Saturday's loss at Kansas was another piece in the growing mystery of the 2008-09 Vols, but it's not entirely unclear as to why they've been struggling of late.
In their last four games against probable tournament opponents (all apologies to Louisiana-Lafayette), the Vols have given up 26 or more points to a guard on the opposing team. And going inside the numbers, it's all becoming very familiar.
It started with Temple's Dionte Christmas, who lit up the Vols for 35 points...but that was on the strength of seven threes. But check this out:
- Wesley Matthews, Marquette: 30 points, 15 of 18 free throws
- Alex Renfroe, Belmont: 30 points, 12 of 17 free throws
- Sherron Collins, Kansas: 26 points, 10 of 14 free throws
Something's not right here.
These problems are compounded by the fact that the Vols can't get anything approaching those numbers from their own guards. Over the course of the same four games, the Vols have gotten double figures from Bobby Maze each night, but the rest of the scoring is carried almost entirely by Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism.
The free throws attempted stat from all four games were almost identical for each team until Saturday, where surprisingly, the Vols went to the line nine more times than Kansas. But the difference is, the opposition is getting guards to the line on an alarmingly consistent basis. Meanwhile, the Vols are consistently led in free throws attempted by, once again, Chism and Tyler Smith.
Bobby Maze has been effective in a limited capacity at getting penetration and getting to the line, but as the team's only true point guard I don't expect that capacity to change. The other guards on the floor - who are all young outside of Josh Tabb - seem to be having a hard time excelling at any one thing.
The rotation of Tabb, Tatum, Hopson and Woolridge is shooting a combined 35% from behind the arc (and that's being generous to not include JP Prince's 1 for 12 start). They're not getting to the line - the only one who averages more than two free throws attempted per contest is Tatum. And they're allowing the guards across the floor to have career nights, a lot of it coming via the charity stripe.
There could be a lot to be concerned about here.
It's even harder to figure out when you go back and look at this team's defensive performance against Georgetown and Siena, which at least gives some hope of improvement. The Vols have frustrated some good guards at times this season, but their performance over the last three or four weeks could almost be called regression.
Chism and Tyler will continue to be capable of putting up huge nights, and that's a group that a healthy JP Prince can also join. Bobby Maze is at least consistent.
But one - or hopefully, all - of these other guards have to step up their play on at least some level for the Vols to continue to grow as a team and to have any real hopes of chasing another SEC title. If the three point shooting doesn't magically increase, the Vols have to start taking fewer of them; Pearl in the Kansas postgame talked about turning some down for the first time this season, as far as I know.
These guys have to do a better job of getting to the line either way. And perhaps most importantly, there has to be a much better effort and much better execution on the defensive end to prevent more opposing guards from scoring 30 and getting to the free throw line at will. Opposing guards have to be salivating over our defensive scouting report.
This team continues to feel itself out. But if these issues don't improve, they'll find themselves with more and more "learning experiences" and fewer and fewer wins.