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Tennessee Basketball: Early Impressions

NCAA Basketball: Georgia Tech at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The Vols are back tonight for a tune-up with Presbyterian before heading to Chapel Hill Sunday evening to face #7 North Carolina. Last week’s surprising 23-point win over Georgia Tech moved the Vols back to .500 after losing competitive games to Wisconsin and Oregon in Maui. With so many new faces on the floor, what have been some of the dominant early impressions?

  • Shembari Phillips. Robert Hubbs, as expected, leads the team in scoring with 13.8 points per game. But sophomore Shembari Phillips is currently second at 10.8, and has done some of it filling in at point guard while freshman Jordan Bone recovers from a stress fracture. Phillips had a tough day against Oregon, going 0-for-5 from the floor. In the other five games he’s 18-of-30 and 8-of-10 (!) from the arc. Against Georgia Tech Phillips had 14 points, 5 rebounds, 7 assists and only one turnover. He’ll come back to earth some from the arc, and it’ll be interesting to see how Rick Barnes chooses to use him when Bone is healthy. But so far, so good on the sophomore leap.
  • The Vols will run. Increased athleticism is apparent as soon as you watch this team, young as it may be. The Vols weren’t slow last year, playing the 100th fastest tempo in college basketball and fifth fastest in the SEC. But they’ve sped up even more this year, currently 35th in tempo overall and third in the SEC behind only Kentucky and Bruce Pearl.
  • Free throws can cover a multitude of sins. Not only is Tennessee surprisingly good at getting to the line (free throw rate is 45th nationally so far), but as a team the Vols are hitting 77% at the line, 24th best in the nation. John Fulkerson has been strong in the getting-to-the-line department so far: 12-of-23 from the floor but already earning 19 free throw attempts this season, tied for third on the team despite playing only 16.5 minutes per game. Speaking of him...
  • The post is trending younger. When the season started many of us penciled in sophomore Kyle Alexander and graduate transfer Lew Evans as the answers in the post. But it’s been freshmen Fulkerson and Grant Williams who have been more productive. Williams is averaging 9 points and 4.5 rebounds in 20.8 minutes, Fulkerson 6 points and 5.5 rebounds in 16.5 minutes. Alexander is at 5.2 points and 4.8 rebounds in 17.8 minutes, while Evans has struggled to make an impact, playing only nine minutes per game. However, all of these guys have had a more-positive-than-expected impact on the offensive glass, where the small ball Vols are still 61st nationally in offensive rebounding percentage.

We’ll see how the rotations continue to shake out against the Blue Hose tonight. Presbyterian owns D-1 wins over Furman and VMI but lost to UNC-Greensboro by 19, William & Mary by 30, Boise State by 26, and The Citadel by 14. They’re 347 out of 351 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. I was going to say this is one of the few times this year we shouldn’t sweat, but we didn’t sweat much against Georgia Tech.

7:00 PM ET, once again online only on Watch ESPN.