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Tennessee has struggled in the last two games — what exactly is going on?

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What’s going on with this team?

Vanderbilt v Tennessee Photo by Donald Page/Getty Images

In the last article I wrote, we looked at Tennessee’s season-long inability to guard the 3-point shot effectively, and how it could be a troublesome hurdle for the Vols come March. But Tennessee’s 3-point defense wasn’t the problem against Kentucky.

UT gave up just five made 3’s (on 14 attempts) in Lexington on Saturday. That’s tied for the third-lowest single-game total this season. The 38-percent mark is almost dead-on for Tennessee’s average 3-point percentage defense in away games this season -- allowing your opponent to hit nearly 40 percent of the 3’s they take in their gym certainly isn’t ideal, but it definitely wasn’t one of the main reasons Tennessee got thumped so handedly.

In the 3-point defense article, I mentioned that Tennessee’s confidence in its offense might be part of the issue with its defense. Barnes touched on this topic during the post-game press conference.

“Mentally, we were letting what we were doing on offense, which is not what we were wanting to do, affect us on the defensive end.”

So, in Barnes’ opinion, the problem was sort of an inverted form of the one I suggested: It wasn’t an issue of overconfidence, but instead it was a lack of confidence. Essentially, the shots weren’t dropping on offense, and by extension the defense suffered.

This is an inherent caveat of being an offensively-geared basketball team -- There are nights when shots just don’t go in. It happens, and when it does, it’s easier to become disengaged defensively. Saturday’s game was one of those nights.

The Vols hit just 24 of the 59 shots they attempted against Kentucky which made it the second-lowest field goal total and the third-lowest field-goal percentage figure of the season. It also marked just the fifth time this season when Tennessee shot below a 45-percent clip. Grant Williams scored 16 points but attempted just four field goals.

Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden were a combined 3-18 from the field and 0-11 from 3-point range and had the same number of total fouls as they did total points (seven). Those two must be better on nights when the opposing team limits Williams’ offensive opportunities like Kentucky did in Lexington.

Barnes also cited the team playing “selfish,” as a reason for the poor offensive performance.

“[What] we needed to do was just play together as a team and not do things one on one,” Barnes said. “We just didn’t do any of that. The first half we didn’t do the things we had done all year, in terms of our offense.”

“All we wanted to do was try to get ourselves to play together,” he added. “We didn’t do that. I thought it was the most selfish we’ve played all year.”

Tuesday’s (kinda) rebound

On Tuesday, Tennessee (sort of?) bounced back with a win against Vanderbilt. It was very much a “that was ugly, but we’ll take it,” sort of game. Sure, a win is a win, and I’ll never turn my nose up at a 12-point victory in SEC play; however, Tennessee’s offense didn’t do much in the way of inspiring those who watched it.

The Vols shot just 41 percent and scored 20-something points less than their season average. Williams led all scorers with 14 points, and Lamonte Turner and Admiral Schofield chipped in with 12 points each. In the post-game press conference, in contrast to his comments after the Kentucky game, Barnes said that maybe Tennessee passed the ball too often against Vanderbilt.

“I thought tonight, actually a couple times overpassed the ball,” he said. “That was one thing we didn’t do Saturday night, so we were caught somewhere in between.”

“I thought we were tentative because of some of the things we wanted to correct, we over-did it tonight…”

So too selfish one night, and too unselfish the next. I think the question on most people’s mind right now is: What the hell is wrong with Tennessee’s offense?

Is Tennessee just tired? Is it that simple?

This time of year, and having played three games in six days, it’s reasonable to deduce that these guys are tired. I don’t think you’ll ever hear any of them or Rick Barnes admit it, so naturally I checked the stats. On their own, these statistics could mean any number of things, but collectively they seem to reinforce the notion that the team is fatigued.

Tennessee’s attempted 20 or more 3’s in four of the last six games. Prior to that stretch, Tennessee had only taken more than 20 3’s twice in the 11 games since it played Memphis in mid-December. It might be just a coincidence that those two games, the season’s initial meetings with Florida and Vanderbilt, were closely contested games in which Tennessee struggled.

Also during the last six games, Tennessee has attempted fewer than 10 free throws three times. Before the last six games, Tennessee made fewer than 10 free throws just one time all season (six – Gonzaga) and attempted at least 20 free throws in 15 out of 20 games.

Further, they’ve had 20 or more assists in just two of the last six games after hitting the 20-assist mark 10 times in the 20 games prior.

This is all conjecture on my part -- I certainly don’t have any special insight into the physical or mental health of the team or to their level or tiredness, and when I watch the games, the players don’t look like they’re dragging their feet worn down by the grind of the season. But it would make sense: a tired team would shoot fewer free throws because they settle for bad shots instead driving the ball inside, and tired players tend to make worse decisions, e.g., making the wrong read and passing the ball to the wrong guy when a double team comes.

Being honest, I don’t know what’s wrong with the offense. I do think the loss to Kentucky was a sort of market correction on the Vols’ stock and the No. 5 ranking is more in-line with how well Tennessee has been playing lately. Admiral Schofield still isn’t totally right, and Kyle Alexander has all but disappeared. The team still isn’t rebounding well, and now the offense is struggling too, with a rematch against Kentucky and a game against LSU in Baton Rouge on the horizon. The Vols better figure it out, or they’re going to be limping into the NCAA Tournament.