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Tennessee Basketball: The Search for Clutch

Tennessee has lost three of its last four with the fate of its season and its head coach on the line. And all were there to be had in the final four minutes.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee hasn't won a close game all year.

This doesn't mean the Vols haven't been good at times, it means the Vols have been weird.  In Tennessee's 15 wins, the average margin of victory is 19.7 points, and the closest win is seven points over Arkansas.

And we have some good wins.  Tennessee is 6-9 against the current RPI Top 100 (2-5 vs Top 50).  Here are the six wins from top to bottom:

  • vs #17 Virginia 87-52
  • vs #41 Xavier (Battle 4 Atlantis) 64-49
  • vs #70 Ole Miss 86-70
  • at #72 LSU 68-50
  • vs #76 Arkansas 81-74
  • vs #100 Wake Forest (Battle 4 Atlantis) 82-63
When the Vols have been good, they've run the other team out of the building.  Only twice in their fifteen wins have the Vols come to the final four minutes with the outcome still in doubt:  November 16 against USC Upstate, and January 22 against Arkansas.  In the first case Tennessee put away an overmatched low-major upstart, and in the second the Razorbacks' habitual road collapse won the day again.

Here's a look at what the Vols did in the final four minutes of those games:

USC Upstate - UT leads 68-64 at 4:00, wins 74-65
  • UT 1 for 5 FG, 4 for 4 FT, 1 turnover
  • Upstate 0 for 4 FG, 1 for 2 FT, 1 turnover
Arkansas - UT trails 68-66 at 4:00, wins 81-74
  • UT 1 for 1 FG, 12 for 16 FT, 1 turnover
  • Arkansas 2 for 10 FG, 2 for 2 FT, 2 turnovers
It's not Tennessee's fault they only had to take one shot down the stretch against the Razorbacks, a clutch three by Jordan McRae to give UT the lead 71-68.  Half of the 16 free throws UT shot in the final four minutes came with the Razorbacks in intentional foul mode, but the other half came from an inability to guard McRae, who hit five of six along with two others from Maymon before intentional fouling began in the final minute.  And you can certainly be clutch at the free throw line.

But Tennessee's inability to make big shots late, other than McRae's three against Arkansas, looks much worse when you add in what they've done in the final four minutes of their losses.

Three of UT's losses were not competitive when the game reached the final four minutes (UTEP, NC State, at Florida).  In three others the Vols were technically still in the game but in a hole of 8 or 9 points at the four minute mark (at Xavier, at Wichita State, at Kentucky); only at Xavier did we really threaten to change the outcome in the final minute.  It's also worth pointing out there's no shame in losing on the road to any of those teams.

But the other four losses all could have been had if the Vols had executed in the final minutes.

Here's the final four minutes of the Texas A&M game from January 11 - the return match is Saturday in College Station:

Texas A&M - UT leads 50-46 at 4:00, loses 57-56
  • UT 2 for 6 FG, 2 for 4 FT, 1 turnover
  • A&M 4 for 5 FG, 1 for 4 FT, 0 turnovers
And here are the other three close losses, all from the last two weeks:

at Vanderbilt - UT trails 59-54 at 4:00, loses 64-60
  • UT 2 for 9 FG, 2 for 2 FT, 1 turnover
  • VU 1 for 4 FG, 2 for 4 FT, 2 turnovers
Florida - UT trails 55-54 at 4:00, loses 67-58
  • UT 1 for 4 FG, 1 for 3 FT, 2 turnovers
  • UF 2 for 5 FG, 6 for 8 FT, 0 turnovers
at Missouri - UT trails 66-63 at 4:00, loses 75-70
  • UT 1 for 6 FG, 5 for 5 FT, 4 turnovers
  • MO 2 for 5 FG, 5 for 6 FT, 1 turnover
So in losing three of our last four, all winnable games down the stretch, the Vols have gone 4 for 19 (21.1%) from the floor with seven turnovers in the last four minutes.  Meanwhile the opposition is 5 for 14 (35.7%) with just three turnovers.

Jordan McRae leads the way with three turnovers in the final minutes of these last three games, but he's also touching the ball the most.  Jeronne Maymon has two, with one each for Jarnell Stokes and Darius Thompson.

Who's taking shots down the stretch here?  In the last three losses:
  • Jordan McRae 1 for 6
  • Josh Richardson 2 for 4
  • Antonio Barton 0 for 4
  • Jeronne Maymon 0 for 2
  • A.J. Davis 1 for 1
  • Jarnell Stokes 0 for 1
  • Darius Thompson 0 for 1
Say something about McRae if you want, but he's carried this team in scoring for much of the year and it's not that he's not clutch.  It's that right now, no one is.  Meanwhile there's Jarnell Stokes, who is 16 for 26 from the floor overall in these three losses, and he's taken one shot down the stretch.

25 games into the year your strengths and weaknesses are layered.  There is certainly room to address coaching and play-calling here, especially when it comes to Stokes' involvement.  But to me, the biggest difference in this team in close games this year? They don't have Trae Golden.

Point guard play has been far from ideal around here since C.J. Watson left eight years ago.  Golden was never a pure point guard.  But right now what the Vols have is a freshman pure point guard who is a defensive liability and doesn't score, or a transfer two guard playing the role who can't throw it in the ocean right now.  Darius Thompson and Antonio Barton both shoot under 40% from the floor.  Thompson is just a freshman, but his 18.8% three point shooting is an early indicator that he's not that guy; in the pure point guard model he has plenty of other assets if he improves his defense.  Barton was supposed to be the answer as a shooter, but his three point percentage has cooled to 31.0% on the year.

Golden lacked the assist potential of Thompson or the three point shooting history Barton had upon his arrival.  But when games were on the line, Golden not only wanted the ball, he delivered.  Golden had 15 of UT's 31 points in the four overtimes at Texas A&M last year, and hit the biggest shot and the biggest free throws in the last four minutes against Missouri in the season finale.

It's not that Golden was overly clutch.  But Golden was appropriately aggressive with the game on the line, and that created better chances for Jordan McRae, Jarnell Stokes, and also Skylar McBee, another option we miss right now.  Golden attacked, and that cleared the way for McRae and Stokes to do the same.  But right now, only McRae attacks at the end of games because we won't even give Stokes the ball.  Josh Richardson is the best shooter on the team, believe it or not, but other than his late spurt against Vanderbilt he hasn't been viewed as a primary option.

There are some easy improvements here - namely, get the ball to Jarnell - but Tennessee lacks another create-your-own-shot presence outside Stokes and McRae.  Maymon has been a liability, Richardson hasn't ever been presented as an offensive weapon, and the point guards aren't getting it done.  Some of the late game issues can easily become confidence problems over time.  And hey, maybe the Vols will get back to steamrolling teams the way they've done in spurts this year.  But until Tennessee wins a close game against an SEC team that isn't Arkansas away from Fayetteville, they'll have to deal with this question.  And needing every win left to get to the NCAA Tournament, expect that question to come knocking again in the final four minutes sooner or later.

The journey continues tonight against Georgia, a surprising 8-4 in SEC play, in Knoxville.  It's a late start, 9:00 PM on ESPNU.  Go Vols.