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Three Things St. Joseph’s: Tennessee finding offensive form

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NCAA Basketball: St. Joseph at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

No. 8 ranked Tennessee beat St. Joseph’s 102-66 Monday evening, posting its second-straight 100-point offensive output and stretching its margin of victory during the last three games to just shy of 44 points. Here are three things.

Vols Rounding into Form Offensively

Tennessee has taken to obliterating its opponents in recent games. Tuesday’s shellacking of the now oh-and-five Hawks marked the third-straight game with 30 or more field goals, the third-straight game in which the Vols shot 49-percent or better from the field and the second-straight game where the Vols shot 40-percent of better from beyond the 3-point line.

The Volunteer offense has been extremely well-balanced during this stretch. The Vols had five players score in double figures against Appalachian State, six players score in double figures against Tennessee Tech and seven players score in double figures against St Joe’s Tuesday night.

Victory Bailey, Jr., the man with the gorgeous shooting stroke, has been the quiet catalyst for Tennessee’s offensive explosion. He flies a bit under the radar with so much attention going to Yves Pons’ defensive exploits and the freshmen duo of Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson, but he’s leading the team in scoring with an average of slightly more than 12 points per game. He’s hit the double-figure scoring mark in each of the last three games while shooting 50 percent from the field, 35 percent and 90 percent from the free throw line in just 21 minutes per contest.

His season started a bit bumpy — 15 total points on 6-16 shooting in the first two games — but the redshirt junior’s recent stretch of hot shooting has propelled him to the team’s third-best offensive rating (behind Josiah-Jordan James and Jaden Springer), 133.5, and the fourth-highest true-shooting percentage, 57.8.

Even better — while playing more minutes than anyone not named Yves Pons, John Fulkerson or Santiago Vescovi and sporting Tennessee’s fourth-highest usage percentage, Bailey’s turnover percentage is 1.9. Necessary context: That’s the lowest figure on the team for any player who’s logged more than 20 total minutes this season, and it’s ever-so-slightly more than 5 whole percentage points lower than the next closest player (John Fulkerson, 7.0 percent). Along that same thread, Bailey’s notching .5 turnovers per 100 possessions which also ranks him best on the team with the next closest player being EJ Anosike who plays less minutes, has a lower usage percentage and still turns the ball over 1.1 times more often.

It’s not really right to bulldoze you with numbers that reinforce how well Bailey is playing on offense without giving you the opposite side of that particular coin. His defensive rating, which is essentially an estimate of the points he allows per 100 possessions, is 81.1, the highest and worst figure for any scholarship player on Tennessee’s roster. I don’t really relish ragging on any Volunteer, so there it is, I’m done here, and you can do what you will with the above information.

The Vols have been locked in defensively all season, but they’re now fielding a top-25 offense, too, according to Bart Torvik’s ratings. Tennessee’s recent schedule certainly plays a role in the offense’s bump in potency and efficiency, and I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t point that out. Appalachian State is 105th in adjusted defensive efficiency, Tennessee Tech is 229th and St. Joseph’s is 267th, so the scoring boom is nice and pretty, but it may not be totally substantive. This is nearly an entirely new team, still learning the various nuances of playing together, and while I expect the offense to fully click by season’s end, this recent spell could be a false front. Once Tennessee rolls into SEC play, we’ll have a better vision of the team’s full offensive potential.

Cleaning the Glass

Tennessee’s been fantastic defensively, and the offense seems to be catching up. Good offense and good defense typically equate to winning basketball games. But, if you were to poll a collection of coaches, rebounding would rank pretty high on their list of areas important to racking up wins.

During the offseason, Head Coach Rick Barnes was specifically critical of Tennessee’s rebounding last year for good reason. The Vols numbers were pretty much poor across the board, finishing 129th in total rebounding percentage, 191st in defensive rebounding percentage and 101st in offensive rebounding percentage. That kind of effort on the boards gets you pretty expeditiously to a 17-14 record.

Rebounding the ball is just the sum of its parts: it’s the result of a collective effort from the five players sharing the floor. Tennessee had a dearth of both height and bulk under the basket, and it didn’t overcome that... shortcoming... with above-average efforts from its players. Starting center John Fulkerson, listed at 6-9, who’s probably more suited to play the four spot, led the team in rebounds with 5.9 per game. The squad’s second best board getter was Josiah-Jordan James, a 6-6 freshman guard. Yves Pons finished third on the team, averaging 5.4 rebounds per game, but no other player collected more than four board per contest. That allotment is less than ideal.

