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Tennessee Basketball: Late Season & Next Season Questions for the Vols

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Has this year's team overachieved, will the Vols be any better next year, and more as we come to the close of Rick Barnes' first season in Knoxville.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

As the conversation on Tennessee Basketball shifts to the few remaining NIT possibilities and if the Vols can find one more road win, we've got almost a full season of data on Rick Barnes in Knoxville to digest.  Here are the questions we're asking about the Vols going forward:

Will Shelton: Let's start here:  is Tennessee overachieving, underachieving, or just achieving?

Volundore: Can I take a cop out position and say it depends on whether the Vols are at home or on the road?

Let's start with what people on the outside expected. The media picked Tennessee to finish 12th in the SEC, just 1 point ahead of Alabama for 13th. As you look at the league standings today, that's about where they are, sitting at 11th (losing a tiebreaker to Arky) with one game of separation from Mississippi State at 12th. Based on that viewpoint, I think you'd say the Vols are where you'd expect them to be. They're in the bottom third of a decent, but not elite, basketball conference.

But the way that they've gotten there is...weird. They've beaten four of the league's top six teams at home, absolutely annihilating Florida, blitzing USCe from deep, staging an epic comeback from 21 down against UK, and embarrassing BEN SIMMONS and his merry band of misfit Tigers without Kevin Punter.

On the road, though? Woof. The Vols deserve credit for closing out the Western Bulldogs in Starkville (which Vandy couldn't do despite having a 17-point lead in the second half during a loss that'll probably keep them out of the tournament and NO I'M NOT BITTER, WHY DO YOU ASK?), but they have otherwise been, frankly, atrocious. They shot 3-28 from deep against Auburn; they blew a 15-point second half lead at Alabama (and a 14-point halftime lead at TCU in the next game); and they never seriously threatened against Arkansas or Missouri. The league as a whole has an impressive home/road disparity this year, but at 1-12 away from Knoxville on the year, the Vols are particularly bad.

To some extent, I think Barnes, like Tyndall last year, might be a victim of his team beating our expectations early before regressing. Close losses in roadies against Butler and Gonzaga teams that were a bit overrated had us feeling better about the team early. The Vols were then four minutes away from being 9-6 overall and 2-1 in SEC play before collapsing against Texas A&M. They've just been totally schizophrenic depending on what building they're in. I'd say the Vols are about where I expected, on average, but you could probably talk yourself into slight overachievement or underachievement depending on your mood.

Will: I like the Tyndall comparison, and I think they're going to end up having very similar end results by two very different paths.  Not just in the "Josh Richardson + defense" vs "Kevin Punter + tempo" conversation, but in how they got their most meaningful wins.  Last year the Vols beat #15 Butler in December, then beat #19 Arkansas on January 13.  UT was 12-5 (4-1) a week later but finished 3-10 down the stretch.  This year Tennessee's ranked wins over #24 South Carolina and #20 Kentucky came in late January and early February, giving more of a sense of improvement.  And you also have the weirdness of last year's team winning five SEC road games but going 2-7 in Knoxville and essentially the opposite happening here.

Everything just seemed more exaggerated last year:  how much the Vols would miss McRae/Maymon/Stokes, how good they actually were at 12-5, etc.  So I think we were prone to call it overachieving through mid-January and then the late season wins at LSU and against Vandy in the SEC Tournament allowed us to return to that at season's end.  This year I think the drop-off was assumed to be less drastic up front, perhaps because we'd just gone through losing three key contributors and now we only lost one.  But as the Vols have basically played .500 ball the entire season, I find my thoughts on them are much more a slave to their last outing.  As I'm writing this after the win over LSU, I'm inclined to say they've basically achieved...but I also think they're going to finish in the same place last year's team did, which felt like overachieving.

If the end result is going to be roughly the same after losing Richardson, should our baseline expectation for the 2016-17 Vols after losing Punter, Moore, Baulkman, and Reese be worse?  I feel like next year is going to be the third (and final) year in a row where .500 is acceptable.

Volundore: Your mileage may vary, but let's be honest with ourselves. Reese has been a model citizen through one of the most tumultuous periods in UT basketball history, but he's scoring a bucket a game and hasn't played more than 20 minutes since the Mississippi State game. Baulkman scores 9 a game, and he should be commended for his toughness as he plays through his 47th shoulder dislocation, but his time here hasn't been particularly memorable. They're valiant competitors, but I think they're eminently replaceable.

Losing Moore and Punter, though...there's no sugarcoating it. That's going to hurt. Armani has weathered the same upheaval as Reese, but we'll miss him a lot more. Dude is only 6' 4", but he flies around the court with reckless abandon every night. He's the team's leading rebounder, shot blocker, and assist man, and he's second in minutes, points, and steals. Punter doesn't have the same longevity, but his emergence this year has helped fill Richardson's void in a way we didn't think would be possible at the start of the season. Barnes will be tasked with another significant restructuring next year trying to replace those two guys.

