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TCU 75 Tennessee 63 - Everything About Why The Vols Struggle

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The Horned Frogs broke a five game losing streak as the Vols followed a familiar script in the second half.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

One week ago Kevin Punter scored 36 points and the Vols beat #24 South Carolina in Knoxville.  It took the Vols back above .500 and, with Alabama and TCU coming up, made you believe this team could build some momentum and fight their way toward the NIT.

One week later Tennessee has blown a pair of 14 point second half leads, and the Vols are below .500 and in a dangerous spot this season, especially with Kentucky coming next.  Today the specific culprit was three point shooting:  8 of 16 in building that lead in the first half, an unbelievable 0 of 15 in the second half.  As the threes kept clanging and TCU kept coming, the Vol offense got more desperate and took worse looks from the arc.  And in general, there's a lack of poise with this team that shows up on both ends of the floor when things get tight.

Tennessee's first half/second half tendencies are alarmingly and outright weirdly consistent.  Here's what the Vols have done in the first and second 20 minutes since SEC play began:

1ST UT OPP 2ND UT OPP RES
at Auburn +2 36 34 -8 41 49 L
Florida +22 53 31 -8 30 38 W
Texas A&M +8 46 38 -12 42 54 L
at Georgia +7 35 28 -16 37 53 L
at Mississippi State +11 38 27 -6 42 48 W
Vanderbilt -19 23 44 +7 51 44 L
South Carolina +1 29 28 +8 49 41 W
at Alabama +1 25 24 -7 32 39 L
at TCU +14 41 27 -26 22 48 L

Throw the Vanderbilt game aside, a match-up nightmare for a team running mostly 6'5" and under, and there are a number of significant trends here:

  • The Vols have led everyone else at halftime. Not by much a few times, but the Vols have generally been a strong first half team at home and on the road.  Tennessee's offensive output has ebbed and flowed here, but their defense in the first half?  Again, take out Vanderbilt, and since the beginning of SEC play the Vols are giving up an average of 29.6 points in the first half.  That's really good.
  • Other than Vanderbilt, the Vols have only outscored South Carolina in the second half. You shoot 9 of 12 from the three point line and 90+% at the free throw line, you'll outscore a ranked team too.  But it's not just that the Vols are getting outscored in the second half, or that they're going cold.
  • Tennessee's second half defense has been largely non-existent. Including Vanderbilt, the Vols are giving up 46 points in the second half on average.  That's really bad.  A small portion of this is teams hitting free throws when the Vols are intentionally fouling at the end of losses.  But it's not a 16 point difference.
So today in Fort Worth was the biggest swing, but it's also a continuation of a growing trend.  The Vols are falling apart defensively in the second half of games, and for more than one reason.  Tennessee often fails to get back to set up effective transition defense, especially when their own offense settles for a bad look from three.  There's an argument that a team playing four players 29+ minutes and its best player 34.4 minutes at a Top 50 tempo is getting too tired.  And some percentage, great or small, is between the ears here and/or lost in translation from the coaching staff to the players on the floor.  Falling apart is becoming their identity, and Rick Barnes and company have yet to figure out a way to change that.

All of this on top of what we've known all year:  no post presence, no true point guard, etc.  In the long run, there was encouragement today as Kyle Alexander stepped up with 4 points, 11 rebounds, and 6 blocks in 31 minutes, a clear change.  The Vols were going against a pair of 6'10" bigs (though one of them only played seven minutes and didn't score), so it will be interesting to see if Alexander got those minutes today because of the match-up, or because he's the direction Barnes is going in.  Kentucky is next and they've certainly got size, so we may have to wait to see some of the answers more fully.

And that's kind of how it is with Rick Barnes' brand of basketball here, and deep down we knew all along it might be that way.  The Vols were competitive enough and shot well enough against good Florida, South Carolina, and Texas A&M teams to make us believe this team could be more than the sum of its parts.  But the larger trend of second half collapse is by far the loudest voice in the room right now.  We won't be able to make any summary judgments by what the Vols do against Kentucky, but as the season moves to the second half of the SEC schedule after that it will be interesting to see what Barnes changes up and how much more the younger players get on the floor.

Tennessee still has enough firepower to compete with anyone when they're on.  But most often that fire is getting extinguished in the second half, and not just because threes aren't falling.  Tennessee's second half defense is just not good enough to beat anyone right now, as a sub-.500 TCU team just showed in erasing a 14 point hole in a hurry.  It's frustrating, most of all for the players and coaches I'm sure.  We'll see what they can do to try to change it going forward.