This happened last year, kind of. Tennessee was lifeless heading into conference play, and the NIT seemed like an impossibility. And then all of a sudden, the Vols bought in to Cuonzo Martin's defensive philosophy. It didn't happen all at once - wins over Florida and UConn at home were watered down with losses against a tough schedule on the road to open conference play - but when the Vols put it all together, Tennessee went 8-1 down the stretch and gave themselves a chance to make the NCAA Tournament, scoring big wins at Florida and vs Vanderbilt along the way.
This year, the Vols struggled with offensive identity and couldn't win close games. Four final minute road losses at Georgetown, Alabama, Kentucky, and Ole Miss, plus a damaging home setback vs Georgia plagued this team; if the Vols won just two of those five games, we'd be in much, much better shape right now.
Tennessee got its first road win of the year at South Carolina on February 10. But the Gamecocks are struggling and Tennessee still didn't play very well. No, it wasn't until the next time out, at Vanderbilt, that the Vols began to put it all together.
We said at the time Tennessee's 12 point win at Memorial represented UT's best basketball of the season. But we've seen in the last week how sustainable our best basketball could be in a historic 30 point win over Kentucky and a 10 point follow up vs a hot LSU squad. Three games doesn't make a season, and the Vols still have plenty of work to do to get back on the bubble. But things certainly appear to have changed for Cuonzo Martin's squad, once again with little warning and incredibly exciting results.
What has Tennessee done differently over the last two weeks? We look at the factors from least to most sustainable - a blueprint for our best basketball, if you will:
Tennessee shoots 44.1% from the floor on the year, and 31.0% from the arc. From the floor we're currently the fifth best shooting team in the SEC. But consider how much that has changed in the last two weeks.
The Vols shot 52.8% from the floor in a late November win over Oakland. In the twenty games that followed, the Vols shot over 50% just twice: the last two games. A slow trend developed shortly after SEC play began: we shot under 40% six times in our first thirteen games. That's pretty bad...but we haven't shot under 40% in our last twelve games.
So no, the Vols won't always flirt with 60% the way we have against Kentucky and LSU. But we have improved from the floor, and not just in the last two weeks. If you take away the first two games against overmatched opponents from Kennesaw State (60.5%) and UNC-Asheville (50.0%), we shot exactly 40% in our next eleven games (6-5) and have shot 46.3% in our last twelve games (7-5). Jordan McRae made 13 shots against LSU. That's how many shots our entire team made against Oklahoma State, which goes on a list with other performances like Georgetown (15), Virginia (15), Wichita State (19), Western Carolina (17), and Xavier (19) from the early part of the year.
We're not going to stay this hot, and even warming up over the second half of the season hasn't produced but one more win in one more game. So what else has been making a difference?
I don't know how much credit full court pressure gets here, because we haven't really forced that many turnovers out of that set. But extending our defense beyond the perimeter has reaped huge dividends for us recently.
Tennessee's six biggest wins this year are UMass, Wichita State, Xavier, Alabama, Kentucky, and LSU. Tennessee's five highest turnover production games are Xavier (19), Wichita State (16), Kentucky (15), UMass (14), and LSU (tied with several others at 13). This isn't a BruceBall team that's going to run its whole show off of ball pressure; Tennessee forces just 11 turnovers per game on average. But there is a direct correlation between our ability to take the ball away and our best performances of the season.
Making Free Throws
The Vols have been good at getting to the line all year, no doubt; the Vols continue to lead the SEC and are 18th nationally in free throw rate. But getting to the line and making free throws are two different things, and also represent a huge difference in wins and losses for the Vols.
In nine of UT's ten losses, the Vols have made less than two-thirds of their free throws. This includes frustrating performances at Georgetown (3 of 11) and at Alabama (8 of 16), where just a few free throws could've been worth a ton of spots in RPI.
The exception to the rule? Our last loss, at home against Georgia, where we shot 23 of 28 at the stripe. That game was actually step one of a vicious tear the Vols have been on in their last five:
- Georgia: 23 of 28 (82.1%)
- at South Carolina: 27 of 37 (73.0%)
- at Vanderbilt: 6 of 8 (75.0%)
- Kentucky: 25 of 31 (80.6%)
- LSU: 18 of 21 (85.7%)
- Last Five Games: 99 of 125 (79.2%)