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Three Things: LSU

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee lost 78-65 to LSU Saturday, and I’m not sure the game really ended as close as a 13-point scoring differential would indicate. Here are three things.

Vol Defense Looked a Bit Dumb Against Smart, LSU

Let me clarify, before anybody gets upset, I’m not calling the players dumb or even really saying the defense actually looked dumb against LSU. I’m just using a play on words here to illustrate that Tennessee’s defense struggled containing LSU guard Ja’Vonte Smart. That’s it. It’s just a joke; it’s not even that funny or serious —and that’s okay.

Smart scored 20 points on an efficient 8-13 effort from the field, and even with five turnovers his positive impact on the game for LSU was pretty significant. Smart seems to have made roasting Tennessee each time these two teams play his mission: in ‘18-19, he had 29 points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals in 44 minutes; last season he hit five 3s on the way to 21 points and four assists in 35 minutes.

He’s playing the best ball of his career this year, a driving force behind the SEC’s second-highest scoring offense (82 points per-game), as a seemingly ideal running-mate for the SEC’s leading scorer and to-be lottery pick Cameron Thomas and sophomore forward Trendon Watford. All three players rank inside the SEC’s top-10 for points per-game scoring: Thomas is no. 1 at 22.6 ppg; Watford is no. 8 at 16.2 and Smart falls in right behind Watford at no. 9 with 16.1 ppg.

Smart’s shown to be an at-least competent scorer his entire career, averaging double-digit scoring figures in each of his three seasons at LSU, but he’s not necessarily been consistently efficient. He shot just 37 percent from the field his freshman season and 41 percent last year, but this season he’s shooting the ball at a 50-percent clip. The biggest reason for the jump in shooting percentage and in scoring (11 ppg and 12.5 ppg in his freshman and sophomore years, respectively) is the 11 percentage-point jump in his outside shooting. Smart sits at second in the SEC in total 3’s made (46) and third in 3-point shooting percentage (43.8).

The Vols didn’t really get a dose of Smart’s long-ball lethalness (is that a word? like a real word? in the dictionary and whatnot?), he went just 1-4 from 3, but he didn’t need the 3-ball to punish the Tennessee defense. He was too busy laying it up.

Tennessee struggled keeping a body in front of Smart on his drives. Here we see Vescovi try and fail (or just “do not,” if you ask Yoda). LSU presents matchup problems for most teams because they have so many guys who can hurt you offensively. Springer started the game guarding Thomas, which is what I would do, too. But beyond Jaden, it’s kinda a crapshoot for the next best defensive option. To make things worse, it looked like there might have been a communication issue between Santi and Josiah on how exactly they were guarding Smart on this pick-and-roll play.

Our next contestant in this very not fun game of “who can guard Ja’Vonte Smart,” was Victor Bailey, who for the record, has the worst defensive rating (estimate of points allowed per 100 possesions) on the team at 96.9. He’s literally 12th out of 12 — Fulkerson is 11th with a 93 rating, and James leads the team (players who’ve played more than 50 minutes) at 87.8.

Bailey takes away Smart’s right hand and a middle-of-the-floor drive, which is the correct play, but Smart goes left and maybe travels before finishing a tough basket. Bailey’s defense here wasn’t egregiously poor, but Smart got the angle, Josiah did some indecisive, hokey-pokey, “put his left foot in, put his left foot out,” type help and Santi just couldn’t get up high enough to affect the shot.

This play was particularly bad. Smart snagged the board and went “Space Ghost,” coast to coast. Vescovi tried to pick him up at the 3-point line, but he nearly fell and Smart didn’t even put that great of a cross over on him — it looked like Santi slipped at Smart’s slight hesitation move. We saw several Vol defenders get the business end of a Smart hesi-dribble. He’s just got killer burst coming out of those moves. James looked like he could have made a play at the rim as he was in pretty good and timely help position, but he just kinda didn’t do it.

Here’s another example of poor communication in Tennessee’s pick-and-roll defense. Guarding a normal pick-and-roll play can be difficult enough, but this is what it looks like when you exacerbate the typical stress with an extra screener and bad defense. Vescovi was playing as if Tennessee wasn’t switching, while Pons and James were doing the opposite and lost LSU’s Darius Days in the shuffle. Keon’s help defense timing and positioning was pretty good, though just a little late, and one might have liked him to see his teammates’ miscue in time to help on the roll-man early. Either way it wasn’t enough to keep Days from scoring.

The next three plays came at a critical juncture in the game — Tennessee had battled back and cut LSU’s lead down to just four points.

Bailey defending again, but this time Smart makes him look silly with a cross-over dribble combination nasty enough to make an AND1 mixtape. LSU’s lead back to six.

Vescovi tries to pick up Smart at the 3-point line, but Smart crosses to the middle and then back to the right without losing his momentum. Santi can’t keep up, and Pons never really had a shot at a block. The Tiger lead is up to eight.

