Basketball season is upon us once again. If you’ve not been with us here at RTT for hoops’ season before, I try to get one of these out for every game, with each whole piece made up of three segments about whatever I want them to be about.
Unfortunately, I had to work Tuesday evening and only got home in time to watch the final 7-ish minutes live. No matter — I got the replay! Either way, Tennessee beat UT Martin 90-62, and here are three things.
A Change in Offensive Philosothree
Tennessee’s offensive approach has been quite the topic of conversation over the past couple seasons. Basketball at every level has changed significantly in the last decade as teams are listening to the well-founded analytical numbers and shooting more 3s than ever. But, uhh, Vols’ Head Coach Rick Barnes hasn’t really followed the trend — yet.
The Vols finished 246th in the NCAA last year in 3-point rate (which is just the percentage of your overall shots that are 3s), and 237th in made 3s per game with 6.6. For some context, the free-shooting Alabama Crimson Tide finished second last year in made 3s per game with 10.5. Tennessee hasn’t finished inside the top 200 for 3-point rate since 2016 and has been outside the top 300 twice in Barnes’ previous six years as the Vols’ head coach.
However, it seems like the slow-grinding gears of change mighta just turned over in the offseason for Barnes and the UT offense.
Tennessee hoisted 46 3s in the Lenoir-Rhyne exhibition (they made 17) and followed that by making 17 (a new school record as the 17 makes against LR didn’t count toward any official stats) of the 40 bombs chucked in the season opener against UT Martin.
The Vols are currently on track to shoot 1,240 3s in their currently-scheduled 31 games this year, which would more than double the number Tennessee attempted last season (538) and would even eclipses the pretty outrageous 989 3s Alabama took to lead the country.
Okay — so that 1,200 figure is silly and unrealistic. There’s no way, absolutely no way, Tennessee throws up 40 3s in every game, nor would I want it to. And it was just the first game, so the specific stats are more important interpreted as hints or ideas toward large-scale methodologies or trends. I’m just throwing them out here to try and illustrate a point: if we take a step back and look at the Vols’ scoring approach in this game, and the Lenoir-Rhyne game for that matter, we might just be seeing the makings of a new-age Tennessee offensive philosophy.
I appreciate Tennessee adopting this new style, even if its seemingly arrived on the back of a snail who was maybe traveling in quick sand or with a Comcast internet technician. Obviously, making some of those 3s will be a key factor in taking them. Freshman PG Kennedy Chandler made each of the four 3s he took; Auburn transfer Justin Powell made three of his five and Santiago Vescovi hit six of 11. If that trio can make even close to 43 percent of its 3s on the year, Tennessee has the potential to be one of the most dangerous teams in the country.
That might be my favorite part about this fresh offensive outlook from Barnes — it makes sense. With those three guys and Victor Bailey, the Vols have the personnel to back up the paradigm shift. Shooters shoot, so let ‘em shoot.
You knew this video was coming. RT anyway. pic.twitter.com/Cb1iemHnYr— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) November 10, 2021
The First Half Didn’t and Doesn’t Matter
Basketball seasons are long, and teams rarely end up looking how they started. Tennessee’s defense, in particular, wasn’t sharp in the first half of Tuesday’s game. I’m gonna pick on Kennedy a bit, but that’s really just because in CBB, guarding PGs is like sitting in the front of the room in class —you’re more likely to get called on.
While Chandler looked like a seasoned CBB veteran on offense, you saw in real time how steep the learning curve can be defensively when players transition from HS to college.
“Defensively, he’s learning that there are a lot of guys that have the ability to go by him,” Barnes said of his freshman PG. “Tonight he was reaching, lunging, where we did that as a group and gave up straight-line drives.”
The Vols have been consistently one of the better defensive teams in the NCAA since Barnes took over. Dating back to 2017, two seasons into Barnes’ tenure, Tennessee’s defense hasn’t finished lower than 57th in Bart Torvik’s adjusted defensive efficiency and has been inside the top-5 twice.
With Barnes, the general, team defensive outlook doesn’t change based on roster components or coaching personnel. The best offensive team in recent Tennessee history was a top-50 defensive squad, too. Y’all know The Deacon will bring the fire and brimstone when he’s not getting the performance or effort he wants. I’m not positive, but I think the last bit in the video below is “And you gotta guard somebody!” to Chandler.
