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Examining Tennessee’s struggles defending the three-point line this year

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It’s been a consistent problem.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee is riding a program-record, 19-game winning streak – they haven’t lost since November’s OT game against Kansas – and they’re in the middle of their fourth-straight week as the No.1 team in the country. So if we’re looking for weak spots in Tennessee’s game, they might be hard to find and taking issue with those faults might be like complaining about ice cream. Sure, maybe it’s not the flavor you wanted, but it’s still ice cream. What are you – some kind of animal? Eat it and shut up.

Either way, if you’ve watched Tennessee this year, and I’m sure you have, it probably seems like there are times when every 3-point shot the other team takes is going to go in. And while clearly that isn’t totally true, the Vol’s defense against shots from behind the arc hasn’t been great.

Tennessee’s defense has yielded 10 or more made 3’s in eight out of 24 games so far this season, and six of those eight games have occurred in SEC play. The most recent game against South Carolina was kind of a microcosm for the Vol’s season defensively so far: South Carolina made a whole buncha 3’s – 14, actually, which is the single-game, season-high in 3’s allowed for the Vols – but Tennessee still cruised to an easy win.

The Vols allow slightly more than 8 made 3’s a game, and that is the 233 best (or worst?) number in the country. Those 8 made 3’s a game count for 24 points, and Tennessee allows about 69 (nice) total points every game meaning the 3-point shot makes up 35 percent of the points Tennessee allows. I’m bad at math and numbers of all kinds — I even hate roman numerals because they are basically just numbers in disguise — but even I can tell that’s a high percentage of points coming from 3-point range.

Tennessee is currently allowing teams to shoot 34.1 percent which puts them at 159th in the NCAA in 3-point percentage defense. So, there are 158 teams that hold opponents to a lesser, average 3-point shooting percentage. That’s unsettling enough, but when you look comparatively at the rest of the top teams in the country, it looks even worse.

The only team in the AP top-five that allows opponents to shoot a higher percentage from beyond the arc is Kentucky (35.4). Virginia is second in the country in opponent’s 3-point percentage (26.7), Duke is 13th(29.7) and Gonzaga is 19th (29.9).

Since the 2008-2009 season, no team that won the national championship has finished lower than 135th in opponent’s 3-point percentage. That was Villanova in 2015-2016, and there’s only been two other teams the last 10 seasons that even finished outside the top-100 in opponent 3-point percentage.

Moreover, no team has won a national title with an opponents’ 3-point percentage as high as Tennessee’s is right now since North Carolina allowed the same percentage 14 years ago.

Earlier this season against Texas A&M, Tennessee allowed 12 made 3’s. Some were contested, but most them were open looks because of not-so-great defense. I’ll take you through a couple examples.

TJ Starks has the ball on the wing, and Schofield is giving him some room. Starks is about a 25 percent shooter from 3-point range, but he’s also leads A&M in scoring and assists. Mark Jackson says, “hand down, man down,” but if you guard him much tighter, he’s liable to just drive by, break down the defense and hit an open man for an easier look.

If you look for the white of his wristband, you can see Admiral’s arm inside the blue circle. That’s a pretty good contest, but Starks still hits the 3. Barnes is probably okay, certainly not happy but maybe just okay, with giving that one up.

This possession, A&M misses a shot but retains possession on an offensive rebound. Their point guard drives right by Jordan Bone, and Grant Williams stays to cut off the guard’s path to the basket. But Williams’ man has floated all alone to the top of the key.

The red arrow represents the amount of space between the shooter and the closest defenders. Flagg isn’t a much better shooter than Starks but giving anybody that kind of space is asking for trouble.

This time, it’s Jordan Bowden that gets beat off the dribble. Him, the Texas A&M player with the ball and Jalen Johnson are all circled in blue. Johnson has left his man, who is circled in red, in the corner wide open.

So the red arrow may look small, but it represents about 22 feet of actual space. Nobody is even remotely close this time, and the Aggie nails the wide-open look.

This time, A&M sets a high ball screen. In this situation, the defense can handle the pick basically two ways: the defender can go under the screen, as Bowden does here, or he can fight to go over the screen. Going under the screen typically gives the ball-handler more room to shoot while going over the screen usually gives him enough space to create a step or two of separation with which he can use to drive toward the basket.

This is the critical point of a pick and roll: Bowden’s path is interrupted by the screener leaving Kyle Alexander in front of the ball. Alexander must momentarily account for the ball-handler who might shoot or drive and also watch for his man to either “roll,” and cut to the basket or “pop,” and step out to the 3-point line. If you watch football, this is kind of like the mesh point on a read-option play. You’re making the defense make essentially a no-win decision.

Alexander didn’t extend his defense, Bowden didn’t recover quickly enough after going under the screen and the A&M player hits an open shot.

There are only so many things a team can really do to inhibit the opponent’s 3-point shooting. Switching on ball screens is usually the most effective remedy, but it can create mismatches, like your center matched up with their point guard, and from watching Tennessee this season it doesn’t seem like that is something Rick Barnes really likes to do. Most coaches can probably live with long-distance shots going in as long as they are contested looks. Good on-ball defense is the best initiator to limiting 3-point shots because if the guy with the ball can’t get past his man, the other defenders don’t have to leave their assignments open to help.

When you look at Tennessee’s team stats, the 3-point defense is somewhat of an outlier. The Vols do just about everything well except guarding beyond the arc (and offensive rebounding, but that’s another topic for another day). I think it would be unfair to say that burden falls entirely on the team itself, as some of the opposing teams’ hot shooting can be attributed to playing the No. 1 team in the nation and the excitement and adrenaline that comes with it. (What’s the saying? When you come at the king, you best not miss?) Additionally, Tennessee’s 3-point defense is much better when they play at home, 31.6 percent, than it is when they play on the road, 38 percent, and the energy of the opposing team’s home crowd likely contributes to that disparity. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a true home game in the NCAA Tournament.

And there’s something to be said for Tennessee’s offense being so good that is might be causing occasional lapses on the defensive side of the floor. It’s probably a lot easier to be less engaged on defense when you’re pretty damn sure you can go back down the floor and get a bucket. But I’m not a huge believer in this explanation simply because I think we’ve all seen enough of Rick Barnes getting #BigMad at a poor defensive play to think any of the guys are getting away with sub-standard defensive efforts.

I’m not sure how much trouble this will give Tennessee for the rest of the conference schedule as they’ve breezed through most of the conference schedule while still giving up a ton of 3-pointers. But in March, Tennessee’s inability to guard 3-point shots could send them home and put a quick and ugly end to what’s been a mostly beautiful season of basketball.