Lost in all the angst over early season struggles is the way this Tennessee Basketball team is performing, especially offensively, in comparison to its predecessors in the Cuonzo Martin Era.
Tennessee's 8-4 start is equal to last year; the 2012-13 Vols had better losses and better wins in the non-conference, but really fell apart early in SEC play with a 1-4 start. The year before the Vols were 8-7 in non-conference play, beating UConn in Knoxville but falling to Oakland, Charleston, and Austin Peay.
Obviously we only have a twelve game sample size for this year's team, but despite the win percentage it's doing some things significantly better than its predecessors did over the course of the entire year. Take a look at some of the statistical categories the current Vols are excelling at:
This all adds up to an offensive efficiency ranking of 21st nationally according to Ken Pomeroy's ratings, where the Vols are ranked 26th overall. If you're a fan of Pomeroy's numbers, Tennessee looks like the team we all thought they could/should be.
The rebounding numbers are what we thought they'd be with Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon in the fold; those two are second and fourth in the SEC in rebounds per game, respectively. The free throw rate numbers have been a strength of this team in the past, especially last year; Tennessee will get a huge percentage of its points at the free throw line and three of our losses can be significantly attributed to shooting a poor number once we got there.
But it's the other numbers that really show a significant jump from the last two years. Assist/turnover ratio is a huge indicator of how this team is operating differently with a more traditional point guard on the floor than Trae Golden. Consider in the last two years the Vols had just two players with a positive assist/turnover ratio: Golden 1.9 & Skylar McBee 1.2 last year, Golden 1.6 & Cameron Tatum 1.4 in 2012. Right now the Vols have five players with a positive assist/turnover ratio, led by their two point guards: Antonio Barton and Darius Thompson are tied for third among SEC players at 2.9, Josh Richardson is at 2.1, Jordan McRae has upped his average into positive territory at 1.5, and Robert Hubbs is also positive at 1.1. Tennessee averaged 14 turnovers per game in 2012 and 13 in 2013. Right now the Vols average 9.
Taking good care of the basketball has led to the increase in floor percentage and points per possession. We'll see how those numbers continue to fluctuate as the Vols will continue to push the pace going forward after finding so much success with it the last two games (we think). But the numbers say this is actually a really good offensive team, significantly better than Cuonzo's first two teams. That's in part because of what we thought we'd get from the Stokes/Maymon combo and the continued maturation of Jordan McRae. It's certainly in part because of the sudden rise of Josh Richardson. But there's a very strong argument, at least through the non-conference, that the Vols are significantly better on offense with Barton and Thompson than they were with Trae Golden because their decision making and ball security have outweighed what we lost in Golden's scoring potential because there are enough points to be found elsewhere on this team. That's not to knock Golden, he's leading Georgia Tech in scoring as we speak. That's just who he is, and I think Cuonzo much prefers the true point guard model we're seeing now.
The larger point here is again to say it's not that we need to shoot Virginiaesque percentages the rest of the way to have a chance. The numbers build an argument that Tennessee is a much improved offensive team that has been victimized by really poor free throw shooting in three of its losses and really poor three point shooting in two of its losses. I'm not sure we're going to morph into a great three point/free throw shooting team on the whole, but I'm not sure we have to because there's enough going right for this team to get the job done.
It's going to take more than two wins to make people believe the numbers, and since our next opponent is Division II Tusculum tomorrow it's going to take more than three. But as SEC play approaches, you can find evidence in the numbers to suggest this team isn't as bad as the results have shown thus far. The results are all that will matter eventually, but if these numbers hold and the Vols continue to defend well, the results will come.
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