a total dropoff in offensive production after Brian Williams:
- Bone 3.1, Golden 3.0, Maymon 2.8, Fields 2.8, McBee 2.8, Hall 2.0, Pearl 1.8
That's seven guys who have played significant minutes. At least five of them will play on any given night. And Tennessee gets absolutely nothing from them offensively.
Comparing them historically, Pearl's first team was an anomaly: those Vols played a glorified seven man rotation, and still got 8.0 from Stanley Asumnu and 7.4 from Dane Bradshaw. The rest of Pearl's teams that have run a 9 or 10 man rotation have gotten more from almost every single bench player than the current Vols get from any of their reserves (if you count Brian Williams as a starter):
- 07: Childress 5.6, Bradshaw 5.5, Howell 3.9, Tabb 3.5
- 08: R. Smith 7.4, Crews 5.4, Howell 4.3, Williams 2.8
- 09: Tatum 7.6, Williams 5.0, Tabb 3.4, Woolridge 2.6
- 10: Williams 5.6, Goins 5.3, Hall 3.6, McBee 3.4
Pearl's first five teams all had seven players who averaged at least five points per game. This year's team has five.
You can't just replace a void like that by plugging it back in at the top: Hopson has been great recently and Tobias has always been consistent, but because they're both not scoring 20+ per game (which would be insane), you still need more from everybody else.
It's not just that Tennessee is missing a third scorer. It's that the Vols put lineups on the floor that sometimes include as many as four non-scoring options at the same time.
Last year it was okay to put a guy like Steven Pearl on the floor - you could take the hit offensively because you knew the other four guys could produce. This year, sometimes he plays in this lineup: Golden, Bone, Tatum, Pearl, Fields. Who in the world scores when that five is on the floor?
This leaves you with a couple of obvious questions heading into postseason play:
- Should Pearl increase minutes for Hopson, Harris, and Goins?
- Should Pearl trim the rotation at the bottom?
The first question has actually already been taken care of: Scotty averages 29.7 minutes on the year, but in his last seven games he's averaging 33.0 minutes. Tobias averages 28.9 minutes this year; his minutes have jumped up in the last three games over 33 as well. Goins has played 30+ minutes in every game since Pearl's return from suspension except Vanderbilt, where he played 29. Right now, Cameron Tatum isn't playing well enough to join the conversation.
So the best players are seeing more minutes like they're supposed to in March, but on the back end we still have no idea what we're doing.
Tennessee was without Brian Williams on Sunday, and still played eleven players. Skylar McBee and Trae Golden both played - should we pick one and go with it? John Fields, Jeronne Maymon, and Kenny Hall all saw action with Williams out at the five - even if he returns, how will the backup minutes be utilized going forward?
Honestly, here's how I think we come into games right now:
- We know what we're going to get with Hopson and Harris
- We need one of Goins, Tatum, or Williams to have a big game
- We need one bench player to have a "you didn't see that coming" game
And that's why none of us really has any idea what's coming every single night.
I'll say this: I really liked the way we played against Kentucky. I liked the patience. I loved the, "Hey, what if we stopped shooting threes and decided to attack every possession against a team that plays a six man rotation?" It almost worked. Kentucky swept us and deserves all the praise that goes with that accomplishment, but I feel like Sunday was a game we win if Brian Williams plays. Alabama was a game we win if Scotty Hopson plays.
But they didn't, and we didn't, and now here we are at fifth in the SEC East. That's life.
I'll also say that maybe - and everything with this team is maybe - but maybe we found some help in the form of Kenny Hall. He was the "you didn't see that coming" factor on Sunday, six points and six rebounds. The knock on him, other than early season injuries, has been that he can't get it done in practice. Maybe now he's got something to build on, and something to make Pearl want to put him in the game over John Fields and Jeronne Maymon, who are fine at what they do but have such little offensive potential.
And remember: I know all of this has been frustrating, but we're right there. We were right there on Sunday. 10 of our 13 losses have been decided in the final minute or in overtime, 7 of them on the final possession. When I said last week that expecting anything from this team was an excercise in stupidity, I feel like some people left out the "good OR bad" part. Anyone who guarantees that the Vols are going to lose to Arkansas and then lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament is just as crazy as anyone who guarantees that the Vols are going to win the SEC Tournament and make the Sweet 16.
None of us has any idea. But we're close enough that just one tweak could make a difference, and just one breakthrough on any given night from any one player could push us over the top.
The University of Tennessee has been many things over the last three years, but boring and uninteresting are not among them. This team is fascinating...we'd just like it to be fascinating in a good way from here.
So...who will step up against Arkansas?