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Tennessee Basketball: Searching For The X-Factor

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The more Antonio Barton can do the less Jordan McRae has to do. How small differences have made for big results for the Vols this year.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

There's not a whole lot many will agree on with this basketball team right now. Tennessee has been capable of not only beating good teams but destroying them, yet equally capable of losing at home, on the road, and on neutral floors to really bad teams.

The Vols are complicated in results and often impossible to predict game-to-game. But what makes them tick is usually pretty reliable, at least at the top. Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes are both veterans and play like it. McRae has scored less than nine points only once this year in the disastrous 1 of 15 performance at now-#1 Florida. Stokes has at least 10 points and 8 rebounds in all but six games this year, and one of those was Virginia where the Vols shot so well there were few offensive rebounds to go around and Stokes had 20 points. If Stokes isn't producing it is almost exclusively because he's in foul trouble. Jeronne Maymon isn't as strong offensively anymore but is still plenty beast on the glass.

The Vols hammered Vanderbilt in part because they got bench production, which has been incredibly absent all year. Armani Moore, Darius Thompson, and Derek Reese all average between 2.6 and 2.8 points per game; Saturday was the first time all three of them have really contributed at the same time. So yes, the Vols could use more of that. Josh Richardson has been up and down, but Richardson has actually played pretty well in some of UT's losses, averaging 13.5 points in our last four defeats.

This brings us to Antonio Barton. At the risk of placing too much blame and praise in one place, check this out:

Antonio Barton in UT's losses:
  • at Xavier: 4 of 6 (2 of 4 threes), 10 pts, 30 min
  • vs UTEP: 2 of 6 (0 of 2), 6 pts, 31 min
  • at Wichita State: 0 of 1 (0 of 1), 0 pts, 19 min
  • NC State: 0 of 8 (0 of 4), 0 pts, 21 min
  • Texas A&M: 4 of 9 (1 of 6), 12 pts, 35 min
  • at Kentucky: 0 of 4 (0 of 2), 2 pts, 27 min
  • at Florida: 1 of 7 (0 of 3), 2 pts, 24 min
  • at Vanderbilt: 2 of 8 (2 of 6), 6 pts, 22 min
  • Florida: 3 of 6 (0 of 2), 6 pts, 23 min
  • at Missouri: 0 of 7 (0 of 4), 2 pts, 22 min
  • at Texas A&M: 0 of 5 (0 of 4), 2 pts, 32 min
  • TOTAL: 16 of 67 (23.8%), 5 of 38 (13.1%), 4.3 pts, 26 min
In wins:
  • 57 of 124 (45.9%), 31 of 71 (43.6%), 8.5 pts, 24.2 min
On the year Barton is just a 33.0% three point shooter, which obviously isn't what the Vols thought they'd be getting from the Memphis transfer. The guy who's shown up in the 18 wins, however, looks much more like him, scoring twice as many points in fewer minutes and knocking down threes at a better clip than anyone else on the team.

Several have pointed out Barton's strong performances in UT's biggest wins - 14 against Virginia and LSU, 12 vs Georgia, 21 on Saturday - but I think there's more going on here than just UT's ability to play its best basketball and blow teams out when Barton is on. The Vols need another reliable scoring option, plain and simple. Tennessee's inside game is dominant and so too is Jordan McRae, but when Tennessee gets another guy going on the perimeter it prevents teams from clogging everything up, and all of a sudden everybody starts getting good looks.

We mentioned this after the Georgia win, and it's worth another look now after Vanderbilt:

Jordan McRae's fewest shot attempts this year:
  • 2 of 5 vs Georgia, Vols win by 19
  • 2 of 5 vs Vanderbilt, Vols win by 38
  • 3 of 7 vs Morehead State, Vols win by 15
  • 6 of 7 at LSU, Vols win by 18
  • 2 of 8 vs Texas A&M, Vols lose by 1
  • 4 of 9 vs Wake Forest, Vols win by 19
  • 6 of 10 vs Virginia, Vols win by 35
  • 7 of 10 vs Tusculum, Vols win by 47
Against Texas A&M McRae played only 23 minutes with foul trouble, meaning he was still on pace to take his usual 11+ shots per game (he averages 13.6). He was also in foul trouble Saturday, but the Vols as you know cruised throughout.

We need McRae, clearly, and he's an All-SEC performer who will go down as one of the Top 20 scorers in program history. But I think Tennessee is also clearly better when defenses have to account for more scorers, and Barton has clearly been the biggest difference between that being true or false in games this season.

These truths help lead to the most staggering trends that show up when you look at the team stats this season.
  • The Vols average 44.5% from the floor, sixth in the SEC. But when Tennessee shoots at least 46.0%, the Vols are 14-0.
  • The Vols average 70.8% from the line, fourth in the SEC. When Tennessee shoots at least 76.0%, the Vols are 11-0.
  • The Vols average 34.4% from the arc, eighth in the SEC. When Tennessee shoots at least 36.0%, the Vols are 14-1 (lost shooting 42.1% at Xavier in the opener).
These kind of trends aren't usually so strong. Last year the Vols lost three times shooting better than 46% from the floor and lost during two of their three best free throw shooting performances of the year. Strong three point shooting is almost always a winner, but this year the Vols are incredibly strong when they hit just barely above their average. When Cuonzo says, "We didn't make shots," he's not totally off track.

Tying it all together, what else tends to go hand in hand with good shooting?
  • The Vols average 12.6 assists per game, seventh in the SEC. When Tennessee has at least 12 assists, the Vols are 14-2.
Here Tennessee doesn't even need to surpass its average, just approach it. The Xavier loss again shows up as an anomaly here - remember, 7 of 19 at the free throw line - and the Vols also had 14 assists in the overtime loss at Texas A&M. Tennessee's worst performances of the year go hand-in-hand as well: only five assists against NC State, only six at Florida.

The free throw percentage increase may require something exceptional and the Vols are already the fourth best free throw shooting team in the league. But the magic numbers for Tennessee this year in the other categories are just a hint above season averages: 46% from the floor, 36% from the arc, 12 assists. Like the "ground ball with eyes" speech from Bull Durham, these little differences can separate an average everyday team from something special. The difference in each of these categories comes most often when McRae has to contribute less because others are contributing more, and the others usually start with Barton.

So for a team that enters Wednesday's trip to Auburn as the last team in using the Bracket Matrix, the Vols are living on the edge. Dangerously close to falling off, missing another NCAA Tournament and putting the head coach in jeopardy. But the numbers will attest to the thin line of UT's season, tantalizingly close to a good basketball team that, when it plays just slightly above its average, wins almost every time.