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Three Things: What is wrong with Tennessee?

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NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Mississippi Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee squandered an 11-point lead and lost to Mississippi 52-50. Here are three things.

Up and Down like a Roller Coaster

Three days after beating the no. 15 team in the country, Kansas, by nearly a dub spot, the Vols lost to an 8-8 Ole Miss team that had lost five of its previous seven games.

A week before that, Tennessee lost two straight games — first, it lost by 26 points (!!!) to a 6-4, unranked Florida team playing without three of its best players, and second, it lost by nine points at home to the same Missouri team it had beaten in Columbia by 20 points about a month prior.

At a theme park, this is the time during one of the rides when I decide maybe I’m not having fun anymore, and that perhaps I’d like to go home now. After all, they are called amusement parks, right? But unfortunately I’ve probably paid a small fortune for tickets and reckon I may as well just see it through.

Ahem — yes. The basketball team. Quite perplexing.

Head Coach Rick Barnes talked about lots of things in the Ole miss post-game press conference, one of them being the season-long quest for game-to-game uniformity.

“Because again, the thing we’ve been looking for all year is consistency and we just don’t seem to get it enough, the way we need to,” Barnes said.

Part of what confuses me (that’s not real hard to do), and Barnes too, I imagine, is that Tennessee loses games doing poorly the things it does well in wins.

Altogether, the Vols are a decent free-throw shooting team. Their average sits at 72 percent, which ranks them 133rd in the country. Not bad. But there’s a large disparity in the percentages in wins versus that of in losses. Tennessee is hitting 76 percent of its free throws in wins (this would rank them inside the country’s top 40), but that percentage drops all the way down to 59 in losses (only six teams show a value below 60 in season-long FT shooting averages). The confusing trend is confusing. (For the record, the Vols are a much worse free-throw shooting team on the road than they are at home, 56.8 percent and 76. 2 percent, respectively. Odd considering crowd noise is much less a factor this season than it is, well, ever.)

Tennessee’s offense is at its best when the team is moving the ball efficiently (duh, right?). The three highest single-game assist totals, Tennessee Tech — 28, Texas A&M — 23, and Saint Joseph’s — 23, all resulted in wins and accounted for three of the top six points per possessions figures of the season. Two of those wins came with 100-plus point totals.

Outside of Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson, the Vols don’t really have any players who are adept at beating their man off the dribble and finishing at the basket. So the Vols need to get offense other ways. UT sits at 59th in the country averaging 15.1 assists per game, but again, there’s a significant difference in the offense’s assist numbers when you compares Ws and Ls. In wins, Tennessee is notching 16.5 helpers, but its registering just 11 in losses.

Assists and turnovers are often lumped together when assessing a team’s relative offensive potency because they are both, amongst other things, gauges of ball control. That’s not all-encompassing, but they are both helpful, general indicators. In each of the Vols’ four losses, they’ve managed more turnovers than assists, and they’ve won just three games when their turnovers outnumber their assists. Tennessee’s assist-to-turnover ratio in wins is 1.9, but that figure falls to .78 in losses. For context, only one team, Iowa, has a season average A/T ratio than the number Tennessee puts up in the dubs (2.1). No other team’s figure is better than 1.7.

Excuse our Mess — We’re Renovating

Outside of the inconsistency, part of Tennessee’s problem is kinda/ sorta just with the roster construction. I know that’s painting with a broad brush, but the problem is what the problem is. There’s a boatload of talent on this team, I think this squad is more talented than the 2018-2019 team that had three players drafted, but it’s not necessarily put together well, and the pieces don’t necessarily complement one another. The Vols have tons of guards, but the group is like a fencing sword — there’s no point —, and the lack of viable options in the post is glaring.

There’s five guards who each play at least 21 minutes and score at least eight points per game, but it seems like none of them are true point guards. A point guard should be like the conductor of an orchestra. The conductor helps keep time and helps maintain the orchestra’s overall organization during the piece (at least as far as I know — anybody who knows more, chime in!). The musicians all know the music, but they still watch the cat waving the stick. The conductor leads, and the folks playing follow.

There are different kinds of point guards who do different kinds of things, but generally the lead guard is the primary ball handler and therefore responsible for dictating the team’s offensive pace and initiating the plays.

Sometimes Santi Vescovi looks like that guy, and sometimes he doesn’t. Of the group, he seems to be the one most comfortable bringing the ball up time after time after time and flashes point-guard vision. But he’s limited athletically (Tennessee had zero fast-break points against Ole Miss, and that’s at least the second game during which the Vols have goose-egged that stat), and we still see him do things good point guards don’t do, like dribble straight into a trap multiple times within just a few minutes’ time. While he and Victor Bailey can handle the ball, they’re both likely better suited playing off-ball as catch-and-shoot threats. Keon Johnson is definitely a shooting guard. He sees the floor like a shooting guard and is at his best going at the rim. Josiah-Jordan James was listed as a combo guard by the recruiting services, but he’s turned into a college-ball small forward, or even a small-ball power forward, whose future is likely a 3-and-D (big, good defenders who are mainly harbingers of the deep ball) wing.

Jaden Springer is the only one besides Vescovi who has the innate sense and presence to know the offensive landscape, even if he doesn’t always have eyes directly on the action.

He’s still finding his footing as a primary ball handler. and the abbreviated preseason/ early season, out-of-conference cancellations did him no favors. I’d like to see him grow into Tennessee’s no. 1 option at point guard by the time the Tournament rolls around.

Tennessee also has a crater on its roster where centers should be. I talked about this in a recent post, but here’s the tweet again:

John Fulkerson is playing the five now, alongside undersized but defensively-proficient Yves Pons at the four. Square pieces Fulkerson and Pons were both thrust into their relative circle holes last season as Zach Kent and DJ Burns were gone and neither then-freshman Drew Pember nor mid-year addition Uros Plavsic could be counted on for consistent minutes at center. Nothing since then has changed — Tennessee was a bad rebounding team last year, and that’s one of the team’s bugaboos this year, too (127th in O-REB, 221st in D-REB and 167th in total rebounds). And boy, if Pons or Fulkerson get in early foul trouble, it’s bad news. Neither freshman Corey Walker nor sophomore Olivier Nkamhoua will fix all this. It’s got to be addressed on the recruiting trail.

Olivier Nkamhoua’n Along

Speaking of Nkamhoua — he’s yanked away EJ Anosike’s minutes like Lucy does the football to Charlie Brown. Aaugh! After tallying double-digit minutes in each of Tennessee’s first eight games, Anosike has played 10-or-more minutes just twice. He played three in the last game against Missouri and two against Ole Miss.

Olivier averaged nine minutes during the season’s first six games but those minutes dried right up to just four per-game in the six games after that. Then, he logged 13 minutes against Mississippi State, 15 against Kansas and eight against Ole Miss. Some of his minutes will inevitably come when Tennessee is dealing with foul issues, but Barnes mentioned him being “relaxed,” after both the Kansas and Miss. State games.

“Well, I think Olivier is getting better, and more so, I think it is because of the way he seems to be a little more relaxed,” Barnes said, after the Kansas game. “The reason I took him out, and I said, ‘Hey, you’re supposed to be a defensive guy and you’ve taken two shots, but you’ve given up two baskets,’ because McCormack scored on him twice,” he added.

Tennessee doesn’t need Nkamhoua to score, but it absolutely needs him rebounding and defending. A player appearing relaxed on the court is simply about he or she being comfortable, and naturally the more someone does something, anything, the more comfortable he or she will be. Olivier’s continued progression would be quite the boost for Tennessee in March.