I've been thinking a lot about Butch Jones and South Carolina the last few days. About the way an entire perspective can not only shift, but be felt so strongly over the course of just a few minutes. You can watch it happen in real time from our second half thread of that game. Start here, when South Carolina hit an 85 yard touchdown pass to Pharoh Cooper on 3rd and 11 to take a 35-21 lead with 13 minutes left at 10:28 PM. You can read, remember, and feel the weight of not just the game, but much of the fan narrative about Butch Jones swing back and forth, first with Jalen Hurd's incredible fourth down TD at 10:50. Then Carolina's 3rd and 18 conversion and 70 yard touchdown on consecutive plays at 10:57, which made us slow to commit when Tennessee scored to cut it to 42-35 around 11:09. And then the rapid re-buy-in as the Vols made the final march starting at 11:17, working deep into the night for us all to finally break loose in full-on celebration at 11:38 PM.
How many times did our stance on Butch Jones feel like it changed in an hour and ten minutes?
How much should our stance on Donnie Tyndall change based on 54 minutes of basketball?
We said it in the South Carolina postgame: most of the things there were true about Tennessee's future would have been true regardless of the outcome that long night in Columbia. But the truth is so much clearer in victory.
Sometimes victory overshadows truth. Tennessee's basketball team was picked to finish 13th in the SEC in the preseason poll. Instead the Vols started 12-5 (4-1), with what still remain a pair of RPI Top 25 wins over Butler and Arkansas. Tennessee wasn't just in some brackets, the Vols were showing up as single digit seeds.
We knew what was coming down the stretch. We know now some percentage of the answer is, "tougher competition." But it's not all the answer, at least not in the last two games. We also have to figure out which questions are worth asking.
What's happened defensively?
In Tennessee's first 17 games, pressure defense was their calling card. The Vols, in fact, still lead the SEC and are 13th nationally in steal percentage, taking the ball away on 12.6% of opponent possessions. It's true both because it's what Tyndall does, and because the Vols are so thin on the interior: Tennessee is selling out to create turnovers.
And when we don't, bad things happen.
We've mentioned before that the Vols are 13th in the SEC in field goal percentage allowed (43.8%), dead last (and 330th of 351 nationally) in three point percentage allowed (38.2%), and 12th in the SEC in points per possession allowed. And during these last 11 games, it's been significantly worse:
- Opponent FG% First 17 games (12-5): 340 of 838, 40.5%
- Opponent FG% Last 11 games (2-9): 249 of 507, 49.1%
- Texas A&M 6 of 17 (35.3%)
- Arkansas 6 of 19 (31.6%)
- Auburn 8 of 18 (44.4%)
- Mississippi State 8 of 11 (72.7%)
- Georgia 7 of 16 (43.8%)
- Vanderbilt 6 of 17 (35.3%)
- LSU 9 of 19 (47.4%)
- Kentucky 5 of 22 (22.7%)
- Ole Miss 11 of 31 (35.5%)
- Vanderbilt 13 of 25 (52.0%)
- Florida 9 of 22 (40.9%)
- TOTAL: 88 of 217 (40.5%)
What can we do differently?
Donnie Tyndall was on the Coaches' Corner Podcast Sunday with ex-Pearl assistants Houston Fancher & Mark Pancratz. His answers are about as straightforward as you'd expect: Tennessee struggles to stop teams off the dribble, and cannot defend the better post players in this conference without help. When these things happen, teams work the Vols inside-out and get open threes. The great ball movement we saw from Texas A&M at the start of this slide has become the rule. He also admitted the Vols have been intentionally shortening their press, not extending 94 feet to preserve some of their own legs.
Josh Richardson is playing 36.1 minutes per game. By comparison, on Tennessee's 2010 Elite Eight team no one played more than 27.7 minutes (Scotty Hopson). Peak-of-their-powers Chris Lofton and C.J. Watson played no more than 32 minutes per game. Richardson is on pace to play the most minutes we've seen in Knoxville since Kevin O'Neill trotted Shane Williams out for 38.3 per night on an equally depleted first year squad in 1995. Most of the other names on the single season minutes list ahead of Richardson are the best of the best: Allan Houston, Dale Ellis, Tony White.
Teams have figured the Vols out, and the Vols are tired. A step slow on defensive rotation, due to fatigue or motivation or both, and an open three becomes a wide open three. And this isn't your slightly older brother's SEC: the league is full of B+ and B- teams this season, and we've seen most of them in the last six weeks. And all this is after the talent, experience, and depth issues we all knew about already.
Perhaps we got so used to Cuonzo's habitual early season struggles and late season runs we forgot what a more normal rhythm might look and feel like. As longtime friend of the blog Volundore pointed out in our Florida postgame Saturday, these Vols have the natural flow of a team with below average talent just getting worn down over the course of the year, where close wins become close losses become blowouts.
What can the Vols do differently? I'd add my voice to those who maybe wondered why Tyndall didn't take a timeout to stop the bleeding against Vanderbilt. Then there's the "just play man" camp, and hey, it's fair to ask. Vanderbilt and Florida - who, remember, are sub-.500 SEC teams - didn't just beat Tennessee's zone, they obliterated it. 13 of Florida's first 15 made baskets were threes or dunks. Nine of Vanderbilt's final 13 made baskets - which is really just to say, all of Vanderbilt's final 13 shots - were threes or dunks. It wasn't going to get much worse.
But I don't think Donnie Tyndall is too stubborn to try something he thinks would help. I think he simply thinks there's not much else to do at this point in the season. "Why doesn't Tyndall change defenses," is the wrong question right now. And though I am usually one to overrate chemistry, effort, etc., I can even understand the loss of a little fight from this team. This is the first time Richardson, Armani Moore, and Derek Reese have come to the final week of the season with really nothing to play for until the SEC Tournament. None of the other guys on this roster know what it's like to chase the bubble either. I don't like it. But I do get it.
Beyond that, Tyndall, like Butch Jones, knows the number one thing the Vols can do differently is get better players. And Tennessee's ability to get better players is significantly hampered by Donnie Tyndall's NCAA situation right now.
Most of the things that are true about Tennessee's basketball future were still true four days and 54 minutes of basketball ago. The Vols lack the talent and experience to win at a high level right now. Much of this problem can only be solved in recruiting. Tyndall can't effectively recruit right now.
This has been our reality all year, forgotten for a few happy weeks as we overachieved, and now perhaps remembered a little too much. But whether the Vols finished 17-13 or 13-17, this was the short-term situation over at least this year and next. I think Donnie Tyndall can win in the long-term, but I'm not sure exactly how long that's going to be.
I think there is a cultural aspect to this as well, more questions to be asked about how Tennessee Basketball got to this moment. We'll have more on that later this week. But as far as how and why the Vols have gone from 12-5 to 14-14? I think the answers are both more simple and will take longer to resolve than we'd like.
Tennessee has two chances left to change this narrative in the regular season, and then their season will come to a head in Nashville. Can Donnie Tyndall get anything more from this team? Can Josh Richardson give any more to this team? And at this point, is it fair for us to expect anything different?