A third of the way through SEC play and nearly two-thirds of the way through the regular season, we're getting a fairly reliable picture of what Donnie Tyndall's team wants to be. The head coach hasn't been shy about his system and what it takes to run it effectively, especially on the defensive end. So even when the Vols get a little bigger inside and perhaps a little more talented everywhere, what you're seeing right now is a good indicator of how Tyndall ultimately hopes to win big here. And he's already winning bigger than anyone thought he would this season.
As the Vols prepare to face Arkansas for a second time this season tonight (9:00 PM ET, ESPNU) here's a look at what Tennessee has done well and where the Vols have struggled so far this season, starting with two key factors to Tyndall's identity that cut both ways:
Percentage of Points Allowed from Twos: 40.1%, 1st nationally
Percentage of Points Allowed from Threes: 37.4%, 348th nationally
This stat has held up all year. Tennessee plays its zone and takes its chances getting beat over the top. So far the only team to really exploit the Vols with volume three point shooting was NC State, 11 of 26 (42.3%) in the Wolfpack's 83-72 win in Raleigh. Tennessee State shot the highest percentage (47.8%) but still lost; the only team to shoot it better than NC State in a UT loss was Marquette, but they were just 6 of 14 (42.9%).
Still, Tennessee's 36.7% allowed from the arc is last in the SEC. The Vols allow 41% overall from the field, 9th in the SEC but a respectable 106th nationally; the Vols are 105th in Ken Pomeroy's defensive ratings. The good news is there are no truly great three point shooting teams in the SEC this year, none ranked in the Top 50 nationally. The best three point shooting team in the league is the one we'll see tonight; Arkansas is at 37.4% and did hit 8 of 20 for 40% against the Vols in Knoxville, though a significant percentage of their makes came in the frantic final minutes.
I don't know for sure, but I'd have to think Donnie Tyndall likes these two stats way more than he dislikes them. The Vols are playing the zone better than anyone would have thought for a bunch of guys who were either all-man from Cuonzo Martin's system or brand new to the program. Tennessee simply isn't getting beat inside the arc, despite significant disadvantages in experience and size.
The two point percentage also drops because of Tennessee's early season eagerness to foul; the Vols are still third in the SEC at 19.9 per game, but that's dropped way down recently. Since getting whistled 32 times at Mississippi State, Tennessee is averaging just 14.2 fouls per game in their last five contests. There is probably a Willie Carmichael correlation.
Two more stats go along with this identity:
Assist Percentage on Opponent Made Baskets: 64.9%, 345th nationally
Teams that play exclusively zone tend to hang out at the bottom in these rankings; Syracuse is 346th. To score on Tennessee, you either need to hit threes or create open looks with exceptional ball movement. Teams with great point guards like Alex Caruso and Texas A&M with a more structured offense are going to get better opportunities. Watch out for Vanderbilt in this department later in the year.
Pace of Play: 61.3 possessions per game, 15th slowest nationally
The Cuonzo misconception persists. Tyndall's teams have never really been up-tempo, but when you watch them you feel like so much more is going on than what we saw the last three years with strict man-to-man and less movement in an offense designed to patiently work the ball to your future NBA big man and capitalize on offensive rebounds.
The press and the zone are always going to make Tennessee very active defensively, and you have to work the ball and thus the shot clock to either get that corner three or that even more patient good look from two. The Vols have usually shaved seven or eight seconds off the possession before the other team even crosses mid-court. When you combine this with Tennessee's offense struggling to create opportunities against teams that pack it in, you get lots of movement and energy but few points. This too fits Tyndall's DNA.
Steal Percentage: 12.3%, 24th nationally
The Vols steal the ball more than any team in the SEC, getting seven per game. And when you track Tennessee's biggest wins, it's the stat showing up most often: 12 against Kansas State, 10 against Butler, 11 against Arkansas the first time. Likewise, what happens when the Vols can't take the ball away? Only five steals against Marquette, NC State, Alabama, and Texas A&M. Those few extra opportunities are making a very big difference in the win column. This could be the biggest x-factor stat for this team, as the Vols are 12-2 (nine steals against VCU, seven against Kansas) with six or more steals and 0-4 in the aforementioned games with five. Josh Richardson accounts for more than two per game alone.
Offensive Rebounding Percentage: 36.2%, 43rd nationally
Offensive Rebounding Percentage Allowed: 34.9%, 320th nationally
A pleasant surprise: the Vols still go to the offensive glass pretty well despite no Stokes, no Maymon, and no real size to speak of. Armani Moore and Derek Reese have been particularly effective on the backside. But on the other end of the floor, Tennessee has been getting taken advantage of on the offensive glass. This too is a zone defense issue, where guys aren't naturally in position to box out like they would be in man-to-man. To no surprise, this is something the best teams the Vols have faced have taken extreme advantage of: 23 offensive rebounds for VCU in the opener, 18 for Kansas, 17 for Butler. Of the many ways Kentucky can take advantage of Tennessee, this one is at the top of the list. You'd better find a body or duck and cover.
Some of these things won't change because they're just a byproduct of who Tennessee is. Others, like the offensive rebounds allowed, can improve now with better box outs but will really come when Tyndall gets more size in the post. And there are a whole mess of stats in the middle for Tennessee, which is as you'd assume for who the Vols are right now.
There's a tough task tonight and tougher challenges coming - RPI Forecast predicts the Vols will only win two of their last nine games - but as we've seen before, just because a team like Arkansas is more talented than some of the teams to have already beaten the Vols doesn't mean what Tyndall does can't take advantage again. A two game homestand is on the back end, an emotional reunion with Bruce Pearl on Saturday and then a rematch with Mississippi State before the schedule gets mean. The Vols will take every win they can get. But what Tyndall does has been as good as advertised, and so far the results even better. If the Vols can disrupt with their defense, they can give themselves a chance to beat anybody. If they can't, finding points of their own has proven more difficult, and size and depth issues can haunt.
The returns have been good through the first 18 games. Will the Vols continue to play at a relatively high level down the stretch and continue to overachieve, or will the weight of the season and their natural limitations take hold?