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Three Things: Villanova

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NCAA Basketball: Villanova at Tennessee Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee dropped Saturday’s basketball game to Villanova 71-53, and here are three things.

It’s a big loss and also not a big deal

College basketball seasons are long. Tennessee’s scheduled to play 30-ish games, not counting any possible contests that will occur during the SEC Tournament, nor any that will ideally occur during March Madness.

So, while any loss against a top-5 team is a squandered opportunity, Tennessee dropping this game to Villanova isn’t the dire situation that one might think it is from scrolling through #VolTwitter during and after the game.

I’m not gonna make this a long segment or anything, but I just wanted to get that out there. I understand the loss was frustrating, but making any declarations about this season or this team is just premature. Let’s at least wait until we get to SEC play before jumping to any conclusions about the season.

Josiah-Jordan James is not bad

Triple-J is having a rough start to his season offensively.

  • shooting 21 percent overall
  • 1-15 from 3
  • 0-3 on unguarded attempts, per Synergy
  • scoring just .4 PPP in the half court, per Synergy

And I think today, we got an up-close-and-personal look at how JJJ averaging five attempts from 3 in the midst of a shooting slump hurts the offense, even though that impact was exacerbated by the team’s overall poor shooting effort. His lone bucket today, in his 1-8 game, was on a drive to the hoop where he finished up-and-under. That single instance is of particular importance to harken back to last year when James scored 1.15 PPP on plays when he drove the ball, with them ending to varying and relative degrees of reasonably-high success rates depending on if they finished in a pull-up jumper or a take all the way to the hoop.

My point: I’d like to see James get away from the nearly reflexive-looking the catch-and-shoot tries in favor of getting to the basket or taking a couple dribbles and pulling up, at least until his shot starts to fall. Also, before I totally change gears here — a gentle reminder that James finished last season with the team’s third-best offensive rating.

Even still: James’ value to this team doesn’t lie in his scoring. He does everything else well enough to justify his playing time even when his offense looks like it did today.

Outside of Davonte Gaines, who didn’t play much, he was the best defender on the team last year, and he has the best defensive rating on the team this year by a comfortable margin, too. He led the team in total rebounds last year, besting Fulkerson by 24 boards, despite playing most of his possessions on the wing. He was the only player last season (including Yves Pons) to average at least one block AND one steal on a per-game basis, and he’s averaging 3.5 steals and two blocks per-game through three games this year. He also had the fewest turnovers of any Tennessee rotation player last year.

So, like, I get it. The team that scores the most points wins, and it’s easy to conflate value and the ability to get buckets for that reason and a litany of others. I also understand that James was a 5-star, combo-guard recruit and still hasn’t wholly escaped the expectations he was burdened with by that designation. But before you fire off that tweet, with your brow all furrowed and your nostrils all flared, consider the multitude of ways that James helps this team besides his scoring.

Turnovers turned up

Today’s “Three Things,” has been pretty big-picture and conceptual, so for Thing 3, I thought we’d look at something tangible that we can really sink our teeth into.

The Vols turned the ball over a season-high 18 times against Villanova, which is troubling enough considering the Wildcats manifested 11 extra points as a direct result, but then this marked the third time in three games that Tennessee’s committed double-digit giveaways.

Turnovers can usually be mostly attributed to inexperience or carelessness, with one of the options being more forgivable than the next, though deciding which as the primary driving factor is often subjective. With the Vols’ next game being Sunday, I don’t have the time to go through and count how many of the slips belong in each category. I figure at least a good portion of them are more inexperience given the Vols are breaking in a pretty new guard rotation centered around a freshman PG.

There’s a bright side here, though, as 14 of the Vols 18 turnovers came in the first half, which means Tennessee committed just four ball-control gaffs in the game’s final 20 minutes. That feels like some progress, though we’ll have a better idea about that after the UNC game.

UT’s starters accounted for 71 percent (10) of those first-half turnovers, which makes sense given they played the most minutes, but I think there’s an angle of the group’s cohesive unfamiliarity at play here, too. You look at the roster, and you don’t see a young team, necessarily. But they don’t have the experience playing together that Nova has.

Jaden Springer, Keon Johnson and Yves Pons occupied a ton of playing time last year, and so this season Tennessee’s having to fill that space with other players. Kennedy Chandler was in HS last year, John Fulkerson was in and out of the lineup with his various issues, Olivier Nkamhoua is starting now despite averaging just seven-ish minutes per-game last year and Vescovi is essentially playing a different position.

The last two seasons, the Vols’ turnover numbers haven’t been great — 20.5-percent turnover rate (278th in NCAA) two years ago and 18.2-percent (131st) last year — which is a noticeable departure from the 15.8-percent (24th nationally) TO rate that the Vols posted the last time they were nationally relevant in 2018-2019.

I don’t know what any of this does or doesn’t mean yet, but it’s absolutely something to monitor. I’ma go ahead and say that if Tennessee turns it over 18 times on Sunday, it’s gonna lose to North Carolina.