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Three Things: USC Upstate

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NCAA Basketball: South Carolina Upstate at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee overcame a sluggish start to Wednesday’s game with a strong second half and beat the now oh-and-eight USC Upstate Spartans 80-60. Here are three things.

One Half, Two Half, Red Half, Blue Half

Tennessee’s performance in the first half of Wednesday’s game was a bit concerning, at least at the surface, considering the Vols are the No. 8 team in the country, USC Upstate was and is still winless for the year and Tennessee was a 34-point favorite to win. UT went into halftime with a 33-to-26 lead having shot 41 percent from the field, 20 percent from 3-point range and allowed USC Upstate to hit 39 percent of its shots and 40 percent of its looks from beyond the arc.

I went to a dangerous place, Vol Facebook, to gauge (this corner of) public opinion on Tennessee’s tortoise-like start because 1) that place is quite literally ALWAYS good for some laughs and 2) I immediately know if I’m agreeing with the majority of opinions that I see it’s time to seriously reevaluate my stance.

There was a decently-sized contingent of fans overly-concerned and subsequently hyper-critical of the Vols’ first-half play so I thought I might address reasons why the poor play isn’t something to be super worried about nor does it call for anybody to beat up his or her keyboard firing off sizzling hot takes about how the team isn’t focused or even more ridiculously, how Head Coach Rick Barnes can’t win big games in the NCAA Tournament. (Somebody non-satirically linked this 20 minutes of not-so-great play to why Tennessee won’t get past the Sweet-Sixteen round of March Madness. I couldn’t make something up as ridiculous.)

But first — it can be easy to confuse reasons with excuses, so let’s get that out of the way right here. My understanding of the difference is essentially this: reasons are just simply an form of communication — they offer an explanation, are typically based in facts and don’t attempt to dodge any blame for the outcome, whereas excuses are less base-level communication and appeal more to some sort of authority, tend to cite opinions rather than facts and are often deployed as a conscious or unconscious tactic to redirect culpability.

Moving on... Reason One: Tennessee missed 23 days of possible practice time and the first four games of the season between November 19th and December 12th due to Barnes’ positive coronavirus test and contract tracing concerns.

Yes, every team had a less-than-ideal offseason that likely included few if any scrimmages, awkward attempts at socially-distanced practices and almost no full-speed, five-on-five, live-game simulations. But Tennessee’s first (and hopefully only) scare with exposure to the COVID-19 virus happened just as the season was getting ready to kick off. So, if the team was in game shape, which I doubt, it’s likely that whatever progress had occurred was thereby mitigated by the emergency brake being pulled with the nearly month-long stoppage of team activities.

Reason Two: As of Wednesday night, UT had played three games in just the previous five days and averaged one game every 2.5 days since the December 12th start day following the extended shut down. In a typical season, Tennessee will usually play games on either Tuesday or Wednesday and Saturdays for a ballpark estimate of two games every seven days. That might not sound like a big difference, but I assure you the gap between those two scenarios is quite significant, especially for team that features several new players and two freshmen who are totally new to the rigors of a college basketball season. Barnes touched on this specific dilemma in the USC Upstate post-game press conference:

“The younger guys struggled tonight. I think they struggled from a preparation standpoint. I don’t think they’ve had to go through at any point in their young careers where they’ve had to grind like this both mentally and physically. They just didn’t have the sting they normally have... I do think at times we played like a tired team. I don’t think our guys weren’t trying to play well. I don’t think mentally they didn’t want to play well. The grind that we’ve been through is something that we needed. Hopefully, it’s going to help us going forward.”

Despite the most definite dead legs, Tennessee’s offense looked much better in the second half. The Vols hit 16 of their 21 two-point field goals (76.2 percent !!!), three of their six attempts from deep and 12 of 13 from the charity stripe. I imagine Barnes gave the team an earful of his red-faced, “Hickory Mad,” routine at the break that served as both a tool for some offensive recalibration and motivation for some team-wide renewed focus.

