It’s not rocket science: the more assists you have, the more you’re scoring, the more successful your offense has a chance to be. Every team in basketball is more likely to win when its assist numbers go up and vice versa.
But few teams are as cut-and-dry about it as these Vols.
Here are Tennessee’s assist numbers in every game this season, listed from most to least. You’ll notice a trend:
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When the Vols have 16+ assists, they’re 13-1. When they have 15 or fewer, they’re 2-11. Even getting to just a dozen has been huge: they’re 15-3 at 12+ assists and 0-9 less than that.
(By the way, this chart is one more reason why that Georgia loss was so frustrating and what J.J. Frazier did was so impressive. The Vols had a 19-5 assist-to-turnover ratio and lost at home.)
The main reason it’s so clear with this particular Tennessee team: the Vols don’t have many players who are apt to go one-on-one. This year the Vols register an assist on 56% of their field goals. Compare that to last year’s Kevin Punter squad, which got an assist on 51.6% of its made shots, or Josh Richardson’s 2014 squad at 48.3%. The current squad has the highest assist percentage since the 2009 team had 57.3%; the SEC Champion 2008 squad had 61.5%.
Who led both of those Bruce Pearl squads in assists? Surprise: it was Tyler Smith, which goes to show you how valuable a passing big man can be. Grant Williams is only going to get better in that department, and Lew Evans is an underrated passer too.
But this Tennessee squad also benefits from the closest thing to true point guards we’ve seen since C.J. Watson in Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner. Both average a shade over three assists per game in conference play, and both carry an assist-to-turnover ratio hovering around 2-to-1.
Unsurprisingly some of Tennessee’s best performances are near the top of this list: the Vols had 18 assists in wins over Georgia Tech, Kentucky, and at Vanderbilt. And more of their best performances have come as the team has bought in and come together offensively. Six of Tennessee’s eight highest turnover performances this year came in November or December.
And Tennessee hasn’t just eliminated turnovers, but created better looks. Seven of Tennessee’s eight worst three-point shooting games were January 17 or earlier (and the eighth is Rupp). Ten of UT’s eleven games with the most three-point attempts are in that same timespan, and Texas A&M and Missouri are the only power conference teams they beat shooting 19+ threes per game. The Vols’ best wins - Kentucky, Kansas State, Georgia Tech, at Vanderbilt, plus the near miss at North Carolina - all featured 15 or fewer threes attempted; Kentucky is the season low with 10.
Tennessee has limited turnovers, made sure the threes they get are good looks via good ball movement, and are sharing the ball better offensively than any Volunteer squad we’ve seen this decade. Robert Hubbs and Grant Williams are still the go-to options, but they’re more of a function of the offense instead of the offense itself. This team has bought in to what Rick Barnes and his staff wanted from them. And the more they share the basketball, the more they win.