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March Madness: What to Make of Tennessee’s Late Game Theatrics

Signs of worry, signs of hope...

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Iowa vs Tennessee Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Those who wear FitBits or Apple Watches during Tennessee basketball games might not want to check their results in the past week. Chances are you’ll notice an elevated heart rate that rapidly declines after a certain minute, throwing off all your averages and making your robotic helper think you are in fact extremely unhealthy.

It might not be wrong—watching Tennessee basketball has become an unhealthy exercise in the past month. They don’t blow teams out like they used to, and even when it looks like they’re on the way to doing just that, they seemingly gift them points. No better example than the most recent victory over Iowa in overtime.

Tennessee was absolutely stomping the Hawkeyes in the first half. It wasn’t just a hot shooting day from Tennessee; the Vols were shutting down any hopes of an Iowa offense and tiring out anyone who tried to stand in their way. It was a throwback to the beginning of the season, where Tennessee properly utilized their scorers and locked down even the best of offenses. Sweet 16 was right around the corner!

25 minutes, one overtime, and a grimy 34 points later, Tennessee scraped by the No. 10 seed in a heartstopping affair. It was almost unbelievable to watch. Tennessee’s offense almost grinded to a complete halt, and Iowa’s offense started doing whatever they wanted. Tennessee would have lost to every remaining team in the field if they played like they did against Iowa in the second half.

It was enough to make one forget about the Colgate affair last week. Another game (not as dramatic) where Tennessee nearly lost to an inferior opponent. Thankfully the offense was a bit more consistent in that one—the Raiders simply got hot behind the arc and stayed in the game way longer than they should have.

These games, combined with other close calls against teams like Vanderbilt and Alabama, are enough to make one question the mental toughness of a team with a very good resume. Yes, they find a way to win at the end, but the true sign of elite teams is the ability to keep pressure for 40 minutes. Every team goes through cold streaks and lapses. Not every team nearly gives up a 25-point lead in the NCAA tournament. What’s the deal?

There’s a difference between hot shooting and bad defense.

Here’s a dirty little secret: if a team is hitting contested 3-point attempts at a clip much higher than their regular season mark, there isn’t much you can do. There’s slight adjustments you can make, and you can direct your players to apply more off-ball pressure, but fundamentally you can only do so much when shooters find their stroke.

The Colgate contest was the former. The Raiders are naturally a good-shooting team (top-10 nationally) but look at their numbers against Tennessee. They hit almost 52 percent of their shots, which is a step above their 39.5 percent shooting prior to the game. That simply does not happen every game.

Want a twist? Despite Iowa hitting 50 percent of their shots against Cincinnati, the Hawkeyes came back down to earth against Tennessee. They hit just 33 percent of their shots, despite being a 36.5 percent shooting team in the regular season.

The obvious problem is that Iowa hung around despite that low mark. That’s a sign of bad defense, and any viewer could see what was happening. Tennessee was getting sloppy and letting Iowa score quickly, and they were unable to deny the ball inside the paint. Getting scored on like that is much worse than Iowa getting their prayers answered on ridiculous three-point attempts.

All-or-nothing scorers can’t space out.

There is an inherent downside to Tennessee having five players who can score at will... apparently they can’t space themselves out enough to prevent scoring droughts. It seems weird, but it’s held true throughout the last half of the season. Tennessee’s scoring options get into a groove at the same time and get out of it in the same manner.

Part of that is the system, but another part of it is mental. They begin missing shots and committing turnovers with a disappointing consistency. That requires Grant Williams or Admiral Schofield to bail them out at the end, and sometimes that load falls on Lamonte Turner or Jordan Bone.

At this point there is little that Barnes or anyone else could plan for. Tennessee just needs more cohesion from their five best scorers.

Defensive intensity is frustratingly inconsistent.

First half defense: Incredible.

Second half defense: Horrible.

Overtime defense: Good.

The difference between the first half/overtime defense and the second half defense? Intensity. Sure, Iowa began to convert more down low in the final 20 minutes, but that was not the full reason their offense got back into the game. Tennessee’s defense started to allow more space and clean passing from the Hawkeyes’ guards, and those extra passes turned into scoring opportunities.

Not convinced? Consider that Iowa had 12 total turnovers. Eight of those came in the first half. Only two came in the second half. When you’re an offense that tries to push the ball at a fast pace, forcing turnovers are near automatic points. If the intensity is down, so are your chances at knocking the ball loose.