Tennessee basketball is riding a wave of good vibes from the past month. The Volunteers are 11-1 overall, ranked No. 3 in the nation, and have not lost since November 23rd. In that span, they have defeated the No. 1 team and conquered their in-state rival both on the court and off the court. Quite the holiday season!
As we did after the first six games, we have a list of observations gained throughout the contests. Did we miss any? Do you disagree on any of them? Comment below.
Games: Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (W), Gonzaga (W), Memphis (W), Samford (W), Wake Forest (W), Tennessee Tech (W)
Admiral Schofield Swings Back
We made the observation last time that Admiral Schofield was a bit slow to start the season. His play through five games was adequate, but not to his usual standard. He impressed in the sixth game against Eastern Kentucky, though inferior competition made it hard to know how genuine it was.
Schofield proved it over the next six games. He had Herculean efforts against Gonzaga and Memphis, combining for 59 points on 58 percent shooting, 17 rebounds, 100 percent free throw shooting, and gamebreaking shots against the Bulldogs.
Overall, Schofield has shot over 57 percent over the past six games and is now averaging over 20 points per game. He has also turned in some surprising defensive showings. Sometimes players just need to knock off the rust in the early part of the season.
Rick Barnes Slays the Giant
There is a solid argument that Tennessee’s 76-73 win over No. 1 Gonzaga was the biggest regular season victory of Rick Barnes’ career. That seems like a lofty statement considering he has over 32 years of experience. But that win over the Bulldogs was the first ever win over a No. 1 team in his entire career.
Even beyond the meaning for Barnes’ personal accomplishments, the victory may have given the final bit of proof that Tennessee truly can go toe-to-toe with the big dogs of college basketball—and come out on top. Consider that Tennessee did not have their star player for the last three minutes of the game and played sloppier than usual. Typically, that is a recipe for fading down the stretch and letting your opponent pull it out.
Instead, the Volunteers remained strong and conquered one of their remaining demons. It will not mean much should the tournament results come back negative. But we can actually say that we have evidence that Tennessee can defeat the top teams of the sport.
Will the Real Kyle Alexander Please Stand Up
Typically senior players have few surprises left in them. You know what you will get when they’re on the court. Not so with Kyle Alexander, who fluctuates between reliable post player and warm body on the hardwood.
Against Gonzaga, Alexander had a dud, chipping in just two points and six rebounds in over 20 minutes of action. He had a similarly quiet game against an overmatched Tennessee Tech, even if his efficiency numbers were nice. Yet he put together a great performance against Wake Forest (19 points, eight rebounds) and showed out as a defender against Memphis. Which Kyle Alexander will perform during SEC play?
The Offense is Reaching Another Level
The Volunteers are humming on offense in a way that we have not witnessed in the Rick Barnes tenure. Even last year’s team, which had a very solid offense, ranked 23rd in assist per possession. This year’s squad is now tied for first in the nation in assists per possession, and they are second nationally in assists per game.
That is largely thanks to the improved chemistry of the returning starters and the improvement of Jordan Bone, Lamonte Turner, and Grant Williams. All the primary ballhandlers are comfortable in the system and know where the ball needs to go. Both the numbers and the eye test say that the Tennessee offense is improved, and the assists are the source of it.
Defensive Disruption is a Mixed Bag
One area where this year’s team has diverged is in defensive disruption (steals, blocks, etc.) Truthfully, disruption does not matter if the defense remains firm and does not give up easy shots. It is more helpful for an offense that takes advantage of a fast pace.
Tennessee’s defensive disruption areas took different directions to start the season. The steals per possession dropped from 9.2 to 7.4 percent, while the block percentage went from 8.1 to 9.7—the latter being a top-10 percentage. This seems true on its face. Whereas the guards have not been forcing as many turnovers as they once were, Tennessee has more rotation with its post players and is giving them more opportunities down low.
Hit the Ground Running in the SEC
Tennessee’s first few games to start the SEC schedule should all be victories. Georgia, Missouri, Florida, Arkansas, and Alabama are all middle-to-above average teams. They will not make or break your schedule, but they can help you clean up your weaknesses or expose your flaws.
Tennessee has looked better every step of the way than the teams they are slated to face in January. Ideally, the Vols should be able to win comfortably against the first group of opponents and use that momentum for the rest of the year.