And he's going to have to do it with some significant unknowns. He's done an admirable job getting more out of Mostella this year, and Schofield, Phillips, and Alexander look like intriguing pieces. Are they all ready to take the next step? Can Barnes get Robert Hubbs, who currently appears to be the bane of his existence, to finally play like a 5* player in his senior season? Can he develop Ray Kasongo into anything meaningful? Will a solid, but not elite, recruiting class ranked 51st in the nation, but just 8th in the SEC, be ready to make significant contributions?

Those are all important questions. It's possible that Barnes can come up heads on all of those coin flips and entertain notions of the NCAA tournament, but the odds are not in his favor. I think you're right that another year of .500-ish ball with a younger roster in an improving league sounds like the proper step in the program's rebuild, but the pressure will ramp up from there to compete for something more in 2017-18.

Will: For natural optimists like myself, I think there's an intriguing conversation to be had on how much this team might improve with a natural point guard at its disposal.  It's a credit to Barnes and his staff that they've gotten so much out of both Punter and Moore this year when both are playing out of their natural positions.  Add in Lamonte Turner and perhaps a dash of Jordan Bone, add in another year of just playing basketball for Kyle Alexander who at times sounds like Barnes' favorite player?  I don't think it should be the expectation, but I do think there's a chance Tennessee is slightly better next year.

There's also this:  the Vols are 317th in Ken Pomeroy's luck ratings this year against the nation's 40th most difficult schedule.  Tennessee has played only two one-possession games all year (at Georgia Tech and vs George Washington, both losses in November).  In SEC play their closest win was by five at Mississippi State.  This team's 13 wins haven't come from being lucky.  If the Vols had held a 10 point lead with four minutes to play against Texas A&M and not blown a pair of 14 point leads at Alabama and TCU, that post about what Tennessee needs to do to make the NIT would include the same criteria for making the NCAA Tournament.  If their luck just evens out and they mature into a team that doesn't blow so many leads?  Eh?

Perhaps we'll get to see a better piece of this down the stretch this year, as I know you're a proponent of keeping Kevin Punter out of the lineup for his own good with the stress fracture.

Volundore: Man, so much good stuff to unpack!

Let's start with the point guard piece. It's been UT's white whale going back to CJ Watson running out of eligibility in 2006. There are years where I think you can absolutely argue that the team's ceiling was lowered by not having a competent PG on the roster (2008 comes to mind when JP Prince had to run point in the NCAAT for a team that had made it to #1 in the country). I'm just not sure this was one of those years.

The Vols are 107th in the nation (out of 351) in scoring and 46th best at taking care of the ball. Maybe you can make an argument that a PG helps us find better shots (the Vols are 277th in shooting percentage) and/or takes some pressure off of Punter, but offense hasn't been the problem. In broad strokes, defense (254th in points allowed) and rebounding (324th in rebounds allowed) have been the Achilles' heels, which make sense. They are, after all, really short.

Does that mean that Lamonte Turner's presence won't help next year's team? Not at all...he might be the best thing since sliced bread, but he'll be new. And so will all of the other freshman. Alexander may well make a mini leap, but other raw players around the league will develop, too. None of these things happen in a vacuum, though if Barnes is actually one of the better coaches in the SEC, we may see some incremental progress that closes the existing gap without elite recruits. We'll see.

And then KenPom's luck...the siren song of disappointing teams. I've also let myself contemplate where the Vols would be if they had closed out those double digit leads and grabbed Georgia Tech or GW (changing GT, A&M, Bama, and TCU to wins and leaving RPI Forecast's remaining win probabilities would put us 19-12 with an RPI of 61...there's a chance!), but there's a flip side to that equation. What about the Kentucky game in Knoxville? What about blitzing South Carolina from deep in the second half? Despite UT ranking 317th and Vandy checking in at 348th (plus 2015 Vanderbilt finishing at 345th and Cuonzo's last team ending up 341st), I tend to think these things even out over time because there's statistical noise inherent in those numbers.

That doesn't make me totally dismissive of the team's chance to grow, just skeptical that we're going to see anything other than normal development from this year to next. Maybe playing without Punter will help the guys who will still be here next year learn some things they otherwise wouldn't have.

And, yeah, I don't think KP should suit up again if there's long-term risk to his body. I think he's played his way into a NBA tryout or nice European league opportunity this year with his ability to get buckets. He should heal up and make the most of that chance since the Vols aren't going much of anywhere minus a strong finish/SEC Tournament run.