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Three Things: Vanderbilt

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

Tennessee beat Vanderbilt 81-61 Saturday night, and here are three things.

Sharing is Caring

The Vols didn’t have their greatest outing of the season Saturday evening — a few of the end-of-game box score figures would suggest the game could have been closer than the final score would suggest. Tennessee hit just seven of its 21 3-point attempts (33 percent), finished with 33 total rebounds to Vandy’s 31 (UT gave up nine offensive boards) and allowed the Commodores to shoot nearly 50 percent from the field in the second half.

While some aspects of Tennessee’s game have been inconsistent this year, like the aforementioned rebounding and 3-point shooting, the offense’s ability to crisply move and proficiently share the ball has been pretty constant.

Tennessee currently ranks 54th nationally averaging 15.9 assists per game, and that’s cool, but it’s helpful to look beyond that specific figure as a team that scores more points naturally has more opportunities for more assists. So, generally speaking, 16-ish assists per game is good and a sound average, but that number doesn’t provide much insight in the way of offensive efficiency. To add some context, let’s look past Tennessee’s assist totals to the team’s assist percentage, or ratio of total assists relative to the total number of field goals made.

Example: the Vols recorded an outlandish 23 assists on 27 baskets in their last game against Texas A&M on January 9th, meaning they tallied assists on 85 percent of made field goals. While that isn’t exactly a sustainable benchmark and probably finishes the year as a high-side outlier, it does give us an idea of what Tennessee’s relative assist-to-basket ratio can/ might/ should look like when the offense is really humming.

Tennessee had 18 total assists against Vandy Saturday — that’s good and about two more than its season average — against its 25 made shots, which makes for a 72-percent team assist percentage.

(Brief aside: UT had 18 assists on 25 made baskets and shot nearly 50 percent from the field. In contrast, Vandy had just six assists on 20 made baskets and shot just 39 percent from the field.)

The Vols’ average assist percentage prior to the Vanderbilt game was 56.3, and that seems a bit low considering how well the team’s looked sharing the ball for most of the games so far this season. But there’s just 10 games factored into that 56.3-percent figure, and it’s skewed negatively by assist percentage numbers of 33.3 from the Alabama and Missouri games. Altogether, the Vols have posted AST% numbers below 40 just three times in 11 total games, and it’s certainly no coincidence one of those games accounts for Tennessee’s only loss to date this year.

Outside of the two freshmen guards, Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer, Tennessee’s roster doesn’t feature too many guys who can go one-on-one, break down their defenders off the dribble and get to the bucket. The Vols’ other guards, Santiago Vescovi and Victor Bailey, are more spot-up shooters than drivers, so UT’s offense really has to function as a unit to be proficient. The recipe: fewer dribbles plus more passes equals offensive success.

Ke-On, not Ke-off, Johnson

Keon Johnson set a new career high with 16 points against Vanderbilt Saturday. He was an efficient 4-8 from the field including 1-1 from deep and 7-8 from the free-throw line. It’s encouraging to see Johnson hit the one triple he attempted since his outside shooting hasn’t been very good through the season’s first 11 games. Johnson’s gone 1-1 from 3-point range in each of the last two games — his long-range percentage has crept up to just below 24 percent — after going a combined 0-6 in the previous five games.

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We can see where Johnson did most of his damage — right at the rim. He only made one of his four shots from outside the restricted area in the paint, and that’s been a bit of a running theme for the young guard all year.

I’m not really concerned about his outside shooting, at least not yet, anyway. But, this is somewhat of a contentious subject in basketball circles, as there are differing opinions on how much any given player can improve as a shooter.

My opinion — shooting is a skill that can be practiced and improved, but that’s not a unilaterally applicable statement. I look at a few different areas when determining whether or not I believe a player can become a better marksman. First is form. Johnson’s is good — he’s got good lift and balance, and his technique is consistently the same whether he’s shooting a 10-foot jumper or a 20-foot jumper. Consistent and repeatable form usually makes for a more accurate and reliable shooter. I also look to a player’s history. Johnson’s never been a great shooter from deep — he only played four games his senior season and hit nine of his 28 attempts (32 percent). He made 33 of his 127 attempts his sophomore season (26 percent) but made a significant and encouraging jump in accuracy by hitting 64 of 167 (38 percent) in his junior season. Free-throw shooting is an important factor, too, because it demonstrates shooting stroke, finesse and general feel for shooting the ball. If a player can shoot decently from the free-throw line, it leads one to believe that those same principles can be applied to shooting from further out, too. Johnson was consistently a 65-70 percent shooter from the free-throw line in high school, and while he started the season a little rocky — going 10-18 (55 percent) in the first five games — he’s gone 19-22 (86 percent) in the last six games, including 7-8 Saturday night.

FULK Smash

John Fulkerson had another strong outing, dropping 15 points on 5-6 shooting while adding eight rebounds, hitting five of his six free-throw attempts and committing just one personal foul. This was Fulky’s third-straight game scoring in double digits after his poor performance against Alabama in which he had just seven points and missed five of his eight attempts from the free-throw line.

I continue to be pleased with his effort rebounding the ball. Sometimes Tennessee doesn’t necessarily need him to score, but the Vols always need his rebounding. UT has a long, athletic backcourt, but with James and Pons both at 6-6 and Fulkerson at 6-9, the frontcourt is a bit undersized. That sort of size down low needs rebounding from its center.