On the flip side, the defense trended the opposite way and allowed eight more points in the second half while giving up a 52-percent two-point field-goal percentage figure and an even more troubling 5-8, 62.5-percent number from outside the 3-point line.

This team has shown flashes of absolute elite defensive potential at times this season, so the overall numbers aren’t that upsetting to me given the opponent and the recently packed-in schedule. But, looking a little more specifically, the difficulty guarding the deep ball tends to worry me a little more simply because it was such a comprehensive issue in 2018-19 with a team that was as comparatively good as this season’s squad. I reckon we’ll just have to see what the rest of the season has in store, won’t we?

With a Little Help from my Friends

Assists per game and assist percentage aren’t in Dean Oliver’s Four Factors (scoring, offensive rebounding, turnovers and free throws) that are widely accepted as the best ways to measure a given teams overall offensive efficiency (points per possession belong here, too), but that doesn’t mean they don’t also provide useful information relative to a team’s competency scoring the ball.

A good and healthy offense typically involves consistent ball movement, decisive cuts and staunch screens both on and off-ball. A less fit offensive attack usually features fewer passes, more dribbling, static players camped outside the 3-point line and eventually either a bad, contested look from deep or an attempt by whomever has the ball last to take the defender one-on-one and score essentially by his or her self.

Tennessee’s offense has looked more like a healthy offense for most of the first six games, and a significant reason why that’s the case is because this is an unselfish group of guys playing cohesive team offense. The Vols currently sit as the 25th best team in the country in assists per game with 17.5, but in the last three games Tennessee sports the country’s second-best assists-per-game number at 24.5.

There’s a trend here: Tennessee scored 56, 65 and 67 in its first three games while tabbing 12, 9 and 12 assists in those games, respectively.

Since then, the Vols scored 103, 102 and 80 with assist totals of 28, 23 and 21, respectively. During the first three games of the season, Tennessee averaged around 63 points and recorded assists on just 17.7 percent of its baskets while the offense produced 95 points per game in the most recent three games and tallied assists on 25.3 percent of its shots made.

The recent dip in competition level likely skews these numbers to a degree, but we’ve all watched Tennessee games, of this tenure and the ones before it, stand around, dribble out the clock and take a bad shot. I’ll take this version over that mess any day.

Santi Claus & Nkam-hoo-rah

Sophomore guard Santiago Vescovi had his second-straight strong outing as he tallied 9 points on 3-6 shooting with all three makes and all six attempts coming from behind the 3-point line. And while sometimes I think his deep ball is the most important part of his game relative to the team’s success, I also sometimes think it’s his innate vision and play-making ability, and we got a peek of that Wednesday as he dished out a career-high-tying eight assists. EVEN BETTER STILL — he only turned the ball over twice. I mean, you really just gotta love it.

Fellow sophomore Olivier Nkamhoua played 13 minutes, a season high, and scored nine points, a season high. He was a perfect 4-4 from the field with one of the takes and makes a baby-hook shot that looked like the release point was somewhere around the back of his head. It was an athletic play and an encouraging morsel that we can hold onto and nobody can ever take away from us. He only snared one board — not so neat — but Barnes was still complimentary of the Finnish forward after the game.

“It’s huge,” Barnes said, of Nkamhoua coming off the bench. “We feel like Uros is there too. It’s hard to go 10-deep at times. We said to these guys, ‘at some point in time this year, we’re going to need them all.’ For whatever reason, we feel that way.”

Nkamhoua’s minutes per game are down from 11.4 to nine, but his per-game shooting figures and scoring average are nearly up universally. He’s shooting more shots, making more shots (his FG % is up nearly 10 points from last season), but his rebounds are down significantly from three per game to less than one. Small sample size, yadda yadda — I was just happy to see the young man have a good game.

I like that Barnes is getting Uros, Nkamhoua and Davonte Gaines minutes in nearly every opportunity he can. There will be a time this year when one, two or all three of those cats will be needed to show up and help close out a game.

MERRY CHRISTMAS

Ya filthy animals.