Rick Barnes isn’t having it. Curious to see how the 2nd half goes. pic.twitter.com/VluHPOfF8f— CHANNEL TN (@CHANNEL_TN_) November 10, 2021
But to chalk up UT Martin’s relatively successful first-half offense strictly to Volunteer lapses would be inaccurate. UTM executed a well-scouted game plan that’s likely to be duplicated. Knowing that the Vols lack a substantial interior presence on defense, the Skyhawks wanted to space the floor, attack the one-on-one matchups on the perimeter and get to the basket. Tennessee’s onus, guarding the 3-point line, ended up incidentally complementary.
Just by quick glance, eight-to-nine of the Skyhawks’ 15 first-half makes came from inside 10-ish feet. But all that’s okay. It was the first half of the first game of an at least 31-game season. Learn. Grow. Repeat ad infinitum.
Tennessee was down All-SEC post player John Fulkerson, but even with Fulky back, the Vols are gonna be breaking in Olivier Nkamhoua, Uros Plavsic and freshman Brandon Huntley-Hatfield as necessary pieces in the big-man rotation.
Post Plethora ... Question Mark
I reckon that was as good a segue as any — beyond the pretty evident change in Tennessee’s plan to score, the Vols post-player rotation is one of the more interesting (to me, at least), big-picture narratives for this season.
Yves Pons, the ridiculously-athletic wing player turned shot-blocking dynamo, is gone to the NBA, which left a sizeable void in the middle of the Volunteer defense.
Fulkerson’s healing from a broken thumb, and in late October, Barnes thought his sixth-year senior would be back for the season opener. That didn’t end up happening, but as things stand, I’d say he’s at least back by the game against ‘Nova on November 20th.
With or without Fulky, the Vols have some options down low this season, which is a welcome change from relying nearly exclusively on Fulkerson and Pons last year.
Untill further notice, Jonas Aidoo is a long-armed question mark. Per VolQuest, the freshman’s coming off a bout with mono. I guess 440K Tik Tok followers probably does have some neat benefits, huh? In all seriousness, Aidoo’s the closest thing to a 1:1 Pons’ replacement on defense, but he’s been out at least since mid October when he didn’t dress for the open practice on the weekend of the Ole Miss game. I don’t know that we can reasonably expect this season much from a freshman who’s missed that much critical time.
Josiah Jordan-James’ versatility comes in extra handy now, as he’s big and athletic enough to play spurts near the hoop. He was the team’s best rebounder last season, playing primarily at the SF spot, and while his shot was off against the Skyhawks — two points, 1-8 shooting and 0-5 from 3 — he snagged five boards (four offensive) and added four blocks and five steals. His plus/ minus was second-best on the team at 24, meaning Tennessee outscored UTM by 24 points while JJJ was on the floor.
The Vols are counting on Olivier Robinson Nkamhoua and Uros Plavsic to improve this year, and ORN’s team-leading 14 (!!!) rebounds are hopefully an indicative prologue for the rest of his season. He also added two blocks and two steals before he fouled out. It’d be nice to be able to count on Plavsic’s and his baby-hook shot a couple times per game, but that seems, uhh, improbable. The big Serbian was highly productive in the LR exhibition but secured just one rebound to three fouls in 16 minutes. BRIGHT SIDE: Uros blocked a shot! Getting to see a Plavsic block is like getting to see a double rainbow — at night. The swat made for the 7-footer’s fourth block in just more than 200 career minutes.
The ORN/ Plavsic duo will undoubtedly be pushed by reclass-freshman Brandon Huntley-Hatfield. BHH is gonna be a problem around the rim. He’s the most athletic big man at Tennessee in some time and initially is probably gonna do most of his damage at the hoop on dishes from Chandler or put-back opportunities like this:
This is a ho-hum basketball play — a real liberal use of the term highlight — but just being able to collect an offensive board and score, with any real consistency or reliability, isn’t something the Vols have in spades.
His overall stat line looks like framework of a seriously productive freshman season for BHH: seven points on 3-5 shooting (including 1-1 from deep), six total RBs (three offensive, three defensive) three steals, two blocks, just one foul and one TO in 16 minutes.
Tennessee’s got ETSU coming to TBA this Sunday at 12 PM.