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Tennessee Basketball: Can Competitiveness Lead to Something More?

Another encouraging performance despite defeat at Gonzaga leads us to believe these Vols can be competitive all season, and perhaps even more as young players continue to develop.

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps you, like me, called it a night at halftime yesterday (today?) when Gonzaga led 49-33 in Seattle (and in the wee hours in East Tennessee).  Perhaps you, also like me, got up to use the restroom in the middle of the night, checked your phone out of curiosity, and saw the Vols had not only rallied back to lose by only seven, but actually took the lead midway through the second half and were tied with two minutes to play.

So Tennessee falls to 5-5 with two games to play in the non-conference, plus at TCU in late January in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.  The five losses are the most the Vols have taken in non-conference play since Cuonzo Martin's first year.  But similar to Cuonzo's first year, there is hope the team will get better as the season goes along.  And unlike Cuonzo's first year, which began 3-6 with losses to Austin Peay and Charleston, you can see the seeds of progress sooner.

Tennessee is 5-5 but 74th in KenPom as of Sunday afternoon.  What's more, the Vols are currently 49th in their offensive ratings playing the 80th (out of 351) fastest pace in college basketball.  To have done this without Josh Richardson and with no true point guard against, so far, the 40th most difficult schedule is astounding.

Ask any of the coaches and they'll tell you defense is the issue.  But even here, thus far the Vols are slightly stronger than they were last year at 142nd in KenPom's defensive ratings after finishing 145th last year.  Here too the Vols are doing it not only without Josh Richardson's presence, but also playing a completely different style than they did last year.

Defense fueled Tennessee's comeback against Gonzaga, holding the Bulldogs to 37 points in the second half and making adjustments to at least slow Domantas Sabonis.  We've joked about Tennessee never being too far ahead or behind for the outcome to be certain, but the Vols have both game-planned and adjusted well enough to give themselves a chance to win away from home against three Top 40 teams.

Last year's team used a herculean effort from its best player and Donnie Tyndall made the most of his early season opportunities to catch teams by surprise in home wins over Kansas State and Butler.  These Vols may not have the marquee win in the non-conference portion, but they appear capable of being just as consistently competitive if not more so.  The real question will center around this team's ability to continue to progress as opposed to wearing down like they did last year.

That's not to say Kevin Punter isn't putting in something herculean-like.  The Vols continue to play four players 30+ minutes a night, but Punter's 35.3 average is far and away the highest.  His 23.0 points per game are currently 10th best nationally and third best among major conference teams.  Consider that if he holds that average all year, it will be the best any Vol has done since Allan Houston.

Competitiveness was the hope and really the goal coming into this year, where a result like Tyndall's .500 finish would be kindly applauded and appreciated.  But Rick Barnes and these guys have come close enough times away from home against three really good teams to make you think we might be able to bump the conversation a notch above competitiveness as we go, if this team can make progress.  Much of that progress will be in the hands of the newcomers, and hope is quietly planting seeds there as well.  Admiral Schofield now averages 5.3 points and 2.9 rebounds in 14.1 minutes off the bench, clearly a part of what this team is doing.  And Kyle Alexander continues to play around 10 minutes a night as the Vols are desperate for size; he was never going to score a bunch against Gonzaga's size and may not be that guy all year, but did have six rebounds and three blocks against the Bulldogs.

What's a notch above competitiveness?  That's the NIT, which last year took Alabama at 18-14 and Vanderbilt at 19-13.  The bar for that field is always an unknown given its automatic bids to regular season conference champions who fail to win their conference tournaments and make the big dance, but last year the Tide had an RPI of 85 and Vanderbilt was way down at 104.

Tennessee's projected RPI, according to the fine folks at RPI Forecast, is 93.  That would be good enough to get in the conversation, but the projected 15-16 record would not.  The Vols are going to have the strength of schedule component thanks to Butler, Gonzaga, George Washington and an SEC with a clearly-defined top tier.  Five conference teams are in the KenPom Top 30 (Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida, undefeated South Carolina, and Texas A&M).  Last year Kentucky was number one and the next closest team was Arkansas at #29.  Tennessee is going to get to play a number of good teams (and a number of intriguing teams like LSU and Bruce Pearl beyond the top tier).

Can the Vols win enough of those games to make the NIT?  If Tennessee takes care of business against ETSU and Tennessee State, then wins at TCU, I think going 9-9 in SEC play would do it.  That's a two game improvement on last year in a league with a lesser UK but more landmines between us and them.  Here too, the answer will come back to how much better instead of worse the 2015-16 Vols get.

But if you wanted competitiveness, Rick Barnes and these Vols are giving it to you at all hours of the night.  They're doing it playing a different, faster brand of basketball from last year, featuring a top player who may not get drafted but will score a ton more points.  And if young players continue to develop, they could have a chance to be better as the year goes along.  Already off to a respectable start in the competitiveness department, progress might lead this team to the NIT in a year we would all call successful.