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Three Things: Missouri

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

Tennessee lost 73-64 to Missouri on Saturday, dropping its second-straight game and subsequently falling to 18th in the latest AP poll that released Monday. Here are three things.

Yo — so, like, uhh, what’s like, ya know, going on?

Part I: Defense

This is and has recently been my general outlook for Tennessee’s basketball team. UT’s first loss against Alabama could be retroactively explained and/ or justified — UA is better than most people thought, had a good, well-executed game plan and hit eight of the 11 3-pointers attempted in the second half. Nobody likes losing, but that’s one that Vol fans can mostly live with (I think).

The Florida and Missouri losses are generally less palatable, though, with each game leaving its own metaphorically poor taste in the (foul) mouths of the Tennessee basketball faithful. I detailed the Florida loss here, and while that piece is perhaps a bit long, I took an opportunity to weave in some helpful (I hope) but more granular basketball-information type stuff that I normally would omit. Florida was without Scottie Lewis, Colin Castleton and preseason SEC Player of the Year pick Keyontae Johnson but still trounced Tennessee — the loss seemed to be more about focus and effort that it was about talent, game plans or anything basketball-related. Those games give this writer major #sadz.

Against Missouri, the Vols didn’t get ran out of the gym by a seriously short-handed team like they did when they played Florida. But, even though the Vols’ deficit was just four points at halftime and they lost by nine, the Tigers never once trailed. MIssouri led by as many as 14 and really kept the game from ever having any “the Vols might just pull this one out,” type vibe. It’s also a loss to a team that Tennessee beat by 20 points the last time the two squads met one month-ish ago.

Overall, the defense wasn’t good — Missouri pumped out a 111-PPP mark (estimation for points scored per-100 possessions) which is a new season high for Tennessee and reset the season’s worst figure that Florida recorded (107.1) days before. For context, the Vols’ adjusted defensive efficiency, or estimated points allowed per 100 possessions with strength of schedule factored in, is 88.2 and third-best in the country.

Missouri’s junior guard Xavier Pinson erupted for a season-high 27 points on 10-14 shooting (he didn’t miss a three-pointer or a free throw: 3-3 and 4-4, respectively), and his performance made for the first 20-point scorer against Tennessee so far this year. Missouri notched a 37.8 offensive rebounding percentage, the third-highest offensive rebounding percentage allowed to an opponent so far this season. That really just means that Tennessee’s defensive rebounding wasn’t up to snuff, and Missouri turned that into 15 second-chance points. The Vols’ efforts on the boards, particularly when it comes to keeping the opposing team off the offensive glass, was a point of emphasis for Head Coach Rick Barnes all offseason. This is understandably so, considering Tennessee was so poor last year in total defensive rebounds per game (23.2, 208th nationally) and defensive rebounding percentage (73.5, 191st nationally).

Yo — so, like, uhh, what’s like, ya know, going on?

Part II: Offense

The above numbers are not good. Tennessee played better defense against Missouri than it did against Florida. Both statements can be true at the same time. Pinson and fellow back-court running mate Dru Smith shot 53 percent from the field, hit six 3s and combined for 45 points. On average, for the season, the Tigers hit just five 3s per game and shoot the deep ball at 29 percent.

whispers — not every made 3 is the result of bad defense

That’s all another topic for another day.

P.S. — follow Will on Twitter. He’s great, and you should always read his pregame breakdowns of Tennessee’s opponents. They drop every gameday at precisely 11:45 AM.

What I’m getting at here — I’m as not nearly as concerned about Tennessee’s recent lackluster defensive showings as I am about the Vols’ offense doing its best Cal Naughton, Jr., impression (the Magic Man — now you see him, now you don’t).

Dean Oliver, who quite literally wrote the book that has sorta spurned on basketball’s advanced statistics’ revolution, pointed to what he calls the “four factors of basketball success,” when trying to better identify how basketball teams win and lose games. He assigns each topic a percentage: shooting = 40 percent, turnovers = 25 percent, rebounding = 20 percent, free throws = 15 percent. We can apply these to just the offense and still glean some reasonable assertions.

UT didn’t shoot the ball awfully against Missouri — 44 percent from the field, 41 percent and nine makes (tied for the second-highest total of the season) from downtown. Yves Pons led the charge with 20 points and had his first game making more than one 3 (he made three of his eight attempts). Victor Bailey bounced back from a poor outing against the Gators by shooting an efficient 4-7 from the field and 2-3 from beyond the arc. The Vols need more from Vescovi, James and Fulkerson in this department, and the Tigers edged out Tennessee in this area, but shooting the ball isn’t really where the offense faltered.

Three Tennessee players combined for 67 percent of its new season-high 18 turnovers: Santiago Vescovi had four, John Fulkerson had five and Keon Johnson had three. This was the second straight game Tennessee set a new season high for turnovers in a game, and it was the third time in four games that the Vols hit the double-digit mark in giveaways and made. Mizzou had fewer turnovers, 11, and now in each of the three games Tennessee has lost its produced more turnovers than assists.

The Tigers also won the free-throw category, hitting 15 of its 20 while the Vols made just 13-21. Tennessee shot 75 percent from the charity stripe in its first 11 games, going 10-1, but coverted just 54 percent in the last two games.

Tennessee Has a Post Problem, and It Has Nothing to do with the Mail

Tennessee’ starting center, John Fulkerson, had one of his worst games that I can remember. That’s not saying a whole lot — my memory is terrible, and if you don’t believe me listen to the podcast I did with Terry and hear me stumble through not knowing when quite literally anything that I was talking about happened. But, umm, what was I saying? Oh, yeah! Fulky. Sheesh, bro.

The Fulk man played 26 minutes and had six rebounds, not bad, but had more combined turnovers (five) and fouls (three) than he did points (seven). He went 3-7 from the field (meh) and 1-1 from the free-throw line (yayy!) but in no way resembled the All-SEC Second-Team selection who was arguably Tennessee’s best and most important player in 2019. Barnes wasn’t as harsh on Fulkerson post-game as he has been at other times this season, and he placed some of the blame for Fulk’s less-than-ideal stat line on the guards.

“I’ll tell you this: He should have gotten the ball a few more times tonight,” Barnes said. “He was open when we had a little cross-screen action there, and that’s where the guards have to deliver the ball to him. I thought he worked hard a few times to really get the ball, and our guards don’t understand yet, even in a game where people are pressing up and doing that, yeah, do we need to get by them and drive, we do, but that doesn’t mean we can’t throw the ball inside.”

Barnes’ statement gets into a whole other issue entirely about the guards unwillingness/ inability to throw a post-entry pass, and that’s a topic I’m going to try to address this week with the help of some video clips.

But, as we saw last year and seem to be seeing again this year is that Tennessee does not have a viable option down low when Fulkerson isn’t playing well or gets in foul trouble. Why? Well, any roster problem in college sports is usually 1) a recruiting issue, 2) a player-development issue or 3) a combination of the two.

I went in depth into these classes and what all happened, but it was just too much for this space. So I’m going to just leave it here and perhaps spark some discussion. What do you guys make of this? Is it a problem, or is it no big deal? Will the lack of reliable post players force Barnes to play a smaller lineup with four guards and Pons or Fulkerson in the middle? We’ve seen it in spurts, but given more time, it sounds like it could be exciting!

Tennessee plays Mississippi State tonight at 7 PM.