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Breaking down some of Tennessee’s offensive struggles against Cincinnati

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

Tennessee beat Cincinnati 65-56 Saturday to move to 2-0 on the season. In lieu of Three Things, we’re gonna just do an extended version on one thing — Tennessee’s offense.

Tennessee Made Easy Look Tough

While I watched the game, at several points, I thought to myself, “this is an ugly game for the Vols.” And most of the stats would back up that sentiment.

The Vols missed easy shots and looked quite out of sorts large spurts of the game. Josiah-Jordan James and John Fulkerson both missed layups insides the games first three minutes, and Tennessee trailed by as many as six points before taking its second lead at around the 6:50 mark of the first half (the first lead was 2-0 at the beginning of the game).

The rest of the game was much of the same. Tennessee would stretch the margin out to five or six points, then Bearcats would, uhh, claw their way back to even or ahead. Yes, in the end, the Vols eked out the victory, but the offense’s systemic problems from last year’s team showed that they might be issues for this team, too.

Last season, Tennessee finished with a 100.7 offensive rating for the year, and that number put them at 197th out of 353 total college basketball teams. Not so great. The Vols were a particularly bad shooting team, finishing 207th in overall field goal percentage and 284th in 3-point percentage. Also, not so great.

It’s been a weird and disjointed offseason, and just two games into the schedule, it’s too early to really judge the team by its offensive output. But still — Tennessee scored just 56 points against Colorado and 65 points against Cinci, with both totals falling below last season’s 67-point per game average. More troubling, against the Bearcats, the Vols hit just 19 of their 59 total shots (32.2 percent) and just two of the 12 (16.7 percent) 3s they attempted. It’s tough to win a lot of games shooting that poorly.

Fulkerson and Yves Pons are the only two returning guys who played significant minutes on last season’s team and shot the ball near or better than 50 percent on the season. The roster has been largely overhauled, and the new guys appear to be talented offensively, if they’ll just find their footing. But it’s basically a relative unknown at this point. Either way, the Vols will need some serious production from their back court if this team’s potential is to be fulfilled.

We can only truly judge by what we’ve seen, and what we’ve seen so far has been uninspiring. Against Cincinnati, Tennessee’s starting guards combined to shoot 6-20 from the field and 2-8 from 3-point range. Let’s look.

Here’s a shot that Tennessee will need to fall, or it could be a long season. The embedded tweet sets the scene.

It’s not a bad shot by any means, but if I’m coaching here, I would rather Springer pump fake and take maybe two dribbles toward the basket with an easy layup or dunk in mind.

Settling for a 15-20 foot jumper is exactly what the defense wants you to do. Neither Bearcat defender at the rim is in any kind of defensive-ready position — they’re still on their heels, so be assertive and take advantage. Either they make a business decision, decide they don’t want to be all over SportsCenter’s Top-10 plays, and they give you the two points, or they foul you and send you to the line. At the end of the day, if you want to take that shot, the most inefficient shot in basketball, go ahead. But you’d better hit it.

Forgive me — I’m not going in chronological order. But next we’ve got a wide-open look from 3 for freshman Keon Johnson. We’ve seen both Johnson and Springer play significant minutes in Tennessee’s first two games, and it’s fair to say it seems like there’s an adjustment period happening. Johnson makes some eye-popping plays with his natural bounciness, while his scoring has taken a back seat. He’s averaging just five points and 3.5 turnovers through the first two games, but I expect shots like the one you’re about to see fall more often than not and his numbers to increase as the season goes on.

The next shot comes from redshirt junior Victor Bailey. He was a streaky shooter at Oregon, and when he transferred a year ago, I reached out to a couple of Oregon basketball beat writers to get a better idea about him as a player.

The consensus was that he was talented, but too often let his offense dictate his defense, and when his shot didn’t drop, his effort tapered, too. Now, since he’s been here, I’ve heard nothing but positive reviews. But we’ve seen that streakiness manifest already. He scored eight points in five minutes of the first half of the Colorado game, but finished just 3-9 from the field.

The following was his first shot attempt against the Bearcats. It’s a scripted play: Anosike and Pons set double screens on the wing, and Bailey curls around them to the near corner for a clean look at statistically one of the best shots in basketball — the corner 3.

I like the idea here. Barnes drawing up a play out of a dead-ball situation for one of his best shooters. It’s executed well as Bailey gets a great look. As a shooter, you want to toe the line between staying in rhythm but not being rushed with the shot. His feet were set, and his motion looks pretty good, so I’m not really sure what happened. But we all agree the result was not good.

Also included in the clip: a great rebound and follow-up pass from Keon Johnson to Yves Pons, who’s standing in front of the basket while the Cincinnati players chase the board. He takes a power dribble and then bricks a 5-foot shot off the back iron. Just not a great series from the Tennessee offense.

Nobody in the Tennessee backcourt is safe from our little film session here, and next up is former freshman phenom Santiago Vescovi. By now, everybody’s heard his story, so there’s no need to rehash it. I’ll just say this: at time last year, he was Tennessee’s best player, as a freshman who was absolutely brand new to college basketball. His high usage was a default mechanism of the Vols’ non-existent guard depth, but a zeroed in, more focused Vescovi with some back-court reinforcements should be frightening for Tennessee’s opponents.

He also provided most of Tennessee’s threat from beyond the arc. By my count, Tennessee made 119 3s in his 19 games. Vescovi accounted for 30 percent of them (36 total). He made three of Tennessee’s seven 3s against Colorado, and his proficiency from deep should open up the lane for some as defenders have to pick him up early knowing he’ll rain in a long ball if they sag off him.

In the clip, we see Vescovi’s man playing tight defense. The Cincinnati player, understandably, doesn’t want to give him any daylight. Santi uses it to his advantage, drives left and maneuvers his body to get between the defender and the ball. It’s really beautiful right up until he flubs the layup.

So none of that looks great. But, there’s a silver lining! These, plus more that I didn’t show, were and would still be easy looks. After all, that’s half of the battle offensively. You don’t want your team taking bad shots, right? So get an good look and knock it down. It seems Tennessee is halfway there.

And again, it’s just the beginning of a long season, so I don’t want to come across too harshly. There’s plenty of time for this team to find its footing on the offensive side of the ball. I’m not panicking yet.