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What Progress Looks Like

The Vols may have the same record through 17 games as last year and a few games worse than the year before, but they are clearly an improved team.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

We don’t want to make too much of one win. What Tennessee did at Vanderbilt Saturday night was wildly entertaining and enormously satisfying, but the Vols aren’t likely to shoot 20 points above their average percentage from three every time.

But as a good reason to take another look at this season’s body of work as a whole, Saturday night works just fine.

Are the Vols really better than the last two years?

Seventeen games into the season Tennessee is 9-8 (2-3). That’s exactly where they were at this point last year. In Donnie Tyndall’s season the Vols won at South Carolina in Game #17 to go to 12-5 (4-1).

The 2015 Vols finished the regular season 3-10. Rick Barnes’ first team hovered around .500 until Kevin Punter got hurt, then lost their final four regular season games to finish 6-12 in the SEC. Already down John Fulkerson and Detrick Mostella, can the 2017 Vols avoid a similar slide in the backstretch?

The record may be the same as last year and worse than 2015 so far, but I think this year’s Tennessee team is significantly better.

Consider who they’ve lost to. In their first 17 games Donnie Tyndall’s team lost to Marquette (finished 13-19) and by 18 at home to Alabama (8-10 SEC, fired Anthony Grant). Last year Tennessee’s 9-8 start included losses to Georgia Tech (12-19) and Nebraska (13-18).

This year the eight teams to beat Tennessee are currently a combined 118-22:

Teams to Beat Tennessee

Team Record KenPom
Team Record KenPom
Chattanooga 14-4 61
Wisconsin 14-3 9
Oregon 16-2 21
North Carolina 16-3 6
Gonzaga 17-0 3
Arkansas 13-4 49
Florida 14-3 13
South Carolina 14-3 28

That’s how you end up with the third-best strength of schedule in the nation according to KenPom, with the usual pair of games against KenPom #1 Kentucky still to come.

Every one of those eight losses could be labeled competitive. But thanks to three important road wins, you don’t have to judge these Vols purely on their ability to come close. After finishing 90th and 103rd in KenPom the last two years, right now the Vols are 55th.

They’re doing it with much more of a team effort. A stat we used earlier this season: how much is Tennessee’s best player responsible for? In 2015 Josh Richardson scored 16.0 points per game, which was 25.3% of Tennessee’s total production. Last year Kevin Punter had 22.2 per game, 29.6% of the points.

Those back-to-back years made it easy to expect Robert Hubbs to be that guy among this merry band of freshmen. He still leads the Vols comfortably with 14.4 points per game. But those points continue to make up only around 18.5% of the total. And in the immediate absence of Detrick Mostella it’s been the rest of the team and not its best player carrying more weight.

You can bank on Jordan Bone getting more than 19.1 minutes per game going forward, looking quite healthy in dropping 23 on Vanderbilt Saturday night. The beginnings of a rotation are taking shape with Bone and Lamonte Turner sharing the point guard duties, Jordan Bowden and Shembari Phillips getting time off the ball, Hubbs playing 30+ minutes and Grant Williams averaging close to that in the last six games, and a combination of Admiral Schofield, Lew Evans, and Kyle Alexander with him in the post. That group of nine gives Rick Barnes plenty of options based on the match-up, and is far less reliant on one star going off to produce victory.

And not only might these Vols prevent a late slide, they could surge.

Jeff Sagarin’s ratings give the Vols 50%-or-better odds to win 11 of their last 14 regular season games. Tennessee will be a clear underdog in both its match-ups with Kentucky and the return bout at South Carolina. After that? Having already played Florida, Arkansas, Texas A&M, and at Vanderbilt, the non-UK portion of league play will get a lot easier on paper. Right now RPI Forecast (using Sagarin) gives Tennessee a 67.7% chance to finish the regular season above .500, which would be clear progress. And more than that is still very much on the table.

We can’t assume anything with such a young team, but if the Vols are able to handle their business against the Missouri’s of the world, the state of the season could come down to what Tennessee can do in a bunch of toss-up games: road trips to Oxford, Starkville, and Auburn plus home dates with Georgia and Kansas State all currently fall between 50-55% in Tennessee’s favor in Sagarin. If form holds - and so far these young Vols are yet to lose to a team worse than them - games like Tuesday at Ole Miss could be the difference between the warm fuzzies of a barely-above-.500 finish and making the NIT.

There’s a long way to go. But there’s also tangible success on the table for a team that’s showing just how much it’s improved from the last two years.