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Three Things: Vanderbilt

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Finally, some things went right for Tennessee.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The Vols bounced back from maybe their worst showing of the season against Georgia by beating Vanderbilt, in Nashville, 66-45. Here are three things.

CHICKEN OR THE EGG

Vanderbilt scored 45 points against Tennessee Saturday. The Commodores made 12 total field goals and went 0-25 from 3-point range.

So — did Vanderbilt’s offense limp its way to 45 points, or did the Tennessee defense hold the Commodores to those 45 points? Either? Both? Both.

I guess it’s not really like the old philosophical debate: which came first — the chicken or the egg — because the answer to that debate isn’t both. It can’t be both, right? I mean, that is right, right? Uhh. Right.

Whatever. So maybe it’s not a perfect analogy, but just like the chicken-and-egg scenario, the reasoning behind Vandy’s poor offensive performance is layered and multi-faceted.

To start — Vanderbilt’s offense hasn’t really been good all season, as you may have guessed given the team’s overall record floating around the .500-mark and posting an 0-for in SEC play so far this season. But, just because the offense hasn’t been good enough to propel the team to a winning record, or even a single conference win, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s been bad, either. The Commodores rank 84th in the country in points per game (75.9) and 120th in adjusted offensive efficiency. Given that both of those rankings are out of 353 teams, if I was complaining about my team, that probably isn’t where I’d kick things off.

However, the Commodore offense has been rather bad recently, with the loss to Tennessee marking the third-straight game scoring less than 60 points, while the Tennessee defense has been statistically strong defensively all year, ranking 25th in adjusted defensive efficiency and holding opponents to less than 61 points per game (19th in the country).

I think this team has become self-aware enough to know that they just absolutely have to play defense if they want to win games. I’ve said it before, I know, but last year’s team got away with shoddy defense sometimes because it was just so damn good at putting the ball through the basket on offense. This team doesn’t have that luxury.

Neither team played well in the first half — combining for 41 total points — but the Vols literally and figuratively ran away with the game in the second half. Tennessee gave up 25 second-half points but scored 45.

“Well, one, we were able to get out and run, which we’ve been trying to get our guys to do that,” Rick Barnes said after the game about the team’s second-half improvements.

“I thought defensively we were pretty solid from start to finish. Start of the second half we were able to turn some of those defensive stops into baskets and we need to get out and get some of those. We don’t want to have to come down and grind it all the time.”

RUN ‘N GUN

Tennessee had 12 fast-break points against Vanderbilt Saturday, which might not seem like a bunch, but we’re fans of context on this blog, so: Tennessee has scored six or fewer fast-break points 11 times this season, and those 12 points against Vanderbilt are more than the Vols have scored on the fast break in all but three games so far this year.

I mentioned above this team being self-aware, i.e., the guys know themselves and what kind of team they are collectively. At this point in the year, your team pretty much is what it is and isn’t what it isn’t. So, let’s take some stock. This team is athletic and defensively sound, even though they aren’t supremely gifted offensively and don’t shoot the ball all that well.

To me, that screams GET OUT AND RUN. Use the length and athleticism to play good defense and turn that into offense with pass deflections and run-outs.

The problem with this strategy is that you sorta need a point guard who can push the ball up the court, and I’m not sure Tennessee has that guy. It doesn’t have to be somebody like Jordan Bone, who was maybe the fastest end-to-end guard in college basketball last season, but it does need to be somebody that can make good decisions with the ball while moving at a quickened pace. Maybe Josiah James can grow into that role. He didn’t shoot well against Vanderbilt, but he led the team with five assists and nine rebounds.

The players have mentioned Barnes telling them to push the ball more, and we saw some of that against Vanderbilt. Hopefully we see more of it the rest of the year.

A SLOW DOWN FROM DOWN TOWN

In a recent article, I talked about how Tennessee needed to be able to hit the 3-point shot at a respectable rate because for most of the season it’s looked like that’s one of the most viable ways for this team to score the ball efficiently. They haven’t been scoring in the paint, and they haven’t been getting to the free-throw, so the options are rather limited.

But against Vanderbilt, Tennessee made and attempted (one made 3 out of eight attempts) its fewest number of 3-pointers so far this year and still cruised to a victory.

I mentioned the 12 fast-break points, the third-highest total this year, but the team also attacked the basket consistently enough to score a considerable amount of points in the paint and from the free-throw line.

In fact, the Vols scored a season-high 42 points in the paint against Vanderbilt. The strong performance inside is refreshing for Tennessee fans who got accustomed to entry passes to Grant Williams being followed by a seemingly automatic two points. Uros Plavsic being cleared to play will help, but judging by what we’ve seen in his limited minutes so far, he’s got a ways to go offensively before he can be counted on for consistent scoring production.

Jordan Bowden emerged from his middle-of-the-Sahara-esque slump, and he did so with just two 3-point shot attempts (he missed both). Bowden was aggressive going to the hoop and that resulted in some easy 2s and eight free-throw attempts (he made seven). He finished with 21 points on 7-11 shooting. This team looks much better with Good Bowden than Bad Bowden.

In total, Tennessee scored 13 points from the free-throw line on 14 attempts. I’d bet Rick Barnes would still prefer more attempts, but most importantly, Tennessee showed a willingness to drive to the basket instead of hanging around the perimeter to jack the 3-ball.