Another decent effort from Bailey but strong take by Smart. He rocks Bailey back and forth, dribbling horizontal — players do this to lull a defender static and then explode forward. It worked well enough since Bailey ends up on Smart’s back hip and nobody’s home to help. Just like that, LSU is back up double digits.

On Tennessee’s good nights, its a great defensive team with some decent-to-good on-ball defenders. Yves Pons is protecting the rim and allowing the perimeter guys to apply ball pressure without much worry because they know he’s back there as a safe guard. But on the bad nights, there are lots of miscommunications, poor efforts and blow-bys. A bad night plus Ja’Vonte Smart, Cameron Thomas and LSU equals what we saw Saturday.

Upperclassmen, Lower Echelon

Quote from Head Coach Rick Barnes in the story I wrote about this subject on December 26th:

“I would like to see more consistency out of John and Yves to be quite honest with you,” Barnes said after the USC Upstate game. “I don’t think those guys have played up to the standard that we expect from them right now.”

After the LSU game, Barnes was asked about what he needs to do to combat the team’s up-and-down play this season and again, he pointed to older guys on his roster.

“That’s the tough question,” Barnes answered. “That’s a good question. The young guys, you look at it, if you really look at it, I would say the inconsistencies are coming from our older players. And that’s the disappointing thing.”

Barnes didn’t mention seniors Yves Pons and John Fulkerson by name this time, but when he says “older guys,” he can only really have a few players in mind. Pons, Fulkerson, redshirt-junior Victor Bailey and senior, graduate-transfer EJ Anosike are the only juniors or seniors on the team, and they’ve all had see-saw seasons.

Pons and Fulkerson’s breakout seasons last year carried significant weight in my pre-and-early season, sky-high expectations for this year’s team. Pons has been scoring more of late — he’s hit the double-digit scoring mark in four of his last six games — after doing so in just three of his first 12 contests. Unfortunately his blocks are trending the other way as he’s recorded only five blocks in his last six games after averaging two swats in his first 12 games.

(Related side note: Pons just isn’t blocking the number of shots this year that he did last year: He’s finished four games with zero blocks already this year after recording at least one in all 31 games last season. In total, he’s down to 1.6 after averaging 2.4 last year.)

As Pons has maybe found a bit of scoring groove, Fulkerson slid right into the rut in Pons’ wake. Fulky’s averaging 5.4 points during his last seven games, and he’s hit double digits points just once (Kansas — 11) after averaging 12.2 and scoring at least 10 points in 11 out of the team’s first 12 games.

Even before the second game against Missouri, when Fulkerson’s point totals began to crater, his numbers were almost exclusively down from last season. He was making and attempting fewer field goals and free throws, shooting a worse percentage from the field and free-throw line and averaging fewer steals and blocks per game. But they weren’t reallt drastic drops and could be rationalized by the influx of scoring pop.

Somebody on Twitter (I think) mentioned perhaps Fulkerson has some sort of nagging/ lingering issue — I know Fulky had his wisdom teeth yanked on January 12th, but that was about a week before his last statistically good game against Florida on January 19th. No big deal. And then Barnes basically said that the team’s healthy after the LSU game.

“I can’t imagine there is something physically wrong with them, with as much time with (strength coach) Garrett (Medenwald) and (team trainer) Chad (Newman), our staff spends with them trying to do physically to help them with their bodies. I mean everyday, all day long, how hard those guys work to do everything you can possibly do to help guys recover. I would have to think it’s probably mental. I do think this game is four times more mental than it is physical.”

Whatever’s going on is mostly between the ears, so I’m not freaking out, yet. He’s had a stretch of some really poor games, and Tennessee’s lost three of those which obviously compounds the issue. Barnes took him out of the starting lineup against LSU, which marked the first time in 49 Vol basketball games in which Fulky didn’t start, and I’d say it was a) Barnes tinkering, trying to find something that flips this team’s switch and b) a reflection of the big man’s recent rough go. Dollars to doughnuts — we se him start Wednesday against South Carolina.

Bailey’s Slump is in a Slump

Victor Bailey was a hot-and-cold shooter at Oregon, so I expected him to go through some ups and downs as a shooter here, too. But he’s gone from arguably Tennessee’s best offensive player to a 29-percent 3-point shooter who’s forcing bad shots, hitting the side of the backboard and throwing up air balls. He’s two for his last 13 shots and threw down a zero-spot against LSU Saturday. He’s not been super accurate from deep all year, but he’s a volume scorer, so Tennessee could work with the 33-percent he was hitting the first 13 games of the season especially considering he was hitting 53 percent of his twos, 80 percent of his average three free-throw attempts and turning it over just once per game.

Since then, his two-point percentage has dropped to 36, he’s hitting just 21 percent of his four attempts from downtown and seems content taking bad outside shots instead of trying to drive the ball to the basket. Of his 13 attempts in the past two games. just two have come in the paint. Untill the long-ball starts to fall, I’d like to see him try to get to the rim more often. And Barnes has to decide how to handle his minutes. Coaches want shooters to keep shooting good shots knowing that, eventually, math says they’re gonna drop.