Tennessee Basketball: The Blueprint

USA TODAY Sports

How late season adjustments have given Tennessee Basketball new life in 2013.

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:

Flammable Nets

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?

Forcing Turnovers

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%)
Keep doing this for a team that gets to the line at a higher percentage than anyone in the league, and it matters far less whether we shoot 58% from the floor or make all our threes. That's why we're blowing teams out right now, but even when the hot hands turn back to normal, making free throws can still result in winning basketball.

Going Small

Sometimes you've just gotta change it up. For the Vols going small not only rewarded Armani Moore for his hard work and growth, but it put Trae Golden back in the driver's seat. And whatever confidence he lost earlier in the season has returned with a fury: Golden is playing like one of the league's best point guards, which is always what Cuonzo Martin thought he could get out of him.

And keep in mind, for Tennessee going small doesn't mean going short: the Vols can still employ tremendous length on the perimeter with Moore, McRae, and Josh Richardson. That's three athletic defenders with plenty of length to bother anyone. The trade-off is anytime we play against a team with two quality bigs; we out-shot Johnny O'Bryant III on Tuesday night, and I'm a big believer in dancing with the one that brought you, but against teams with a strong post presence will give us matchup problems. Josh Richardson is our best defender and seems to be the best among non-Kenny Hall options at slowing down a secondary big man, but when we play teams with two good bigs and a good guard (Florida and Missouri), it will be interesting to see if we stick with this rotation and how well it works. But for now, our best basketball is four guards and Jarnell Stokes.

The Secret

Good teams in major college basketball and the NBA need three options. The dynamic that took the Vols from Sweet 16 upstarts in 2007 to a potential number one seed in 2008 was Tyler Smith, an added inside presence to go with the outside shooting combo. In 2010 the Vols wouldn't have had enough with just Scotty Hopson and Wayne Chism; we needed J.P. Prince to make us elite.

It takes three, and now we've seen what the 2013 Vols look like when all three are on...and it's a scary sight.

I don't know who the alpha dog is between Trae Golden, Jordan McRae, and Jarnell Stokes, and I'm not sure it matters. You have three clearly defined roles doing three different things on both ends of the floor. And right now, what they're doing together is producing sensational basketball.

Once you have those three guys, you only need everyone else to know their role and play it well enough to give you that little extra. When they all give you that little extra, you blow out Kentucky by 30. But even when Kenny Hall has zero points, just enough from Josh Richardson and one big shot from Skylar McBee can push you comfortably to victory. And that's what we're seeing right now.

Chemistry is more important in basketball than any other major sport. Sometimes even great teams can't find a way to put it all together; again, the '08 Vols were probably the most talented squad we've had in the last eight years, but even they were tinkering at point guard into the NCAA Tournament before getting bounced by a matchup nightmare from Louisville that would've beaten us eight times out of ten. The final piece for the '10 Vols wasn't one of their three best players, it was Brian Williams returning from suspension and helping make Wayne Chism so much better down the stretch. They figured it out.

I think you're seeing this team figure it out right now. Sometimes the secret is right in front of your face the whole time: we would've always been good with Golden, McRae, and Stokes at their best, but we didn't see Stokes' best until a month ago, and didn't see Golden's until two weeks ago. But with all three on their game and our other pieces in place? We're a good basketball team.

We're blowing teams out by so much because we're hot, no doubt. But even when the percentages fade, you know the defense is still there, and now you have enough firepower on the floor to keep the percentages from bottoming, putting us back in the ugly 50something games we kept finding a way to lose. The free throw line is a huge part of who we are, has been all year. If we keep shooting well there and continue to build our identity around this four guard lineup, I think you're going to continue to see winning basketball from us.

Will it be enough to make the NCAA Tournament?

We control the answer to that question. It's been frustrating at times this year, but this team has come together in more ways than one the last two weeks. Don't be fooled into thinking it's just hot shooting. This team is playing its best basketball of the season, led by its best players when we needed them the most. And all of the above is creating the confidence that can carry this team to March...one win at a time.

Go Vols.
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