Barnes addressed this issue by bringing in EJ Anosike, the grad transfer from Sacred Heart, who’s similar to former Vol Grant Williams in that he plays mostly below the rim, but uses his frame and low center of gravity to his advantage with good positioning. Anosike is still adjusting to his new surroundings and is playing just about 14 minutes per game, but his per-40 rebounding figure is excellent at 12.4, a total that leads the team.

The per-game numbers are significantly better for several individuals this season, too. Three players are averaging more than six rebounds per contest: Yves Pons, 6.8; John Fulkerson, 6.4; and Josiah-Jordan James, 6.2. Santiago Vescovi’s snaring 4.4 boards per game, up from 3.3 last season and has grabbed at least four rebounds in four of five games so far this year whereas he did so in just about half of his 19 games last year. Tennessee’s young guards are getting in on the action, too: Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson are both averaging at least three rebounds a game with per-100 possession rebounding numbers at 9.4 and 9.2, respectively.

The collection of returning players rebounding better, and the influx of guys not afraid to mix it up down low has resulted in Tennessee averaging around 42 boards per game, a number that ranks the Vols 33rd in the country. They’re allowing just 30 rebounds to their opponents, and that ranks them 43rd in the country. It’s early, and the sample size isn’t yet big enough to glean any concrete information, but the early returns are good and hopefully provide some insight for how the rest of the year will play out.

Santi Hits his Stride/ The Value of Tennessee Three

Sophomore point guard Santiago Vescovi had his first objectively good game of the season against St. Joe’s. He had 16 points — just his second double-digit scoring game this year — on 4-9 shooting and a perfect 4-4 from the free throw line. Each of the four field goals he made were 3-point shots, an encouraging occurrence for a player who scored nearly 53 percent of his points from beyond the arc last season but had hit just two of his last 11 attempts from 3 prior to Tuesday night.

Barnes on Vescovi after the game:

“I thought Santiago was really good. He got back to where he was looking to shoot the ball. When people know he’s willing to shoot those deep bombs, the better he is as a player. And he had turned down a lot of shots prior to this game. We told you’ve got to take these. You’ve got to take them. He’s going to make a nice percentage of them.”

Barnes mentions that when Vescovi lets it fly from deep that he’s a better player for it, and that notion extends to the rest of the team, too. If we’re approaching this logically, the further out the defense has to guard, the more thinly stretched it will be horizontally, right? Essentially, the opposing team can’t pack in its defense and focus strictly on guarding near the basket if there’s a viable threat from behind the 3-point line.

In 2018-19, Tennessee scored an average of 82 points per game (20th in the country) and had the sixth most efficient offense in the nation. Even though that team didn’t take or make an exorbitant number of 3s, it hit the ones it took at nearly a 37-percent clip. Admiral Schofield hit 41 percent of the close-to five attempts per game, Jordan Bone hit 35 percent of his nearly four attempts per game, Jordan Bowden hit 38 percent of his four attempts per game and Lamonte Turner hit 32 percent of his 5.5 attempts per game.

Last year’s team didn’t have that bevy of threats from deep and hit just 31 percent of its 3s on the season which ranked them 284th in the country. It also ranked 291st in scoring at around 64 points per game and had the 197th most efficient offense in the country. Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but the recent proliferation of advanced statistics has shown the 3-point shot to be the most efficient shot in basketball, and in today’s game teams need to at least be a threat from deep if it expects to win lots of games. A stat to reinforce my point: Since 2010, only two teams have won national championships shooting below 35 percent from 3-point range.

Vescovi was a bolt of lightning for last year’s offense because he was a threat from deep, but he was almost the only threat from deep for Tennessee, so we didn’t see the big-picture benefit to the win-loss column.

So far this season, Tennessee ranks 75th in the country by hitting 37 percent of its 3-point shots. Vescovi has hit 9 of 23, Bailey has hit 8 of 24, Triple-J has hit 7 of 14, Jaden Springer has hit 6 of 7 (!!!), and Keon Johnson and Yves Pons have hit 2 of 10. As a result, the offense is averaging 81 points per game and scoring on a similar pace to the ‘18-19 team that was one of the premier offenses in college basketball.

I won’t go so far as to say Santi’s 3 ball will define the year for the Vols, but his proficiency from deep and some help from the rest of the team adds a dimension to the offense that could be the difference between a good team and a team that has legitimate Final Four potential.